Portugal is an enticing mix of diverse history and modern luxuries. From medieval castles to championship golf courses, Portugal continues to lure in visitors. One of the warmest and oldest countries in Europe, it’s no surprise that Portugal is an elite global destination that is only growing in popularity. Use this insider guide to Portugal to help plan your trip to this fascinating country.
Located on the Iberian Peninsula, Portugal is the westernmost country in continental Europe. It is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the south and west and by Spain to the north and east. It has a total land area of approximately 35,600 square miles, including the offshore archipelagos of Madeira and the Azores. The border between Portugal and Spain is the longest continuous border in the European Union.
Portugal is one of the warmest countries in Europe. In the mountainous interior regions, the average annual temperature ranges from between 46 to 54 degrees Fahrenheit. In the south, the average annual temperature fluctuates between 61 to 64 degrees Fahrenheit. The Algarve is generally even warmer. December through March is considered the low season and is generally wetter than other months. High season runs through July and August. May, June, and September are considered in-between months and present perfect opportunities to take advantage of cheaper rates, while still enjoying warm weather and outdoor activities.
Packing for a trip to Portugal largely depends on your itinerary. Pack comfortable shoes for roaming around the hilly, cobblestone streets of Lisbon and other historic cities. Additionally, pack light layers for cooler evenings and rain gear for the winter months. Of course, don’t forget a swimsuit and sunscreen for the incredible beaches.
The official language in Portugal is Portuguese. The Portuguese and Spanish languages are extremely similar, and fluent speakers of each language are able to successfully communicate with each other.
Portuguese people also have a comparatively high understanding of English – more so than native Spanish and Italian speakers. English is widely spoken by locals who work in the tourism industry in any capacity, and signs in transit hubs are often posted in both Portuguese and English. As always, it’s still polite to learn a few key Portuguese phrases before embarking on your trip.
The official currency in Portugal is the euro, and exchanging currency is not difficult. There are plenty of Bureaus for currency exchange around the country, but no matter what is overtly advertised, there will always be a fee. ATMs generally offer the best exchange rates. While there may be a small withdrawal charge, this can be avoided by using an ATM that has a partnership with your own bank. Credit cards are also widely accepted.
At restaurants, a tip of between 5 to 10 percent of the total bill is standard, but only if service is satisfactory and a service fee isn’t already included. At hotels, tip bellmen one euro for each bag handled, and tip housekeeping a euro or two for each day of your stay. Tipping taxi drivers is neither required or expected.
Portuguese culture has been influenced by the Catholic Church throughout history. The people tend to be fairly conservative, and they stick to their values. Family is extremely important, and long-standing traditions have barely changed over the centuries, especially in rural areas. Family always comes before business.
In social settings, it is appropriate to shake hands with people you are meeting for the first time. Another handshake is expected upon departure. Male acquaintances hug, while female acquaintances kiss on both cheeks, starting with the right. Portuguese people tend to use minimal body language, and they dress conservatively. Pointing a finger is considered rude.
The cuisine in Portugal has Mediterranean influences. The seafood selection is renowned, and the use of spices is prevalent. Olive oil and garlic almost always serve as bases. Beef and pork are the most common meats, but the country has the highest per-capita fish consumption in all of Europe.
The Portuguese enjoy a meal structure similar to the United States. Breakfast consists of coffee or tea, served with bread and cheese, meat, butter or jam. Lunch is served sometime between noon and 3 p.m. and can last for over an hour. Dinner is generally served at or after 8 p.m. Both lunch and dinner generally include three courses, including a soup, seafood or meat, and dessert.
The threat of violent crimes against tourists in Portugal is low. However, non-violent crimes against tourists, such as pick-pocketing and other petty theft, do occur. As always, be aware of your surroundings and only use official, well-lit ATMs. Drug vending does occur in popular tourists spots, especially around bars at night.
Like the name implies, this region is located in northern Portugal. Porto is the most important city in the region and the second-largest city in Portugal. Porto is also one of the oldest European centers and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. The picturesque city is continuously growing in popularity with tourists and won an award for being the top European destination in 2017.
Visit the Porto Cathedral, one of the oldest structures in the city, and wander around the remaining ruins of the original city walls. Of course, a trip to Porto wouldn’t be complete without enjoying local port wine – the city’s biggest export.
The center of Portugal is a beautiful region of fascinating contrasts. The Atlantic coastline boasts the beaches of Mira and Figueira da Foz, while the interior hosts the imposing peaks of the Serra da Estrela. The unique landscape, with multiple streams and rivers, has given rise to relaxing spa towns, while many inland villages are shadowed by ancient stone fortresses. For adventure travelers, the aforementioned Serra da Estrela is a popular skiing destination.
Lisbon is the oldest city in Western Europe and one of the oldest in the world. Because of its vast and impressive history, the capital city is home to an awe-inspiring collection of various architectural styles. From Gothic to Baroque to Modern, a stroll through the scenic streets of Lisbon is akin to a walk through history. While there are many to choose from, one of the most famous and most visited monuments is the Belem Tower. If the history of the city isn’t enough to encourage a visit, Lisbon also has one of the warmest winters out of all major cities on the European continent.
Located in southern Portugal, just north of the Algarve and south of the Tagus River, Alentejo is largely an agricultural region of gently rolling hills and vast plains. Alentejo hosts the Parque Natural da Serra de São Mamede. This natural preserve is comprised of medieval villages and over 800 different species of plants. The Iberian wolf and lynx also call the park home.
The Algarve is the southernmost region in mainland Portugal and one of the most popular regions to visit. It is known for its mild climate and picturesque beaches, such as Marinha. For golf enthusiasts, the Algarve is widely regarded for its multitude of acclaimed golf courses. Impressively, there are more than 25 top-class courses in the area. For those needing a break from the fairways, Caldas de Monchique is a beautiful spa town. From quaint hotels to luxurious resorts, the Algarve appeals to all types of travelers.
The Portuguese islands are made up of two separate archipelagos located in the Atlantic Ocean. Madeira is located southwest of Portugal, while the Azores are located to the northwest. Madeira consists of three islands and a separate archipelago. The island of Porto Santo is entirely devoted to tourism and features a breathtaking 5.6-mile-long beach. Madeira is also well-known for whale watching and Madeira wine.
Nine volcanic islands make up the Azores. The islands are home to turquoise lakes, craters, mountains, beaches, cliffs and churches dating back to the 1400s. Iconic Mount Pico is the highest mountain in Portugal and one of the highest in the Atlantic Ocean. Unsurprisingly, the islands are also popular SCUBA diving locations.
Portugal is a mesmerizing country full of incomparable beauty and plentiful activities. Whether an elite golfer, a beach enthusiast or a history buff, Portugal offers plenty of inspiration for tourists. The seemingly endless instagram-worthy vistas are a photographer’s dream, while the cobblestone streets make an idyllic setting for a glass of port wine or cup of coffee. Use this insider guide to Portugal to familiarize yourself with Portuguese traditions and regions, before embarking on the journey of a lifetime.