Culture in Portugal

“When we find a good guide, we try and work with them repeatedly. Especially as many of the people on our trips have travelled with us before, so they know what to expect from our team.”

Ashley Blake is the founder of our partner Traverse Journeys, a female-led company creating immersive cultural tours across Portugal and beyond. She’s talking about the importance of working with guides who actually live in the places they’re showing people around.

“In Portugal we have Marta, who is an unlimited well of information. She’s super fun, she knows all the cool spots, and she’s an awesome driver which is really helpful on the streets of Lisbon! She’s not just telling you about Portugal’s history and culture; she’ll talk about her family, her favourite foods, so you really feel you’re getting to know about a Portuguese person’s life.”

But a good guide needs to know where they’re going each day; they can’t just set off and wing it. And where’s the fun in just marching off ahead, holding an umbrella aloft?

“We try and balance the experiences in our tours, so you’re not just getting a blur of sights,” says Ashley. “I think textured is the word I would use. You can only capture so much, so we try and weave in other aspects, from food tastings to hikes in nature, interactive hands-on stuff, and simply getting to know people.”
You really feel you’re getting to know about a Portuguese person’s life.
Seeing Portugal from a local’s perspective, slowing things down and allowing for respectful, meaningful engagement and cultural exchange with the people who live in the place you’re visiting – if you could distil responsible travel to its very essence, it would look remarkably close to this.

Isabel Chaves is a native of Porto, and a tour leader for our partner Be Local Explorers, showing visitors around her home city but also the historic towns and countryside of the wider area, including places that often see comparatively little tourism. “When we ask our guests for their feedback, one constant we always get that is they like getting to know areas that are not touristy at all,” says Isabel. “Often the highlight is just seeing how people live, their homes. When we go to Miramar, it’s lovely but it’s purely residential. But people love it there.”

Deeper understanding

Responsible cultural tours of Portugal draw their guides from local communities. You stay in hotels that are owned and run by local people, in central locations where you can soak up the atmosphere. Excursions are not about reeling off names and dates as if you were back in school, but using stories, anecdotes, imagery, food, and music to show how Portuguese culture and traditions have been shaped through history. They put what you’re seeing into context, as any good tour should, but they also dig deeper, and much of that is down to the quality of the guides.

You’ll walk around Lisbon’s bairros (neighbourhoods) with experts in street art, who can explain the meaning behind colourful murals that cover entire buildings. You’ll duck into family-owned restaurants where the codfish recipes are a well-kept secret passed down through generations. You’ll venture into the countryside, hiking to waterfalls that are unknown even to most local people. And when it comes to the ‘must-sees’ that are thronged with tourists for much of the year, often you’ll see them in the evenings or early mornings, when it’s much quieter and the experience is altogether different.

Highlights of cultural tours in Portugal

Café culture

Outside A Brasileira, a bustling café in central Lisbon, tourists perch for a photo on the knee of a bronze sculpture. This is Fernado Pessoa, a giant of Portuguese poetry, literature and philosophy, and a regular customer of A Brasileira in the early 20th century. One could argue, however, that the effigy is not simply a tribute to Pessoa, but to Portuguese café culture as well.

Coffee is a big thing in Portugal at any time of day, not just over breakfast standing at the counter with a pastry, or after lunch. There are pavement cafés everywhere, the perfect opportunity to quietly observe and get a feel for day-to-day life in Portugal. Some, particularly those of Lisbon, are situated close to famous miradouros (viewpoints) while others are populated by local people enjoying a glass of cherry liqueur, a pastry or a bitter espresso before continuing on with their journeys. Pull up a chair, ask for ‘um café’ and perhaps give a nod to the person at the next table.


Fado is Portugal’s form of the blues – mournful and nostalgic songs that typically concern stories of the sea or the misfortunes of the poor. It is frequently enjoyed, if enjoyed is the right word when something tugs so plaintively on the heartstrings, over dinner.

At the heart of fado is saudade, which roughly translates as longing, or yearning, and, tinged with wine and wreathed in smoke in a backstreet fado restaurant, it conveys to the listener a heavy feeling of loss. Some say that Lisbon itself is afflicted with saudade – years of mass tourism have smoothed out the creases in which so many crumbs of interesting culture take refuge.

The university city of Coimbra has its own, male-centric form of fado, where groups of men gather to sing in public squares by night. Something similar can be observed late at night on weekends in many English town centers. Here, though, the musical choices tend to be more upbeat, with renditions of ‘Uptown Funk’ and ‘Three Lions’ enduringly popular among local residents woken up by them.
In Lisbon there are plenty of fado venues that aren’t thronged with tourists of an evening. Your best bet to seek out a truly authentic performance is to eschew the guidebooks and ask a local. As many Portugal cultural tours are led by guides who live in the communities they’re showing you around, they can often be trusted to come up with some good recommendations. Our tip: go out late at night, after the fadistas have finished with their tourist engagements and congregate in bars.

Festivals in Portugal

Portugal’s many festivals often revolve around food or religion; sometimes, both at the same time. The Feast Day of St. Anthony on 12 June is one example – the aroma of grilled sardines wafts along city streets as people come together to celebrate the patron saint of matchmaking. Mid-June is a good time to be in Portugal whether you’re a sardine fan or a singleton.

Every four years, the city of Tomar, north of Lisbon, celebrates the Festival of the Trays between late June and early July. One of the customs of this harvest festival is for young girls in traditional clothing to parade along balancing tall trays of fresh-baked bread on their heads. It sounds odd, but sometimes you’ve just got to roll with it.

The Moors ruled Portugal and the Iberian Peninsula for over 400 years. In the Algarve, the Silves Medieval Fair in August sees Muslim and Christian heritage intertwine, with veiled dancers, acrobats, musicians, and regional foods on offer in the streets leading up to the castle. Meanwhile the February festivities include Carnaval, a spirited rival to the celebrations in Brazil.

Historic sites

“I think Porto offers a great mix of everything,” says Isabel Chaves. “The historic center doesn’t feel big, but it has a lot to see, from churches to museums and old neighbourhoods.”

Porto’s Lamego Cathedral, with its Romanesque and Gothic architecture, was founded in 1175 but its origins date back as far as 572. The merchants’ houses and riverside warehouses make for another very atmospheric wander in the city. And the São Bento train station, which many travelers arrive at, is renowned for its stunning azulejo tile murals.

Among its countless treasures, Lisbon boasts the Moorish Alfama neighbourhood. Take the rickety yellow tram to the São Jorge Castle, then meander down through winding streets where people shout greetings across to each other while hanging the washing out on their balconies. Just outside the capital lies the summer royal retreat of Sintra which our partners, aware of how busy it gets, aim to visit as early in the day as possible.

“We cut Sintra out of the itinerary one year,” says Ashley, “but we got complaints, so we put it back in! It is crowded, though, even if you arrive early, so somewhere we like to go to escape for a while is the nearby Quinta de Regaleira. It’s the former manor of a sugar baron, a bit less on-the-radar, and there are these fascinating tunnels and sculptures and wells.”

But exploring Portugal culture properly sometimes means leaving the well-known locations behind altogether. Day trips from Lisbon, Sintra and Porto abound. You might pause in Alcoba, a handsome medieval town in central Portugal and home to one of the most outstanding monasteries in Iberia, or hillside Coimbra, the former capital and a prestigious university city with a magnificent 18th-century library you can visit.

Óbidos is a small fortified town, its whitewashed houses, medieval walls and cobbled streets beautifully preserved by local residents. Aveiro is sometimes described as ‘Portugal’s Venice’ for its lovely canals. Nazaré has a well-attended fish market but is famous for its immense waves – this is ground zero for Portuguese surfing culture. Guimarães was the home of the first king of Portugal and, like Braga and Matosinhos, is an easy drive from Porto.

You might get around in a private minivan, driven by your tour leader. But some trips purposefully use public transport like buses and trains to get from A to B. Journeying alongside local people as they head to work, to market or to the beach is another fantastic way to absorb the culture of Portugal.

Port wine

Each sip of Port contains thousands of years of Portuguese history. And British history too, incidentally. Ever since the 1386 Treaty of Windsor between the two countries, whenever the Brits were at war with France (which was an awful lot) and the wine trade was disrupted, Portuguese wine was there to stock the shelves instead. And Britain remains a huge and influential market today.

Portuguese cultural tours often explore the UNESCO-listed Douro Valley, which was the world’s first officially designated wine region. These steeply terraced hillsides laced with vines are the birthplace of Port wine. You might tour a vineyard here, enjoying a tasting session over a late lunch perhaps, or cruise along the Douro River to watch the sun setting over the hills.

“You can travel slowly really well in Portugal,” enthuses Ashley. “It’s just part of the lifestyle. A glass of wine with sunset overlooking a vineyard or the river, it feels so natural there.”

Isabel agrees: “When I have friends visiting, driving around the Douro Valley is a must. But there are so many villages and wineries that you really don’t need to go to the main places.”

Rabelos, the traditional barges that once ferried huge barrels of wine from the vineyards to the cellars of Vila Nova de Gaia, are nowadays used for sightseeing cruises, but the cellars where the wine is aged and blended are still very much in use.

Your group might stop off at a Port lodge in Ribeirinha, on the Porto side of the Douro, to learn about the history and processes of Port production. And to sample a few white, ruby and tawny specialities, naturally. Don’t expect them to pour out the really good stuff, though – some of the most renowned vintages are aged for decades and can go for thousands of euros per bottle.
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Portuguese cuisine

Cultural tours in Porto will reveal the secret behind why people from Portugal’s second city are known as ‘tripeiros’. Yes, it means tripe-eaters, but the fond nickname also harks back to the sacrifices made by residents so that the city’s sailors could eat well while they were busy expanding the Portuguese Empire during the 15th century.

The diet in northern Portugal, especially inland, is meat heavy. “We have lots of really tasty grilled beef, goat and wild boar dishes,” agrees Isabel, “and smoked meats, all sorts of chorizos and sausages.”

In the Algarve, the cuisine revolves around fish and seafood, while you can find the ubiquitous bacalhau (salted codfish) virtually everywhere.
Ashley Blake points out that while the food is often a highlight of traveling in Portugal, the dining schedule in Portugal can pose challenges: “You won’t have any luck finding lunch as early as midday!”

Which is why we’d recommend a light breakfast and grazing throughout the day. Market stalls sell everything from traditional sweets like pasteis de nata (custard tarts) and ovos moles (sweet egg-filled pastries) to grilled sardines (especially around feast days), cups of octopus ceviche, or chicken feet. Francesinha is a heavy meaty sandwich draped in grilled cheese, in a beery sauce, and a reputed hangover cure. It’s certainly a cure for hunger.

Petiscarias are snack bars selling the Portuguese equivalent of tapas with a drink. Some restaurants specialise in in meat dishes, such as black pork, a speciality of the Alentejo region, or leitão (suckling pig).

As an alternative to wine-tasting experiences, a Portugal cultural tour might also stop at a locally owned ginja distillery, such as the one between Evora and Óbidos. Here, you can learn how these sour cherries are grown, harvested and processed into the traditional liqueur, and the profits from any purchases remain in this agricultural community.


Religion is immensely important in Portuguese culture, with some 80 percent of the population identifying as Roman Catholic (though not all are practising). Belief is especially strong in the north and rural areas, where churches are the focal point of many community festivities.

As well as festivals celebrating saints’ days, other major religious celebrations in Portugal include the Feast of the Epiphany in January, and the Fatima Processions on 12 and 13 May. In 1916, three children in the parish of Fatima claimed to have witnessed an apparition of the Virgin Mary, who gave them three secrets. Ever since, the faithful have made pilgrimage in their thousands.

Other likely religious points of interest on Portugal cultural tours include the Jerónimos Monastery in the Lisbon neighbourhood of Belém, and Batalha, where the splendid Gothic monastery was built by King João I to mark victory in the Battle of Aljubarrota in 1385, when Portugal secured independence from Castile.

Street art

Ashley Blake’s Traverse Journeys works with a collective in Lisbon called Yes You Can Spray that aims to connect national and international street artists, and encourage self-expression. They arrange for their groups to take guided walks around the city, not just to see the work and learn about the people behind it, but also about the social issues both current and historic that the works reflect. Certain pieces chronicle how society has progressed from the post-dictatorship years of the 1970s and 1980s to the modern day.

“I guess in Lisbon what surprises people is that what’s on the walls is not just graffiti, there’s so much more to the story,” says Ashley. “Like music, street art has always been a really constructive and powerful way for young people to express themselves and their views.”

But if you’re imagining messy walls of overlaying tags, and half-hearted Banksy tributes, then you’re very wide of the mark. You can admire some truly epic works of art in the Portuguese capital. Prominent artists include the internationally acclaimed Vhils, who carves huge portraits into building façades, such as one of the fado diva Amália Rodrigues which incorporates the traditional Portuguese cobbles. Notable works you might catch sight of while wandering around Lisbon celebrate towering figures of Portuguese literature and heroes of the 25 April Revolution, or make bold political statements. Others seem to pop out from the walls, such as the vast 3D murals that the well-known Bordalo II crafts from rubbish.

Traditional handicrafts

You’ll encounter azulejos, blue-painted tilework, all over Portugal – on the interiors and exteriors of houses, museums, cathedrals and restaurants. Historically, ceramic tiles functioned as a form of temperature control, but nowadays they are used more for decorative purposes. And what decor.

We’ve already mentioned the grand and beautifully ornate examples on the walls of the São Bento train station in Porto, but there are many more to be found, including those of the Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon, Sintra National Palace, and Igreja da Misericórdia (Church of Mercy) in Tavira.

cultural small group tour of Portugal might involve a visit to the National Tile Museum of Lisbon, where you can take part in a ceramic tile-making workshop, after which you’ll have a unique handmade creation for a souvenir. You probably won’t be able to carry many home, but a small selection artfully arranged on a wall makes for an eye-catching feature.

Cork handicrafts, including handbags, drink coasters, sandals and hats also make popular souvenirs from Portugal. Cork has been a mainstay of the Portuguese economy for centuries, and not just for stopping bottles. Natural, eco-friendly, hypoallergenic, recyclable and with superb acoustic and thermal properties, it has many uses, not least in architecture.

Portugal produces 60 percent of the world’s supply of cork but, with the growth of cork alternatives (screw caps or ‘plastic corks’ for wine, by example), buying other cork products helps to keep local producers in business as well as supporting artisans.

Isabel Chaves makes a point of introducing her guests to local craft stores during her tours. “We always try and bring money into the areas we visit. And obviously, in some quieter places it would be nice to bring more people, but it’s important not to overwhelm communities with tourism. We want them to keep their character.”

We would like to thank Visit Portugal for commissioning this page.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Dim Hou] [Intro: Julian Dik] [Café culture: Petr Sevcovic] [Fado: Feliciano Guimaraes] [Historic sites: Peter K Burian] [Portuguese cuisine: Agnieszka Kowalczyk] [Street art: Gabor Papp]