Sunshine, shopping, and scintillating sunsets on the sea, what’s there not to love!?
Portugal is one of those places that often gets missed due to its infamous loud and proud neighbouring countries like Spain, France and Italy.
When people ask you where you would want to eat like royalty, you would probably choose France. If they ask you where you think you’d find beautiful artisan quality handcrafted goods, you might be tempted to say Italy. For those beautiful beach holidays you’ll probably consider the south of Spain! The truth is that Portugal is all of these things rolled into one fabulous country. Not only does it share the Mediterranean sun and aspects of its lifestyle, but the Portuguese diet is equally impressive and at a much more affordable cost (we’ll get into that later).
So why is Portugal one of the most underrated countries in Europe? Could the cold water of the Atlantic be scaring people away from its pristine beaches? Maybe it’s just a lack of Portugal's tourism promotion?
Either way, one thing is clear, there are a whole host of reasons to visit Portugal! We’ve gone ahead and compiled the top 25 below to help you see why this country should be on every traveller's bucket list.
25 Harry Potter Was Dreamt Up in Porto
Are you a Harry Potter fan? If you answered no you can skip ahead to the next point.
For the other 400 million of us you’ll be pleased to learn that our girl J.K. (Rowling) drew a lot of inspiration from her time in Porto, Portugal. You see J.K lived in Porto from 1991-1993 teaching English as a foreign language. It was here that she outlined the novel and even began her draft for book one!
There are places you can visit today that are rumoured to have been the muse of very specific scenes and characters. For example, the Livraria Lello bookshop is said to have inspired Flourish and Blotts and Escovaria de Belomonte is said to have inspired the Broom shop, both in Diagon Alley.
If you’ve ever visited a University Graduation ceremony in Porto, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped onto a set of HP because much like Harry, Ron and Hermione, they also wear those infamous black cloaks. Coincidence? I think not!
24 Most Portuguese Speak English
Unless you’ve been brave enough to visit rural Spain or Italy (or anywhere in France) you will come to realize what a true treasure this can be. It makes asking for directions, or even what’s being described on the menu a lot less complex.
Since the Portuguese are well-known for their open-hearted and warm hospitality, a nice benefit to this is that it also allows you to get to know locals since sharing a common language means you can share other things like stories and cultural insights with one another.
23 It’s Affordable
The cost of living in Portugal is ranked among one of the lowest in Western Europe. If you’re coming from anywhere with a currency weaker than the Euro, this can be incredibly helpful to your trip. It means you can do more with less! Including dining, excursions, even car rentals cost a fraction of what they would elsewhere. Everything from grocery bills to a monthly rental will run you significantly less. Flights to Portugal can be relatively inexpensive considering there are direct routes with budget airlines like RyanAir and reasonably priced options from TAP Portugal.
22 Numerous Pristine Beaches
The beaches in Portugal are second to none. Considering the coastline is nearly 500 miles (800 kilometres) long, you are bound to find a beautiful spot to park yourself and take in some sunshine. Whether you crave a more serene beach experience of Costa Vicentina with its expansive sandy landscape sheltered by sandstone cliffs at Praia da Arrifana you will find the ideal place for relaxation.
Prefer a cliffside hike? Make your way to Marinha and park the car (for free!). Begin your trail of about 45 minutes towards Benegil atop cliffs with vistas of the Atlantic. You will undoubtedly want to slather on that SPF 35+ to protect yourself from the sun that you won’t feel burning you due to the gentle breeze that guides you along. Once you reach Benegil you can explore the coves (if the tide is out) or take a boat ride to the world-famous sea caves. Don’t forget a sun umbrella if you plan a full day on the beach!
21 The Freshest Fish
The seafood of Portugal offers something for everyone.
If you’re more traditional, you can enjoy prawns, fresh crab, lobster, even freshly shucked oysters. For those who are adventurous you should surely experience the local, traditional specialties that often include cod or Bacalhau which is seen as a national treasure.
If you have the advantage of being in the Algarve region in August, don’t miss Olhão’s seafood festival! There is an entrance fee but it’s well worth it for the unique seafood experience you will have. Here you can sample everything mentioned above or something a little more unusual – fresh barnacles anyone? At the festival there is plenty of seating, live entertainment, unique vendors of fresh fish (and baked treats for dessert – of course!), so go with elastic waist pants.
20 1930’s Trams in Lisbon
Portugal is special because it has a quaint and cozy vibe even in its capital city of Lisbon (or Lisboa as its known in Portugal)! Some of this can definitely be attributed to its tram system which has survived (more like thrived) since the 1930s. Perhaps other cities would have put these trams in their ‘metro’ museum, but not in Portugal! Here, their tram system is celebrated and cherished by locals and visitors alike for its ability to weave through the narrow streets, making what seem like impossibly tight turns and screeching along (charmingly, of course).
Of all the trams, perhaps the most famed is the number 28 because it takes you across the most popular districts of Graca, Alfama, Baixa and Estrela. On this route you will find adorable districts that house popular landmarks, excellent places to eat/dance and explore! A ticket costs about 3 euros but for the price of two trips, you can get a 24-hour metro pass that gives you unlimited use of all of Lisbon’s transit system.
19 The Azores Islands
Often described as the Hawaii of Portugal, the Azores will make you glad to be in Portugal.
For one, the Azores hasn’t be overrun with expats so you will see some form of authentic Portuguese living. With 9 different islands to visit they are all equally stunning in their own right. Located in the North Atlantic along 600 km of ocean, the islands are divided into 3 categories; The Eastern Group (Santa Maria and São Miguel), The Western Group (Corvo and Flores) and The Central Group (Terceira, Graciosa, São Jorge, Pico and Faial).
These islands not only feature world-class beaches but also all kinds of activities including geotourism, bike tours, kayaking, golf, scuba diving, surfing, paragliding and even whale watching! It’s impossible to run out of things to do on your trip to the Azores.
18 Pastel de Nata
These little gems are none other than what most of us refer to classically as Portuguese custard tarts. Who can resist the layers of flakey pastry heaven that house the creamy custard that is then topped with cinnamon?
The natas were originally created over 300 years ago by monks at the Jerónimos Monastery. The story goes that they would use egg whites to wash and starch the habits of the nuns so leftover egg yolks were being used to create pastries and avoid wasting. The natas became a way to fundraise for the monastery but sadly this effort was not enough and it was closed and the famous natas recipe was sold to local bakers in Lisboa.
As it originated in Lisbon, it will be impossible to miss when visiting the capital city but you can also find excellent natas all over the country.
17 Less Overrun by Tourists
Now don’t get us wrong, we’re not saying that tourists are bad. It can just be a little underwhelming when a place becomes popular and begins to cater to the tourists by replacing age-old customs and traditions with what is popular. I mean, this is the very reason that many of us travel, we only need so many kebab shops people!
The nice thing about Portugal is that they are still very in touch with their heritage. Of course there are some elements of catering to the tourists, but it’s less apparent than in major tourist hubs in other Western European countries. In fact, there is even a “We Hate Tourism” tour you can take in Lisbon that gives visitors an opportunity to understand responsible traveling while truly experiencing local culture and customs.
16 It is Super Safe
When you visit Portugal there is one thing you will notice almost immediately compared to the more popular destinations - it feels safe! That’s because the Portuguese take safety quite seriously.
In fact, Portugal has ranked 4th in the 2018 Global Peace Index as one of the most peaceful nations in the world (for comparison Italy ranks 38, France 61 and Spain 30). Portugal is a country that quite evidently roots itself in common respect for one another.
It was also the 1st colonial country to abolish slavery in 1761 (which is half a century before Britain, Spain, France and the USA) as well as the first country to eliminate capital punishment by 1911.
While expats can be blamed for the raised housing costs, there is no animosity between locals and visitors. Aside from the odd pickpocket or petty theft, while visiting major cities or tourist attractions, you are sure to feel quite safe (and welcomed!) in Portugal.
15 It's The Best Place for A Road Trip
Driving in Portugal (as long as you’re not from the UK or Australia) will be a piece of cake. The roads are well maintained, and very clearly marked. The locals are respectful and everyone seems to be able to share the road at an easy pace. Renting a car doesn’t cost very much either, it’s the perfect recipe for a great road trip.
You can make your way across along the coast of Portugal from Lisbon to Faro in about 10 days and see a whole world of landscapes in between. From the blue of the ocean at the cliffs of Albufera to the blue, red, and white houses of Porto Covo - it is a feast for the eyes (and soul!).
Okay, hear me out. I know that sardines aren’t everyone’s favourite food. They are small and slimy, it’s true but you know what else they are? Incredibly affordable, nutritious and, in Portugal, they’re also delicious.
A single serving of sardines has 23 grams of protein and only 200 calories. Sardines are also teeming with omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, iron and potassium. Perhaps this is a reason they have been a working-class mainstay for as long as time!
In Portugal the sardine is revered and enjoyed - 13 sardines are consumed per second. You will find them fresh, grilled and perhaps most famously tinned. You can find the beautifully packaged tins of sardines marinated in olive oil, chilli oil vinaigrette, spicy tomato sauce - you name it!
If the idea of plucking a small fish out of a tin and topping your toast with it weirds you out, there is also the patè de sarindinha, which is much more discreet but just as savoury.
13 TILES or Azulejos
Are you redoing your house? It doesn’t even matter. These tiles are worth travelling for just to behold their beauty. The tiles themselves originated in Seville, Spain but have become a marker of Portuguese life not only for their simplistic beauty but for their practical function of controlling the temperature of the houses.
Azulejo is derived from the Arabic word zellige, meaning "polished stone" as they originally were meant to replicate the Byzantine and Roman mosaics.
When visiting smaller towns you can find them not only on the inside of homes on the floors, walls, and ceilings but also the outside of houses!
12 The Best Soccer Player in the World comes from Portugal
Cristiano Ronaldo isn’t just a hero in Portugal but a world-renowned legend. Having won the Balon D’or Award this past December (not to mention 4 more times before that) as well as 5 Champion League tournaments (aka the biggest Major European tournament for clubs), he's a big deal.
Of course he also has a laundry list of accumulated awards and honours for himself as well as the Portugal national team. Unless you’re a Messi fan, it’s pretty unanimous that Cristiano is one of the very best football players in the world. With 74.2 million followers on Twitter, he’s an influencer on and off the field and has definitely put Portugal on the map (or field) with his top athletic performance.
11 Warmth and Hospitality
The Portuguese are famous for their hospitality and as a foreigner who has visited Portugal now on two seperate occasions, I can attest. It makes an excellent choice for a first solo travel because even if you even so much as appear a little lost, oftentimes someone will stop (without your asking) to help you find your way.
When staying in accommodations in Portugal, there are thoughtful touches that you don’t always come across in places that are considered smack dab on the beaten path. A warm greeting, honest suggestions of where to visit and what to avoid, and restaurant recommendations (not the tourist traps) are what I have come to experience when visiting.
10 Porto is a Historical Hub
So far we have made mention of Portugal’s capital city a few times but we haven’t gotten into the splendours of Portugal’s second biggest city, Porto! Declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1996, Porto has a lot of history that dates back to 300 BC. It developed an important commercial port during the Roman occupation that allowed for trade between what is now known as Lisbon and Braga.
In 1387 Porto hosted an important political marriage between John I of Portugal and Philippa of Lancaster which cemented what is today, the longest recorded diplomatic alliance in the world between Portugal and England.
The Romans who arrived in the second century BC began wine production alongside the Douro River, where it is still produced. Port wine as we know it today (a major export of Portugal) was not produced until much later with the first shipment leaving Porto in 1678.
9 The Oldest Bookstore in the WORLD is in Lisbon
To be fair, Lisbon has its fair share of history too!
Portugal’s capital city has within it, the world’s oldest bookstore. Opening in 1732, this bookstore holds the Guinness World Record for the oldest bookstore in operation. Opened by French immigrant Pedro Faure, he eventually passed it on to his next of kin.
After the earthquake of 1755 totalled the bookshop (and much of Portugal), it almost closed. It was then partner Jean Joseph Bertrand who had the determination to rebuild the shop albeit in a different location to preserve it further.
The bookstore itself has remained open to this day for 286 years and has become the first of many bookstores in the now infamous Bertrand book chain. Fun fact: The sign displayed out front is in a font created by the Bertrand brothers who held printing and writing workshops at the time of its creation.
8 Fado Music
Fado means fate, as in it’s your fate to travel to Portugal and take in this heavenly Portuguese folk music! As with many folk songs, the lyrics are expressing the hardships associated with daily life and “Saudade” which is Portuguese for longing or sorrow. Today you can often find Fado music in popular cafes, bars and restaurants which is different from when it first came about in the 1820s.
Fado music has two styles associated with its history:
Coimbra Fado originates from the University of Coimbra and has a more privileged lilt that can only be sung by males in proper uniform of dark robes, capes and tights.
Lisbon Fado allows for improvisation, whereas the Coimbra variety insists on a tightly rehearsed variation.
In either case, the fado music is famous for its emotionally expressive melodic performance, which can only be described as mesmerizing.
7 Astounding Cork Production
Cork is an incredibly versatile wood-like material that can be used for virtually anything! Most of us who know cork for the boards we hang above our desks tacking our plane tickets up as reminders to keep on traveling. Whether it’s for decoration, function, even fashion cork has become an incredibly popular material.
Roughy 8% of Portugal is covered with cork oak trees which thrive in its climate. Portugal is the largest cork producer in the world producing about 310,000 tons per year which is why you will probably notice it in the decor whether it’s a coaster, a placemat or even on the key ring at your hostel. I dare you to try to not to bring back an awesome Portuguese-made cork souvenir.
6 The Hostels Are Like Hotels
We already mentioned (a few times) that Portugal is a great value option when looking to do a little exploring in Western Europe. For those of us budget travellers, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the amazing hostel options available on the cheap.
Hostel dorms located in the heart of Lisbon range from as low as 10 euros up to 20 euros, depending on what you’re looking for and Porto falls into the higher end of that range. We don’t have to tell you, the savvy traveller, how incredible that is price wise!
Perhaps the best part is that they are really high-quality hostels that often include breakfast as well as comfy and clean spaces. It is a true testament to the inherent hospitality of the people of this country.
5 It’s a Top Surf Spot
Not exactly the first place you would think of when you hear the words ‘hang ten’ but with 364 days of surf and 2,799 hours of sunshine a year, it’s a surfer match made in heaven! The best part is you can surf practically anywhere in Portugal from Lisbon all the way down to the Azores.
The country has become so well-known for its ideal surf conditions after the world’s largest wave was caught by Hawaiian surfer Garret McNamara at 90 feet (30 meters) that there are a number of surf accommodations that have onsite instructors too! Starting at 15-30 euros a night for the bed, it’s a great option if you’re wanting to learn and still get that awesome community vibe of a hostel.
4 Europe’s Longest Bridge
If you’re an architect, historian or just plain into bridges, you might be pleased to learn that Europe’s longest bridge is in Portugal!
The Ponte Vasco da Gama bridge is located in Lisbon and is a whopping 10.5 miles (17 kms) long. It connects the North with the Southern part of Portugal. Named after Portugal’s great explorer who first discovered a sea passage to Asia, it is truly a sight to behold. Except on a cloudy day!
The bridge is so long that if there are clouds it is impossible to see from one end to the other. Taking 18 months to build the Vasco Di Gama, and about 3,300 workers to build it, is the main reason was to alleviate the traffic congestion in Lisbon.
3 Portugal Once Owned Half of the ‘New World’
Portugal isn’t one to brag but it was kind of a big deal…
After the signing of The Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 Portugal was assigned over half of the ‘new world’ which included the likes of Brazil, Guinea, Angola, Mozambique, Macau, Nagasaki, Bombay and more! This move began its fate as the largest and longest standing global empire ever.
The empire wasn’t disbanded fully until 1999 (less than 10 years ago) when it transferred sovereignty of Macau to the People’s Republic of China, the last remaining colony. To this day 8 of the former colonies have Portuguese as their official language, making Portuguese one of the 6 major languages of the world.
2 There is a Chapel Made of Bones
Perhaps a less endearing artifact and maybe not one that will draw every traveller but nonetheless a curiosity that is definitely worth mentioning is Évora’s chapel of bones.
Built in the 16th century by Franciscan monks, the chapel bears the inscription nós ossos que aqui estamos, pelos vossos esperamos, or in english, “we bones, are here, waiting for yours.” Could this be the setting for a horror movie? It’s really more philosophical (and weirdly more practical) than that…
The cemeteries surrounding Évora were occupying valuable land. Instead of condemning the souls by building atop them, the monks volunteered to relocate the bones. They chose to build the chapel this way as a reminder to the inhabitants of Évora that life is fleeting and so are material possessions as it was an affluent society at the time and the monks were concerned about their superficial lifestyle.
Comprised of the bones of roughly 5,000 corpses, the chapel also displays full skeletons which hang to adorn the altar. This poem can be found on one of the pillars which is meant to drive their point home (so to speak):
“Where are you going in such a hurry traveler? Pause… do not advance your travel; You have no greater concern Than this one: that on which you focus your sight.
Recall how many have passed from this world, Reflect on your similar end, There is good reason to reflect If only all did the same.
Ponder, you so influenced by fate, Among all the many concerns of the world, So little do you reflect on death;
If by chance you glance at this place, Stop… for the sake of your journey, The more you pause, the further on your journey you will be.”
1 It Is the Oldest Country in Europe
It can be difficult to believe but it’s true, Portugal is indeed the oldest country in Europe! It has preserved it’s original borders for the past 800 years and the name Portugal first appeared in the year 868. Let that sink in for a moment…
Lisbon is four centuries older than Rome.
It all comes back to the point that Portugal is at the most amazing intersection of having an incredibly rich history that while, being a source of pride, is just the beginning of what makes it a great country. The Portuguese are a people that appreciate and cherish the heritage but continues to forge ahead in search of better ways. That is true modernity in all sense of the word, even for the oldest, most underrated country in Europe.
References: Portugalist, wanderwisdom.com, intrepidtravel.com, lisbonlisboaportugal.com, people.uwec.edu, Quora