I had never been to Portugal before spending a month there earlier this year. First, wow, what an amazing country! However, there are some things I wish I’d known before coming that would have helped me better navigate as a tourist, better plan my trip, and better understand the people. Here is a list, in no particular order, of the most important things to know before visiting Portugal.
1. Portugal is cheap to visit
When it comes to Western Europe, Portugal is as inexpensive a trip as you can find. Yes, hotel prices aren’t too out of whack with next door Spain, but food prices, museum prices, even Uber prices, all are lower here in Portugal. The metro in Lisbon is €1.50 (€1.34 if using a pre-loaded card for more than a single trip). The suburban train to Sintra or Cascais – your two most likely day trips from the capital – is €1.90 each way. Food prices are low, with an average meal costing me less than €10-15. An espresso is routinely under €1.
Cost of living here is average when it comes to housing, but all of these low costs help to offset the relatively low wages in Portugal. While I sincerely hope Portugal’s economy continues to pick up steam, for now, Americans especially can find some amazing value here.
2. The pastries… oh, the pastries
Speaking of cheap, if I told you that €1.15 would buy you one of the best pastries you’ve ever had, would you like that? Meet the venerable pastel de nata, Portugal’s famed egg custard tart. They are everywhere, and fresh warm ones will range from €1-1.20. Oh. My. Heavens. But these aren’t the only pastries here. Most pastry shops have a wide assortment, and for similar prices. Even the old National Pastry Shop in Lisbon has similar prices (think €1-2 for the most touristy shop in the city). Try the coconut ones. Trust me. Heck, at that price, plus an espresso as mentioned above, try them all!
This is the pastel de nata. Have a bunch!
3. Bread and butter are NOT free
One last note on food, although you can read all about my food recommendations in Lisbon here. If you go to a restaurant, the server will bring bread and butter, sometimes cheese or olive oil or something else with it. This is called a couvert and it is NOT free as it would be in the US. Typically it will cost €2-4. You are perfectly allowed to politely decline it. No is nao (rhymes with pow) and thank you is obrigado if you are male and obrigada if you are female, regardless of who you are addressing.
This meal was amazing, but the bread that came with it was not free, as I discovered after hardly being able to eat any of it due to being full.
4. Portuguese tend to speak loudly
Perhaps New Yorkers wouldn’t feel this as much as I did. I found that many here in Portugal tend to speak rather loudly. On the metro, on the sidewalk, in restaurants, in the middle of the night outside my window, all were places where loud talking was commonplace. Don’t feel like people are yelling at you. It’s just an animated language of animated people.
5. Portuguese is NOT “weird Spanish”
I feel like this shouldn’t need to be said, but it does. Yes, the languages have much in common. Yes, the countries are right next to each other, both here and in South America. But no, Portuguese is not just Spanish with a weird accent any more than Italian and French are the same. Native Spanish speakers may find themselves able to understand some Portuguese and vice versa, but don’t assume you can just walk into a shop and speak Spanish and be both fine linguistically and culturally.
On a side note, I find Portuguese to be a beautiful language, although a tough one for me to be able to even remotely pick up. Fortunately, Portugal is among Europe’s leaders in English speakers per capita.
This one is harder to explain. Saudade is a word for the Portuguese mindset that really has no direct translation. It is a sort of melancholy, though not a sadness. I somewhat liken it to the “tortured artist’s soul,” but even that is overly simplistic. This is a country that has always been based on sea-faring, from fishermen to explorers. Saudade is the sense of loss, whether or not it has happened, that accompanies such a lifestyle. It is the gazing at the horizon wondering if your loved one will return.
Now, this isn’t to say that the Portuguese don’t have fun, and aren’t happy; they do and they are. But this underlying feeling is always present, especially in the country’s art. Speaking of which…
Fado music – see below – is full of soldade.
7. Portugal adores art and artists
Yes, there are monuments here to kings and explorers. But there are also statues of – and things named for – artists. Lots of them. Portuguese people love the arts, although soldade infects these things more than anything else. Consider fado, the national music. Much fado is about loss. So, too, are many famous poets (Camoes being chief among them) and artists expressive of fairly dark – or at least gray – themes. But in Portugal, Camoes has his tomb next to Vasco de Gama, on equal footing. Pretty awesome!
8. Sidewalks in Portugal are pretty but slippery
This is not the country to walk around in heels after a rain. Heck, this might not be the country to walk around in heels period. Sidewalks here are made of polished cobblestones (looking like black and white tiles). They are done in patterns and are gorgeous! But they are slippery even when dry, and especially when wet, even in good walking shoes. Do be careful, and pack accordingly.
Beautiful sidewalks, but slippery. Watch out!
I hope this list helps you to feel better prepared to plan a visit to this amazing country. Portugal is truly a wonderful place!
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