Why should you visit Portugal? Welllll, you can rent a penthouse apartment with water views for $29 a night in Lisbon right now. You can also surf, eat world-class cheese, and check out weekends ‘festas’ in tiny villages.
Yes, let’s all go there right now! Madeleine is here to further convince/inform us.
Hello! Madeleine here. I’m a writer from England, now living in the Serra da Estrela (Star Mountain Range) in Central Portugal. I blog about life on our off-grid farm at quintadias.com.
Portugal and I dated for a while when some friends from the UK moved here to start a sustainable farming project 5 years ago. In 2014 we moved in, and made it official in June 2015 when I got my residency.
Now, I’m head over heels in love with this peaceful, unassuming country, steeped in history and with some of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. Here are my tips for what to explore…
Must Go in Portugal
As the capital, Lisbon has an energy all of its own, but in the north of the country Porto is experiencing its own renaissance as a picturesque (if slightly ramshackle) hub of creativity and innovation.
Home of the port wine trade, there are numerous bars hidden in the cobbled streets spilling down to the riverfront, as well plenty of places to sample the best Portuguese cuisine (Cantina32 comes highly recommended).
Covering about 1000 square kilometres, including Portugal’s highest point, the park is wild and the views breathtaking. Spring and Autumn are the best times to visit when the snow’s melted, the land’s green and temperatures are kinder to people walking up hills.
May brings wildflowers and butterflies dancing through the heather. Pick up trail guides in the nearby towns of Seia, Manteiga or Covilhã.
It’s a splurge… but if you’re going to blow the budget for one night you may as well stay in an ACTUAL PALACE, right? Chandeliers, suits of armour, a plethora of waiters in gold-trimmed blazers – this is seriously old school.
The hotel is in need of updating but go along with the “crumbling palace” theme and you’ll be golden. If that’s too much, you can wander round the beautiful forest planted by the Carmelite monks who founded a monastery here in 1628 absolutely free.
Must Do in Portugal
Portugal’s Atlantic coast features world-renowned breaks as well as cute resorts to while away an afternoon in – try Baleal, Peniche or Ericeiras, where there are plenty of hostels and surf camps offering board hire, surf lessons and tips on where to find the best spots.
Find a festa
Throughout the spring, summer and autumn almost very town and village will hold a “festa” – mini weekend festivals devoted to a saint or celebrating a harvest: chestnuts, cheese, sardines… Check out roadside boards or local tourist information for details.
If you’re staying nearby, the folk music will keep you up until the wee hours, so you may as well join in. Meet the locals, sample some wine or regional liqueurs, dance like a fool with your new friends.
There are loads of ancient stones and sites a short distance from the city of Évora in one of Portugal’s least-touristed regions, the wide, hot plains of the Alentejo. The Almendres circle is one of the oldest in Europe, with almost one hundred stones set in two circles (take that, Stonehenge!).
Must Eat in Portugal
Coffee & pastries
Coffee is best enjoyed with a sugary pastry, most famously the incomparable pasteis de nata (egg custard tarts). Other traditional treats include sonhos de abóbora (“pumpkin dreams”) – sweet doughnuts filled with pumpkin jam.
The Serra da Estrela is famed for its sheep’s cheese: vegetarian, gooey and delicious. Great with local corn bread (Broa de Milho).
Portugal makes some of the best wine in the world – and as far as we can tell, the really good stuff never makes it out of the country. We’re in love with the insanely affordable, delicious local reds; in summer, Vinho Verde (“green wine”) is a dangerously drinkable, slightly-sparkling refresher.
Salt cod is quite possibly the national dish, but it can be an acquired taste. Try it “à Brás” – shredded, with onions and olives and potatoes.
Cultural Tips for Portugal
The Portuguese are private, and they’ll respect your privacy too: If you want to drink your coffee and read your book in peace, you’ll be left alone. If you initiate conversation, or find yourself in need of help, however, you’ll be met by some of the friendliest, laid back and welcoming people you’ve ever come across.
A subtle (and dirty) sense of humour, huge hearts and a willingness to go out of their way to help you are typical of the locals we know.
It’s polite to greet people when you walk into a shop and (in smaller villages) when you pass them on the street, with a “Bom Dia” (good morning!) or “Boa tarde” (good afternoon).
Travel on the Cheap in Portugal
WWoofing is the best way to get off the beaten track and learn some new skills. My days helping on an earthbag building project (the house I now live in) gave me arms like Michelle Obama and a tan that still hasn’t worn off. If you’re prepared to rough it a bit, you’ll see gorgeous farms and meet incredibly interesting people. Camping is a close second.
Fresh produce from the nearest market is always good value, and the fruit and vegetables grown locally are spectacular – look out for cherries from Covilhã, or oranges from the Algarve. Stock up on inexpensive bread, cheese and local honey while you’re there.
Beer, wine and coffee never break the bank in Portugal. If you can camp and self cater you’ll be able to enjoy a glass of wine with your meal, or a coffee at the bus station, for small change.
Rede Nacional de Expressos, the national coach network, is a wallet-friendly and easy way to get around. The buses are clean, reliable and have free wi-fi, and you can book them through a phone app via Paypal. They stop throughout the region.
Also, Airbnb is almost always cheaper than a hotel and you’ll get more for your money. Here’s a pretty room for $13 (!!!) a night. If you’ve never used Airbnb before, here’s $40 towards your first booking.
Thanks so much, Madeleine! Have any of you guys been to Portugal? Any tips to add?