In October 2017 I had the opportunity to spend about three weeks exploring Portugal and the Azores Island of Sao Miguel. I fell in love with the food, the culture, and the countryside while there. (For the posts on the yummies I ate, read Codfish & Cozido.) I had an absolute blast while I was in Portugal and think it’s a country almost anyone could travel safely and enjoyably. If you’re planning a trip to Portugal, this post will tell you what you need to know on your first visit.
(For some itinerary ideas, check out Minute by Minute Traveller’s post, Lisbon Travel Itinerary!)
Portugal was quite reasonable as far as cost goes, especially for a European country. We ate extremely well during our trip, ordering so much wine and seafood every meal. Fortunately, most places had really agreeable prices. You could usually get a good seafood dish for around €10-15, a glass of wine for €2 to €4, and an espresso and pastry for less than €2. Shorter train rides on the subway were usually under five euros, and trains across the country fell between the €20 and €40. We took a lot of Uber’s for shorter distances, and these were usually between €3 to €8 for around 5 miles or so.
Accommodations were pretty fair price as well. We stayed in a 12-bed dorm for two nights, which cost us around €24 total for two beds per day. In the Azores, Lagos, and Porto, we stayed in private rooms in a hostel or guest bedroom. These cost between €20-€30 a night. We also spent a night in a palace, which cost us €134 for the room, and two nights in a convent which ran about the same. Both of these were extraordinarily nice places to spend the night and we could easily spend that much for a similar but far less charismatic place in the states.
I was traveling with my boyfriend entire time, which is a very different experience from traveling alone as a woman. However, I felt very safe throughout most of Portugal. I never walked around the city at night alone and still would not recommend that for most women, though. I felt safest during our four days in the Azores. Everyone we encountered was very friendly and it seemed very tranquil island. It was pretty quiet on the streets at night, and I got the sense that there was very little crime in the area. I can only speak to my experience there and in other regions I’ve visited, Portugal felt like a place where I would feel comfortable traveling alone.
In Lagos, we did encounter a group of several men who were inebriated and rather aggressive toward the general public. They were yelling and swearing at passerbys, causing a scene in the square where two young girls were performing live music. We ran into them again a few streets down the road as we were looking for food. One of them seemed itching to start a fight with the anyone who would engage him. Nothing really seemed to come of it, but Lagos is definitely an area where there are a lot of people partying. With intoxicated people comes the heightened risk of aggressive or dangerous behaviors. Keep this in mind when wandering the streets at night there.
In Porto and Lisbon, we were offered drugs on the street upwards of six times, both at night and in broad daylight. On the whole we had no problems when turning them down and they took our “no’s without question. I have heard stories of people getting themselves into trouble when trying to buy drugs, though, with the dealers becoming very aggressive. Drugs are decriminalized in Portugal, (since 2001) and relatively widely available. None the less, buying drugs off the street is risky and still illegal, despite the decriminalization.
These Azores are a little different from mainland Portugal so I’ll talk about it first. Public transportation is quite limited on the island so a a rental car is handy. The challenge is that most, if not all, of the rentals we saw were for automatic cars. Now, neither Christian or I had much experience with a stick shift. Christian decided he was up for the challenge, though, and practiced once with my moms car at home before we left. Driving in the Azores is constantly driving through a giant hill, going up and down, left and right. Only sometimes there is a giant cliff of a volcano on your side, or an enormous hedge of hydrangeas blocking your view round the curves.
If you know anything about a stick shift at all, you know it’s a lot harder to do on a hill. The streets in the cities were also generally pretty narrow which made parking and turning around very difficult. I recommend being well versed in stick shift before you go. Otherwise, you run the risk of doing what we did – getting stuck in a parking car lot on the side of a hill, in need of a rescue. Fortunately, an older Portuguese man drove our car up the steep lot (that had far too many people and far too little space). The roadsigns are well-marked, thoug, our GPS often led us astray instructing us to turn left on a cliff or drive down a staircase, we found most of the sites by following the roadsigns.
In mainland Portugal, navigating through the city was pretty straightforward. In the bigger cities like Sintra, Lisbon, Lagos, and Porto, it wasn’t difficult to get an Uber. Metro stations were also pretty easy to navigate and were reliable, and you could also take a bus around the city. The intercity trains were the most reliable and accessible method we found for cross-country travel. There are usually several trains running in between major stops each day.
Tip: sometimes you can save money by buying tickets online, and there are several options for discounts that they won’t offer you if you buy them in person. That being said, from our experience, it was not always possible to buy tickets between certain stops online. Make sure you leave yourself enough time when you get to the train station to buy tickets if you need them, or download the cp.portugal app and give it a try. \ We didn’t rent a car in mainland Portugal, so I can’t speak to driving. However, we did notice that street signs often aren’t arranged on streets in a way that is easily visible. Rather, they are affixed to corner buildings at varying heights and in different sizes. Transportation stations as you got further from main cities were also in varying levels of disrepair, and we missed a stop once on account of being unable to read the sign. (Looking at you, Pampillhosa).
A quick note about Ubers. It seems they are beefing with the taxi industry in Portugal (at least when we were there in October 2017) in a pretty serious way. We had three or four uber drivers request to drop us off a block from our stop when traveling to major transportation stations (airport, train stations, bus stations, etc.) They each quoted individual stories about the dangers they face from taxi drivers. Apparently, taxi drivers have been beating up, mugging, robbing, or otherwise antagonizing Uber drivers when they encroach on their territory. I don’t know much more about this than I could gather from the Uber driver’s side. If you have heard anything about this, please let me know! It didn’t amount to much for us other than walking an extra block or two when our drivers requested.
I have T-Mobile and had unlimited data during my time in Portugal. I found I was able to access the internet pretty reliably throughout the country, though it was slower in more remote regions as expected. Often times, the data was faster the using the hostel/hotel wifi. Some of the trains had reliable wifi, others it was nearly impossible to actually use. You can easily find a restaurant or cafe with wifi so it isn’t difficult to work remotely from Portugal. In fact, Melissa (one of the Suitcase Six ladies) was working in Lisbon through her Remote Year program the month I was visiting.
The prominent religion in Portugal is definitely Catholic. In the Azores, most of the houses had mosaic depictions of Catholic Saints above their house threshold. In many instances these pictures replaced numbers of an address, as far as I could see. You also see a lot of Catholic churches, crosses, and other memorabilia walking to the cities in stores. I don’t recall ever actually hearing anyone in Portugal talking about religion during our time. Regardless, the physical evidence was certainly there to support Portuguese people identifying as religious.
I consider both the Azores and Mainland Portugal among the more challenging places I’ve experienced in terms of physical navigation. Lisbon itself is situated on seven hills. Walking around the city anywhere means you are doing an incredible amount of climbing up slick, cobblestone paths. The Azores is a volcanic islands and has all the hills you might expect in such a place, respectively. A lot of the main attractions on the islands are hiking or other outdoor sites that require some solid walking in order to get to them. Bring walking shoes that attach to your ankles, tennis shoes or good walking sandals – not flip-flops or flats. Be extra cautious when drinking as well, as alcohol generally does not improve one’s balance and can make navigating the Portuguese streets all the more precarious.
I identify as straight so I can only share what I noticed from that perspective. That being said, Portugal appeared pretty LGBTQ friendly. We saw many gay and lesbian couples who were openly affectionate throughout the country. I also noticed a variety of gay bars and clubs in Lisbon and Porto. Again, I can’t speak to what it’s like to live or visit there as an LGBTQ individual. My observations were surface level, but Portugal seemed like a fairly safe place to visit if you’re in the LGBTQ community. Their recent history supports this, as they’re one of the first eight countries worldwide to legalize gay marriage.
I spent a few months trying to learn the basics of Portuguese on an app before our visit. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get very far. I did learn a few main foods, yes/no, thank you, please, and a few other staples and found these to be pretty helpful. All in all, we were going in without speaking Portuguese and had a pretty easy time of it. A lot of people spoke English. We were usually able to get by with hand gestures most of the time when they didn’t. Many restaurants had an English menu and the staff in all the hostels/hotels spoke English as well.
I do speak some Spanish, though I’m not fluent. I could understand the message of most Portuguese text. In some instances, I could communicate even with Portuguese speakers in Spanish. The languages are very similar and the Portuguese could understand most of what I was saying in Spanish. I could only understand minuscule amounts of spoken Portuguese, however, which has an incredibly different spoken sound from Spanish. I definitely recommend learning the basics of Portuguese, and don’t expect English to be available everywhere. (This is good practice anywhere – it’s polite and realistic.) Still, if you only speak English or Spanish, you will survive in Portugal.
My final thoughts on Portugal:
If you’re thinking about going to Portugal, I couldn’t recommend it more. It’s a beautiful country with so much to see jam-packed in an easily accessible space. I’ve been dreaming about the trip every since I left. I’d love to hear what you think of Portugal in the comments below!
Head to our archives for more posts from the region.
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