PORTUGAL TRAVEL GUIDE
Portugal's great draw is the same as it has been for over 40 years, a country blessed with a magnificent coastline, warm climate, and some of the most majestic beaches in the world. Its location on the Atlantic Ocean has influenced many aspects of its culture: salt cod and grilled sardines are national dishes, the Algarve's beaches are a major destination and much of the nation’s architecture dates to the 1500s – 1800s when Portugal had a powerful maritime empire.
Sitting pretty at the western brink of the European mainland, Portugal retains the rural charms that its other continental brethren have relinquished. It is a land of flavorsome cuisine and fine port, flawless beaches, and medieval villages sitting atop scenic hills. The pretty ports along the Tajo and the sheer cliffs of the Serra de Estrela, coupled with the Moorish quarters and high rises of Lisbon, make for an altogether enchanting traveling experience.
PORTUGAL QUICK FACTS
- Capital: Lisbon
- Currency: Euro (€)
- Area: 92,090 km²
- Population: 10,28 million (2019)
- Language: Portuguese
- Religion:Roman Catholic 84%, Protestant
- Electricity: 230V, 50Hz (European plug)
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PORTUGAL PUBLIC HOLIDAYS
- 25 April, Liberation Day
- 1 May, Labour Day
- 10 June, Portuguese National Day
- 15 August, Assumption of the Virgin Mary
- 8 December, Immaculate Conception
Also, Shrove Tuesday (Carnival) and Good Friday.
FESTIVALS IN PORTUGAL
- Festa de Santo António (Lisbon) - from 12 June to 13 June, culminates with the three-week Festas de Lisboa, with processions and dozens of street parties; it's liveliest in the Alfama.
- Festa de São João (Porto) - For one night in June, on the 24th, the city erupts into music, competitions and riotous parties; this is also when merrymakers pound each other on the head with squeaky plastic mallets (seriously).
- Serralves Em Festa (Porto) - This enormous (free) celebration runs for 40 hours nonstop over one weekend in early June. Parque de Serralves hosts the main events, with concerts, avant-garde theatre and kiddie activities. Other open-air events happen all over town.
BEST TIME TO VISIT PORTUGAL
Broadly speaking, the best time of year to visit Portugal is during spring (i.e. from February) or early autumn (September – October), when the weather is not too hot, the sea is warm and the summer crowds have thinned out. The lower temperatures during these months also make for ideal sightseeing weather. However, the weather in Portugal varies according to the regions, and the seasons. The southern parts of Portugal enjoy the most sunshine and least amount of rainfall, although the whole of Portugal has its fair share of sunny days.
April & May - Sunny days and wildflowers set the stage for hiking and outdoor activities.
June to August - Lovely and lively, with a packed festival calendar and steamy beach days.
Late September & October - Crisp mornings and sunny days; prices dip, crowds disperse.
During the summer months, there is no shortage of sunshine and heat wherever you are in Portugal with July seeing very little rainfall in the Algarve and up the coast to Lisbon. Central Portugal can be intensely hot and you will find rain to be far more likely in Porto and the Costa Verde - averaging 20mm in the same month. Generally, though, the northern end of the country experiences more rain throughout the year.
Winter is cooler and it can get rather stormy at times, but you will still enjoy plenty of hours of sunshine, making Portugal a proper year-round destination. The Algarve, in particular, on average has more bright days and mild temperatures than expected. In contrast, the northern parts of Portugal can be rather cold with temperatures sometimes dropping to 8˚ around Porto and snow likely to fall in the mountains bordering Spain.
PORTUGAL WEATHER SYNOPSIS
The climate in mainland Portugal is predominantly influenced by latitude, orography and its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. Maritime temperate climate - cool and rainy in the north, warmer and drier in the south.
PORTUGAL TOURIST SEASONS
Most destinations have different times of the year when they’re more or less popular with tourists.
Off Peak Season
SPORT & ACTIVITIES
SNOW SPORT IN PORTUGAL
It is possible to ski in Portugal from December to February, just note that Portuguese ski slopes can't be compared to their Swiss or French counterparts.
HIKING & CYCLING IN PORTUGAL
The best time for outdoor activities in Portugal is during Spring (April to May) and Autumn (September to October). Although summer can be popular, it is uncomfortably hot!
BEACH OPTIONS IN PORTUGAL
You can enjoy the beaches of Portugal from as early as April through to early October, with the months of July and August being by far the hottest and busiest.
SURFING IN PORTUGAL
With a west and south coastline, Portugal is a great all year round surfing destination. May to September is best for beginners while September to April brings bigger swells with the largest swells during winter.
KITESURF IN PORTUGAL
The best time for kitesurfing in Portugal is from May to October. Check out the following kitesurfing spots: Cabedelo, Esposende, Obidos Lagoon, Peniche, Guincho, Fonte da Telha, Lagoa de Albufeira, Algarve, Carrapateira & Alvor Lagoon
For more details on kite surfing in Portugal expand this section!
HEALTH RISKS IN PORTUGAL
Be aware of possible health risks in
Yellow fever - The yellow fever virus is found in tropical and subtropical areas of Africa and South America. The virus is spread to people by the bite of an infected mosquito. There is no medicine to treat or cure an infection. To prevent getting sick from yellow fever, use insect repellent, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants, and get vaccinated.
Zika Virus - Zika is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. These mosquitoes bite during the day and night. Zika can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus. Infection during pregnancy can cause certain birth defects. There is no vaccine or medicine for Zika.
Malaria - Malaria is a serious and sometimes fatal disease caused by a parasite that commonly infects a certain type of mosquito which feeds on humans. People who get malaria are typically very sick with high fevers, shaking chills, and flu-like illness. Although malaria can be a deadly disease, illness and death from malaria can usually be prevented.
Dengue - Dengue is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. These mosquitoes bite during the day and night. About one in four people infected with dengue will get sick. For people who get sick with dengue, symptoms can be mild or severe.
PORTUGAL TRAVEL COSTS
For the most part, Portugal is an incredibly affordable destination. Food, accommodation, wine – it’s all relatively cheap, especially when compared to most of the other EU countries. As long as you’re not splurging on a ton of cocktails or eating at the (generally overpriced) tourist restaurants, you’ll find it easy to save big while still enjoying yourself. 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.
PORTUGAL TRAVEL TIPS
Menu di Dia - Look out for 'Menu Of the Day' at local restaurants (tascas) which will offer a different fixed menu option for great value.
Say no to bread – When eating out, a selection of bread and olives might be brought to your table before your meal. These aren’t free.
Take the Train - It's not worth flying between Lisbon and Porto. The train is clean and comfortable and you get to skip the airport chaos.
Free museum visits – Most museums are free on Sundays and some on Saturdays.
Skip the taxis – Taxis can be expensive in Portugal, often adding fees for luggage and airport pickups. Consider ride-hailing like Uber if you are traveling in a group of two or more - else simply use the metro or bus.
SIGHTS & HIGHLIGHTS OF PORTUGAL
Alfama - Follow the sound of fado spilling from the lamplit lanes of this enchanting old-world neighborhood in the heart of Lisbon.
Tavira -Take in the laid-back charms, before hitting some of the Algarve's prettiest beaches.
Coimbra - Catch live music in a backstreet bar in this festive university town with a stunning medieval center.
Sintra - Explore the wooded hills, studded with fairy tale-like palaces, villas, and gardens.
Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês - Conquer the park's ruggedly scenic trails.
Lagos - Enjoy heady beach days in this surf-loving town with a vibrant drinking and dining scene.
Porto - Explore the UNESCO World Heritage-listed city center, sampling velvety ports at riverside wine lodges.
Devote at least three days to Lisbon, including a night of fado (traditional Portuguese song) in the Alfama, bar-hopping in Bairro Alto, and UNESCO sight gazing and pastry-eating in Belém. Spend a day to take in the wooded wonderland of Sintra, before continuing to Coimbra, Portugal's own Cambridge. End your week in Porto, the gateway to the magical wine-growing region of the Douro valley.
On your second week wander the historic lanes of Évora and visit the nearby megaliths. Take in the picturesque castle town of Monsaraz before hitting the beaches of the Algarve. Travel along the coast and visit the pretty riverfront town of Tavira and the dramatic cliffs of Sagres.
Spread across steep hillsides that overlook the Rio Tejo, Lisbon has been captivating visitors for centuries. Incredible vistas at breath-taking heights reveal the city in all its beauty: Roman and Moorish ruins, white-domed cathedrals, and grand plazas lined with sun-drenched cafes. The real delight in discovering Lisbon, though, is delving into the narrow cobblestone lanes.
Baixa & Alfama - Alfama is Lisbon’s Moorish time capsule: a medina-like district of intricate alleys, hidden palm-shaded squares, and narrow terracotta-roofed houses that spill down to the glittering Tejo.
Belém (6km west of Rossio), whisks you back to Portugal's Age of Discoveries with iconic sights such as Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (monastery) and Torre de Belém (fortress). Besides heritage architecture, Belém bakes some of the country's best pastéis de nata (custard tarts).
Parque das Nações, the former Expo '98 site, now a revitalized 2km-long waterfront area in the northeast guarantees a family fun day out, packed with public art, gardens, and kid-friendly attractions. To get there take the metro to Oriente station - itself a stunner designed by star Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.
Between Cais do Sodré and Belém you will find a wonderful 7km cycling/jogging path coursing along the Tejo. Complete with artful touches – including the poetry of Pessoa printed along with parts of it – the path takes in aging warehouses, weathered docks, and open-air restaurants and nightspots.
Less than an hour west of Lisbon, SINTRA was the traditional summer retreat of Portugal's kings. Today, it's a fairy-tale setting of stunning palaces and manors surrounded by rolling green countryside. Although the whole town resembles a historical theme park, there are several compulsory eye-catching sights. Don't miss the magical villa of Quinta da Regaleira, the whimsical palace of Palácio Nacional de Sintra, this mist-enshrouded ruined castle of Castelo dos Mouros and the wacky confection that is Palácio Nacional da Pena.
CASCAIS is a handsome seaside resort with elegant buildings, an atmospheric Old Town, and a happy abundance of restaurants and bars. It's three sandy bays – Praia da Conceição, Praia da Rainha, and Praia da Ribeira – are great for a sunbake session or a tingly Atlantic dip, but be aware that it can seriously attract crowds in summer. At Boca do Inferno (Hell's Mouth), 2km west of Cascais the Atlantic thunders onto the coast and at the spectacular Cabo da Roca, Europe's westernmost point, is a mere 16km from Cascais and Sintra - served by bus from both towns.
It's easy to see the allure of the Algarve: spectacular cliffs, golden sands, scalloped bays, and long sandy islands. Although over-development has blighted parts of the coast, head inland and you'll land solidly in lovely Portuguese countryside once again. Algarve highlights include the riverside town of Tavira, party-loving Lagos, and windswept Sagres with Faro the regional capital.
FARO is a charming town with a palm-clad waterfront, well-maintained plazas, and a small pedestrianized center dotted with outdoor cafes. There are no beaches in Faro itself, though it's an easy jaunt by ferry to a multitude of picturesque beaches nearby. A boat trip through the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa is a definite highlight.
Set on either side of the winding Rio Gilão river, TAVIRA is arguably the Algarve's most delightful town, with a hilltop castle, an old Roman bridge, and a handful of Gothic churches. The pretty sands of Ilha da Tavira are a short boat ride away.
In summer, the charming fishing port of LAGOS has a distinct party vibe; its picturesque cobbled streets and pretty nearby beaches, including Meia Praia to the east and Praia da Luz to the west, can be packed with revelers and sunseekers.
The one-time capital of Moorish Algarve, SILVES is a quaint town of jumbled orange rooftops scattered above the banks of the Rio Arade. Silves boasts one of the best-preserved castles in the Algarve, enchanting red-stone walls and winding, sleepy backstreets on a hillside. Thie russet-colored, Lego-like Castelo has great views over the town and surrounding countryside.
Just over 5km from Europe's southwestern (Cabo de São Vicente), the small, elongated village of SAGRES has an end-of-the-world feel with its sea-carved cliffs and empty, wind-whipped fortress high above the ocean. The coast in this area is popular for surfing and you can easily hire gear at sand-dune-fringed Praia do Martinhal.
The vast center region of Portugal is a burly swathe of rolling hillsides, white-washed villages, and olive groves and cork trees. Richly historic, it is scattered with prehistoric remnants and medieval castles. It's also home to one of Portugal's most architecturally rich towns, Évora, as well as several spectacular walled villages. There are fine local wines and, for the more energetic, plenty of outdoor exploring in the dramatic Beiras region.
EVORA is a delightful place to delve into the past of the region. Inside its 14th-century walls, Évora's narrow, winding lanes lead to a magnificent medieval cathedral, a Roman temple, and a picturesque town square. These sights make for an old-fashioned backdrop to an otherwise lively student town surrounded by wineries and dramatic countryside.
PENICHE is a popular destination for its nearby surfing beaches and also serves as a jumping-off point for Berlenga Grande, which is part of the splendid Ilhas Berlengas nature reserve. The coastal city of Peniche remains a working port, giving it a slightly grittier feel than its beach-resort neighbors. It has a walled historic center and a bunch of lovely beaches east of town. You will find good diving opportunities around Peniche, and especially around Berlenga.
OBIDOS’, surrounded by a classic crenelated wall, has a stunning historic center, a labyrinth of cobblestoned streets, and flower-bedecked, whitewashed houses dashed with vivid yellow and blue paint. It’s a wonderful place to pass an afternoon, but there are plenty of reasons to stay overnight in Óbidos’, as there's excellent accommodation available - including a hilltop castle now converted into one of Portugal’s most luxurious pousadas (upmarket hotels).
NAZARE has a bustling coastal setting with narrow cobbled lanes running down to a wide, cliff-backed beach. The town center is jammed with seafood restaurants and bars; you should expect huge crowds in July and August. The beaches are superb, although swimmers should be aware of dangerous currents. Climb or take the funicular to the clifftop Sítio, with its cluster of fishermen's cottages and a great view. Nazaré is a very popular surfing destination because of the very high breaking waves that form due to the presence of the underwater Nazaré Canyon. Due to the height of the waves - well over 20m - numerous surfing records have been set here.
TOMAR is one of central Portugal’s most appealing small towns. With its pedestrian-friendly historic center, its pretty riverside park frequented by swans, herons, and families of ducks, and its charming natural setting adjacent to the lush Mata Nacional dos Sete Montes (Seven Hills National Forest), it wins lots of points for aesthetics. Headquarters of the Knights Templar - which held enormous power in Portugal from the 12th to 16th centuries - the Convento de Cristo is a stony expression of historic magnificence, founded in 1160 by Gualdim Pais, Grand Master of the Templars. It has chapels, cloisters, and choirs in diverging styles, added over the centuries by successive kings and Grand Masters.
LUSO presides over a lush forest of century-old trees surrounded by countryside that's dappled with heather, wildflowers, and leafy ferns. You will even find a fairy-tale palace here, a 1907 neo-Manueline extravagance, where deep-pocketed visitors can dine or stay overnight. The palace lies amid the Mata Nacional do Buçaco, a forest crisscrossed with trails, dotted with crumbling chapels, and graced with ponds, fountains, and exotic trees. Buçaco was chosen as a retreat by 16th-century monks, and it surrounds the lovely spa town of Luso. From the center, it's a 2km walk through the forest up to the palace.
THE NORTH OF PORTUGAL
Northern Portugal is a land of lush river valleys, sparkling coastline, granite peaks, and virgin forests. This region is also pure heaven for wine lovers as it's the home of the sprightly vinho verde wine (a young, slightly sparkling white or red wine) and ancient vineyards along the dramatic Rio Douro. Gateway to the north is Porto, a beguiling riverside city blending both medieval and modern attractions. Smaller towns and villages also offer cultural allure, from majestic Braga, the country's religious heart, to the seaside beauty Viana do Castelo.
Romantic PORTO looks like a pop-up town – a colorful tumbledown dream with medieval relics, bell towers, extravagant baroque churches, and stately beaux-arts buildings piled on top of one another, illuminated by streaming shafts of sun. If you squint you might be able to make out the open windows, the narrow lanes, and the staircases zigzagging to nowhere. It's a lively walkable city with chatter in the air and a tangible sense of history, the old-world riverfront district is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
RIO DOURO Portugal's best-known river flows through the country's rural heartland wherein the upper reaches, port-wine grapes are grown on steep terraced hills, punctuated by remote stone villages and, in spring, splashes of dazzling white almond blossom. The Rio Douro is navigable right across Portugal and the recommended way to see it is by taking the train journey from Porto to Pinhão (2½ hours, five daily), the last 70km clinging to the river's edge. Cyclists and drivers can choose river-hugging roads along either bank and can visit wineries along the way.
VIANA DO CASTELO is the undisputed jewel of the Costa Verde (Green Coast) and offers an appealing medieval center and lovely beaches just outside the city. The stately heart of town is Praça da República, with its delicate fountain and grandiose buildings, including the 16th-century Misericórdia, a former almshouse. In addition to its natural beauty, Viana do Castelo whips up some excellent seafood and hosts some magnificent traditional festivals, including the spectacular Festa de Nossa Senhora da Agonia in August.
BRAGA, Portugal's third-largest city, boasts a fine array of churches, with their splendid baroque facades looming above the old plazas and narrow lanes of the historic center. Lively cafes, trim little boutiques, and some good restaurants add to the appeal. Braga’s extraordinary cathedral, the oldest in Portugal, was begun when the archdiocese was restored in 1070 and completed in the following century. It’s a rambling complex made up of differing styles, and architecture buffs could spend half a day happily distinguishing the Romanesque bones from Manueline musculature and baroque frippery.
WHAT TO EAT IN PORTUGAL
Cod for all seasons - The Portuguese have dozens of ways to prepare bacalhau (dried salt cod). Try bacalhau a brás (grated cod fried with potatoes and eggs), bacalhau espiritual (cod soufflé) or bacalhau com natas (baked cod with cream and grated cheese).
Drink - Port and red wines from the Douro valley, alvarinho and vinho verde (crisp, semi-sparkling wine) from the Minho and great, little-known reds from the Alentejo and the Beiras (particularly the Dão region).
Field & Fowl - Porco preto (sweet 'black' pork), leitão (roast suckling pig), alheira (bread and meat sausage – formerly Kosher), cabrito assado (roast kid) and arroz de pato (duck risotto).
Pastries - The pastel de nata (custard tart) is legendary, especially in Belém. Other delicacies: travesseiros (almond and egg pastries) and queijadas (mini-cheese pastries).
Seafood - Char-grilled lulas (squid), polvo (octopus) or sardinhas (sardines). Other treats: cataplana (seafood and sausage cooked in a copper pot), caldeirada (hearty fish stew) and açorda de mariscos (bread stew with shrimp).
LGBTQ IN PORTUGAL
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights in Portugal improved substantially in the 2000s and 2010s and are now among the best in the world. Same-sex marriage in Portugal has been legal since 5 June 2010, making Portugal the sixth country in Europe and the eighth country in the world to allow same-sex marriage nationwide. The country has also recognised same-sex de facto unions since 2001.
After a long period of oppression, the country, while still influenced by Roman Catholicism, has progressively become more accepting of same-sex relationships. Lisbon and Porto have visible LGBT scenes, with several gay bars, nightclubs and other venues, as well as their annual pride parades.
WHERE TO STAY IN PORTUGAL
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