There’s a lot to learn about Portugal. Despite having a famous big brother, Portugal very much has its own culture and history – and we’d like to tell you a bit about it. Allow us to run through 21 key points, ranging from healthcare and living costs to cork and custard tarts. 

yellow tram in lisbon, portugal

One of Lisbon’s iconic yellow trams rattling through the city centre

1. They don’t speak Spanish

The Portuguese don’t speak Spanish. They speak Portuguese.

The Romans brought Vulgar Latin over to the Iberian Peninsula (i.e. where Spain and Portugal are) in the 3rd century BC, and this was still being spoken all over Portugal by the 13th century AD. In 1290, King Denis of Portugal decided to make Vulgar Latin the official language of Portugal, calling it ‘Portuguese’. 

There are up to 220 million native speakers of Portuguese around the world, making it the sixth most popular language worldwide. Yes, it is similar to Spanish (Speakt reckons the two languages share a lexical similarity of 90%), but Spaniards still have a tough time understanding Portuguese speakers, and vice versa.

2. There used to be an empire

There’s a reason so many people who don’t live in Portugal are native speakers of Portuguese. Back in the day, Portugal really threw itself about a bit, colonising land in North and South America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania. 

Starting in 1415 and concluding in 1999 (when Macau was handed back to China), Portugal created the first ever global empire. Its territories included Brazil, Goa (in India), Angola, Mozambique, East Timor, and Macau. This rapacious landgrabbing exercise was once a badge of honour for Portugal, but today it is (quite rightly) seen as a badge of shame.

3. There’s more than one bit of land

Physically speaking, Portugal is a bit more than one slab of land stapled onto the west of Spain. The country has a fistful of islands to show for its past colonial exploits, namely Madeira, the Azores, and the Savage Islands. 

Madeira and the Azores are both located in the North Atlantic Ocean, around 600 miles and 900 miles from mainland Portugal, respectively. They’re popular spots for holidaymakers all over the world, and can make a Portuguese ‘staycation’ very glamorous indeed. 

Meanwhile, the Savage Islands (also in the North Atlantic, south of Madeira) are about as rough and barren as you’d expect, home to some big rocks, birds, and around 2-5 reserve staff/scientists. Not a typical holiday destination.

4. They’ve got great healthcare options

Socialism is very popular in Portugal (more on that later), so a thoroughly socialised healthcare system is to be expected. The Serviço Nacional de Saúde (SNS) is available to all Portuguese citizens, free for under-18s and over-65s, and heavily subsidised for everyone else. 

Fortunately, the SNS is also available to non-citizens, although prices are a little less subsidized. All you need to do is get your Portuguese social security number, and register as a resident. More on this process in our guide to Portugese healthcare

It’s a pretty successful system, too. A ranking of 195 national healthcare systems around the world by The Lancet in 2018 put Portugal in 32nd place, which isn’t bad at all.

If you’re thinking of moving to Portugal, it’s wise to think about medical cover for when you’re out there.

That’s why we’ve partnered with Cigna for private medical insurance in Portugal. With four levels of annual cover to choose from and extra modules for more flexibility, Cigna will sort you out with a plan that suits your needs.

Start building a customised plan with a free quote to protect your most important assets – you and your family.

5. There’s stunning countryside…

Almost every country in the world has natural beauty that’s worth talking about, and Portugal is no exception. Despite Spain hogging most of the Iberian bed, there’s still lots to enjoy on Portugal’s side. 

Particular highlights include the rugged and dramatic mountains on Portugal’s eastern border (especially the Serra de São mountain park), the elegant lakes of the Minho region in the northwest, and the forested Rota Vicentina coastal trails of the southwest. 

To top it all off, there’s Peneda-Gerês National Park. Located in the north, not far from the Spanish border, this park is home to wolves, deer, golden eagles, and wide-eyed walkers. In between bouts of hilly countryside, you’ll find beautiful little medieval villages and shrines.

douro wine region in portugal

The beautiful Douro region in northern Portugal, famed for its wine

6. …and stunning beaches, too

Portuguese beaches are invariably sublime, so they deserved a section all to themselves. Once you’re in Portugal, just head west or south until the land stops, and it’s likely you’ll be delighted with the result. 

If you’re looking for some white-sand-and-turquoise-sea vibes, or if you’re looking for something a bit more crash-and-awe, Portugal has both in abundance. Our particular favourite is Castelejo beach, located on the west coast of the Algarve, but defying the typical features of an Algarve beach. Instead of soft sand and warm waters, Castelejo offers massive black schist cliffs, thunderous Atlantic waves, and stretches of misty golden sand. 

Yes, this is ultimately a surfer’s beach.

7. They’re bonkers about fresh fish

With such a beautiful coastline to catch fish from, does it surprise you that Portugal’s so big on pisciculture? According to Our World In Data, Portugal is the world’s 6th largest consumer of fish, consuming almost 57kg per capita per year.

There’s a huge variety of fresh fish available in Portugal, but the big two are sardines and cod. These two have been stalwarts of the Portuguese diet for centuries, possibly millennia. Sardines (sardinha) are fished all through the year, but usually taste best in months without an ‘r’ in them (so, May-August). Traditionally, the Portuguese eat whole grilled sardines over a piece of bread (the bones are soft enough to crunch through).

Meanwhile, salted cod (bacalhau) crops up everywhere, from simple lunch dishes to elaborate meals eaten on special occasions. For example, Bacalhau com todos is typically eaten up and down the country every Christmas Eve, and it means ‘salted cod with everything’.

8. They have a rich wine history

You can’t be bonkers about a foodstuff without being crazy for a drink to go with it. Portugal loves wine, and has long been one of the world’s leading producers of red and white plonk. Portugal’s northerly Douro region has been making the country’s beloved fortified wine (port) for hundreds of years. 

When the British were fighting with France in the 17th and 18th centuries, they had to turn to Portugal for wine. A couple of British brothers added grape brandy to some Portuguese wine to help it survive the long journey home, and thus port was born. At a similar time over in Madeira, the combination of brandy-based fortification with the intense heat of the island gave birth to Madeira wine. 

These two fortified wines now make up 40% of Portugal’s yearly wine exports, which is a solid chunk, given their heyday was when Napoleon was still alive.

9. They’re mad about cork

Portugal thought of everything. It couldn’t become a major player in the wine industry without sealing its bottles properly. Fortunately for the Portuguese, you can’t make cork from just any old tree – it has to come from a cork oak tree (Quercus suber), and the world’s best cork oak trees grow in the Algarve. Bingo. 

It’s been a nice little earner for Portugal – the country accounts for over 50% of the world’s cork supply, and since the 1800s the industry has produced some of Portugal’s richest families. However, it’s not just going into bottles anymore, with Portuguese cork contributing to the operations of Rolls Royce, Airbus, NASA, and the European Space Agency (ESA). Yes, some of the Algarve’s cork is currently orbiting Mars on the ESA’s Mars Express.

fishing boats in the algarve

Two brightly coloured fishing boats in the Algarve, southern Portugal

10. It’s not always sunny in Portugal

If you’re thinking of moving to Portugal because of the weather, you’re barking up the right tree. The country is famous for its sunshine, with temperatures in the south averaging 18°C (64°F) across the year, and reaching up to 40°C (104°F) in the summer. 

However, a move to Portugal is not necessarily a permanent escape from winter’s cold. In December and January, temperatures in central and northern Portugal can dip below freezing, and you’ll certainly see some rainfall. Even the balmy lands of the Algarve have been known to experience a bit of frost and snowfall

Expect mostly good weather, but don’t be a clown – bring a coat.

11. Affordable living costs

Fresh fish, delicious wine, and beautiful countryside, all for a very reasonable price. That’s right – Portugal is the most affordable country in western Europe.

According to a 2018 study by Swiss investment bank UBS into the living costs of 77 major cities, Lisbon is the 42nd most expensive city in the world, ranking below places such as Tallinn, Nicosia, Zagreb, and Manama. Given Portugal’s prices are generally the most expensive in the capital, this tells you a lot about living costs around the country. 

According to Statista, the average salary in Portugal in 2018 was €17,240 ($20,385).

Speaking of living costs… if you’re about to move to Portugal, you’ll probably need to convert some of your savings into euros. 

However, it’s best to avoid using high street banks for this process, as you’ll usually have to pay high fees, and you won’t get the best exchange rate. 

That’s why we’ve teamed up with TransferWise, an online international money transfer service which uses the real exchange rate, and charges low fees. How much could you save? Well, its service can be up to 8x cheaper than high street banks. 

Join more than 7 million people and start using TransferWise today.

12. Lisbon is reborn

Portugal’s capital city has been around for quite a while. It’s one of the oldest cities in the world, the second-oldest European capital city (after Athens), and it was once the centre of Portugal’s booming empire.

But the global recession of 2008 hit Portugal hard, and Lisbon became a less than desirable place for family holidays and city breaks. However, the city has proven itself to be Europe’s comeback kid (in part thanks to a €78 billion bailout from the EU), and the past decade has seen ‘The City of Seven Hills’ thoroughly rejuvenate. Today, Lisbon is thriving. 

Everyday the city packs with tourists arriving on cruise ships, with Lisbon’s annual visitors (around 4.5 million) outnumbering the city’s population (0.5 million) by almost ten times. New bars, restaurants and hotels are springing up in the capital on a regular basis, and Lisbon’s housing market has been liberalized by a new rental law (passed in 2011). Party time in Lisboa! 

13. Socialism is popular here

Portugal tried extreme right-wing politics. The Estado Novo dictatorship lasted for 41 years from 1933 until 1974, ending in a revolution and a common preference for something a bit more left wing. This partly explains why Portugal voted the Socialist Party into power in 2015.

Portugal’s socialist government has had some serious success, raising the minimum wage, almost eliminating the budget deficit (sitting at 11% of the country’s GDP in 2011), lowering unemployment, improving public transport, and providing free textbooks for school kids. 

In fact, the Socialist Party performed so well that the people of Portugal voted them into power again in 2019, with the party increasing their share of the vote from 32% to 37%.

the barcelos rooster

The Barcelos Rooster, a famous symbol of the Portuguese love of life

14. Expats are in demand

A lot of anti-immigrant rhetoric (and policy) has swept across America and western Europe in recent years, but Portugal really bucks the trend. The country wants immigrants – even you.

In January 2020, Portugal’s interior minister proudly announced that “in 2019, for the first time in our history, the barrier of half a million foreign citizens residing in Portugal has been overcome”. With an overall population of 10.3 million people, that means just under 5% of Portugal’s people are foreign-born.   

The country’s workforce was severely depleted by heavy emigration between 2011-16, and now the government is doing all it can to bring people back in. The most attractive policy is a 50% income tax cut until 2023 for any Portuguese people who have left the country for more than three years. 

If you’re not an absconded Portuguese person, don’t worry – the government has also made it easier for foreigners to acquire work visas and purchase properties.

15. The Algarve is a retirement hub

‘Algarve’ comes from the Arabic word ‘al-Gharb’, which means ‘the West’. This makes sense if you’re looking at the Algarve from an Arab perspective, but this region is very much in Portugal’s south. And retirees love it there. 

The region’s almost unbroken warm weather, abundance of beautiful beaches, and community of retired expats makes this place the ideal spot for other retired expats. According to Live And Invest Overseas, Portugal (and especially the Algarve) is the number one best place in the world to retire in 2020. 

The Portuguese government has added a little sweetener too – foreign resident retirees are allowed to receive their pension tax-free for up to 10 years.

16. Buying property is easy

Speaking of governmental sweeteners, there is also very little red tape prohibiting foreigners from buying a property in Portugal. In most cases, all you need is a Numero fiscal de contribuinte (personal fiscal number), which you can get from your local tax office. 

What’s more, if you spend at least €500,000 on Portuguese real estate, you may be able to get your hands on a Golden Visa, which means you’ll be given a free Portuguese residency permit for you and your dependents. After five years, you’ll even be able to upgrade this to Portuguese citizenship, providing you pass a basic language test and ‘demonstrate ties to the country’. If you’ve got the moolah, setting up in Portugal long-term is a doddle. 

In March 2020, the average asking price for a house in Portugal was €354,757 ($419,344).

pena palace in portugal

The dazzling 18th-century Pena Palace, located on the Portuguese Riviera, near Lisbon

17. Catholicism is still going strong

Popery goes very well with wine and fish, which might be why Catholicism is still thriving in Portugal. The country is one of Europe’s last Catholic strongholds, having refused to follow in Western Europe’s footsteps down an increasingly secular path. 

According to a survey conducted by Pew Research, 77% of adults in Portugal identify as Catholic, and according to a Guardian survey from 2018, 59% of 16-29 year olds in Portugal still pray. Catholicism is particularly popular in the north of Portugal, where a larger proportion of people regularly attend mass

Meanwhile, in the south of Portugal, the influx of retired expats from more secular countries into the Algarve can’t exactly be helping the Catholic situation.

18. Futebol is like religion

There’s another religion in Portugal that you should know about: futebol

If the Catholic God doesn’t do it for you, then the idolised figure of Portuguese demi-god Cristiano Ronaldo might just tick your boxes. The infamously vain world-beater has been kicking footballs better than every other player worldwide (bar perhaps one) for more than a decade. He represents Portugal’s feverish passion for The Beautiful Game, and he led the Portuguese national team to victory in the Euros in 2016. 

In Portugal, there are three big teams; Sporting CP, SL Benfica (both based in Lisbon), and FC Porto. Fittingly, they are known collectively as Os Três Grandes (‘The Big Three’). Whenever two of these teams clash, the entire nation will grind to a halt for 90 minutes (plus stoppage time).

19. Get ready for Carnival

Brazil has certainly taken the limelight for its annual Carnival festival, but this event has its roots in Portuguese colonialism. Portugal celebrates Carnaval every year, along with every other majority Catholic country. 

Traditionally, Carnival takes place on Shrove Tuesday (a public holiday in Portugal), the day before Lent begins, and consequently the day before six weeks of restricted living. Catholics are supposed to stay away from meat during Lent, so the festival’s name comes from ‘carnavale’ literally ‘to put away the meat’. 

To kick off such a long period of austerity, Carnival was designed to allow people to let loose. Hence big festivals replete with outrageous outfits and dancing, decadent meaty food, plentiful alcohol, and all round debauchery. The general idea is that one rids the soul of temptation by seriously overdoing it.

Who said being Catholic wasn’t fun?

20. There’s a symbolic rooster

Portugal has a particular obsession with an old rooster, and if you go there you’ll see his image plastered over everything. The Barcelos Rooster is meant to be a symbol of Portugal’s love of life, and it’s basically become the unofficial symbol of Portugal. 

It has its roots in a medieval story about a pilgrim who is wrongly accused of a crime, and who claims before the judge that a nearby roasted rooster would return to life and sing his innocence. Lo and behold, while the crowd are mocking, the rooster stands right up and starts singing. If you hail from the UK, you’ll have seen this rooster all over the Nandos restaurant chain.

21. Your favourite Portuguese treat started in a monastery

You’ve probably encountered a pastel de nata (aka ‘custard tart’) before. It’s like a nest of flaky pastry about the size of a cupcake, filled with yellow egg custard that’s caramelized on top. The Guardian reckons that they’re one of the 50 best things to eat in the world

Well, these things began life in the 17th century, when monks and nuns in the Jerónimos Monastery used leftover egg white (from starching their clothes) to make desserts. When the monastery ran out of funding during the 1820 Liberal Revolution, they started selling their custard tarts to the public. Naturally, their customers went crazy for them, and when the monastery eventually closed in 1834, it sold the recipe to a local bakery. 

The rest is history.