Know Before You Go - Portugal
Where should I stay? When is the best time to go? Do I need a visa? Is it safe? How do I get around? We cover the essentials so you can travel like a pro, and relax while you do!
PASSPORT & VISA
United States citizens do not need a tourist visa prior to visiting Portugal. Ensure your passport is valid up to 6 months after your departure date.
HEALTH & SAFETY
Portugal is generally very safe. That said, always be aware of general crime targeted towards unassuming tourists, especially in crowded areas such as when riding packed trolleys in Lisbon. Always be diligent and aware when in crowded tourist areas due to the heightened risk of crime, as well as the risk of terrorism in recent years in these areas.
METHODS OF PAYMENT
In Portugal, euros are used everywhere. Credit cards will often work at most established vendors, though cash is often preferable, particularly at locally owned shops.
Haggling is not accepted in the established shops in Portugal, and will be received as disrespectful. If you are interested in an item but the price is beyond your budget, it is more polite to simply show interest to the vendor and politely acknowledge that the price is simply too high for you. If they offer to come down slightly, that means the price isn't fixed, and you can begin to haggle. As in all communication, be respectful, and your shopping experiences will be fun and engaging.
Tipping is generally expected and recommended in all of the typical circumstances, but may not be as high as is customary in the United States. For example, a tip of 10% is generally acceptable at a restaurant, and more may be appropriate if the service was superb.
Public transportation is everywhere in Portugal. Whether by train, bus, or metro, you can often get where you need to go quickly and easily. It is important to remember that tickets for public transportation must be validated by scanning them on validation machines prior to boarding. Failure to do this can result in steep fines.
In Lisbon specifically, purchasing a Viva Viagem card and using it for “Zapping” is typically the most cost effective method for using public transportation. The card is similar to an Oyster card in London, where the card holds a balance loaded to it, and each journey on any form of public transportation, bus, metro, trolley, and even commuter trains to areas surrounding Lisbon, which includes Sintra, can be made by simply scanning the card at the access point. Funds will be deducted automatically, and are typically only 1-2 euros. Each traveler must possess their own card, and funds can be added to cards at any ticked machine.
If you do choose to rent a car, be aware that vehicle traffic in Portugal can be more erratic than you’re accustomed to, so drive with caution. That said, we’ve found driving in Portugal to be the easiest and most pleasant in all of Europe. For more information on driving in Portugal, read our tips here.
WHEN TO GO
Late spring to early fall bring hot days to lay on the beach, but also hordes of other tourists. To give yourself the best chance of good weather as well as fewer crowds, consider visiting in late winter/early spring, or late fall/early winter. Portugal’s winters are cold, but with a hot sun. Consistently sunny weather means you can still enjoy laying on the beach in the off season even if you may not swim in the colder waters. In our experience, the lesser crowds are well worth the trade-off of forgoing a swim in the ocean.
WHERE TO GO
For a trip of two weeks or less we recommend splitting your time between Lisbon, with a day or two in Sintra, and exploring the Algarve. Lisbon is worthy of 3-5 days on its own, including Sintra, and the Algarve’s beaches are each worth a day by themselves, so if you have the time to relax consider spending about a week exploring the Algarve. Beyond these top locales, and if time allows, make the trip to Porto, or consider adding Évora. Look here for our guides to Where to Stay in Lisbon and Best Beaches in the Algarve.
WHERE TO STAY
Choosing a place to stay in Lisbon can be difficult as each of its neighborhoods have their own unique advantages, which means the disadvantage of each is that you have to choose only one. The three neighborhoods to focus your stay around, which compose the “core” of Lisbon, at least from a visitor’s perspective, are the Alfama, Baixa, and Barrio Alto neighborhoods. Again, read through our guide on Where to Stay in Lisbon to find which neighborhood fits your style best.
When in the Algarve, style and time of year will also play into your decision on where to stay. If you value tradition, slow, and quiet, make sure you stay in the town of Salema. Not far from the busier Lagos, Salema feels a world away. Boasting a large, soft, sandy beach, and a town where the locals still prefer the old ways of life, Salema isn’t on the radar of many tourists, meaning you’ll be able to relax and soak up the Algarve sun, as well as some of the culture in this part of the world.
If you want to be closer to the action, look no further than Lagos, though be warned that if your trip is during the high season of May through September the crowds will be out in force. Situated in the middle of the main sights in the Algarve, Lagos has spectacular beaches, a glamorous marina walk, top restaurants, and a historic old town behind castle walls. No matter where you choose to stay in the Algarve, everything is connected by easy roads and short drives. For tips, review our Tips for Driving in Portugal and Top Day Trips from Lagos.
Dress in Portugal is casual, though to enter some cathedrals or monasteries you need to cover your knees and shoulders. It is also advisable to pack a light jacket for cooler evenings along the water.
Don't stress about wondering how you will communicate, learning a new alphabet, or anything else communication related. In Portugal, you will find that nearly everyone speaks perfect English, and most signage is also in English. Unlike other countries in Europe, the Portuguese will actually offer to communicate with you in English, which makes communication almost feel like you’re cheating. Still, people love to hear and speak their own language, and will likely greet you with a big smile if you begin a conversation in their language. A few basics, and all you’ll really need:
Good Day: Bom Dia
Thank you: Obrigado/a (depending on if you, the speaker, are male or female)