With its stunning beaches, friendly people, unspoilt countryside and tasty local cuisine, Portugal is, unsurprisingly, one of Europe’s most popular travel destinations. If you’re planning a trip, here are 10 tips from Matthew Hancock, co-author of The Rough Guide to Portugal, to help you find the most authentic parts of the country, escape the crowds and get even more for your euros.
1. Go out of season
Autumn is a lovely time to visit – the sea is at its warmest (the Algarve average water temperature in October is 21˚C) while the sun still shines for an average of seven hours a day.
Most Portuguese assert that the sea is far too cold outside the self-imposed “swimming season” (usually just July and August), leaving the beaches more or less empty in the shoulder seasons.
2. Venture off the beaten track
In Portugal it pays to get off the tourist trail. Head inland to the border region, where fortified castle towns such as Marvão and Estremoz loom over the surrounding plains, and storks nest in spring above the olive and orange groves.
In autumn, go north to the Douro vineyards, where the vines are bursting with grapes – you can even join in with the harvest and grape-stomping at some wine estates.
If you just want some sun and swimming, head to the coasts of the Alentejo, the Centro district or the west coast of the Algarve, where the long sandy beaches are still relatively undeveloped.
3. Eat and drink like the locals
Portuguese food and drinks are usually excellent quality and very good value, so stick to ordering what is grown, caught or made locally. You’ll find a fine array of fresh fish and seafood everywhere, while Portuguese pork and local cheeses are hugely underrated.
The local house wine will almost certainly be excellent. Local beers and spirits will cost around half the price (and taste pretty much the same) as the branded international equivalents.
4. Be prepared to walk
The Portuguese can be very reluctant to venture far from their vehicles, which is why you’ll see often a roadside lay-by full of families picnicking next to their cars. So, you don’t have to walk very far up a track or away from the car park to have the beach, woodland or beauty spot completely to yourself.
5. Don’t assume the starters are free
Most Portuguese restaurants will bring you a selection of starters to enjoy while you peruse the menu. These can be as simple as a bowl of olives, a basket of bread with butter, local cheeses, tuna or sardine paste, though smarter restaurants may serve prawns, crab paté, a variety of sausages, or even a selection of seafood. Don’t assume that these are free – anything you eat will be added to your bill.
Some menus show a cover charge per person which usually includes bread and butter, others will charge for everything individually, even the bread rolls. But don’t get too hung up on this – usually the simple starters are pretty cheap, so if you fancy some bread and cheese to start, go for it. Just be aware that anything fishy is usually expensive so only tuck in if you really want it. And don’t be afraid to check the price of anything, and say “no thanks” to the waiter if they bring you dishes you don’t want.
6. Choose your transport wisely
Though much improved in recent years, Portugal still has one of Europe’s worst road safety records and many of its roads are in poor condition. Conversely, the toll-paying autoroutes are fast, well-maintained and virtually empty. Just be aware that some of the toll roads use numberplate recognition systems: check with your car hire company on the best way to pay for these.
Inter-city trains aside, Portugal’s rail routes are generally cheap, charming and slow: if speed is of the essence, take one of the fast and efficient coaches which serve all the main towns.
7. Vegetarians: beware of the soup
Caldo verde is a very tasty, traditional vegetable soup that you’ll find on the menu in most Portuguese restaurants, but don’t believe the waiters when they tell you it’s vegetarian: it almost always has small chunks of sausage in it. Vegetarian options in restaurants are relatively limited: expect to eat a lot of salads and omelettes.
8. Be budget savvy
It’s usually much cheaper to eat your main meal at lunchtime – join the local office workers for a three-course midday meal with wine and coffee for around €12. You can also save money in bars by drinking your coffee or beer standing at the counter, rather than sitting outside on the terrace. Though not expensive to enter, museums are usually free on one day a week or month – check their websites for details.
9. Get into football
Live football is fun and family friendly, and ticket prices for matches are relatively cheap and easy to obtain. Stars such as Ronaldo, Eric Dier and James Rodriguez started their careers at the big clubs such as Porto, Benfica or Sporting Lisbon, who frequently unearth the next budding megastar. Expect to see live football on TV in even the smartest restaurants, too.
10. Don’t be afraid to bring the kids
If you’ve got children, you’re in for a rewarding experience. The best way to connect with the Portuguese is to travel with kids – you will get into instant conversation with pretty much everyone you meet. In restaurants, the waiters may well whisk your young ones off to look round the kitchen allowing you to enjoy a peaceful drink.
But, don’t be surprised if old ladies stop you in the street and tell you to put more clothes on your offspring – even on the warmest days, they will be aghast if your kids aren’t wearing a coat and hat.
Additional contributions written by Amanda Tomlin.