Updated 17 September 2019 – The first thing that struck me about Portugal was how safe I felt just wandering around on my own. Admittedly, I’d spent the previous year living in Caracas so the contrast was stark. Twelve years later, I still feel it’s the safest country I’ve travelled in and that sentiment is echoed by female friends who come to stay with me.
It’s also quite easy to get around, especially the more populated areas, and public transport is relatively cheap, clean and comfortable.
Oh, and did I mention how beautiful and fascinating it is? And the wine, people and food?
Portugal may be a relatively small place but it’s so diverse that it’s hard to choose a handful of experiences.
I would definitely go on a winery tour and start experimenting with Portuguese wines. The terraced hillsides of the Douro Valley wine region are a UNESCO site so if you can, visit one of the quintas - or wine-producing estates - with a view of the river. Even if you don’t make it up north, there are wine regions all over Portugal so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to get acquainted with both table and fortified wines such as port and moscatel.
Another of Portugal’s UNESCO World Heritage sites is the Convent of Christ in Tomar. Built as the headquarters for the Knights Templar in the 14th century and subsequently enhanced with Manueline (Portuguese Gothic architecture) doorways and windows, it’s a stunning example of Portuguese architecture and much quieter than the famous Jeronimos Monastery in Lisbon. I particularly like the Charola, the circular chapel with arched entrances that meant the knights didn’t need to dismount to attend mass or meetings.
Serra do Pilar Monastery in Porto is another unique building with a circular church and adjoining cloisters that form a figure eight. It’s now owned by the military so the guided visit to the dome is conducted by uniformed soldiers. You won’t get better views of Porto than from up there.
If you like the sound of a multi-day hike through gorgeous scenery and historical towns, you could follow the ancient pilgrim route that runs from Porto to Santiago de Compostela, known as the Portuguese Way of St. James, although I’d start in Barcelos, which is where the route gets more scenic. You can follow it to the border town of Valença or continue all the way through Galicia to the cathedral in Spain.
The beauty of this walk is that it’s well-signposted so you shouldn’t get lost and popular enough that you should meet other walkers. Local people will also understand why you’re out there walking alone and will help if you run into difficulties.
One of my favourite towns is Ponte de Lima in the Minho region of northern Portugal. Its historical centre is pretty, compact and full of interesting architecture while the surrounding countryside fills me with joy. It hosts an annual international garden festival, a wine festival and other events although I prefer it when the streets are quiet.
At the other end of Portugal, everyone raves about Portugal’s beaches, especially the ones backed by dramatic sandstone cliffs in the Algarve region. My favourite beach is actually on the west coast where the Algarve and Alentejo regions meet at Odeceixe. The river runs across the wide sandy beach and forms a lagoon at high tide and the cliff-top walks are spectacular. You’re far less likely to run into the package holiday crowd here than on southern beaches.
An under-explored area of the country is Central Portugal. Tourism is still in its infancy so it’s easy to escape the crowds.
Go to one of the many river beaches during summer months to swim in the company of dragonflies in the shade of overhanging trees or with a backdrop of magnificent mountains. Or venture into the Lousã Mountains to discover the hidden schist villages of Talasnal and Cerdeira. If possible, try to visit Cerdeira mid-July during the Elementos à Solta outdoor art festival.
I’m also a huge fan of Sintra, the magical palace-filled town near Lisbon. Backed by woodland and full of mystery and romance, it attracts many tourists but there are ways of avoiding the crowds, such as visiting Monserrate Palace or the Capuchos Convent.
For natural beauty, the island of São Jorge in the Azores has won me over completely, especially the north side of the island which is green, unspoilt and heart-stoppingly beautiful. Lagoons, waterfalls, rock formations, tropical plants and very few people make it an ideal place to escape from the stresses of everyday life. When I’m feeling frazzled, I yearn to be able to spend a few days there alone with a book and a camera.
Packing for Portugal is similar to packing for the rest of Europe.
Whatever you do, bring comfortable, non-slip footwear. The cobbled pavements that brighten up Portuguese streets are attractive but uneven, often with gaps, and alarmingly slippery when wet. Leave your stiletto heels at home as they will get ruined.
I always carry a cotton scarf with me to help transition between changes in temperature and to cover my shoulders if visiting churches in the summer.
Another essential item throughout the year is a pair of sunglasses. You’ll be unlucky not to need them at some point.
Essentially, you can wear what you like. Skimpy tops and shorts are fine in summer, except perhaps in religious buildings. That said, if you are travelling alone in rural areas, you may feel more comfortable if you’re not baring so much flesh. Men do stare and some will make comments that you probably don’t want to understand and should ignore. Other (older) women will likely be more sympathetic towards you if you have less on show.
There’s no need to bring dressy clothes unless you are attending a special event or going to the poshest of restaurants. Smart casual or casual is fine for most situations. Scruffy is not looked upon kindly though. People here take pride in how they dress and look; they notice other people’s appearance and judge them accordingly. Some dreadlocked youths in shorts and t-shirts attended a communal lunch in my village hall and were repeatedly referred to by my neighbours as “the dirty English” even though I’m sure they had showered before coming.
You won’t be able to walk down any heavily-touristed street without seeing a plethora of cork products including purses, belts, jewellery and caps. Some of it is really well-made – just avoid the tacky stuff. There are quality crafts available everywhere if you look for them.
Portugal is also famous for its azulejos, the hand-painted or printed ceramic tiles that decorate the inside and outside of many buildings. Beautiful though they are, beware of anyone trying to sell you antique tiles – they belong on the buildings and you shouldn’t encourage anyone to remove them by buying them, especially from flea markets.
If you have check-in luggage, don’t go home without a bottle of aged tawny port, or perhaps moscatel wine. If you’re subject to hand-luggage restrictions, go for the sheep’s cheese – Azeitão or Serra da Estrela, amanteigada (gooey) if you can get it vacuum packed.
In cities and busy towns that are used to tourists, the normal precautions about keeping an eye on your valuables and not putting yourself in vulnerable or risky situations will suffice. Portugal is quite a conservative country so overtly flaunting yourself will attract frowns or worse.
In remote rural areas, roles for men and women are clearly defined and may appear old-fashioned and chauvinistic. As a foreigner, you will not be expected to know or respect all of these norms but at least try to greet a woman before approaching their man to avoid unintentionally alienating anyone.
Kissing is a typical way of greeting friends and family and you may find people leaning in for two cheek kisses from you when you are introduced to them. Even after 12 years, I’m uncertain about the kissing rules, which vary according to social class (snobby women tend to air kiss) and more. My rule of thumb is to go along with it but don’t initiate.
It might surprise you to know that however close the two languages, Portuguese people don’t appreciate you speaking Spanish to them unless it’s the only way you can communicate. Try to learn a few basic phrases before you go, even if it’s just please (por favor) and thank you (obrigada).
And one must of course talk about food...
The idea of eating octopus wasn’t one that initially appealed to me but somehow I was persuaded to try polvo à lagareiro, baked octopus with garlic, olive oil and tiny baked potatoes. I scrape the suckers off the tentacles unless they’re crispy but that’s a small price to pay for the delicious, slightly sweet, tender octopus meat underneath.
Something that often catches visitors unawares is the custom of bringing small dishes of appetisers to your table unbidden. If you don’t want to be charged for them, politely send them back or find out how much they cost before tucking in if you’re sticking to a tight budget. Olives and bread are usually cheap but cured ham, cheeses and octopus salads can add a lot to your bill. By law, you can refuse to pay even if you ate the food but didn’t order it but it’s better to avoid an altercation by simply waving it away.
This guest post is by Julie Dawn Fox, a British writer and Portugal travel expert who moved to central Portugal in 2007 and swiftly fell in love with the country. Julie Dawn Fox in Portugal is a valuable resource for people planning to travel or relocate to Portugal. She also offers personalised Portugal itinerary coaching and design services for discerning cultural travellers. Follow Julie on Pinterest and Facebook.