Portugal Guide – By Emma Higgins
There’s been a huge buzz about Portugal over the last decade and it’s easy to see why. Lively, colourful cities, a wildly underrated food scene, remarkably diverse landscapes, from golden cliffs to epic valleys, and warm, down-to-earth people make up the essence of the country. Flung far out on the far western edge of Europe, Portugal offers a lifetime of adventure, from the inviting sands of the southern Algarve and the soulful cities of Lisbon and Porto to its cast-adrift islands and often-deserted peaks that populate its northern border. That buzz isn’t disappearing anytime soon.
Language: Portuguese, with English spoken well through most parts of the Algarve, in major cities and tourist hotspots.
Getting To Portugal:
- Lisbon, Porto, and Faro are the three main international airports on the mainland, and from any of these you can reach the rest of the country within the space of a couple of hours.
- Madeira also has an airport with frequent flights, and Ponte Delgada serves and the main airport on the Azores, with many routes changing in Lisbon to reach it.
- There are also good rail links from Spain to Lisbon or Porto, and down to the Algarve, and driving into the country is hassle-free.
Getting Around Portugal:
- The roads in Portugal are relatively easy to navigate by car if you choose to self-drive, and this is one of the best ways to get around – many of the more rustic, off-beat parts of Portugal are still without good public transport links. If you don’t mind paying motorway tolls, the motorways are very quiet.
- Between major cities and towns, there is a good (and cheap) network of bus and rail links, and domestic flights between Lisbon, Porto, Faro, Madeira, and Ponte Delgada are frequent and cost-effective.
When To Go To Portugal?
- Hoards of travellers visit Portugal between June and September because of the good weather, but for cheaper prices and emptier beaches, shoulder season is ideal. Visit between April and early June, September and November for (mostly) blue skies and a more relaxed atmosphere.
- Avoid any school holiday periods if possible, especially in the Algarve as it’s where most families go. If you are travelling in peak summertime, the north – anything outside of Porto and above the Douro Valley – is a good idea as it’s little-visited by foreigners at any time of year.
Festivals/Events in Portugal:
- Much like neighbouring Spain, Easter week in Portugal is a big deal. Both Lisbon and Porto hold huge street parties during this time, specifically for Santo António in the former and St John’s Eve in the latter. Villages across the country also hold their own smaller festivals, seemingly as frequently as they feel – it’s not uncommon to stumble upon a sweet potato or sardine festival at random in the Algarve through summer.
- The big music festivals include NOS Primavera (Porto) and NOS Alive (Lisbon), and Sudoeste in Zambujeira do Mar, on the Alentejo’s coast.
Food & Drink in Portugal:
- You’ve likely heard of the pastéis de nata, or custard tarts made by the infamous bakery in Lisbon, or perhaps sardines being eaten in the Algarve, but there are foodie delights beyond these Portuguese classics.
- Try a cataplana in the Algarve, a seafood stew served in a giant flying saucer-shaped dish, suckling pig in Mealhada, or the other pork delights in Tras-os-Montes, where fumeiro – smokehouse traditions – run deeply through the local culture.
- Wash all that down with some vinho verde, a very light, slightly sparkling, white Portuguese wine, or if you’re brave enough try medronho, the tongue-burning firewater local to the farming communities of the northern Algarve.
Top 5 things to do in Portugal
- Strap on your hiking boots on Madeira
- Listen to fado in Lisbon
- Go whale watching in the Azores
- Get lost in the Alentejo
- Go Port tasting in Porto
For more information check out our Top 10 Things to do in Portugal.
Ultimate Luxury Experience:
- The Douro is by far one of the most decadent areas in Portugal, with a trail of outstanding vineyards, Michelin-star restaurants, and world-renowned hotels are strewn across the banks of the river from Porto to Pinhão.
- A private yacht cruise along the river, stopping at these elegant highlights to sample wine, unwind with spa treatments, and simply sit back and enjoy the scenery is by far one of the most luxurious experience you can have in the country.
- Accompanied by expert guides, these private charters stop at secret spots so you’re not part of the booming tourist crowds that frequent the region.
Ultimate Family Experience:
- A wide range of activities, child-friendly hotels, and your pick of dozens of beaches makes the Algarve a top destination for families in Portugal. The kids can spend hours running across the pristine sands, but the real treats for those unforgettable moments lie just offshore.
- Join a dolphin watching and cave exploration trip to discover the jaw-dropping rocky outcrops that line the coast, and further out it’s easy to spot groups of lovable, friendly dolphins leaping out of the sea.
- More adventurous families with older children can even kayak the coast for a more peaceful, private experience that’s sure to stick in the whole family’s memory forever.
What To Pack:
- Portugal is a relatively straightforward country with regards to clothing. It’s much the same as any other western European country in that anything goes; locals and travellers alike wander around in shorts and T-shirts in summer.
- Be a little more modest in churches and cathedrals, covering your shoulders and knees to be respectful.
- In the winter months between November and March it can get much cooler in Portugal so bring layers to keep you warm, especially up in the northern regions. The coastal areas, particularly those on the Atlantic, can get very windy so you’ll need a jumper or jacket for this too.
- Bring hiking boots for any kind of walking, plenty of suncream, and mosquitos can bother those who are particularly sensitive to them so repellent may come in handy.
- A round, two-pronged European plug is used.
Health & Safety in Portugal:
- Portugal is considered one of the safest places in Europe.
- In terms of petit crime such as theft, use a normal amount of common sense (don’t leave valuables lying around) but there’s little threat of pickpocketing here.
- The tap water is fine to drink throughout the country, and emergency health care is relatively straightforward to find if you need to see a doctor – UK citizens are covered with their EHIC cards, and standard travel insurance will cover most medical needs here.
Travel Tips for Portugal:
- Train travel in Portugal is very inexpensive. The five-hour train from Lagos to Lisbon, for example, can cost as little as 15 euros one way. Use www.cp.pt for tickets and special offers.
- You can get around Portugal without speaking any of the local language, but attempt a few snippets to please the locals and don’t assume it’s the same as Spanish. They’re two distinct languages, and the sounds in Portuguese vary from Spanish greatly.
- Many travellers just stick to Lisbon and Porto in Portugal, but there are many other cities that deserve overnight stays. Go out of your way to spend time in Évora, Coimbra, Aveiro, and Bragança.
- Imani Country House just outside Évora. A small, design-focused country home with exceptional cuisine amidst a sea of olive and orange trees.
- Rosa Et Al Townhouse in Porto is one of the city’s best hidden gems, ideally located for exploring and with a refined luxury. Take their cooking class, and brunch at least once.
- Sao Lourenco Do Barrocal an estate with its heart at the monte, an ancient small farming village, which has been in the same family for over 200 years, and has been brought carefully back to life as a remarkable luxury hotel surrounded by ancient holm oaks, olive groves and vineyards.
- Sublime Comporta luxurious beach property on the vast beaches of Comporta
- Vila Monte stylish converted farm estate with beautiful gardens and access to private beaches.
- For an authentic, spit-and-sawdust restaurant in the Algarve, visit Petiscos in Lagos. With only a dozen tables you might have to wait, but this is a fine example of every day, delicious Portuguese food.
- For a splash-out experience in Lisbon, eat at Leopold. The restaurant serves only a six-course tasting menu made of Portuguese produce paired with local wines. This is one for fine dining foodies.
You have to go to…
- The National Azulejo Museum in Lisbon, which gives you a picture of all those beautiful tile work that characterises so many of Portugal’s towns and cities.
Before you go…
- Watch Anthony Bourdain in Lisboa. The documentary mainly focuses on food, but it also gives you a good taste of the culture and daily life.
Our Other Current Guides…
Emma Higgins is a British writer who lived and travelled extensively in Portugal. Her book, A Year in Portugal, documents her highlights of this beautiful country and offers ample inspiration for anyone looking to get to know this corner of Europe better. Follow her on Instagram @GottaKeepMovin and Twitter @GottaKeepMovin