Portugal offers a unique old world charm – diverse landscapes, enchanting medieval castles, and cosmopolitan city living “a la Portuguese” – an eclectic combination of modern conveniences surrounded by ancient landmarks and traditions. Despite being diminutive in size, the country boasts a rich cultural aesthetic more often found in much larger destinations.
While day travel from the northern mountain valleys to the serene beauty of the Alentejo region to the sun-drenched beaches of the southern Algarve coast is possible in a day, why rush it? Portugal, in all its compact glory, is that rare gem – a popular destination that remains decidedly unspoiled by mass tourism.
In the capital Lisbon and its sister city Oporto, one can easily survive on $50 a day, provided plush accommodations and gourmet dining are not prerequisites. The curious traveler can wander the cobblestone streets in search of awe-inspiring monuments or sit and watch the world go by at a number of local squares or parks sans excessive spending. Many attractions are free on particular days of the week and discounts are readily available to students under 26 and senior citizens.
Travel by bus or train throughout the rest of the country is also quite affordable (and safe), although careful planning must be considered during the summer high season.
Ironically, it is the quaint villages, wine regions, and coastal resorts that can often cost considerably more, due in large part to their isolated locations and lack of economical offerings close to the attractions. Still, with advanced planning, it’s not impossible to find reasonable lodging at guesthouses that provide kitchen facilities — in order to save by cooking some of your own meals. To illustrate, guesthouses in the popular Algarve beach region can cost as little as $40 per day — with advanced booking and seasonal considerations — while the same room can set you back over $150 during the summer months.
Better yet, pack a lunch and save on accommodation expenses by taking a daytrip from the larger cities. From Lisbon, travelers can comfortably enjoy a day at the stunning fishing village of Cascais or a more romantic adventure at the Unesco World Heritage town of Sintra. From Oporto, the historic Guimarães is easily reachable in less than two hours while the breathtaking Douro Valley is an absolute must for wine and nature lovers.
Overall, Portugal is a fantastic place to visit with travel companions or even alone. For one thing, basic English is spoken around the country — at the very least at hotels and restaurants. The locals are equally friendly and curious and tend to be approachable in most social settings. Of course as with most tourist destinations, one must always be vigilant of pickpockets and under-populated areas after dark. Accommodations are even more economical in pairs as the costs of the rooms remain the same regardless of the number of inhabitants.
Travelers can save on food expenses by adopting the local habits at meal time; small breakfast, leisurely lunch (considered the most important), and late dinner. Breakfast can be as simple as coffee and toast, which if not included with your accommodation, starts at about $3 at local cafés. Lunch options vary throughout the country, but if you are willing to go a little out of your way (i.e. away from major attractions or scenery) you can find authentic Portuguese cuisine at the affordable rate of $15- $30 per person. Considering how late dinnertime is, budget conscientious travelers can opt for a larger meal at lunch and purchase some snacks or lighter treats for the evening meal.
Getting in and around Portugal is as easy as booking a ticket on your means of transportation of choice.
You can enter Portugal via several different methods:
- Plane: Despite its diminutive size, Portugal features no less than three international airports; one in Lisbon and the other two in Oporto and Faro respectively. Flights arrive daily from major cities all around Europe including Paris, Madrid, Amsterdam, London, Dublin, and Berlin. From North America, direct flights are only available to Lisbon from either New York or Los Angeles. From Toronto, direct flights are available to both Lisbon and Oporto.
- Land: There are a number of ways to get into Portugal using this method. Some are more comfortable and affordable than others.
- Train: If you happen to be coming from Spain or France, train travel could be an interesting alternative to flying. Bear in mind; however, that unless you buy tickets well in advance, you may end up paying far more than the cost of a plane ticket. The TGV fast trains feature indirect travel from both Paris and Madrid.
- Bus: This mode of transportation is not for the faint of heart; long, uncomfortable travel with many stops at no-frills gas stations and eateries along the way. On the plus side, the trip is usually the cheapest way to travel – if you’re starting in Spain, France, Germany, or the Netherlands, that is.
- Car: There are many roads that cross the unguarded border from Spain into Portugal. That said, if you are planning to travel around the country, your best bet is to rent a car from dozens of available agencies. Apart from affordable pricing, these companies offer varying insurance options, a rental contract, and accept driver’s licenses from all EU countries, Brazil, and the U.S.
- Sea: There are no direct ferry crossings to Portugal.
Note: EU residents are free to enter Portugal whenever they wish. All other nationalities should check with local agencies to see if visas are necessary.
Within the country, transportation options are plentiful.
- Bus and trams: In the larger cities, bus transportation is readily available for both local and regional travel. Once in the smaller towns, many attractions are reachable on foot. Regional companies offering travel throughout the country include Rede Expressos, Rodonorte, and Eva, which travels to the Algarve. Prices vary but this option is usually faster than train travel.
In Lisbon (and Oporto), a scenic way to visit the older parts of the city is by vintage tram. Single tickets start at $1.65, or depending on your travel plans, a full 24 hour pass that includes buses, trams, and the metro is 5 euros (or $6.50). You can find detailed information (in English) at Companhia Carris de Ferro de Lisboa.
Local Tip: Many tourists opt for the Lisboa Card which offers free transportation in and around Lisbon (including Casçais and Sintra) plus free entry or reduced entrance to dozens of attractions. That said, it’s best to determine what (if attractions are of interest), when (many museums are free on Sundays), where (some attractions are close together and don’t require much transport), and who (under 26’s and senior travelers receive discounts on regular fares) – to decide if the card is the best option for you.
- Train and Metro: Regional train travel is cheaper than bus travel but often times slower. Fares and itineraries are available at Caminhos de Ferro Portugueses. Depending on distance, some trains offer restaurant or bar services while others scenic beauty. Train travel in Portugal is generally reliable, clean, and safe. Metro services are available in both Lisbon and Oporto. They are still expanding and offer quick ways to get to short-hop destinations. Prices start at $1.85 per single ticket in Lisbon and $2 in Oporto.
- Air: Flights within Portugal are very expensive (approximately $150 USD on the lower end). They are not recommended for travelers on a budget. Only consider them if you need to get somewhere fast as you can fly anywhere in the country in under an hour.
- Car and motorbike: Be warned – though it has improved somewhat in recent years, Portugal has one of the worst road accident records in Europe. In larger cities, rental cars are routinely targeted for theft, and in the smaller towns, roads are often unpaved, narrow, and confusing. If this doesn’t deter you, cars can be rented at airports for drivers 25 and older with a valid license of at least one year. Motorbike rentals are available in the larger cities and in the Algarve with a starting price of approximately $45 per hour.
- Taxis: Only recommended from the airport or late in the evening in the larger cities. Older drivers do not often speak Englis,h so have you destination address handy. In Lisbon, standard day fares start at $3.30, and an airport trip should cost $20-35 maximum.
- Boat: River cruises and commuter ferries are available from Lisbon and Oporto at varying prices.
As might be expected, a country offering such varied landscapes and cultural activities as Portugal also provides visitors with a wealth of accommodation options. Everything from “no-frills” budget hostels to comfortable mid-range hotels to opulent luxury is readily available.
It is possible to get hostel rooms for as low as $15 per night – even close to the attractions in Lisbon. However, for that price you have to be willing to go ultra-basic; shared dorm style room (up to 10 beds) and bathroom plus no breakfast. Private rooms start at about $35 in hostels or $45 in pensaos (guest houses) and small one or two star hotels. Mid-range to four stars cost from $65-$100 while luxury 5 star can start for as little as $125 depending on location, time of booking and season.
Portugal boasts relatively mild weather year round. High season is generally between June and mid-September, when temperatures average 30-40°F and even higher in the Algarve region. To get the best accommodation prices, book well in advance or opt to visit off-season. Two great alternate times to take in Portuguese culture is during the Carnivale Festival in February and the week prior to Easter — which varies annually between March and April.
Price breakdown on what you can be expected to pay for accommodations in Portugal:
- $15-$30: A clean bed in hostel dorm rooms of up to 10 people. Shared bathroom.
- $35-$45: Clean private room of varying sizes. Internet, private bathroom, and simple breakfast included.
- $50-$65: This price range can provide a good-size comfortable room with modern amenities including internet and breakfast.
- $70+ $100: 3* to 4* quality rooms with stylish décor, ample size, views, all amenities and extras and buffet breakfast.
- $125+: At this price point, expect the best amenities available short of a deluxe suite; large elegant rooms with scenic views, 24-hour concierge service, business center, lounge areas, buffet breakfast, and free wireless service.
Portugal’s climate remains fairly temperate throughout the year. The mainland averages about 55°F in the north and 64°F in the south during the colder, rainier months of Autumn and Winter. Temperatures can reach as high as 86°F – 95°F during July and August. A great time to visit is in late May thru June and in September thru October when the weather cools and the crowds lessen.
Food and Drink
Food plays an important part in Portuguese tradition. The cuisine is based on the combination of fresh regional produce with a strong emphasis on fish due to the country’s proximity to the sea. It differs from other Mediterranean countries in that its typical spices originated in the Far East by way of their former colonies there. Each region in Portugal offers its own specialties and ways to cook its staple ingredients.
- Arguably the most famous dish is salted cod or bacalhau. It is available all over the country and cooked in each respective region’s traditional way. Local meat is routinely prepared grilled or as a stew. Soup is served at all the main meals — changing in consistency and ingredients depending on the region. Many typical restaurants serve local delicacies to sample as petiscos – Portugal’s answer to tapas.
- Desserts are generally simple egg-based concoctions seasoned with sweet spices, regional fruits, or on occasion local port wine.
- Known internationally for exceptional port wine, Portugal has several regions creating different varietals of wine.
- Surrounded by lovely olive groves in the south, the Alentejo region produces the country’s most consumed wines. From spicy reds to fruity whites this region exports its wines around the world.
- The north’s oldest wine region, the Douro Valley, is so breathtaking and well-preserved that it’s one of only two wine regions protected by UNESCO in Portugal. Here, the famous port wine is produced and sent to Oporto for distribution.
- In Madeira, superior vintage wines are created from the potent tinta negra mole grape and Minho has vinho verde (green wine) — a light, naturally sparkling varietal.
- Portuguese wines can be easily sampled anywhere in the country with no exportation costs as a considerable advantage. With the exception of special vintage wines, a glass of decent Portuguese wine or port can start as low as $2.50 in a bar or $7 a bottle at a market.
There are so many distinctive options in this tiny country that it’s impossible to name them all. Here is a brief sampling of some of the most interesting.
- Lisbon: If time is limited, the capital can give you a reasonably comprehensive taste of what the country offers. From the impressive monuments of Belem to the medieval enchantments and melancholic Fado music of Alfama, to the modern shops and eateries around Avenida da Liberdade, Lisbon offers something for everyone.
- Oporto: Portugal’s second city is a UNESCO World Heritage site whose cultural landmarks easily merit that distinction. Spend the day exploring the old town with its stunning 14th century church and hills overlooking the Douro River. Alternately, enjoy the namesake port wines at Vila Nova de Gaia then cruise the peaceful river at your leisure.
- The Algarve: Sun-worshipping tourists flock to this beach paradise during the summer months. If the fun-loving party vibe at Lagos is not your cup of tea, there are plenty of under-explored shorelines and quaint historic towns to discover. Faro, the capital, features an idyllic medieval quarter. Sagres charms with its simplicity, while Tavira offers a more sophisticated beauty dating back to Roman times.
- Wine regions: More than just wine producers, the main wine regions of Portugal offer a glance at age old traditions and captivating landscapes. Enjoy the ultimate Douro Valley experience; a romantic cascade of green mountains from the excellent vantage point of a traditional rabelos boat cruise while sampling port. The Moorish influence gently surrounds the medieval towns of the Alentejo Region; visit Evora and white-washed Obidos for their architecture featuring cloisters, ancient churches featuring stunning azulejo tiles and Roman remains.
- Historic towns and seaside wonders: Notable sights include the mystical charm of Sintra, the collegiate appeal of university towns Braga and Coimbra, and the aquatic adventures of islands Madeira or the Azores. Each with its own enchantments, Portugal truly offers something for everyone.
Adding Portugal to a longer trip
If you’re planning a longer, round the world type of trip and are considering adding Portugal to your itinerary, check out the following trip. All trips built on Indie, BootsnAll’s multi-stop flight tool, can be completely customized to fit each individual’s needs. Just register for a free account, enter your destinations and dates, and click Search fares to get an immediate, bookable price.
For more on travel in Portugal, check out the following articles and resources:
- Read our Portugal Indie Travel Guide to get started planning your trip
- Read the Lisbon Indie Travel Guide
- Read 8 Things Not to Do in Lisbon
- Find out why Portugal won the 2012 Indie Travel Championship
- Read Drink Your Way Around Portugal
- Catch a flight to Portugal
To read more about and from author Jessica Benavides Canepa, check out her author bio page.