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Country Facts – Portugal

This information is provided to offer guidance to those seeking to live and work overseas. For more information we recommend that you speak with your national government Foreign Office (or equivalent).

Portugal Country Guide

Portugal is one of Europe’s premier travel destinations, having won repeated awards over the years. Plaudits have been received for her stunning beaches, liveable climate and rich natural beauty, among other things. Little wonder, then, that Portugal welcomes over 7 million visitors a year now, many of whom return time and again.

Over the centuries Portugal has experienced the imperial might of the Celts, Romans and Moors. More recently, Portugal herself became a major global power. While these days many of her former territories have reclaimed their independence, today Portugal maintains control of the Azores and Madeira, which live on as autonomous regions.

Whether it’s the wealth of wildlife, the vast array of historical architecture or the expansive leisure pursuits on offer, it’s fair to say that Portugal has something for everyone. Let the adventure begin…


Portugal’s climate is dictated both by its geographical location and its topography.

Broadly speaking Portugal enjoys a Mediterranean climate with long, warm summers and short, damp winters. Portugal is reputed to be one of the warmest countries in Europe; however there is considerable variation depending on location within the country.

The north of Portugal, for example, is extensively mountainous, and the increased altitude results in a generally cooler climate. In the mountains temperatures average roughly 8-12’C, though snow is not uncommon in the winter months.

Further south however the mercury climbs, with an average temperature closer to 18’C. This is especially so in The Algarve, which is protected from harsh weather by a cloak of steep hillsides. Here the temperature is pleasant year-round, with gentle sea breezes taking the edge off the extremes of the summer heat.

The Algarve has won repeated awards not just for its exceptionally stable and liveable climate, but also for its many spotlessly clean and picturesque beaches. Ocean temperatures in the south average 15’C in the winter months and rise up to 25’C in the summer, making it the perfect area for water sports.

Portugal also benefits from a number of overseas territories; most notably the Azores and Madeira. These islands enjoy a rather more sub-tropical climate, with higher levels of precipitation but with it a greener and more verdant environment.


For such a large country, Portugal’s ethnic and cultural composition is considered to be quite uniform. Unlike many other countries, which are further sub-divided into numerous minority ethnic groups, Portugal offers a rather more unified experience for visitors.

The over-riding religion in Portugal is Roman Catholicism, which is reflected in a generally traditional and conservative people. Visitors are advised to respect this national sentiment by dressing appropriately when visiting sites of religious importance. This traditionalism is further made itself felt in the way that many Portuguese hold the family unit above all else.

Portugal is particularly notable for its green credentials. These days up to 70% of the power used in Portugal comes from renewable resources; well above the European average.

In terms of pastimes, Portugal has become world-famous as a golfing destination. The Algarve, in particular, is dotted with dozens of world-class golf courses, which can be played in their year-round sunshine.


The official language in Portugal is Portuguese. Interestingly, while not as prevalent as Spanish or English on the world stage, Portugal is still the national language of a number of ex-colonies. These include Mozambique, Cape Verde, Angola and Equatorial Guinea.

English-speakers will be reassured to discover that, while not an official language, English is spoken quite widely as a second language. Indeed, it has been estimated that just over a third of the Portuguese population speak English, a rate higher than either France or Italy. It is also expected that all hotel personnel should be able to converse with patrons in English, though outside of more tourist-centric areas English proficiency can be expected to drop considerably.


Portugal boasts an impressive transportation network which can make travelling around the country quite simple. To begin with there are numerous internal flights, rapidly transporting passengers between major urban hubs like Lisbon, Porto and Madeira.

For the most patient or budget-conscious travellers there are numerous low-cost buses to be found, especially in urban areas. One will also encounter an extensive train network, though these are both more expensive and less frequent than auto bus.

If you want to explore the less popular parts of the country it may be necessary to hire a car, which can be done reasonably cheaply. Most overseas driving licenses (including a UK license) are acceptable and the Portuguese drive on the right-hand side of the road. Note that all cars must possess a warning triangle and a hi-visibility jacket in case of emergency; check in advance whether the car hire company provide these to you.

However before you get behind the wheel in Portugal there are some important disclaimers you need to be aware of. Firstly, driving standards in Portugal are considered to be poor at best. Road fatalities are roughly twice that of the UK.

Secondly driving in Lisbon or Porto will try the patience of even experienced drivers, on account of the congestion which is experienced all day long. At rush hour the roads frequently grind to a halt altogether.

Next, drivers should be aware that road signs are almost exclusively presented in Portuguese (when present), potentially presenting problems for tourists unfamiliar with the language. If hiring a car it is advisable to ask whether the rental firm can also provide you with an English-language satnav to help you navigate successfully.

Lastly be aware that many of the motorways, while of good quality, are in fact toll roads. The downside is that you will need to navigate the often-complex toll payment system which, depending on the road, may involve pre-paying at a Post Office, buying a ticket on entry or exit, or paying later thanks to a number-plate recognition system. Tell your car hire firm where you plan to drive so they can help to plan appropriately for your journey.

The flipside is that many Portuguese drivers refuse to pay these tolls, and so would rather travel on older, less-direct roads. This means that visitors ready and willing to pay their way will often find that they have these freshly-built roads almost to themselves.

Within urban areas taxis are plentiful and reasonably-priced. They can be identified by the letter “A” on the door or number plate. Alternatively Lisbon and Porto both benefit from an extensive subway system which operates from early in the morning right through till long after midnight.

However the most charming form of transportation to be found in either of these cities are the ancient trams. They still function perfectly to this day, carting locals and tourists around the city in rustic style.


Portugal is considered to have an advanced healthcare system, recently rated by the United Nations above those of the UK and Germany. Expats and travellers alike can therefore look forward to high levels of medical care if necessary. Many doctors in both private and public medical facilities speak English and an ambulance may be summoned at any time by dialling 112.

Visitors to Portugal from other European nations should arrange an EHIC card before departure, which will facilitate care in Portugal. Note, however, that an EHIC does not necessarily offer uniformly free healthcare; only certain procedures and medications are generally covered, while others will need to be subsidized personally. Very few prescriptions are covered with an EHIC card, and only essential care in public facilities will be permitted. Other forms of care will need to be paid for by the individual.

For this reason, an EHIC card should not be considered a free alternative to overseas healthcare insurance. Such a policy will not only stand a far better chance of covering all medical bills when away from home, but will also offer additional benefits such as repatriation services if required.

Residents in Portugal, including expats, will be eligible to join the Portuguese equivalent of the National Health Service. Known as “SNS”, this system deducts a small amount of money from employees, and subsequently funds free healthcare for those with the relevant residency card. Even so, expats should consider a third-party health insurance policy for the maximum protection in cases of accident or emergency.


The currency of Portugal is the Euro, which took over from the Portuguese Escudo in 2002.

Visitors are welcome to bring Euros with them, or to make use of currency exchange offices on arrival. For your ease, ATMs are commonplace, with many international credit and debit cards being accepted. In such a way it is entirely possible to withdraw local currency when in Portugal.


Compulsory education exists in Portugal between the ages of 6 and 15. Generally schooling in Portugal is considered of high quality, even in state-run schools. Enrolment is almost 100%, literacy rates are high and over a third of students continue on to university after school.

Pleasantly, schooling in Portugal is free for all, even expats. As a result, you may opt to enrol your children in a local school. However there are two major concerns about this option.

Firstly, class sizes are relatively large. Private schools, while fee-paying, typically offer smaller class sizes and, as a result, more one-to-one tuition. Secondly lessons are taught almost exclusively in Portuguese which can create problems for many students.

It is for this reason that many expats opt to enrol their children in one of the many international schools to be found around major urban areas like Lisbon. That said, before considering such an option, parents should carefully examine not just the costs involved, but also the logistics of such an operation. Most international schools in Portugal are located outside the main city centres, which can make ferrying children to and from school – especially through the infamous Lisbon rush-hour traffic – something of a challenge.

It is not unheard of for private and international schools to require the sitting of entrance exams before places are granted, so also be sure what the entry requirements of your chosen establishment will be.

Food & Drink

The Portuguese typically enjoy a continental-style breakfast, consisting of bread, cheese and ham, served with hot tea of coffee. Lunches are typically light and enjoyed around midday. However it is dinner that is the “main event” in Portugal. Normally served quite late in the evening, typical recipes are warm and hearty, and based on locally-sourced ingredients.

If there is one thing that the Portuguese love to eat its seafood. Indeed, the country boasts the highest consumption of fish in Europe on a per capita basis.

It should therefore come as no surprise that the national dish, known as “Bacalhau”, should be fish-based. Essentially dried cod, there are said to be over a thousand different recipes using Bacalhau as the main ingredient. A variety of other seafood dishes are encountered with regularity including sardines, sole and lobster.

Should you tire of what the ocean has to offer, you’ll be pleased to learn there are a range of other traditional delicacies to sample. “Caldo Verde” is one such meal; essentially a soup made from potato, kale and smoked sausage. Very popular among visitors are also the small custard tarts sprinkled with cinnamon known as “Pastel de nata”.

For the more adventurous consider ordering a plate of “Arroz de Sarrabulho”; essentially a rice dish that has been stewed in fresh pigs blood.

Of course, it goes without saying that in more urban areas one can sample a truly international culinary scene, with everything from fine dining establishments to well-known fast food joints.

No mention of Portugal’s culinary delights would be complete without a mention of two classic Portuguese beverages.

The first is a “green” wine known as “Vihno Verde”. The other is “port”, named after the city of Porto. This fortified wine is made by adding brandy to the grape juice before distillation. Unsurprisingly, port-drinking is something of a national pastime in Portugal where a dizzying array of different strengths, styles and flavours can be enjoyed.

Tap water in Portugal is generally considered safe to drink, though bottled water is also readily available.


Portugal is generally considered to be a very safe country, however there is an increasing prevalence of pick-pocketing and petty theft. These occurrences tend to be most common in tourist areas and on public transport. In light of these risks it is wise to keep all your belongings on your person and to split up valuables between different pockets. Stories exist of thieves lifting passports, wallets and more from a single pocket or bag in which they were stored together.

Be aware that in the heat of the Portuguese summer, vegetation is often baked dry and as a result forest fires are common in more rural areas. Try to keep an eye on local press to stay abreast of any areas best avoided due to the incidence of fire. If in any doubt, contact the emergency services on 112.

Besides these slight risks most visits to Portugal are without issues.

Places to Visit

As mentioned previously, Portugal represents a smorgasbord of opportunities for the tourist. This really is a country that seems to have it all, from quiet rural strolls to full-on extreme sports like mountain biking or parasailing. From historic old buildings to the very latest sporting facilities, a visit to Portugal is truly an experience for all the senses. Here are our top recommendations…

Jerónimos Monastery

This vast monastery and church was completed in 1601, one hundred years after work originally began. Built in the Gothic style, Jerónimos represents one of Lisbon’s finest buildings. As if its vast dimensions and stunning architecture both inside and out weren’t enough, try immersing yourself in the past by learning more about life for the monks who were originally stationed here.

Oceanario de Lisboa

Allegedly the second largest public aquarium in the world, visit the Oceanario to explore the wonders of the oceans. Here children and adults alike will be transfixed by every form of sea-life, from tiny brightly-coloured reef fish through to vast sharks. The stunning central basin, laid out like a vast coral reef, allows one to imagine you are actually underwater, with all the fish swimming past.


Madeira’s largest city, this area is rich with history and architectural interest. For the ultimate view of the city climb up high into the hills – or take the cable car for an easier journey – as the sun goes down. Far below you the city is lit up against the dark sky; thousands of tiny lights cloaking the side of the steep valley. For the most adventurous visitors the quickest way from the top to the bottom is in one of the wicker “toboggans” which are steered by locals through the narrow city streets.

Caldeira das Sete Cidades

On the island of Sao Miguel visitors will find this dormant volcanic crater. Over the years since it last spewed lava the cone has filled up with water, and lush vegetation has grown up around the rim. Today Caldeira das Sete Cidades represents one of the most scenic places in Portugal, where one can hike around the two lakes – each with their own distinct colour – one green, and one azure blue.


Located approximately 850 miles west of Portugal, this autonomous region enjoys not just a slightly different climate to the mainland but also entirely different wildlife. Like tropical jewels in the ocean, these nine volcanic islands are a hotspot for marine life. Climb Mount Pico – the highest peak in Portugal – or take a boat ride around the islands looking for the whales and dolphins which proliferate here.

For more information on moving abroad visit www.gov.uk/knowbeforeyougo.

Of course, if you’re planning on travelling to Portugal please ensure you have adequate expat travel insurance.

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