I’ve been going to Europe for over 30 years but had never been to Portugal. I was amazed at how different it is from the rest of Western Europe.
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Excellent. At a youth hostel in Geres, I met an English tourist who commented that Portugal does things to you, and that people says it’s magical. The friend I was with and I had to chuckle because neither of us cry much, but were so confronted with emotion much of our time in Portugal that we cried quite a bit! Not sadness, just the expression of raw emotion which, for some inexplicable reason, came up for both of us all over Portugal. This country is visibly more poor than the rest of Europe and maintains so much charm and feels like another time in some places. Women often wear clothing that feels like they’re from another century. Small towns have a large elderly population. Find a remote part of the country, explore, be peaceful and see what you discover!
Excellent. Portugal is extremely safe, especially if you’re in one of the many, many smaller towns. It’s easy to travel, no problem to eat alone, and everyone is very friendly. I will say that walking down a street in a small town I often found people held their faces in somewhat of a scowl. But if you simply smiled at them and said “Bon dia” (Hello) they would immediately warm to you.
Authentic. So authentic that it can be hard to use a credit card. They really are from another era and perhaps that contributes to the magic. Life is much simpler than in most of Europe. In small towns I had coffee for 50 cents, and dinner (2 courses with olives, bread, and 2 carafes of wine) for $6. In many places no English is spoken. Portuguese is hard to learn, but sometimes they speak French. Don’t plan on buying clothes here, there’s no real fashion, but sure great if you need a cheap anything to replace a worn shirt or pair of underwear for example. There are many medieval festivals that are fun to enjoy in the spring/summer time. If you’re anywhere near a local market, don’t miss out on trying fresh olives, cheese, and produce. You can even buy home made olive oil!
Car or trains. It’s really easy to drive around Portugal. If you rent a car, it’s a lot cheaper from a major airport and I highly recommend using Cael. They are lovely to work with, less expensive than much of their competition, and speak great English. Word of caution renting a car, however. When it comes to driving in Portugal there are no rules. Or rather, rules are not followed because there aren’t any traffic cops. So, it’s very common to find a speed maximum on a highway of 120 km and find someone speed by at 140 or faster. Large trucks also randomly change lanes. Never assume it’s safe to pass in the lane next to one. Train travel is very easy in Portugal and very affordable. You can book tickets right from the Portugal rail system website.
Very affordable. Because Portugal is poorer than it’s neighbors, you’ll find prices are great for long-term travel. Larger cities like Lisbon and Porto are of course more pricey, but even there it’s easy to find something affordable meal-wise. Gas prices can be high, but car rentals are reasonable. (Just use caution driving as I mentioned above.) Areas like the South of Portugal are also more pricey since the beach towns of the Algarve attract more tourists. To save money, stay in smaller, remote towns. Living with the locals and eating in a local town’s one tiny restaurant are both wonderful!
Not required. Especially in small towns, there just isn’t any tipping. You may find that in a nicer restaurant in a city like Lisbon or Portugal you leave a little something extra but it’s not expected. The same goes for taxis and be warned – coming from the airport it should cost roughly $6 – $10 for a taxi into town. However, the driver may try to rip you off – I was charged $16 for my initial ride since I didn’t know any better!
Not Great In smaller towns there may only be a few places with WiFi. When you do find it, you may not have a strong connection. I found WhatsApp conversations grueling and if I wanted to have any client webinars I had to seek stronger signals in specific places which were not always close by. Hotels did have better WiFi in larger cities. So your connection may depend on where you decide to hang out.
Excellent. All toilets are Western, clean, have toilet paper and soap. 🙂
Insects, Rodents and Reptiles
Depends on the season. While you’ll likely see more goats than rodents, the summer months can bring pesky mosquitos that buzz in your ear and keep you awake at night. They are more common at night than by day.
Passport, Visa and Entry/Exit Rules
Easy. It’s always a good idea to check the US government website (or your country’s local government if not the US) for in-depth information as well as the embassy of Portugal website. Portugal follows typical Schengen country rules – a US citizen does not need a Visa and can stay up to 90 days. The stamp in your passport acts as your Visa and if you travel within the Schengen area, you’ll find immigration very diligent about checking how long you’ve been there.
Health, Water, etc.
Very Good. It’s safe to drink water throughout Portugal. Pharmacists can help with most common problems, however a resident I met from Australia gave me the impression that medical care for more serious matters might not be great. Happily I didn’t get to see for myself, so hopefully the care is better than he thought! No vaccinations are required but it’s always a good idea to Check the CDC website for recommended precautions.
Varies. Portugal has four seasons, however, some are more extreme than others. Summer, for example can reach 40 degrees celsius (around 104 degrees Fahrenheit) in some regions towards the South. Winters are milder than in the US and have more rainfall and very little snow.
Essentials to Pack
Portugal can actually be fairly cool until summer and at night you may need a sweater. But then in the thick of summer, temperatures can go as high as 40 degrees celsius. (High 90s/100 Fahrenheit.) It’s a good idea to have a sweater and jacket with you, as well as sunglasses and a hat. Hiking shoes are great if you plan to go to Geres. A water bottle is a great idea since the tap water is drinkable.
How to Make Friends
I found tours to be a fabulous way to meet people. I often made friends with the tour guides and connected on Facebook, and met some great people on my boat in Halong Bay. The overnight bus experience is also very bonding! I spent three days in Hoi An with a lovely man I met on my overnight bus bonding over how absolutely disorganized the whole thing was. I also met an amazing Swedish family on my crazy 3-day bus and boat tour from Vietnam to Cambodia as well as several other amazing people from around the world. Tours are super cheap!
What to Do and See
You really can’t go wrong! It depends on the experience you want. Big city? Try Lisbon and Porto. Hiking, cows and amazing views? Go to Geres. Beaches? Nazare, Peniche, or the Algarve are all good. Another amazing experience is going to The Azores – a quick flight with TAP Portugal but check the weather forecast before you go.
Where to Stay
Here are a few of the places I liked:
Pensao Flor de Coimbra – in Coimbra. Super hard to find it, but what LOVELY owners, and tons of character. Note, you do have to walk up a rather long staircase to get to your room. The owner will give you wonderful recommendations and is very helpful.
Hotel Dos Cavaleiros – in Torras Novas. Lovely staff, clean rooms many with a lovely view over the city. Great breakfast.
Moov Hotel Porto Norte – a bit outside the city which is why it’s less expensive. Clean, simple, small rooms. Have breakfast someplace outside the hotel, it will be cheaper. They also have a location in the center of downtown Porto if you prefer to be more central. Payment was cash only which was a little inconvenient.