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Portugal Travel Guide: Where to go, when to go, Money, & Everything Else

Last updated: November 2019*

Since first travelling in Portugal back when I was 21, I have since travelled all over the country – to every corner on continental Portugal and across the Portuguese islands in the Atlantic Ocean. 

The following guide to travel in Portugal is based on many years of travelling and living in Portugal. Hopefully, it’ll help you make the most of your time here. 


Portugal is a fantastic country to travel in. It’s friendly and welcoming, it’s affordable, and it has great weather. It has a wonderfully interesting history and culture that very few people know about, and a cuisine that – with the exception of the pastel de nata – few people have ever tried. 

It’s also an easy country to travel in. English is widely spoken, particularly in the cities and in the Algarve. Many Portuguese people speak Spanish to some degree, and many older Portuguese people speak French. 

It’s also safe – one of the safest countries in the world, in fact – making it a popular destination for families, older travellers, solo female travellers, and LGBTQ travellers. 

Where to Visit

You might already have an idea of where you want to visit. If you don’t know, or you’re looking for some more inspiration, you’re in the right place. 

Portugal has it all. It’s not just Lisbon and it’s not just beaches, although these are often the first things that spring to mind when people think of Portugal. In reality, Portugal is an incredibly varied country with something for everyone. 

The most popular destinations in Portugal are usually: 

These are all great destinations. Others that I really like include:

  • The Douro
  • The Azores
  • Monsanto
  • Serpa
  • Peneda-Gerês National Park
  • Serra da Estrela

Tip: I get a lot of emails from people visiting Portugal who try to cram as many destinations into a week as possible, and just reading the itineraries often makes me feel exhausted. 

Portugal will always be here, and there’s nothing wrong with coming back to the same country two years in a row. Give yourself enough time to see each destination, and try to cut down on the amount of time you spend driving, on a train or bus, or at the airport by picking destinations that are close together. 

What are you looking for?

Some people want history and culture while others want to sit on the beach. Others again want to eat, play golf, or hike. Portugal has all of these things but they’re not necessarily in the same places.

  • City Break: Lisbon and Porto are the two largest cities, and each need at least 2 days but ideally 3-4 days. Coimbra and Évora are smaller cities with lots of historical attractions, but ideal for shorter or weekend breaks. 
  • Beaches: Without a doubt, the best region for beaches is The Algarve. Although it’s touristy, it has more than 100 beaches so it’s always possible to get away from the crowds. There are also beautiful beaches in the Alentejo, Silver Coast, and just about everywhere on the Portuguese coast really. 
  • Food: While there’s great food to be found everywhere in Portugal, the North of Portugal and The Alentejo stand out as two of the best regions. 
  • Wine: Portugal’s most famous wine region is The Douro, followed by The Alentejo. Other regions that are worth exploring include The Dão, Bairrada, Vinho Verde, and the unique wine growing landscapes of The Azores, particularly on Pico. 
  • Surfing: Portugal is a popular destination for surfers, and there are several surfing hotspots around the country like Ericeira, Peniche, Nazaré, as well as Sagres and the Western Coast of the Algarve, particularly around Aljezur
  • Walking: Portugal has fantastic walks in every region, as well as longer multi-day hikes like the Portuguese Way (Caminho Português de Santiago), The Algarve Way, and a number of different pilgrimages to Fátima
  • Golf: The Algarve is where Portugal’s best golf courses can be found, but it’s not the only place. There are also fantastic courses in other parts of the country, particularly Troia and on Portugal’s Silver Coast. 

7 tips for visiting Portugal

  1. Don’t go straight to Ryanair, Booking, or Avis. Find the best deals by using comparison sites like Skyscanner (for flights, car rental, and hotels), HotelsCombined (for hotels), and RentalCars.com (for cars). 
  2. Don’t forget to check Airbnb as well. Often it’s cheaper than a hotel but, even if it isn’t, at the very least it gives you more options.
  3. You can get discounts of up to 65% off if you buy your train tickets at least 8 days in advance (does not apply to regional, interregional, and urban trains). 
  4. July & August are the hottest, busiest, and most expensive months to visit Portugal. If you can, it’s better to avoid them. 
  5. If your bank account is in a different currency (e.g. GBP or USD), the ATM will offer to do the conversion for you. Select no and let your bank do it instead. You’ll get a much better deal. 
  6. It’s always good to carry some cash in Portugal as card payments are mainly only common in the cities and more touristy regions. 
  7. Sunscreen is expensive in Portugal (around €10 per bottle) but Lidl’s bottle only costs around €3. 

Those tips are just a sample of the tips that appear in the longer Portuguese travel tips article. Be sure to check it out. 

When to visit

Depending on when you can take time off, you may not have a choice of when you can visit Portugal. If you do have some flexibility, however, it’s worth paying attention to the following. 

  • The busiest months are July and August, but especially in August. Cities like Lisbon, Porto, and Coimbra will be particularly busy during this time and The Algarve will be at its busiest. June and September are usually good months alternatives to the crowded summer months. 
  • Understand that Portugal has several different climates. While The Algarve has mild winters with temperatures in the high teens, winters in Porto and the North of Portugal are similar to those found in the UK and Ireland. Lisbon is somewhere in between but closer to the Algarve. 
  • The Alentejo is like an oven in July and August, so it’s best to avoid visiting places like Évora and Beja at that time of year. Coimbra, although further North and close to the coast, also seems to get hot and stuffy at that time of year. 
  • During the summer months, there are lots of interesting festivals where locals eat, drink, and dance the night away to crappy Pimba music. Two of the most famous festivals are Lisbon’s Santo Antonio festival and Porto’s São João festival, both of which take place in June. 

Getting here

For most people, getting to Portugal means taking a flight although many others visit Portugal as part of a cruise or by driving here

Skyscanner is usually the best website for comparing flights as it not only compares multiple airlines but it also allows you to:

  1. See when the cheapest prices across a month are. 
  2. See which airport in Portugal is cheapest to fly to. 

These days, because flights are so affordable, it generally doesn’t make any more financial sense to drive rather than to fly. It does mean that you don’t need a car, though, and can be useful if you’re planning on staying in Portugal for longer. 

Healthcare

EEA and Swiss citizens are entitled to free or reduced emergency medical treatment under the EHIC scheme.

If you’re not entitled to the EHIC Scheme, you should take out travel insurance to cover you if you need medical treatment.

Getting around

Renting A Car

If you’re only planning on visiting cities like Lisbon and Porto, there’s no need to rent a car – especially for the entirety of your trip. If you plan to leave the cities, or want to visit beaches or other remote destinations, however, you will probably need to rent a car for at least some of your trip. 

RentalCars.com and Skyscanner are the two best sites for comparing car hire as they produce slightly different results. Most other car hire websites just use RentalCar’s results, so you really only need to do a search on these two sites. 

Tip: Driving in Portugal comes with its own challenges, so it’s worth reading up on these driving tips beforehand. 

Hiring a car (and a driver)

When people talk about hiring a car in Europe, they usually mean just renting the car. Hiring a car with a driver isn’t very common here unless it’s a taxi or airport transfer. 

That said, there are some companies that allow you to hire a car and driver who will chauffeur you around Portugal and take you to all the different attractions. Normally, these are booked for a day or two at a time but it’s also possible to book a driver for the entirety of your trip.

Airport transfers

There are airport transfer companies at every airport in Portugal including Lisbon, Porto, Faro, Madeira, and Ponta Delgada

In The Azores, it can be harder to find an airport transfer company that you can book in advance but you’ll probably need to hire a car there anyway. All Portuguese airports have a taxi rank outside them as well. 

Public Transport

Portugal has good public transport at a national level. It’s affordable, and you can get to any part of the country by bus and *often* by train as well. 

At a local level, public transport is usually very good in cities like Lisbon and Porto, but not as good once you start to get into the countryside. If you are committed to travelling rural Portugal by public transport, it is doable but it’ll take a bit of planning and you may not always be able to find timetables or buy tickets online. 

Train

portugal-train

Portugal has a good train service that mainly covers the western side of the country as well as some parts of the Algarve, Central, and Northern Portugal. The trains are old and not in any way luxurious, but they’re reliable and tickets aren’t expensive. 

There are often discounted rates if you book in advance, and you can easily book online or buy tickets at the train station itself. 

Unfortunately, you can’t get everywhere in Portugal by train. Even in regions that do have extensive train services, like the Algarve, it’s not possible to get to every town or village by train. 

portugal train map
A map of Portugal’s train network

Long distance buses

Rede Expressos Bus Lisbon

We tend to think of train travel as the more luxurious way to travel, but that’s not necessarily the case in Portugal. Although there is something nice about the rhythm of the train and going along train tracks rather than the road, coaches in Portugal are much more modern than the trains. This means that the seats are often more comfortable, and both the air conditioning and wifi are more likely to work. 

The bus network is also much more extensive than the train network, so there’s a good chance that you may have to take the bus anyway. 

If you do have a choice, which is the better option? It depends. If you are eligible for an advanced booking discount, the train may actually be cheaper than the bus. It’s also often faster, although this varies from trip to trip. Basically, you’ll probably have to look at both options and compare for yourself. 

Local buses

All regions in Portugal have a local bus service. Generally the buses are older, and it’s usually not possible to buy tickets online. Sometimes finding timetables can be a challenge as well, and there’s a good chance you’ll need to do things the old-fashioned way and actually go into the bus station. 

On the islands, particularly The Azores, there are very limited bus services and it’s difficult to get around without a car. 

Taxis

Taxis in Portugal are quite affordable, at least compared to other countries. Taxis are usually metered or, in the case of The Azores, they might have a set list of prices. 

Uber is also available in places like Lisbon, Porto, and the Algarve and there are other taxi apps like Bolt, Free Now, and Cabify that you might not have heard of before. Almost all offer a free or discounted rate on the first ride, so you can save a bit of money by trying out all of the apps. 

  • Uber has the most drivers, which means your ride will arrive faster. 
  • Kapten offers the best discount for your first ride and for referring friends. 
  • If you want a “real taxi,” use the Free Now app. 

Flights

Because Portugal is quite a small country, flying is only really worth it if you’re flying between Porto Airport and Faro Airport in the Algarve. You can fly between Lisbon and Porto or Faro and Lisbon as well but, even though the flights take less than an hour, you end up spending a lot of time getting to the airport and waiting at the airport. 

Cost-wise, flying can be more or less the same as taking the train or a bus but usually that’s only if you don’t check in a bag. Buses and trains, on the other hand, don’t charge you for luggage. 

Tips:

  • Use a flight comparison site like Skyscanner to compare flight prices and times. 
  • Consider taking the train or bus instead.

Budgeting your trip

Everyone travels differently, so it’s difficult to say how much you should budget for a trip to Portugal. You’re probably going to have to open up a spreadsheet and work things out yourself, but here are a few things to think about.

  1. Getting to and from Portugal (normally by plane)
  2. Accommodation
  3. Food & Drink
  4. Transportation
  5. Sightseeing
  6. Misc

Checklists & Packing Lists

It’s possible to visit Portugal with just a passport (or identity card for most Schengen Area citizens), a credit or debit card, and the clothes on your back.

However, even if you’re a light packer, it’s probably a good idea to pack a few extra things like:

  • Plug adapter: If your gadgets and chargers use a different plug to the EU 2-pin plug, you’ll need an adapter to use them in Portugal.
  • Travel insurance: EU/EEA/Swiss citizens are normally covered for emergency medical treatment under the EHIC card, but everyone else should have travel insurance. It’s also not a bad idea for EU/EEA/Swiss citizens to get travel insurance as well.
  • A photocopy of your passport: In Portugal you’re required to carry ID on you at all times. If you don’t have an ID card, you’re supposed to carry your passport, which isn’t ideal, but you are allowed to carry a photocopy of your passport instead.

For more suggestions on what to pack for your trip to Portugal take a look at the Portugal packing list and Portugal checklist articles.

Money

Portugal uses the Euro. Although some places accept card payments, card payments are only really popular in cities like Lisbon and Porto and touristy places like the Algarve.

Even then, there’s a good chance that the place won’t accept cards, the card machine will be broken* or it won’t accept your non-Portuguese bank card.

(*In Portugal, card machines are often broken, sometimes perpetually, whereas this never seems to happen in other countries. I suspect the card machine isn’t actually broken, but the shop, restaurant, or café just wants you to pay in cash instead.)

There are a number of different ways to get Euros including withdrawing from an ATM in Portugal or going to a currency exchange specialist.

The best option is usually to get a travel-friendly bank card that doesn’t charge a fee for ATM withdrawals in Portugal (or, in the case of some US banks, refunds you the ATM fees).

Even if your bank charges you for ATM withdrawals, sometimes this is still the best option if it’s a fixed fee. If they charge a percentage of the amount you’re withdrawing, however, it may not be the best option and it may make more financial sense to visit a currency exchange specialist in Portugal or in advance.

Tips

  • Airport currency exchanges give the worst rates.
  • If you’re using an ATM to withdraw money, the ATM will offer to do the conversion for you. Say no and let your bank do it instead.
  • Avoid Euronet ATMs, which can charge as much as €5 for a €20 withdrawal.

Food & Drink

cozido a portuguesa
Cozido à Portuguesa – One of the most typical (but not necessarily most recommended) Portuguese dishes

Mention Portuguese cuisine and most people will say “pastel de nata” or “Portuguese custard tart,” and maybe even Nando’s (which is actually South African), but will struggle to name any other dishes beyond that. 

While Spanish restaurants are common in most major cities, it’s a novelty to see a Portuguese restaurant outside of Portugal. 

Portuguese food is a whole cuisine just waiting to be explored and you’ll find plenty of articles about Portugal’s food here on Portugalist: including guides to the main dishes, desserts, breakfast, and regional dishes from all over the country. 

Popular foodie articles

Speaking Portuguese

Like Portuguese food, there’s a good chance you haven’t had much contact with the Portuguese language before. Or, if you have, it was with Brazilian Portuguese rather than European Portuguese.

English is widely spoken in Portugal, particularly in places like Lisbon, Porto, the Algarve, Madeira – anywhere where there’s either a younger population or where tourists go.

In more rural parts of Portugal, people are less likely to speak English and it’s worth learning a few basic phrases.

If you want to learn a bit more than the basics, there are a small number of courses and resources that teach European Portuguese – everything from the basics right up to near fluency.

Portuguese culture

Portuguese culture is famously summed up by the “Three Fs” – Fútbol, Fado, and Fátima – three popular distractions that allowed António de Oliveira Salazar to rule over Portugal as a dictator between 1932 and 1968.

While these three things are a big part of Portuguese culture – although religion is in decline – it only highlights three small parts of Portuguese culture, and they’re not necessarily the three most important parts.

Food (Portuguese food, that is) is just as important as any of the Three Fs, probably even more so. While it’s a cliché to say that food is important to a culture, it’s definitely true of Portugal: all conversations, regardless of the topic, seem to turn to food eventually.

You could argue that coffee comes under food, but it’s such an important part of Portuguese culture that it deserves its own mention.

Life in Portugal revolves around the pastelaria or local café, of which there’s often several on the same street. The Portuguese drink multiple cups of coffee per day and, because a coffee costs around €0.50, they usually have it out – it’s only recently that people have begun drinking coffee at home.

Then there’s saudade, bureaucracy, pride – Portuguese culture is such a big topic that it deserves its own article.

Updates: Some updates are as small as a spelling correction. If you spot a mistake or want to suggest a contribution, leave a comment below.

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