5 Insider Tips to Experience Portugal Like a Local

October 25, 2015

Before moving to Barcelona last year, I lived in Portugal for almost ten (!) years. I’ve learned to see past the main tourist attractions and hotspots and start loving the tiny streets, the charming architecture and even the dodgy neighbourhoods. In the process, I began to accumulate knowledge about the off-the-beaten-track spots, where you can go without being run over by a herd of tourists or a tuk-tuk traffic jam (yes, they’re THE thing in Portugal now – who knew?!).

This is exactly what I want to share with you: insider advice and valuable tips to make your visit to Portugal a local experience, without necessarily visiting what everyone knows about. May you have the best time in my amazing country!

1. Trying Out a Pastel de Nata

Custard tarts (pastéis de nata) are the national pastry in Portugal; you’ll see locals eating it for dessert or even for breakfast, often accompanied by an espresso coffee. Lisbon is where this wonder of the pastry world was created – you can’t leave without trying them! While you’ll find a pastry shop at every corner in the city, make sure you’re eating the freshly-made stuff. Warning: it’s impossible to eat just one.

A fancy custard tart.

A fancy custard tart.
TIP: Visit Manteigaria de Lisboa in the very centrally located Largo de Camões. It’s sort of a hide-in-the-wall place but the tarts are the most delicious I’ve ever tasted, even better than the place all the tourists flock: Pastéis de Belém, in Belém district.

2. Spending holidays on the beach

Portugal’s beaches are highly praised and highlighted in every travel brochure, postcard or ad. With an impressive 2800 hours of sunshine per year and a huge Atlantic coast, how couldn’t we?! Algarve is by far the most busy beach destination in the country, with its golden cliffs and bays giving place to top-notch sceneries. However, the wilder beaches of Alentejo, Nazaré and Azores are starting to become more and more popular.

Odeceixe beach in Southwest Portugal.

Odeceixe beach in Southwest Portugal.
TIP: Instead of the overcrowded Algarve, explore the beaches of Alentejo and Costa Vicentina. Despite the colder waters, it’s worth it to be in beaches surrounded by dramatic cliffs and untouched natural sceneries. Consider doing a road trip in Portugal across this part of the coast.

3. Seeking the local events

Choosing the right time to come to Portugal can make a huge difference on your overall experience in the country. In the peak summer months you can find dozens of music festivals and beach events from north to south, such as Meo Sudoeste and Nos Alive. However, the most typical traditions are held in the month of June. Residents from both Lisbon and Porto flock to the most traditional neighbourhoods for festivities in honour of the local saints: Santo António in Lisbon and São João Festival in Porto.

No need to be religious though: just expect loads of popular Portuguese music, dancing on the streets and a party that literally goes until dawn!

Neighborhood of Alfama decorated for Santo António festivities in Lisbon.

Neighborhood of Alfama decorated for Santo António festivities in Lisbon.
TIP: In Porto, São João is held during just one night: June 23rd. In Lisbon, the party is extended to the weekend nights for a full month, although the big night is on the June 12th. During both occasions, grilled sardines and beer are served all night by locals in small stalls or even from their own houses.

4. Eating out like a local

I always find it mesmerising how tourists eat when they’re abroad. Most of them search for exactly what they can have at home and spend their time between Starbucks, McDonald’s and Hard Rock Cafés. Please don’t do this in Portugal. There’s absolutely no need to – isn’t trying out new things one of the purposes of travelling in the first place?

Anyway, in general, food is cheap and great in Portugal. I’m still trying to find food that has a better value-for-money relation than my home country. Codfish is the national dish and you’ll find it cooked in many different ways. Other types of fish/seafood, like salmon, octopus and sardine, are also very popular.

<i>Francesinha</i>, the typical meat sandwich from Porto.

Francesinha, the typical meat sandwich from Porto.
TIP: A general rule of thumb in finding an authentic restaurant is checking the menu for pictures. If it has them, chances are you are entering a tourist trap. Also, one of the secrets to eat well in Portugal is to ask for the right thing in the right place, as each region in Portugal has its own delicacy. I’d suggest you to tryFrancesinha in Porto, Bacalhau à Brás or Dourada Grelhada in Lisbon and Cataplana de Peixe in the Algarve. You can thank me later.

5. Going outdoors

Take advantage of one of the best climates in Europe and spend most of your time outdoors. Why not trying activities you never tried before? Hiking in Madeira, paragliding in Serra da Arrábida or zip-lining in Gerês natural park are just a small sample of what you can do. Don’t even get me started on water sports – Portugal is a surf and bodyboard mecca and you can get lessons for beginners everywhere along the coast.

Lagoa do Fogo (Fire Lake) in Azores.

Lagoa do Fogo (Fire Lake) in Azores.
TIP: If you’re a nature lover, you absolutely need to visit the Azores islands. A 2-hour flight from either Porto or Lisbon, they’re considered a gem in terms of sustainable tourism worldwide. Lakes, thermal waters, mountains, forests and whales (!) await you in this nature paradise. Curious? Start off reading why I’ve considered Azores to be the next big travel destination.

Have you ever been to Portugal? Which experience have you enjoyed the most? Let us know about it in the comments below or find us on social media

This article was written by Bruno Barroso.

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