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Portugal

Photo © Luis M

Travel Guide Europe Portugal

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Introduction

Arch in path to University, Coimbra, Portugal

Arch in path to University, Coimbra, Portugal

© All Rights Reserved joshuag

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.

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Brief History

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.

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Geography

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.

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Regions

Portugal is divided into 18 districts and two autonomous regions, being the Azores Islands and Madeira.

NorthViana do Costelo, Braga, Vila Real, Porto, Bragança, Aveiro, Viseu, Guarda
CentreCoimbra, Castelo Branco, Leiria, Lisboa (Lisbon), Santarém, Portalegre, Batalha
SouthÉvora, Setúbal, Beja, Faro

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Cities and Towns

  • Albufeira - popular resort town along the Algarve
  • Amarante - an old and very attractive town on the Tamega river, a tributary of the Douro
  • Bragança - in the far northeast of the country. It is the site of an almost separate hill settlement, the Cidadela
  • Braga -
  • Castelo Branco -
  • Castelo de Vide - another spectacular Alentejo village within walking distance of Marvao
  • Coimbra - a true student city, is best known for having one of Europe's oldest universities
  • Elvas - a highly fortified city near the Spanish border. It has a magnificent aqueduct carrying a trickle of water!
  • Evora - principal city of Alentejo
  • Faro - along the Atlantic coast
  • Fatima - small city that is home to Catholic Pilgrimages twice a year
  • Guimaraes - former capital of Portugal with a castle and museums
  • Lagos - small beach town that is very popular with tourists and backpackers
  • Lisbon - the nation's capital
  • Marvao - a small but spectacular walled hill village in Alentejo, with a fairy tale castle
  • Obidos - completely walled with a castle (now a pousada)
  • Porto - Portugal's second city and home to the Nomenclature of Territorial Units for Statistics
  • Setubal -
  • Sintra - a town not far from Lisbon, known for its Moorish castles in the hills.
  • Tavira - a town in the Algarve region, set back a bit from the coast with interesting gravel pits, home to flamingoes and stilts.

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Sights and Activities

Sintra

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 Monastery

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.

Chapel of Bones

In Evora 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.

Castelo de Sao Jorge

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.

Convento do Carmo

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.

Se de Lisboa

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.

Other Sights and Activities

  • City Walls - Climb the city walls in cities like Obidos.
  • Knights Templars - Visiting the capital of the Templars in Tomar that features a castle-monastery built during that time.
  • Moorish Influence - Enjoy the fusion of Moorish architecture in the southern town of Lagos.
  • Beaches - Enjoy the Atlantic coast at some wonderful beaches.
  • Maritime Museum Lisbon - Visit one of the best maritime museums in the world that tracks the history of Portuguese naval domination.

Suggested public transport itineraries

  • South of Lisbon - From Lisbon to Montijo (ferry) to Setubal (bus) to Sesimbra (bus) to Caçilhas (bus) to Lisbon (ferry). The possible return trip by local bus from Sesimbra to the fishing port makes this even better.
  • Douro rail - From Porto to Livraçao (Douro line rail) to Amarante (branch rail) to Vila Real (bus) to Peso de Regua (branch rail line) to Porto (Douro line).

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Events and Festivals

  • Festa de Sao Antonio
  • Festa de Sao Joao
  • Queima das Fitas

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Weather

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.

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Getting There

By Plane

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.

By Train

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).

By Car

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).

By Bus

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.

By Boat

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.

Car ferries cross the Rio Guadiana border from Ayamonte in Spain to Vila Real de Santo António in the Algarve every 40 minutes.

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Getting Around

By Plane

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.

By Train

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.

By Car

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.

By Bus

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.

By Boat

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.

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Red Tape

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.

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Money

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.

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Language

See also: Portuguese phrasebook

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Eat

You will see another 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.

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Sleep

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.

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Drink

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.

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Health

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.

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Safety

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!

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Keep Connected

Phone

See also: International Telephone Calls

Post

Post offices (correios) have varying opening hours, but in general post offices are open on weekdays from 08:30-18:00 and on Saturday mornings until 12:30. More information about offices, costs and other details can be found at the CTT Portuguese Post website. It's a relatively efficient but also relatively slow postal service. Costs for sending a standard letter/postcard are €0.32 within Portugal, €0.68 within Europe and €0.80 outside Europe.

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Quick Facts

Portugal flag

Map of Portugal

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Local name
República Portuguesa
Capital
Lisbon
Government
Parliamentary Democracy
Nationality
Portuguese
Population
10,102,000
Languages
Portuguese
Religions
Christianity (Catholic, Protestant)
Currency
Euro (EUR) €
Calling Code
+351
Time Zone
WET (UTC)
Daylight Saving
WEST (UTC+1)

Contributors

as well as Hien (13%), Lavafalls (7%), geotravels (7%), dr.pepper (2%), Peter (1%), davidx (1%), Luis M (<1%)

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Portugal Travel Helpers

  • pulquerio

    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.

    Ask pulquerio a question about Portugal
  • porteda

    It's my home country and I think I know it reasonably well. At least enough to give some tips on it.

    Ask porteda a question about Portugal
  • menalima

    If you need help about what to do and see in and around Lisbon just let me know.

    Ask menalima a question about Portugal
  • David Monteiro

    Hi, I'm a proffessional Tour Leader and and I love my country.
    Besides my own country, my passions are walking, biking History, photography, writing, cooking and wine.For many year I've been travelling allover Portugal and Spain sharing this cultures with my guests.
    I'll be glad to answer you questions.
    Enjoy Portugal and the Portuguese :)

    Ask David Monteiro a question about Portugal
  • Vize

    I can help with some information from Portugal. I know many cities and also good places with beautiful landscapes. I'm used to camping in some of the great places of Portugal so I also can help you with that.

    Ask Vize a question about Portugal

Accommodation in Portugal

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