Nestled between Spain and the Atlantic Ocean, it’s no surprise that Portugal has abundant seafood and beautiful beaches. Yet the landscape unfolds in astonishing variety from the coastline to the lush vineyards of the Douro River Valley to a mountainous, green interior dotted with castles. Celtic, Roman, and Islamic influences are evident in the land and its people, whose apparent reserve belies a welcoming and friendly nature. From big cities to tiny villages, a popular pursuit is to meet with friends and family and linger over strong coffee and pastries as the hours glide by.
The flying time to Lisbon is 6½ hours from New York on a direct flight; it’s 10 hours from Chicago and 15 hours from Los Angeles on indirect flights. The flight from London to Lisbon is just under 3 hours.
Note that some budget airlines, such as Irish low-cost airline Ryanair, only allocate seats for an extra fee. Also, Ryanair and U.K.-based easyJet generally don’t serve meals but do sell (overpriced) sandwiches, drinks, and other items. If you’re on a special diet, pack appropriate snacks in your carry-on bag.
When traveling with most European low-cost airlines you’ll have to pay to check in a suitcase (32 kilograms or 70½ pounds max), but one carry-on case per person is free as long as it complies with the airline’s specific cabin measurements and weight.
The major gateway to Portugal is Lisbon’s Aeroporto Portela (LIS), approximately 8 km (5 miles) northeast of the center of the city. The underground Lisbon Metro runs from Terminal 1. Arrivals to the city center are about every 6–9 minutes from 6:30 am to 1 am (16 minutes, €1.40). An AeroBus also departs from outside Arrivals and goes to the city center (45 minutes, €3.15) roughly every 20 minutes from 7 am to 11 pm.
Porto’s Aeroporto Francisco Sá Carneiro (OPO) also handles international flights and, like Lisbon, operates an AeroBus to the city center (25 minutes, €4) from 7:30 am to 8 pm. The Aeroporto de Faro (FAO) handles the largest number of charter flights because of its location in the popular tourist destination of the Algarve. Several buses run into town (15 minutes, €1.95), while a taxi will cost approximately €12.
The organization that oversees Portugal’s airports, Aeroportos de Portugal (ANA), has a handy website with information in English.
Domestic air travel can be a good value between major cities, such as Porto and Lisbon or Lisbon and Faro, though prices tend to increase during the busy summer months.
TAP Air Portugal has daily nonstop flights from New York (Newark Liberty International Airport) to Lisbon and Porto with connections to Faro and Madeira. United’s daily nonstop flights between Newark Liberty International Airport and Lisbon are scheduled to provide convenient connections from destinations elsewhere in the eastern and southern United States.
British Airways, TAP, Ryanair, and easyJet have regular nonstop flights from the United Kingdom to several destinations in Portugal. From Spain, TAP, Iberia, and easyJet have daily Madrid–Lisbon flights; TAP, Vueling, and Iberia fly daily nonstop from Barcelona to Lisbon. From the Netherlands, KLM, TAP, easyJet, and Transavia have frequent nonstop flights from Amsterdam to several Portuguese cities.
Consider flying to London first and picking up an onward no-frills budget airline or charter flight: you might save money and have a wider choice of destinations in Portugal. There are often good deals to Faro in particular, because the Algarve is popular with British vacationers. In summer, last-minute, round-trip flights have cost as little as $150.
Bus service within Portugal is comprehensive, punctual, and comfortable. Some luxury coaches even have TVs and food service, and all have a strict no-smoking policy. All that said, bus travel can be slow, though it’s also a relatively inexpensive way to get around the country.
For major bus lines, you can buy a ticket online before you depart. For smaller rural lines, look for the schedules at the local tourist offices; if there isn’t a ticket booth at the bus stop, you can usually buy a ticket at the closest café. It’s always wise to reserve a ticket at least a day ahead, particularly in summer for destinations in the Algarve.
An under-30 card (www.cartaojovem.pt) for young adults and students should get you a discount of 10%–20% on the long-distance services. You can buy a card for €10 at post offices or youth hostels with a photo ID.
There are three classes of bus service: expressos are comfortable, fast, direct buses between major cities; rápidas are fast regional buses; and carreiras stop at every crossroad. Expressos are generally the best cheap way to get around (particularly for long trips, where per-kilometer costs are lowest).
Three of the largest bus companies are Rede Expressos, which serves much of the country; Rodo Norte, which serves the north; and Eva Transportes, which covers the Algarve and also has service to and from major cities, like Évora.
In general, Portugal’s roads are in good condition. When driving through the country, you’ll often have the roads to yourself, though traffic can be busy in and around urban centers. On the downside, tolls here can add up quickly. The local driving may be faster and less forgiving than you’re used to; drive carefully.
Red tape–wise, your driver’s license from home is recognized in Portugal. However, you should learn the international road-sign system (charts are available to members of most automobile associations).
Gas stations are plentiful, and many are self-service. Fuel tends to cost more on motorways. At this writing, gasoline costs €1.52 per liter (approximately ¼ gallon) for 98 and 95 octane sem chumbo (unleaded) and €1.34 for diesel. Credit cards are frequently accepted at gas stations. If you require a receipt, request um recibo.
Commercially operated autoestradas (toll roads with two or more lanes in either direction identified with an “A” and a number) link the principal cities, including Porto, with Lisbon, circumventing congested urban centers. The autoestrada runs from Lisbon to Faro, and a toll road (E90) links Lisbon with Portugal’s eastern border with Spain at Badajoz (from which the highway leads to Madrid).
Many main national highways (labeled “N” with a number) have been upgraded to toll-free, two-lane roads, identified with “IP” (Itinerario Principal) and a number; highways of mainly regional importance have been upgraded to IC (Itinerario Complementar). Roads labeled with “E” and a number are routes that connect with the Spanish network.
Because of all this road upgrading, one road might have several designations—A, N, IP, E, etc.—on maps and signs.
Autoestrada tolls are steep, costing, for example, €22.55 between Lisbon and Porto, but time saved by traveling these roads usually makes them worthwhile. Minor roads are often poor and winding, with unpredictable surfaces.
In the north, the IP5 shortens the drive from Aveiro to the border with Spain, near Guarda. Take extra care on this route, however. It’s popular with trucks (you may get stuck behind a convoy), and it has curves and hills.
The IP4 connects Porto through Vila Real to Bragança. Pick up the IP2 just southwest of Bragança and continue to Ourique in the Alentejo, where it connects to the IP1 down to Albufeira on the southern coast. This same IP1 is an autoestrada from Albufeira and runs east across the Algarve to the Spanish border near Ayamonte, 1½ hours east of Seville.
Heading out of Lisbon, there’s good, fast access to Setúbal and to Évora and other Alentejo towns, although rush-hour traffic on the Ponte 25 de Abril across the Rio Tejo (Tagus River) can be frustrating. An alternative is taking the 17-km-long (11-mile-long) Ponte Vasco da Gama (Europe’s second-longest water crossing after the Channel Tunnel and Europe’s longest bridge) across the Tejo estuary to Montijo; you can then link up with southbound and eastbound roads.
Signposting on these fast roads isn’t always adequate, so keep your eyes peeled for exits and turnoffs.
Some highways in Portugal now use electronic tolls only, with no method of payment accepted on the roads themselves. To avoid getting fined for not paying the tolls, if you rent a car in Portugal, make sure the rental car company installs an electronic device that adds the costs of the tolls to your final bill. Otherwise, you have several options. You can: buy a three-day unlimited-use toll pass online, once you know your license plate number; associate a credit card with your license plate number, from which the tolls will automatically be deducted; or buy a preloaded toll card activated by SMS from your mobile phone. Sign up for any of these services online or in person at various pick-up points within Portugal.
If you are unfortunate enough to be involved in a mild accident, you will be required to fill out a Declaração amigável (European Accident Statement), which will be used by the respective insurance companies (including those relating to rental cars) to exchange information.
All large garages in and around towns have breakdown services, and you’ll see orange emergency (SOS) phones along turnpikes and highways. The national automobile organization, Automóvel Clube de Portugal, provides reciprocal membership with AAA and other European automobile associations.
Car theft is common with rental cars. Never leave anything visible in an unattended car, and contact the rental agency immediately, as well as the local police, if your car is stolen.
Rules of the Road
Driving is on the right. The speed limit on the autoestrada is 120 kph (74 mph); on other roads, it’s 90 kph (56 mph), and in built-up areas, 50 kph (30 mph).
At the junction of two roads of equal size, traffic coming from the right has priority. Vehicles already in a traffic circle have priority over those entering it from any point. The use of seat belts is obligatory. Horns shouldn’t be used in built-up areas, and you should always carry your driver’s license, proof of car insurance, a reflective red warning triangle, and EU-approved reflective jacket for use in a breakdown.
Children under 12 years old must ride in the backseat in age-appropriate restraining devices (facing backwards for children under 18 months). Motorcyclists and their passengers must wear helmets, and motorcycles must have their headlights on day and night.
Billboards warning you not to drink and drive dot the countryside, and punishable alcohol levels are just 0.5g/L—equivalent to approximately three small glasses of beer.
To rent a car in Portugal you must be a minimum of 21 years old (with at least one year’s driving experience) and a maximum of 75 years old and have held your driving license for over a year. Some car rental companies may require you to have an International Driving Permit (IDP), which can be used only in conjunction with a valid driver’s license and which translates your license into 10 languages. Check the AAA website for more info as well as for IDPs ($20) themselves.
In general, it’s a good idea to reserve your car two weeks in advance (a month in advance if possible) for car rentals in the Algarve between May and September. Among the most common car makes are Citroën, Opel, Nissan, Toyota, Volkswagen, Peugeot, and Ford. Four-wheel-drive vehicles are only available from the larger international agencies, such as Avis and Hertz.
Car Rental Rates
Rates in Lisbon begin at around $70 per day, with three-day rates starting at around $120 and weeklong rates starting at about $210 for a standard economy car with unlimited mileage. The value-added tax (V.A.T.) on car rentals is 23% and is included in the rate. Algarve rates can be considerably higher due to the increase in demand.
Automatic cars are more expensive and harder to find than standard ones. The good news is that most rental cars have air conditioning and, increasingly, use diesel fuel, which equals a lot more mileage. There’s generally a surcharge of around $8 per day for each additional driver, and most agencies charge a small surcharge of around $11–$13 per day for children’s car seats, which must be reserved at the time of booking.
Car Rental Insurance
If you own a car, your personal auto insurance may cover a rental to some degree, though not all policies protect you abroad; always read your policy’s fine print. If you don’t have auto insurance, then seriously consider buying the collision- or loss-damage waiver (CDW or LDW) from the car-rental company, which eliminates your liability for damage to the car.
Some credit cards offer CDW coverage, but it’s usually supplemental to your own insurance and rarely covers SUVs, minivans, luxury models, and the like. If your coverage is secondary, you may still be liable for loss-of-use costs from the car-rental company. But no credit-card insurance is valid unless you use that card for all transactions, from reserving to paying the final bill. All companies exclude car rental in some countries, so be sure to find out about the destination to which you are traveling. In Portugal CDW will cost around $25 per day depending on the type of car and will reduce your liability to a few hundred euros. For an additional fee, you can take out a Super CDW where you will be completely covered.
Portugal is a port of call for many cruise liners. Most stop at Lisbon, while a few include Madeira in their itinerary. There are also companies that offer more localized cruising opportunities, including River Cruise Tours, which offers luxury boat trips along the Douro River from Porto to the Spanish border.
Portugal’s train network, Comboios de Portugal (CP), covers most of the country, though it’s thin in the Alentejo region. The cities of Lisbon, Coimbra, Aveiro, Porto, Braga, and Faro are linked by the fast, extremely comfortable Alfa Pendular services.
Most other major towns and cities are connected by Intercidade trains, which are reliable, though slower and less luxurious than the Alfa trains. The regional services that connect smaller towns and villages tend to be infrequent and slow, with stops at every station along the line. Ask the local tourist board about hotel and local transportation packages that include tickets to major museum exhibits or other special events.
There are three main classes of long-distance train travel: regional trains, which stop at every town and village; reasonably fast interregional trains; and express trains appropriately known as rápido. The Alfa Pendular is a deluxe, marginally faster train that runs between Lisbon and Porto as well as other major cities. There’s also a network of suburban (suburbano) train lines.
The standards of comfort vary from Alfa Pendular train luxury—with air-conditioning, free Wi-Fi, food service, and airline-type seats at which you can plug in your laptop—to the often spartan conditions on regional lines.
Most Intercidade trains have bar and restaurant facilities, but the food is famously unappealing. Smoking is not allowed on any Portuguese trains.
A first-class ticket will cost you 40% more than second class and will buy you extra leg- and elbow room but not a great deal more on Alfa and Intercidade trains. The extra cost is definitely worth it on most regional services, however.
Advance booking is mandatory on long-distance trains and is recommended in the case of popular services like the Alfa. Reservations are also advisable for other trains if you want to avoid long lines in front of the ticket window on the day the train leaves. You can avoid a trip to the station to make the reservation by booking it online.
A direct, nightly train connects Spain and Portugal. The train departs from Madrid’s Chamartín station at 9:27 pm and arrives at Lisbon’s Santa Apolónia station at 8:10 the following morning; for the reverse trip, the train leaves Lisbon at 9:34 pm, arriving in Madrid at 8:40 am the next day. Passengers can also connect to the train to and from Porto by switching at the Coimbra station; trains depart Porto at 9:55 pm daily on their way to Madrid, while trains from Madrid arrive in Porto at 6:50 am each day.
Eurail passes provide unlimited first-class rail travel in all participating countries for the duration of the pass. If you plan to rack up the miles, get a standard pass. These are available in units from three days to three months. In addition to a standard Eurail pass, ask about special rail-pass plans. Among these are the Eurail Youthpass (in second class for those under age 26), the Eurail Saverpass (which gives a discount for two to five people traveling together), a Eurail Flexipass (which allows 10 or 15 travel days within a two-month period), and the Eurail Select Pass ʼn Drive (which combine travel by train and rental car). It’s best to purchase your pass before you leave for Europe.
Be aware that if you don’t plan to cover many miles, you may come out ahead by buying individual tickets instead of rail passes.
Seat reservations are required on some European trains, particularly high-speed trains, and are a good idea on trains that may be crowded—particularly in summer on popular routes. You will definitely need a reservation if you purchase sleeping accommodations.
The country code for Portugal is 351. When dialing a Portuguese number from abroad, dial the nine-digit number after the country code.
Calling within Portugal
All phone numbers have nine digits. Numbers in the area in and around Lisbon and Porto begin with a two-digit area code; phone numbers anywhere else in the country begin with a three-digit area code. All fixed-phone area codes begin with 2; mobile numbers, which also have nine digits, begin with 9. For general information, dial 118 (operators often speak English).
Calling Outside Portugal
Calling abroad is expensive from hotels, which often add a considerable surcharge. The best way to make an international call is through Skype on your computer or smartphone, if you have access to Wi-Fi.
Purchasing a cartão telefônico (calling card) from a post office, newsagent or tobacconist can save you money and the aggravation of finding enough change for a payphone. Cards come in denominations of €5 and €10, sometimes more, and can be used from both private and public phones for national and international calls.
If you have an unlocked smartphone, the least expensive option for using it within Portugal is to buy a prepaid SIM card. For about €5–€15, you’ll receive a Portuguese phone number and credit for domestic calls and texts. (International calls cost more; check with the mobile-phone provider for special rates.) SIM cards are available at Vodafone, MEO, and NOS stores, with locations within most Portuguese airports and cities. You can also often rent a cell phone from these same vendors, but the expenses are usually much higher than simply using a SIM card with your current phone.
The Portuguese love to sit down for a meal, whether it’s a traditional little restaurant that offers office workers home cooking at a modest price or a fancy white-tablecloth place with modern takes on old classics.
Although Portugal’s plush, luxury restaurants can be very good, they don’t always measure up to their counterparts in other European countries. The best food by far tends be found in the moderately priced and less-expensive spots. Don’t expect much in the way of decor, and if you have trouble squeezing in, remember the rule of thumb: if it’s packed, it’s probably good.
Restaurants featuring charcoal-grilled meats and fish, called churrasqueiras, are also popular (and often economical) options, and the Brazilian rodízio-type restaurant, where you are regaled with an endless offering of spit-roasted meats, is entrenched in Lisbon, Porto, and the Algarve.
Shellfish restaurants, called marisqueiras, are numerous along the coast; note that lobsters, mollusks, and the like are fresh and good but pricey. Restaurant prices fall appreciably when you leave the Lisbon, Porto, and Algarve areas, and portion sizes increase the farther north you go.
While you ponder the menu, you may be served an impressive array of appetizers. If you eat any of these, you’ll probably be charged a small amount called a coberto or couvert. If you don’t want these appetizers, you’re perfectly within your rights to send them back. However, you should do this right away.
Portuguese restaurants serve an ementa (or prato) do dia, or set menu of three courses. This can be a real bargain—usually 80% of the cost of three courses ordered separately.
Vegetarians can have a tough time in Portugal, although sopa de legumes (vegetable soup) is often included as a starter, together with the inevitable salada (salad). In general, the only other option (for vegetarians) are omelets. The larger cities and the Algarve have a few vegetarian restaurants, and Chinese, Italian, and Indian restaurants are increasingly common and always have plenty of vegetarian (and vegan) options.
Meals and Mealtimes
Breakfast (pequeno almoço) is the lightest meal, usually consisting of nothing more than a croissant or pastry washed down with coffee; lunch (almoço), the main meal of the day, is served between noon and 3 pm, although nowadays, office workers in cities often grab a quick sandwich in a bar instead of stopping for a big meal. Some cafés and snack bars serve light meals throughout the afternoon.
Around 5 pm, there’s a break for coffee or tea and a pastry; dinner (jantar) is eaten around 8 pm, and restaurants generally serve from 7 pm to 10 pm. Monday is a common day for restaurants to close, although this does vary and is noted in the restaurant listings.
Unless otherwise noted, the restaurants listed are open daily for lunch and dinner.
Major credit cards are accepted in better restaurants and those geared to tourists, particularly on the Algarve. Humbler establishments generally only accept cash. Always check first, or you may end the evening washing dishes.
Reservations and Dress
Regardless of where you are, it’s a good idea to make a reservation if you can. In some places (Lisbon, for example), it’s expected. We only mention them specifically when reservations are essential (there’s no other way you’ll ever get a table) or when they are not accepted.
For popular restaurants, book as far ahead as you can (often 30 days), and reconfirm as soon as you arrive. (Large parties should always call ahead to check the reservations policy.)
Wines, Beer, and Spirits
Portuguese wines are inexpensive and, in general, good. Even the vinho da casa (house wine) is perfectly drinkable in most restaurants. Among the most popular are the reds from the Dão and Douro regions, Bairrada from the Coimbra/Aveiro region, and Ribatejo and Liziria from the Ribatejo region. The light, sparkling vinhos verdes (“green wines,” named not for their color but for the fact that they’re drunk early and don’t improve with age) are also popular.
The Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto (Douro and Port Wine Institute), the Comissão de Viticultura da Região dos Vinhos Verdes (Vinho Verde Region Viticulture Commission), and Vinhos de Portugal (Wines of Portugal) have fascinating websites—with information in several languages, including English—that will help you learn more about Portuguese wines.
The leading brands of Portuguese beer—including Super Bock, Cristal, Sagres, and Imperial—are available on tap and in bottles or cans. They’re made with fewer chemicals than the average American beers, and are on the strong side with a good, clean flavor. Local brandy—namely Macieira and Constantino—is cheap, as is domestic gin, although it’s marginally weaker than its international counterparts.
You have to be 16 or older to drink and buy beer and wine and 18 or older to drink and buy spirits at shops, supermarkets, bars, and restaurants. Note that having brandy with your morning coffee will mark you as a local.
The electrical current in Portugal is 220 volts, 50 cycles alternating current (AC); wall outlets take plugs with two round prongs.
Consider making a small investment in a universal adapter, which has several types of plugs in one lightweight, compact unit. Most laptops and mobile phone chargers are dual voltage (i.e., they operate equally well on 110 and 220 volts), so require only an adapter. These days the same is true of small appliances such as hair dryers. Always check labels and manufacturer instructions to be sure. Don’t use 110-volt outlets marked “for shavers only” for high-wattage appliances such as hair dryers.
The national number for emergencies is 112, which is the universal emergency number within the European Union. The ambulance service in Portugal is run by volunteers and free. Contact details of English-speaking doctors can be obtained from American consular offices. Pharmacies (farmácias) will have a notice posted on the door with directions to the nearest 24-hour pharmacy.
Sunburn and sunstroke are common problems in summer in mainland Portugal and virtually year-round on Madeira. On a hot, sunny day, even people not normally bothered by strong rays should cover up. Sunscreen can be found in pharmacies and supermarkets, and some U.S. brands are available. The sun protection factor (SPF) is always noted.
Carry sunscreen for nose, ears, and other sensitive areas; be sure to drink enough liquids; and above all, limit your sun exposure for the first few days until you become accustomed to the heat. Mosquitoes are found throughout Portugal and, while they don’t carry malaria, they can cause irritation, so pack or buy a local insect repellent.
Shots and Medications
No special shots are required before visiting Portugal, Madeira, or the Azores, unless you have come from or recently traveled through an infected area. You might consider a tetanus-diphtheria booster if you haven’t had one recently.
Be cautious in crowded areas and in the poorer areas of large cities. Be wary of anyone stopping you on the street and even in car parks to ask for directions, the time, or where you’re from—particularly if there’s more than one person and if you have recently visited the bank or an ATM.
There’s enough of a police presence in Portugal that women traveling solo are relatively safe. Take normal precautions, though, and avoid dark, empty streets at night. Ask your hotel staff to recommend a reliable cab company, and whenever possible, call for a taxi instead of hailing one on the street at night. Avoid eye contact with unsavory individuals. If such a person approaches you, discourage him politely but firmly by saying, “Por favor, me dê licença” (Excuse me, please) and then walk away with resolve.
Shopkeepers, restaurateurs, and other business owners are generally honest, and credit card receipts are rarely subject to copying. There have been occasional incidents of highway robbery, where the thief slashes the victim’s tires during a stop at a gas station and then follows the victim, offering to “help” when the tire goes completely flat. In other cases, the thief takes advantage of an unwary traveler who has left car keys in the ignition or money or a handbag on the seat while stopped at a gas station by telling the driver(s) that they have a puncture in a back tire and urging them to get out of the car to inspect.
Lunchtime is taken very seriously throughout Portugal. Many businesses, particularly outside urban areas, close between 1 and 3 and then reopen for business until 6 or 7. Government offices are typically open 9–noon and 2–5. It’s worth noting religious and public holidays, as most businesses grind to a halt, and even the local transport service may be reduced. Also, if the holiday falls on a weekend, then typically a Friday or Monday will also be a holiday.
Banks are open weekdays 8:30–3, with some branches open Saturday. Money exchange booths at airports and train stations are usually open all day (24 hours at Portela Airport in Lisbon).
Most gas stations on main highways are open 24 hours. In more rural areas, stations are open 7 am–10 pm. Note that gas stations can seem few and far between away from the towns and cities, so if you are planning to explore in the hinterland, always start out with a full tank of gas.
Museums and palaces generally open at 10 and close at 5 or 6, though some stay open into the evening; a few still close for lunch from 12:30 to 2. The 23 sites of the nationwide Directorate General for Cultural Heritage (DGPC) are closed Easter Sunday, May 1, December 24 and 25, January 1, and municipal holidays.
Pharmacies are usually open weekdays 9–1 and 3–7, and sometimes Saturday 9–1; 24-hour pharmacies operate in shifts; timetables of 24-hour pharmacies will be posted on the door.
Most shops are open weekdays 9–1 and 3–7, and Saturday 9–1. In December, Saturday hours are the same as weekdays. Shops often close Sunday. Hipermercados (giant supermarkets), supermercados (regular supermarkets), and shopping centers are typically open seven days a week from 10 am to midnight. In the seaside resorts of the Algarve, many shops, including souvenir shops and supermarkets, open all day between May and September.
New Year’s Day (January 1); Mardi Gras (better known as Carnaval, held during the last few days before Lent); Good Friday; Easter Sunday; Liberty Day (April 25); Labor Day (May 1); Corpo de Deus (varies late May–early June); Camões Day (June 10); Assumption (August 15); Republic Day (October 5); All Saints’ Day (November 1); Independence Day (December 1); Immaculate Conception (December 8); Christmas Day (December 25).
If a national holiday falls on a Tuesday or Thursday, many businesses also close on the Monday or Friday in between, for a long weekend called a ponte (bridge). There are also local holidays when entire towns, cities, and regions grind to a standstill. Check the nearest tourist office for dates.
Lisbon isn’t as expensive as most other international capitals, but it’s not the extraordinary bargain it used to be. The coastal resort areas from Cascais and Estoril down to the Algarve can be expensive, though there are lower-priced hotels and restaurants catering mainly to the package-tour trade. If you head off the beaten track, you’ll find substantially cheaper food and lodging.
Transportation is still cheap in Portugal when compared with the rest of Europe. Gas prices are controlled by the government, and train and bus travel is inexpensive. Highway tolls are steep but may be worth the cost if you want to bypass the small towns and villages. Flights within the country can be a good bargain if you use low-cost airlines.
Museums that are part of the Directorate General for Cultural Heritage (DGPC) are free the first Sunday of the month. Lisbon and Porto sell cost-saving passes that cover city transport and entry to museums and other sights; their respective tourist offices can fill you in. You can often also save as much as 50% on accommodations if you visit Portugal out of season.
If you’re undeterred by potentially wet weather, consider traveling November to March, when many hotels discount their rates by up to 20%. In Lisbon and Porto, check with the tourist office about discount cards offering travel deals on public transport, reduced or free entrance to certain museums, and discounts in some shops and restaurants.
Prices throughout are given for adults. Substantially reduced fees are almost always available for children, students, and senior citizens.
Banks never have every foreign currency on hand, and it may take as long as a week to order. If you’re planning to exchange funds before leaving home, don’t wait until the last minute.
ATMs and Banks
ATMs are ubiquitous. The Multibanco, or MB, system is state-of-the-art and reliable. The cards most frequently accepted are Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Eurocheque, Eurocard, Cirrus, and Electron. You need a four-digit PIN to use ATMs in Portugal.
Always be sure, when using an ATM machine, that nobody is looking over your shoulder. Similarly, if the machine appears tampered with, stay away. There is a scam throughout Europe whereupon a dummy cover is placed over the machine and/or a tiny camera notes your PIN number. There is usually a limit of €200 per withdrawal.
It’s a good idea to inform your credit-card company before you travel, especially if you’re going abroad and don’t travel internationally very often. Otherwise, the credit-card company might put a hold on your card owing to unusual activity—not a good thing halfway through your trip.
Although it’s usually cheaper (and safer) to use a credit card abroad for large purchases (so you can cancel payments or be reimbursed if there’s a problem), note that some credit card companies and the banks that issue them add substantial percentages to all foreign transactions, whether they’re in a foreign currency or not. Check on these fees before leaving home, so there won’t be any surprises when you get the bill.
Before you charge something, ask the merchant whether he or she plans to do a dynamic currency conversion (DCC). In such a transaction the credit-card processor (shop, restaurant, or hotel, not Visa or MasterCard) converts the currency and charges you in dollars. In most cases you’ll pay the merchant a 3% fee for this service in addition to any credit-card-company and issuing-bank foreign-transaction surcharges.
Merchants who participate in dynamic currency conversion programs are supposed to ask whether you want to be charged in dollars or the local currency, but they don’t always do so. And even if they do offer you a choice, they may well avoid mentioning the additional surcharges. The good news is that you do have a choice—always opt to pay in the local currency. And if this practice really gets your goat, you can avoid it entirely thanks to American Express; with its cards, DCC simply isn’t an option.
Currency and Exchange
Portugal is one of the 28 European Union countries, and it’s also one of the 19 eurozone countries to use a single currency—the euro (€). Coins are issued in denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, and 50 euro cents, as well as in denominations of €1 and €2. Notes are issued in denominations of €5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, and 500. At this writing, the exchange rate was US$1 to €0.89.
Even if a currency-exchange booth has a sign promising no commission, rest assured that there’s some kind of huge, hidden fee. (Oh … that’s right: the sign didn’t say “no fee.”) And as for rates, you’re almost always better off getting foreign currency at an ATM or exchanging money at a bank.
Older generations of Portuguese citizens tend to dress up more than their counterparts in the United States or the United Kingdom. That said, attitudes toward clothes have become more relaxed in recent years among the younger generations.
Jeans, however, are generally still paired with a collared shirt and, if necessary, a sweater or jacket. Dressier outfits are needed for more expensive restaurants, nightclubs, and fado houses, though, and people still frown on shorts in churches.
Sightseeing calls for casual, comfortable clothing (well-broken-in low-heel shoes, for example). Away from beaches, wearing bathing suits on the street or in restaurants and shops is not considered good taste.
Summer can be brutally hot; spring and fall, mild to chilly; and winter, cold and rainy. Sunscreen and sunglasses are a good idea any time of the year since the sun in Portugal is very bright.
Citizens of the United States need a valid passport to enter Portugal for stays of up to 90 days; passports must be valid for six months beyond the period of stay. Visas are required for longer stays and, in some instances, for visits to other countries in addition to Portugal.
Restaurants, cinemas, theaters, libraries, and service stations are required to have public toilets. Restrooms can range from marble-clad opulence to little better than primitive, but in most cases they’re reasonably clean and have toilet paper, although it’s always useful to carry a small packet of tissues just in case! Few are adapted for travelers with disabilities. Restrooms are occasionally looked after by an attendant who customarily receives a tip of €0.50. Train stations are likely to have pay toilets.
Value-added tax (IVA, pronounced ee-vah) is 6% for hotels (5% in Madeira and 5% in the Azores). By law prices must be posted at the reception desk and should indicate whether tax is included. Restaurants are also required to charge 23% IVA (22% in Madeira and 18% in the Azores). Menus generally state at the bottom whether tax is included (IVA incluido) or not (mais 23% IVA). When in doubt about whether tax is included in a price, ask, “Está incluido o IVA?”
The sales tax is 23% on shop goods (22% in Madeira and 18% in the Azores). A number of Portuguese stores, particularly large ones and those in resorts, will refund this amount on single items worth more than €60.
When making a purchase, ask for a V.A.T. refund form and find out whether the merchant gives refunds—not all stores do, nor are they required to. Have the form stamped like any customs form by customs officials when you leave the country or, if you’re visiting several European Union countries, when you leave the EU.
After you’re through passport control, take the form to a refund-service counter for an on-the-spot refund (which is usually the quickest and easiest option), or mail it to the address on the form (or the envelope with it) after you arrive home. You receive the total refund stated on the form, but the processing time can be long, especially if you request a credit-card adjustment.
Global Blue is a Europe-wide service with more than 275,000 affiliated stores and more than 700 refund counters at major airports and border crossings. Its refund form, called a Tax Free Form, is the most common across the European continent. The service issues refunds in the form of cash or credit-card adjustment.
Service is not always included in café, restaurant, and hotel bills. Waiters and other service people are sometimes poorly paid, and leaving a tip of around 5%–10% will be appreciated (though locals often don’t tip at all). If, however, you received bad service, never feel obligated (or intimidated) to leave a tip. Also, if you have something small, such as a sandwich or petiscos (appetizers) at a bar, you can leave just enough to round out the bill to the nearest €1.
Comprehensive trip insurance is recommended for all vacations purchased through Vacays4U. Comprehensive policies typically cover trip cancellation and interruption, letting you cancel or cut your trip short because of illness, or, in some cases, acts of terrorism. Ask about insurance policies that cover evacuation and medical care. Some also cover you for trip delays because of bad weather or mechanical problems as well as for lost or delayed luggage.
Always read the fine print of your policy to make sure you’re covered for the risks that most concern you. Compare several policies to be sure you’re getting the best price and range of coverage available.