Spain often hogs the spotlight when it comes to the Iberian Peninsula. This is a shame because oft-forgotten Portugal is a surprisingly wonderful destination bursting with history, culture, and an amazing culinary scene. These qualities, coupled with the fact that it's one of the cheapest countries in Western Europe, make it well worth a visit. Here is what you need to know before you go.
Portugal has a lot of diversity to offer potential visitors. It's small enough to fit several destinations into just a week's trip, but big enough that you'll need to plan ahead on what you want to see.
In the north you'll find the historic city of Porto and the Douro countryside, where Portuguese wines are made, including the world famous fortified port wine.
Lisbon, the capital city, lies in the central region of Portugal. It's a large and buzzing modern city with history, fun nightlife, and a great foodie culture. You'll want to plan for at least a day trip to historic Sintra, where a multitude of castles are spread among the hillsides.
Finally, you have southern Portugal, known for sparkling scenery and sunny beach resorts. You'll also find the culturally unique and geographically remote Madeira Islands as well as the Azores.
Portugal has a nice and well-organized train system that reaches most major and minor cities, particularly the areas surrounding Porto and Lisbon. Both cities also have useful metro systems, which will take you all over town.
Buses are cheaper and reach small corners of Portugal that trains cannot. Just try to time your buses so as not to get stuck in rush hour gridlock around the major cities.
Although Portuguese food isn't as well known as some other cuisines in Europe, visitors will find that it's delicious and varied. At its base, Portuguese cuisine is hearty peasant food, seasoned with international spices bought back from merchant voyages over the centuries. Expect hearty soups, roasted meats, and all kinds of seafood. Bacalhau, salted codfish, is a staple that can be found in many dishes. Then there are the many regional varieties of wine, cheese and cured meats, all of which are delicious.
Portuguese pastries are a great pleasure, and there are numerous cafes and bakeries to stop in for a mid-day snack. Some pastries are unique to particular regions or towns. Don't miss the national pastry, pasteis de nata, an egg tart topped with sugar and cinnamon. They can be addictive!
Although Portuguese has some commonalities with Spanish and Italian, it is it's own distinct language, and visitors would be wise to remember this. While some people will respond if you address them in Spanish, others will be offended or will simply choose not to understand. Luckily, English is spoken in most tourist areas, and Portuguese people are friendly and willing to go the extra mile to facilitate communication.
Tipping is not practiced in Portugal, although you may want to leave an extra euro or two if you've enjoyed your meal. Before your meal it's customary for waiters to bring out little dishes of cheese, olives, or other simple appetizers. They are not complimentary. If you don't want them just ask the waiter to take them away.
Have you been to Portugal? What else would you add to this list?
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Stephanie Yoder is a girl who can't sit still! Since graduating college in 2007 she has either been traveling or planning to travel. She's lived on four continents and visited everywhere from the Great Wall of China to the Great Barrier Reef. She now writes and travels full time, blogging about her adventures on Why Wait To See The World? (formerly Twenty-Something Travel). Follow Stephanie on Twitter or visit her on Facebook.
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