Portugal is not among those news-making countries that constantly strike, impress, or even scare the world with the events occurring inside.
Life here has flowed in a calm and consistent manner for more than a hundred years. This state took part only in World War I, and its boundaries have remained the same since the middle of the 12th century.
It is stability that attracts tourists and migrants from all over the world. Some are lured by comfortable recreation at Algarve, Madeira, and Cascais beaches. The others get admired for the perfect climate, relatively cheap real estate, and an opportunity to live at their own leisure in a quiet patriarchal country.
Portugal shares the Iberian Peninsula with Spain and borders the Atlantic Ocean to the three sides, forming a semi-enclave.
Unlike monarchic Spain, the country has been a republic since 1910, where Parliament is in the position of governing authority. Portugal is a developed country with a high standard of living (40th position in the world by HDI) and well-developed medicine (12th place).
The history of Portugal as a state began in 868 when Count Vímara Peres occupied the northern part of Iberian lands abandoned by the Arabs during Reconquista.
Settlement and revival of new possessions began with the city of Portus Cale, which consequently became the first capital of Portugal. In 1143, the country gained the status of an independent kingdom.
The first Portuguese kings implemented several critical reforms. As a result, the country got its Parliament (called Cortes as in Spain), army, and sustainable economic development.
A geographical peculiarity redounded to the advantage of the ambitious Portuguese rulers who aspired to see their country like a mighty and influential state. They began the reclamation of new lands not within the mainland, but through the Atlantic and other seas and oceans.
The discoveries followed. At first, it was the African coast, from where the Portuguese nobility got their slaves brought down. Later, there were numerous islands in the Atlantic Ocean. Having passed through the equator, the Portuguese extended their territories at the expense of enlargement to Morocco and Guinea.
In 1500, another great discovery took place: on his way to India, explorer Pedro Cabral incidentally discovered the lands currently known as Brazil. Later, there were many other conquests and discoveries, including big and small islands, lands in western Africa, India, and other parts of the world.
A new turn in the development of Portugal occurred after it united with Spain in 1580. Thus, the country was becoming a more and more powerful marine country and influential empire possessing many colonies. Nonetheless, the Portuguese rulers aspired to independence. In this way, 80 years later, Portugal eventually got its freedom, having seceded from the Iberian Union.
A gradual decline of the all-embracing power of a great empire that managed to colonize enormous territories began in the 16th century when the Dutch edged out it from Brazil and several Asian islands.
The decline aggravated when Napoleon began occupation at the beginning of the 19th century, and France deprived Portugal of the monarch’s crown and a lot of territories. The British policy much contributed to the collapse of the empire: the ultimatum of Great Britain and the positions of other colonial states at the Berlin Conference of 1890 left Portugal without several colonies in Africa.
In the middle of the 20th century, Portugal possessed only nine African, Indian, and Chinese territories. In 1999, a part of the Malay Archipelago, namely Chinese Macau and East Timor, gained independence.
Now Portugal includes Madeira and Azores as its official overseas territories.
Geography and Climate
Portugal is located in the Western Hemisphere. Lisbon is its capital and the biggest city with a population of more than half a million people. More than two million people live in the suburbs.
The Portuguese capital is also one of the oldest cities in Europe: even London and Paris are younger.
Portugal has a Mediterranean climate. Winter is mild with the average temperatures of +5°C - +10°C. Summer is usually hot: +27°C - +29°C.
However, the coolness of the Atlantic spoils the image of a hot country a bit. In another way, Portugal could be considered one of the best localities in Europe for spending a beach holiday. Even in August, when the summer heat is at its highest points, the temperature of coastal waters hardly reaches +20°C. But there is not so much space on the beaches because many people adore swimming.
Language, Religion, and Population
There is only one official language in Portugal compared to Spain, where the languages of other autonomous communities are spoken at an official level. In fact, there is one more officially recognized regional language - Mirandese, but it is common only in three provinces.
The Portuguese language is spoken in Portugal and in some countries of Latin America, Africa, and Eurasia. This language is native to more than 200 million residents of former and current Portuguese colonies.
The Portuguese citizens are Catholics, and more than 90% meticulously abide by all the religious ceremonies. The remaining 10% constitute Protestants and representatives of other world religions that were once rooted in Portugal. The total population of the country is 10.5 million people.
On January 1, 1986, Portugal joined the European Economic Community, which later became the European Union. Since 1992, the country has adjoined the Schengen area.
Visa is not needed if a visitor has a biometric passport (their length of stay should not exceed 90 days).
Portugal is among the countries most frequently chosen by migrants. Their influx has increased for the last 20 years: the Brazilian community is the largest one.
Tickets for air flights and bus tours to Portugal are in high demand. That is why there will not be any problems getting there.
Travellers from European countries may opt for such airlines as WizzAir, Aegean Airlines, Air Baltic, or Lufthansa. The length of an average trip may range from 3 to 6 hours if there are no transfers. The average price is around €100, but it will be much lower when to book tickets three or even six months in advance.
The other way to save some money is to go to Portugal in April. Choose Tuesday to begin your trip because the ticket prices are the lowest on this exact day. And on the contrary, travelling during the high season (from July to September) will cost much. The same will happen during Christmas, New Year, Easter, and Independence Day.
Travelling by bus to Portugal is expensive and predominantly for those who have the stamina for long-term trips.
Hotels of different star-rating, camping sites, and rented apartments are the three most preferred types of accommodation in Portugal. Each of them has its pros and cons.
Hotels and camping sites are suitable for short-term visits, for example, for having rest in the high season. Hotel rooms cost less than in Spain, and the quality of service is not worse. Nonetheless, there is one thing to keep in mind: the cheaper the hotel or hostel, the more likely it is to come across an unpleasant surprise like a mismatch of the real conditions and the photo uploaded to the letting website.
In this way, it is better to look for a hotel upon arrival, but not to book in advance. It means that you will immediately see what to agree on. The other choice is to look for expensive five-star hotels: there will be no trouble for sure.
Below are several options of accommodation:
- Safestay Lisbon is a one-star hotel in Lisbon, located in the elite area not far from Principe Real Garden and other big shopping centres. Clean and cosy rooms include kitchenettes. Free Wi-Fi.
- Quinta do Retiro is a homey guesthouse in Covas. Each room constitutes a separate bungalow with all facilities and air-conditioning. The guesthouse also contains a swimming pool, camping site, and free parking. It is a quiet place with a beautiful nature that perfectly suits those seeking comfort and low prices.
- Funchal Apartments - City View is a budget-friendly hostel in Madeira, excellently located close to the ocean. The showers and toilets are shared. There is free Wi-Fi and air-conditioning.
- Bagetti Guest House is a three-star guesthouse in the very centre of Lisbon. It is a historical building located close to the underground, shops, and restaurants. There are all the necessary facilities in the rooms. Free Wi-Fi.
- Urban Garden is an affordable hostel located in the centre of the Portuguese capital. There are separate and shared rooms, friendly staff, and free Wi-Fi.
Renting an apartment or room in Portugal is like roulette with an absolutely unpredictable ending, especially if to make a booking choice randomly.
It might happen that once you have pre-paid your lease and in this way have formalised your right to live in the chosen apartment, the lessors may prefer the other person as a tenant just because they may pay more, or they like them more, or they have asked in a better way. And then you will be just forgotten.
What is more, nobody is going to inform you about that and return the money paid. Complaining is also useless.
The second pitfall is about the mismatch of photos uploaded to the letting website and real conditions. And if you have been so unlucky to make a deposit, the owners will not give you the pre-paid money back.
The next trap is utilities, not included in the rental price. At first, the price that has to be paid for an apartment seems quite affordable. But then all this excitement vanishes when the time to pay for gas or water comes. Even if you try to skimp on these, the prices will still remain exorbitant. So it is a must to double-check the exact rental with the lessors.
And finally, there are certain peculiarities of the Portuguese mentality. No rush, but so-called idleness and light-heartedness towards all the taken obligations constitute the national feature of all residents of the Iberian Peninsula.
In practice, it is as follows. At first, you may not get any response to your inquiry left on the letting website. Later, you can get a phone call in the middle of the night with the categorical demand to arrive immediately or, in another case, an apartment will be let to other tenants. Without a doubt, you will be perplexed, and all your attempts to explain the thousand-kilometre distance and inappropriateness of the time of the call will be a waste of time.
The Portuguese also do not like answering the e-mails and messages left in their personal accounts of the letting websites. They prefer phone calls but usually the ones made by those who need an apartment. However, getting through is not an easy thing.
So what to do in reality? There is only one solution: to look for accommodation on site. In Portugal, the best way is to rent an apartment upon arrival. You may ask everywhere, be it a shop, a cafe, or a supermarket. It is even possible to knock on the door of the nearest house and ask Apartamento para alugar? to find out whether there is any room available. The Portuguese are friendly and helpful, and will surely give you a piece of advice.
Places to See
The unbelievable beauty of ancient castles, palaces and fortresses, cosy cities and villages on the Atlantic coast, national parks, and magnificent beach resorts of Cascais, Algarve, and Madeira will definitely touch the depths of the soul of everyone who has been to this country at least once.
The attractions of Portugal will enamor you to the greatest extent. You will want to breathe in its salty winds, enjoy the variety of its wines, which are as good as the ones of Spain and France, and observe the life of português verdadeiro - the indigenous Portuguese.
Lisbon is compared with Rome as the city born among seven hills. It has not become the capital city by documents. King Affonso III once chose that locality to settle with his court but forgot to issue a necessary edict.
Lisbon is still considered the capital only de-facto. But is this formality really significant for the city to become the largest port and the most important economic and cultural centre of Portugal?
While exploring the Lisbon attractions, you will need all your patience and the most comfortable footwear. The city’s hilly terrain includes many ascends and descends that offer so much to see.
The squares of the historical centre - Rossio, Praça da Figueira, and Restauradores - were built between the 13th and the 18th centuries. The first one appeared in the 13th century. It witnessed the first auto da fé and construction of the Estaus Palace, the All-Saints Royal Hospital, and many other buildings.
The earthquake of 1755 and the fire of 1836 destroyed all constructions. At present, Praça da Figueira is located on the site of the Hospital, and instead of the Palace, there is the Queen Maria II National Theatre.
When walking across Rossio Square, men should definitely stop at the door of house 115, particularly if they are wearing a tie. There is a mirror hanging next to the door. So they can check whether their tie is okay. The inscription “Componenta o no da sua gravata” (“Fix your tie”) makes this mirror the only one of its kind in the world.
It is a must to visit the world's smallest book shop, Livraria do Simão, on the street called Escadinhas de S. Cristóvão. The owner has managed to arrange more than 4,000 unique books within four square metres. The first collection of the poems of the 17th-century Portuguese poets is offered for sale along with the other books of great rarity.
Grande Lisboa is the name of a subregion that has extended around the capital city for several centuries. Now the population of this area outnumbers the one inhabiting the capital (2.5 million people living in the suburbs in comparison with 500,000 living in the city).
While the centre of Lisbon is the concentration of palaces, monuments to the Portuguese kings, theatres, and squares, its outskirts comprise the stunning Sintra-Cascais Natural Park, a fashionable Cascais resort, and the Sanctuary of Christ the King (Santuário de Cristo Rei) in Almada (the copy of the Brazilian Christ the Redeemer).
Much interest is also evoked by the European longest bridge named after great navigator Vasco da Gama. Besides its 17-km length, it is also famous for being covered by the longest dinner table organised by local authorities in 1998 to celebrate the grand opening. More than 15,000 people had the opportunity to enjoy the Portuguese wines and appetisers - approximately a thousand people per bridge kilometre.
Porto is located on the Atlantic coast. It is an eternal rival of Lisbon in terms of significance and the sphere of influence within the country. Its advantageous location on the trade route from the north to the south, strong connections with marine countries, and excellent port once provided it with all the chances to become the national leader.
However, local trade dealers decided to push the law prohibiting the nobility to build palaces and even stay in the city longer than three days.
King Afonso III also underwent the effect of that prohibition. Even though the King had to visit Porto most frequently for the reason of state affairs, he had to stay at the bishop’s residents. At some moment, King could not bear the restriction anymore and issued an order to construct a palace in Lisbon for him.
As time passed, all branches of power gradually formed at the place where the King and his royal family settled. And the residents of Porto were then deprived of the possibility to live in the most significant city of their country. Nonetheless, the competitive spirit between Porto and Lisbon has remained till modern times: the closer to the north, the bigger number of people consider Porto a true capital of Portugal.
Unlike Lisbon, Porto did not suffer from the destroying floods that took place in the 18th century in the Iberian area. There have never been any big fires either, so its historical centre has preserved its uniqueness.
There is a striking difference in architectural styles between the two cities. Lisbon is the city for admirers of stunning palaces and castles that have remained like the legacy of the Middle Ages nobility. Porto, in its turn, is a business city without the astonishing architectural masterpieces, which the Portuguese capital is famous for.
But why are tourists so attracted to Porto? Without a doubt, one would definitely like to wander across the streets of Ribeira, the most party place in the city. The architecture of this quarter involves the houses with multi-colour tile roofs abutting each other on the quay and thus so much resembling Amsterdam or Antwerp.
The evenings here are particularly good. There are a lot of cafes packed with people, music is played everywhere, and street musicians are showing their performances and improvised concerts.
It is believed that the best views of the city are opening from the Dom Luis I Bridge that spans the River Douro. This construction includes two decks, suitable for trains and cars, and connects the city centre with the remote neighbourhoods.
The project author was Gustave Eiffel, the engineer and creator of the legendary construction in Paris. This bridge is regarded as the symbol of the city and is often depicted on the labels of port wine - the other pride of the Portuguese.
The third reason to visit Porto is football. Even if you know nothing about the rules of this game and are completely indifferent to it, you still should attend the upcoming match at the Dragão Stadium.
Buying a ticket is worth seeing a true flash of human emotions as well as the impeccable mastery of Portuguese football players. That will be a value for money and time. And yet, if you start feeling bored, go to the FC Porto Museum, where you will be able to spectate the glorious history of the club captured in the photos and exhibits and buy some souvenirs.
Football in Portugal is not really a kind of sport; it is a religion. A Portuguese who has not been into football since childhood is not a true Portuguese. Even corrida cannot conquer the hearts of the Portuguese to the extent that football does. Their minds are engrossed with the score of the forthcoming match, successes, and failures of the national team or just their favourites.
The best Portuguese corrida called tourada can be seen at the Campo Pequeno Stadium in Lisbon. It is never so cruel and bloody as in Spain because the Portuguese toreadors (forcados) do not kill a bull, just challenge it with spikes.
Interestingly, there are usually more women who watch the bullfighting performance than men. And foreigners attend tourada more often than local residents.
However, Portu is not only a perfect place for parties and football. There are a lot of architectural monuments of the Middle Ages and modern times that may become great competitors for any city in the world. The other must-see places are the beautiful Clerigos, Carmo, and Carmelite churches, and the city hall - one of the most beautiful buildings of the 1920s.
The fans of the Harry Potter saga should go to Livraria Lello, a well-known book store with stairs that have become the so-called prototype in the Hogwarts library.
This small town on the west of Portugal attracts tourists with the unique phenomenon - an almost completely preserved settlement that appeared on the map of the world before Christ.
Óbidos was under the rule of the Moors and the Portuguese several times. In the 12th century, it became solely Portuguese possession during the reign of King Sancho. The settlement and the Óbidos fortress used to be a marriage portion of the monarchs’ fiancees - Princesses Isabella, Philippa, Eleanor - that became the wives of the Portuguese kings.
At present, the town has turned into an attractive open-air museum. Apart from the castle, the three-kilometre 16th-century aqueduct arouses intense interest as well as the town gate cladded in a Portuguese style with azulejos, music theatre, and several churches - Capela De São Martinho, St. James Church, and Igreja de Sao Joao Baptista.
Óbidos is a paradise for those who have a sweet tooth as it is the Portuguese chocolate capital. Come here during March and April when the International Chocolate Festival takes place, as a rule, between March 10 and April 2. During the weekdays, the town lives its everyday life. All the main events like exhibitions, workshops, and cooking shows are held from Friday to Sunday.
This island, located near northwest Africa, has belonged to Portugal since 1425. It was seven years after navigators João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira had discovered the archipelago, and when the King issued an order to colonise all new possessions.
Now Madeira is the laurel paradise a thousand kilometres from the Portuguese borders. An enormous area of emerald green laurel forests has become the shelter for the multitude of plants, birds, and animals.
It is never too hot in summer and never too cold in winter here due to the warm Atlantic ocean current Gulf Stream. A tender spring warmth prevails here all year round, which makes the vacation incredibly comfortable.
Perfect climate, the abundance of emerald greenery, flowers, and juicy fruit and vegetables magnetized the first tourists here 200 years ago. Since then, Madeira has begun developing as a resort, and currently, it is considered one of the oldest resort regions in Europe.
Almost all beaches in Madeira are artificial. They were purposefully covered up with Moroccan sand to organise the areas for swimming and recreation. The coast in Madeira is purely pebbled and covered with a layer of volcanic dust.
Its capital Funchal is a city of unbelievably beautiful architecture. The majority of houses have brightly red-tiled roofs and white walls, which creates a stunning contrast.
The main attraction of Madeira is its wild and civilized nature. You should certainly go to 580-metre high cliff Cabo Girão, the Pico do Ariero mountains, and indulge in the magnificent beauty and marvellous scent of lavender paths along the irrigation channels.
Those who have become lucky to visit Curral das Freiras (Nuns’ Farmyard) will be overwhelmed with its beautiful views and the ancient legend, according to which the inhabitants of a local monastery were hiding in this mountain gorge from pirates.
There are many parks, gardens, stunning waterfalls, and flower beds on the island, but the most spectacular sight is awaiting tourists at the Madeira Botanical Garden. The garden employees placed more than 2,000 species of rare and endangered plants. Due to the cable car station, it takes only seven minutes to get to the very centre of Funchal.
Exploring the new archipelago, Portuguese colonisers were actively building up its territories. Therefore, even nowadays, there is a plentitude of architectural masterpieces like Monte Palace, the Cathedral, the Santa Clara Convent, etc. Madeira is frequently called the second Lisbon because of its numerous monuments of architecture.
Those keen on museums will not be disappointed either. They should go to the Universe of Memories of João Carlos Abreu, Sacred Art Museum located in the former Bishop’s Palace, Art Centre Caravel, the Quinta das Cruzes Museum of the Madeira discoverer João Gonçalves Zarco, etc. It is only a very short list of the sites to be visited on the island.
If you have hated eating fish since childhood, then you might not favour Portuguese cuisine. Fish-based dishes are the core of any menu here.
The number one fish in Portugal is not sardine, tuna, or mackerel, caught by the fishing vessels on the coastline. It is cod.
Being eaten by the poor because of low price and availability long ago, gradually it has become the national dish, so much adored that no Christmas dinner of a Portuguese family can do without it.
Interestingly, there is no cod in the waters off the coast of Portugal. Though it is usually imported from Scandinavia, local residents do like it despite the infinite variety of delicious fish and seafood available on the national fish market. For instance, robalo (sea bass), tamboril (anglerfish), or peixe espada (swordfish) will make any dish mouth-watering!
The most popular cod dish is bacalhau. It is a salted and dried cod seasoned with spices and herbs and served with boiled potatoes.
Caldeirada is one more delicious food of Portugal. That is a fish ragout with potatoes, onions, and spices, and as a rule, served with toasts. Either oily or lean fish is often complemented with shrimps, squids, and mussels.
Each cafe or a restaurant with a terrace serves grilled sardines. The flavorous oily fish tastes best with a fresh vegetable salad made of tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet peppers, and onions.
Meat is not much popular in Portugal but still is worth trying. People eat any type, be it pork, beef, mutton, lamb, chicken, or turkey.
That is not to say that there is some unusual technique for cooking meat dishes in Portugal. There are only a few authentic recipes because of the fascination with fish. However, meat preparation is a very original process: it has to be marinated in wine with the addition of garlic and herbs as a must.
As the main course, the Portuguese like thick soup called caldo verde (green broth) made of mashed potatoes, cabbage, onions, and chorizo.
The other dish, quite common across the country, is açorda - a thick soup cooked of bread, garlic, oil, and seasonings, which are then made into a smooth consistency adding the boiling water and leaving it for some time. The other açorda ingredients are shrimps, cod, or eggs.
A typical Portuguese dessert is something made of egg yolks whipped until stiff, adding powdered sugar, nuts, and other constituents. The taste is delicious.
An example of such delicacy is papo-de-anjo, or “angel's double chin”.
A distinctive feature of Portuguese dessert names is so-called mannerism with an integral churchly tone and even humour. In the menus of cafes and confectionaries, you may often come across some ‘celestial patty cakes’, ‘nun’s cookies’, or ‘abbot’s pudding’. Though these names might seem so clerical, their taste is quite natural and at times exquisite.
Winemaking is a particular pride of the Portuguese. No lunch or dinner, or even breakfast can do without some drops or a glass of wine.
The most well-known creation of the Portuguese winemakers is port wine. One-third of all winemaking goods in the country constitutes decalitres of this fortified grape-based beverage, which is traditionally produced in the north of Portugal in the Douro river valley.
Genuine port wine is produced solely in Portugal, and its authenticity is stringently monitored according to the EU Regulations. The other variations are fake or just a simple wine.
The remaining part of wine goods comprises white and red wines. There is also Vinho Verde (“green wine”), which, in reality, is white, rose, and even red. It is called green because of being young, and moreover, it is never strong - just 9% ABV - and often sparkling. As a rule, Vinho Verde is served for lunch or dinner to accentuate the food taste, but not to make a person dizzy.
Portugal is an excellent and still unhackneyed locality to spend summer vacation or go on a trip at any other time. It is always welcoming and generous with the sun, eats, drinks, and smiles during all seasons.