Though most large towns in Portugal have at least one out-of-town shopping centre, in the majority of places people still do much of their purchasing in traditional shops and markets. Old town centres look like they haven’t changed much for thirty years or more, with a butcher, a baker and a candlestick-maker on every corner, not to mention a florist, a grocer and a hardware store.
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Specialist craft and souvenir shops might be able to arrange shipping home for you; otherwise, go to the local post office, where all kinds of insured, registered and signed-for services are available (for more information, see ctt.pt, which has an English-language version).
Prices are fixed in shops everywhere, though you might be able to negotiate small discounts when buying large souvenirs (or buying in bulk). Open-air markets are a bit more flexible, though don’t try haggling for food, drink, clothes or anything that has obviously got a price attached to it – for everything else you can try asking for the best price, and you may get a discount.
A town’s mercado municipal (municipal market) is the place to buy meat, fish, fruit, veg and bread. In larger towns they are open daily (not Sunday), usually from 7 or 8am until lunchtime; smaller towns might have a market just once or twice a week. Often, a town’s regular market is supplemented by a larger weekly affair, sometimes at a different site in the open air, where you’ll also be able to buy clothes, shoes, ceramics, baskets, furniture, flowers, toys, tools and a million-and-one other things you never knew you needed. In the case of the great weekly markets at Barcelos (Minho; Thurs), Viana do Castelo (Minho; Fri), Ponte da Barca/Arcos de Valdevez (Minho; Wed), Carcavelos (Lisbon; Thurs), Estremoz (Alentejo; Sat) and Loulé (Algarve; Sat), or the monthly markets at Évora (Alentejo; second Tues) and Santarém (Ribatejo; second/fourth Sun), these constitute a major reason to visit in the first place. The best flea market in the country is Lisbon’s Feira da Ladra (Tues & Sat), just the place to buy a candelabra or a set of dusty postcards.
Minimarkets, supermarkets and malls
In small villages and towns the minimercado (minimarket) is as convenient as convenience-shopping gets, which isn’t very if you want a store bigger than someone’s front room. Supermercados tend to lie on the outskirts of towns – Intermarché, Pingo Doce, Jumbo, Continente and Mini-Preço are the main supermarket names, selling pretty much everything you would expect (though choices can be more limited in out-of-the-way locations), while the pile-’em-high Lidl is increasingly prevalent. In Lisbon, Porto, Coimbra and the Algarve, the mall is king. Geared up for whole days out, these giant shopping centres have hundreds of stores, plus cafés, fast-food restaurants, cinemas and kids’ entertainment.
Highest-profile souvenirs are probably ceramics of all kinds, from traditional azulejo tiles to elaborate figurines, cookware to sculpture. The virtual symbol of Portuguese tourism, the ceramic Barcelos cockerel, perches on every tat-shop shelf. You can buy rustic, brown kitchen earthenware in every market and supermarket for just a few euros, but interesting regional variations include Barcelos’ own brown-and-yellow pottery ware, black earthenware (from Tondela) and the almost Aztec-style patterns typical of Santa Comba Dão in the Viseu region. Porches is the centre for the Algarve’s pottery and ceramics, while Caldas da Rainha in the historic region of Estremadura is probably the best-known ceramics town – caricatured rustic figurines and floral- and animal-inspired plates and bowls have been produced here since the nineteenth century. Estremoz in the Alentejo has an even older heritage, and is also known for its elaborate figurines and its flower- and leaf-festooned pottery.
Carpets, rugs, blankets, tapestries, linen and lace
Hand-stitched Arraiolos carpets (from the town of the same name in Alentejo) have a worldwide reputation, and they cost a fortune, but there’s nothing to stop you looking. Tapestries from Portalegre (Alentejo) have been known since the seventeenth century, and the colchas or embroidered bedspreads of Castelo Branco (Beira Baixa) for just as long – again, the high prices and lengthy ordering times mean these are unlikely spur-of-the-moment purchases for most visitors. Hand-woven woollen rugs and blankets are a more realistic buy, with particularly fine examples from Reguengos de Monsaraz (Alentejo) – you can hang them on a wall. Rustic woolly blankets (and fleece-lined slippers) are also a feature of the mountain villages of the Serra da Estrela – Sabugeiro has hundreds of them displayed in its souvenir shop windows. For embroidered linen and lace it’s Vila do Conde (north of Porto) that is the best-known centre, though many other fishing towns – such as Peniche and Nazaré (north of Lisbon) – also have a strong bobbin-lace tradition. The biggest and best pieces command high prices, but there’s plenty of reasonably priced work available too.
Food and drink
Port wine is the most popular buy, with cheap run-of-the-mill stuff available in supermarkets or gathering dust above the salt cod in old-fashioned grocery stores. For specific names and vintages you'll need to have done your homework since a recent vintage (not yet ready to drink) starts at around €30, with the serious stuff commanding prices of €100 and upwards. Visiting a lodge in Porto or along the Douro is by far the best way to immerse yourself in the subject. Don’t miss a drink in the solares in Porto or Lisbon either, where you can sample individual glasses from hundreds of different varieties.
Virtually every region in Portugal produces table wine, often remarkably good. Regional wine routes (past vineyards and estates open to the public) are well signposted, particularly in the Douro, Alentejo, Ribatejo and Dão valley.
Taking food home is more problematic, depending on your country’s importation laws, but no one is going to object to a bottle of olive oil – the best are now sold like wines, from single estates, particularly in the Douro, where production is an adjunct to the wine business. Other suggestions include a jar of mountain honey from the Serra da Estrela, or packs of mountain herbs and teas, particularly from the Serra do Gerês. Portuguese cheeses and hams are excellent, though to take them home you may have to get them vacuum-packed (you can buy them like that at Lisbon airport).
Clothes, shoes and accessories
Portugal’s textiles industry has traditionally been one of the most important in Europe, and though this has suffered badly from cheap rivals from the Far East, you can still pick up brand-name seconds from many of Portugal’s weekly markets. For quality designer clothes, however, you have to head to the upmarket malls or larger city centres, particularly Lisbon’s Avenida da Liberdade (for international names) or the Bairro Alto (for local cutting-edge styles). Fátima Lopes, Maria Azevedo and Ana Salazar are established names, while Alexandra Moura, the duo Alves/Gonçalves and Nuno Gama are also worth looking out for. Some of the larger shopping centres also have designer boutiques; indeed the giant Freeport mall at Alcochete is Europe’s largest designer discount outlet. Leather goods have a fair reputation in Portugal, particularly bags and shoes (and belts and briefcases) – most big towns and shopping centres will have a decent selection, though a common complaint is that Portuguese shoe shops don’t always stock the larger or wider sizes you might require. Gold and silver filigree work is notable – there are some fine shops in Lisbon and Porto – and you’ll be able to pick up cheap, hippy-style jewellery at beaches along the Algarve, especially Albufeira.
The Chinese shop
There’s scarcely a town in Portugal that doesn’t have a Loja Chinês, a Chinese-run emporium selling everything under the sun. In many ways, they fulfil the same function as a “pound” or “dollar” shop, selling basic household items really cheaply – if you need two-dozen toilet rolls, a set of tupperware, fifty wine glasses or a washing-up bowl, this is where you come. But they are also good for dirt-cheap toys and electronics – all made in the Far East, guaranteed to break after a couple of hours – and for all those things you never knew you needed, like a Portuguese flag, a Star Wars light sabre or an alarm clock shaped like a man on a toilet.