Travel Guide Portugal

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Portugal is one of Europe’s oldest extant nations, an ancient kingdom defended by hilltop castles and dramatic walled towns. When you travel to Portugal for the first time you will most likely be struck by the friendliness of the people, affordable food and wine, and the diversity of a country that is relatively easy to travel around in just a few days.

It is a landscape of beaches and high mountains, but also of deep, verdant valleys and rolling hills dotted with stone-built villages. For generations, families have eked out a living from the land. The steeply terraced vineyards of the mountainous north contrasts with the cork oak plantations which dominate the vast agricultural plains of the south – roamed by wild boar.

The Portuguese have embraced contemporary life without getting rid of the more appealing aspects of previous centuries. Fully wired town centres have wi-fi hotspots, but they also have a butcher, a baker and (quite literally) a candle-stick maker. Every community has an ancient church, and while support for the institutions of the Church may have waned, a belief in traditional values remains. Children will be both seen and heard at any time of the day or night, as the family remains at the centre of most things.

Portugal is generally a very tolerant nation, and has integrated a substantial population from its former colonies in Africa, Asia and Brazil with relative ease. Contemporary Portuguese tastes are influenced by the flavours, sounds and styles of Brazil, Angola and Mozambique in particular.

The blend of tolerance and tradition, its bucolic scenery and year-round sunshine, is the allure that makes the country so appealing. Visit Portugal and prepare to be charmed.

Portugal travel facts

Geography: Including the perimeter of its islands, Portugal boasts 1793 kilometres of coastline. Its only neighbour is Spain, and it shares the same time zone as the UK.

Population: There are ten times more Portuguese living overseas than the ten million-strong population that lives in Portugal itself – the bulk of these live in Brazil, though the USA and France both also have over a million inhabitants of Portuguese descent.

National dish: There are reputed to be 365 different ways of cooking Bacalhau, dried and salted cod – one for each day of the year.

Exports: Portugal is the earth’s eighth largest producer of wine and supplies fifty percent of the world’s cork.

UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Twelve in mainland Portugal, including towns like Évora and Guimarães, the palaces of Sintra, rock art in the Côa valley, and national monuments at Batalha and Alcobaça.

Pena Palace in Sintra © Tatiana Popova/Shutterstock

Where to go in Portugal

From cliff-backed coves to endless stretches of sandy dunes, you’re rarely far from a stunning beach when you visit Portugal. Surfers are drawn to the consistent waves on the west coast, around Ericeira and Peniche, for example, while the calmer waters of the southern Algarve offer the quintessential laidback beach experience, such as around Albufeira and the Ilha de Tavira.

An epic coast is only part of the story. The green interior offers endless possibilities, from touring wine estates to walking, cycling or kayaking down its many rivers. Hilltop castles and ancient walled villages await, such as Marvão, Monsaraz and beautiful Belmonte.

That’s before you’ve discovered one of Europe’s most captivating capitals, Lisbon. While its cobbled streets, ancient trams, old-fashioned shops and traditional fardo bars lend the city a timeless quality, a wealth of top museums, modern architecture and hot new bars and clubs have propelled it into the twenty-first century.

Then there’s Porto, rising up from the banks of the river Douro. Portugal’s second city is wonderfully atmospheric, particularly around the Ribeira, with its string of colourful buildings lining the waterfront and steep cobbled alleys. And a trip along the port wine route along the Rio Douro, lined with vineyards on the steep river banks, is not to be missed.

Vineyards lining the Douro river © Simon Dannhauer/Shutterstock

Discover more places in Portugal

10 best places in Portugal

  1. Porto’s Ribeira

    The colourful and characterful Cais da Ribeira was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status for obvious reasons. Multi-coloured buildings housing lively cafes and restaurants line the riverside, while meandering medieval streets and steep cobbled alleys that lead off the promenade beckon you to explore further. Take in the view across the Douro to the port wine lodges on the other side, while sipping a galão at a café on the promenade. Or come for a fresh fish dinner in the evening when the area is particularly lively.

  2. Sintra

    Once a favoured summer retreat for Portugal’s royals enticed by the cooler air and picturesque surrounds, the hilltop town of Sintra is one of Portugal’s major attractions with UNESCO World Heritage kudos. Less than an hour’s drive from Lisbon it makes for a wonderful day trip, but to really appreciate the lavish palaces and fabulous gardens scattered within the lush wooded hills, give yourself two to three days to explore.

  3. Serra da Estrela

    The lesser-trodden trails of the highest mountains in Portugal are a delight for the adventurous hiker. Routes in the Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela take in historic villages and remote stone churches, waterfalls and cork forests, windswept rocky plateaus and stupendous views. Try the Queijo Serra da Estrela, a wonderful gooey cheese made with sheep’s milk, specific to the region.

  4. Praia da Bordeira in the Algarve

    This secluded beach on the west coast has a huge stretch of soft sand facing the force of the ocean. Backed by giant dunes and rugged, dusty hills, Praia da Bordeira is a spectacular spot. Kids splash about in the lagoon created by a gentle river at one end of the beach, while surfers are enticed by the powerful Atlantic swell and its immense waves.

  5. River Douro valley

    Taking a trip along the Rio Douro ranks among the best journeys in Europe. Going by boat gives you wonderful views of the terraced vineyards and orange groves on the river banks, while driving lets you stop at your leisure and enjoy overnight stays in rural quintas (country estates). But taking the train is maybe the best way to combine a relaxing experience with fantastic views and stopoffs to some of Portugal’s best wineries. The ride from Porto to Pocinho near the Spanish border is particularly outstanding.

  6. Feira de Barcelos market

    You could easily pass by the small town of Barcelos, not realising that on Thursdays the place comes alive with one of the best open-air markets in Europe, held since medieval times. You’ll find everything, from fruit and veg, cured meats and regional cheeses, cheap clothes and crafts. If you’re looking to take home some of the loucas de Barçelos, (local white and yellow pottery), traditional basketry and other crafts, you’re in the right place.

  7. Monsaraz

    This tiny, sparsely inhabited, medieval village near the Spanish border sits high above the flat Alentejan plain of vineyards and olive groves. The castle is the big draw of Monsaraz, with its jumble of streets and awesome views of the plain and the Alqueva reservoir, but take the time to wander the village’s charming narrow cobbled streets of whitewashed cottages and browse the handicraft shops.

  8. Coimbra

    The medieval city of Coimbra sitting above the Rio Mondego is home to Portugal’s oldest university, dating from 1290 – its star attraction being a splendid Baroque library. The old town exudes historical charm and, during term time, a liveliness generated by the student population – in the many bars, cafés and restaurants. You can hear fado music year round, but catching an open-air summer performance, the strains of guitar and male voices reverberating against the walls in the old town, is far more atmospheric.

  9. Alfama, Lisbon

    Lisbon’s oldest and most atmospheric quarter is a delight of tangled narrow streets and alleys cutting across the slopes underneath the city’s Moorish castle. Here the hubbub of daily life happens minus the glitz of tourism. Kids play in the alleyways below laundry hanging from cast iron balconies, and the smell of fresh fish cooking hangs in the air. Alfama is also home to some of the city’s best fado bars and clubs.

  10. Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês

    Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês is Portugal’s only national park, its 700 square kilometres covering steep forests of pine and birch, lush valleys, windblown plateaus strewn with odd rock formations and lovely rustic villages where ancient traditions are a part of everyday life. Hiker’s will delight in the numerous trails, ranging from short strolls to day-treks in the wildest remotest corners of the park.

Check out more great places to visit in our Portugal travel guide.

The Old Town and university in Coimbra © saiko3p/Shutterstock

Best time to travel to Portugal

One of Portugal’s many perks is its year-round sunshine. Although the winter months can be a little chilly – average daytime temperatures are still around 16 degrees – the sun is often shining and skies are blue, and the Algarve is consistently mild.

The best time to travel to Portugal is during late spring (March to May) when it’s warming up and early autumn (September to October) when the searing heat is losing its edge.

Sun worshippers will welcome the rise in temperatures in spring and are spared the roasting that the summer months bring. Landscapes are also beautifully verdant, the hills in the Algarve a jubilant green and popping with flowers, before the absence of rain in the summer renders them a dusty brown. This makes it a perfect time for hiking, such as in the north’s Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês, or striking out on the long distance Rota Vicentina, as well as other outdoor activities.

In the summer months, beaches become crowded, hotels rates are higher and the temperature can be unbearably hot.

Autumn is the ideal time for sightseeing in towns and cities such as Lisbon and nearby Sintra, and the sea is still warm enough for swimming, while the beaches are much quieter.

Our Portugal travel guide has more in-depth information on the best time to visit Portugal.

How to get to Portugal

You can fly direct to Lisbon, Faro and Porto from airports around the UK and Ireland and from all over Europe – also from New York in the US and from Toronto in Canada. From other destinations you’re looking at an indirect flight.

You could also consider a combination of driving, rail travel and ferry. Although this could work out more expensive than flying, particularly if you get a cheap flight via one of the budget airlines, it can be a good way to see some of the landscape and countries you’re travelling through, not to mention leaving a smaller carbon footprint.

Package holidays can also work out good value.

Get more detailed information on getting to Portugal: flights, overland travel by car and by train, ferry info, package holidays and tours, specialist tour operators, etc.

Alfama, Lisbon © David Evora Marquez/Shutterstock

How to get around Portugal

Travel to Portugal and you’ll discover that getting around is pretty easy and cheap by bus or by train. Buses are usually the quicker mode of transport and routes cover pretty much everywhere, apart from the remotest corners and some natural parks. Note that services are often limited to tie in with school/work/market times.

Train journeys can be remarkably scenic, for example the Douro line from Porto to Pocinho, not to mention cheaper on regional lines. Bear in mind though that stations can be quite some distance from a town.

Driving is obviously more convenient, in terms of flexibility and ease of getting to isolated areas. Roads have greatly improved in recent years all across the country, although there are still rural roads providing a teeth-juddering ride. Traffic is pretty light in general, especially on toll roads, although many towns and popular beach resorts can be very busy in summer. Note – accident rates in Portugal are some of the highest per capita in the EU.

Read more on getting around Portugal: modes of transport, tickets, fares, timetables, motorways and tolls, parking, car rental, taxis, cycling, etc.

Portugal travel itineraries

Portugal's relatively small size allows you to discover much of the country within a short time while also giving you the chance for more in-depth exploration should you have longer to play with.

We’ve created some sample itineraries, to inspire you and help you get the most out of your trip to Portugal.

First off is our ‘Grand tour of Portugal’ itinerary. Ideal for a first-time visit, it takes in the must-see destinations covering the length and breadth of Portugal.

Then there’s our ‘Wine routes’ itinerary. Visit the beautiful wine regions of Portugal, from the Algarve in the south to the Minho in the north, via the Alentejo and Porto. Stop off at wine estates and lodges – and, of course, sample some of Portugal’s world-renowned wines along the way.

If you’re making a beeline for Portugal’s amazing beaches take a look at our ‘Life’s a beach’ itinerary. We suggest some of the country’s best – those ideal for kids, the gloriously wild, as well as ones great for surfing.

You can also create your own tailor-made itinerary with Rough Guides.

Outdoor activities in Portugal

Internationally famed for its beaches, golf courses and tennis centres, Portugal also has an ideal climate for a variety of other outdoor pursuits including surfing, windsurfing, river and sea kayaking, walking and adventure sports. Spectators can enjoy top-class football throughout the country.

Adventure activities

Many regions now offer paragliding, abseiling, rap jumping, rafting, canyoning, caving, mountain biking and 4WD expeditions. There’s most scope in the mountain areas – notably the Serra da Estrela and Peneda-Gerês parks – and on the major rivers (Douro, Mondego and Zêzere), but many of the smaller natural parks and reserves also have local adventure outfits.

Swimming, surfing and windsurfing

Chances are, when you visit Portugal you’ll make time to enjoy some of its amazing coastline. The Algarve has the country’s most popular sandy beaches, many of them sheltered in coves – and the sea is warmest on the eastern Algarve. The western coast has some stupendous stretches of beach, but they face the full brunt of the Atlantic ocean. This makes for great surfing opportunities – indeed, surfing in Portugal is renowned throughout Europe. The more protected west coast of the Algarve is excellent for beginners and experienced surfers alike.

Good websites include wannasurf.com and beachcam.pt/en for breaks, photos, reports, surf-savvy weather and wave height forecasts, and surfingportugal.com, home to the Federação Portuguesa de Surf, which organizes competitions.

Praia da Bordeira in the western Algarve © Cmspic/Shutterstock

Portugal's top five surfing beaches

  1. Praia do Amado Algarve

    The best surf of the Algarve’s west-coast beaches.

  2. Praia do Coxos Ericeira

    Challenging surf at Europe’s first World Surfing Reserve.

  3. Supertubos Peniche

    Offers some of the most consistent surf in the country.

  4. Baleal Peniche

    Great for surfers of all abilities.

  5. Praia do Norte Nazaré

    World-record waves for serious surfers.

The EU blue flag indicates that the water is clean enough to swim in – Portugal has an impressive 275 – and that the beach has lifeguards. For a full rundown of the country’s blue flag beaches, see blueflag.org.

An unsung glory of central and northern Portugal is its river beaches – you’ll see signs (praia fluvial) everywhere directing you to quiet bends in the local river, or to weirs or dramatic gorges.

The biggest windsurfing destinations are Guincho and Praia Grande, north of Lisbon, and round Sines on the Alentejo coast.

Football

Football is Portugal’s favourite sport. It hosted the 2004 European Championships, which saw the construction of several excellent stadiums, including the Estádio do Dragão in Porto and Benfica’s Estádio da Luz.

Ticket prices for a clash between two big names average €25–50, depending on the seat; tickets for other games cost a lot less.

Golf

Portugal is a year-round golf destination. Some of the country’s finest hotels and villa complexes have golf courses attached, or have connections with a golf club, and the best deals are usually on special golf-holiday packages. Otherwise, green fees on 18-hole courses start at around €40, though multi-play packages and discounts are nearly always available; see greenfeesportugal. The Greater Lisbon area and the Algarve have the bulk of the courses: for more information on playing golf when you travel to Portugal consult a specialist tour operator or check online at portugalgolf.pt and algarvegolf.net

Horseriding

The main areas for horseriding are Estoril and Sintra, the Algarve and the Alentejo. Prices start from around €30 for an hour’s trek, rising to €100–150 for a full day.

Kayaking

Many adventure outfits can organize river kayaking, and sea-kayaking is increasing in popularity, particularly along the more sheltered southern Algarve coast.

Walking

Portugal only has one national park – the Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês, in the Minho – but there are forty other protected areas, designated as parques naturais (natural parks), reservas naturais (natural reserves) or other specifications (see the website of the government’s Instituto da Conservação da Natureza (icnf.pt). Between them, Portugal's national park and protected areas account for some of the country's most dramatic landscapes.

All the parks have information centres, and most promote trails and tours within their area. Marked walking routes are becoming more popular, but signage and trail maintenance are extremely patchy. English is rarely spoken, even at major information centres, making it difficult to find out about the status of routes, while there is a real paucity of proper walking maps.

Accommodation

When looking at where to stay in Portugal, you’ll find accommodation is relatively low cost compared with other western countries, although the main cities, Lisbon and Porto, are pricier, as well as resorts on the Algarve in summer.

Options include rooms in private homes, simple guesthouses, youth hostels, private villas and apartments. Pousadas, comfortable and charming hotels, often in historic buildings, such as monasteries or castles, are some of the best places to stay in Portugal. Facilities and service can match four- and five- star hotels.

Rural tourism in Portugal is also gaining in popularity – from simple farmhouses to manor houses and palaces.

Camping is also popular – and usually a cheap option; wild camping is legal, although not allowed in certain areas, such as in natural parks or on tourist beaches, so check before you pitch up. The same goes for stopping overnight in a campervan or motorhome.

Read more on accommodation in Portugal including: hotels and guesthouses, unusual places to stay, the pick of the best pousadas, accommodation costs, etc.

Lindoso, Peneda Gerês National Park © Peek Collective Collective/Shutterstock

Cuisine in Portugal

Food in Portugal tends towards the simple and traditional, with meat usually grilled or slow-cooked into a stew. Caldo Verde is quintessentially Portuguese – a soup made of potatoes and greens, usually with chouriço thrown in. Seafood is a feature on menus along the coasts, for obvious reasons. There’s also an extensive range of cheeses to try, the Queijo da Serra (or Queijo Serrano) from the Serra da Estrela, a particular standout.

Portugal produces some of the best wines in Europe and is the birthplace of Port, a fortified wine. True Port comes only from Porto so be sure to try some when you visit Portugal.

Read more about food and drink in Portugal: meat dishes, seafood, cheese, desserts, restaurants, wine, etc.

Travel advice for Portugal

Entry requirements

Citizens from the EU and from most other European countries outside the EU can enter Portugal with a valid passport and can stay indefinitely. Citizens from Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand do not need a visa for stays of up to 90 days (you can apply for an extension). Situations change so always check with the Portuguese embassy or consulate before you travel to Portugal.

Read more on entry requirements, such visa extensions.

Crime and safety

Apart from the usual petty theft in tourist areas and cities, compared with other western countries Portugal is a remarkably safe country for visitors. Take basic common-sense precautions, such as not having valuables on show, or left visible in cars, and don’t carry huge amounts of cash around. If you do experience crime you’ll need to inform police if you want to claim on your insurance. Bear in mind that apart from in the Algarve where police often speak some English, it is not so common in other parts of the country.

Women travelling alone in Portugal are usually safe, although certain areas in the larger cities are best avoided at night.

Read more on crime and safety.

Money

The currency in Portugal is the euro (€). You’ll find banks in all but the smallest towns and ATM machines pretty much everywhere. Debit cards and credit cards are widely accepted, although don’t rely on credit cards in rural areas and small businesses.

Costs

Portugal is one of the least expensive countries in the EU for visitors, and even the major cities provide better value for money than most other European destinations. If you’re travelling on a tight budget, you can get by on between €50-€80 a day; otherwise, €120 per day will cover accommodation and eating out in more upmarket places. Five-star and boutique hotels will cost a lot more.

Read more on costs and money: entrance fees, discounts, VAT.

Get more information on accommodation costs and cost of travelling around Portugal.

Healthcare in Portugal

In an emergency dial 112; for minor complaints visit a pharmacy (farmácia). We advise taking out a comprehensive insurance policy when you travel to Portugal to cover every eventuality.

Read more on health: the EHIC scheme, mosquitoes, sun protection, pharmacies, emergency treatment, etc.

Our Portugal travel guide has more in-depth travel advice covering: tourist offices, opening hours and public holidays, maps, internet, insurance, travelling with children, tipping etiquette, LGBTQ travellers, mail, laundry, phones, travellers with disabilities, etc.

Top image: Porto Ribeira, Porto, © DaLiu/Shutterstock

Food from afar

Portugal’s former status as an important trading nation has had a huge influence on world cuisine. The tempura method of deep-frying was introduced to the Japanese by sixteenth-century Portuguese traders and missionaries, while the fiery curry-house mainstay vindaloo derives from a vinho (wine) and alho (garlic) sauce popular in Portuguese Goa. Indeed, the use of chillis in the East only began when the Portuguese started to import them from Mexico. Bacalhau (dried salt cod) started life as a way of preserving fish on board the Portuguese voyages of exploration; another, less exotic, export is marmalade (although the local marmelada is actually made from quince). Meanwhile, dishes from Portugal’s former colonies crop up time and time again in Portuguese restaurants. Keep an eye out for mufete (beans with palm oil and fish) and chicken piri-piri (chicken with chilli sauce), which originated in Angola and Mozambique, caril de camarão (shrimp curry) and chamuças (samosas) from Asia, and Brazilian meals such as feijoada (pork and bean stew), picanha (sliced rump steak) and rodizio (barbecue meat buffet).

Portuguese azulejos

Brightly-coloured decorative tiles have been used throughout Portugal since the birth of the nation, making up everything from immense religious scenes covering entire walls of churches to simple geometric patterns on the back of park benches. It was the Moors who introduced the craft in the eighth century – the word derives from the Arabic al-zulecha, meaning “small stone”. Less studied than stained glass, less famous than frescoes, many azulejos are handcrafted works of art, though even mass-produced factory items add flamboyance to otherwise dull buildings. You’ll find them all over the country – on churches, houses, cafés and shops, even motorway bridges and metro stations. The Museu Nacional do Azulejo in Lisbon is dedicated to them, or you can marvel at the ingenuity and adaptability of the art while catching the train at Pinhão station, spending the night in the Palácio do Buçaco or visiting the church of São Laurenço in the Algarve.

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Mani Ramaswamy
11/5/2020
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