Everyone is buzzing about Portugal and tourism is breaking records, increasing by 12% last year with a record-breaking 12.7 million visitors. What was once Europe’s best-kept secret is a secret no longer – but what is all the fuss about? Here are 15 reasons why the world is finally coming to Portugal.
Jerónimos Monastery | Marina Watson Peláez / © Culture Trip
Lisbon offers a perfect blend of old and new that gives it an ageless personality. Bright squares are surrounded by centuries-old buildings that are next to modern cafés, while contemporary museums, galleries, and stores are popping up. Everywhere you look, the city wears its history for the world to see and simultaneously showcases its young energy and progressive attitude. Musicians play along the river and in the city parks, the cuisine offers both traditional and exotic flavors, and café/bar terraces cover the rooftops and city squares. Entrepreneurs, freelancers, and artists are flocking to Lisbon as well, adding their own contributions to the hip and historic environment.
Portugal’s coastline spans more than 1,100 miles (1,770 kilometers), providing ample opportunities to get in some beach time while visiting, and a few beaches have been recognized on an international scale. Carvoeiro and the Ilha da Armona in the Algarve were listed as one of Europe’s best beach destination for 2018. In 2017, the winner was the Praia dos Galapinhos, just south of Lisbon in Setúbal. Of course, you shouldn’t miss the beaches in the north, either, and one of the most romantic near Porto is the Praia do Senhor da Pedra, most recognized for its charming chapel that’s located just at the surf.
A secret recipe
Pastéis de Belém | Marina Watson Peláez / © Culture Trip
It isn’t every day that you can try a recipe that’s over 300 years old, but you can in Lisbon. Pastéis de nata are a hot commodity around the world, but tasting these sweet, creamy custard tarts anywhere else isn’t the same as tasting them at Pastéis de Belém, the original location. Plenty of cafés have wonderful natas (as they are known locally), but the original recipe (which only a few people in the world know) is extra-special.
Wonderfully preserved history
Belém Tower | Marina Watson Peláez / © Culture Trip
Medieval city walls, Moorish castles, Roman bridges, and romantic palaces are just a few examples of the many historic treats in Portugal. In addition to Lisbon and Porto, the top historic cities and towns include Coimbra, Évora, Óbidos, and Guimarães. Try to see these highlights during your visit:
Belém Tower: Av. Brasília, 1400-038 Lisbon, Portugal
Jerónimos Monastery: Praça do Império 1400-206 Lisbon, Portugal
Coimbra University: 3004-531 Coimbra, Portugal
Roman Temple of Évora: Largo do Conde de Vila Flor, 7000-863 Évora, Portugal
A sunny disposition
Portugal’s warm weather and year-round sun are another attraction, especially in the center and southern regions of the country, and Lisbon is mentioned on multiple lists as one of the sunniest European capitals.
Porto, Portugal | Marina Watson Peláez / © Culture Trip
Cobblestoned streets and narrow alleys with stone steps wind their ways through Porto’s neighborhoods, characterized by a heterogeneous mix of homes and buildings. Different colors and sizes, and usually showcasing azulejo facades, these buildings are part of what gives the city its unique appeal. The lovely Douro River also adds its charm to Porto, opening at the Atlantic Ocean and winding its way into the Douro Valley and past terraced vineyards where sweet Port wine is cultivated. In Porto, tourists are attracted to the local wine cellars that offer tastings in addition to the local heritage dating back, in some cases, to the 12th and 13th centuries and reflecting a myriad of architectural styles including Roman, gothic, manueline, and baroque.
The Harry Potter connection
Livraria Lello & Irmão | Marina Watson Peláez / © Culture Trip
Speaking of Porto, who can forget that it was once the home of Harry Potter author JK Rowling, and the place where she began writing her famous series? It is even believed that parts of Porto, and other areas in Portugal, provided some inspiration. The most well-known belief is that she based Hogwarts library on the beautiful bookstore Livraria Lello & Irmão. One thing is for sure, Porto is now on the must-see lists of many Harry Potter fans young and old.
Portugal is a country that loves to party, and summer is prime festival time. June, in particular, is when streets close down for a couple of days to traffic and open to barbecues, music, dancing, and drinking instead. This special time is called the Popular Saints’ Festivals and the biggest parties take place in Lisbon and Porto, although locals dance the nights away at smaller-scale events around the country. Summer isn’t the only time for festivals, however. Christmas, Carnaval, and Easter are just a few of the many other holidays celebrated in Portugal with parades and events.
Barrels of wine | Marina Watson Peláez / © Culture Trip
Portugal is very proud of its local wine, and rightfully so. The country is home to 11 major wine regions (and many more smaller subregions), the Douro Valley being one of the oldest demarcated wine regions in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Port isn’t the only sweet grape-inspired treat in the country, either: Madeira has also attracted quite a bit of attention for its local sweet wine. And what about table wine? Ask the locals and visitors for their preferences and many will name a few from Alentejo, the largest region in the country, or Vinho Verde from Minho, an area that reaches from Porto towards northwest Spain.
Wild, rugged cliffs and stunning seaside caves, medieval gardens surrounding exquisite manor homes, and lookout points offering views across the countryside and the sea are just a few examples of Portugal’s romantic side, and there are more charming towns than it’s possible to mention. The few attracting attention on an international scale are fairy-tale Sintra, medieval Óbidos, stunning Lagos, and Aveiro, known as “the Venice of Portugal.”
Fresh ingredients that come from the local land and sea are the keystones of Portuguese cuisine, and recipes are generally simple yet delicious. Many dishes stem from another time when meager situations forced locals to make do with what they had, and they rose to the challenge spectacularly. A few examples include açorda (herb-infused bread soup), tripas à moda do Porto (tripe stew with beans from Porto), and caldo verde (kale soup). Today, however, national chefs (and a few renowned international names) are showcasing Portuguese food with creative twists, attracting even more people and palates. Fresh seafood also offers quality at a price that’s hard to beat.
It’s a perfect destination for everyone
Portugal is an excellent destination for solo travelers, couples, groups, and even the whole family. From the mountains to the sea, Portugal is a destination offering rustic surroundings, modern amenities, and luxury attractions. Whether you’re a city person who wants to party, or an introvert looking for some peace and quiet, you’ll find your place here.
Ribeira Square, Porto | Marina Watson Peláez / © Culture Trip
One thing that attracts solo travelers and families to Portugal is that it’s so safe. In fact, it was listed as the third-safest country in the world in 2017 by the Global Peace Index.
Few European countries can compete with Portugal’s prices, adding further to its appeal. Even in the capital, an average lunch costs €4–7 and a dinner €10–15, beer is roughly €1 and a glass of wine isn’t much more. A train ticket from Lisbon to Porto costs approximately €30 one way. There are even great budget accommodations, and Lisbon is one of the best cities in the world for hostels.
Finally, who doesn’t want to go to a country where the locals are genuinely happy to share their culture? Laid-back and friendly, the Portuguese are welcoming to tourists, especially those who are respectful and bear in mind common local courtesies.