Plenty of people only think of sunny Portugal as a summer destination but that’s a mistake. To be honest, summer is my least favourite time of year for Portugal travel as it’s too hot and crowded for my liking. Despite the cooler temperatures and increased likelihood of rain, I think travelling in Portugal in winter is much better than in summer.
Lower prices, tasty comfort food, winter festivals and the promise of warm, sunny days are just a few of the perks of travelling at this time of year.
Without further ado, here are some of the many reasons to plan a trip to Portugal in winter.
1. Portugal in winter means fewer crowds
Winter weather means fewer tourists and, given how irritated and stressed I feel among hoards of people, this is ideal for me.
I love travelling in Portugal in low season because it means I waste less time in queues, get less stressed and it’s easier to nab a spur-of-the-moment table in restaurants and cafés so there’s less need to plan ahead.
Lisbon in winter is particularly pleasant for all these reasons and because the weather is generally mild, with temperatures rarely dipping below 10ºC in the daytime or 5ºC at night. The light that reflects off the river and the paved streets and pastel-coloured buildings makes it an uplifting rather than depressing place to be at what can be quite a grim time of year in colder climes or greyer cities.
The Algarve is also popular in winter and again, it’s much easier to explore by car and find parking spots when there are fewer people around.
Read this post to find out what to expect from visiting the Algarve at different times of the year.
2. Off-peak means cheaper accommodation and travel
Thanks to lower demand in the winter months it’s easier and cheaper to find good accommodation. Lisbon and Porto hotels in particular are quite expensive between May and October but barring special events, such as the Christmas and New Year period and Valentine’s Day, winter prices are much more accessible.
Besides getting great value for money with your lodging, some tour operators offer discounts for tours booked during low season, usually before the end of March so look out for special offers.
Lower prices also apply to a series of other services, including car rental and train tickets (not the urban and suburban ones, though). Booking in advance can also mean an extra discount, so it’s well worth planning your travel a few months ahead.
3. Winter is a great time for visiting traditional Portuguese villages
Some things are interesting year-round but seem to have a special kind of allure at certain times of the year. Typical Portuguese villages are one such case with the cold weather giving them that extra cosy feeling.
Some of these village, such as Monsaraz, Penela and Piodão turn into outdoor nativity scenes at Christmas.
A good option would be to stay in a city and explore the smaller towns and villages in the area, usually no more than a 1 or 2 hour drive away. For example, you could use Évora or Coimbra as a base for visiting nearby villages, and perhaps Guarda for some of the historical villages further north.
4. Winter in Portugal is the best time for big waves
Whether you’re a surfer or just like watching (or photographing) ginormous waves, winter is definitely the best time to see them in Portugal.
Nazaré is world famous for so-called “monster waves” but in the right weather conditions many spots along the coast will provide breathtaking waves. The Boca do Inferno (Hell’s Mouth) in Cascais is impressive to watch, as are the waves that break over the lighthouse at Foz, near Porto.
Note: Wherever you go to watch waves, please be cautious and don’t forget to use your common sense, as some situations can actually be very dangerous.
5. Winter festivals in Portugal
Although the warm days of summer are long gone there are still some fairs and festivals going on throughout Portugal.
In the north of the country, for example, you’ll find festivals dedicated to smoked meats and pork products, in the south you have a festival focusing on music from the Middle East, Maghreb and the Eastern Mediterranean.
All over the country, there’ll be Christmassy fairs big and small with attractions, ice rinks and many opportunities to taste and buy traditional local products. Obidos Vila Natal (Christmas Town) is an extreme example.
Find out more about Christmas and New Year in Portugal in this article.
For something completely different consider heading to the far north of Portugal to experience the Festa dos Rapazes in Trás-os-Montes, around Christmas time. This bizarre and colourful centuries-old tradition mixes rites of passage with Christian ceremonies.
6. Get to know a different side to Portuguese food and drink
If you’ve been to Portugal in the summer there’s a good chance you’ve experienced the ultimate warm weather combo of freshly grilled seafood with a glass of ice-cold vinho verde wine or rosé.
Well, winter has its gastronomic charms, too. Famous Portuguese cold weather comfort foods include hearty cozido à portuguesa (not my cup of tea but much-loved among the Portuguese), feijoada (a kind of bean stew) and caldo verde (literally, green broth, made with shredded kale) and chanfana, a goat and red wine casserole from my part of Central Portugal.
If you’d like to try some of the snacks the Portuguese enjoy mostly in winter then go for walnuts, roasted chestnuts (the ones from the region of Trás-os-Montes are famous for their quality), dry figs and Serra da Estrela cheese. Of course, a warming glass of port wine goes very well with these.
And of course, there’s Christmas cake...
7. Portugal’s winter weather means there’s a good chance of sunshine
Of course, this varies from one region to another but, generally speaking, dry winter days can be fairly warm. Even in the cooler months (January and February) if the sun’s out on a clear blue sky day, you can expect daytime winter temperatures in Portugal to range anywhere from 15ºC to 20ºC with the Alentejo and Algarve being the warmest regions. It will be cold at night though.
In general, the north of Portugal tends to be a bit colder and wetter than the south so if you’re in need of winter sun, you might find the Algarve works best for you. We spent a couple of weeks there in December and found that we were able to miss the rain in different parts of the region by swapping our days out around. While it wasn’t sunbathing weather, we spent Christmas Day on the beach, as did many other expats and visitors.
If you’re at relatively high altitude, you might experience some snow during the winter in Portugal, especially in the mountains. Snow at low levels is almost unheard of.
8. Portugal has plenty of indoor activities for rainy days
Sometimes bad weather can be a blessing in disguise. If the weather’s rainy, cold and stormy (yes, we have those days in Portugal, too!) there are still fun things to do in larger towns and cities.
The bigger cities have lots of museums to explore and it’s worth doing a little research on museum websites or city cultural agenda listings to find out when they have free entries and special activities, like workshops.
If you have small children or grandchildren, as well as museums with activities specifically created for them, you might also want to give libraries a try. Many of them have a sort of “kid’s corner” and a small cafeteria too. That means the kids are entertained while you grab a snack – sounds like a winning combination!
If you feel like exploring the multitude of coffee drinks and Portuguese cakes then, again, bad weather can be a good thing. Lisbon, Porto, Coimbra and Leiria, for example, all have historic cafés, some of which have been in business for over a century. Expect lush interiors, candelabras and a bit of drama.
Tips for planning a trip to Portugal in winter
My best advice, if you’re travelling to Portugal in the colder months of the year, is to build in some flexibility into your itinerary so that you can work around any winter weather that may impact outdoor activities.
Your best bet is to choose a city as a base so that you’ve got plenty of options for indoor activities on rainy days and set aside a few days for side trips to smaller towns and villages or country hikes. Lisbon, Porto, Coimbra, Funchal and Faro all make great winter bases.
If you don’t fancy driving yourself in Portugal, take a look at my collection of fully managed Portugal itineraries that include private drivers.
What to wear in Portugal in winter
However mild the daytime temperatures are, it will be chilly at night so you will need a jacket, full shoes or boots and warm clothes. Layers, as always, are the key to adapting your attire to cope with warm (and cold!) interiors and bracing breezes.
I always travel with sunglasses and an umbrella in winter. A warm hat is sometimes useful, as is a scarf but gloves are not always needed – check the forecast before you pack.
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