Portugal offers a wealth of fresh fish and seafood to feast on – from clams, lobster, and sardines to tuna, swordfish, and bacalhau (salted cod), the national favorite. However, the Portuguese are also great meat eaters, and they are justifiably proud of such dishes as roast goat and suckling pig.
The coastal regions can be very rainy in winter, and although temperatures don’t drop that low, it often feels very cold. In the mountainous north it’s not uncommon for snow to fall on higher ground.
The Algarve is an excellent year-round destination (although it lies on the Atlantic, it’s protected from the winds by the inland hills), with hot summers and mild winters. Other coastal areas generally have warm to hot summers, with either balmy or windy evenings. Inland areas throughout the country are subject to more extreme conditions, with colder winters and hotter summers. Madeira enjoys a more temperate climate, but the Azores are susceptible to winter storms.
A private vehicle is necessary to explore much of the country beyond major cities and main tourist zones. Portugal’s mainland rail network is inexpensive, fast, and modern on busy lines such as Lisbon-Oporto and Lisbon-Faro, but slower on provincial lines. Keep in mind that the provincial rail system is not very extensive, and many railway stations are located some distance away from the towns and villages they serve.
Cycle tourism is gaining popularity all over the country. A designated cycle route in the Algarve connects Vila Real de Santo António in the east with Sagres in the west. Hikers fare even better, since Portugal enjoys an extensive network of tracks, trail and footpaths.
Although English is more widely spoken in Portugal than in neighboring Spain, the Portuguese appreciate visitors’ efforts, however small, to communicate in their language. A simple bom dia (good morning) or boa tarde (good afternoon) can work wonders. Portuguese also retains some oldfashioned modes of address that foreigners might perceive as overly formal, including o senhor and a senhora where English uses “you.” This contrasts with the informality of cheek kisses, used in most situations except formal and business introductions. Men tend to shake hands.
National Park Peneda do Gerêz: About 700 square kilometers (270 square miles) of breathtaking scenery, from high peaks to wooded valleys, a wide variety of fauna and flora, remote villages, and calm rivers where you can enjoy water sports. There are wild horses and unique medicinal plants.
Aveiro: Once a great seaport, this calm city is known as our Portuguese Venice. It’s a very special town with its water channels lined by Art Nouveau houses, a great city to walk around visit and soak up its charm.
Óbidos: Perhaps the most visited historic site outside of Lisbon in Portugal, this charming walled medieval fortress city with its narrow, winding cobbled streets, quaint whitewashed cottages surrounded by colourful bougainvilleas and geraniums is the perfect living, working museum town.
Marvão: A world heritage candidate. From the castle in Marvão, spectacularly set on an escarpment facing Serra de São Mamede and Spain, splendid views can be enjoyed over the fertile plains. This small and tranquil medieval town is completely enclosed by walls, with whitewashed houses blending into the granite of the mountains.
Ria Formosa. In Algarve, discover the Natural Park of the Ria in a boat tour with several stops in deserted beaches and in fishing villages on the barrier-islands. The Ria Formosa, a designated Important Bird Area, is a paradise for birdwatchers. This is one of the most important areas for aquatic birds in Portugal, hosting on a regular basis more than 20,000 birds during the wintering period. You can also spot dolphins along the Algarve coast.
In September and October, the verdant Douro Valley, considered the oldest demarcated wine region in the entire world, offers the opportunity to be part of the wine harvest, complete with grape stomping and parties. Along the hillsides and through the vineyards, men will carry grape-gathering baskets on their backs, while the women chant traditional songs.
So, foreigners usually think two wrong things about Portugal: 1. That it’s part of Spain*, and 2. It’s a country made up almost entirely of beaches.
*Ok, we were part of Spain between 1580 and 1640!
We have more castles per capita than any other nation, and the vast majority are free to visit. Among the many free castles are the fortifications of Guimarães, Palmela, Lousã, Evora, Marvão, Castelo Bom, Penela, and Almeida.
Taste the diversity of Portuguese wines at the ViniPortugal Sala Ogival in Lisbon or Porto to sample fine wines offered by producers through their respective regional winegrowing commission’s wines – admission and tastings are free. Or explore the many Port Wine Lodges in Gaia, across the Douro River from Porto. Dozens of companies offer free tour and wine sampling with breathtaking views.
Admission to Portugal’s hundreds of city parks rich in heritage and monuments is free. Many public museums are also open at no charge on Sundays and holidays.