Modern Portugal, one of Europe's unspoiled tourism jewels, is booming. The country has a rich seafaring past, superb beach resorts, wistful towns and a landscape wreathed in olive groves, vineyards, and wheat fields. Littered with UNESCO World Heritage sites and graced by one of Europe's most relaxed and attractive capitals, it also remains refreshingly affordable.
An independent kingdom since 1143, Portugal established its continental frontiers in 1297 and is one of the oldest nations in Europe. In 1415, the Portuguese set sail on an epic voyage that would make them the first to discover the ocean routes to India, Brazil, China and Japan, and at the same time founded settlements on the east and west coasts of Africa. Traces of this worldwide historic presence may be seen as trademarks of the Portuguese genius. The Portuguese language became one of the most widely spoken in the world, and the Portuguese people were privileged for being exposed to so many different civilizations. The vast monumental, artistic and archaeological heritage does witness not only the 850 years of history of encounters with distant cultures, but also the presence in the territory of more ancient peoples (Celts, Suevians, Visigoths, Romans and Arabs).
Portugal occupies the southwest part of the Iberian Peninsula and shares borders in the north and the east with Spain, while to the south and west lies the Atlantic Ocean. The country is divided into various provinces, including the Atlantic islands of Madeira and the Azores; the latter lying some 1,220km (760 miles) due west of Lisbon. The Douro, Guadiana and Tagus rivers flow across the border from Spain. North Portugal is mountainous, the highest part being the Serra da Estrela, a popular area for skiing. The vast plains of the Alentejo region stretch south of Lisbon. A range of mountains divides the Alentejo from the Algarve, which runs along the south coast, and is one of the most popular resort areas with wide sandy beaches and attractive bays.
The natural advantages of a sunny country with such diverse geographic features have turned Portugal into a chosen destination for many holidaymakers, an ideal place for practicing water sports and playing golf, (Portugal is Europe's premier golfing destination) offering modern tourism facilities, and quaint and personalized means of accommodation, such as ‘turismo de habitação’ (privately owned homes ranging from wonderful farmhouses to manor houses), ‘hotéis de charme’ or ‘pousadas’. Other unmissable experiences include Fado (Portugal's answer to soul music), country fairs where centuries-old folk traditions are lovingly re-enacted, port wine tastings and mouth-watering fish suppers.
Location: Western Europe
Population: 10.6 million
Language Spoken: Portuguese. English is widely spoken within the business community.
Country Dialling Code: +351
Currency & Money: Euro (EUR; symbol €)
Many banks offer differing exchange rates depending on the denominations of Portuguese currency being bought or sold. It is common practice for banks to charge 0.5% commission with a minimum charge of approximately €10. However, some banks do not charge any commission on transactions of less than €25. Check with banks for details and current rates. Additionally, ATMs, identified by the symbol MB (MultiBanco), are increasingly being installed and tend to be more efficient and only charge 2% commission. There are also many bureaux de change. American Express, MasterCard and Visa are widely accepted. Travellers cheques are readily exchanged. To avoid additional exchange rate charges, travellers are advised to take traveller's cheques in Euros.
Weather: Portugal's high season is mid-June to mid-September. The Atlantic tempers the Mediterranean climate down south, where summer temperatures regularly reach 30°C (86°F). The climate is temperate, and you'll find agreeable weather just about everywhere (except in the Alto Douro and the Alentejo where summers can be painfully hot and droughts common) from April to October, and nearly year-round in the Algarve. Overall the wettest season is from November to March: the soggiest regions are in the extreme north and in the Serra da Estrela mountain region in the country's centre. The ski season is from January to March, but February is best.
WHEN TO GO
Summer might be the most popular time to visit, but for the traveler who can chart his or her own course, spring and autumn are the most delectable seasons. There are only slight fluctuations in temperature between summer and winter; the overall mean ranges from 77°F (25°C) in summer to about 58°F (14°C) in winter. The rainy season begins in November and usually lasts through January. Snow brings many skiing enthusiasts to the Serra de Estrêla in north central Portugal. For the most part, however, winter means only some rain and lower temperatures in other regions. The Algarve and especially Madeira enjoy temperate winters. Madeira, in fact, basks in its high season in winter. The Algarve, too, is somewhat of a winter Riviera that attracts sun worshipers from North America and Europe.
Peak tourist season is roughly from mid-June to September, except in the Algarve where it really only quietens down in the dead of winter. Carnaval and Easter are two holidays celebrated with gusto all over the country and are worth going out of your way for.
TOP THINGS TO DO
• Soak up the sun or take a dip in the warm Mediterranean Sea from one of the myriad sandy beaches of the Algarve.
• Don a snorkel mask, hoist a sail or have a go at windsurfing or waterskiing from watersports centres dotted along the coast. Dive beneath the surface and uncover Portugal's marine life. Contact the Portuguese Federation for Underwater Activities for more information.
• Head for deep waters and cast a line out at sea for a chance of catching big-game fish like blue marlin. Big-game fishing is especially popular along the Algarve coast.
• Fall under the spell of the melancholy Fado music, Portugal's best-known traditional musical form, at the atmospheric bars and clubs of Lisbon's Alfama or Bairro Alto (Upper Town) neighbourhoods.
• Visit the port houses of Porto or Gaia for the country's best port wine tasting. The vine district of Alto Douro is a UNESCO World Heritage Site on account of centuries of viticulture that have produced a cultural landscape of outstanding beauty.
• Absorb the spirituality of the shrine at Fátima, which has been an important centre of Roman Catholic pilgrimage since 1917 when the Virgin Mary appeared to a group of children. Experience the torchlight processions of 13 May and 13 October.
• Cruise along the canals of the wetlands around Rio de Aveiro aboard a traditional Portuguese moliceiros (gondola-like sailing barge), or go boating in the Douro Valley.
• Hike, climb or canoe in the Peneda-Gerês, Portugal's only national park, comprising 70,000 hectares (170,000 acres) of mountainous countryside near the Spanish border, to really appreciate the extraordinary diversity of its climate, environment, and scenery.
• Play a round of golf on the championship golf courses in the south of the country (there are 19 in the Algarve alone), or tee off at one of the country's oldest golf clubs, Quinta de Marinha in Estoril.
• Attend a car or motorcycle race at the world-famous Estoril racetrack, which is located a short distance from Lisbon, on Portugal's Atlantic coast.
TOP THINGS TO SEE
• Take in sweeping vistas of Lisbon and the River Tagus (Tio Tejo) estuary on a walk around the hilly capital. Ascend the highest of the seven hills surrounding the city and discover the magnificent 12th-century Castle of St George.
• Get close to the sharks in Europe's largest oceanarium, enjoy a bird's-eye view of the Tagus from the cable car and check out the Knowledge Pavilion at the Park of Nations, 5km (3.5 miles) east of Lisbon.
• Explore Lisbon's riverside suburb of Belém from where Vasco da Gama set sail in the 15th and 16th centuries. Its must-see attractions are the striking Torre de Belém and the Monastery of the Hieronymites, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and the new Berardo Collection modern art gallery.
• Experience the magic of Sintra (also a World Heritage Site), a mountain town full of palaces 25km (15 miles) from Lisbon. Do not miss the former summer residence of the Portuguese royal family and the beautiful Monserrate gardens.
• Strike out west from Sintra to the lighthouse at Cabo da Roca and watch the wave pound the rocks below at the most westerly point in Europe.
• Head inland and discover Évora, a virtual museum of a town that reached its golden age in the 15th century, when it became the residence of the Portuguese kings. Its monuments had a profound influence on Portuguese architecture in Brazil.
• Travel north to the Monastery of Batalha (Mosteiro de Santa Maria), another World Heritage Site which was built to commemorate the victory of King João I over a Castilian army in 1385, and marvel at its Portuguese gothic and Manueline architecture.
• Visit the nearby Monastery of Santa Maria d'Alcobaça (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), which was founded in the 12th century by King Alfonso I, and be rewarded by a masterpiece of Cistercian gothic art.
• Explore intriguing medieval history at the Knights Templar castle in Tomar; the Convent of the Order of Christ at the heart of the castle complex is one of Portugal's premier artistic and historical structures and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
• Peel back layers of history walking around Porto's UNESCO World Heritage listed old core taking in the Stock Exchange Palace, the Romanesque-gothic Cathedral, the Romanesque church of Cedofeita, the baroque Clérigos tower and the vibrant Cais da Ribeira (old waterfront).
• Head northeast to Portugal's medieval capital, Guimarães. This exceptionally well-preserved and authentic example of the evolution of a medieval settlement into a modern town boasts a fine castle and the former palace of the Dukes of Bragança.
• See an exceptional concentration of rock carvings from the Upper Palaeolithic period (22,000-10,000BC) at the Côa Valley Archaeological Park, esteemed by UNESCO as the most outstanding example of early human artistic activity in this form anywhere in the world.
• Soak up Portuguese culture in the charming town of Coimbra, home to one of Europe's oldest universities, the old Romanesque cathedral (Se Velha), Jesuit cathedral (Se Nova) and the gothic church and final resting place of Portugal's first king (Santa Cruz).
• Discover one of the Algarve's oldest and least spoiled towns. Constructed on the banks of the River Gilhao the picture-postcard settlement of Tavira boasts an arcaded town hall, seven-arched Roman bridge, old fortifications and an island beach.
TRAVEL TO PORTUGAL
Flying , all the major low cost airlines including Ryanair, Easy Jet , Aer Lingus ,British Airways travel to Lisbon,Faro and Porto, the flight time from most major European cities is less than 3 hours.
Lisbon (LIS) (Portela de Sacavem) is 7km (4.5 miles) north of the city (journey time - 35 minutes). To/from the airport: Carris buses run from the airport to the city and the main railway stations. A special ‘Aerobus' departs to the city centre every 20 minutes during the day. Taxi services to the city are available, with a 20% surcharge between 2100 and 0600, at weekends and on holidays. Facilities: Bureau de change, banks, tourist information, post office, duty-free shops and car hire.
Faro (FAO) is 4km (3 miles) west of the city (journey time - 30 minutes). To/from the airport: EVA buses link the airport with different parts of the city. Taxis are available. Facilities: Duty-free shop, bank/bureau de change, car hire and a bar/restaurant.
Porto (OPO) (Oporto Sá Carneiro) is 20 km (7 miles) from the city. To/from the airport: Underground trains, buses and taxis to the city are available. Facilities: Duty-free shop, bank/bureau de change, car hire and a bar/restaurant.
Main ports: Lisbon , Leixões (Porto), Funchal (Madeira) and Portimão (Algarve) are served by major cruise lines.
Travelling from the UK, the quickest way is to travel by Eurostar through the Channel Tunnel to Paris (journey time - 2 hours 40 minutes) and, from there, to Portugal. The Sud-Expresso runs between Hendaye/Irun (linked to Paris by TGV) and Lisbon, offering first- and second-class seats, sleepers and a restaurant car. For further information and reservations, contact Eurostar, outside the UK or Rail Europe (tel: 0844 848 4064, in the UK. Caminhos De Ferro Portugueses in Portugal offers an international rail service to Vigo, Madrid and Paris.
InterRail: offers unlimited first- or second-class travel in up to 30 European countries for European residents of over six months with two pass options. The Global Pass allows travel for 22 days, one month, five days in 10 days or 10 days in 22 days across all countries. The One-Country Pass offers travel for three, four, six or eight days in one month in any of the countries except Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro. Travel is not allowed in the passenger's country of residence. Travellers under 26 years receive a reduction. Children's tickets are reduced by about 50%. Supplements are required for some high-speed services, seat reservations and couchettes. Discounts are offered on Eurostar and some ferry routes. Available from Rail Europe.
The only land border is shared with Spain. Major border posts are open around the clock, but smaller ones may close earlier in winter. From the UK, the quickest routes are via ferry to northern Spain, avoiding the need to drive through France. Brittany Ferries runs from Plymouth to Santander and P&O Ferries runs from Portsmouth to Bilbao. Cars can be imported into Portugal for up to six months. Travelling from the UK, Eurotunnel operates trains 24 hours per day through the Channel Tunnel between Folkestone in Kent (with direct access from the M20) and Calais in France. All vehicles, from motorcycles to campers, can be accommodated. For further information, contact Eurotunnel Reservations.
Coach: Eurolines operates an extensive network of coach services to many destinations throughout Portugal, including Coimbra, Faro, Lagos, Lisbon and Porto. For information on timetables and fares, contact Eurolines (tel: 0870 580 8080, in the UK.
TRAVEL AROUND PORTUGAL
TAP Air Portugal and Portugália Airlines run services between Lisbon, Faro, Madeira, Porto Santo, Porto and the Azores. Charter flights are also available. The airline for the Azores is SATA (Sociedade Acoriana de Transportes Aereos), which operates its Air Açores service between the various islands.
Caminhos de Ferro Portugueses (Portuguese Railways), in Portugal, outside Portugal provides a rail service to every town. Alfa Pendular trains offer the fastest rail link from Lisbon to the Algarve and from the capital to the north (Porto, Braga or Guimarães, with stops in Coimbra and Aveiro); the Intercidades (Intercity) service covers Lisbon, Porto, Alentejo and Lisbon to Algarve routes.
A vast network of regional, inter-regional and suburban trains covers the country. The tourist areas of Cascais and Sintra are connected to Lisbon by frequent express trains. High-speed Alfa trains run between Lisbon and Porto via Coimbra and Aveiro. Fertagus trains cross the River Tagus in Lisbon, operating between Entrecampus station to Fogueteiro (on the south bank).
InterRail One-Country Pass: offers travel for three, four, six or eight days in one month within Portugal. Travel is not allowed in the passenger's country of residence. Travellers under 26 years receive a reduction. Children's tickets are reduced by about 50%. Supplements are required for some high-speed services, seat reservations and couchettes. Discounts are offered on Eurostar and some ferry routes. Available from Rail Europe in the UK.
Intra-rail card: gives those aged 12 to 30 years three or 10 days' travel in four pre-defined zones in Portugal plus two or nine nights in youth hostels. Available from main railway stations in Portugal.
Tourist tickets: valid for seven, 14 or 21 consecutive days and available from main railway stations.
Cheap fares: Child and senior citizen fares are discounted by 50%, group travel (10 or more people) by 20%, return tickets by 10% and youth travel (Cartao Jovem or Euro<26 cardholders) by 30%. Family railcards and rover tickets are also available. Check Portuguese Railways online for current promotions.
Traffic drives on the right. Every town and village can be reached by an adequate system of roads. Petrol stations generally open 0700-2000, although some are open 24 hours. Travel by motorway is subject to a toll according to distance covered and type of vehicle.
Bus: There are frequent coach services between all Portuguese cities. For further information, contact Rede Nacional de Expressos.
Taxis: Taxi drivers are tipped 10%.
Car hire: Available from major and local providers in main towns and airports, with or without driver.
Regulations: The minimum age for driving is 18 (but drivers must be at least 21 to 25 if hiring a car). Cars may be imported for up to six months. Traffic signs are international. Drivers should dip headlights in built-up areas and use side lights when parking in badly lit areas. Children should not travel in the front seat. Seat belts should be worn. Warning triangles are compulsory. It is forbidden to carry cans of petrol in vehicles. Speed limits are 50kph (30mph) in built-up areas, 90kph (56mph) outside built-up areas and 120kph (70mph) on motorways.
Documentation: International Driving Permits or foreign driving licences are accepted. Third Party insurance is compulsory. Under the requirements of the Portuguese Road Code, those wishing to drive a car must possess a valid national/international driving licence, other official documentation with photograph, log book or rental contract and adequate car insurance. Failure to produce, on request to the authorities, any of the above will result in an on-the-spot cash fine. A Carnet de Passage is needed for a van.
Transport in Towns and Cities
Lisbon's extensive underground system is operated by Metropolitano de Lisboa , while trams and Companhia Carris de Ferro de Lisboa (Carris) buses also provide efficient ways of getting around. The city's suburban rail lines, operated by Portuguese Railways, are useful for covering longer distances and Transtejo ferries ply the Tagus.
Porto also boasts an underground (Metro de Porto), trams and buses.
Taxis are readily available in both cities.
POPULAR PLACES TO VISIT
Algarve: holiday heaven - sunshine, natural bays, dramatic cliffs, and warm seas. Sagres is small and sweet, while Lagos is the good-looking carnival queen of the resorts. There are unspoiled islands in the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa, fascinating old towns at Tavira and Silves (the former Moorish capital), and lovely wooded hills in the interior. Portugal's best surfing and beach resorts are on the wild, west-facing shores. East of Faro, the coast is different: instead of red-streaked cliffs and long beaches there is a chain of sandy islands offshore, mainly accessible by boat. The only really built-up resort is Monte Gordo, with Tavira the most elegant guest at the Algarve do.
Faro: is the Algarve's capital and main transport hub. It's the gateway to the heavily-touristed coast and also a thriving commercial centre - but surprisingly pleasant for all that. The main sights of historical interest are within the compact old town centre
Lisbon: the capital of Portugal is positioned on seven low hills beside a river which once lured traders and settlers, and it's still a stunning site. Add to that its cultural diversity, laid-back feel and architectural time warp, and you have one of the most enjoyable cities in Europe - and also one of the most economical. At Lisbon's heart are wide, tree-lined avenues graced by Art Nouveau buildings, mosaic pavements and street cafes. Seen from the river - one of the city's many great viewpoints - Lisbon is an impressionist picture of low-rise ochre and pastel, punctuated by church towers and domes.
Porto: is Portugal's second-biggest city and has a brawny beauty all its own. Built on granite bluffs above the Rio Douro, its heart is a tangle of World Heritage-listed lanes tumbling steeply down to a medieval waterfront. It's hard not to be wooed by Porto's atmospheric riverside, dotted with old port-wine boats, pinched lanes and shadowy archways.
Braga: is known as the Rome of Portugal and its compact centre is packed with splendid baroque churches. Baroque churches, and the clamoring of their bells, are a constant reminder of who's in charge here. Indeed, Braga has been a religious power centre since the conversion of the Visigoths in the 6th century. Its cathedral - built in the 12th century as Portugal was still being wrestled from the Moors - is the oldest in Portugal.
Lagos: on the south coast of the Algarve, is one of the country's most popular tourist resorts. Most visitors are drawn to the superb beaches, which include Meia Praia, a vast strip of sand to the east, and the more secluded Praia do Pinhão to the south. The town has abundant facilities for renting bicycles, mopeds and horses, and there are also boat trips from the main harbour. Apart from the sun and sand, the resort's other highlight is the Museu Municipal, which has eccentric displays of ecclesiastical treasures and other intriguing curios.