For the first time in my travels, I found every guidebook purchased for this trip almost entirely useless. Perhaps their only positive contribution was to guide us to a spot we wouldn’t find interesting, so we would then be forced to go explore on our own. It was a fascinating set up for what has become one of my favorite travel adventures yet.
Guidebooks for Portugal seem to center on the largest cities, palaces, churches, and plethora of Roman ruins. Their coverage of the Portugal which exists outside places like Lisbon, Porto, and the large cities of the Algarve was limited to the point of not being useful.
The towns claimed as “the best base” to explore a particular region were most often inauthentic, full of tourists, and uninspiring. So thank goodness we picked our bases on the most awesome looking AirBnB we could find! That simple choice, to select the most appealing accommodation option, added so much wonder and opportunity for exploration to our journey.
In this post, I’ll do my best to share all my tips for traveling the other Portugal, the one you won’t get to read about in the guidebooks. The one filled with fairy tale landscapes, deserted ruins, natural pools, and some of the best roads you may ever drive
Unlike other AirBnB’s I’ve stayed at in the United States, where you pick up keys with electronic entry codes and never meet the host – we met all of our hosts in Portugal. Make sure you have an international plan on your cell phone so you’ll be able to call and connect with your host upon arrival. Due to the rural locations of some of our AirBnB’s, our hosts would meet us in a central location, like a town square, and we would then follow them to the house.
The advice and tips provided by our hosts proved more useful than any I’ve ever received from a hotel concierge. Plus, the experience of staying directly in historic towns like Soajo and chatting with the neighbors in a combination of Portuguese, French, English, and Spanish was something that will go down as one of my favorite travel experiences. I can’t recommend the AirBnB option enough for traveling around Portugal.
The Portuguese have a rather extreme driving style; they drive far above the speed limit, tailgate like I’ve never seen, and pass under less than safe circumstances. On the roads twisting through small rural villages, with just inches to spare on either side, expect Portuguese drivers to pass at full speed. They’ll drive up to 200 kph on the toll roads, but we saw the greatest number of accidents on rural roads – which are often just one lane.
While they may be a bit wild, the Portuguese are also quite courteous drivers. They’ll flash their brights, honk, or wave to let you know if there is a reason to slow down around the next turn.
In terms of navigation, with the exception of signage found at highway roundabouts, street signs are either non-existent or a challenge to actually see. It’s much easier to navigate by a general destination followed by landmarks. Tools like Google Maps directions are just about useless as well. We managed to only get lost once on our two week adventure and got by with a combination of a Google Map saved to an iPad, a large highway map, and a very basic Magellan GPS device.
Just like infrastructure in Portugal, grocery shopping in Portugal is a study in extremes. In all the big and medium sized cities, you’ll find the same selection of big box chain stores which all, in my mind at least, have an easily identifiable equivalent here in the States; Jumbo is like a Walmart, Continente is like a Target, Intermarche is like a Safeway, and the Pingo Doce is like an Albertsons.
In the small towns of Portugal, grocery stores are almost hidden – often down alleyways, dark hallways, and rarely signed. The stock on their shelves varies, so plan on being flexible with your shopping list. Of course there is always an exception to every rule and Baptista in Luz was a lovely in between of the big box store and back alley shop.
All the big box stores will have a gluten free products section and expect to see some limited amount of labeling on meats and other products around the store. Both Continente and Intermarche have larger natural foods sections and I'd recommend shopping at primarily at those two for the best overall selections. Organic fruits and vegetables are hard to come by, but the produce section at Pingo Doce was the best of the big box stores. Thanks to the recommendation of one of our AirBnB hosts we did manage to seek out one health food store with a fantastic selection gluten free products; Harmony Earth in Praia da Luz. The wonderfully chatting Canadian expat owner, Mary, relayed to us that this is one of the only stores like it in Portugal - which is what inspired her to open it in the first place!
As I’ve noted many times on this site, I plan all my travels around the spots that look the best for hiking and walking. Information on hiking in Portugal, especially outside the Algarve, is extremely minimal. In guidebooks you’ll find short, not very detailed descriptions, and the internet is even less helpful (with the exception of the Rota Vincentina – which has a wonderful website). Once you get to Portugal, you may be able to find a few maps in the offices of Peneda-Gerês National Park – but that’s about as much as you’ll get.
If you’re still feeling up to hiking in Portugal with limited information, your options are wide open. Many trails, including the well-marked Rota Vincentina and Via Algarvina, are also roads – so don’t be surprised when you’re hiking along a busy street or a dirt trail that looks more like a road. Look for swaths of paint to direct you – there are four different symbols either directing you straight ahead, left, right, or to not proceed the way you are heading. For safety’s sake, make sure to hike well prepared for the elements – especially in the mountains, be watchful of private property and hunting signage, and bring a GPS device since trails are rarely consistently marked.
With a combination of basic Portuguese (please, thank you, etc.), French, English, and Spanish – it was easy enough to get by. As a general rule on our trip, we would do our best to start an interaction in Portuguese and then quickly run through the preferred line up of languages until we found one in common. In most parts of the country, the preferred order seemed to be first French, followed by English, with Spanish bringing up the rear for historical reasons.
However, I will warn you; while I spent years studying both Spanish (four years) and French (six years) and studied at an international graduate school filled with foreign languages – I still find Portuguese almost impossible to hear. Reading it was fairly easy, with plenty of similarities to the other two languages I’m familiar with, but the pronunciation was very challenging for my ears.
As with most other places in Europe, make sure to have a credit card with a PIN number. It will save you a big headache each time you go to check out at the gas station or at a big box supermarket. In small shops, do your best to pay with exact change - some shops will even expect it.
Roads in Portugal vary greatly, streets in rural villages are often just barely wide enough for one small car, dirt and gravel roads are common (four out of five of our accommodations required driving on a dirt road), highways typically have two lanes, and then there are the toll roads.
The toll roads are not nearly as expensive or frustrating as they are in other parts of Europe. The tolls are generally inexpensive, there are plenty of exits (often more than on some rural highways), and they’ll get you to your destination in half the time it would take to drive a route without any tolls. They’re also mostly empty – a relief from the often congested rural roads full of rather wild Portuguese drivers.
The tolling on toll roads is confusing. If you plan to rent a car, I would recommend paying the extra €20 or so to get a VIA device in your car – it will charge the tolls directly to your credit card and (usually) beep each time you are charged. This is especially important if you plan to use the toll roads because there are some electronic only tolling stations sporadically placed along the roads and you won’t be able to pay the toll in cash. There are other types of tolling stations which take both cash and the VIA device, however expect differences - some electronic stations may provide you with the amount you are being charged others may not.
On the advice of our first hosts, who explained that theft was common around the country, we never left anything out and visible in our car. On travel days, one person always stayed with the car – subsequently, we never had a problem.
There are loose dogs and cats in every region of Portugal we traveled through or to. Often, they are pets who belong to someone, usually just barking to defend their territory – but there are also just a ton of stray dogs. While hiking in the Serra da Estrela, we did have a very scary encounter with a mountain dog who slowly charged at us, growling, and barring his teeth. It took some loud yelling, a sharp stick, and picking up a rock to get him to back off. As with whenever you travel, make sure to be aware of your surroundings at all times and perhaps steer clear of questionably loose dogs.