5 things I would have liked to know before visiting Portugal

Portugal is a very forgiving country in the sense that the atmosphere of the people and the culture is friendly and relaxed. People are open and willing to help, especially in hotels and shops, and there are many tourist information centers in the larger cities. You will also find many people, especially in more metropolitan areas, who speak English.

The climate, although cooler and rainier in the north, is basically Mediterranean, which means plenty of sunny days and therefore plenty of opportunity to explore without sheltering under an umbrella or wearing a heavy coat. Dressing in layers is the best way to ensure you are dressed for warm days and cooler nights.

In each city we visited during our 5 weeks, we enjoyed the many restaurants and cafes with outdoor seating. It’s a fun way to spend a couple of hours immersed in the scene around you. The Portuguese take lunchtime seriously and do not rush to eat. There are very few fast food restaurants because most work environments include plenty of time for an afternoon break.

I have traveled a lot and there have been times when I wish I had known certain things about where I was going ahead of time. Traveling with a little knowledge leaves one better prepared to face the unexpected and plan ahead for the things that are expected. The use of the Internet and social media has made travel easier, but it’s always helpful to hear some advice from someone who has travel experience in the place you plan to visit.

Here are five things you wish you had known before traveling to Portugal.

A road that runs along the coast of Portugal

A road that runs along the coast of Portugal

Photo credit: Gustavo Frazao / Shutterstock.com

1. Car rental

Portugal is a country blessed with an excellent transportation system, especially within and between the larger cities. If you have specific destinations in your travel plans, the bus and train system is extensive and reasonably priced, and you can buy your tickets in advance online. However, there are many lovely places in Portugal that are not accessible by public transport, and you may choose to rent a car. We rented a car in Lisbon and it was relatively easy.

What you didn’t know beforehand is that most rental cars have manual transmissions. If you’re not familiar with driving a manual car, practicing before you go is a good idea, especially as the cities we visit use roundabouts as a method of getting from one part of the city to another, and changing gears quickly is sometimes necessary . . When you rent your car, ask for a transponder, which allows you to pay highway tolls without stopping. Your credit card will be charged automatically. It makes getting from one place to another so much easier when you don’t have to deal with stopping in front of a door and taking a ticket. Be sure to enter the lanes painted green and marked “greenway”.

There is basic car insurance in Portugal that is mandatory and will be included in the price of your rental.

Pro tip: Be sure to bring a credit card and a debit card if you plan on renting a car. You will pay more for a rental car if you pay with a debit card.

A bustling street in Lisbon

A bustling street in Lisbon

Photo Credit: Rrrainbow / Shutterstock.com

2. Getting around in cities

We spent time in Lisbon, Porto, Guimaraes, and Coimbra and walked a lot to various places we wanted to see, such as castles, museums, monasteries, Moorish neighborhoods, riverfront parks, and churches.

The streets of many cities are a combination of different types of pavement, but many sidewalks, especially in Lisbon, are made of small diamond-shaped tiles. They are often uneven and wear smoothly, so you should wear shoes that have a good sole; the going can be slippery and a bit dangerous, especially after rain. If you need to go from one end of a city to the other or want a guided tour, there are many “hop on hop off” buses, especially in Lisbon and Porto.

In smaller towns like Obidos, the narrow streets are lined with cobblestones and often some stones are loose, so be careful where you step. Cars and taxis move very fast in cities, often even when a light has turned green to give the okay to walk, there are taxis passing by and ignoring you. Don’t assume cars are going to stop.

It is easy to hail a taxi, especially in Lisbon, Coimbra and Porto because they are everywhere. Drivers signal that they are available with a green light on the roof of the cab. If you prefer, there are also digital companies like Uber and Bolt.

3. Health and COVID

I would recommend a few things when it comes to medical problems that may arise in Portugal. First, make sure you have enough necessary medications before you travel. Although there are many pharmacies even in the smallest towns, refilling a prescription is a bit of a hassle. I had to call my pharmacy in the US and have the pharmacist talk to the pharmacist in Portugal.

In addition to the above, I wish I had researched how the medical system works in Portugal. My husband and I contracted COVID and had to stay an additional 12 days in the country. I needed to see a doctor and wasn’t sure how to go about it. I received help at a pharmacy and was able to make an appointment at a private hospital in Lisbon. Hotel managers in larger cities may also have useful information. Do your research before you go by accessing websites like East.

Bring your health insurance and health records, especially if you have a chronic health condition. Expect to pay for services.

Pro tip: Make sure you have your own health insurance before you go. Ask if they cover medical expenses incurred on your trip. It’s a good idea to go to the Department of State website for information on Portugal and medical issues.

Grilled sardines and chicken in Algarve, Portugal

Grilled sardines and chicken in Algarve, Portugal

Photo credit: Elena Dijour / Shutterstock.com

4. Eat

The Portuguese love to eat and take their time when they do, so don’t expect fast service when dining out. In some of the most touristy parts of Lisbon, expect waiters to approach you and direct you to sit at tables set up along narrow streets where cars are not allowed. Some outdoor cafes that cater to tourists have familiar foods like pizza, hamburgers and hot dogs, but more traditional Portuguese menus feature fish and meat dishes as the main part of the meal. Portions served in restaurants are large, so you may want to consider sharing plates, and this way you will get more variety in your meal.

If you are vegetarian or vegan, you may find it a bit difficult to enjoy a variety of foods, but almost every menu we examined during our 5-week stay had some vegetarian options, especially in cities like Porto, Coimbra, and Lisbon.

If you stay in an Airbnb and have a kitchen, there are small and large supermarkets and some specialty markets that sell produce, wine, fresh meat and fish. There are many patisseries too.

Humberto Delgado International Airport

Humberto Delgado International Airport in Lisbon, the largest airport in Portugal

Photo credit: Alexandre Rotenberg / Shutterstock.com

5. Airports

Portugal has three international airports: Lisbon, Faro and Porto. My husband and I flew to Lisbon from Paris and therefore did not have to go through customs again in Portugal. Lisbon airport is extremely busy and it was difficult to find a map of the airport naming the terminals and airline check-in areas.

Expect long lines at the airport. I had some quick questions I wanted to ask at the tourist information center, but the line was extremely long. If you plan to take a taxi to your hotel from Lisbon airport, you will find the place where the taxis are parked outside the terminal. People wait in line for taxis, which stop at designated parking spots. Taxi drivers will wave to the next person in line.

If you plan to return to the US from Lisbon, be aware that there is a passport control point after a security check and the lines are long. Also, the airport is organized in such a way that you are forced to go through the duty-free shopping areas before security. We almost missed our flight because there were so few attendants checking people out.

When we left the country to return to the United States, it took us 90 minutes to get out of these areas to find our gate. I highly recommend arriving no less than 3 hours before your flight, maybe even 4 if you plan to travel during the summer months. English is widely spoken at the airports, and most signs are in English and Portuguese, but Terminal 2, where all passengers depart from, is a giant hangar and confusing.

Pro tip: Whichever airport you decide to fly to, I recommend studying the airport map online before you fly and plan to arrive 3 hours before your flight.

For more information about Portugal, check out these articles:

Leave a comment

Stay up to date

Register now to get updates on promotions and coupons

Shopping cart