Portugal is a diverse country, blessed with so many stunning landscapes, charismatic cities, unspoilt rural villages and glorious beaches that there’s sure to be something here that makes you want to come back time and time again.
Whether you’re organising your trip independently or through a travel agency, you’ll have seen gorgeous photos and read tantalising descriptions of what there is to see and do so you’ll naturally be excited about your holiday.
As an expat who loves Portugal, I’d like you to have the best experience possible so I’m going to share a few tips that you won’t necessarily find in the brochures which might help make your visit to Portugal trouble-free and pure fun.
Things to consider when visiting Portugal
When to come
Most package holidays will fly you directly to the Algarve, the country’s most famous and popular beach region. Depending on what you want from your holiday, it’s worth bearing in mind that it will be heaving with tourists during July and August, which is great if you like crowds and want to party but not if you’re after peace and quiet.
If you’d rather not share your golden sands with too many people, avoid the peak period or go to a different part of the country. The Algarve is warm enough for sunbathing for most of the year, and far more pleasant for beach and coastal walks if you come in spring or autumn. During the winter, many restaurants and hotels close but you will still find plenty of options available. Accommodation is considerably cheaper off-season, too.
Don’t underestimate how hot it can get in Portugal; in the centre and south it’s often in the mid 30s between May and September. The north is always slightly cooler than the rest of the country but it can still be hotter than you’re used to.
Whether you’re coming in the height of summer, or even late spring / early autumn, if you’re not accustomed to the heat, it can make you really uncomfortable. Bear this in mind before you book your holiday so that you can make the most of your time here. Make sure your accommodation has got air-conditioning, or at least a fan, and if you’re renting an apartment, try keeping the blinds down during the day to block out the heat.
Europeans visiting the Algarve will find many of their home comfort foods available in the resort towns but Portuguese food can be delicious, especially the seafood, so even the most cautious eaters should give it a go.
It’s best to get a menu decoder of some kind if you want to make sure you don’t end up ordering pig’s ear or tripe though. Most menus in tourist areas are available in English so this shouldn’t present too much of a problem although the best restaurants are often off the main tourist trail.
One thing to be aware of is the Portuguese custom of bringing little dishes of unsolicited food to your table. Sometimes this is just olives, bread and cheese, but other restaurants will load your table with plates of cured ham, octopus salad and other delicacies. Warning: They are not free! If you eat them, you will be charged for them. The bread and olives are usually cheap but the fancy stuff can soon add up and give you a nasty shock and lead to unpleasant confrontations when you come to pay the bill. My advice is to send the plates back immediately if you don’t want to eat them.
Vegetarians need to be prepared for a limited selection as most Portuguese dishes are based on meat or fish.
Actual vegetables can be a bit scarce, too. They are normally served in soup, which is the standard starter, so don’t be surprised if your main course has little or no greenery with it. If it’s important to you to get your five-a-day, ask the waiter what the dish is served with and if there’s no mention of veggies, order a side salad.
Snacks and sandwiches can be rather limited in Portugal. Many cafés only serve cheese / ham sandwiches or toasties. If you want both ham and cheese, it’s called a mixta (pronounced meeshtuh). You’ll find that most bakeries and cafés have a selection of fried rissoles in breadcrumbs. These usually contain prawns, which I’m rather partial to, meat or fish.
If you’re travelling to central or southern Portugal in July or August, you’ll probably be safe without an umbrella but there’s a reason why the north of the country is green so if you’re going there, it’s best to be prepared for rain showers, even in summer.
Whichever part of the country you go to, you will probably need sunglasses all year round, and it’s possible to get sunburnt in December so bring sun cream if you have pale skin; it’s very expensive to buy here. Bring a hat for the summer, too.
Summers are usually sweltering so loose, light clothes are best. Shorts, sandals, and T-shirts are fine for most situations but bear in mind that people will expect you to dress modestly if you want to visit churches, which means covering your shoulders and no short shorts or skirts.
Outside of the peak summer months, it can get chilly in the evenings or on the beach so bring a light cardigan, shawl or jumper for spring and early autumn. Late autumn and winter can be quite cold so jeans, jumpers, and warm coats are necessary, although it’s best to have a range of layers to choose from so you can adapt your outfit to suit the temperature.
Most towns and cities in Portugal have beautiful black and white cobbled pavements. Whilst they are lovely to look at, they’re a nightmare to walk on with high-heels because the spikes get stuck in the cracks between the stones and before you know it, you’ve twisted your ankle or worse. Even in flat shoes you need to watch out for potholes in the pavements where cobbles have been removed for one reason or another and not replaced. And they are very slippery when wet. My advice: wear comfortable shoes with rubbery soles and wide heels.
Portuguese is a tricky language to learn and you’ll find that in the main tourist areas, many people speak English. No one expects you to be fluent in Portuguese but if you can use even a few basic phrases, it will be appreciated.
Try these for starters:
- Please = por favor (pronounced poor fav-or, with ‘a’ as in ‘cat’)
- Thank you = obrigado (pronounced ob-rig-ah-doo) if you are male / obrigada (pronounced ob-rig-ah-duh) for females
- Yes = sim (pronounced seeng)
- No = não (pronounced now)
- Do you speak English? = Fala inglês? (pronounced fa-la in-glesh, with the ‘sh’ sounding more like the ‘s’ in ‘television’)
If you’re travelling further afield, especially in more rural areas, you might need to know more Portuguese as there are still many places where most people can’t speak English. My tip: if you’ve got a smart phone, get a ‘learn Portuguese’ app with sound and play the phrase you need. You’ll make people laugh, and will hopefully be able to work out the response somehow, even if it’s through gestures.
If you’re planning to drive in Portugal, be aware that there are an increasing number of electronic toll roads so you can’t ‘pay as you go’. For more information about which roads are affected and how best to deal with them, see the Portugal Tolls website or this article in the Portugal News. Don’t forget to take your driving licence and carry it with you whenever you’re driving.
Under Portuguese law, everyone must carry a form of photographic ID with them at all times so make sure you’ve got a photocopy of your passport with you, or your driving licence / national ID card if you’ve got one with a photo on it.
By Julie Dawn Fox, a serial expat who has finally and happily put down roots in Portugal. She blogs at http://juliedawnfox.com/ and works as a freelance writer and part-time English language teacher in Coimbra.