Aside from a few celebrities like Cristiano Ronaldo, José Mourinho, and maybe Salvador Sobral, most people would struggle to name more than a handful of famous Portuguese people. Scroll through the names on this list, however, and you might realise that you know more famous Portuguese people than you think.
Portugal has made a name for itself within sport, well within one sport anyway: football. Although there are plenty of great athletes in other disciplines, like athletics and cycling, it’s only really the footballers that are really known around the world.
Cristiano Ronaldo is probably the most famous name in football and one of the most famous Portuguese people worldwide. Born and raised on the Portuguese island of Madeira, Ronaldo left school at 14 to focus on playing football professionally.
Ronaldo began his football career with Sporting CP in Lisbon (sometimes called Sporting Lisbon), before signing with Manchester United in 2003. Ronaldo stayed with Manchester United until 2009 when he signed with Real Madrid and with Real Madrid until 2018 when he signed with Juventis.
As well as his career playing for international teams, Ronaldo has been an iconic player for the Portuguese national team and is the country’s all-time top goal scorer.
Before Ronaldo, there was Figo. Figo’s parents come from the Alentejo, but he grew up in Cova da Piedade in Almada. Although he’s now retired, it wasn’t that long ago that Figo held the record for the most caps for the Portuguese national team (127). Cristiano Ronaldo has since broken that record.
Like Ronaldo, Figo got his start at Sporting CP in Lisbon in 1989 (Sporting Sub17). He stayed with Sporting until 1995 when he was transferred to FC Barcelona. Figo stayed with FC Barcelona for 5 years, transferring to Real Madrid in 2000 before finally transferring to Inter in 2005.
Eusébio is considered to not only be one of the best Portuguese footballers of all time but one of the best in the world. Born in Lourenço Marques in former Portuguese Mozambique, Eusébio began playing football for local club Sporting Clube de Lourenço Marques.
During his footballing career, Eusébio scored 733 goals in 745 matches including 41 goals in 64 matches for Portugal. He also helped Benfica win 11 league titles as well as the 1962 European Cup, and scored 9 goals in the 1966 World Cup.
While Portuguese figures like Ronaldo and Figo have made a name for themselves in football by playing the sport, José Mourinho has made a name for himself as a football coach and manager.
Mourinho grew up in Setúbal, just outside of Lisbon. After dropping out of business school, Mourinho enrolled at the Superior de Educação Física at the University of Lisbon to study sports science.
His first professional position was Youth Coach for Vitória Setúbal in 1989, and he later became Assistant Manager for Estrela Amadora (1990), and then Ovarense (1991), before landing a job as assistant manager at Sporting CP (1993). He continued in assistant manager roles at FC Porto (1994) and FC Barcelona (1996), before accepting the position of manager at Benfica in 2000.
He became the manager for Chelsea FC in 2004, the position that he is probably most famous for. In 2015, he was named Portuguese Coach of the Century by the Portuguese Football Federation. Mourinho has won 25 major honours as a manager and is considered to be one of the most successful football managers of all time.
The most universally revered people in Portugal aren’t footballers (although they’re probably a close second), but the explorers of the 15th and 16th Centuries. This was the golden age of Portugal, and it’s a time that Portuguese people look back on proudly and commemorate through their monuments, flag, and fado songs.
The Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries) lists 33 important figures from the Age of Discoveries. It’s worth reading up on them all at some point but, in the meantime, here are some of the most important figures from that time.
Infante D. Henrique of Portugal (usually just referred to as Henry the Navigator) was a central figure in the Portuguese Age of Discoveries. Born in Porto in 1394, Henry was the 3rd son of King John I and Philippa of Lancaster.
Despite being known as “the navigator,” Henry never actually went on any voyages himself. He did, however, finance the expeditions: in 1420, he was made administrator general of the Order of Christ, which gave him access to funds that he was able to use to fund explorations of Northern Africa.
Under his expeditions, the Portuguese discovered and colonised the island of Madeira, the Azores, and several of the Cape Verde islands. He also sent voyages along the West African coast, many of which returned to Portugal with gold and slaves.
Henry died in Sagres in 1460 where it is believed that he may have established a school for navigators and map makers.
Bartolomeu Dias was born into a royal household in the Algarve around 1450. He is famous for being the first European to sail around the southernmost tip of Africa, which became an important trade route between Europe and India.
Dias had originally called the tip the Cape of Storms but later renamed it to the Cape of Good Hope in honour of the opportunities it would provide. Somewhat ironically, he ended up caught in a storm there in 1500, and that’s where he died.
Vasco da Gama
Vasco da Gama was born in Sines, either in 1460 or 1469. He is the first European explorer to reach India by sea, a feat that was made possible by Dias rounding the cape before him. He was also one of the first known Europeans to visit certain parts of Africa, like Mombasa in Mozambique.
Da Gama returned to Portugal a hero, and the Portuguese quickly returned to India and established the trade route.
Born into a noble family in Northern Portugal around 1480, Magellan is famous for organising a Spanish expedition to the East Indies that resulted in the first circumnavigation of the earth.
The route went down the coast of Africa, over to South America and past Patagonia, through Asia, and past the tip of Africa and back to Europe. Magellan actually died on the route, after a fallout with chieftains in the Philippines, but several of the boats managed to return to Europe the following year.
Portuguese writers don’t always make the bestseller lists, but there are several Portuguese writers whose names are famous around the world.
Born in 1888 in Lisbon, Pessoa is considered to be one of the great literary figures of the 20th Century. He was a poet, writer, literary critic, translator, publisher, and philosopher, and is regarded as a genius within Portugal.
He wrote under as many as 75 different pseudonyms (which he called heteronyms) and, under those names, he wrote poems, philosophical essays, literary essays,
Pessoa died in 1935. He is buried in Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (Jerónimos Monastery) along with other Portuguese heroes like Vasco da Gama, Luís de Camões, and Alexandre Herculano.
Luis de Camões
Luís Vaz de Camões was born sometime around 1524 although the date and location of his birth are unknown. Camões is considered to be Portugal’s greatest poet and is often compared to Shakespeare, Vondel, Homer, Virgil, and Dante.
While he wrote produced many great works, his most famous is without doubt Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads). It’s so famous, so reversed, and so influential, that Portuguese is sometimes called the “language of Camões”.
José Saramago is a more modern Portuguese writer who won the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature. In 2003, American literary critic Harold Bloom described Saramago as “the most gifted novelist alive in the world today.”
He was born in 1922 in the village of Azinhaga about 100 km north of Lisbon but grew up in Lisbon. He initially worked as a mechanic and metalworker before finding work as a journalist and translator.
It wasn’t until his sixties when he published his fourth novel, Memorial do Convento, that Saramago began to receive recognition for his work. Despite positive reviews of his book, Saramago still wasn’t held in high regard in Portugal mainly due to his membership of the Portuguese Communist Party and criticism of the Catholic Church.
In 1922, the Portuguese government even blocked him from competing for the Aristeion Prize, arguing that his book The Gospel According to Jesus Christ was offensive to catholics. Saramago then decided to leave Portugal and move to Lanzarote in Spain.
By the time Saramago died in 2010, however, Saramango had been recognised in Portugal and, when his death was announced, Portugal declared 2 days of mourning.
Music & other arts
Although there are some great bands and artists in Portugal, they’re usually not that well-known outside of the Portuguese-speaking world. There are a few names you’ll probably recognise, though.
Salvador Sobral is a Portuguese singer who won the Eurovision Song Contest for Portugal in 2017. He was the first Portuguese singer to win the Eurovision Song Contest and, not only that but Sobral and his entry “Amar pelos dois” hold the record for the highest-scoring winner.
Of all the names in Portuguese music, Amália Rodrigues is probably the most famous. Born in Lisbon in 1920, she became known as the “Queen of Fado,” and gave fado performances all over the world. To date, she is still the best-selling Portuguese artist of all time and has sold more than 30 millions albums.
After Rodrigues died in 1999, the Portuguese government declared 3 days of mourning. She is buried at the National Pantheon in Lisbon alongside previous Portuguese presidents Manuel de Arriaga, Teófilo Braga, Sidónio Pais, and Óscar Carmona, as well as football legend Eusébio.
Politics & business
António de Oliveira Salazar was the Prime Minister of Portugal from 1932 to 1968 and responsible for the Estado Novo, a corporatist authoritarian government that ruled Portugal until the Carnation Revolution in 1974. If the name sounds kind of familiar, it could be J. K. Rowling named one of her Harry Potter characters after him (Slytherin Salazar).
Salazar was born in 1889 in Vimieiro, and initially studied at a seminary in preparation for becoming a priest. Instead, he studied law at the University of Coimbra and later went on to become a professor of economics at the same university.
Opinions of Salazar are divided in Portugal. Some view him as a ruthless dictator while others see him as the greatest Portuguese person that ever lived, something which was publicly voted on an RTP television show.
In 1968, Salazar suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. He was expected to die but managed to continue living for another 2 years in his house. Nobody felt able to tell him that he had been removed from power and so he continued to “rule” during this time before dying in 1970.
António Guterres is a former Portuguese Prime Minister (1995 to 2002), but most non-Portuguese will know him as the 9th Secretary-General of the United Nations. Prior to that, he was the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees between 2005 and 2015.
According to two polls, one in 2012 and one in 2014, the Portuguese consider Guterres to be the best Prime Minister of the previous 30 years. He has received numerous awards and accolades including the Freedom Award, Calouste Gulbenkian International Prize, and honorary doctorates from numerous universities including the University of Coimbra, University of South Carolina, and Meiji University in Japan.