Rugged, scenic, and somewhat arid, Portugal’s slither of the westernmost corner of Europe is a curious cocktail of its past.
Portugal is a part of the Iberian Peninsula that was conquered by many, each leaving their own mark on rustic settlements perched on the hills of what was to become Portugal in the 12th century. Castles and palaces overlooking the coastline, Roman columns marking the centre and endless white cobbled streets characterise Portugal’s cities. However, it’s urban beauty will always fall to the Azulejo: decorative, hand-painted tiles that cover everything from ancient churches and Metro train lines.
Although very much a part of modern-day Portugal, these tiles paint the picture of the deep roots planted in the Roman and Moorish settlements that formed the country. Portugal travel doesn’t stop at the history and beauty of its urban spaces. This is just the beginning.
Far from the hustle of Lisbon, exploring the untouched natural beaches, quiet national parks, endless forests and breezy coastlines up and down the country creates a liberating and humble sense of peace. Rural towns are home to unrivalled surfing destinations and a simple way of life that urbanites could only dream of.
No travel guide to Portugal is complete without a confident nod towards its food. Fragrant port, Iberian ham, more cheeses than you can imagine and a long coastline that brings in the well-loved sardine make up just a small portion of Portugal’s feast of a food scene. Popping into little bakeries and making the most of the wealth of seafood on offer is a must when in Portugal!
The Best Time to Go to Portugal
The shoulder seasons on either side of the European summer is the perfect time for a Portugal tour. Between April and May or August and September, you’ll enjoy warm days and cool nights no matter where you go, and be free to explore without all the tourists that come during summer.
It’s important to remember that Portugal is a western coastal country, ‘the end of the world’ until the Americas were explored, which means that it can get very breezy when staying in towns and cities on the coast.
Best Places to Go in Portugal
Porto and the Douro Valley
Layer upon layer of pastel houses pile on top of each other to make up Porto, a city with quiet character on the Douro River. This unexpecting city sits in the shadow of the capital, Lisbon, yet the city and its people don’t seem to care; if anything they are proud of it.
Dilapidated houses with traditional Azulejos hand-painted tiles create a mesmerising backdrop to the quiet hum of Porto’s streets that give you a sense of a more traditional way of life. It will only take a day of exploring Porto for you to gain the bias of thinking this is the best city to visit in Portugal.
Unassuming bars with quaint themes, endless port wine cellars in the Gaia district, and tiles galore will make you fall in love with Porto. However, getting out of the city will give you a better sense of what is in it. Douro Valley tours from Porto follow the river to the vineyards that provide the produce for the port wine cellars.
Having been cultivated here since the 18th century, the Douro Valley is a network of terrace fields that cut into the landscape on either side of the river. It’s one of the oldest continuously cultivated vineyards in the world! No Porto day trip is complete without a lunch at the restaurant in the vineyard, which holds its own DOC accreditation.
Lisbon Tours and the Surrounds
Curious corners, a thriving art scene and lively nightlife paved by a pink street has made Lisboa, as it’s locally known, Europe’s next big thing.
Stumbling over seven steep hills, the city is a mountainous haven for the adventurous, where scenic viewpoints, spacious, shaded parks and bustling outdoor eateries attract hoards of visitors year after year. What’s more, the friendly locals will quickly sweep you away into the depths of the city, where art galleries, hipster music venues and endless events will fill your time – Lisbon is Portugal’s essential travel hotspot.
Outside of the rapid pace of the city, you don’t have to travel far to feel like you’re in the countryside. A must is a Sintra day trip from Lisbon to explore a sleepy traditional hillside town centred by grand palaces and a castle. While this beautiful fairytale experience attracts many visitors, you can reach quiet, beautiful natural beaches that entice off-the-beaten-path explorers by venturing just ten minutes out of the town.
Further afield, among Portugal tours from Lisbon, you’ll find dreamy coastlines dotted with yet more beaches and sun-bleached towns where seafood and chilled wine are waiting for you. In the summer months, you’ll find rustic towns like Sesimbra, Cascais and Carcavelo with a laid-back vibe bustling with local and travelling sun worshippers.
Faro and the Algarve
A cobbled city with a distinct history, Faro is the capital of the Algarve and the pride and joy of the south. Surrounded by medieval walls, from the old town to the harbourfront, Faro is an untouched local gem among the tourist towns that make up popular Portugal tour packages.
Faro has an edge to it that immerses you in the culture of Portugal, where a leisurely coffee and pastel de nata in one of the many plazas is essential. A city often missed in favour of the neighbouring resort towns with instant access to the beaches that the Algarve is known for – Faro has a culturally rich charm to it.
Day trips from Faro could take you to any of the 25 resort towns that make up the Algarve. Each has its own traction: whether it’s surfing in Sagres, natural beaches and stand-out Moorish history in Lagos or active nightlife and bustling beaches in Albufeira. No matter where you choose in this corner of Portugal, you’ll be guaranteed beautiful coastlines and an impressive selection of beaches to choose from.
Best Surfing Spots in Portugal
There are some beautiful places to visit in Portugal for surfing. Noted for having some of the best surfing in the world, Portugal attracts international professionals looking to challenge themselves on the Atlantic Coast waves. Nazare, sitting in the central region, is home to some of the biggest waves ever surfed.
Across the country, surf schools can be found in areas known for their smaller waves such as Sagres, Peniche and Costa de Caparica. Likewise, Nazare and Peniche’s Supertubos should only be attempted by very experienced surfers.
Those keen to learn or even to head out for a surf while staying in the city can opt for Lisbon day tours to Costa de Caparica, Ericeira or Cascais where there is board rental and the option to learn too.
Coimbra and Evora
Tap into Portugal’s history with Coimbra and Evora, two of the country’s most interesting cities.
Home to one of the oldest universities in the world, Coimbra takes you on a walk through Portugal’s past with nods to its time as a medieval capital, shown in its regal Moorish architecture and cobbled lanes.
In the midst of university terms, Coimbra’s ancient walls and faint sounds of Fado music are juxtaposed by students’ youthful energy. As you’ll see in this 18-day best of Spain and Portugal tour, it makes the perfect day trip from Porto – Coimbra has many stories to tell.
Nestled on a hillside in the scenic southern region of Alentejo, Evora will show you a different side to Portugal’s past with the same vibrant energy of being a university town. Centred by a Gothic cathedral, the medieval town is one of the few places in Portugal where you can see Roman architecture. Evora is known for exposing its history in its streets that range from whitewashed walls and wrought iron bars to Moorish arches and palaces that whisper tales of the town’s “golden era” when the king lived there.
Day tours from Lisbon can take you to Evora, where you’ll follow a ring road that takes you around what is considered by many to be a living museum of the many styles of Portuguese architecture which were then used in their colonies.
Sitting far from the northwest African coast, Madeira Island is an archipelago that promises to be one of the most unique holiday destinations in Portugal.
The main island of Funchal, one of just two of the inhabited islands, delivers on all fronts. From exploring markets and tasting the famous wine to scenic hikes in the endless greenery of the volcanic island, Madeira presents a unique blend of culture and nature that is not seen anywhere else in Portugal.
Known for its fresh spring-like temperatures year-round, Madeira’s climate is perfect for adventures. Explore the island, just like in this 6-day best of Madeira Island tour, with activities like tobogganing around Monte, exploring the volcanic pools of Porto Moniz and the beautiful traditional houses of Santana.
Fatima and Obidos
Two of central Portugal’s most-visited and fascinating historical sights are just an hour away from each other, Fatima and Obidos.
Home to one of the most important Catholic shrines in the world, Fatima is named after Our Lady Fatima, which is a basilica and pilgrimage site that attracts millions a year.
The town shot to fame in the Catholic world after three shepherd children witnessed a series of apparitions in 1917. The final apparition was reportedly witnessed by 60,000 people which resulted in the town’s sanctity. Today, the entire town is dedicated to the three shepherds and the apparition.
Whitewashed houses decorated with flowers are centred around a castle to make up the charming Obidos, one of the best tourist places in Portugal to experience medieval living in a rustic, beautiful setting and is only made better by its famed seafood!
Obidos is still protected by its fortification wall, which is what makes the town so intriguing. As you enter through the gates, you’ll feel like you have taken a step back in time as you get lost in its charming hilly lanes.
How to Get Around Portugal
Around the Country
Ideal for travellers of all budgets, the bus services in Portugal are fast, efficient, clean and comfortable. You’ll be able to use both local and tourist services to navigate the country with timetables for both available online; you can ask our Local Designers in Portugal to get this information for you. For tours of Portugal and Spain, bus services cross in the north and south of the country to the main cities from Porto to Lisbon several times a day.
Although the train service in Portugal is dated, the reliable service still means you can go anywhere. Much of Europe is very well-connected by train services. If you have the time, you can take the train to Lisbon from France!
Across the country, there is a mixture of premium and standard services despite very little price difference. For shorter distances to the suburbs, perfect for day trips from Lisbon or Porto, the trains are old and very basic with little seating.
Privater Driver or Rental Cars
Travelling long distances with heavy bags and personal belongings is stressful. For those looking to travel with ease, hiring a driver or a rental car takes the stress out of navigating all of the beautiful destinations in Portugal. With the freedom of being able to stop wherever you please and the ease of keeping your bags safe while you explore – it’s a simple luxury worth paying for.
In the Cities
When visiting the best areas in Portugal, you’ll find yourself in some of the earliest settlements in Europe, which were built long before cars! Walking is by far the easiest way to navigate the cities here, however, a little fitness is required. Both Lisbon and Porto were built on hills – the only flat roads are on the rivers resulting in most walks feeling like hikes.
The metro systems in Porto and Lisbon are the most reliable way of getting from A to B. The lines are easy to follow and names easy to distinguish. What’s more, when you are tired of walking, they will seem like a saviour! The trains run on most lines until the smaller hours of the morning, making it easy to get out and about to sample Portugal’s amazing food!
When travelling with any baggage in the cities, with primarily cobbled streets and constant hills, you are promised a struggle. Not to worry, an Uber is never too far away and comes at a very reasonable price.
Where to Stay in Portugal
This sprawling city is packed to the brim with charming areas that will immerse you in the Lisboa way of life. You’ll never feel too far away from lively outdoor cafes, cheap eats, stunning viewpoints or calming parks – it’s what the city is known for.
For first-timers, look no further than the Alfama. As the oldest part of the city, you’ll feel at the centre of Portuguese culture where Fado bars hide behind corners. To remain on the outskirts of the action, Martim Moniz is a trendy corner of the city where art and quaint shops flow through the streets. Beach lovers who are still looking to soak up the city nightlife at the same time will find themselves in Cais do Sodre, while high-end travellers will find solace in Avenida da Liberdade.
The charms of Porto are best experienced when you are right at the heart of it. Staying along the river puts you right at the heart of the city: areas like Vila Nova de Gaia (simply known as Gaia), Ribiera and Vitoria are where all of the attractions are based. However, thanks to the efficient Metro system, budget travellers will not feel like they are missing out by staying in Bonfim or Cedofeita.
There’s a total of 25 resort towns that line the southern coast of Portugal, making up the Algarve area. Ranging from surfing hot spots to calm seas, long stretches of white sands and wild beaches, there is something for everyone!
For those looking for a well-rounded experience of history, nightlife and beach, Lagos and Albufeira are the most sought-after destinations in southern Portugal with a host of accommodation options. For surfing, Sagres is where great waves and surfing communities thrive. For families, quieter towns such as Carvoeiro or Praia do Rocha have a little of everything to keep all members happy.
What to Eat in Portugal – An Introduction
Pastel de Nata
Flakey sweet pastry encases jelly-like custard with a fine, bubbled glaze – pastel de nata is a must when in Portugal! You can get it just about anywhere. Originally made in a small bakery in Belem, you can still visit the exact shop that it was invented in, Pasteis de Belem. You’ll have to be prepared to wait; tourists flock to this tiny bakery like moths to a flame.
Bacalhau [a Bras]
Bacalhau translates from Portuguese and Spanish to mean fish. While there are many different ways that fish can be prepared in Portuguese cuisine, Bacalhau a Bras stands out from the rest. Comfort food doesn’t get better than this!
Shredded and salted fish is mixed together with Portuguese style potatoes, onion, olives and scrambled eggs to make a tasty and wholesome meal. Salt-lovers will adore this dish!
No matter where you go in Portugal, sardines will never be too far away. The fish is a favourite among locals for its distinct flavour, freshness and affordability. Not to mention, Portugal is famed for having the best quality – especially when grilled and served with fresh bread.
The other option is sardines from a can, which is taken a lot more seriously than you would think. While exploring Lisbon or Porto, you’ll run into a shop or two filled from wall to wall with tinned sardines, all with different ages in brines, of course.
Bifanas and Francesinha
Portugal does pick-me-ups well. When exploring, you’ll find little unassuming bakeries everywhere you go. This is the best way to try Portuguese food as this is where locals dine, and where you’ll find bifanas, and in Porto, francesinha.
Bifanas are very simple, yet delicious pork in a roll with lashings of fatty sauce. Portugal is all about homestyle cooking and this is the best example! To bring it all together, the pork is typically roasted with garlic – heavenly!
In Porto, things are done a little differently. The Portuguese idea of a sausage meat sandwich is drenched in cheese and a sweet-sour style sauce to create the perfect breakfast-style messy food.
Portugal’s favourite fortified wine is one of many different textures and complex flavours that are best explored by spending some time in a port cellar!
Portugal is the home of port and Porto sits at the centre of its trade. Focused in the area of Vila Nova de Gaia, in the city’s cellars you can explore the many different flavours of port with a mix of well-known household names across Europe as well as some lesser-known yet distinct flavours.
There really is no limit to the cheese you can find in Portugal. Best of all, most travellers don’t know they are walking into a cheese haven! Portugal’s mountains are home to a shepherding culture that produces some of the finest cheese the country has to offer.
The must-trys are from Azeitao, Serra da Estrela -home of ‘the king of Portuguese cheese’- and Evora. You can find most of the popular options if you are based in Lisbon.
Famed in Lisbon and the Algarve, Ginginha is a cherry liquor shot that is often served chilled on the streets. Sweet and refreshing, Ginginha is only made better by the dark chocolate cup that it is served in. For the ultimate flavour explosion, it’s advised that you consume the whole thing at once. The Ginginha with the chocolate is a flavour combination you won’t forget.
Festivals in Portugal
Arguably the most popular festival in the world, Carnaval in Portugal brings the Brazilian and Portuguese styles of celebrating together for a big party!
Traditionally celebrated as a way of marking the beginning of Lent, Carnaval started in Portugal with big feasts that were hosted to consume all the meat from Good Friday to Shrove Tuesday. Today, it’s a big festival filled with parades, music and elaborate costumes, made famous by Brazil. For the best experience, being in Lisbon at this time will be a weekend to remember!
International Sand Sculpture Festival
A great festival for all the family, the International Sand Sculpture Festival takes place in the Algarve’s Pera.
Artists have no limitations on the size or content of their creations which line the beachfront of the town. Over the course of the weekend, workshops and contests are held while the masters use over 40,000 tonnes of sand to impress visitors – sculptures can reach up to 12 metres in height!
The Feast of Saint Anthony
Taking place in the heart of Lisbon’s Alfama, the Feast of Saint Anthony celebrates the humble sardine.
This fish-filled day commemorates the tale of a fish popping its head out the water to listen to Saint Anthony when others wouldn’t. The day is celebrated ironically with a mass grilling of sardines, colourful decorations and some interesting games that account for Saint Anthony being known as the saint of matchmaking.
Saint George’s Festival
Saint George’s festival, or Feira de Sao Joao, is a special day that has been celebrated in Porto for over 600 years. On the 23rd of June, the streets are decorated with colourful decorations and street parties erupt all over the city culminating in a fireworks display at midnight. Between the celebrations, you can expect to see people hitting each other with blow-up hammers and tossing garlic flowers at pretty girls.
Things to Know Before Portugal Travel
Visa: As part of Europe, most passport holders will be able to enter Portugal for up to 90 days. As always, it’s best to check your respective passport governmental regulations before travelling.
Language: In Portugal, the main language is Portuguese. You’ll hear two versions of the language, one sounds almost Eastern European while the other more flowing. The latter is Brazillian Portuguese.
Currency: The currency in Portugal is the Euro. At the time of writing, June 2021, 1 Euro is equal to 1.22 USD.
Hills: Portugal is a very hilly country with old narrow streets that are not the best for driving. Be prepared to hike with comfortable shoes.
Safety: The height of summer is also Portugal’s worst time for bushfires. The dry arid landscape that you see in the countryside, combined with sporadic wind is the perfect combination for a rapid spread of fires. Take care, and check the conditions before you head into the countryside.
Homelessness: There are many, many people sleeping on the streets of Lisbon. Slowly, efforts are being made to operate shelters for everyone. If you are from a country with little homelessness, this might shock you.
Water: Important note, the water on the westernmost coastline of Portugal is very, very cold. For warm water, you have to go to the Algarve.
Looking to Plan Your Portugal Travels?
There’s no denying it, Portugal is a country set to charm all manner of travellers!
To take the next step in planning your Portugal itinerary, browse our impressive range of fully customisable trips to Portugal to see what’s possible. Once you find something you like, you can start chatting with our Local Designers in Portugal to make the edits necessary to craft your dream trip!
For those looking for a little more, click on ‘design your own trip’ and answer some simple questions regarding your travel needs, budget, and style and our Local Designers will get to work.
Untouched natural vistas and cities drenched in history are waiting!