Home to beautiful beaches, an abundance of seafood, and a storied history, Portugal is filled with things to do for all types of travelers. Visitors should be prepared to sample port wine and tour the forests where nearly half of the world’s cork originates. (Source: Wikipedia)
What’s the best time of year to visit Portugal?
When it comes to the best time of the year to visit Portugal, it’s all about what you want.
In February, many of the towns in Portugal celebrate Carnival. Much like Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Carnival in Portugal is when work grinds to a halt, and people take to the streets to celebrate the short period before Lent. February is also when the almond trees are blossoming in parts of Portugal.
According to Frommer’s, “Spring can be a great time to visit when wildflowers paint Algarve clifftops, Alentejo pastures, and northern hillsides with color.”
If the beach is your final destination, then the summer months (July and August) are the best times to visit. According to Frommer’s, while it’s the hottest time of year in Portugal, there’s a cool Atlantic breeze that makes a visit to the beach perfect.
If festivals are what you’re looking for, then Rough Guides says June through September is when you should visit. That’s when just about every small town in the country is throwing a festival or two.
If you’re looking for fewer crowds and good weather, Audley Travel says the fall (September and October) is your best choice.
There’s less to do in Portugal if you visit in the winter months. Except for Christmastime, there are fewer festivals during this time. However, since Portugal has favorable weather most of the year, the winter may be your best choice if your goal is to visit some of the country’s historic cities and buildings without bumping elbows with large crowds.
Traveler Rick Steves warns, “In the off-season (roughly November – March), expect shorter hours, more lunchtime breaks at sights, and fewer activities—with the big exceptions of Christmas festivities and Entrudo (Carnival), which is especially raucous in Lisbon and a few towns in the Algarve.”
What kind of weather can I expect?
If you’re looking for something to compare Portugal to, Frommer’s says to think of California.
“Portugal’s climate is similar to California’s. Lisbon is Europe’s sunniest capital, and along the coast, the country enjoys mild winters and warm summers. Average temperatures range from 77°F/25°C in summer to about 58°F/14°C in winter.” (Source: Frommer’s)
The breeze off the Atlantic Ocean helps keep the coast of Portugal cool. Inland, you will encounter higher temperatures through most of the year.
Summers in Portugal tend to be warm and dry. In the winter, you’ll have to contend with clouds and rain. December and January tend to be the wettest months of the year.
What should I see in Portugal?
The beauty of Portugal is the way that the old integrates with the new. You are just as likely to find a new restaurant as you are to find an old bookstore that has operated since the 17th or 18th century.
When you walk the streets of Portugal’s oldest towns and cities, you may be walking the very same streets that famed explorers Vasco da Gama or Ferdinand Magellan walked. Or you may see the same sights that renowned artists Grao Vasco or Paula Rego looked upon.
One of the largest Roman settlements in Portugal, you can still see the ruins of the city of Conimbriga. The city was built in the 9th century BC and lasted more than a millennia before its collapse.
Conimbriga is just outside of Coimbra.
According to Smarter Travel, the Alentejo region of Portugal is where you would see the cork forests of Portugal. Not only is the region one of the largest producers of the world’s cork, but it is also home to a variety of wildlife that relies on cork trees for survival.
Check out Smarter Travel for a complete travel guide of the cork forests of Portugal.
Drowned Village of Vilarinho da Furna
Once an ancient town in Portugal, the Village of Vilarinho da Furna was flooded in 1972 by an electric company trying to provide hydroelectricity to the region. The town was in the middle of where the dam was supposed to be built. Instead of moving the dam, the electric company moved the residents out and submerged the town. Now, when the dam waters recede, parts of the town become visible.
Located a couple of hours east of Lisbon, Evora is one of the best tourist destinations in central Portugal.
Visiting Evora should include a trip to the Chapel of Bones. The chapel was created in the 16th century because developers felt cemeteries around the city were using too much valuable land. They relocated the bodies to the chapel and worked the bones into the architecture. The bones of nearly 5,000 bodies help make up pieces of the Chapel of Bones.
Located just outside of Evora, the Almendres Cromlech is a stone formation that many people call the Portuguese version of Stonehenge.
Fort of Graca
Shaped like a star, the Fort of Graca was once a strategic military fortification that helped defend Portugal through the centuries. Though it has fallen into disrepair over the years, it is still a sight to behold.
Click Stay reports that when it comes to visiting beaches, Lagos is a great place to start.
“Showcasing some of the most gorgeous beaches in The Algarve, Lagos is a popular destination among holiday makers. The town itself is also particularly beautiful, featuring quintessential cobbled streets, churches, and traditional Portuguese restaurants.” (Source: Click Stay)
Leca da Palmeira
If you’re looking for an original trip to the beach, look no further than Leca da Palmeira, where two saltwater swimming pools have become a part of the natural landscape. You can only swim in the pools between June and September, but you can visit them anytime just to see what they look like.
The capital of Portugal, there is plenty to see in Lisbon. Its stone streets and narrow walkways offer a mix of old world and new world. There is a storied history in the city that still comes through in its shops. The Livraria Bertrand is the world’s oldest bookshop that is still in operation. While Caza das Vellas Loreto is a candle shop that’s operated since 1789.
Visit the Jeronimos Monastery to see the final resting place of famed explorer Vasco da Gama. Then take a short walk to Belem Tower, an iconic symbol within Lisbon. You also want to check out Sao Roque Church, the world’s most expensive chapel.
For arts and culture, the blog Golisbon suggests stopping at Calouste Gulbenkian Museum and the Berardo Museum. There is also the Madre de Deus, a former convent that features artistic decorative ceramic tiles, and the Ancient Art Museum, which features the artworks in Portugal’s “National Gallery”. If you’re looking for something a little more shocking, check out the Museu da Electricidade. Housed in an old power station, the museum looks at a history of energy.
According to Atlas Obscura, not only is the Mafra Palace a sight to behold, but its library is exceptional. Filled with leatherbound books hundreds of years old, instead of using chemicals to keep the bugs away, the library relies on bats. The bats sleep behind the shelves and in other dark places of the library during the day and take flight at night, protecting the books.
Monte & Funchal
A trip like no other awaits you in Monte. According to Atlas Obscura, locals have discovered that traveling between the towns of Monte and Funchal is much more fun when you do it in a toboggan. Men in rubber-soled boots take you down a 5 km hill from Monte to Funchal. If you’re looking for the ride of a lifetime, look no further.
Once you’re in Funchal, visit Madeira Botanical Garden, home to more than 2,000 different plants. You can also stop by the Principality of Pontinha, a micronation that declared sovereignty from Portugal in 2007. Portugal has yet to recognize that sovereignty.
According to the site Hand Luggage Only, Porto is a can’t stop miss on your trip. Home to some of the best port wine in the world, the hill city is “…one heck of a place to visit, think cobbled streets, fresh seafood, and copious amounts of port that’ll keep you sozzled all evening!” Just remember that port is more potent than much wine, so drink slowly.
While in Porto, visit Livraria Lello, a bookstore with a stained-glass ceiling, beautiful wood paneling, and a gorgeous curving staircase. The bookstore is so popular, you need to pre-buy your tickets before you enter the building.
There’s plenty of great food to choose from in Porto but stop by McDonald’s Imperial for a snack. Considered the most beautiful McDonald’s in the world, it contains Art Deco features, including chandeliers and stained glass.
When you visit Sintra, be prepared to tour some eclectic and beautiful places. The Quinta da Regaleira is a mix of Roman, Gothic, Manueline, and Renaissance architecture and includes grottoes, caves, and ponds throughout the grounds. Meanwhile, the Pena National Palace is a hodgepodge of structures that are fun to look at.
You should also visit the Castle dos Mouros, which served as a defensive stronghold for the Christians in the 12th century.
Hand Luggage Only calls Sortelha a throwback to Medieval times. A large castle overlooks the village below and the region. You can wander the castle grounds and walk through the village as if you traveled back in time.
Village in Monsanto
If quirky is your thing, then the Village in Monsanto is where you should go. The village is built on a mountain top, where the homes are wedged between boulders and are sometimes within the boulders themselves.
According to Atlas Obscura, “Its tiny streets wind at a steep grade past red-roofed cottages tucked against mossy boulders. Some of the boulders are actually fitted with doors, leading to structures carved right into the rocky landscape.”
Tips for a cheap trip to Portugal
No matter where you go in Portugal, you’re going to want to save a buck. Luckily for you, the blog My Portugal Holiday claims that Portugal is one of the cheapest countries in the European Union to travel within.
Cheap or not, saving money is still something you should be on the lookout for. If you don’t mind more erratic weather, visit Portugal in the off-season. Summer is the most popular time of the year to visit, so avoid it if possible. Instead, travel in spring or early autumn when you’ll still get good weather without the huge price tag.
Fly into Other Parts of Europe
If you have a little extra time, you could save a lot of money by flying into a major hub like London or Paris and then booking a cheaper flight on a European discount airline like Ryan Air. Most bloggers say that Portugal is very affordable overall, so this could be your best way to save money on your trip.
Pensaos or Couchsurfing
Nomadic Matt says if you’re traveling solo, consider pensaos (family-run inns) or couchsurfing to save some cash on lodgings. Families are very tourist-friendly in Portugal.
Be a Local
Like most countries, you’re going to save the most money when you act as the locals do. That means to take public transportation whenever possible and eat at local cafes and supermarkets instead of those fancy restaurants.
Say “no” to Bread
This nugget of wisdom comes from Nomadic Matt, who says when bread and olives are brought to your table before the meal, just say no. Unlike in America, these appetizers aren’t complimentary and will fill you up before you get to the good stuff.
Be on the Lookout for Free
Many places like the Tile Museum or Jeronimous Monastery offer free mornings or free Sundays. When deciding where to visit, be on the lookout for those free opportunities.
Written by Erika Towne