Portugal remains one of the EU’s least expensive destinations, and simple meals and drinks, accommodation and public transport are all still pretty good value. Lisbon, Porto and the Algarve are inevitably the most expensive places to visit, but even here you’ll get a better deal on most things than in many other European countries.
As far as a daily budget goes, if you always share a room in the cheapest hotels, use public transport and stick to inexpensive restaurants you could have a reasonable time on somewhere between €50 and €80 a day. Stay and eat in fancier places in the main cities and you’re looking at more like €120 a day, though if you’re holidaying in five-star beach resorts or city boutique hotels this figure won’t even cover your room. There’s more information about specific prices in the “Accommodation”, “Getting around” and “Food and drink” sections.
Most museums, galleries and attractions are fairly inexpensive (and some are free on the first Sunday of the month), but even so it pays to take along any student/youth discount cards you may be entitled to, such as the European Youth card (also available in Portugal at post offices, youth hostels, and at branches of the Caixa Geral de Depósitos bank – ask for a Cartão Jovem). Children and senior travellers in Portugal are entitled to discounts at most museums (it’s always worth showing your senior citizen’s card or ID), as well as on trains and at the country’s pousadas.
Value Added Tax (known as IVA) varies depending on the goods or services purchased, but can be as high as 23 percent – it’s almost always included in the advertised price, though. Non-EU residents can claim back the sales tax on purchases that come to over €61.35. You need to ask the shop for a declaration form and then present this to customs at the airport before you fly home: details on global-blue.com.
Crime and personal safety
By European standards, Portugal is a remarkably crime-free country – people really do still leave their cars and house doors unlocked in the countryside. However, there’s the usual petty theft in the cities and larger tourist resorts, particularly in the form of pickpockets on public transport and in bus and train stations. Best advice is not to carry too much cash or too many valuables, and leave your passport in the hotel safe where possible. Drivers should never leave anything visible in the car (preferably, don’t leave anything in the car at all). In the event of an emergency, dial 112 for the police or an ambulance.
There are two main police forces: the metropolitan Polícia de Segurança Pública (PSP) and the more rural Guarda Nacional Repúblicana (GNR), both of which can handle incidents involving tourists. Most police officers in the Algarve speak some English, but elsewhere it’s less usual, so confusion can easily arise. To this end, showing deference is wise: the Portuguese still hold respect dear, and the more respect you show a figure in authority, the quicker you’ll be on your way.
Portugal is rarely a dangerous place for women travellers and you only need to be particularly wary in parts of Lisbon at night (around Cais do Sodré, at the top end of Avenida da Liberdade, on the metro and on the Cais do Sodré–Cascais train line), in the darker alleys near the river in Porto, and in streets immediately around train stations in the larger towns (traditionally red-light districts).
Mains voltage is 220V, which works fine with equipment intended for 240V. Plugs are the European two round pin variety; adaptors are sold at airports, supermarkets and hardware stores.
EU citizens (and most of those from European countries not in the EU) need only a valid passport or identity card to enter Portugal, and can stay indefinitely. Citizens of Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand do not need a visa for stays of up to ninety days. Most other nationals (including South Africans) will have to apply for a visa from a Portuguese embassy or consulate before departure. Entry conditions can change, however, so it’s advisable to check the current situation before leaving home.
If necessary, an extension to your stay can be arranged once you’re in the country. Extensions are issued by the nearest District Police headquarters or the Foreigners’ Registration Service – Serviço de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras – which has offices in most major tourist centres. You should apply at least a week before your time runs out and be prepared to prove that you can support yourself without working. Extended-stay and work visas are also available from Portuguese embassies or consulates in your own country.
For most EU citizens, a passport or national ID is sufficient to allow indefinite stays as employees, self-employed workers or students. However, you will need to register with various agencies if you are staying in Portugal, to access health care etc, and will require a número de contribuinte (social security number) to do just about anything else, from opening a bank account to settling an electricity bill.
EU citizens can apply for a European Health Insurance Card, which gives access to Portuguese state public-health services under reciprocal agreements. Show the card and your passport at a health centre or hospital for treatment. While the EHIC guarantees free or reduced-cost medical care in the event of minor injuries and emergencies, it won’t cover every eventuality – you’ll have to pay for X-rays, lab tests and the like, so travel insurance is also essential. If you don’t have an EHIC card, you’ll be charged for everything and will have to claim it back from your insurance, so get receipts. At the time of writing, British citizens were still covered by the EHIC scheme, but given the 2016 Brexit vote, checking the situation via ehic.org.uk is advisable before you travel.
Tap water is generally safe to drink, although most Portuguese prefer bottled water (it’s very inexpensive in supermarkets). Otherwise, just use common sense: wash and peel fruit and vegetables, and avoid eating snacks that appear to have been sitting in display cabinets for too long. Mosquitoes can be a menace in the summer, but mosquito-repellent lotion and coils are widely sold in supermarkets and pharmacies. Use a high-factor sun block as the sun is extremely powerful.
For minor complaints go to a farmácia (pharmacy); most have a green neon cross outside. There’s one in virtually every village and English is often spoken. Pharmacists are highly trained and can dispense drugs that would be prescription-only in Britain or North America. Opening hours are usually Monday to Friday 9am to 1pm and 3 to 7pm, Saturday 9am to 1pm. Local papers carry information about 24-hour or night-time pharmacies (farmácias de serviço) and the details are also posted on every pharmacy door.
In an emergency dial 112. Treatment is at the local Centro da Saúde (Health Centre) or hospital, and somebody usually speaks at least some English. Contact details of other English-speaking doctors can be obtained from British or American consular offices or, with luck, from the local tourist office or a major hotel.
You should take out a comprehensive travel insurance policy before travelling to Portugal, to cover against loss, theft and illness or injury. A typical policy will provide cover for the loss of baggage, tickets and – up to a certain limit – cash or cheques, as well as cancellation or curtailment of your journey. Most policies exclude so-called dangerous sports unless an extra premium is paid: in Portugal this can mean most watersports and scuba diving are excluded, though probably not things like hiking or bike tours.
If you need to make a claim, you should keep receipts for medicines and medical treatment, and in the event you have anything stolen, you must obtain an official statement from the police (a formulário de participação de roubo).
The government has invested a lot in communications technology and Portugal is surprisingly switched-on and wireless for a place of its size. You can get online at larger post offices (access by credit card or by buying a prepaid net card), while free municipal internet places (called Espaços Internet; locations on espacosinternet.pt) are widespread, even in very small towns. You can generally also find a PC to use in libraries, youth centres, hostels and many hotels.
Wireless access is available in many restaurants, bars, shopping malls, town squares and other public “hot spots”, usually without charge.
Small guesthouses don’t really like you doing your laundry in your room – to avoid an incident, it might be better to ask first if there’s somewhere you can wash your clothes. Hotels generally have a laundry service, but it’s usually pretty expensive. It’s far better to take your clothes to the local lavandaria, where you can get them washed, dried and even ironed at a very reasonable cost – you may have to come back the next day to pick them up.
Though traditionally a conservative society, Portugal has become increasingly tolerant of homosexuality, at least in the cities and in the Algarve. In more rural areas, however, old prejudices are ingrained and coming out is still a problem for many. As there is no mention of homosexuality in law, gays have the same rights as heterosexuals by default and the legal age of consent is 16. The best contact is the Associação ILGA Portugal (English information available), which operates the Centro LGBT, at Rua dos Fanqueiros 40 in Lisbon (Thurs–Sat 6–11pm; 218 873 918), an information centre and helpline, which organizes the country’s annual Pride festival. The biggest scene is in Lisbon, which has a number of gay bars and clubs.
Post offices (correios) are normally open Monday to Friday 8.30 or 9am to 5.30 or 6pm, the smaller ones closing for lunch. Larger branches sometimes open on Saturday mornings, while the main Lisbon and Porto offices have longer hours. However, it’s often quicker to buy stamps (selos) from coin-operated vending machines in streets or inside the offices, or from newsagents. Letters or cards should take three or four days to arrive at destinations in Europe, and seven to ten days elsewhere. Correio azul is the equivalent of airmail or first-class, and theoretically (but not always in practice) takes two or three days to Europe, five elsewhere.
The best available country map is Michelin’s Portugal (1:400,000) and there are also three regional Michelin maps (north, centre and south) at 1:300,000, while Michelin’s Lisboa Planta Roteiro is the nearest to an A–Z of the city. A good bookshop or travel store in your own country should be able to provide any of these maps, or buy online from specialist stores such as stanfords.co.uk or randmcnally.com. Tourist offices and car rental outlets in Portugal can also usually provide you with a reasonable road map, while other maps and more detailed regional plans can be bought at motorway service stations and town and city bookshops.
For walking and hiking, the only serious choices are the 1:50,000 topographic sheets produced by the Instituto Geográfico do Exército. These cover the entire country, though some haven’t been updated for years. Even so, they are the best you’ll get; you can buy them online from the Instituto or from stanfords.co.uk, and they’re sold at various bookshops in Portugal; outlets are listed on the Instituto website.
Portugal’s currency is the euro (€), and notes are issued in denominations of 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200 and 500 euros, and coins in denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 and 50 cents and 1 and 2 euros. Up-to-the-minute currency exchange rates are displayed at xe.com.
You’ll find a bank (banco) or savings bank/building society (caixa) in all but the smallest towns: standard opening hours are Monday to Friday 8.30am to 3pm. In Lisbon and larger Algarve resorts, some banks also open in the evening, while others have automatic currency exchange machines. Exchange bureaux (câmbios), which you’ll find in Lisbon, Porto and the Algarve, tend to have longer working hours, closing on weekdays at around 6pm, and also opening on Saturdays.
By far the easiest way to get money is to use your bank debit card to withdraw cash from an ATM (known as a Multibanco), found in even the smallest towns, as well as at the airports. You can usually withdraw up to €400 a day (though only €200 at a time) and instructions are available in English. Make sure you have called your bank to authorise overseas use, and take a note of your bank’s emergency contact number in case an ATM swallows your card. Most European debit cards can also be used directly in shops, petrol stations etc, to pay for purchases.
All major credit cards are accepted in hotels, restaurants and shops, and for tours, tickets and transport, though don’t count on being able to use them in many small hotels, family businesses and rural areas.
Opening hours and public holidays
Opening hours for shops, cafés, restaurants, museums and tourist offices in Portugal tend to be a fluid concept, especially outside the main towns and resorts. Many open late or close early (or don’t open at all) if the weather’s bad or if not many people are around.
Shops and businesses generally open from 9/9.30am until 12.30/1pm and 2.30/3pm until 6/7pm. Most also open all day Saturday from 9am to 7pm, especially in towns and cities, though in smaller towns shops close on Saturday afternoon. Larger shopping centres and malls stay open seven days a week, often until midnight. Restaurants tend to close one day a week, often Sunday or Monday.
Opening hours for museums, churches and monuments vary enormously, but almost all close on Mondays (or Wednesdays for palaces). Some opening hours are seasonal, and usually in Portugal “summer” means from Easter until September and “winter” from October until Easter.
On national public holidays transport services are much reduced. Most museums and galleries also close for the day, though other tourist facilities – restaurants, souvenir shops and the like – tend to stay open. There are also endless local festivals, saints’ days and holidays when entire villages, towns, cities and regions grind to a halt: for example, June 13 in Lisbon and June 24 in Porto.
All Portuguese phone numbers have nine digits. Landlines start with a 2, mobiles with a 9. Numbers starting with 800 are free; 808 are local-rate calls. To call Portugal from abroad, dial your country’s international access number + 351 (country code) + nine-digit number. You can search for national phone numbers and addresses for free online at pai.pt.
Portugal has one of the highest densities of mobile phone (telemóvel) ownership in the world. Most European mobile phones will work in Portugal; note also that in June 2016, roaming charges were drastically reduced for mobile phone tariffs that originate in an EU country, and will be abolished completely in 2017. To reduce costs, non-EU citizens could buy a local SIM card, though this depends on the model and service provider – Vodafone has shops all over Portugal, for example, including at Lisbon airport.
In common with most EU countries, smoking is prohibited in all public spaces in Portugal. The ban was introduced in 2008 by the then Prime Minister José Sócrates, who was promptly spotted lighting up on a plane to Venezuela. While not all laws are closely followed by the Portuguese, this one is generally observed – though, of course, smokers can indulge at restaurants and cafés, if they sit at the outside tables.
Portugal is in the same time zone as the UK, following GMT in winter. Clocks go forward an hour at the end of March and back an hour at the end of October. If you’re coming from Spain, turn your watch back one hour.
There is no hard and fast rule for tipping, which is not really a Portuguese custom. In a café, restaurant or for taxis, it’s customary to round up the bill to the nearest euro or, for big amounts, the nearest note – so leave €25 for a bill of €23.50, for example. You shouldn’t feel obliged to leave any tip at all for other services – though needless to say, any you do leave will be gratefully received.
Public toilets are neither numerous nor obvious, though a number of cities have installed coin-operated automated toilets. You can generally use the toilets in cafés, though (in theory) you’ll have to order something first and sometimes ask for the key. The “facilities” in some places may leave you dazed, though on the whole there’s been a significant upgrade in recent years – whoever has the contract for installing automatic light and flush facilities in Portugal is on a roll. A sign reading Lavábos, Casa de banho or WC will head you in the right direction, then it’s homens or cavalheiros for men and senhoras or mulheres for women.
The Portuguese national tourist board, Turismo de Portugal, is a good source of information when planning your trip, while in Portugal itself you’ll find a tourist office in most of the larger towns. Regional offices offer a broad-brush approach to the region they represent, and some also have useful websites.
On the ground, local or municipal turismos can at least supply a town map or accommodation information, though the service available varies wildly from place to place. English is only routinely spoken in offices in the larger towns and resorts, and, while some offices are extremely helpful and professional, others treat your visit almost as an intrusion. Often, the best you’ll get is a fistful of brochures and directions to the bus station/museum/ferry office where you’ll have to ask all over again.
Useful tourist websites
visitportugal.com (all Portugal)
visitlisboa.com (Lisbon area)
turismodocentro.pt (Coimbra and central Portugal)
uk.visitportoandnorth.travel (Porto and the north)
patrimoniocultural.pt (the Museums Institute website)
Travellers with disabilities
Portugal is slowly coming to terms with the needs of travellers with disabilities, though you should not expect much in the way of special facilities. However, people are generally ready to help and will go out of their way to make your visit as straightforward as possible.
Lisbon, Porto and Faro airports have ramps, lifts and adapted toilets. You’ll also find ramped access to some museums and public buildings, while adapted WCs can be found at some train stations and major shopping centres. It’s worth bearing in mind that many guesthouses and budget hotels are located on the first floor or higher and don’t have lifts. However, most four- and five-star hotels have lifts, ramps and specially adapted bedrooms and bathrooms, while many manor houses and farmhouses have guest rooms on the ground floor.
At train stations, wheelchair access is usually possible as far as the platform, but getting from the platform on to the train can be difficult. Parts of Lisbon’s metro system are also problematic, though Porto’s newer system is generally more accessible. Adapted cars with automatic gearsticks are available from the larger car-rental companies, and there are reserved disabled parking spaces across the country (though they are not always respected).
Portugal’s old town centres – specifically their steps and cobblestone alleys – pose their own problems. However, a number of attractive medieval towns and villages have been rehabilitated as part of central Portugal’s Aldeias Históricas scheme, which has also meant the construction of some smooth wheelchair-accessible pathways alongside the cobbles.
Some organizations at home may be able to advise you further about travel to Portugal, such as the UK-based Access Travel, a small tour operator offering Algarve accommodation suitable for the disabled. In Portugal, Accessible Portugal is a specialist in holidays for wheelchair users and people with disabilities, and offers city breaks, tours, accommodation and transfers. The government organization that promotes awareness of disability issues is the Instituto Nacional Para a Reabilitação, which has a useful website, though it is only in Portuguese.