This was LeBraun and I’s first trip to Portugal. We booked the trip without knowing much about the country or really doing any research. Our decision was based on two things: 1) several friends had enjoyed their time in Portugal and 2) there was a direct flight from our closest international airport. Haha.
Needless to say we were surprised by a few things when we arrived and wanted to share some helpful tips and advice in hopes you are not caught off-guard during your trip.
Been to Portugal before and have something else we should add? Let me know— firstname.lastname@example.org
Before You Book:
- Check your passport’s expiration date. If coming from outside the EU your passport needs to have at least 6 months of validity remaining. If you plan on renting a car, make sure you’re driving license is valid as well.
- Make a photocopy of your passport to carry with you.
- Portugal is part of the Schengen area which means that American, Canadian and Australian citizens can travel in any Schengen country visa-free for a total of 90 days. Hooray! No additional visa paperwork (unless you’re staying longer, that is!)
- Make sure you have some Travel Health Insurance which will reduce the cost of energy treatment if you need it. Chances are you wont, but better safe than sorry, right?
- Portugal doesn’t require any specific vaccinations; however, if you travel frequently it’s best to go ahead and get your HepA, HepB, MMR, and Tdap vaccinations.
- Purchase a Portugal travel book. Portugal is a relatively new as high traffic tourist destination which means there’s not a lot of descriptive signage. A travel book will be helpful is learning about what you’re seeing. My favorite brand is the DK Eyewitness Travel Guides. They have lots of helpful maps, colorful pictures, and easy to understand information.
- 112 is Portugal’s 911. Always good to know. Hopefully you never need to use it.
1. Portugal is made of HILLS!
Seriously the hills are no joke. Porto’s historic centre is built upon two hills while Lisbon is built upon seven. So you’re constantly at an incline whether you’re taking the sidewalk or some uneven stairs. …And just when we’d thought we’d made it to the top, we’d turn the corner and BAM! another set of steep steps. The good news is—1) all those hills means there are some amazing viewpoints (or miradouros) of the cities, and 2) you’re going to have killer legs after your trip! :)
2. Please pack comfortable walking shoes!
They may not look as nice but your feet with thank you. Yup, pack comfortable walking shoes (WITH proper tread—find out why in the next note).
3. The sidewalks are beautiful but dangerous.
Almost every sidewalk is made of calcada portuguesa, Portuguese pavement, tiled with mosaic patterns. Even today they’re laid by hand. Most are hundreds of years old meaning two things—1) many areas are quite uneven, and 2) from general wear and tear over those hundreds of years they have become very smooth and therefore slick! Fortunately even Portugal’s rainy season sees more sun than rain. Despite that LeBraun (who always buys shoes without tread - FACE PALM) took a few slides down the sidewalks. Just be careful!
4. The earthquake of 1755.
On November 1, 1755, an estimated 8.5–9.0 magnitude earthquake hit Lisboa in the Kingdom of Portugal. It caused extreme structural damage to many of the buildings. Additionally it knocked over lit candles in churches, shops, and homes starting several deadly fires. Combined with a subsequent tsunami from the aftermath, Lisboa was left almost totally destroyed. Shocks from the earthquake were felt around the country—coastal villages in the Algarve and even inland castles experienced heavy damages. Considered one of the deadliest earthquakes in history, the death toll in Lisboa is estimated between 10,000 and 100,000 people.
This earthquake shaped much of the country. Palaces, cathedrals, churches and homes were destroyed and although over following centuries many were repaired and restored, others were left to fall into ruins. Additionally priceless artifacts, paintings, historical records, and books were lost. Throughout the country you’ll find areas such as the Alfama district in Lisboa with parts dating back nearly 800 years, but due to the earthquake the next neighborhood over, Baixa, dating back less than 300 years. This catastrophe greatly shaped the county and its history.
5. Bring cash-money.
Many small businesses and local establishments are cash-only, and they don’t necessarily advertise it well. For example we ate at a couple places that just had a small note in the corner of the menu that could be easily missed. There are ATMs (or Multibancos) everywhere but you’ll save yourself some transaction fees if you exchange some money before arriving.
6. Factor in mid-day closings.
Generally more customary in Europe, mid-day closings are very common for shops and restaurants throughout Portugal, typically closing from 12 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. or 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Things will remain open (for the most part) the whole day in the major tourist centers. You don't want to arrive at an attraction just to find out it’s closed. Make sure to check hours of each location and factor any closings into your itinerary.
7. Lack of signage at attractions.
Lisbon’s tourism industry has grown by leaps and bounds over the past couple years, and most attractions weren't necessarily prepared for it. For example, there may be several entry lines into a sight but no signs saying what each line is for. Also many of the sights that have been rewarded UNESCO World Heritage status. This means that the process for making alterations—even ones that would improve the experience—are either not allowed or need to go through a very long, red tape-filled process before they can be implemented, if they can at all. Many sights only have description signs in Portuguese and few had pamphlets or maps. Hopefully you brought a a guide book like we suggested.
8. Grab a city tourist card when you arrive.
Both Porto and Lisboa have cards aptly named Porto Card and Lisboa Card…oooo aaaaaa! Depending on the length of time you want to use it, cards can be purchased in 24, 48, and 72 hours during which time you’ll get free entry or discounts at city attractions (like tours) as well as free public transport during the time the card is active. Cost for the Porto Card ranged from €5-€21,50 and the Lisboa Card ranged from €19-€40 per adult (as of September 2019). The cards can be purchased from city information centers, railway stations and even some hotels.
9. Meals take time.
A typical restaurant experience in Portugal can easily take an hour and a half. Especially when we travel, LeBraun and I prefer to eat quickly and continue exploring. Many cafes and bakeries have pre-made sandwiches in their windows—Prego no pão (a thin slice of garlicky steak on a loaf of bread), Bifana (thin slices of pork on bread), Tosta mista (grilled ham and cheese sandwich), sardinhas assadas com pão (open-face sardine sandwich), and Pernil com Queijo (roasted pork grilled cheese sandwich)—but if you’re vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, red meat-free, or lactose-free then expect to have some difficulties finding “grab-and-go” lunch options.
Dinners can take even longer. In Porto one night our dinner took almost 3 hours! Let me repeat, 3 hours! I know in the States people often enjoy longer dinners, but that’s not our style so it really threw us off. By the time we were finished it was time to head back to the hotel and we had missed the show we were trying to catch.
How you order at many places is also different. The waiter may seat you but then disappear for 5-10 minutes while you decide what to order. They typically don’t take drink orders while you’re contemplating the menu options unless you speak up when they bring you the menu. When you’re decided, flag them down to give them your order. Free and/or frequent refills aren't common. If you need another drink, you’ll have to ask. We constantly felt like we were being “ghosted” by our wait staff simply because we’re used to the overattentive, working-for-tips waiters we’re used to in the States.
In conclusion (…don’t you love ending things like that?), be prepared for meal times in Portugal to take longer—especially if you’re a quick eater—and make sure to factor that into your itinerary for the day so you don’t miss something simply because lunch took too long.
10. People with dietary needs may have trouble outside major cities.
Piggy-backing onto the previous tip, in the larger cities like Porto and Lisboa (even Coimbra) there are several fully vegan/vegetarian restaurants in addition to having at least one veg option at most restaurants. That being said if you are traveling to smaller towns throughout the country, plan ahead. A couple nights in the Douro Valley (particularly in Pinhão) we couldn’t find anything I could eat. Three restaurants had “vegetarian options” but they were items like a Caprese salad (BTW is anyone full after eating one of these?!), side of batatas fritas - french fries- and a gnocchi with mushroom cream sauce, AKA items of full gluten and dairy!
Where are the vegetables in Portugal? Hint: They can only be found at solely vegetarian/vegan restaurants. Rant over. So if you’re traveling outside the main cities, swing by the grocery store and stock up on some items like hummus, carrot sticks, peanut butter, apples, etc. just in case you can’t find something to fit your dietary requirements. Side note: I’ve probably eaten 10 pounds of potatoes (in French Fry-form in the 14 days we’ve been here so far. Luckily I’m getting an incredibly workout from all the hills. :)
11. Appetizers may not be free.
In Portuguese restaurants waiters may bring you some starters like olives, bread, and cheese; however, unless they are part of a set menu pricing, they are not free and will incur an additional charge. It’s usually a small fee but if you don’t want to pay for them, just politely send them back (untouched of course!) and you won’t be charged.
12. Tips are not mandatory, but they are appreciated.
People make livable wages here, however monetary tokens of appreciation, especially for a nice experience, are not taken for granted.
13. Say no to Drugs.
I’ve been to Bonnaroo six or seven times and I have been offered more drugs being in Portugal for two weeks than all the times at Bonnaroo combined! Especially in Lisboa there are guys who will aprroach you in high traffic areas and in a soft voice mention, one or all, “marijuana, e, cocaine.” Firmly saying “no” doesn’t always work. Just ignore and keep walking. Note: In 2001, Portugal became the first country in the world to decriminalize the consumption of all drugs.
14. Photography in Livaria Lello.
Everything we read about the world famous bookshop said photos are not allowed inside; however, I don’t think they enforce that anymore. Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, had their phone and DSLR out taking photos and no one said anything. Maybe we just visited on an off-day so you may or may not be able to take photos inside the bookshop. Either way, don’t worry ash much about the photos but simply enjoy the beautiful shop. You’re pictures aren't going to turn out great anyway as there are a million people in there at any given time.
15. Beware of transportation traps.
Especially if you’re using tuk tuks like taxis. Ask upfront about pricing before accepting the ride. The prices will go up in areas where transportation options are limited for tourists, like in Sintra. Note: If you’re not using a city tourist card and plan on needing the public transit, opt for a rechargeable Metro card. You can use this on on the metro, trams, local trains, and buses. Top them up for one to five days. Each trip is about Є1,45.
16. There are lots of rundown houses.
Throughout our time in Portugal we noticed that there were a shocking number of rundown houses. We asked our hotel concierge about it and apparently since Portuguese law prohibited landlords from increasing their prices, families would hand over their rent-controlled homes to other family members. With increases in property value, age of most houses, and typically what and tear, not being able to increase rent means that landlords don’t have the money to do the necessary renovation work many of these buildings need. Eventually most fall into such a state of disrepair they are abandoned.
17. Should you be driving here?
If you can avoid it, don’t drive through Porto or Lisbon. The roads are narrow, cobbled, and the lack of signage makes it hard to navigate. Also locals are crazy drivers, weaving in and out at high speeds. Then add in a million tuk tuks…it’s frankly stressful so best to avoid it if you can. However, one of the best ways to see everything the country has to offer is to rent-a-car and drive. Stop at little towns along your route. Pull over at viewpoints. Picnic by the river. It’s beautiful! We picked up and dropped off our rental cars from the airports. NOTE: Drop off took roughly 10 minutes, but that was not the case for pick up. The first pick up from Budget took TWO AND A HALF HOURS, which felt even longer as we were both sleep deprived having just gotten off the plane. The second pick (from SIXT) up took one hour and ten minutes. Make sure to factor this wait time into your schedule.
18. Motorway tolls
Throughout the country the autoestrada, or motorways (those with A+#), have tolls while nactional roads (those with N) typically don’t. Ask for a ViaVerde device in your rental car. This will allow you to pay the tolls when you return the vehicle. There are designated lanes for ViaVerde (like EZpass here in the States). The rental for the ViaVerde device was Є1,50 per day. Just another thing to factor into your trip budget.
19. Motorway service centers
We were pleasantly surprised with the number and quality of service centers along the motorways. Roughly every 30 km there was a side of the road service center with ample parking (mostly covered), petrol stations, convenience store, toilets, and typically a cafeteria area. For the most part they were very clean and felt safe. We even napped under a covered awning at one after our flight/long rental car wait. It was greatly appreciated!