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© juliakaylock / Pixabay
© juliakaylock / Pixabay

15 Things To Know Before Visiting Portugal

Picture of Nina Santos
Updated: 24 May 2017

While traveling through Portugal, safety precautions aren’t usually at the forefront of many travelers’ minds since the country has been listed as one of the safest in the world. Still, it’s better to go prepared for anything that can go wrong and know how to handle negative situations if or when they arise. Some tips will simply make your time in this beautiful destination much more enjoyable, while others are valuable in promoting a safety. From the figurative to the literal, here are a few suggestions for how to be cautious in Portugal.

Wear comfortable footwear

This may seem like common sense, but it’s a tip that needs to be highlighted, especially when visiting a hilly city like Lisbon. The cobblestone streets can also create unstable footing, and sometimes the roads are slippery. Also, many coastal towns can be very windy, blowing sand onto the walkways and streets. Since the best way to explore some of Portugal’s most popular spots is on foot, pack a good pair of sneakers, basic hiking shoes, or sturdy sandals.

Brush up on some Portuguese vocabulary

Despite the fact that English is widely spoken in Algarve, Lisbon, and Porto, it’s a good idea to not assume that everyone you meet will speak it. Plus, there will be fewer English speakers outside these major zones (and possibly none in villages). Become familiar with the Portuguese basics like bom dia/tarde/noite (good morning/afternoon/night) in addition to special words like socorro (meaning help!) and ajude-me (help me). Really, it is important to keep this essential piece of advice whenever you travel abroad.

Keep an eye on personal items

While travelers should always keep an eye on their personal items like purses and backpacks, it is crucial to keep this in mind in the more tourist-filled spots. Don’t place purses on the floor, especially while sitting at café terraces, and even waiters may remind you to place personal items on empty chairs beside you (but don’t rely on them to warn you). Theft isn’t a major problem in Portugal, but it’s also not immune to it, and some tourists have complained about pickpockets in the downtown area.

Know how to properly ask for coffee

This is one of those more figurative tips rather than literal, although ordering the wrong coffee can be a bad start to the day (or an unfortunate ending to an otherwise delicious meal). In Portugal, ordering café will get you an espresso, which may be too strong for some people who will actually prefer a meia de leite (half-coffee and half-milk), a galão (a shot of espresso with triple the milk), or any other coffee-based concoction.

Remember the number 112

This is Portugal’s 911 number that will get you in contact with the police and emergency medical services. When you need an ambulance, 112 is the number to call and it’s also free from all phones.

Ignore drug dealers

This is another piece of common sense, but one to keep in mind while walking through downtown Lisbon more than most other areas. In the touristy parts of the city, it’s quite common to be approached by men selling drugs. Even if you don’t understand what they’re saying, you’ll notice the way they slightly hold their hand out and speak softly. A simple “no” doesn’t always work (they can be persistent) but avoiding eye contact and walking away does the trick, and they will normally continue on their way to the next person in their line of vision.

Use a G.P.S. while driving through the countryside

Portugal is home to truly stunning countryside that is worth taking the time to explore. But first, prepare against getting lost in the middle of nowhere. The highways and street signs may confuse travelers from abroad, especially Americans who are not used to driving in Europe. Also, Portugal’s highways are toll-heavy, and sometimes it’s nice to use the backroads and avoid spending the extra money.

Stay in a group at night

Portuguese nightlife can be rather spectacular, and some clubs stay hopping until the sun rises. If pumpkin time signals in the middle of the night, however, try to leave with a friend or two (or three). At night, the streets can seem empty (even in Faro, Lisbon, and Porto) and walking alone down a dark and empty road is never a good idea anywhere. Period.

Don’t hop on public transportation without paying

Unfortunately, some people try to get away with using buses, trains, and even the metro without paying (by blending in with the crowd or sliding behind a friend). Not only is this unethical but it can result in a hefty fine if caught. And the police do make random checks, even stopping buses at night to ensure that everyone on board has a valid ticket.

Beware of tourist traps and inflated prices

Portugal is a budget-friendly destination, but there are definitely some restaurants and hotels that cost much more than the average. It’s one thing to visit a five-star hotel or a Michelin-star restaurant and pay for the experience, but it’s another to stay at a basic Airbnb or visit a seemingly traditional dining venue and pay exorbitant prices. Before deciding on any one location or venue, check the prices and compare them with similar spots in the same neighborhood. Also, be aware that some prices may change between seasons and may be higher in the summer than the winter.

Use sun protection and beware the sun between noon and 3 p.m.

Visiting the beach is a must in Portugal, and most of the country is blessed with plenty of sunny days. Whether your plan is to wander through one of the many great cities, to picnic in a park, or catch some rays, use sun protection! Also be mindful that the middle of the day, between 12 p.m. and 3 p.m. is the hottest time when the sun is also strongest. Try to remain out of direct sunlight, wear a hat, and drink plenty of water. Keep this tip in mind while visiting any part of the country, but be extra mindful in the Algarve, the warmest region and where most activities are geared towards the outdoors.

Carry toilet paper during major festivals

It may sound silly but this tip will certainly come in handy during June’s Popular Saints’ Festivals. The Portuguese love to celebrate, and the streets become packed when city-wide parties are taking place. Unfortunately, that means toilets aren’t always available, toilet paper even less so. Going out prepared for nature’s call will certainly save your night.

That nice person helping you park is looking for a tip

This is another tip for navigating the cities. Portugal is incredibly car-friendly, but the cities can experience a bit of a parking problem. At times, a man may begin waving you into an open spot that you’re unable to see. They aren’t doing this for free and after leaving your car, you may be approached for a tip. This is extremely common in Lisbon and the Algarve, so keep it in mind to avoid confrontational behavior. Also, remember that while the unemployment rate in Portugal is dropping, it’s still fairly high, and this may be someone’s answer for earning money.

Practice caution at the beach

Towns like Nazaré, Peniche, and Ericeira aren’t surf destinations for nothing; these towns are known worldwide for producing massive waves, some that are dangerously large. Even a fully-grown adult can sometimes be knocked over while wading up to their knees at a beach. Keep an eye on children and never let them get near the water’s edge without supervision. Also, be careful while walking along the beach in the winter, as this is the season when waves are at their largest in Portugal.

Enjoy the ocean but be cautious © Pixabay

Be careful of fires

Nearly every year, Portugal experiences a number of forest fires that kill or injure many people, burn down houses, and destroy expanses of land. Part of the reason owes to the extreme dry heat experienced by most of the country. Unfortunately, some fires also begin due to carelessness. Sure, Portugal’s countryside can be an inviting place for hiking and camping, but maintain proper precautions and keep an ear on the news to know when these events happen.