Portugal Country Guide
Portugal is one of Europe’s premier travel destinations, having won repeated awards over the years. Plaudits have been received for the country’s 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. Some love it so much they relocate there for a more relaxed way of life.
Over the centuries, Portugal has experienced the imperial might of the Celts, Romans and Moors. More recently, Portugal itself has become 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 is championed as one of the warmest countries in Europe. Temperatures in the Algarve (southern continental Portugal) can hit over 30°C in the hottest summer months of July and August. However, in general, the country benefits from having a Mediterranean climate; warm dry summers and mild damp winters. But, temperatures and rainfall do vary throughout the country based upon geographical location and topography.
The reason the Algarve is so warm is due to an arrangement of large hills protecting the likes of Faro, Lagos and Albufeira from harsh weather. Temperatures in this popular holiday location are pleasant all year round and the summer heat is usually made bearable by cooling sea breezes off the Atlantic Ocean.
Portugal also benefits from several 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 compared to mainland Portugal.
In contrast, the north of Portugal is mountainous. The higher altitude results in a drop in temperature compared to southern areas and snow is not uncommon in the winter months. Generally, temperatures in the mountains tend to vary between 8°C and 12°C.
–Lisbon Monthly Temperatures and Rainy Days
–Porto Average Monthly Temperatures and Rainy Days
–Faro Average Monthly Temperatures and Rainy Days
With a population well over 10 million it comes as a surprise to many that Portugal’s ethnic and cultural composition is considered to be quite homogenous. Only around 5% of Portugal’s population is made up of immigrants. The only noticeable minority group residing in the country is Romani Gypsies, with around 50,000 calling Portugal home.
The over-riding religion in Portugal is Roman Catholicism, which is reflected in the traditional and conservative nature of the 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.
The only real stumbling block many expats face in Portugal is the language barrier. Learning the language is key to feeling at home in Portugal as, although many locals do know some basic English in the cities, expats should be able to hold conversation in the national language. It helps with integration and takes away the feeling of being an outsider.
In general, foreigners who move to Portugal are more likely to be bowled over by the pace of life than anything else. Everything is very relaxed and there is little in the way of rushing. Although this can sound incredibly appealing at first, there are times when it can lead to frustration.
Reserved expats may find it hard to get used to the level of affection shown during even the most fleeting of meetings. Regardless of if you are a stranger or not, men will always shake hands and women will always kiss on both cheeks. Men will sometimes kiss each other to show great affection or joy.
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.
Many assume that the official language of Portugal is Spanish. However, it is actually Portuguese. Both Portuguese and Spanish look very similar written down but they sound different when spoken. Expats with a grasp of Spanish will find it useful in Portugal.
Despite not being a large country in terms of land or population, Portuguese is the sixth most widely spoken language in the world, with approximately 237 million speakers across the globe. The only languages ahead of Portuguese are Arabic, Hindi, English, Spanish and Chinese.
Aside from Portugal itself, there are a few ex-colonies for which the language is still the national tongue. These include Mozambique, Cape Verde, Angola and Equatorial Guinea.
|British Phrase||Portuguese Phrase|
|How are you?||Como voce esta?|
|I am fine, thankyou||Eu estou bem, obrigado|
Many expats living in the Algarve or rural Portugal tend to own cars. This is not to say that other citizens cannot take to the roads, it is just not a necessity outside of these areas. In general, Portugal’s road network is modern but, like any country, there are unmaintained areas. Rural roads tend to deteriorate quickly so beware of pot holes or subsidence.
Expats who do own a car in Portugal should be aware of the unified electronic toll paying system in place. It is better value for Expats to pay for a yearly subscription that will allow them to travel on all toll roads for the year as opposed to paying for the separate journeys. New drivers in the country should always drive defensively as Portuguese drivers are notoriously erratic behind the wheel. However, the government has taken steps to alleviate dangerous driving by introducing harsh punishments.
Public transport boasts the most extensive network and is the easiest way to get around Portugal. The vast number of internal flights are ideal for travelling between 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.
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.
Emergency Numbers of Portugal:
- Ambulance, Police, Fire Brigade: 112
- Health Line: 808 242 424
- Forest Fires: 117
- Sea Rescue: 214 401 919
- Maritime Police: 210 911 10
Before 1st January 1991, Portugal’s currency was the Portuguese escudo. Portugal was one of the 19 European Union members to agree to a universal currency. Euro coins and notes were introduced in the January and as of 28th February, the Portuguese escudo lost its legal tender status in
the country and the euro was the official currency.
Each euro is divided into 100 cents and there are 50, 20, 10, 5, 2, and 1 cent coins. There are also 1 and 2 euro coins and notes are available in denominations of 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, and 500.
Expats will be happy to learn that Portugal has a modern and efficient banking system. All banks in Portugal are part of a national group called Multibanco. For this reason, accounts are extremely accessible and account holders can use their Multibanco debit card in all transactions and ATMs. There are a variety of different Multibanco accounts to choose from and all come with internet banking as standard.
To open an account in Portugal expat will simply need to visit with appropriate documentation.
Residents of EU countries will need:
- Passport or identity card
- NIF number (available from the local finance office)
- Residency card
- Proof of name and address (e.g. utility bill)
Residents of Non-EU countries will need:
- A passport
- Proof of address in country of origin
- Tax card and proof of employment
Multibanco is championed in Portugal and, aside from the usual banking tasks, allows its users to complete a wide variety of tasks. Expats will find they can pay utility bills, load their mobiles with talk time, pay income tax, pay value-added tax, purchase concert tickets and pay motor tolls.
Portuguese banks are generally open from 8.30am to 3pm from Monday to Friday. Certain banks extend opening hours till 4pm on Fridays and some open for a limited time on Saturday mornings.
Compulsory education exists in Portugal between the ages of six and 15. Public schools in Portugal are free for both locals and expats. Signing up for the local catchment school is not a problem. However, state schools have come under much scrutiny. Frequent teacher strikes, high drop-out rates and low literacy rates aren’t attractive prospects for expats used to Western standards of teaching.
Furthermore, class sizes are relatively large and lessons are taught almost exclusively in Portuguese which can create problems for many students. Although this can be ideal for younger children who could pick up the language easily, it does sound alarm bells with many expat parents.
Although fee-paying, many foreign parents send their child to private schools. These schools typically offer smaller class sizes and lessons are taught in the mother tongue of the child’s country.
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, made with 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 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 pig’s 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. Considering 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.
Aside from low level crime it is mother nature that is the biggest threat in Portugal. Areas of woodland that are scorched by the summer sun can easily catch light. Forest fires are common after periods of drought and winds can make them hard to control. If you see a forest fire call 112 or 117 immediately.
Some expats in Portugal fall foul at Madeira’s levadas (ancient irrigation channels). They are a popular place for hiking but can be challenging and the steep cliff drops have resulted in many tragedies. Visitors should be prepared for narrow uneven paths and heights. It is best to choose a route that is best suited to your ability or walk with a guide. If it has rained, wear appropriate footwear and be aware it is slippery.
Lastly, beach goers should abide by lifeguard’s warning flags and orders. Deaths by drowning occur every year on Portuguese beaches and the Maritime Police will fine bathers who disobey safety measures.
If you are at the beach do not enter the water if there is a red flag. If there is a yellow flag you may paddle or sit in the shallows, but not swim. A green flag indicates it is safe to swim. If you see a chequered flag, this means the beach is temporarily unmanned and no lifeguard is present. Be vigilant during this time.
Places to Visit
Portugal represents a smorgasbord of opportunities for tourists and expats. 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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.