Quick Guide to Portugal: For the love of Latin charm and wonder

Quick guide to Portugal for South Africans. (Photo: iStock)
Quick guide to Portugal for South Africans. (Photo: iStock)

Portugal doesn't only export football stars for the world to cheer - it also has some of the most important architectural marvels in the world, some celebrating their Age of Discoveries while others have more spiritual roots in the country's Catholic traditions.

You can either explore the city of Lisbon - filled to the brim with cultural experiences and trips through history - or chase the sun in Madeira where all the tourists go to play.

Your taste buds will also go on a gastronomical journey through famous Portuguese cuisine, their smouldering dark coffees and sipping sunshine from the Madeira region's wine offerings.

SEE: Priced out by tourists: Lisbon population's exodus from historic centre

Here we take a look at one of the top European destinations for South Africans and what you need to know should you want to visit:

Visa Requirements: You can apply for a short-stay Schengen visa which will cost about R920, see more details here. Passport must be valid for up to six months after date of departure and have at least two blank pages. 

TRAVEL PLANNING: UK, US, Schengen and Australia visa costs: What South Africans can expect to pay in 2018

Continent: Southern Europe


Medical requirement: If you're travelling or interacting at all with bats in the Portugal, it's advised to get a rabies vaccine.

Currency / Exchange Rate:  Euro

National Carriers: TAP Air Portugal

Main airports: Lisbon Airport, Porto Airport, Faro Airport,  Madeira International Airport (Santa Cruz), João Paulo II Airport (São Miguel), and Horta Airport (Castelo Branco)

Time Zone: 1 hour behind SA

Plugs: European round-pin plug - Type C and Type F. See here for more.

Public transport: You are more likely to take the bus everywhere rather than the train, which can be expensive and infrequent, but it's well-serviced in Lisbon and Porto and advised to buy tickets well in advance. Rental cars are also widely used if you're travelling to more rural areas.

Best time to visit: Summer is the most popular time for most tourists to visit Portugal, but from March to May (Spring) and September to October (Autumn) the crowds are less while the weather is still favourable. 

Climate: One of the warmest countries in Europe, Portugal's Mediterranean climate has extremely high temperatures in July and August, while snow only falls in winter in the country's northern mountains.

Food specialities: Portuguese cuisine is world-renowned, shaped by centuries of colonialism across the world. Today it's quite a seafood-heavy cuisine, including bacalhau (salt cod), sole, sardines, mackerel and other marine species that almost always comes fresh. Another famous dish is Portuguese chicken, spiced with chilli, garlic and olive oil. Traditionally most meals start with Minho soup and are served with rice. 

Portugal is also extremely fond of its coffee, especially espresso, and locals love to hang out at cafés with their dark brew.

Language: Portuguese (Official)

SEE: Durban's Little Corners of Portugal: 5 Portuguese restaurants to tickle your tastebuds

Useful phrases:

  • Hello Olá
  • Goodbye Adeus
  • My name is …. Meu nome é...
  • Thank you. Obrigado
  • Yes Sim
  • No Não
  • Do you speak English? Você fala inglês?
  • Water Agua
  • Where is [hotel/toilet/beach etc.]? Onde é...?
SEE: Why you should put aside translate apps (for now) and learn a new language

Travel tips

  • While most Portuguese people understand basic Spanish, it can be viewed as disrespectful if you started speaking Spanish to them and its isn't your first language, so be sure to not mix up the two languages.
  • In restaurants, the bread, cheese and olives that waiters brings aren't free starters - if you don't want them they will take it back to the kitchen, but if you tuck in it gets added to your bill. Also waiters normally sort out food orders before drinks, so you'll have to start that order yourself if you're thirsty.
  • Many museums and other attractions tend to be closed on Mondays, so always double check with your itinerary if your desired destination is open.
  • Portuguese locals tend to have their main meal for lunch and small dishes for the evening, which will work out cheaper if you're on a budget. It's also cheaper to stand and drink a beer at a bar then sitting down.
  • Portugal is prone to fires due to the extreme heat in summer, and can leave you trapped if you don't keep an ear to the radio. This also means be fire-conscious and perhaps skip your attempt at making a braai for a little taste of home.

PICS: Lisbon in Eurovision tourism boost as locals sing the blues

Top attractions in Portugal: 

  • Madeira Archipelago

This cluster of islands is a famous sea-side resort, predominantly populated by tourists chasing the sun. It has a popular wine region, its laurel landscapes form part of a World Heritage Site and was named Europe's Leading Island Destination by the World Travel Awards.

It has one of the most spectacular New Year's Eve fireworks in the world, as well as one of the world's highest ocean cliffs at Cabo Girão. You can get there by either cruise ship, car ferry from Porto Santo or by plane.

  • Jerónimos Monastery

It took a hundred years to complete this architectural masterpiece in Lisbon, with construction having started in 1501. It used to house the Order of Saint Jerome, but has since then been secularised and now houses various museums and once housed a collection of Leonardo da Vinci's work.

This monastery forms part of the Portuguese Monastic Cultural Heritage Route, which include the monasteries of Alcobaça and Batalha and the Convent of Christ in Tomar.

WATCH: Portugal's island of Madeira bursts with colour in the annual Flower Festival

  • Belém Tower

On the bank of the Tagus River is a fortified beauty of a building - one of Lisbon's most famous architectural marvels. It stands as a symbol for Portugal's Age of Discoveries when their colonial expansion almost took over the world, and also held a defensive position against any intruders to the city.

You can get a combined ticket with Jerónimos Monastery, making it cheaper to visit both as well as the National Museum of Archeology.

  • Algarve Beaches

One of the biggest holiday destinations for Europeans, the beaches along Algarve's coastline are beautiful and clean, with the busiest times in July and August. It has over a hundred beaches to choose from, where you can swim, surf or just soak up the sun. 

The area also boasts the best peri-peri chicken to heat up your insides and the traditional medronho fruit brandy will warm up your head.

SEE: How the sharing economy has changed the European hotel industry over 10 years

  • Peneda-Gerês National Park

If you're looking to escape the crowds and getting bored with buildings, you can head to the Portugal border with Spain to Peneda-Gerês National Park - rugged hills where deer, wolves and golden eagles make their home. You can follow in the footsteps of ancient peoples on an old Roman road, soak up luxury at the spa town of Gerês or visit the holy shrine of Santuario de Nossa Senhora da Peneda.

The park has many walking trails and driving routes, and accommodation comes in the form of private lodges under concession. They also have camping facilities in Terras de Bouro and Montalegre.

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