Planning for Portugal
Getting ready for your own experience Ultimate planning guide on destinations, transportation, health, food and more
For many years Portugal has been one of the main European summer destinations. Beach sites, relaxing moments and vibrant summer parties make up the travel planning. But only during recent years it has truly become as hyped as it is nowadays. Therefore, the Algarve is not the only target anymore. Places like Lisbon, Porto, the Alentejo coast and even the country’s interior have caught people’s attention. We stayed in Lisbon for three consecutive months which gave us the amazing opportunity to really explore this vibrant capital from a local’s perspective. It was a great chance to roam and also explore the entire amazing country beyond its most touristic sites.
Even if incredibly diverse, the country is quite small with only 10 million inhabitants. This makes it easy to explore from top to bottom. Being in Europe, one might expect an impressive transport network to the most remote places. However, the reality is a bit more complicated. Most of the mainstream attractions and main cities are along Portugal’s coast line and may be accessed easily. In contrast, immense and impressive treasures remain yet to be explored “inside” the country. Hence, renting a car was fundamental for us to discover historical old villages, high mountains and gasping landscapes.
One of our travel companions was Portuguese, which made it easy to go “that further”, “that deeper” and to really immerse in the culture! However, as Portuguese are incredibly welcoming and have an amazing knowledge of English, the trip was easy to embrace for everybody. Come and have a look at our planning guide to prepare your perfect trip!
Knowing Your Travel Time Explore the country all year round
Being located on the edge of the European continent, Portugal offers a large variety of activities and attractions. Depending on the weather and what brings you to here, different periods of the year are more advisable than others.
Portugal is one of the warmest European countries with temperatures soaring above 40ºC in summer time. This is the best time for enjoying the golden beaches of the south. Even the wet winters with an average of 16ºC offer great conditions for a city trip, hiking excursion or surf holiday. Mainland Portugal is characterized by three main climate zones: Mediterranean (Algarve, central and half north coast), Oceanic (upper half north) and Semi-Arid (certain parts of Alentejo). During winter periods snowfalls are common in the north and center of the country.
Find below some general ideas about activities that can be done depending on the seasonal weather conditions:
- November to March: Winter time is characterized by periods of rainfall all over the country but still offers long sunny days. In the north and some parts of the center days of heavy snowfall allow the practice of winter sports such as ski and snowboard (e.g. at Serra da Estrela). The Algarve keeps a mild temperature of an average of 16-18ºC. The average daylight in winter is 4-6 hours. This is a good time for hiking and walking tours in the south as well as center.
- March to Mid-June: Spring is one of the best periods to visit Portugal. As rainy days are few and blue skies common, this is an ideal period for practicing certain activities. Among them are golf, hiking or even some water sports. It is a great time for city trips and sightseeing, too. Crowds are almost nonexistent and prices are reasonable. The average temperature in central Portugal is around 22ºC and days are longer than 10 hours.
- Mid-June to August: It’s holiday season all over Europe and Portugal is as crowded as the whole Mediterranean area. The subtropical anticyclone allows temperature to rise above 40ºC in the center and southerm regions. There is an average of more than 12 hours of daylight. It is a popular but probably not the best time to visit cities such as Lisbon and Porto. These places tend to get quite hot, crowded and pricey. The best activities to practice during this period are water and beach activities. You may also venture yourself through the interior of the country. Here you can find amazing old villages, waterfalls, lakes and pleasant mountains activities. Read more on our road trip post.
- September to October: Commonly known as fall it still features summery conditions. With an average of 26ºC this two months are the best to from a local’s point of view. You may go to the beach without crowds, discover the interior of the country without being cold or admire the the Portuguese cities without being trapped with crowds. It is also a great season for outdoor activities such as golf, tennis and mountain sports.
As for the two Portuguese islands, Madeira and Azores, both feature an unpredictable subtropical climate. Madeira is on an average of 20ºC throughout the year making it always pretty ideal to visit. On Azores summer is the best time to visit as long rainfall periods might appear the rest of the year. However, you should always be prepared for showers at both places, Madeira and Azores.
Setting Your Itinerary Discover what there is to see and map your destinations
Portugal is one of the oldest nations in Europe following its set boarders as we know today. Therefore, you can find an astonishing amount of heritages, villages, historical sites, things and places to go in every corner. These include churches, monuments, statues, national parks as well as beaches!
However, your itinerary will be strongly dependent on your personal preferences. Believe us, it can be quite overwhelming to find the spots that really fit your interest. Hence, we have created our TurtleMap Portugal. It is a sight map featuring not only must-sees but also hidden gems that we saw ourselves or made research about. The map is “living” and advancing as more travelers share their experiences. We hope that this will help to ease your planing or even to find nice spots around once you are already in the country.
Understanding Transportation To and Around Portugal By air, train, boat, bus or car
Arriving to Portugal
Portugal can be reached through five main airports that offer extensive and frequent domestic and international flights:
- Porto: Francisco Sá Carneiro Airport
- Lisbon: Humberto Delgado Airport
- Algarve: Faro Airport
- Madeira: Funchal International Airport Cristiano Ronaldo
- Azores: João Paulo II Airport Ponta Delgada
Other smaller airports such as Beja, Horta, Santa Maria, Flores and Porto Santo provide less frequent domestic flights.
Arriving by boat
With an undeniable connection to the ocean, another popular way to reach Portugal is through the Atlantic or Mediterranean Sea. These are the four main cruise ports of Portugal:
- Lisbon: Porto de Lisboa
- Porto: Porto de Leixões
- Algarve: Porto de Portimão
- Madeira: Porto do Funchal
Portugal shares a land border with Spain. This enables easy connections with the rest of the continent by car, train and long-distance buses. International bus companies such as Eva Bus, FlixBus or AlSA connect Portgal with west and central Europe. Spanish railways Renfe offers (night) train connections to Spain and France. For comparing this type of transport Go Euro is a great search engine.
Going through the country
Portugal has a very good and efficient transport network connecting main cities and coastal areas. However, when talking about the interior of the country the scenario is different. If you want to go and visit a more remote village in the interior of the country, a car is strictly necessary. Portuguese are famous for driving everywhere. Even in cities it is very normal that each family member has their own car.
Below are some transport companies connecting different places in the country as well as inside cities:
- Comboios de Portugal: National train company connecting all major cities and regions
- Buses: This is the best option when traveling more to the interior of the country. Rede Expressos and Eva Bus are the two major companies running the bus service.
- Car: A popular way to also travel through the country is by car, either a private hire or BlaBlaCar.
- Metro: In the two biggest cities, Porto and Lisbon, a metro network offers very efficient and well transport options: Metro de Lisboa and Metro do Porto.
Finding a place to sleep Accommodation at hotels, guesthouses and home stays
Worldwide known for high standards in tourism industry, finding a place to sleep is not an issue in Portugal. There are always options available whether a high end luxury hotel or a trendy hostel.
For hotels and hostels we have always considered booking.com or trivago as the best options when choosing where to stay. But Portugal is famous for having incredibly charming and cute private houses. Some are with tiles, some whitewashed, other in are in a triangular forms. Hence, Airbnb has a great range of offers to choose from when it comes to charming townhouses, cottages and farmland houses.
If you want to know more about finding a place to stay also have a look our recommendation of booking platforms.
Looking into your wallet Know the prices and how to get rid of your money
Southern Europe and Portugal are not the bargain anymore they once were. Unless you travel to the very interior of the country, pretty much everywhere along the Portuguese coast accommodation, food and drinks won’t be much cheaper than the prices in Germany, the UK or France.
Prices – From budget to high-end
In the age of low-cost carriers you may find a round-trip ticket from Europe for just €50. You can find transatlantic flights for as little as €350. Portugal is not cheap but budget (as well as luxury high-end options) are available. Depending on your pockets, you may sleep in a hostel, enjoy street food and spend only €40 a day. The sky is the limit if you fancy luxury hotels, fine dining or spa experience! Find here some examples of local prices:
- Accommodation (hostel/double room per person): Simple €20 – 50, mid-class €50 – 120, high-end >€120
- Meals: Street food/ local Tasca €5-10, local restaurant €10-20, mid-class/ tourist restaurants €20 – 40, high end >€40; Portuguese tip few; among foreigners tip of 10% is common
- Transport: Bus/ metro ticket €1-2, regional train €3-10, intercity train/ bus €10-30
- Museums/ attractions: historic sites/ museums €5-10, attractions/ amusement parks €20-30
Portugal is part of the eurozone, which eliminates the issue of exchange rates for most European travelers. Most places also support payments by card, even though sometimes only Portuguese bank cards are accepted. Therefore, you should always have some notes and coins in your pockets to pay here and at smaller cafes or local market stands. Read in the next paragraph how to get an international (travel) credit card that provides free cash withdrawals in Portugal.
Free cash withdrawals and getting the best exchange rates
You are able to exchange foreign currencies into Euro at the airport and main tourist destinations. However, it is most convenient to retrieve cash at one of the ATMs you may find everywhere. In general, this is also the easiest way to secure the best exchange rates. Usually, Portuguese ATM providers do not ask for any cash withdrawal fees (except of Euronet). However, your bank or card provider may ask for a processing fee. With traditional institutions these can be quite high (usually between €5 – 10 per transaction).
Therefore, we would highly recommend you to obtain an international (travel) credit card specifically provided for this or any future trips. Providers offer free cash withdrawals worldwide, low or no foreign currency usage fees, and really beneficial exchange rates. For Europeans we can highly recommend N26 Bank: their service is accessible online, worldwide for no cost at all. Hurray to freebies!!!
Staying safe and healthy Be safe, be wise and relax
Check the standard vaccinations
There are no special vaccines required for Portugal. Nevertheless, make sure you have all the standard vaccinations up-to-date in order to avoid dangerous situations. Mosquitoes are common but neither specially annoying nor transmitting any diseases.
Protect from the strong sun
Never underestimate Portuguese weather! That is one of the best advises we can give you.
The sun is very strong in summer time. However, what most people tend to ignore or forget is that Portugal is a country “planted by the sea”. Atlantic breezes bring into shore and land tiny particles that actually expand the UV exposure just like a mirror. Especially on windy or even cloudy days sun protectors cannot be dismissed in order to prevent severe sun burns.
Criminal offenses and risks
Portugal is a very safe country. Walking on the streets as a woman or colored person at night time is no issue. Moreover, Portugal is connected to European criminal advisers and services so that any committed crime will be widely reported. However, beware of pickpockets around bigger cities and tourist attractions.
Lisbon seems to have turned into an eldorado for drug dealers. While walking on the main streets anybody looking under 40 years old will be offered drugs. They will whisper “hax, hax” (short cut for haxixe, meaning hashish), or even cocaine and heroin. This problem is well-known by Portuguese authorities. Therefore, do not purchase any drugs at vendors as this represents a criminal act. If observed by (undercover) police you have to expect legal consequences.
Also make sure to not drink and drive when partying. Portuguese authorities and ferocious are constantly on the look for someone being negligent.
Be prepared for the worst case
If coming from Europe don’t forget to apply and bring your European Health Insurance Card. To cover excessive amounts when using private hospitals/ doctors consider getting a travel insurance. This is especially important when coming from outside of Europe and you are not eligible for a European Health Insurance Card.
The worst case can always happen and needing to pay yourself for doctors or hospital stays may sometimes cost you an apartment! Single or multi-trip insurances are usually available for comparably small contributions.
Acting like a local Know the laws, customs and traditions
Immigration and Visa
EU citizens are exempt from any visa requirements as they enjoy full right of movement within the European territory.
For all others, depending on your nationality and country agreements, you might need a visa to enter Portugal. A lot of foreign citizens are granted visa-free travel (e.g. USA, Australia). In case you’re unsure about your case, you can find more info on our travel preparation section under “Documents” and apply for the Schengen Visa here. The latter allows visitors to travel through all the Schengen Area for up to 90 days. If you have a visa for another European country you are also permitted to enter Portugal and vice-versa (Schengen Visa).
If you plan to bring any special items also check the European Customs official website in order to check for verify allowed quantities or prohibited items.
Language, Food and Culture
Portuguese is the official language; however, English is widely spoken by almost everybody.
Portugal has an incredible and vast cuisine. Being one of the country’s prides, local food will be impossible to avoid once there. Portuguese people love food and are passionate about their traditional dishes. Read our article about food and dishes in Portugal.
Even though any religion in Portugal is respected and accepted, the country is deeply Catholic. According to 2011 Cencus 81% of the population has said to be a believer of Catholicism. However, only 19% actually regularly attend a Sunday’s Mass. Religion neither prevents the country of being largely tolerant to and a haven for the gay community. The customs and traditions are also mirrored in the country’s festivals and street parties. Read more about Portugal’s identity and best events here.
Electricity and Mobile Networks
Portugal’s electrical current runs on 230 V and 50 Hz. There are different power sockets in use all over Europe (type C and type F).
Phone and internet reception is really good. EU regulation enables Europeans to also use their allowances of mobile data, minutes and texts when travelling. When coming from abroad you may check roaming rates with your local provider. Alternatively, you can get a local sim card with MEO, NOS or Vodafone.