Bridge and boat, Ponte de Lima

25 Essential Tips For Your First Trip To Portugal

If you’ve never been to Portugal, you’re in for a treat. You might even fall a little bit in love, especially if you know how things work. My insider tips can help you prepare for your first trip to Portugal and make it go more smoothly.

Knowing a little about local customs, especially in restaurants, will help you feel more confident and avoid that nasty suspicion that you’ve been ripped off. Read on for advice about what to bring, what to expect when eating out and how you can save money on accommodation, transport, food, shopping and activities.

Rabelo boat, Porto
Rabelo boat, Porto

Before you book your trip to Portugal

1. Try to avoid the hottest, busiest and most expensive months of July and August if possible. You’ll find great deals, good weather (most of the time) and less crowds if you visit Portugal off-season. Weather-wise, May, June and September are usually hot but not unbearably so and although the risk of rain increases from October to April, and it does get cold at night, it’s possible to get lovely sunny days any time of year.

2. Check travel times and distances between places if you’re considering visiting more than one region. It makes far more sense to take your time exploring one area properly and come back again to see another place than to spend half your holiday travelling between destinations. If you feel you must cram as much as possible into one trip, you can save a few hours by flying between Faro and Porto. There are flights between Lisbon and Porto but when you factor in getting to and from the airport and security checks, I don’t think you save much time.

3. If you’re making your own travel arrangements, find out how to get from the airport to your accommodation before you book your flights. If you’re relying on public transport for transfers, you could get caught out if services finish earlier than you expected or don’t run at weekends.

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Discounts on Portugal travel

4. More and more destinations in Portugal offer a tourist card which give free or discounted public transport and discounts on all manner of typical holiday expenditures. Check the local tourist information website before you travel to see what’s available and start saving money from the moment you step off the plane.

My book, Money Saving Tips for Travel in Portugal is packed with practical tips including getting to and from the airport, transport and tourist cards and where to find great deals.

My favourite sites for saving money on accommodation and car hire are here: Where To Find The Best Portugal Travel Deals

Documents to bring to Portugal

5. Double check that your passport is in date and bring a couple of photocopies with you. By law, you have to carry photo ID when in Portugal but won’t want to risk losing your precious passport so leave that in your hotel safe and keep a photocopy with you or carry some form of  photographic ID like a driving licence.

6. If you live in the EU, apply for and bring your European Health Insurance Card. It doesn’t substitute full travel insurance but will reduce the costs of emergency treatment. If you’re coming from elsewhere, you should make sure you have insurance to cover health emergencies as the costs can quickly soar.

7. The good news is that you don’t need any vaccinations for visiting Portugal unless you’re coming from a Yellow Fever zone.

8. If you have an EU passport, you don’t need a visa to enter Portugal. Other passport holders should check Visit Portugal’s guidelines.

9. If you plan on hiring a car, don’t forget your driving licence. You need to have it with you when driving in Portugal plus the paperwork for the car and your ID. See these tips for renting a car in Portugal.

Windows above souvenir shop, Alcobaça
Windows above a souvenir shop, Alcobaça

Money matters

10. I always like to have some local currency on me when I arrive in a foreign country but if you do land in Portugal without euros, there are ATMs (look for Multibanco signs) in all international airports and towns so you can withdraw euros directly from your bank account or top up your cash if you run out.

11. Although credit cards are accepted in many places, smaller outlets, including some restaurants, only take cash. If you pay by credit or debit card you will probably be charged for each transaction so check with your bank before deciding how to pay for purchases.

12. If you exchange money before travelling to Portugal, try to avoid bringing large bills, i.e. bigger than 50 euros. If your currency exchange provider has given you a stack of 100, 200 or worse, 500 euro notes, take them into a local bank when you arrive to get a stash of smaller notes.

Packing for a trip to Portugal

13. When visiting a major tourist destination like the Algarve, Porto or Lisbon, don’t worry if you forget to pack something or are hampered by hand luggage restrictions. With the exception of  prescription medication, you can buy pretty much anything you’re likely to need in Portugal although some things, like sun cream, tend to be a little pricier.

14. If you’re venturing deep into rural Portugal, you’ll need to be better equipped as local shops stock a more limited range of products.

15. It’s not standard practice for Portuguese accommodations to have tea-making facilities in guest rooms even if they do have a fridge. If you can’t live without your cuppa, pack a travel kettle and a few decent tea bags. Be warned that fresh milk is harder to find than UHT though.

16. Even if you’re coming in winter, you should bring sunglasses and use sun cream if you have fair skin. Bring an umbrella too, just in case. You’ll need a hat in summer and insect repellent if, like me, you attract mosquitoes and other biting insects.

17. Clothes-wise, several thin layers are a good idea as they allow you to adapt to changeable temperatures. Loose, lightweight natural fibres will help you cope with the summer heat but you’ll need jeans and sweaters in winter. Bring comfy shoes or sandals, preferably with non-slip soles. When you see the uneven cobbled pavements, you’ll understand why. Don’t wear spiky heels unless you want to ruin them or break your ankle.

For more detailed advice about what to bring, read my guide to packing for Portugal. If you’re coming to do a walking holiday, this article may be more relevant.

Learn a little Portuguese

18. While it’s perfectly possible to get by in English in the major tourist areas, learning a few simple phrases in Portuguese will go a long way. No one expects foreigners on holiday to be proficient in the language but just saying thank you in Portuguese is appreciated. It’s obrigado if you’re a man and obrigada if you’re a woman, by the way. There are plenty of free resources to help you learn European Portuguese.

Lisbon streets, cafe Brasileira
Lisbon streets

While you’re on holiday in Portugal

Eating out in Portugal

The most common complaint I see on TripAdvisor is from people who think they’ve been ripped off by Portuguese restaurants. Most of the time, it’s simply a case of not knowing the local customs.

19. It’s standard practice for waiters to bring you little dishes of olives, bread, cheese and cold meats but they are not freebies unless they are part of a set menu. If you don’t want them, just politely send them back untouched and you won’t be charged. If you are tempted but worried about the creeping cost of your final bill, check the price before tucking in. The bread and olives are usually very cheap so tuck in.

20. Super-fresh fish and seafood are among Portugal’s gastronomic highlights. Seafood restaurants often have a selection of the catch of the day displayed on a bed of ice. You choose the fish and they grill it to perfection. In such cases, it’s hard to know how much it will end up costing as the fish is charged by weight. To get an idea of the price and avoid a nasty surprise at the end of a lovely meal, ask the waiter for an estimate. Alternatively, order a Cataplana de Marisco (seafood casserole) or Arroz de Marisco (seafood rice) which are usually stuffed with ocean goodies for a fixed price.

Grilled fish and prawns
Grilled fish and prawns

21. Don’t be surprised if your main course seems lacking in vegetables. Most Portuguese people get their greens and other vegetables by starting with a soup. Ask what the dish is served with and order a side serving of salad or vegetables if you feel the need.

22. Unlike in the UK where a waiter will usually take your drinks order while you’re contemplating the menu, food gets priority in Portugal. The waiter may bring some unsolicited (but not free – see above) appetizers to your table before taking your order but will not ask about drinks until the food has been dealt with.

23. A great way of economising on eating out is to do what the locals do and have a main meal at lunchtime with a menu do dia (set menu of 2-3 courses) or prato do dia (dish of the day). Check what is and isn’t included before saying yes to everything the waiter offers you but otherwise, you can get a 3-course meal with wine for under 10 euros.

More information in How To Order Like A Local At Restaurants In Portugal

The first two of these books about Portuguese food have lots of practical information to help you be more adventurous when trying local dishes.

Out and about in Portugal

24. It’s well worth checking out some of the local events. Every town, village and city has at lest one food or saint-related festival at some point during the year, especially during the summer. The Visit Portugal website has details of major events including music festivals, sports championships and film festivals. For smaller events, look out for posters or check with the local tourist information office or regional websites such as Visit Algarve to find out what’s on during your stay but don’t expect the information to be published more than a few weeks in advance.

25. If you intend to visit museums and monuments, there are two important things to consider. One is that many offer free admission on Sunday mornings or discounts with the local tourist card. The other is that most are closed on Mondays so you’ll need to check and plan around this if you have your heart set on seeing something specific.

If you need help with your Portugal itinerary, I can get you on the right track with a range of trip planning services.

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25 Essential Tips For Your First Trip To Portugal
25 Essential Tips For Your First Trip To Portugal

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  1. Thanks for the info! It is well appreciated. My husband and I are a planning our first trip to the Portimao area in a couple weeks. I will check out some of your links for further information. I am so excited!

  2. Hi Julie, great info thank you. I am allergic to gluten and walking the coastal Portuguese Camino in August. Do you have any reverent advice for me?

    With best wishes Mikamark

  3. Hi Julie, thanks very much for getting back to me. A bit of a dilemma as I’m allergic to insect repellent and my partner already has a nasty mosquito caused virus!
    Best wishes,

    1. Oh dear! Not sure what to suggest then. As I said, cities aren’t normally as problematic as rural areas but you can’t rule out the possibility of being bitten.

  4. Hi, I notice that the Acuweather website gives a daily mosquito activity forecast, so am I guessing that mosquitoes have become a serious problem in Portugal? What precautions would you advise taking between June/July in Lisbon? Thank you

    1. Hi Alexa, funny you should mention that – I noticed a swarm of them outside my kitchen window the other day. Nasty creatures. Anyway, so far, although I am prone to get bitten more than others, I’ve found that insect repellent in the evenings has been enough to ward them off. If you’re staying in an air-conditioned place, that might help, as would a room on a higher floor. Most places in Lisbon won’t have mesh on the window or mosquito netting as they’re not a huge problem in cities.

  5. Hi Julie,
    Thank you for such a simplified yet detailed to the level needed guide. I am travelling, for the first time, to Porto, Lisbon and Algarve with 3 other friends. I am little woried about the crime incidents people have reported in various blogs, especially at the beaches where we want to spend most of our time. Any word of caution and remedies from you are glady welcome.

    1. Author

      Hi Vinai, I have always found Portugal to be the safest country I’ve ever travelled in. Yes, there is some petty crime in tourist areas so take reasonable precautions, i.e. don’t take too much money or all your valuables out, especially if you’re going to the beach – just take what you need for the day and hide it in your clothes. If you go to the beach and need to leave your belongings unattended, ask someone nearby to keep an eye on them while you go for a swim.

      Use usual street smarts to avoid making it easy for pick-pockets and you should be fine. Avoid walking alone at night in dark/isolated areas and shout for help if needed. I really believe that if you are sensible, you would be extremely unlucky to be the victim of any crime.

  6. Forgot my medication going to Portugal. Can I get atempory replacement?

    1. Author

      I imagine so, if you’ve got your prescription. If not, or perhaps in any case, you may need to go to a local doctor to get one. It depends on what you need and I’m afraid I have no experience of this.

  7. I am planning to go to Portugal for about a week in late April. I will be in Lisbon area and may consider going north to Porto or further south. What I am wondering is how much rain I can expect? Or how much sunshine? And where would be the warmer areas.

    1. Author

      Hi Em, I’m afraid the weather at that time of year is notoriously unpredictable. You could have gloriously warm sunny days, torrential rain or anything in between. At this stage, it’s impossible to know, although it should be fine for travelling as long as you are not dead set on getting a tan.

      You’ll have to keep checking the weather forecast before your trip (but even then, take it with a pinch of salt). The further south you go, the more likely you are to have warmer weather. I’ll be spending several days walking in the north of Portugal at that time so I’m really hoping for very little rain, and unless I’m very unlucky, should be okay.

  8. I went their on honeymoon 2 years ago and can’t wate to go back found some lovely places to eat just saveing to go again in September

    1. Author

      Glad you loved it enough to want to come back – it has that effect on most people. September is usually a relaxed time to visit.

  9. It may be worth pointing out that under Portuguese law you do not have to pay for any of the appetisers that have been served unsolicited. The waiter should ask if you want them and not just leave them on the table. We are finding more and more when we eat out, that restaurants are asking if we want bread, olives, cheese, sardine pate etc, rather than just placing it on the table as happened when we first moved here 8 years ago. In these times of austerity, savvy Portuguese, ex-pats and tourists for that matter are aware of the law and restaurants have reluctantly had to give “freebies”. They don’t want to be caught out again.

    1. Author

      That’s an excellent point, Ray, thanks for sharing it. I’ve also found that in restaurants in more touristy areas, they often ask first. Perhaps because of what you said, but also possibly to avoid complaints, which I’m sure they’ve had to deal with repeatedly from unsuspecting holidaymakers who know neither the custom nor the law.

  10. Nice advice about eating out rituals in Portugal – really helpful if you are a newbie to #Lisbon and well worth the share.

    1. Author

      Thanks, Mary. I think it makes the experience a lot more fun when you know how things work.

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