So what is Portugal famous for? From custard tarts to Cristiano Ronaldo, port wine to piri-piri chicken, and sardines to surfing, discover what this fascinating Iberian country is best known for in my taster guide.
Even if you’re new to Portugal, you may well find you know more about it than you realise. Portugal is a relatively small country, and has had enormous influence around the world.
The Portuguese Voyages of Discovery meant that Brazil and large parts of Africa and South East Asia came under its rule, bringing great wealth. It has some of the best cities in Europe to visit, not to mention some of its best beaches to boot.
We hope to enjoy our introduction to what makes Portugal famous, and feel free to suggest anything we may have missed.
What Is Portugal Famous For ?
1. Portugal is known for it’s glorious Beaches
Portugal has some of the best beaches in Europe, from the wild surf of Nazare to the fairytale grottoes of the central Algarve to the near-deserted swathes of superb Alentejo sand, between Lisbon and the Algarve.
Summer’s the best time to get into the cool Atlantic water, whereas spring and early autumn is the time to go to avoid the crowds and catch a bargain.
2. Algarve – One of the most famous places in Portugal
The most famous beaches in Portugal can be found on the central Algarve, the south coast of the country.
Many of them have distinctive rock formations, with sea arches, rock stacks, what look like fairy chimneys, stunning sea caves and many more.
The beaches between Faro and the Spanish border – especially around Tavira – are different in character, very wide and flat, and a wonderful break from the crowds.
3. Costa Vicentina – a glorious stretch of unspoilt coastline
The Costa Vicentina is the wild far west of the Algarve region, an almost completely unspoilt region in contrast with some of the big resort towns to the east.
This coastline gets a constant buffeting from the Atlantic, its dramatic wide beaches popular with a small, knowledgeable surfing crowd.
There’s hardly any development in the area, so it’s still remarkably untouched and undiscovered – like the rest of the Algarve in the 1950s, well before mass tourism came to town. Except it won’t because the area is protected.
See Also: Costa Vicentina Algarve Guide
4. Portugal is famous for it’s vibrant capital city Lisbon
Lisbon, the Portuguese capital, is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. Its unique ramshackle charm fills narrow alleyways and winding cobbled lanes. Cats yawn, half-sleep on windowsills, while century-old trams actively haul and scrape their way up the street below.
See Also: The Ultimate Lisbon 3-Day Itinerary
5. Tiles – Azulejos
The blue and white azulejos – ceramic tiles – for which Portugal is famous originated in Delft in the Netherlands in the 17th century and quickly became very popular.
They have since been used to adorn the exteriors and interiors of buildings throughout Portugal.
Two of the best examples are the Museu Nacional do Azulejo in a former convent in Lisbon and the spectacular Sao Bento train station in Porto.
Portugal is home to roughly one-third of the world’s cork forests, and it provides around half the world’s cork for wine bottles.
The bark is stripped from the cork tree every nine or ten years, then allowed to replenish and regrow before being harvested again.
Cork groves are especially common in the rural Alentejo region to the south of Lisbon and north of the Algarve.
See Also: Portugal Road Trip – The Alentejo
7. Manueline Architecture
The Voyages of Discovery helped bring about an artistic Renaissance in Portugal. A particularly Portuguese late Gothic style of architecture developed.
It emerged in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. This coincided with the reign of King Manuel I.
The style emphasized ornate, florid carvings. The subjects were often botanical (flowers, vines), maritime (seashells) or naval (anchors and ropes).
The best places to see examples are in Belem, Lisbon (the Jeronimos Monastery and Belem Tower), the Convent of Christ at Tomar and the Abbey at Batalha.
8. Portuguese Custard Tarts –Pasteis de Nata
Pasteis de nata are probably Portugal’s most famous food export.
It originated in the World Heritage Jeronimos Monastery in Belem, Lisbon, made by monks from leftover egg yolks, but they sold the secret recipe to a sugar refinery across the street.
Two centuries on, the Antiga Confeitaria de Belem still serves these delicious custard tarts with crisp, flaky pastry with a dusting of cinnamon.
Variants on the recipe have spread throughout the world, and we haven’t found any yet that aren’t completely addictive.
See also: Things to Do In Belem, Lisbon
9. Lisbon Trams
They are one of the most popular images of Portugal, old yellow and white tram carriages creaking and squeaking around corners of steep streets in the hilly Alfama district of Lisbon.
The 28 and 12 are two of the most memorable routes – the 28 has a reputation for being one of the best things to do in Portugal so is usually packed tighter than a tin of sardines.
Also seek out the equally steep Elevador da Bica and Elevador da Gloria trams.
Albufeira, on the central Algarve coast, is one of the beach party capitals of Europe.
Brits head here for a full English breakfast before turning lobster pink on the beach and knocking back a few pints in the evening, while there are schnell imbiss places for German visitors too.
It’s packed to the gills in the summer, but in spring and autumn shoulder seasons it’s a bargain base to explore some of the best beaches on the Algarve nearby.
See also: Things To Do In Albufeira
11. Bacalhau – Salt Cod
You can’t possibly miss salt cod in Portugal. It’s on just about every restaurant menu, served hundreds of ways and you’ll also see it in many a market stall or food shop.
Surprisingly for such a fish-hungry country, bacalhau is served dried and salted, similarly to when cod caught off the Newfoundland coast was preserved 500 years before.
Most of Portugal’s bacalhau now comes from Norway and Iceland.
Portugal has a long, distinguished football history, and over the last decade or so all the promise shown has come to fruition.
Cristiano Ronaldo has been one of the best four or five players of the last half century, and with a strong side around him Portugal won the Euro 2016 tournament, their first international trophy.
As he approaches the last few years of his career, another excellent generation of Portuguese footballers is coming through.
Fado is a uniquely Portuguese genre of music dating back at least 200 years. Its origins are vague, but the more popular variant, Lisbon fado, usually consists of a singer and guitarist.
The lyrics often describe what the Portuguese call saudade, a melancholy longing for something forever lost.
A typical evening of fado includes a meal and drink, and there are several old fado bars and restaurants around the Alfama district of Lisbon.
14. Port Wine
Portugal is especially famous for its port wine, a fortified wine from the Douro Valley inland from Porto, the country’s second city, 310 km (200 miles) north of Lisbon.
It’s usually quite sweet, so is often served as a dessert wine – it’s a great accompaniment to blue cheeses such as Roquefort or Stilton.
Most port is red, but you’ll occasionally come across white port – which comes from white grapes – as well. A wonderful indulgence.
Portugal has some outstanding surf beaches, from the likes of Praia do Amado on the aforementioned Costa Vicentina to the pounding Atlantic monster waves of Nazare, to the north of Lisbon.
Nazare has produced some of the largest waves ever recorded, and is a huge favourite with the pros.
Sardines are hugely popular in Portugal, and you’ll find them served everywhere near the coast. They’re often grilled and lightly salted, then served with bread, a side salad, potatoes or alone.
They’re served fresh over the summer months when they’re most likely to be caught – as a result of climate change they’re often found to the north, in the Bay of Biscay or off the UK coast.
Canned sardines are also very popular – and some are amazing works of art, some of the best Portugal souvenirs you could find.
17. Voyages Of Discovery
The Portuguese were pioneers of exploration from the mid 15th century onwards. They gradually advanced down the west African coast, Vasco da Gama eventually rounding the tip of southern Africa and reaching India in 1498.
Further exploration expanded their influence and territory, crossing the Atlantic to Brazil and the Indian Ocean to South East Asia, Japan and China.
These voyages made the relatively small Kingdom of Portugal a global superpower, with a vast empire and wealth.
They are commemorated by the Monument to the Discoveries (Padrao dos Descobrimentos) next to the river in Belem, Lisbon.
18. Livraria Bertrand – The Oldest Bookshop In The World
Livraria Bertrand was founded in 1732 by Pedro Faure, whose daughter married into the French Bertrand family who took over the store after the owner’s death.
The business was almost abandoned after the disastrous 1755 Lisbon earthquake, but eventually relocated to the lower Baixa part of Lisbon.
It has been operating from its current site in Rua Garrett, on the hill in Chiado, since 1773, and the company now runs 59 shops around Portugal.
19. Piri Piri Chicken
Piri-Piri Chicken – frango assado in Portuguese – is one of the most famous dishes in Portugal. It’s especially popular in the Algarve region, and its origins are from Central America – home of the chilli – and southern Africa.
The dish – chicken in a garlicky spicy sauce with a variable amount of chilli – was enormously popular in the former colony of Mozambique, and so it also proved in Portugal.
The word piri-piri originally comes from the Swahili word pilipili, meaning ‘pepper’
20. Rooster of Barcelos
Every Portuguese souvenir shop sells several variants of the Galo de Barcelos, a ubiquitous rooster that is one of the best-known symbols of Portugal.
It’s usually embellished with painted hearts and flowers. There are several versions of the story of the Rooster, and the one part they all seem to agree on is that a dead rooster crowed to help prove an accused man’s innocence.
David Angel is a Welsh, photographer, writer and historian who has been travelling and photographing Europe for over 30 years. His work is regularly featured in worldwide media including the BBC, Condé Nast Traveller, the Guardian, the Times and the Sunday Times.