Before you visit Portugal, learn a bit about the history, religion, geography, climate, and local traditions so you can be fully prepared for your journey abroad. Within this article, we provide the best overview of Portugal plus some first-hand travel tips along the way!
Welcome aboard to our Globally Educated Series where we focus on one nation at a time to give you the most comprehensive overview of each country before embarking on your journey. We look forward to helping you prepare for your trip to Portugal, so buckle up - your journey begins here!
Imagine it: A mesmerizing country that hugs the Atlantic Ocean, boasting hilly cities, picturesque coasts, and a gleaming countryside, Portugal is no joke. This gem of the Iberian Peninsula will sweep you away with its city-life, culture, and coastline.
History of Portugal
It’s really handy to know a thing or two about a country’s history before visiting. So, let’s first get globally educated about the history of Portugal.
Portugal was originally settled by the Celtic. This happened around 700 BC. Then, roughly 100 years later, the Phoenician empire and the Carthage Empire would come to the area. Portugal later found itself part of the Roman Empire from 45 BC to 298 AD. Then, in 711, the Moors from North Africa invaded and began to conquer the Iberian Peninsula, which is now where Spain and Portugal share their borders (You can learn more about Spain here).
Middles Ages & Age of Discovery
Christians continuously attempted to take Portugal from the Moors. Over the years, the Christians reconquered several areas from north to south of the peninsula, and several kingdoms had begun to form. Throughout the 1100 and 1200s, Christian kingdoms were sprouting around the country, such as Portucale, Evora, and the Algarve.
Later, further into the late Middle Ages, Portugal evolved into a powerful nation, home to many prominent explorers like Vasco da Gama who discovered the route to India, and Bartolome Dias who sailed around Africa. As such, Portugal established colonies around the world – particularly in Africa and, of course, Brazil – and made many discoveries along the way. Portugal was powerful and Spain was one of its biggest rivals.
The Empire’s Decline
Portugal was on top for some time. But this began to change when King Sebastian I died in a war in Africa in 1578. He died without leaving an heir to the throne, which resulted in a two-year crisis and then a steady decline of the Portuguese empire.
However, from 1640 to 1668, Portugal fought the Restoration War, which resulted in the restoration of the King while being able to fend off the Spanish king who tried to take Portugal.
The French Invasion
First, let’s note the catastrophic earthquake that shattered Lisbon in 1755. The natural disaster killed thousands and destroyed most buildings. Portugal’s prime minister at the time directed the rebuilding of the city. By the turn of the century, much of Lisbon had been rebuilt, the lower classes were stable and the middle class was prospering. At about the same time, however, France's Napoleon declared a blockade of English trade, and the English responded with a continental blockade. The French insisted that the Portuguese close their ports to the English and arrest all Englishmen in the country and take back their properties. Portugal had long been friendly with England, so the Portuguese bided their time.
France and Spain came together to sign the Treaty of Fontainebleau, giving Napoleon the right to invade Portugal via Spain, if the two could split the country. The French occupied the country in 1807, and the Portuguese royal family fled to Brazil. Thousands of French and Spanish troops wreaked havoc on the country. Then, in 1808, Portugal recieved help from the British. This allowed Portugal to protect Lisbon, and Napoleon retreated.
20th Century Portugal
A lot was happening in Portugal in the 20th century, but we’re going to keep it short. So, the king and crown prince were assassinated in 1908, and after an uprise, Portugal was declared a republic in 1910. Portugal remained neutral during WWII. Many colonies in Africa were given independence. Finally, in 1986, Portugal joined the EU.
Modern day Portugal
Nowadays, Portugal is a vibrant and inviting place for locals and travelers alike. The euro was introduced in 2002, and the country has a stable economy. Be sure to explore the Museum of Lisbon to discover more about this country’s eventful history during your trip to Portugal!
Languages in Portugal
Portugal is the home of the Portuguese language, shared with Brazil and actually nine other countries and territories. While Portuguese is spoken by roughly 96% of the population, there are also 10 dialects of the language spoken around the country.
After Portuguese, the other most commonly spoken language in Portugal is English. In cities like Lisbon and Porto, it’s not hard to run into an English speaker, whether that’s a local or a visitor. In fact, Portugal boasts a larger number of English speakers than Spain. This is in part due to the smaller percentage of people who speak Portuguese and the country’s focus on the English language in schools and culture.
Portugal borders Spain (and only Spain!), so it’s no wonder that around 10% of the population speaks Spanish. Plus, being a Romance language, Spanish is similar to Portuguese, making it easier for a Portuguese speaker to understand a Spanish speaker.
Other languages in Portugal include French, the minority language of Mirandese, and Portuguese Sign Language. Of course, you might come across many other languages from multilingual citizens, travelers, and immigrants.
Demographics of Portugal
From busy coastal cities to quiet villages, Portugal is rather sparsely populated. Let’s take a look at the demographics of Portugal.
Currently home to just under 10.2 million inhabitants, Portugal’s population is actually set to decline, as it has been since its 10.8 million boom in 2008. The largest percentage lives in Lisbon, with almost 518,000 people calling the city home.
As for the country’s population of immigrants, it is small but thriving. Portugal has experienced steady immigration from Africa since the independence of the former African colonies, especially Cape Verde and Angola. Brazilians, Africans, mixed-race, and other Europeans each represent roughly 1.2 % of the total population.
Cities in Portugal
Portuguese cities like Lisbon and Porto have consistently been topping the list of bucket list destinations for several years now. Upon visiting these colorful, coastal cities, you’ll quickly see why.
Lisbon, or Lisboa in Portuguese (pictured above), boasts hilly streets, iconic trams, and legendary views of the ocean. Sounds like San Francisco, right? Well, unlike The Golden City, Portugal’s capital city has nearly perfect weather year-round. Summers are warm and sunny and winters are very mild. There’s hardly a bad time to come to Lisbon. Plus, with half a million inhabitants, it’s one of the smaller capital cities in Europe.
When you visit Lisbon, explore its Roman ruins, take the train to Sintra to see historic palaces, try delicious Portuguese food (more on that soon!), walk through the historic neighborhood, and soak up life in one of Europe’s most beautiful capitals.
Porto is more north than Lisbon, and it’s also smaller. With about half the amount of residents, Porto is a beautiful place to explore and relax in a smaller city. Porto has similar coastal views and hilly landscapes but is set on the amazing Douro River with iconic bridges connecting the two sides of the city.
The views of this city are incredible with the river, bridge, passing boats, and majestic neutral colors of the city’s architecture. Porto is easily one of the best places to visit in Portugal. Plus, let’s not forget the area’s famous Port wine is a major draw-in.
Braga is one of Portugal’s oldest cities, located about a half-hour north of Porto. The city flaunts some 2,000 years of history and is home to the Braga Cathedral – the oldest in Portugal – and the Bom Jesus Sanctuary with its historic staircases. It’s definitely a majestic place to add to your Portugal travel guide and itinerary!
Geography of Portugal
Portugal is the westernmost point of Europe and lies along the Atlantic Coast of the Iberian Peninsula. The Tagus River runs through the middle of the country, and it separates the rugged north from the rolling plains in the south. In the north, the landscape is an extension of mountains, both forested and intersected by deep valleys.
Portugal is also home to the Douro River, located in Porto and traveling inland. Between the Douro and Tagus rivers is the highest peak of mainland Portugal - Serra da Estrela, which stands at 6,539 feet tall. However, off the mainland, the highest point is Pico Alto hovering at an incredible 7,713 feet on Pico Island in the Azores.
That’s right. Portugal has its mainland, where the majority of the country’s population lives (especially along the coast). However, Portugal is also home to 23 inhabited islands scattered across the Atlantic Ocean. The two main archipelagos are Madeira and the Azores. Both have volcanic origins and flaunt incredible landscapes, natural beauty, and rare species.
South of the Tagus River (below Lisbon), the landscape is characterized by open plains, and is planted with mostly Mediterranean species such as figs, cork oaks, olive trees, and grape vineyards.
Many of Portugal’s rivers start in Spain – also on the Iberian Peninsula – and flow into the Atlantic Ocean, including the Minho, Douro, Tagus, and Guadiana rivers. This helps create a rich hydrographic network.
The very south of Portugal is a region known as the Algarve. It’s noted for its majestic beaches, sandstone rock formations, and tucked-away caves and grottos. It’s one of the best places to stay on a trip to Portugal during the summer.
What is Portugal’s climate like?
Portugal is influenced by the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, and continental climates. The Atlantic influence creates a generally humid climate. This is particularly true in the northwest, where the climate is mild and rainy. Its Mediterranean influence greets much of the country with warm to hot, dry summers and mild to cool, wet winters. With this in mind, Lisbon has a Mediterranean hot climate, and Porto – further north – has a Mediterranean warm climate.
Let’s look at Lisbon. The warm season lasts three months, from mid-June to mid-September, with an average daily high temperature above 78°F (25.5°C). The hottest month of the year in Lisbon is August, with an average high of 83°F (28°C) and low of 65°F (18°C).
The cool season lasts for nearly four months, from mid-November to early March, with an average daily high temperature below 63°F (17°C). The coldest month of the year in Lisbon is January, with an average low of 47°F (8°C) and high of 58°F (14°C).
Religion in Portugal
A lot of Portuguese culture and traditions were built around Roman Catholicism. This is evident through many Portuguese holidays, festivals, and of course with its many historic cathedrals and sanctuaries.
As such, more than 80% of the population identifies as Roman Catholic. Another 3% are another branch of Christianity. Less than 1% are Jewish or Muslim. Then, almost 7% are not affiliated with any religion and just over 8% are unspecified.
With this in mind, some of the best places to see in Portugal are actually tied in with religion. Some of these sites to see in Portugal include the Moorish São Jorge Castle, when Portugal was controlled by Muslims from North Africa. Others include various historic churches and cathedrals and the Jerónimos Monastery (picutred above) – to name a few.
Economy & Major Exports in Portugal
Portugal boasts an ever-growing economy. Its economy falls roughly in the middle compared to other countries in Europe. Similar to other western European countries, Portugal’s economy is highly dominated by services, particularly manufacturing.
Portugal was one of Europe’s poorest countries in the 19th and 20th centuries. However, by the early 21st century, economic growth in the country had dramatically improved living standards, raised incomes, and reduced unemployment. Plus, since joining the EU in 1989, structural funds, private capital, and direct investment have both benefited and sustained development across Portugal.
As for Portugal’s main exports, vehicles are at the top, followed by machinery, plastic, mineral fuels, and knit/crochet apparel. Crocheters and knitters, let’s flock to Portugal?!
Portugal also has great terrain for producing certain crops that help fuel both the population’s stomachs and the local economy. The main crops grown in Portugal are cereals (specifically wheat, barley, corn, and rice), potatoes, wine grapes, olives, and tomatoes. You’ll see a lot of these reflected in Portugal’s culinary scene.
What is Portugal known for?
With beautiful souvenirs to bring back from your first trip to Portugal and awesome cultural traditions to get involved in, here’s a little bit about what Portugal is known for.
Produced in the idyllic Douro Valley, Port wine is a staple in the north of Portugal. This dessert wine is authentic to the country, and even some countries like South Africa produce a version of Port wine, only Portugal can use the label “Porto” on its bottles. Bringing back a bottle of Port makes for a wonderful souvenir if you find yourself in Porto or around the Douro Valley. For more ideas on thoughtful souvenirs click here!
Actually, Portugal is one of the world’s top cork producers. How handy since they have so much wine to bottle! While corks are mainly used to secure bottles of wine, Portugal has gotten creative. You’ll find cork handbags, coasters, wallets, shoes, and much more, all made from cork!
Glazed ceramic tiles or azulejos are everywhere in Portugal. They decorate the hilly streets of Lisbon, dot small villages in the Algarve, and are just about anywhere you go. They cover the walls of train stations, restaurants, bars, fountains, and even churches. These tiles are a must-see on a trip to Portugal as they are a true symbol of the country.
Portugal is full of legendary surf spots! Chill out at a surf hotel in the north or venture to the beautiful south and catch waves there. The Algarve, Oeste, and around Porto are said to be some of the best surf spots in Portugal.
Fado is a folky form of singing that originated in Portugal in the early 1800s. As a form of cultural significance, the music style has been part of UNESCO's list of the World’s Intangible Cultural Heritage since 2011. Bars and venues across the country host live fado shows. Check out Tasca do Chico or Mesa De Frades in Lisbon for traditional fado music.
Food in Portugal
Portuguese food has the Mediterranean flair we love, with its own unique twists. The food in Portugal uses local ingredients like olives, tomatoes, herbs, fruits, and seafood to make some mouthwatering dishes. The country’s typical dishes aren’t very vegetarian friendly, but more modern Portuguese cuisine is. Here are some foods to try on your trip to Portugal.
Pastel de nata
Probably the most famous Portuguese dish, pastel de nata is a sweet and flaky egg tart dessert. You can find it all over the country, but the best is said to come from Pastéis de Belém in Lisbon. So, if you are craving dessert during your trip to Lisbon, pop over to this famous bakery and indulge!
Simple, tasty, and comforting are three ways to describe this warm Portuguese soup. The broth is made from potatoes and garlic, kale and slices of smoked pork sausages are added, then served with crusty bread. This dish originates from the north but is popular throughout the country. It’s even a tradition to have a bowl of Caldo Verde on New Year’s Eve! Otherwise, it’s typically served as a starter.
Bifanas are essentially Portugal’s favorite sandwich. It’s marinated pork between two slices of crusty white bread. The key to making this dish so famous is how it's marinated using paprika, garlic, and white wine. You’ll easily see these sandwiches when you visit Lisbon and the rest of the country too.
Portugal Travel Tips
Ok, so you’ve got lots of fantastic details to know before you visit Portugal. But what about those essential travel tips? We’ve got you covered! Here are some Portugal travel tips you should know before going on a trip to Lisbon and Portugal.
- Portugal uses the euro (€) and the majority of places accept payment by card. However, some may have a minimum purchase of €5 and small places may not take cards at all. Have a bit of cash on you, but not too much.
- Be aware of pickpockets on public transport and crowded places.
- Pack comfortable shoes. Lisbon and Porto are both hilly with many cobblestone streets.
- Starters like olives, bread, and cheese probably aren’t free. A lot of restaurants bring around little snacks before your meal. Don’t assume it’s free. If you don’t want to pay for it, don’t touch it and ask the waiter to take it away
- Learn some essential phrases. ‘Olá’ for hello; ‘obriaga’ (if you’re a woman) and ‘obrigado’ (if you’re a man) to say thank you; and ‘por favor’ to say please.
- You can tip 5% – 10% in restaurants if you’re extremely happy with the service. Don’t worry about tipping if you’re just having coffee or drinks.
- There are convenient trains and buses to get to other parts of Portugal and even into Spain.
- Call 112 in the case of an emergency!