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Squeezed between Spain and the Atlantic Ocean, Portugal revolves around the sea. Through it, the nation began to build up its empire in the 15th century, claiming territory in South America, Africa and Asia. While this empire has dwindled over the centuries, cutting Portugal's global power down substantially, the sea remains important to Portugal. Today, the preponderance of the sea to Portuguese way of life translates into long beaches and some of Europe's best seaside resorts. Fishing and watersports draw thousands of Portuguese and international visitors to Algarve, Portugal's southernmost province and home to its best beaches.
Add to this a handful of traditional towns, an energetic night life in Lisbon and a culture infused with Moorish and Brazilian influences, and Portugal's winning combination is becoming quite tempting. Consider then that Portugal is less expensive than neighbouring Spain (and also not as popular) and it's becoming simply irresistible.
The early history of Portugal, whose name derives from the Roman name Portus Cale, is shared with the rest of the Iberian Peninsula. The region was settled by Pre-Celts and Celts, giving origin to peoples like the Gallaeci, Lusitanians, Celtici and Cynetes, visited by Phoenicians and Carthaginians and incorporated in the Roman Republic dominions. A victory over the Muslims at Battle of Ourique in 1139 is traditionally taken as the occasion when Portugal was transformed from a county into an independent kingdom: the Kingdom of Portugal.
In 1348 and 1349, like the rest of Europe, Portugal was devastated by the Black Death. In 1415, Portugal conquered the first of its overseas colonies by conquering Ceuta, a prosperous Islamic trade center in North Africa. There followed the first discoveries in the Atlantic: Madeira and the Azores, which led to the first colonization movements. Throughout the 15th century, Portuguese explorers sailed the coast of Africa, establishing trading posts for several common types of tradable commodities at the time, ranging from gold to slaves, as they looked for a route to India and its spices, which were coveted in Europe. In 1498, Vasco da Gama finally reached India and brought economic prosperity to Portugal and its population of 1,5 million residents then. In 1500, Pedro Álvares Cabral, en route to India, discovered Brazil and claimed it for Portugal.
Portugal's independence was interrupted between 1580 and 1640. Because the heirless King Sebastian died in the battle of Alcácer Quibir in Morocco, Philip II of Spain claimed his throne and so became Philip I of Portugal. Although Portugal did not lose its formal independence, it was governed by the same monarch who governed Spain. From 1595 to 1663 the Dutch-Portuguese War primarily involved the Dutch companies invading many Portuguese colonies and commercial interests in Brazil, Africa, India and the Far East, resulting in the loss of the Portuguese Indian Sea trade monopoly.
The country was further weakened by the destruction of much of its capital city in a 1755 earthquake, occupation during the Napoleonic Wars and the loss of its largest colony, Brazil, in 1822. From the middle of the 19th century to the late 1950s, nearly two million Portuguese left Europe to live in Brazil and the United States. In 1910, there was a revolution that deposed the monarchy; however, the subsequent republic was unable to solve the country's problems. Amid corruption, repression of the Church, and the near bankruptcy of the state, a military coup in 1926 installed a dictatorship that remained until another coup in 1974. The new government instituted sweeping democratic reforms and granted independence to all of Portugal's African colonies in 1975.
In 1986, Portugal joined the European Union (then the European Economic Community). In 1999, Portugal was one of the founding countries of the euro and the Eurozone.
The territory of Portugal includes an area in the Iberian Peninsula and two archipelagos in the Atlantic Ocean: the archipelagos of Madeira and the Azores. It lies between latitudes 32° and 43° N, and longitudes 32° and 6° W. Mainland Portugal is split by its main river, the Tagus that flows from Spain and disgorges in Tagus Estuary, near Lisbon, before escaping into the Atlantic. The northern landscape is mountainous towards the interior with several plateaus indented by river valleys, whereas the south, that includes the Algarve and the Alentejo regions, is characterized by rolling plains. Portugal's highest peak is the similarly named Mount Pico on the island of Pico in the Azores. This ancient volcano, which measures 2,351 metres is a highly iconic symbol of the Azores, while the Serra da Estrela on the mainland (the summit being 1,991 metres above sea level) is an important seasonal attraction for skiers and winter sports enthusiasts.
The archipelagos of Madeira and the Azores are scattered within the Atlantic Ocean: the Azores straddling the Mid-Atlantic Ridge on a tectonic triple junction, and Madeira along a range formed by in-plate hotspot geology (much like the Hawaiian Islands). Geologically, these islands were formed by volcanic and seismic events, although the last terrestrial volcanic eruption occurred in 1957–58 (Capelinhos) and minor earthquakes occur sporadically, usually of low intensity.
Portugal's Exclusive Economic Zone, a sea zone over which the Portuguese have special rights over the exploration and use of marine resources, has 1,727,408 km2. This is the 3rd largest Exclusive Economic Zone of the European Union and the 11th largest in the world.
Sintra is a small village outside of Lisbon that makes for an excellent day trip. It's romantic architecture has been stunning people since the 19th century. Before the 19th century Sintra was a popular sight for the Portuguese royalty. Due to its popularity among the elite many wealthy and royal people built magnificent castles and homes in the area. The Sintra area was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List because of its importance to Portuguese culture.
Alcobaça in the Leiria district is a home to the beautiful Alcobaça Monastery. This monastery is the largest church in all of Portugal. Originally built in 1252 this monastery was built in order to celebrate defeating of the Moors in a major battle. The monastery's main claims to fame is great gothic architecture, tombs of several kings, queens and even a tomb for a one king's mistress. A trip to Portugal, if possible, should include a visit to this wonderful area for the town and scenery.
In Evora there might be one of the most interesting, haunting and good uses of human bones in all of history. In the The Church of St. Francis in this town is the Chapel of Bones (Capela dos Ossos). In this interesting side chapel the central pillars and chancel walls have been tastefully cemented with human skulls and other parts of human skeletons. It is estimated that there are over five thousand human skeletons that were supposedly plague victims or soldiers that died in a war, but were most likely just robed from nearby graves. The chapel was built by a monk that wanted to emphasize the transitory nature of life.
Located in Downtown Lisbon, Castelo de Sao Jorge offers one of the best views available of the city. The castle is filled with old ruins and interesting history and, more recently, a top-class restaurant as well as peacocks that roam freely around the grounds. The walled-in fortress area is square-shaped, and the actual castle is located on the northwest side of the hill.
As you take in the views around the castle, you will notice that this hill is the highest in the center of the city. For thousands of years, military minds have recognized that high ground is easiest to fortify and defend. Archaeological evidence shows that the hill has been the site of a military stronghold in one form or another for hundreds of years. Roman fortifications from 137 BC have been excavated. Other evidence shows that this area has been occupied for at least another 400 years before these Roman walls were built. In the 5th century A.D., the Visigoths, a tribe of Germanic people who sacked the Roman Empire and took control of this area, strengthened the fortress. Their guard towers still remain.
The tall Gothic arches of the ruined Convento do Carmo are visible from a long distance. Today its preserved remains are a museum, but it began as the promise of one man to God. The convent that you see before you was also an outcome of the Battle of Aljubarrota. During the battle lvares Pereira promised God that if this battle was won by the Portuguese, he would build a convent. He kept his word, and the construction of the convent started in 1393. The construction and design of the convent was overseen by three architects who were also brothers. These architects, Afonso, Rodrigo and Gonzalo Eanes, built the convent in plain Gothic style with some influences from the Monastery of Batalha, which was being constructed at the same time. Today, the Monastery of Batalha is a UNESCO world heritage site located in Batalha about 140 kilometres from Lisbon.
Located in an the oldest area of Lisbon, Se de Lisboa is the cathedral of Lisbon and looks like a combination of a fort and a church. The cathedral is a mix of its original Roman construction and later Gothic and Neoclassical styles. A 20th century restoration converted as much as possible of the old church back to its Romanesque look based on old plans of the church.
One of Portugal’s most famous exports to its largest former colony, Brazil, Portugal’s Carnaval may not be as well known as their Brazilian or Caribbean counterparts, but they nonetheless rank among the world’s most unforgettable parties. Each community celebrates in its own way, but none is bigger than in Lisbon’s Parque Nações, whose street parades and theatrical performances are filled with elaborate costumes, masks and floats which take several weeks to build. The Algarve celebrates Carnaval by sailing carefully decorated traditional Portuguese boats along the coast.
The most elaborate of Portugal’s many Holy Week processions takes place in Braga, whose streets are lined with religious motifs, as well as alters lined with flowers and lights called passos. After parades filled with floats and torchbearers arrive in the parish church, the priest enters on a floor strewn with flowers on Easter Sunday. Folk dancing and fireworks are lively additions to these solemn religious occasions.
None of the monthly pilgrimages to Portugal’s Our Lady of Fatima sanctuary is larger than the ones which take place on the anniversary of the Virgin Mary’s appearance at this sacred shine. Between the evenings of May 11 and May 13, thousands of faithfuls attend mass in many languages, Stations of the Cross and candlelit processions where spectators wave white handkerchiefs during their farewells to the mother of Jesus.
On June 23-24, St. John the Baptist is honored in several citites around Portugal. The people of Porto hit each other on the head with plastic hammers, while Braga’s festivities are filled with folk dramas, illuminations, processions, and poems written in basil pots that are dedicated to loved ones.
Between June and July, the UNESCO World Heritage site of Sintra hosts some of the finest ballet dancers, pianists and chamber musicians during this cultural celebration. Past performers have played for the likes of Paris’ chamber philharmonic and Lisbon’s Gulbenkian Orchestra. Former palaces, churches, parks, and country estates are among the festival’s stately venues.
Portugal’s unofficial water sports capital, Praia Grande, hosts this summer-long event open to beachgoers of all ages and athletic abilities. Every year between June and August, some of the world’s best body boarders tackle the challenging Atlantic Ocean waves. Visitors can also participate in boules and volleyball matches, or simply enjoy the spectacle beneath the shade of nearby café bars.
The province of Ribatejo forms the heart of Portugal’s agriculture industry and each year, the capital, Santarém, celebrates their proud heritage and bullfighting traditions during this 10-day June event. Farmers from across Europe display machinery and livestock at the agriculture fair and Portuguese folk dancing and singing are on display.
For 10 days in late August, the fishermen’s association of Cascais hosts the seaside São João do Estoril Beach festival. One of the most unusual competitions involves young fishermen who try to impress female spectators by facing running bulls for a dried codfish prize. Visitors will see many other marine themed events during the day, as well as impressive fireworks displays at night.
Although Portugal is not a very big country, there are some differences in weather between the north and south and between the coastline and places more inland. In general though, summers (June to August) are warm to hot, ranging from 25 °C along the northern coastline to around 30 °C more south along the coast. Inland though, summers can be extremely hot on some days, with temperatures exceeding 45 °C on some days, but not every year. Nights range between 15 °C and 20 °C, though inland on the higher plateau nights can be rather chilly. Winters average between 15 °C and 20 °C during the day and between 5 °C to 10 °C at night, again from north to south. Nights average around zero though on the higher plateau inland, where temperatures can drop below -10 degrees and snow is certainly not uncommon during the months of December to February. Rain (and some snow) mainly falls between October and April, while summers are very dry in most of the country, except the very north.
The national airline of Portugal is TAP Portugal, which uses Lisbon Airport (LIS) as the main gateway to and from the country. From here, there are many international flights. TAP Portugal flies to and from many European cities and to destinations in Brazil, like Rio de Janeiro, Recife and Salvador among others. Other former colonies to serve from Portugal are Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, as well as other African cities such as Dakar, Johannesburg and Algiers. There are many more airlines serving the capital of Portugal.
To/from the Lisbon Airport
The best public transit option is the bus. Buses can be caught outside the terminal. Google maps has a transit planner that can be used to find the best route to your destination. The price is €1.40 for a ticket bought on board. Drivers usually have change. Another option is the Aerobus and Aeroshuttle. It is €3.50 for the ticket, running into the centre and stopping at most major hotels. The fastest connection to the metro network is probably to take the Aerobus to Oriente Station, which only takes about 10 minutes. From there you can take the red line into the town, or if needed take a train to you next destination from Oriente Station. Taxis are available outside the terminals.
TAP and several other airlines (including Ryanair) have international flights to and from Porto Airport in the north and Faro Airport in the south as well, the latter being served by charter airlines and budget flights to the Algarve.
There are two routes into Portugal, and if you are coming from further away you have to take the TGV Atlantiques first towards Irun in Spain. From there, one line goes to Coimbra and Lisbon (change for Porto) and the other goes via Madrid to Lisbon. Daily connections to/from Paris go via Vitória, Burgos, Valladolid and Salamanca.
Madrid - Lisbon goes via Caceres. In the south, it's better to travel by bus (for example from Seville).
Crossing to/from Spain is fast and straightforward and usually you can just cross without stopping. Have the proper documentation and insurance (green card) and driver's licence. The most used crossings are near Valença do Minho (E01/A3), Chaves (N532), Bragança (E82/IP4), Guarda/Vilar Formoso (E80/IP5), Elvas (E90/A6/IP7), Serpa (N260) and Vila Real de Santo António (E1/IP1).
Eurolines has buses to many other European countries. Madrid, Barcelona and Casablanca are all served from Lisbon and Porto. There are also services to Salamanca, Amsterdam, Brussels, Hamburg, Paris and Sevilla. From the latter, buses go to a number of cities in the south of Portugal as well, including Faro.
Lisbon, Porto, Coimbra, Faro, Lagos and Viana do Costelo all have regular connections to/from London.
Spain - Canary Islands
Naviera Armas runs weekly services between Portimao and Tenerife (via Madeira), with connections to other Canary Islands, like Gran Canaria and Lanzarote.
TAP Portugal and Portugália Airlines both have flights to and from Lisbon, Faro, Madeira, Porto Santo, Porto and the Azores. SATA (the Azores' airline) has flights between the Azores, Madeira and mainland Portugal, as well as between several of the islands of the Azores itself. There are also daily flights linking Lisbon and the northern cities of Vila Real and Bragança.
Caminhos de Ferro Portugueses has an extensive network of train links throughout the country.
There are fast links with speeds well over 200 km/h from Lisbon to the Algarve and from Lisbon to northern cities such as Porto, Braga, Guimarães, Coimbra and Aveiro, but on most routes there are intercity services which still are fast enough and a good alternative to buses or cars. From Lisbon, there are also frequent links to Cascais and Sintra, popular traveller routes.
There are also rail passes available with unlimited travel for 7, 14 or 21 consecutive days.
Roads in Portugal are generally in a good condition, although some rural roads more inland might be slightly potholed in some places. Rental cars are available on most airports and bigger cities and driving is a good way to cover a lot of the country. You need a (inter)national driver's licence and sufficient insurance. Be careful when on the road, as Portugal has one of the highest traffic mortality rates in Europe. Although there is no need to panic, just watch out for the local drivers with their terrible driving skills.
Portugal has a system of electronic tolls, and you need to make arrangements to register you license plate or to obtain a tag for tolling if you are going to use the main motorway system. Arrangements can be made to register your license plate at the border, if entering by car. If hiring a car in Portugal, it is likely the rental car company has an arrangement for the payment of tolls.
There are numerous bus links and companies to almost any city, town and even smaller more remote villages. Contact Rede Nacional de Expressos for more information about prices and schedules.
Although there are few regular ferries for travellers, a leisurely cruise along the Douro (from Porto) and Tago (from Lisbon) rivers is an enjoyable way of seeing Portugal from a different angle. Naviera Armas runs weekly services between Portimao and Madeira.
If you are a European Union (EU) citizen, you may enter without any restriction as per your EU citizenship rights. If you are not an EU citizen, you will need to obtain a Schengen Visa. This visa is valid for any country in the Schengen zone.
See also: Money Matters
Portugal has adopted the Euro (ISO code: EUR, symbol: €) as its official currency. One Euro is divided into 100 cents, which is sometimes referred to as eurocents, especially when distinguishing them with the US cents.
Euro banknotes come in denominations of €5, €10, €20, €50, €100, €200, €500. The highest three denominations are rarely used in everyday transactions. All Euro banknotes have a common design for each denomination on both sides throughout the Eurozone.
The Euro coins are 1 cent, 2 cents, 5 cents, 10 cents, 20 cents, 50 cents, €1 and €2. Some countries in the Eurozone have law which requires cash transactions to be rounded to the nearest 5 cents. All Euro coins have a common design on the denomination (value) side, while the opposite side may have a different image from one country to another. Although the image side may be different, all Euro coins remain legal tender throughout the Eurozone.
See also: Portuguese phrasebook
The official language of Portugal is Portuguese. Portuguese is today one of the world's major languages, ranked 6th according to number of native speakers (approximately 240 million). It is the language with the largest number of speakers in South America, spoken by almost all of Brazil's population. It is also an official language in Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, Sao Tome and Principe, Guinea-Bissau, East Timor and Macau.
Portuguese is a Romance language. Although it may be mutually intelligible with Spanish to a wide extent, with about 90% of lexical similarity (both in vocabulary and grammar), it is far from identical. Portuguese are a proud people and are uneasy when foreigners from non-Spanish-speaking countries speak that language when traveling in Portugal. While many words may be spelled almost the same as in Spanish (or Italian), the pronunciation differs considerably. This is because Portuguese has several sounds not present in those languages. Spanish is widely understood, but it's not always the best language to use unless you're from a Spanish-speaking country.
English is spoken in many tourist areas, but it is far from ubiquitous. Many younger people speak English nowadays though.
You will see Portuguese staple bacalhau (salt cod) everywhere. The most common of Portugal's delicious fish (peixe) dishes revolve around sole (linguado) and sardines (sardinha) although salmon (salmão) and trout (truta) are also featured heavily, not mentioning the more traditional mackerel (carapau), whiting (pescada), rock bass (robalo), frog fish (tamboril) and a variety of turbot (cherne). These are boiled, fried, grilled or served in a variety of sauces.
There is a wide range of accommodation options throughout the country. Note that during popular times, like the August summer peak season, it can be difficult to find something on short notice. At the budget range, there are many camping places. Wild camping is not allowed, unless you have the land owner's agreement. Holiday Villas are another option to investigate. The youth hostel network has a great number of hostels around the country as well. If you want a true more local experience, try a residencial. In most places you can get a double room for €30 or a little more. On the luxury side, you might try a pousada, accommodation options usually in very beautiful buildings like palaces and castles and and with excellent service. Casas de Campo, mostly at the countryside, are also an affordable, picturesque and comfortable B&B option. Don't expect them to be open all year round, and try to contact them beforehand if your itinerary depends on them.
When traveling in Portugal, the drink of choice is wine. Red wine is the favorite among the locals, but white wine is also popular. Also Portugal along with Spain have a variation of the white wine that is actually green (Vinho Verde). Its a very crisp wine served cold and goes best with many of the fish dishes.
Porto is famous for the eponymous port wine, a fortified wine (20%) made by adding brandy to the wine before fermentation is complete. According to EU laws, port wine can only be named as such if the grapes are grown in the Douro valley, and the wine is brewed in Porto. The end product is strong, sweet, complex in taste and if properly stored will last 40 years or more.
See also: Travel Health
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Portugal. Possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
See also: Travel Safety
Portugal in general is a safe country and travellers rarely will feel any hostility or experience problems. There are a few things to bear in mind though. First of all, as with any big city around the world, try not to flash around too much of your wealth. Leave valuable jewelry at home and try to hide your camera in a bag. Especially Lisbon and Porto do see some petty theft, though muggings and armed robbery are not a problem. Along the Atlantic Ocean there are great beaches, but unlike those along the Mediterranean coast, some of them are not that good for swimming because of the strong currents. Finally, Portugal has a higher-than-average roadkill accident. Try to drive defensive and watch out!
Wifi is common in many places in Portugal, including hotels, restaurants and coffee bars. Free wifi along the Algarve coast is available in many places. Internet cafés can still be found in most larger cities and tourist areas though.
See also: International Telephone Calls
Portugal's international telephone code is 351. The general emergency number is 112.
Each provider offers a variety of prepaid (Pré-Pagos) and contract (pós-pagos) SIM cards, both of which are available to foreigners. It generally means much lower rates for calls and especially internet. Be sure to switch off data roaming if you don't buy a local SIM card, as prices for internet are very high.
CTT is the national postal service of Portugal. It has relatively fast and reliable services and it takes several days to over a week for your post to arrive within other European countries, more so if you send post to North America or Australia. Post offices (correios) have varying opening hours, but in general post offices are open on weekdays from 08:30am-6:00pm and on Saturday mornings until 12:30. More information about offices, costs and other details can be found at the CTT website. It's a relatively efficient but also relatively slow postal service. If you want to send packages overseas, you'd better use international companies like FedEx, DHL, TNT or UPS, as they are competitively priced, fast and very reliable.
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I am a geographer so i had to study in detail my country, i have been to all the districts in Portugal and i live in the biggest city in the country.
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Ask ncarvalho a question about Portugal
I live in Lisbon, Portugal. I know well Portugal including the island. So I can help with tips and information about the country.
I think I can also provide info about Former African Portuguese Colonies (Cabo Verde, Guine, S. Tomé e Principe, Angola e Moçambique)
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My girlfriend is Portuguese and knows the country well, especially the Algarve.
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