Portugal is an amazing place, full of delicious food and drink, amazing buildings, and cultural experiences. Make sure to include a trip to Portugal in your Europe travel itinerary!
“Food is really important to us Portuguese,” an acquaintance of mine said as we ate a rather nice lunch at a conference I was at recently. “This food is just okay, but even for ordinary occasions, we have to eat well.”
You can certainly eat well in Portugal. Though I’m not the biggest fan of the ubiquitous bacalhau (salt cod) even the most basic of meals seem to have a deliciousness about them. Make sure to try pasteis de nata, a tiny custard pastry made by most bakeries; most famously the Pasteis de Belem Factory just out of Lisbon. A pilgrimage to this bakery is a non-negotiable on many tourists’ itineraries.
Although you might associate Portugal with port (and fair enough too), the country also produces a wide range of white, red, and even green wines. Vinho verde (green wine… it’s actually white) is mostly produced in the Douro valley, and is ridiculously refreshing.
If you can’t do a wine tour around the vineyards, stop into a
ViniPortugal in Lisbon or Porto, where you can taste a range of Portuguese wines at a reasonable price (or even free!). Or just order a bottle with lunch or dinner!
Also make sure to try ginjinha from the hole-in-the-wall shop in Largo de Sao Domingos square in Lisbon (just off Rossio square). This sour-cherry liqueur was originally sold by an ex-monk from this very shop after the dissolution of the monasteries in the early 1800s.
3. Get to know the people
Less vociferous than their Spanish neighbours, Portuguese people tend to be pleasant and friendly when you get to know them. If you’re looking for a way to have contact with locals outside the tourist bubble, try using Couchsurfing, AirBnb, or a homestay, or find a conversation exchange partner to help you pick up the language.
4. Learn Portuguese
Speaking of which, why not learn a little of the language while you’re there? English is widely spoken, so this isn’t essential, but at least learn the basics so you can order coffee or say thanks as you leave a shop.
Affordable courses are available in Lisbon and Porto, or get a grammar book and a private tutor and dive in yourself. Make sure to start speaking from day one! Check out our languages page and Benny’s books on language learning.
5. Head to Porto
Of course, you’ll want to do some exploring, and Porto is a great place to start. This was the port where port wine started its sea journey to England and further afield, so a taste of its namesake beverage is a must. Try a port tonic for a refreshing afternoon drink.
There are museums and tours, but my favourite thing to do in Porto is just to wander around. The architecture is so gorgeous!
6. Admire the Azulejos
One thing you’ll notice in Portugal is the abundance of tiles, often depicting agricultural scenes in an attractive blue and white colour scheme. All the train stations are covered in these, and many buildings have a tile frontage and/or hallways and other rooms decorated with patterns or pictures.
We particularly like Pinhão’s emblematic train station, whose azulejos show wine production techniques and scenes of traditional life in the area.
7. Visit some castles, monasteries, or other awesome buildings
There are plenty of amazing buildings for those who are interested in architecture or history, particularly in the north of the country.
We particularly liked Guimarães, a World Heritage city that’s most famous for its twelfth-century castle and narrow medieval streets. Braga is another gem; the 600 steps up to the sanctuary of Bom Jesus are worth the effort. You can also visit Viana do Castelo, which was named after Vienna but has more in common with Paris: the sanctuary of Santa Luzia is a copy of the Sacre Coeur, and the city also features a green bridge designed by Gustav Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame.
Further south, the National Pantheon in Lisbon is worth a visit, as is the bone chapel in Faro inside the Carmo Church.
8. Explore Lisbon’s 7 hills by foot and elevator
Lisbon is an unashamedly hilly city, with the “downtown” area nestled downhill from pretty much anywhere. Wander around, explore the neighbourhoods, take in a fado show or two… you’ll love it.
9. Get your nature fix in the Algarve region
The Algarve is a great place to get into nature, particularly the Ria Formosa Nature Park. You’ll get to see a range of birds and environments, and will get a lot more out of the experience if you go with a guide or a good guidebook!
10. Head to the Portuguese islands of Madeira and the Azores
We haven’t made it to any of the Portuguese islands yet, but we’ve heard very good things about them — they’re #1 on our list of “things to do in Portugal next time”!
Where to next? Check out our itinerary of five underrated European cities!