Portugal is a beautiful country with a thriving tourism industry. However, it is less well known as a tourism destination than France, Spain, Italy, and many of its other European neighbors. And, as a result, we’ve noticed that there are some misinformation and preconceptions about Portugal that just aren’t true. As such, we’d like to take a few minutes of your time to explore some of the frequently asked questions about Portugal. We love this country and we’d like to share a little bit of our knowledge, and passion, with you.
What Portugal is famous for?
Let’s tackle the biggest question first: what is Portugal most famous for? We won’t discuss Portugal’s sights and tourist attractions in this section; we will leave that until later.
Special tiles called Azulejos
If you visit Lisbon (Portugal’s capital city), you will notice the ornate tiles on the outside of many buildings. These tiles are called Azulejos and they were brought over by the Moors to help regulate heat in buildings when they conquered southern Portugal in 711. Then, when the Moors were driven out, Portugal kept the tiles but began to paint elaborate catholic scenes on them. This was a big change from when they were under Moorish rule, as they only used geometric shapes to decorate the Azulejos, as painting people was not permitted by Islam.
These little custard tarts are delicious, and bakers all over the world have tried to emulate them. But no one makes them like the Portuguese. There are custard tarts from various different European countries, but the Pastéis de Nata is the undeniable king (or queen) of custard pastries!
Port is a kind of sweet red wine produced in the Douro Valley, in the north of Portugal. People all around the world drink Port, but most countries just import one or two kinds (usually Ruby or Tawny port). There are various different kinds – even the white port. Sampling Portugal’s unique port wine is any oenophile’s dream, and our Heart of Portugal Tour has port tastings and a visit to a port estate.
Golf courses in the Algarve
Portugal is known around the world for its stunning golf courses, but it’s the Algarve – its southernmost region – that is especially known for extravagant golf courses. In fact, the Algarve is widely believed to be the best place in the world for golf holidays.
Are Portugal and Spain similar?
Given their shared place on the Iberian Peninsula, the Latin root of both languages, and the predominance of Catholicism, you can be forgiven for wondering whether Portugal and Spain are similar. To readers who have been to both countries, you will already know that there are more differences than similarities between Spain and Portugal. Portugal is much smaller than Spain and there is a more relaxed atmosphere to the culture and daily life of the Portuguese than you’ll find in their Spanish neighbours.
In truth, Spain feels a lot more like Italy than it feels like Portugal. But, even then, Spain is huge, and is split into various regions (Basque, Galicia, Catalonia, Andalucía, etc.), so it’s difficult to really summarise Spain as having one unified culture. If you’re interested, we have recently written a guide to Andalusia that goes into many of the things that make it such a wonderful place to visit and that’s why we offer our Splendor of Andalucía Tour.
Portugal really is not very like Spain, or other European countries – and this uniqueness a good thing. However, we don’t think Spain and Portugal need to be in competition with each other; just go to both countries!
What to do and see in Portugal?
If you’re considering a trip to Portugal, you will need to make a bucket list of all of the best sights and tourist attractions. There is far too much to see in Portugal for us to cover here, so we’d like to suggest five totally unmissable sights!
1) Belem Tower
Belem Tower (pictured above) is also referred to as the Tower of St. Vincent and you can find it in Lisbon, on the Tagus River. This incredible tower was built in 1515 to help defend the city from invading forces.
2) Pena National palace
You can find the Pena National Palace on a hill in the town of Sintra. This palace looks like something from a fairy-tale. It was built by Portugal’s King Ferdinand II and it displays a striking combination of both Manueline and Moorish styles.
3) Cais da Ribeira
Cais da Ribeira is a beautiful, idyllic part of the city of Porto. The buildings are very old and the entire district has an undeniable rustic charm to it. The architecture is incredible and so is the atmosphere on feast days, when the locals rush in to celebrate in Cais da Ribeira.
4) Obidos Castle
Obidos Castle, as you might expect, can be found in the small city of Obidos to the North of Lisbon. The Moors built the castle in the 8th century, but the city is much older, dating back as far as the Romans. There’s something very striking about the ancient walls wrapping around the city, with lush trees and vegetation peaking over the top of the walls.
5) São Jorge Castle
São Jorge Castle is Lisbon’s answer to the Acropolis, or to Edinburgh Castle. The castle is a stunning granite and reinforced concrete structure overlooking Lisbon. You can see the castle from most parts of the city, which gives it a tremendous presence and significance wherever you are in Lisbon.
Is Portugal in the EU?
Yes. Portugal is in the EU. In fact, it joined in 1986, at the same time as Spain. This means that the official currency in Portugal is the Euro, and it has been the Euro since 1999. Before the Euro, the official currency in Portugal was the escudo. Before that (before 1911), it was the Portuguese real.
How Portugal got its name?
Portugal got its name from a combination of Roman and Celtic cultures. The Roman word ‘portus’ means port/harbour, and Cale was a Celtic goddess and the name of an ancient settlement on the north of the Iberian Peninsula where modern-day Portugal now stands.
That’s all we have time for in today’s guide. We hope we’ve encouraged one or two readers to begin planning their first trip to Portugal. And for those of you already planning to visit, we hope we’ve given you a few pieces of useful information. If you’d like to take our Heart of Portugal Tour, you may like to check out the itinerary first — and please get in touch if you have any questions about it. Start planning your perfect trip to Portugal with a little help from Food & Wine Vacations!