Portugal is one of the most inexpensive and fascinating destinations in Europe. It has a rich seafaring past, superb beach resorts, wistful towns and cities, and a landscape wreathed in olive groves, vineyards and wheat fields. Four decades of dictatorship sidelined the country from modern progress and Europe s power centres, but like its neighbour, Spain, it has spent much of the last 20 years trying to move in from the periphery, forging new ties with the rest of Europe, restructuring its economy, and struggling to maintain what is best in its national culture despite the sudden onslaught of international influences. The struggle between the traditional and the modern continues, and as Portugal flows towards the economic mainstream of the European Union, it still seems to gaze nostalgically over its shoulder and out to sea.
Though overshadowed by its more popular neighbor to the east, Portugal remains one of Europe's unspoilt gems. This land of traditional villages and vibrant cities has a countryside strewn with historical treasures and a wide assortment of World Heritage sites - natural and cultural wonders that offer a window into this once great seafaring nation.
Full country name: Portugal
Area: 92,389 sq Km (35,672 sq mil)
Population: 10,6 million
People: 99% Portuguese, 1% African
Religion: 97% Roman catholic, 2% protestant, 1% other
Government: Parliamentary democracy
Annual growth: 3,4%
GDP per head: US$10,600
Unemployment rate: 7,6%
Major industries: Textiles, footwear, wood products, metalworking, oil refining, chemicals, fish canning, wine, tourism and agriculture
Major trading partners: EU (esp. Spain, Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands & the UK), US
Visas: None required for EU nationals. Nationals of Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the USA can stay for 90 days visa-free. Everyone else needs a visa.
Health risks: Sunburn in summer, insect bites
Time: GMT/UTC (winter), GMT/UTC+1 (summer)
Electricity: 220V, 50Hz
Weights & measures: Metric
When to go
Portugal’s high season runs from mid-June to mid-September, when temperatures across the country average around 27°C. In July and August it gets hot, particularly in the Algarve, the Alentejo and the upper Douro valley, where the mercury can climb to over 45°C.
If you’d rather skip the crowds (and the heat), consider a trip in spring, when the countryside is at its most verdant, or in autumn, when it’s still warm but the summer crowds have dispersed. During winter (November to March) the rains arrive, falling most heavily in the north and most lightly in the south (the Algarve gets near year-round sunshine), with a handful of places closing down. Travelling then, however, will net you substantial savings at many hotels, and you’ll see the country’s most traditional side.
It’s worth making a beeline for a Portuguese festival, particularly Carnaval in February or March, and Holy Week (the week before Easter) in March or April. Dates vary annually, so check with a turismo (tourist information office).
Water sports such as swimming, snorkelling, windsurfing and big-game fishing are popular along the Algarve Coast, while surfing is big along the west coast. With advance notice, organisations can also provide a weekend of canyoning and hydrospeed near Porto. Southern Portugal is dense with championship-standard golf courses. Other activities include mountain biking, hiking and pony trekking in the Serra da Estrela and Peneda-Gerês regions.
Dramatic scenery lies all along the coast from windswept cliffs with edge-of-the-world views to wild dune-covered beaches.
More than just a static backdrop, the scenery sets the stage for outdoor adventure. Hiking, surfing, windsurfing, horse-riding, big game fishing, kayaking, diving, golfing and mountain biking are a few ways to spend a sun-drenched afternoon.
Attractions - Lisbon
Calouste Gulbenkian Museum
Gulbenkian was an Armenian oil magnate who died in 1955 having put together one of the world's finest private art collections. The collection is now housed in a modern center where the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation sponsors a host of cultural and performing arts projects, and has a rotating exhibition of works by Portuguese and foreign artists. The Gulbenkian collection itself covers Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities, Islamic ceramics and textiles, Syrian treasures, Chinese ceramics, Japanese prints and lacquerware and European medieval illuminated manuscripts.