Travel Tips for Portugal: 20 Things That Surprised Me

Travel Tips for Portugal: 20 Things that Surprised Me | The Atlas Heart

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Travel tips for Portugal so you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into. Here are 20 things that surprised me about Portugal!

It’s baffling to me how much of an underrated destination Portugal still is. I only heard countless good things from other travelers before I finally saw it myself, but it still has far less visitors per year than nearby countries, such as Spain, France, and Italy. 

Perhaps that’s where its charm lies, however – it’s not overrun by tourism. Although, it’s now starting to get there, with tourists taking over in the summer and swarming to spots like the Algarve, Lisbon, and Porto in recent years. 

Because Portugal isn’t at the top of everyone’s list when they visit Europe, I had a narrow view of what to expect from a few select perspectives, all of which said pretty much the same thing: Portugal is the best country in Europe, you’ll never want to leave, etc. 

I will be honest and say that even after living in Portugal for two months, it’s not my favorite country in Europe, even if I thoroughly enjoyed my time immersing myself in Portuguese culture. 

Portugal guide | The Algarve
There’s a lot to love about Portugal, even if it isn’t my favorite country in Europe.
Tips for Portugal - eat a lot of chorizo and drink a lot of wine
Especially the chorizo and the wine…lots of wine.

There was a point when I was thinking that Portugal might end up being my new permanent base, there’s a huge expat community in Lisbon, after all. But, I realized within only a couple weeks of living there that it wasn’t the perfect fit for me, and not a place that I would want to stay longterm. 

That’s not to say that Portugal isn’t an attractive country to visit, there’s a lot to love about its natural beauty, the people, and its understated culture. With that said, there were a few things that really surprised me about the country – both good and bad – once I arrived I saw it for myself. 

These are the top things that took me by surprise, and the Portugal travel tips that you should know before you go if you’re planning a trip to Portugal anytime soon.

How hard the Portuguese language is 

Portuguese – it’s basically Spanish and Italian mixed together. At least that’s what I heard from multiple people before my arrival. 

WRONG. 

Portuguese is probably the hardest language I’ve tackled yet, although maybe that’s not saying much since my first two foreign languages were Spanish and French (i.e. easy peasy). 

I signed up for a 5-week intensive Portuguese language course within my first week in Lisbon to try and tackle the unfamiliar pronunciations. I basically managed to learn enough to order food and drinks at a restaurant and say the most common small talk pleasantries, but not much more than that. 

Portugal travel tips | Portuguese Language at Lusa Language School in Lisbon
My excitement over finishing 5 weeks of Portuguese language classes.

I recognized quite a few words from Spanish, so I could understand a fair amount when I read Portuguese. But, even if the word was spelled the same as it is in Spanish, it was pronounced completely different in Portuguese. 

They’re fond of their ‘shh’ sounds when there are vowels involved, and it took me longer than it probably should’ve to get the hang of that rule. 

For example – the question ‘como estas?’ (meaning ‘how are you?’) in Spanish is pronounced exactly as it looks (koh-moh-eh-stahs). In Portuguese, they add a little flair and pronounce it koh-moh-eh-stashh. 

Apparently, European Portuguese is much harder to understand than Brazilian Portuguese as well. Perfect. 

The cadences of European Portuguese reminded me a lot of Russian for some reason. I literally did double takes while I was walking around my first couple of weeks in Portugal, because it sounded like locals were speaking Spanish with a lisp and a Russian accent. 

That in a nutshell, is Portuguese. 

Even though the Portuguese language is a difficult one, it’s still important to learn at least the basics of the language and/or sayings before you visit. Locals will appreciate it, even if you only speak a few words. 

Their love of pastries 

I already knew about the Portuguese egg tart (called Pastel de nata in Portugal), because they’re popular in Hong Kong and Macau, but I had no idea the depth of their love for flaky pastry in Portugal until I arrived. 

Now, Portuguese pastry is very different from, say, French pastry, so don’t go to the country expecting that perfect buttery flakiness that the French have perfected for centuries, but Portuguese pastries offer their own unique tastiness. 

In general, I found them to be less sweet and more hearty than their French counterpart. 

Pastries first became hyper popular in Portugal in the 15th century when the country dominated the spice trade and sugar industry from its global pursuits. Portuguese nuns started regularly making sweets at convents because they had a lot of time on their hands and plenty of ingredients.

And thus, the pastry boom began. 

Portugal guide | Portuguese Pastries, Porto
Pastel de nata – the most popular pastry in Portugal.

The most famous pastry is the Pastel de nata, so that will be a definite must-try while you’re in the country – especially from Pastéis de Belém (in Lisbon) or Manteigaria Bakery (in Porto or Lisbon – and my personal favorite).

Other local favorite pastries are: 

Ovos moles – creamy custard and sugar encased in wafer, originally from Aveiro.

Pão de Deus – bread rolls covered with sugar, coconut, and doce de ovos. 

Pastéis de feijão – tarts filled with white bean paste and covered in icing sugar. 

Jesuita – puff pastry, usually covered in a brown sugar glaze and in the shape of a Jesuit cloak. 

Bolo Xadrez – checkered cake covered in chocolate ganche. Yum! 

How damn beautiful it is

This is probably one of the more obvious conclusions I came to about the country, every Portugal guide talks about the stunning landscape to be found in Portugal, after all.

Perhaps I was so drawn to the beauty of Portugal because its coastline is so reminiscent of the California coast, but I love how equally rugged and rocky yet serene and beautiful the coast is in Portugal.

And it’s not just the coastline, or the famous golden limestone cliffs of the Algarve that makes Portugal’s beauty special, the inland national parks and various miradouros (lookout spots that can be found in all major cities in Portugal) hold their own too. 

Planning a trip to Portugal | It's Damn Beautiful
Looking out over Porto on a sunny day. It’s already common knowledge, but Portugal is damn beautiful.

For being a relatively small country, Portugal’s varied landscape constantly surprised me. I traveled from the far north to the bottom of the country, and every place I went had its own charm and attractive nature to explore. 

Whether you prefer the coast, the mountains, or rolling wine regions, Portugal has a little something for every type of traveler. 

How inexpensive everything is 

This was both a good and bad thing about Portugal – how inexpensive it was. On one hand, it was great as an outsider coming in and enjoying the low prices for rent, groceries, eating out, and drinking. 

But if you dig a little deeper you’ll realize that the prices are so low because the economy is still pretty bad in Portugal, especially for locals. 

I was talking to an Uber driver one day who had lived in Lisbon for over a decade. He said that the average monthly income for Portuguese people is €500-€600, and that number has stayed fairly stagnant for the last decade. 

Travel tips for Portugal | It's very inexpensive
Homemade gelato for €1.50. Yes, please. But, it comes at a socioeconomic cost.

He also said that the low income compared to the relatively higher cost of living has a lot to do with the corruption that still exists higher up in the government. 

Most Portuguese don’t have the luxury of living by themselves because average income is around €600 per month, but rent alone for your own place can be that much or higher. 

This is why a lot of locals live at home until they’re married, or always have to live in share houses with friends, because salaries simply aren’t high enough for independent living. 

So, yes, Portugal is an inexpensive country to travel around (I found it even cheaper than Greece), which is great for tourists but it comes at a cost. 

Relatively recent dictatorship

I somehow completely missed this part of Portuguese history in my history classes in school – actually, that’s not at all surprising with the US schooling system when it comes to learning about other countries’ histories – but I had no idea that Portugal went through a relatively recent dictatorship (and a very long-lasting one at that). 

I bring this up in terms of travel tips for Portugal because I believe Portugal’s dictatorship has shaped the culture and psyche of the Portuguese in various ways, as I’m sure all dictatorships have a way of doing.

It’s just another way to understand why the Portuguese are known as such reserved and practical people. 

Portugal Information | Recent Dictatorship | Portuguese Centre of Photography
The Portuguese Centre of Photography was a prison during Salazar’s ‘New State’ dictatorship. Now its a free photography museum in Porto.

After centuries of an increasingly unpopular monarchy, unstable Portugal had a military coup in 1926. A right-wing military dictatorship, led by António Óscar de Fragoso Carmona, took over the government.

Although Carmona was elected president and continued to be reelected every seven years until his death in 1951, he handed over power pretty quickly to António de Oliveira Salazar, first as financial minister, but by 1932 as prime minster who had full control ruling over the Portuguese. 

Salazar became an authoritarian leader who instated Estado Novo (New State), using tactics seen in other dictatorships, such as censoring the media, silencing dissenters, and putting together a brutal secret police force and large army. He ruled with a mix of ideals from Fascism and the Catholic church. 

In total, the dictatorship lasted for almost five decades – from 1926 to 1974 – with four of those decades under Salazar’s controlling Estado Novo.

It’s considered to be the longest dictatorship in Europe, and surprisingly, not many people seem to know about it outside of Portugal. Me included, before I lived there. 

How slow people move 

I noticed this as soon as I arrived in Lisbon. After staying in London for a couple of weeks, and before that, spending a decent chunk of the year in San Francisco, I’m used to moving at a certain speed, especially in cities. 

This is just not how it works in Portugal. People move at snail pace, even in the main cities in Portugal. I was baffled every time I walked to a new cafe and got stuck behind another group of slow walkers. And, I’m talking slowwwww. 

Portugal travel blog | People Walk Slow | Lisbon
I’m not kidding when I say people walk really slow in Portugal.

The slow pace of life in Portugal almost felt like the culture was on island time, without, you know, being an island. 

If you go to Portugal, just be prepared for the slow walkers and lean into the general slower pace of life. From my two months of living there, I was reminded of how good it can be to slow down sometimes.

Elderly population 

Perhaps this is correlated with the slow pace in Portugal (okay, it most definitely is), but there is a huge elderly population in the country. 

I was surprised to arrive in Lisbon and find that most of the people I saw on the street were past 50. It isn’t exactly a young city, which I guess I was expecting because it has become such a popular place in recent years for digital nomads. 

This probably has something to do with the incredibly low birth rate in Portugal (the second lowest in Europe after Italy), and the fact that many young Portuguese choose to leave the country for better job opportunities around Europe or North America and don’t end up returning. 

Portugal highlights | Elderly Population | Sao Bento Train Station, Porto
I was surprised by how much of the population in Portugal is elderly.

This trend has already been recognized by the government, which has made it easier than ever for outsiders to move to Portugal, especially if you own your own business. 

They’re now even offering Portuguese passports to people who can prove they have a high threshold of income or provide a certain number of jobs to locals. There’s no doubt that Portugal is actively looking for younger generations to move to the country. 

Persistent drug dealers 

I was surprised to find how many drug dealers there were in Lisbon pedaling drugs on any given day of the week – either around Pink Street or Bairro Alto. 

I’m guessing this is due to the fact that Lisbon has become such a weekend party place in Europe in recent years, but I would get propositioned every time I walked to class by aggressive dealers who would ask multiple times if I wanted coke, hash, you name it – sometimes following me for multiple blocks until eventually giving up. 

Drug dealers around Pink Street in Lisbon, | Cities to visit in Portugal
There are a lot of drug dealers around Pink Street – one of the most popular places to go out in Lisbon.

I’ve come across this abroad before, most notably in the Tsim Sha Tsui neighborhood of Hong Kong and Khao San Road in Bangkok, but usually the dealers are a bit more selective with who they’re offering drugs to, and, you know, more discreet. 

It was an annoyance more than anything to get stopped multiple times on an otherwise lovely walk by these young dealers. It’s something to expect if you’re visiting Lisbon, especially in the summer. 

Also, not that I ever recommend taking drugs in foreign countries, but if you are tempted to buy something from these guys, just know that most of the drugs they sell are either fake or very weak. It’s common knowledge that when they offer you ‘coke’ it’s usually laundry detergent. 

How unimpressed I was with the food 

This will probably be an unpopular opinion, but I’m always real with you guys, and I have to admit that I was really not impressed with Portuguese food, like, at all. 

Besides a few key dishes, Portuguese food is pretty bland and unimaginative. Most standard dishes consist of some combination of meat, potatoes, and rice. That’s it. 

I found it interesting that they put potatoes with literally every dish in some way, whether that’s french fries or roasted potatoes, and there was a sincere lack of vegetables (besides potatoes of course) in most dishes. 

Tipping in Portugal at restaurants? Only sometimes, and even then it's only 5-10%.
Sorry Portugal – your food isn’t overly inspiring.

I’m usually a fan of seafood, but I wasn’t a huge fan of the salty and strong Balcalhau (a signature codfish dish in Portugal). Most of the other traditional dishes I tried were fine, but they didn’t have much personality or unique flavors to them. 

With that said, there were a few dishes that I loved in Portugal, including: 

  • Most anything that involved pico pao sauce.
  • The heart attack-inducing Francesinha that’s popular in Porto.
  • Chorizo. Just give me a whole chorizo roasted on a spit and I’m happy. 
  • Fresh seafood – Besides Balcalhau, the seafood was really good in Portugal because it was super fresh. I especially loved the prawn and octopus dishes I tried.

Lack of tourist infrastructure

This was one of those aspects about Portugal that I wasn’t expecting – its lack of tourist infrastructure.

Perhaps this is due to the fact that it’s still an underrated destination as I mentioned above, but the more time I spent in Portugal, the more I realized how hard it is to live in the country as an outsider. 

One of the things I love so much about Europe is how easy it is to travel around, how organized public transit is in general, and the amount of signage in both English and the local language. 

In Portugal, this isn’t the case – even in the major cities in Portugal, such as Lisbon. 

Lack of tourist infrastructure in major cities in Portugal, frustrating to say the least
The lack of tourist infrastructure, especially at train and bus stations was a headache at times.
Major cities in Portugal | Lisbon Metro Machines, lack of tourist infrastructure
Many of the metro ticket machines in Lisbon don’t accept international credit cards (even though they claim they do).

I was constantly baffled by how difficult Portugal makes things for foreigners. It reminded me of India in a lot of ways, in terms of the red tape around everything, how there is rarely a direct way to go about things. You often have to do things in 3-4 steps instead of one direct streamlined way. 

I haven’t come across this in other parts of Europe and it took some getting used to.

An example of this is the fact that 50% of the places I went, even in Lisbon and Porto, only accepted Portuguese credit cards. 

I’ve never been to a country that refused to accept international Visa or Mastercard (if it’s a place that accepts card), but this is how it works in Portugal. 

Even at train stations, bus stations, and nice restaurants, vendors would often refuse to accept anything but a Portuguese card (something that no foreigner is going to have). 

This meant that I always had to have cash on hand just in case they didn’t accept my Visa or Mastercard. There were a few times that I had to run to an ATM down the street, because these places never advertise that they only accept local cards, they just expect that you should know. 

Another aspect that baffled me was the lack of signage and clear directions at train and bus stations. There were multiple times that my housemates and I frantically ran around to different info booths, or bus drivers at stations, to figure out where our bus/train was meant to leave from.  

Lack of Tourist infrastructure was one of those disappointing things to see in Portugal
Our favorite restaurant in Lisbon that actually accepted international credit cards – By the Wine. Yay!

We had to start including this into our travel time, because it was very rarely clear where we should go for which bus. 

And, it wasn’t unusual for buses to leave from a stop with a half-full bus and people still waiting to get on, because the driver decided it was taking too long for people to move into the bus and didn’t want to be behind schedule. 

This was something that made me cringe having grown up with a dad who worked in local transit, and who would abhor that type of impatient behavior from drivers who left riders at a stop. 

I know, I know, Portugal is a different culture and I shouldn’t compare it to my own, but, really, it only takes an few extra minutes to make sure everyone is onboard and on their way to where they need to go.

There were numerous other cases of a lack of organized infrastructure in Portugal, but, in general, this was one of the most surprising aspects about the country. 

As a side note, I would also recommend never sending anything home with the Portuguese postal service. 

I tried to send two packages home during my time there. One never made it to its destination and the other one someone stole 75% of what was in my package. 

This is something that has never happened to me before, even with having sent multiple packages home from an assortment of countries over the years. So, yeah, I wouldn’t recommend ever sending anything home from Portugal. 

The street parties 

One part of Portuguese culture that I really love is that locals are always down for a good street party. 

I’m not sure if this comes from Brazilian culture, because I know Brazilians are also fond of a good party in the streets, but Portugal knows how to liven up a street. 

I went to a few local street parties, and sometimes simply stumbled across them when I was walking around Lisbon’s cobblestone streets, but each one was a hoot. 

What is Portugal famous for - Street Parties!
Random street party in Intendente that I went to with my language school.

There would be stands selling caipirinhas, SuperBock beers, and bifanas, and live music with huge crowds of people dancing and having a good time. 

The music was always fantastic, the people fun and welcoming, and the drinks flowing freely. I’m sad this isn’t a bigger thing in the US because street parties are the shit. 

Make sure to try and experience one for yourself, especially if you happen to be in Lisbon during the spring or summer. Generally there’s some sort of street party happening every weekend during the warmer seasons. 

How reserved people are 

I had countless people tell me how friendly the Portuguese are, so I was surprised when I arrived in Lisbon and found overly reserved locals. 

The Portuguese are lovely people, but it usually takes more than just a hello to break down their walls. I actually found it harder to connect to Portuguese people than to French people when I’m in France, which, if you know Francophone culture at all, is saying something. 

I especially found this to be the case in terms of service. I get that American culture is very different from any other place in the world when it comes to the service industry and waitresses/bartenders/etc acting like your new best friend. 

What is Portugal known for - How Reserved the Portuguese People Are
One of the few times we experienced a non-reserved side of Portugal – going out in Porto and meeting the city’s warm locals.

But the service in Portugal is extreme on the other end of the spectrum. Sometimes we would have super polite servers, but they would rarely joke around with us or bring down that server-customer wall. 

Or, we would get outright rude servers who acted constantly exasperated, like they didn’t have time to deal with us, but who would gradually open up and be friendly and more welcoming by the end of the meal. 

In general, I found it difficult to get an initial feeling of warmth from the Portuguese. It took longer than expected to get to know people and have them open up to you. 

How safe it is

Is Portugal safe? Hell yes. Even with the persistent drug dealers in Lisbon, I never once felt unsafe during my two months living in Portugal. 

In fact, Portugal is considered one of the safest countries in Europe, and it’s currently ranked as the 13th safest country in the world. It’s also ranked as the 3rd safest country in the world in terms of terrorist attacks, after New Zealand and Iceland.

Is Portugal safe? Yes! | Porto
Is Portugal safe? I felt perfectly safe and happy walking alone around every city I went to in Portugal, even at night.

In general, the crime rate is extremely low throughout the country, and if you do find yourself a victim of a crime (unlikely), it will usually be in a select few sketchy areas of Lisbon and Porto, and at worst you’ll be mugged or pickpocketed. 

I loved this aspect about Portugal because I felt comfortable and safe walking around cities by myself, even at night. This is something that’s really important to me as a woman who generally travels by herself. 

Bluntness of locals 

As someone who comes from a culture that is overly offended about everything and always tries to be politically correct, I sometimes have to take a step back and remind myself to not take things personally. 

In Portugal, similar to the reserved nature of its people, I was also surprised by how blunt the Portuguese are. 

There is not much of a filter when it comes to saying exactly what you think, which I ended up finding endearing (who doesn’t love honesty?), but it also took some getting used to. 

One hilarious example of this was my first day of Portuguese lessons. We were going around introducing ourselves in Portuguese, everything was going smoothly, and I was the last one to go. 

“Chamo-me Mimi”, I started with, about to go into my full bio with my limited Portuguese. 

“Chamo-te Mimi?!??”, my teacher interrupted, with an incredulous look on her face. 

“Sim…?”, I said, unsure if I had made some Portuguese faux pas already. 

Portugal travel tips | Bluntness of Locals | Lisbon
The locals in Portugal can be super blunt, but hey, at least they’re honest?

My teacher switched to English and started cracking up. She’d never met someone named Mimi before, and said what a strange name it was to call me. Emphasis on the strange. 

Another time I was out with a group of my housemate’s Portuguese friends from her MBA, and one of them asked me what I did for work and how long I was in Portugal for. 

I said I was a travel writer and ran my own digital marketing business, and that I was just in Portugal for the summer before setting down roots in California in the fall. 

“Oh, nice. And what kind of real job will you get once you’re back?”, my new friend asked me. 

I had to pause to realize that she was referencing my remote work and probably didn’t think of it as a ‘real’ career. She didn’t say it in an aggressive or mean way. It was simply curiosity about what my real job would be, thinking that I didn’t already have one.  

The old men can be creepy AF

One really disappointing part of living in Portugal was the fact that the #MeToo movement apparently never made it to the culture, at least in terms of the older generation. 

I had too many instances of dealing with creepy old men to rule it out as one or two random experiences. There’s a definite sense of entitlement by the older male generation that the female body is theirs to appreciate and fondle if the mood strikes. 

I was groped twice in crowded areas by men that were 60+ within just my first week in Portugal. 

One gross old man in particular groped me 3 separate times. The first time he touched me, I put it off as it just being a crowded area, but then I moved a couple of inches to my right and he followed right behind me and put his hand on my butt again.  

Portugal Information | Creepy AF Old Men | Pena Palace, Sintra
The place where a creepy AF old man caressed my friend’s hair when she wasn’t looking. Yuck.

A few minutes later he actually started caressing my butt. I turned around and just stared at him with an angry and disbelieving look on my face for a good minute. He didn’t make eye contact but kept pretending to watch the event, and finally walked off once he realized I wasn’t going to stop staring at him until he did. 

And it wasn’t just the groping, unfortunately. 

My housemates and I went to Sintra for a day and one very elderly man came up to start talking to our group of 2o to 30-something year-olds. When my friend turned around to look at the view, the old man put his hand through her hair and smelled it.

I almost gagged right there.

Anytime I walked around Portugal, 99% of the disgusting up-and-down looks I got from men were from those in the elderly generation. 

I was perpetually grossed out by older Portuguese men throughout my time in the country. I would even go so far as to say they are creepier than any other older males I’ve come across in any other country (including Italy). 

How the Algarve wasn’t my favorite place 

Everyone and their mom raves about the Algarve. It has become one of the most popular Portugal highlights to see in recent years. It’s all over the ‘gram inspiring people to travel to the region asap before it gets even more touristy. 

The Algarve was stunning and it’s definitely one of those ‘things to see in Portugal’, with its golden limestone cliffs and breathtaking views, but it actually wasn’t my favorite part of Portugal. I was much more endeared to the north of the country and its more local feel. 

This surprised me because I’m always the first to fall in love with coastal regions and rank them as my #1 favorite area in a new place. And with how many people recommended the Algarve to me, I thought it was a sure bet that it would be my favorite place in Portugal. 

The Algarve | Things to see in Portugal
The Algarve is crazy beautiful, but it actually wasn’t my favorite part of the country.

Although I loved the natural beauty of the Algarve, I also found it a bit overrun with drunk 18 year-old Australians and Brits, especially in Lagos. 

It reminded me of how I once built up Bali, and when I finally visited it I didn’t like it all that much because of the same thing – a lot of drunk young tourists that just go there to party but don’t really get to know the culture or appreciate the scenery much. 

I would recommend the Algarve to anyone who is visiting Portugal because it’s a special place full of lovely coastal walks and views, but the north of Portugal is really the place that took my heart. 

The multiculturalism

This is a bold statement, but, throughout all my travels, I’ve never been in as multicultural of a country as Portugal. 

On my daily commute to a new cafe or my language classes in Lisbon, I would hear countless languages being spoken on the metro. You can find people from all different backgrounds in equal measure. It was hard to pick out a minority because everyone seemed to be so equally represented.

I loved this about Lisbon and Portugal as a whole. 

Multiculturalism in Lisbon | Portugal travel blog
I love how there are people from all walks of life who live in Portugal, especially in Lisbon.

Influence of Brazil

I also noticed how much Brazilian influence there is in Portugal. I found this especially interesting because it’s usually the other way around when it comes to colonization – those who are colonized are forced to adapt to the culture of the colonizers. 

Now, I haven’t been to Brazil yet, so maybe there is a lot of Portuguese influence in Brazil as well. But, I was amazed at how many Brazilian-influenced things there were in Portugal. 

Brazilian Influence | What is Portugal famous for
There’s a ton of Brazilian influence in Portugal, like the Brazilian boat party we accidentally found ourselves on before having dinner at sunset in Almada. There’s also a Christ the Redeemer replica right next to this bridge.

I also found this interesting because it’s not overly easy for Brazilians to move here like I thought it might be with the long Portuguese-Brazilian history. 

I was told by locals that Brazilians have to jump through as many hoops, if not more, as most other non-Europeans who try to move to Portugal. Unless of course you’re young and own your own business, because they’re looking for those types of people. 

In general, I loved the general multicultural feel and Brazilian influence in Portugal. There are people from every corner of the world that live there and make it home. 

Portugal is one of the oldest countries in Europe 

One thing I didn’t realize before I arrived in Portugal is how old of a civilization it is. Portugal is one of the oldest countries in Europe, having defined borders (that still exist today) since 1249. 

what is Portugal known for? It's one of the oldest civilizations in Europe
Spending the afternoon in a 13th century cathedral in Evora. Portugal be old.

If you can believe it, Lisbon is about 4 centuries older than Rome! It’s second only to Athens in terms of its age. Many historians believe that the Phoenicians first settled in the city around 1200 BC.

This was great as someone who’s an avid history buff and loves exploring old cultures. 

The Wine!

Okay, this is probably a given to most of you – Portugal has great wine! This is the land where Port comes from, after all. Portugal also makes up half of the world’s cork production. 

I guess I just didn’t realize how many developed wine regions and styles there are in Portugal. 

One of my favorite new finds? Portuguese green wine (vinho verde). It’s made from younger green grapes and has higher carbonation than traditional white wine. It’s also slightly sweeter. The perfect drink on a hot summer night in Portugal. 

Planning a trip to Portugal? Don't forget to drink a lot of wine
What I miss most about Portugal? Probably the wine.

If you have a chance to do some wine tasting in Portugal, I’d recommend going to a few of the old port cellars in Porto, and exploring the Douro region, as well as the Alentejo region. 

Oh, and don’t forget to stop in at By The Wine tapas and wine restaurant when you’re in Lisbon. It has some of the best wine I’ve tried in Portugal. You won’t be disappointed by the food either. 

More Portugal information you should know before you go   

Best time to visit Portugal

The best time to visit Portugal can vary depending on what you’re wanting to see in the country. 

Spring and summer are the best for exploring the many hiking trails and beautiful beaches around the country, but summer, especially, has become very touristy in recent years. 

Although it’s a busier time of the year, this is also when a lot of key cultural festivals (and street parties) happen – such as Festa de São João do Porto – so it can be a fun time to be in Portugal. 

best time to visit Portugal | It depends on what you're wanting from your trip
When to visit Portugal? Summer is probably the best time to go to Portugal for the good weather and festivals, but there are also a lot of tourists.

If you decide to go in the winter, there will be less tourists but you will probably have to deal with a decent amount of rain, which can dampen (literally) anyone’s vacation, especially if you only have 5-10 days in Portugal. 

In general, shoulder season is the best time of year to visit Portugal for mild weather and less tourists. Usually March/May or September/October is the most ideal time to visit. 

Portugal visa 

Portugal is a part of the Schengen Agreement in Europe, meaning that US and Canadian citizens can visit Portugal visa-free (and any other country in Schengen) for 90 days maximum.

Portugal Visa | best places to go in Portugal - Sintra

Although they don’t usually check, it’s a good idea to have a return ticket out of the country to show at customs. Also make sure your passport is valid for at least 6 months after your arrival date. 

In general, you don’t need any vaccinations to visit Portugal unless you’re coming from a known Yellow Fever infected area.

Tipping in Portugal 

Unlike the US, tipping in Portugal is not common unless you go to overly touristy restaurants. I generally go by the rule of – ‘what do locals typically do?’. Hardly any Portuguese people I talked to said that they tip, so I took that into consideration. 

However, there’s sometimes a different standard for tourists. If you want to tip, 5-10% of the final bill at restaurants is what you should be tipping at maximum.

This is usually only at more upscale restaurants though, and when the service exceeds expectations. Also double check that the bill doesn’t already include a ‘service fee’, because some do this automatically, especially in more touristy areas of the Algarve or fancy restaurants in Lisbon or Porto. 

Tipping in Portugal | Flora & Fauna Cafe, Lisbon
Tipping in Portugal is common (only 5-10%) if you have really good service, like at Flora & Fauna Cafe in Lisbon.

For taxis, you can round up to the nearest €5 on the final fare. However, there is Uber in most of the big cities in Portugal now, so you should use them instead for cheaper and faster service. 

In terms of nightlife, it’s not common practice to tip bartenders. For guided tours, anywhere from €5 to €15 is usually fine, depending on how expensive and long the tour is. 

Basically, tipping in Portugal is not required but it’s always appreciated, so it’s up to you to decide how much to give or not to give.  

Most famous Portugal landmarks & sites

Don’t miss out on these famous Portugal landmarks during your trip! 

  • Belém Tower (Lisbon) – get your ticket ahead of time here  
  • Jerónimos Tower (Lisbon) – get your ticket ahead of time here (believe me it’s worth it, the line sometimes takes an hour to get through)
  • Pena Palace (Sintra – day trip from Lisbon) – get your ticket ahead of time here
  • Dom Luis Bridge (Porto)
  • Torre dos Clérigos (Porto) – get your ticket ahead of time here 
  • Lello Bookstore (Porto)
  • Cathedral of Évora (Évora)
  • Capela dos Ossos – Chapel of Bones (Évora)
  • Benagil Sea Cave (Algarve – day trip from Portimao/Faro) – buy tickets for the boat tour here
  • Marinha Beach (Algarve – Lagos) 
  • Praia do Camilo (Algarve – Lagos) 
Portugal landmarks | Pena Palace, Sintra
You can’t miss out on the colorful Pena Palace with a visit to Portugal.

Best cities to visit in Portugal 

My top 8 cities in Portugal (in order of my most favorite): 

1. Porto

2. Lisbon 

3. Sintra

4. Coimbra

5. Lagos

6. Évora

7. Cascais

8. Aveiro

Best tours in Portugal 

A few of my favorite tours in Portugal include the following. 

Best things to do in Portugal | My favorite guided tours in Portugal
Taking a guided tour to the famous Benagil Cave in the Algarve is a must-see attraction in Portugal.

LISBON

Note: if you’re looking to squeeze in a lot of sites around Lisbon in a short amount of time, the Lisbon Card is a great option and money saver. You can get it here.

Lisbon Essential Tour: History, Stories & Lifestyle 

A good overview of Lisbon’s history and its present-day culture, from Chiado to Bairro Alto and Alfama. The 3-hour tour includes gorgeous views from Miradouro São Pedro de Alcântara and a ride on the iconic Lisbon tram.

See availability & prices here.

Lisbon, best tours in Portugal | Main cities in Portugal
There’s a lot of colorful history to explore in Lisbon. It’s a good idea to go on a walking tour around the city to soak it all up.

Lisbon 2-Hour Sunset Cruise on the Tagus River with Drinks

One of the best parts of Lisbon is its location on the water. Enjoy a relaxing evening with a drink at sunset on the Tagus River during this two hour yacht tour, allowing you to take in the beauty of Lisbon’s most famous landmarks from the water.

See availability & prices here.

Sintra & Cascais Small Group Tour from Lisbon

If you only have a short time in Lisbon, don’t miss out on this full day trip to Sintra and Cascais, two of the most popular day trips from the city.

You can easily enjoy a quick overview of both cities with this tour that includes transportation from Lisbon and entrance fees to the famous Pena Palace & Gardens.

See availability & prices here

If you’d rather do a full day in Sintra on your own – you can pick up your Pena Palace entrance ticket online ahead of time to avoid the crazy lines. Get it here.  

PORTO

Douro Valley Tour from Porto 

You can’t go to Porto and miss out on the Douro Valley – the most important wine region in Portugal.

This full day tour focuses on a lot of wine drinking (my favorite!), takes you around to beautiful vineyards in the valley, and includes a traditional Portuguese lunch and Rabelo boat ride along the Douro River.

See availability & prices here

Porto Wine Tour 

The wine drinking simply doesn’t stop in this region of Portugal, but, believe me, you won’t be complaining with how good the wine is.

This Porto wine tour takes you to two  typical wine houses along the water, including the oldest port wine cellar in Porto. You’ll even get to sample some of the popular Portuguese green wine!

See availability & prices here.

Porto Delicious Food Walk Tour 

You’re probably thinking that all there is to do in Porto is eat good food and drink a lot of wine, and you wouldn’t be too far from the truth (although there is A LOT to see in Porto outside of its gastronomy too)!

This walking food tour takes you to some of the best foodie spots around Old Town to try a few key local dishes (and wine, of course), and to learn about the history of the city’s food.

See availability & prices here

ALGARVE

Benagil Caves 3-Hour Boat Cruise from Portimao

The Benagil Cave is one of the most popular spots to visit in the Algarve, mostly because its a ridiculously gorgeous limstone beauty. The only way to see it is through a boat or kayak tour, so don’t miss out!

This 3-hour tour includes time for swimming at the beach. You might even spot dolphins on the way back if you’re lucky.

See availability & prices here

2-Hour Kayak Cave Explorer Tour from Lagos 

One of the best ways to see the Algarve coast is from a kayak. You have more freedom than a boat tour, and you get a good workout in the process.

This 2-hour tour takes you around to scenic landscapes, famous beaches, and the sea caves of Ponta da Piedade from the water.

See availability & prices here

Ria Formosa 4 Islands Catamaran Tour from Faro 

Take a catamaran around one of the most beautiful parks in Portugal – Ria Formosa Natural Park.

This tour takes you to 4 magical islands in the park with the help of a guide, who makes it easy to relax and take in the stunning views along the way.

See availability & prices here

Have you been to Portugal before? Which countries have you visited that completely surprised you once you arrived? 

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PRACTICAL INFO FOR PORTUGAL

Find accommodationbook your rental car, or sign up for a local tour.

Book a vacation rental on AirBnB (and get $40 off your first booking).

Buy your Portugal Travel Guide here.

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Travel Tips for Portugal: 20 Things that Surprised Me | The Atlas Heart

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Mimi McFadden
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Mimi McFadden

Travel Writer/Blogger at The Atlas Heart
Mimi founded The Atlas Heart to create a community of travelers inspired to see the world. The Atlas Heart is a space where you'll find anecdotes on slow travel, craft beer, outdoor adventures, and all the eccentric bits in between that this world has to offer.
Mimi McFadden
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