Bordering Spain on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other, Portugal often gets overlooked as a travel destination. But don’t let its size and low-key reputation fool you: this small country is well worth a visit. Here are 7 reasons why.
Portugal may be small, but it has a lot of coastline. From the serene Miramar Beach near Porto in the country’s north, to the gorgeous stretch of coast from Cascais to Sintra roughly 20 miles from Lisbon, there’s barely a spot along the country’s west coast that doesn’t offer golden sands and captivating blue swells. But the most popular beaches of all are those along Portugal’s south region, known as The Algarve. 7 million foreign tourists each year flock to the south coast beaches to experience the breathtaking cliffs, rock formations, lagoons, surfing locations and beachside party spots. If you love the water, Portugal is for you.
To the experience of a tourist, a place is only really as good as the people who inhabit it. When the people around are welcoming and friendly, you’ll instantly have a more enjoyable stay. Fortunately for visitors to Portugal, the natives are some of the warmest and kindest you’ll ever meet. They may be a little shy at first – but their culture is one of hospitality and openness, so it doesn’t take long before you’re being treated like a local. Unlike neighbouring Spain, which can present a major language barrier to English speakers, many Portuguese speak English, especially in the major cities. The Portuguese on the whole are laid-back and relaxed. That means things don’t necessarily happen on time: people are tardy, lunches are long, dinners are late and mornings are lazy. Relax into the pace of the locals, and you’ll fall in love with their way of life.
It’s said that the Portuguese have over 1,000 different ways to cook Bacalhau (Portuguese for codfish, usually dried and salted) and if you spend some time in the country you’ll start to believe it. Seafood is what the Portuguese do best, and you can feast on it like a king here for very little cost. During the annual Santo Antonio festival in Lisbon, fresh sardines are cooked on grills in the street and served on chunks of fresh bread, the scent of grilled fish filling the streets as traditional music livens every corner of the old town. A cup of red wine to wash it down is near to mandatory. Portugal is also famous for its sweet custard tarts called pastel de nata, which are served at any good pastalaria along with cups of delicious (and cheap) coffee.
Portugal is steeped in rich musical heritage. One beautiful example of this is Fado, a form of music so unique it was given heritage recognition by UNESCO. You don’t need to understand Portuguese to understand Fado. The singer’s mournful voice speaks for itself as the emotion-soaked notes recall tales of homesickness, love, and longing. The Portuguese word saudade, generally said to have no English equivalent, encompasses the soul of the seafaring culture and the spirit of Fado music: it describes a deep, restless yearning for something that can never be returned. Visit Portugal today and you can visit Fado bars where live singers pour their souls into every song. It’s not all brooding, though, and the country also offers lively styles of folk as well as many successful pop, rock and hip hop artists.
Ok, so it’s cliche to talk about the weather, but really… it has to be said. The climate in Portugal is the kind you can easily get used to. The Algarve, the country’s southmost tourist hotspot, is popular with holidaymakers for good reason: it gets an annual average of 3000 sunshine hours and over 300 days of sun a year. That makes it one of the sunniest places in Europe, and sunnier even than California. In summer you can welcome up to 12 hours of sunshine per day on average, with little to no rain in sight. The winters in Portugal offer some variation from the warmth, but are still relatively mild compared to other parts of Europe.
Despite the country’s relatively small size, Portugal maintains 15 UNESCO World Heritage Sites as well as many other deeply historical architectural wonders. The must-see cultural landscape of Sintra features numerous magical castles, parks and gardens. The walled medieval town of Óbidos is like walking into the middle ages. There’s the Douro Wine region in the north, the heritage-listed town of Évora in the East, which has a history dating back to the Roman Empire, and the impressively looming Monastery of the Hieronymites in Belem near the nation’s capital, Lisbon. Even the ground beneath your feet is culturally and historically significant, with most urban aras featuring traditional tiled Portuguese pavement.
The Low Profile
Portugal in many ways is a kind of hidden gem. Sure, everyone knows it exists; but few people know enough about it to have grand expectations or a deep sense of anticipation for what it might offer. That means that it’s easy to be surprised by what you find. A low cost of living, relaxed lifestyle, great weather, beautiful beaches and stunning cityscapes? Who knew. If Portugal proves anything, it’s that good things really do come in small packages.