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Updated: 2 December 2022
Yup, there are definitely some things to know before going to Portugal.
Come prepared, my fellow travelers. Portugal is country that I looooved to visit, especially for a solo travel adventure. But research is key for this country (like any other destination!).
As for me, I had an opportunity to fall in love with this Western European country, which I used to say was underrated, but now has gained tons of popularity with digital nomads and backpackers alike.
While in Portugal, I split my time between Lisbon and Porto, and oh my god, I need to return. I wanna visit Coimbra, the southern Algarve, and Evora in the west, as well as return to Lisbon. The list goes on forever, my friends.
Sure, Portugal is small, only about five times larger than New Jersey, but the vibrance of this country still packs a punch. I’d even claim that Portugal should be your first solo trip. Yes, it’s that amazing of a vacation.
To honor my love of this glorious country, here’s a short post outlining the six most important things to know when traveling to Portugal.
Full disclosure: My trip was only 10 days. So please keep in mind that a. I’m not an expert, and b. this list isn’t all inclusive. You can visit Portugal for a month and still not know everything, haha.
What to Know Before Traveling to Portugal
Portugal is NOT Spain. Don’t Confuse Them
When planning a trip to Portugal, please remember this incredible country is empathetically not Spain. Sure, they neighbor each other and you can easily include them in the same itinerary, but they’re still completely separate countries and cultures, and need to be treated as such.
Now, while my assorted travel companions and I were well-aware that the Portuguese don’t necessarily speak Spanish, other tourists fell into this common trap and greeted locals with a boisterous “hola!”
Portugal and Spain share the oldest border in western Europe. As I’ve already said, they are two very distinct countries, and the locals make no bones to remind you. Language isn’t the only difference either. Spain has a tapas culture. Portugal doesn’t.
Spain is a larger country with diverse regions such as the Basque Country and Catalunya. Portugal has differences between the north and south, but as far as I know, there are no independence/separatist movements.
In summary, remember Portugal =/= Spain. Seriously, guys, this faux pas is like confusing the USA and Canada. Be respectful of these differences. It’s one of the most important things to know before going to Portugal.
Strikes Happen. Be Patient When Visiting Portugal.
Another one of the important things to know before going to Portugal is that strikes happen. This reality might be shocking coming from the United States.
For instance, I had the pleasure of personally experiencing a strike, haha. Story time. My visit to Lisbon started on Easter weekend. When I arrived at Home Lisbon Hostel, I noticed a sign behind the bar. The red letters weren’t difficult to miss: Trains on strike, Thursday – Monday.
Uh ohhh. Rough.
Fortunately, my train to Porto wasn’t leaving until Tuesday. Otherwise I would’ve had to book a bus ticket and possibly re-arrange my dates completely. I was lucky.
Other tourists were not. I met loads of backpackers whose beach plans went awry thanks to the strikes. In addition, our hostel’s Sintra tour was booked out for days in advance, because more independent travelers now had no choice except to opt for a guided tour.
As of 2018, Portugal still faces economic struggles and strikes happen. I’m not an expert on theses issues, and I’m not arrogant enough to claim I know more than the locals do. So I won’t talk too much about the specifics behind these strikes.
What I DO know about these circumstances is that you need to pack “patience” for your own visit. Don’t flip out if a strike happens to coincide with your plans to hit the beach or a neighboring town. Either change your days if your travel plans are flexible, or check out Portugal’s busses, most which are privately owned and don’t strike.
As for air traffic control strikes, I suppose you could make Portugal your new home. Good luck securing a visa, though.
The Best Places to Stay in Portugal are the Hostels.
A simple Google search will quickly show you that Portugal is home to some kick ass hostels.
Both of my hostels were great! Disclaimer: none of my stays were comped and opinions are my own.
On a solo trip in Lisbon, I stayed in Home Lisbon Hostel, and it’s officially my favorite hostel ever. It won “world’s best medium hostel” for a reason. The atmosphere is warm and homey, and Mama – the mother of the hostel owner – makes home-cooked Portuguese meals for only ten euros a night! The Sintra tour and hostel staff were both topnotch. I even bought Mama’s cookbook as a present for my own mother.
On the other hand, when I was in Porto alone, I stayed in Tattva Design Hostel (now Cats Hostel). I loved the comfy beds, warm showers, and bean bags, but the highlight was the dinner with the staff.
Sadly, a gigantic school group took over the hostel two out of the three nights I stayed at Tattva, and this arrangement made it very hard to meet fellow backpackers. On my last night, however, I had a pleasant and quiet dinner with a small group of solo travelers. My guess is that this hostel is better in the summer.
If you’re a backpacker, Portugal’s hostels won’t disappoint you! Hell, even if you’re older or not a fan of the hostel scene, Portugal boasts many “luxury” hostels. I want to try Gallery Hostel the next time I’m in Porto.
Cheap Holidays to Portugal Are Possible
One of the best things to know before going to Portugal is that this country is Affordable.
Ahhh, yes, one of the most awesome things about traveling to Portugal. Ultimately Portugal is easy on the wallet. My biggest expense was my plane ticket going to Lisbon from Philadelphia.
Honestly, if you want to backpack Western Europe yet you have a strict budget, you cannot go too wrong in Portugal. I’m a broke teacher (*sobs*), and Portugal’s prices hardly left a dent in my wallet.
What were a few of the costs on my trip?
In Sintra, entrance to Quinta da Regaleira was only about 6 euros. Buying a pastry at the market was less than one euro. On the regional train, my return ticket from Porto to Guimarães was 6 euros. On the “fast” train, my return ticket from Lisbon to Porto was less than 40 euros. And, of course, wandering unique neighborhoods and visiting churches were free, free, free.
Trust me, folks. Portugal isn’t tough to do on a budget especially if you’re smart enough to avoid tourist traps. If you insist on eating in a restaurant with a gigantic “WE SPEAK ENGLISH” sign in the window and pushy servers wearing white soliciting sunburnt visitors, then I can’t help you.
In Portugal, You Will Become Obsessed with Pastries
Portugal ROCKS some amazing recipes. It was a challenge not to stuff my face at every single market stall. In particular, I loved the cod fish and sausages and salads, but Portugal’s unique pastries stole my heart.
Honestly, don’t visit this place if you have a sweet tooth. You won’t be able to stop eating pastries. If I wasn’t trekking fifty million hills every day, I probably would’ve gained 5+ inches around my waist because at every market, I bought a damn pastry! They are THAT good.
My personal favorite was – shocker – pastel de nata. I never thought I was a fan of custard until I gave these famous desserts a try. Seriously, these pastries were addictive. The reason I don’t have pictures of them? Because I would devour them in less than 5 seconds. Whoops.
Belem in Lisbon is home to the most famous pastel de nata, but honestly, I couldn’t tell much of a difference between Pastel de Belem and pastel de nata. Yikes, hopefully that comment doesn’t bring me too much hate mail.
But, yes! Go and eat, eat, eat, eat. You won’t regret it until you can’t buy clothes anymore.
Get Your Butt out of Lisbon and Porto
Heading to the scenic countryside is another one of the most important things to know when visiting Portugal. I regret not having more time to spend in Portugal’s smaller towns. I did brief day trips to Nazare, Obidos, Sintra, and Guimarães, but these short visits weren’t enough for me. Staying OVERNIGHT – especially in a place like Sintra – would have added a great deal of richness to my city-heavy itinerary.
The more I travel, the more I feel like the true spirit of a country lies in small cities and towns, and rural areas. I’m a city girl. At home, I thrive in metropolitan areas such as Philadelphia and New York, and seek out trendy bars and art museums. However, when roaming abroad, I need to attempt to break free from the cosmopolitan capitals and experience small town life.
If you have time to spare in Portugal, break away from the urban areas and explore its rich countryside. 10 days wasn’t even close to enough time for me to fully appreciate everything Portugal has to offer its visitors. I already know I want to do a beach trip to Nazare.
Are you planning on visiting Portugal? What are your travel tips for travel in Portugal? What are some other things to know before things to know before going to Portugal? Share them here!