What you need to know before traveling to Portugal

The nation of Portugal shares the Iberian Peninsula with Spain, and although it is a member of Europe, it is physically and culturally isolated from the much of the continent, including its Iberian neighbor. Though small and relatively quiet on the global diplomatic stage today, Portugal played a large role in human history throughout the past 1,000 years. It was Portugal that was responsible for launching Europe's quests to discover the New World and other corners of the globe. Home to roughly 10 million people, Portugal is culturally and geographically diverse.

  • Key facts
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    The borders of Portugal have not changed in centuries, and today it is the oldest nation in Europe with unchanged borders. Portuguese explorers established the first sea-trade route to India, colonized stretches of Africa, South America, and Oceania, and maintain a connection through common language to many of these corners of the globe. The country is split in six regions, each of which is oriented east-west and boasting coastline along the Atlantic Ocean.
    Northern Portugal is considered the birthplace of the nation and is home to the second-largest city, Porto. The national capital of Lisbon is located in South-Central Portugal. Southern Portugal, and the Algarve in particular, house the nation's best beaches and offer plentiful sunshine for your visit. The Azores and Madeira are islands located southwest off the coast of the Iberian Peninsula.
    If you are traveling to Portugal for the beaches, then you must visit the Algarve region. The stunning coastlines and endless natural beauty of the region lends itself easily to great escapes. Water temperatures along the southern coast, where the Atlantic Ocean heads toward the Mediterranean Sea, are much higher than the nation's western coastline. Additionally, the waters here are much calmer as well because the Gulf Stream does not impact this region as significantly.
    As a member of the European Union, Portugal uses the Euro (€) as its common currency. Portugeuse is the official language of the country, and unlike its neighbors in Spain, there are few if any prominent local dialects. The nation is regulated by the Western European Time Zone, and shares a time zone with the United Kingdom and Ireland.
  • Weather & when to go
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    Portugal is generally regarded as the warmest nation in continental Europe. Mainland temperatures in Portugal average a high of 64 F (18 C) in the north on a year-round basis, and 55 F (15 C) in the south on a year-round basis. The spring and summer months are highlighted by ample sunshine and high temperatures between 86 F and 95 F (35 C and 40 C) in July and August. Fall and winter are characterized by rain and wind, but the sun does not disappear for long stretches. The average high throughout fall and winter hover around 41 F (5 C), but inland areas do get cooler in the winter, where temperatures can fall to 32 F (0 C). Snow can be seen in the mountains of the north. The offshore municipalities of Madeira and the Azores have narrower temperature ranges. Madeira has low precipitation levels throughout the year, while the Azores are wet and rainy.
    There's really no bad time of year to visit Portugal. The spring and summer are popular thanks to the wonderful weather. However, with great weather and plenty of sunshine come more crowds. Travel to Portugal is more expensive in the summer, with spring and fall offering an excellent balance between ideal weather, affordable prices, and smaller crowds.
  • Getting around
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    As an American, the easiest way into Portugal is via United Airlines or Delta. The country has three major international airports in Lisbon, Porto, and Faro, each of which is serviced by United (via Newark), US Airways (via Philadelphia), and Delta (seasonally via Boston). The Madeira and Azores have their own international airports: Madeira and Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel Island.
    You have two primary options for travel within Portugal between the north and south: bus and rail. Service by rail is faster than bus, but the services are offered less frequently and tend to cost more per trip. If you're staying in Lisbon or Porto, the suburban areas are well served by suburban rail lines. Bus services throughout Portugal is a feasible option because the rail network is rather limited compared to that of the nation's European neighbors. Rede Expresso is the nation's largest inter-city bus service. Additionally, there are metro rail lines (both underground and light rail) that offer convenient travel within Lisbon and Porto.
    Car rentals are available throughout major Portuguese cities, but there are a few things to keep in mind. For starters, you'll find that insurance on rentals is extremely expensive. Travel within cities can become mired in congestion, but inter-city roads are well maintained and viable for travel throughout the country. Lastly, Portugal has an extensive toll highway system, so be aware of the roads you plan to travel on.
  • Know before you go
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    There are a few things you need to know before you pack those bags and head toward the airport for your travels to Portugal.

    • As with all travel outside the United States, you'll need your passport to gain entry to Portugal.

    • If you want to enjoy the nation's best nightlife, head to Lisbon, Porto, or Albufeira.

    • Portugal's countryside is breathtaking, quiet, and enjoyable. The best places to visit include Viana do Castelo, Chaves, and Miranda do Douro, just to name a few.

    • Madeira and the Azores are more than just island destinations; they are great destinations for nature lovers. The islands are the best place in Portugal to observe wild life in its natural habitat.

    • Summer is the high season for Fairs, with the region of Northern Portugal offering the greatest variety of options.

    • Paredes de Coura and Vila de Mouros are the two oldest musical festivals in Portugal, and are held annually in the summer.

    • Soup and fish are essential parts of the Portuguese diet, and feature prominently in national cuisine.

    • Vegetarians beware; the Portuguese use vegetables largely as a garnish for heavy meat dishes.

  • Travel tips & recommendations
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    • Portugal is extremely safe to visit, so if you follow common sense you'll enjoy a worry-free visit.

    • Like any new place, avoid unfamiliar urban areas at night.

    • The national emergency number is 112.

    • Bottled water is actually recommended in Portugal, though the tap water doesn't pose a serious health risk.

    • Portuguese people are extremely welcoming, and many members of younger generations understand English.

    • Consider visiting Aveiro, if possible. It is known as the "Venice" of Portugal.

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