Be Amazed – 20 Fascinating Facts About Portugal

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Last updated on June 4, 2024 | Est. Reading Time: 15 minutes

From the golden, sandy beaches of the Algarve to the historic capital of Lisbon, Portugal’s allure is renowned worldwide. Its unique blend of rich history, vibrant culture, and stunning landscapes has captured the hearts of many. But beyond its famous port wine, custard tarts, and iconic Fado music, how much do you truly know about this Iberian gem?

Whether you’re gearing up for trivia night, planning your next travel adventure, or simply eager to broaden your knowledge, these intriguing Portuguese facts are perfect for you!

Get ready to dazzle your friends and family with these astonishing facts and lesser-known insights about the captivating country of Portugal.

Portugal is the Oldest Country in Europe

Portugal holds the distinction of being Europe’s most ancient nation-state. This venerable title was earned in 1139 when Portugal crowned King Afonso Henriques as its monarch. Adding to its historic allure, Lisbon, the capital, boasts an impressive legacy, reputedly outdating Rome by four centuries. Its strategic trading position attracted the Phoenicians, who established themselves in Lisbon around 1200 BC.

The World’s Oldest Bookstore is in Lisbon

Established in 1732, Livraria Bertrand’s flagship store in Lisbon’s Chiado district holds the prestigious recognition from the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest continually operating bookstore in the world, a title it was awarded in 2011.

Today, Livraria Bertrand operates across the nation with 59 stores, including two in Madeira.

The World’s Oldest Alliance is the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance

The world’s longest-standing diplomatic partnership is the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance. This historic alliance was initiated with the signing of the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty in 1373. Although there was a 60-year hiatus during the period when Portugal and Spain were united politically, the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance remains the oldest alliance in the world that is still active today.

Portuguese is the 9th Most Spoken Language Worldwide

According to Berlitz, Portuguese is the ninth most spoken language in the world. It is recognised as an official language in nine additional countries.

These nations include Angola, Brazil, Cabo Verde, East Timor, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Macau, Mozambique, and São Tomé and Príncipe, along with Goa in India. Ranking as the sixth most widely spoken native language globally, Portuguese boasts approximately 232.4 million first language speakers and 257.7 million total speakers.

Interestingly, the vast majority of people who speak Portuguese speak what’s referred to as Brazilian Portuguese due to Brazil having a population of around 214 million. As Portugal’s population is much smaller at around 10 million, the number of people who speak European Portuguese is much smaller. However, most people consider Portuguese as it’s spoken in places like Angola and Mozambique to be more similar to Portuguese as it’s spoken in Portugal.

Portugal and Spain once divided up the world

While it’s a myth that Portugal conquered half the world, it’s true that Portugal and Spain reached a significant agreement in 1494, known as the Treaty of Tordesillas.

This treaty, sanctioned by the Vatican, was an attempt to divide the world’s navigational and colonial rights between the two seafaring nations. To prevent ongoing disputes, they agreed on a demarcation line, approximately along the 25ºW meridian, situated roughly midway between Cape Verde and Cuba. This arrangement was intended to delineate the spheres of influence for Portugal and Spain.

However, it’s important to note that this treaty was only recognised by these two countries and largely disregarded by other emerging naval powers of the time, notably Protestant nations like England and the Netherlands.

Portugal is home to Europe’s Second-Longest Bridge

vasco da gama bridge
Vasco da gama bridge – © DepositPhotos

Constructed for the 1998 Lisbon Expo, the Vasco da Gama Bridge, spanning over 12 kilometres (7.5 miles), serves as a vital link between the northern and southern parts of Portugal. When it opened it was the longest bridge in Europe, but it has since been overtaken by the Crimean Bridge.

This bridge was officially opened on 29 March 1998, coinciding with the Lisbon World Exposition. Its remarkable length is such that, on overcast days, it’s often impossible to see from one end to the other!

Named in honour of the esteemed Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, the bridge celebrates the 500th anniversary of his historic voyage from India in 1498, marking the first time a European reached India by sea via the Atlantic Ocean.

The building of this engineering marvel required the efforts of 3,300 workers and was completed in just 18 months.

Portugal Had the Longest Dictatorship in Europe

Portugal holds the record for the longest-lasting dictatorship in Europe, enduring from 1926 to 1974. This period was largely dominated by António de Oliveira Salazar’s rule and marked by staunch nationalistic conservatism, heavily influenced by Catholicism.

The dictatorship in Portugal unfolded in three distinct phases: initially as a military dictatorship (Ditadura Militar) from 1926 to 1928, followed by the national dictatorship (Ditadura Nacional) from 1928 to 1933, and finally, the Estado Novo (New State) from 1933 to 1974.

The regime eventually came to an end with a peaceful uprising known as the Carnation Revolution on 25 April 1974. This revolution is celebrated annually in Portugal as Freedom Day (Dia da Liberdade), commemorating the country’s transition to democracy.

Drugs Have Been Decriminalised Since 2001

Portugal adopted a groundbreaking approach to drug policy in 2001 by decriminalising all drugs. Facing one of Europe’s highest rates of HIV transmission via injected drug use towards the late 20th century, the Portuguese government shifted its perspective, treating the issue as a public health concern. This policy shift has led to a decrease in drug overdose incidents and new HIV infections.

However, it should be noted that decriminalised does not mean legalised. Those caught with drugs may not face jail time but may faces fines or be required to attend a rehabilitation program.

Although the program has been hailed as successful worldwide, the Washington Post notes it’s far from perfect.

Portugal became a model for progressive jurisdictions around the world embracing drug decriminalization, such as the state of Oregon, but now there is talk of fatigue. Police are less motivated to register people who misuse drugs and there are year-long waits for state-funded rehabilitation treatment even as the number of people seeking help has fallen dramatically.

Anthony Faiola and Catarina Fernandes Martins

Another related problem has been the increase in gangs selling fake drugs who typically approach foreigners whispering “hash, marijuana, cocaine”. While this doesn’t sound problematic in itself, it has lead to tourists being harassed and drug sellers using the opportunity to pickpocket tourists while whispering.

There’s a Town in Spain that the Portuguese Want Back

Welcome to Spain sign
“Olivença is ours it’s Portuguese” – © Portugalist

Olivença, along with its seven adjacent villages, stands as one of the final contested regions in Western Europe, straddling the border between Portugal and Spain. Known as Olivenza in Spain, this town was a part of Portuguese territory for half a millennium until the early 19th century. Subsequently, it came under Spanish control, and since then, Portugal has been persistently seeking its return.

The World’s Shortest International Bridge is in Portugal

worlds smallest international bridge
© Portugalist

In the picturesque Alentejo region of Portugal, you’ll find the “World’s Shortest International Bridge,” a charming footbridge that stretches a mere 3.2 meters (10.4 feet) in length, bridging the border between Portugal and Spain.

Funded by the European Union, this unique bridge connects the quaint village of Várzea Grande in Portugal to its Spanish counterpart, El Marco, in Extremadura.

In the warmer seasons, the Arroyo Abrilongo river, which the bridge elegantly spans, narrows to such an extent that one could almost leap across it without the need for the footbridge.

The Largest Wave Ever Surfed is in Portugal

In October 2020, Sebastian Steudtner etched his name into the annals of surfing history with an awe-inspiring feat. In the heart of Nazaré, Portugal, a renowned hotspot for its astonishingly gigantic waves, Steudtner achieved the extraordinary. He embarked on a tow-surfing adventure that led him to conquer a colossal wave, towering at a staggering height of 86 feet.

This remarkable achievement earned him the prestigious Guinness World Record for “Largest Wave (Male),” solidifying his status as a legend in the world of big wave surfing.

Aside from that feat, Portugal stands proudly as one of the planet’s premier surf destinations, drawing wave enthusiasts from far and wide. With a coastline that stretches an impressive 497 miles (800 kilometers), it offers an abundance of surf-worthy spots. What truly sets Portugal apart is its reputation for providing surfable conditions on a remarkable 364 out of 365 days in the year.

Portugal is Home to the Most Westerly Point in Europe

cabo da roca
Cabo da Roca – © Portugalist

Cabo da Roca, Portugal, claims the distinction of being the westernmost point not only in the country but also in continental Europe.

Nestled within the picturesque Sintra-Cascais Natural Park, just a short distance west of Lisbon city centre, Cabo da Roca beckons adventurers and nature enthusiasts alike to explore its rugged beauty and embrace its remarkable geographical significance.

Soaring to a commanding height of 140 meters (460 feet), Cabo da Roca treats visitors to breathtaking vistas of the vast Atlantic Ocean. With a history that harks back to Roman times when it was known as “Promontorium Magnum,” and later earning the moniker “Rock of Lisbon” during the Age of Sail between the 16th and 19th centuries, this coastal gem has a rich and storied past.

However, even though Cabo da Roca is the most westerly point in mainland Europe, it’s not the most westerly point in Europe. However, that feat also goes to Portugal. The Monchique Islet in the Azores Islands, Portugal, situated on the North American Plate, holds the distinction of being the westernmost point if it’s considered part of Europe. Alternatively, if we exclude areas on different tectonic plates, the Capelinhos Volcano on Faial Island, Azores Islands, Portugal, at 28° 50′ 00″ W, stands as the westernmost point of the Eurasian Plate above sea level.

Whatever way you want to look at it, Portugal gets the title.

Portugal is the World’s Largest Producer of Cork

Cork drying in sun
Cork drying in sun – © Portugalist

Cork holds a significant and prestigious position among Portugal’s top exports. In fact, Portugal proudly reigns as the world’s largest producer of cork, contributing to over 50% of the global cork supply. While a substantial portion of this versatile material finds its purpose as wine bottle stoppers, cork’s applications have expanded beyond the realm of winemaking.

Its properties make it an excellent choice for sound and heat insulation, leading to its increased use in soundproofing materials and as floor tiles.

Beyond construction and insulation, cork has found its way into a wide array of products and accessories. From handbags, purses, and wallets to mouse mats, yoga mats, iPad covers, and shoes, cork has become a fashionable and eco-friendly choice.

Its versatility even extends to the realm of furniture, where cork adds both style and functionality to pieces. Surprisingly, cork’s adaptability also makes it suitable for use inside woodwind instruments, enhancing their sound quality, and it plays a role in the construction of baseballs.

Portugal’s Biggest Export is Port Wine

Buying Port wine can be a little overwhelming, especially if it's your first time
Buying Port wine can be a little overwhelming, especially if it’s your first time – © Portugalist

Cork might be a major export, but Portugal’s biggest export is Port wine.

To create port wine, grape spirit or brandy is added to the wine before the fermentation process is complete. This infusion results in a sweet and robust wine, boasting an alcohol content of approximately 20%. After this initial stage, the wine undergoes a maturation process, aging gracefully in either oak barrels or steel containers before it is bottled.

What makes port wine even more special is its exclusive connection to the steeply terraced hillsides of the Douro Valley near Porto. This captivating region is not only celebrated for its viticulture but also holds the prestigious distinction of being one of the world’s oldest established wine-producing areas. In recognition of its historical significance and viticultural traditions, the Douro Valley has earned a well-deserved place as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Portugal has More Indigenous Grape Varietals Than Anywhere Else

Wine growing in a vineyard on Pico, Azores
Wine growing in a vineyard on Pico, Azores – © Portugalist

Want a sauvignon blanc or a Malbec? While those varietals may be popular in the rest of the world, in Portugal you’re more likely to come across grapes like Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, and Trincadeira.

In fact, Portugal boasts an astonishing diversity of indigenous grape varieties, with over 250 of them thriving within its borders, making it the country with the highest concentration of native grape varieties per square kilometer in the world.

While this wealth of grape diversity is a testament to Portugal’s rich viticultural heritage, it does present unique challenges for Portuguese wine producers seeking to market their wines abroad. Firstly, these indigenous grape varieties are not widely known because they are exclusive to Portugal, leaving consumers unfamiliar with their characteristics. Secondly, the names of these grapes can be not only unfamiliar but also challenging to pronounce, adding an extra layer of complexity for those interested in Portuguese wines. Additionally, the same grape variety may go by different names in different regions of the country, causing further confusion.

Nando’s Isn’t Portuguese

What piri piri actually looks like
What piri piri actually looks like – © Portugalist

Many people think Nando’s is Portuguese, but in reality, Nando’s is a South African restaurant chain that draws inspiration from a Mozambican recipe, adding a Portuguese theme to its offerings. This blend of culinary influences may sound a bit perplexing, and it is.

In fact, many visitors to Portugal are often surprised to discover that very few items from a typical Nando’s menu can be found in the country itself. However, Portugal does have piri-piri chicken, which is essentially what Nando’s is based on—just without the sides, sauces, and everything else.

The Portuguese Empire Was One of the Largest and Longest-Lasting

The Portuguese Empire stands as one of the longest-lasting colonial empires in the annals of European history, boasting an impressive span of nearly six centuries. Its remarkable journey commenced with the conquest of Ceuta in North Africa in 1415 and concluded with the transfer of sovereignty over Macau to China in 1999.

The empire’s origins trace back to the 15th century, but it truly began to flourish in the early 16th century, expanding its dominion across the world. Portuguese explorers and navigators ventured far and wide, establishing bases in Africa, North America, South America, and various regions of Asia and Oceania.

In addition to colonisation, the Portuguese played a pivotal role in the age of exploration. They were pioneers in circumnavigating the tip of Africa, reaching India by sea, and laying claim to the discovery of Brazil. It’s worth noting that some believe Christopher Columbus, the renowned explorer, may have hailed from Portugal, with Madeira being a possible place of origin. Others believe he may come from Cuba in the Alentejo.

Portugal Introduced Tea to England

The arrival of Catherine of Braganza in 1662, when she married Charles II, brought with it a delightful and fashionable import from Portugal – tea. Having grown up in a culture where tea was the preferred everyday beverage, Catherine introduced this beloved drink to the English court.

Her fondness for tea quickly made it a trend among the English elite, starting with the ladies of the court and gradually captivating a wider audience. The elegant allure of tea, as championed by Catherine, became a symbol of refinement and sophistication, marking the beginning of England’s enduring love affair with this cherished beverage.

As well as introducing tea to England, it’s believed that the Portuguese brought tempura to Japan.

Portugal’s National Dish is Imported

Bacalhau in a Portuguese supermarket
Bacalhau in a Portuguese supermarket – © Portugalist

The Portuguese love to eat fish and living next to the Atlantic have access to all sorts of varieties. But the fish that the Portuguese love the most, cod, has to be imported. In Portugal, that cod (known as bacalhau) is typically preserved in salt rather than eaten fresh.

Portugal proudly holds the title of the world’s largest consumer of cod, with a staggering 20 percent of all cod caught globally finding its way to Portuguese tables.

According to certain authors, the Vikings, driven by their quest for salt, ventured to what is now modern-day Portugal. During their visits, they shared their knowledge of fish preservation techniques with the local inhabitants. In return, the Norsemen obtained valuable salt from the region’s saltpans. Over time, the Portuguese, following a similar path as the Basques, began fishing for cod in the vast Atlantic waters off Newfoundland and the Canadian coast. This practice dates back to as early as the 15th century, as per historical records.

Cod’s suitability for long journeys is attributed to its high protein content and low fat content, making it easy to preserve for the voyage home. This enduring culinary tradition has solidified cod’s status as an integral part of Portuguese cuisine and culture.

A Staggering Number of Portuguese Live Abroad

Portugal has the highest emigration rate as a proportion of its population in the European Union. An astonishing statistic reveals that over two million Portuguese citizens, accounting for approximately 20% of the country’s population, have chosen to build their lives beyond Portugal’s borders. This migration phenomenon is driven by the pursuit of improved living standards and employment opportunities.

Between the years 2011 and 2014 alone, an estimated 485,000 Portuguese workers made the decision to leave their homeland in search of better prospects elsewhere. Among the destinations, Luxembourg has emerged as a significant hub for the Portuguese diaspora. In 2021, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg hosted 93,678 Portuguese residents, constituting a substantial 14.5% of the country’s total population. This strong presence of the Portuguese community abroad reflects the dynamic and resilient spirit of the Portuguese people, who have made their mark around the world.

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James Cave is the founder of Portugalist and the author of the bestselling book, Moving to Portugal Made Simple. He has visited just about every part of Portugal, including Madeira and all nine islands of the Azores, and lived in several parts of Portugal including Lisbon, the Algarve, and Northern Portugal.

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  1. Thanks for these interesting facts James. Portugal has certainly carved a special place in the history of Europe and the world.

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