What to see and do in Ponte de Lima

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 what to expect. My insider Portugal travel tips can help you prepare and make your first trip go as smoothly as possible. As well as loving this country, a friend of mine inspired me to write this post. We were talking about our dream holiday destinations and one of his was to visit New York and do all the tourist sights. A while ago, he said he was struggling financially, which is why he put this trip off for so long. But after he was recommended into getting advice on how you should invest, he is starting to build up his savings. It does look like he may be closer to making this trip a reality. No matter where any of us decides to visit, as long as you have a good time and can afford it, that’s all that matters.

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 on planning a trip to Portugal including 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 first 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 travel to 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.

Get the full low down on the best time to visit Portugal in this post.

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. You may want to consider using Post-It Notes to make a note of travel times. It is all good having it on your phone, but if your phone runs out of battery, you won’t really have anything to refer to. The traditional method of writing is always the way to go.

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.

You can pre-book an airport transfer if you’d rather keep things simple.

Discounts on Portugal travel

4. More and more destinations in Portugal offer a tourist card, such as the Lisbon Card and Porto 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 ebook, 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. Note that major destinations have introduced a tourist tax of €1-2 per person per night to cover the increased pressure on the local infrastructure. You pay this at your accommodation so budget accordingly.

See my Portugal accommodation guides to help you find a great place to stay

Documents to bring on your Portugal trip

5. Double check that your passport is in date – you may need at least 6 months if coming from outside the EU – 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 and carry some alternative 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. Get a quote from World Nomads

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 although American, Canadian and Australian citizens can travel visa-free for 90 days (total) within the Schengen area.

9. If you plan on renting a car, don’t forget your driving licence – if you’re coming from outside the EU, you may need an International Drivers’ Permit so check with the rental company and if necessary, get one before your trip. You need to have your licence 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 in Portugal

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. Note that 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 tips 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 obscure prescription medication, you can buy pretty much anything you’re likely to need in Portugal although some things, like sun cream, may 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 in Portugal.

16. Even if you’re travelling to Portugal in winter, you should bring sunglasses and use factor 30 sun cream as minimum if you have fair skin. Bring a fold-up 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/heavier trousers and sweaters in winter.

Bring comfy shoes or sandals, depending on the season, preferably with fairly thick 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 about what to pack for long distance walks 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 and affordable resources to help you learn European Portuguese. As for Portuguese phrasebooks, the best of the bunch is probably the Lonely Planet Portuguese Phrasebook & Dictionary, which has sections on eating and drinking as well as all the functional language you’d expect and help with pronunciation.

Lisbon streets, cafe Brasileira
Lisbon streets

While you’re on your first trip to 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. Strictly speaking, you shouldn’t be charged for items you didn’t order but it avoids confrontation if you know how to deal with this in advance.

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.

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 during the selection phase.

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, one of the highlights of Portugal travel is the fresh seafood

21. Don’t be surprised if your main course seems lacking in vegetables. Many Portuguese people get their greens and other vegetables by starting a meal with a soup. Ask what the main dish is served with and order a side 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) appetisers to your table before taking your order but will often not ask about drinks until the food has been dealt with. If you’re parched and need a drink while deciding, you’ll need to initiate the drinks order when the waiter brings the menu.

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.

See this post about Portuguese food you should try

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 while you’re here. Every town, village and city has at least one food or saint-related festival at some point during the year, especially during the summer months.

The Visit Portugal website has details of major events including music festivals, sports championships and film festivals.

For smaller events, look out for somewhat garish posters on lamp posts and bus stops 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 some 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.

Looking for a Portugal travel guide book?

Click on the links below to see my top picks via Amazon

My first choice would be a DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to Portugal, partly because I’ve contributed to them in the past and partly because I like the pictures, maps and layout.

The Frommer’s Portugal Guide is written by two well-respected journalists who live in the Lisbon area, one Portuguese and the other British. Having met them both, I would certainly trust their recommendations.

I also like Rough Guides’ approach to travel guides and their Portugal travel guide is no exception.

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25 Essential Tips For Your First Trip To Portugal. Portugal travel tips for first timers to help you plan your trip with confidence
25 Essential Tips For Your First Trip To Portugal

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84 Comments

  1. Hi Julie, we are visiting Portugal for the first time this September for 3 weeks. We have booked accommodation in Lisbon, Sintra area, Baleal (for husband to surf) and ending in Porto. We have 5 nights left to book between checking out of Baleal and checking into Porto. I was originally thinking of central Portugal, around Aveiro but now I’m thinking the less touristy areas of the Algarve may suit us better with the calmer beaches and beautiful coastline. I know it’s going backwards and wish I had planned better before booking accommodation, but thinking the drive should not be too much as we are used to long drives in Australia. We have 2 daughters aged 5 and 3. We try to balance a fun holiday for the kids along with exploring new sights and of course eating local foods and wines. Which area do you think is better for us?

    1. I would not go to the Algarve if you need to get to Porto – it’s too much travelling in a short space of time. Look into Foz do Arelho or São Martinho do Porto for calm beaches.

  2. A group of 8 adults are traveling to Portugal in late September. We are going to spend 3 days in Lisbon, 3 days in Algarve/Salema area and 3 days in Porto. I noticed that the train might be a good way to get from one region to another, but can we hire drivers to show us around or take us on day trips? How do we go about finding out about that?

    1. You can. I’ll send you an email…

  3. Hello Mary,
    My cousin and I are going to Portugal for the first time in September 2018. We want to experience staying in a smaller village either near Porto or Lisbon where we can be closer to the culture and people, but also be able to take the bus, train or tram to other areas. Having a beach near, with fresh seafood is also something we would enjoy. I have looked at Cascais but I’m concerned with what I’ve read about the pollution there. We are there for only 12 days. We both like to walk or bike but are not athletic. Your thoughts on this are very much appreciated.

  4. Basically, I have great interest in history and I love exploring new culture. I have been to Spain many times, but, did not get the opportunity to visit Portugal. Lack of time did not allow me to plan a trip. But, my friends have agreed to a two week long pleasure trip. Your comprehensive blog is insightful and resourceful for first time travelers like me. Can you suggest me any self catering hotels or provide any official link, where can I get perfect rates on all sorts of hotels in Lisbon and Algarve. As we are at the initial stage of planning, I would like to make it a holidays to remember for a lifetime with my buddies.

  5. Good day. Just found your blog😁. We are planning Portugal in 2019 for no less than 4 weeks. We would like to rent a flat that would be our base. Can you recommend a site that offers longer term accommodations. Thanks

  6. Hi Julie,
    Do you think it’ll be good to visit Algarve (Portimao) during February ? I have booked my accommodation in mid Feb, 18 . It will be good to have your view. Please give some suggestions as well.

    1. As long as you are prepared for the chance of cold or wet weather, I don’t see why not. It depends on what you are hoping for from the trip.

  7. Thanks for sharing such a nice blog. Really wonderful tips are given for eating out rituals in Portugal. This is really helplful for newly wedding couples.

  8. Nazaré, Peniche, and Ericeira do exercise caution, and common sense. Apart from Algarve, our sea is rather unforgiving, especially in those areas. Have fun.

    1. Too true. It’s too cold and often too rough for my liking! But there are safe, calm swimming spots in Foz do Arelho and São Martinho do Porto, for example.

  9. Hello Julie. Me and my friend are planning a surf trip in Portugal.26-2. What would you recommend for surf (spots) and as a travel plan for 7days?

    1. Surfing is not my area of expertise, I’m afraid 🙂

  10. Hi Julie, Thanks for the great tips. My wife and our 11 month old baby are taking our first family trip to Portugal for 2 weeks in a few days. We plan to head south by train from Lisbon to relax and explore. Where do you recommend for easy travelling by the beaches? We plan to travel by public transport

  11. Julie, I think I have looked at all your lovely pictures on pinterest and read all your articles on Portugal. What a wealth of information, very generous. Thank-you. We have 20 days in Portugal this December and will be using public transportation wherever possible. We have focused on 3 areas. Algarve(Tavira-4 days, Lagos -5 days), Evora-4 days but including travel from Lagos, and Lisbon 5.5 days minus an overnight in Sintra. I have negotiated 2 more days and wonder if I should use them seeing Milreu, Sao Bras de Alportel and Estoi from Tavira for 1 day) or Silves and Portimao or
    Sages and Cabo de Sao Vincente from Lagos for one day or have 1 day more in Lisbon to see Albaga, Nazare, Batalha and Tomar likely as a tour. I love seeing the country and sea and love taking pictures of small towns. Thank-you! We are taking the megathlic tour for a half day in Evora and hope to see 2 other areas possibly with a 2 day tour(Monsaraz and San Pedro do Corval then Elvas, Villa Vicosa, Estremozo and Arraiolos the other day. Hopefully seeing a cork and cow bell factory. Thank-you so much. Barb

  12. Hi Julie. I’m really enjoying your site – full of information! I’m hoping to get to Portugal in Sept 2018 but I’m already starting to plan. I’m doing a genealogy stop in Sao Miguel where all 4 lines of my family is from, so I think I’ll want a week there. If I take a second week in the mainland, can I possibly see Lisbon and the Douro Valley within another week? I have a lot to research and learn before I book!

    1. Hi Katalina, got your enquiry so I look forward to helping you plan ghis trip.

  13. Hi Julie, I am looking to book a last minute trip to Portugal (single and first timer) and was hoping you could give me advice on how to best get a taste of Portugal. I want to do a big/extended trip next year to Spain and Portugal Should I book a tour company? If so, do you suggest any in particular? or should I book a flight and hotel on my own? Sao Miguel looks beautiful! I’m really hesitant to do this on my own and may opt out as I need to book for October 2017 – which is very very soon!

    1. Hi Angela, A lot depends on your budget, what you like doing and how long you’ve got. If your time is limited, stick to one or two areas. I could easily spend a week to 10 days on São Miguel but it depends on how much walking you want to do etc.

  14. Hi Julie,
    Glad you loved Portugal and all the useful tips!
    My family and I are traveling to flores (probably auto corrected) next summer to stay at our family house! This will be my first time out of country and your thoughts ps will be useful!

  15. Hi Julie, I will be in Lisbon in August, not by choice of month as I know it’s super hot, bit was invited to a wedding. Only have half day Saturday and Sunday -Monday all day. Besides Sintra, what else shouldn’t we miss? Thanks for your input!

  16. Hi Julie, thank you for your informative blog. We are doing a two week car trip in September, and wonder if I’m being too ambitious . We will collect the car in Cascais after spending three days in Lisbon and head off to stay in Coimbra, Porto, Douro, Belmonte, Evora, Lagos ending in Cascais, obviously visiting places in between en route. Is there any place I could leave out? I’m also finding it difficult to work out the best spot to base ourselves for two nights in the Douro area.

  17. Hi Julie
    We are staying in Germil at the end of June for a week. Can you recommend any guide books or web sites and maps for the area
    Many thanks
    Jason

  18. Hi Julie!
    We’re 2 grown up Canadians travelling Portugal for the first time in a few days. Looking forward to discover Lisbon, Sintra, Evora, Faro, Lagos and the Acores! Everything is pretty well setup, but I’ve failed at booking a nice wine tour somehow. Can you recommend anything?
    Thx and cheers!

    1. Hi Jerome, Try emailing Patricia at Singulartrips ([email protected]) – she knows lots of wineries around Lisbon and can organise a tour for you. Tell I said hello 🙂

  19. My 4th graders are planning a trip as “travel agents” to portugal to learn about the country. I was wondering if you would be willing to skype with them help them out and share some helpful info as they plan their tour? Thanks for considering!

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