Not only is Portugal one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever visited, it’s also where my husband and I felt truly at home. The people were friendly, the weather was incredible and prices more than reasonable.
Being my first time across the “pond”, I really had no idea what to expect. Our six-week adventure began in Lisbon moving northward to the cities of Porto and Coimbra. The latter two and a half weeks were spent in the stunning Algarve region.
In hindsight, my greatest regret is I wish we could have stayed longer. For anyone interested in visiting Portugal, we’ve compiled a list of 15 practical Portugal travel tips for older adults to help make the most of your experience.
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1. Learn Some Basic Portuguese
By no means is Portuguese an easy language to learn. After six months of a free Duolingo course, I’d say we knew enough to get ourselves into trouble. Fortunately, most folks recognized our effort and were happy to respond in English.
While English is the second most spoken language, obviously Portuguese is their native tongue. While similar to Spanish, there are significant differences.
For instance, several times I inadvertently replied with “gracias” (thank you) which led to some raised eyebrows.
After that, I made a point of saying “Obrigada”. Just to confuse everything, thank you from a man would be “Obrigado”. The universal hello was generally “Olá”, the same as Spanish.
Unbeknownst to me was their national pride with a certain degree of sensitivity toward Spain. Understandable, as each of these two countries have a long history with quite separate identities.
The Basics Are Generally Enough
As mentioned above, English is widely understood, especially in tourist areas. To us, it seemed everyone had a basic grasp of English. However, learning some basic phrases seemed to make a difference when interacting with the Portuguese people.
When it came to eating out, most menus were also in English. This made it easy to point to the item while ordering food to avoid any mix-ups.
During a train ride in the Algarve, we chatted with a retired British expat. He loved the lifestyle, yet, after 12 years, he professed he still only knew the basics. This confirms just how widely spoken English is in tourist areas.
2. Travel During the Off-Season
The off-season during the spring or fall is generally considered the best time to visit. Thus, April/May or September/October are the optimal months for less crowds and cooler temperatures.
We were thankful for the almost perfect weather during our visit from September to early October. The daily highs hovered around 80°F (27°C) and the evenings were pleasant. In contrast, the recent summer heat wave saw Lisbon peaking at 111.2°F (44°C).
The only significant rain happened the day we were in Braga. The heavens opened up and it literally poured “cats and dogs”.
Fortunately, we were able to scoot inside the oldest church in all of Portugal - Cathedral of Braga (Sé de Braga in Portuguese). Other than that, the worst we experienced were several cloudy days.
The Peak Tourist Season
The peak tourist season is during July and August.
Many Europeans plan summer vacations and Portugal’s beautiful beaches have made it a major tourist destination. All those UNESCO sites such as Jerónimos Monastery or Belém Tower have incredible wait times with long lines.
In addition, festivals abound drawing even more crowds. This influx of people drives accommodation rates sky-high and it can be difficult to even find a room.
The sheer volume of tourists impacts almost everything. Tours are quickly sold out, sidewalks are packed and even grabbing a seat in a restaurant becomes an ordeal.
3. Be Flexible and Selective with Your Time
Portugal is packed with UNESCO sites! One of the most common mistakes is trying to see everything. We’ve been guilty of this on past trips and intentionally decided to allow ourselves more downtime and flexibility.
For instance, we knew we’d be jetlagged by the time we arrived in Lisbon. As we were staying in Belém (one of the most touristy areas), we decided to take it easy for the first few days. This was ideal to catch up on our rest while still exploring some sights at our own pace.
In fact, everyday we observed at least a dozen tour buses unloading next to Belém Park. Everyone scurrying about in massive line ups for the Jerónimos Monastery, Belém tower, Discovery monument, museums and other sights.
For us, everything was within walking distance and we largely avoided the crowds. Also enjoyable were several lazy afternoons spent people watching at a sidewalk café with a cerveja (beer).
Make The Most of Your Time
The key to making the most of your time is being selective in what you really want to see and how to best experience it. We really enjoyed Belém and our laid-back approach was perfect.
Another great experience was our day trip to Braga and Guimarães (from Porto). Our options were either taking a guided tour or go by ourselves on the train.
After scouring dozens of tour operators, we came across The Cool Tours (via Get Your Guide). What caught our eye was they offered personalized tours in smaller groups. Sure, the cost was a bit more but the reviews were glowing.
The driver/guide, Rodrigo, was a treasure trove of information. Proud of his Portuguese ancestry, he truly brought the 12th century history to life. By ourselves, we wouldn’t have grasped the significance of even half of what we saw.
The tour also included a traditional Portuguese lunch complete with green wine. Thank goodness we chose this tour as it was definitely the highlight of our trip.
Making the most of my time is about the quality of the experience and the people we meet as opposed to trying to see everything.
4. Choose Your Accommodations Wisely
Another of the important Portugal travel tips for older adults is choose your accommodations wisely. The old real-estate axiom of location, location, location rang true for us.
We decided to avoid the big chains, like Holiday Inn, and stay in more Portuguese style places. The places we chose were absolutely beautiful and definitely unique. Unfortunately, one in particular (Coimbra) was on a steep hill and not very central to anything.
In hindsight, we should've paid less attention to what the rooms looked like and more to amenities such as restaurants, public transport and shopping. With that being said, we did get to experience many different aspects of Portuguese life.
Hands down, our favorite place to stay was our Albufeira Airbnb. This was by far the most economical which helped stretch our budget during our 2-1/2 week stay. Our host was fabulous and went out of his way to make us feel welcome.
Unlike our previous accommodations, this was a full apartment. Never before had I realized how much I missed having a kitchen, living room and balcony. The apartment block was nestled off the main road and remarkably quiet.
The supermarket was less than a block away which was incredibly handy for stocking up on groceries. We preferred going out for supper and there were at least 20 restaurants within a 10-minute walk.
We reconnected with a wonderful German couple we met in Coimbra. I’ve always said it’s the people you meet who enrich your experience. Coincidently, they were staying close by at Praia da Oura, overlooking the beach.
We got together to swap stories and share some good times. One evening we met them at a Chinese restaurant near their place. There’s something unforgettable about good company, incredible food (the lemon chicken was to die for) and the sound of the surf.
I felt envious we weren’t on the beach until they shared it became nightlife central with partying until the wee hours.
5. Swap Out Your Cell Phone SIM Card
I’m sure everyone’s heard horror stories of expensive roaming and international calling charges. Before leaving, I checked with my provider and wasn’t impressed with what they had to offer.
In fact, it seems savvy travellers swap out their SIM card upon arrival. I was delighted to find a Vodafone booth at the Lisbon airport offering a tourist package valid for 30 days.
This included swapping out my SIM card, a local phone number including calls, data usage, and international calling. Best of all, the price was €20 (€ euro).
What I wasn’t aware of was my phone required an unlock code to change SIM cards. After contacting my provider and several days later, I was able to activate my phone.
6. Have A Plan to Get To/From the Airport
There are always multiple ways of getting to and from the airport. The Lisbon airport is congested and without a plan, this can be a daunting proposition. Options can include transfer services, taxis, Ubers and public transportation.
We didn’t have a plan and were shocked to pay €40 for the taxi ride to Belém! In cash! Granted, the airport was a fair distance away. However, to our dismay, we found out later an Uber would have only cost €11.23.
The metro/buses are even less expensive. Of course, you need to unravel the routes if you’re going to arrive where you want. Further complicating things will be hauling your luggage, especially with larger bags.
7. Don't Rent a Car Unless You Need One
Most North Americans are predisposed to having a vehicle. It’s part of our culture and who we are. The problem is renting even one of those small cars can get expensive. Vehicles with automatic transmissions are premium and in limited supply.
On top of the rental fee, there could be other costs. For instance, many hotels charge as much as €25 a day for parking. In fact, finding a parking spot can be near impossible. The gas prices are ridiculous, almost double from back home. While the highways are beautiful, most have tolls.
In my experience, the public transportation system is the way to go; it includes trams, funiculars, trains and buses. A day pass includes unlimited use and is quite reasonable.
Another little-known fact is how inexpensive Ubers are. Unlike home, they’re very reasonably priced and the service is great. We had no issues booking one and it showing up in, usually, 2 to 10 minutes.
In some situations, there’s no getting around needing a vehicle. My friend Kathy, from SmartLiving 365,stayed in an Airbnb in the Douro Valley and renting a vehicle made sense. For ourselves, a car would have only increased costs.
8. Take The Train
The Portuguese train system is quite amazing, if you ask me. We took the Alfa Pendular train from Lisbon to Porto hitting a top speed of 222 km/hr (138 m/h). Just over two hours of exceeding comfort as the landscape flew by. The best part, it was way cheaper than flying!
An important tip is to book train tickets in advance at Comboios de Portugal (official site). This entitles you to a discount of up to 60% and reserves your seats. You’re allowed to book as early as two months before your trip.
The local regional trains are quite different as seats aren’t reserved and there’s no benefit to booking in advance. In the Algarve, the ticket offices in some towns close early. Completely caught us by surprise and we needed to buy them from the conductor who only accepts cash.
As much as we enjoyed the trains, we did have our challenges.
Getting On the Right Train
You’d think it would be easy to get on the right train! However, the signage isn’t great and one time we weren’t even sure we were on the right train. It wasn’t until the conductor checked our tickets, were we assured we hadn’t screwed up.
Even though all the lines are numbered, the signage doesn’t always reflect which line the train will be on. And not all stations have digital readouts. Finding out what line your train is arriving/departing from can be a bit of an issue.
In one situation, we didn’t know what line our train was coming in on. This was even after asking at the ticket desk; they simply had no clue until mere minutes before arrival.
A related challenge for the Alpha Pendular and InterCity trains was getting on the right carriage. Although we booked comfort class, we didn’t know which end of the platform to wait. In a few instances, this led to a mad scramble to get to the other end of the train.
This is particularly important as the trains only stop briefly. This can lead to total mayhem with people struggling to get off while the throngs of new passengers are pressing to board. Not a fun time especially when fighting luggage!
The Luggage Nightmare
Speaking of luggage, the storage area was woefully inadequate! There simply wasn’t enough room, especially for the larger bags. Part of the problem was instead of using the spacious overhead racks, many people stuck their carry-on sized luggage in the large bag area.
On a couple of trips, our large bags needed to be left in the aisle. In fact, everything was so congested, one couple blocked the train driver’s door with their luggage.
Part way through the journey, he tried to come out and became furious. This was a serious safety violation and he made his displeasure known!
The overall situation was so frustrating that next trip we’ll be taking smaller bags which fit easily in the overhead.
9. Wear Comfortable Footwear
Man, if I didn’t have good runners when we were there, I think I would have died! There was a lot of walking involved in our trip so being comfortable is important. For some of the sites, the best way to get the full effect is by doing it on foot.
Portugal, in general, has lots of hills. Lisbon is known as the “city of 7 hills”. And let me tell you, a lot of them are very steep. The Portuguese make it look easy walking up and down, however it does present a challenge.
Another thing to get used to was the cobblestone streets. Lisbon is covered in them and they can be quite slippery especially if there’s been a rain or some dew.
10. Dining Out Is a Completely Different Experience
Overall, I have to say the food in Portugal is excellent! The fish was always fresh with the chicken/beef surprisingly tender and flavorful. We thoroughly enjoyed almost every meal. My favorites were the grilled sea bass and golden bream, served complete with their tails.
Also, standard practice was to serve appetizers of bread and/or olives. By no means were these complimentary and typically cost a couple of extra Euros. As much as I love olives, most of the time, we sent these back and weren’t charged for them.
What seemed somewhat strange were most meals included rice and French fries. Nary a vegetable to be seen! Having stated that, the food was great; however, the service was frustrating at times.
The Service (Or Lack Thereof)
One of the most important Portugal tips for older adults is patience. The staff are very friendly and always smiling, but the service is pathetic! However long a meal normally takes, expect to add at least half as long.
We joked we practically needed a flare gun to get their attention! Seriously, we occasionally had to go to the bar to order another drink or pay for the meal. Just seems to be the cultural norm. Thankfully, tipping wasn’t expected.
Another interesting fact is a lot of the restaurants were open for lunch until 3 pm. Then the kitchens were closed, not reopening until 7 pm. Most folks eat supper around 8 or 9 pm. Something to be aware of.
Finally, not every establishment accepts credit cards. It seemed about half the time we needed to pay with cash.
11. Always Carry Some Cash
When doing my research about Portugal, I found out it’s one country that still relies quite heavily on cash.
Especially tourist attractions. Most require an entrance fee and only a few will accept a credit card. So, having cash on hand is a must if you really want to see some of these places.
A lot of places take credit cards (Mastercard, Visa) however you should always be prepared, just in case. For example, taxis and Uber drivers are paid in cash only. Also, smaller businesses tend to only accept cash as well.
We took €1,000 with us when we left and, luckily, they lasted us throughout our travels. The only thing I would change is getting smaller denominations. Very few businesses could break our €200 bills.
Luckily, one of the locals in Porto told us we could get them broken down at the post office. Yes, the post office also serves as a sort of banking institution, cashing pension checks amongst other things.
Never before have I noticed so many ATMs. There seemed to be one on almost every corner, which makes sense considering how many Portuguese use cash. Fortunately, we had enough euros.
My understanding is the maximum withdrawal is €200 per day. In addition to varying exchange rates, there is fee each time money is withdrawn.
For more information, beportugal.com has an informative article on ATMs and fees, “ATMs in Portugal”. According to them, Multibanco charges a lower fee than Euronet.
Standing in line in a bank will likely cost the same or possibly even more than using an ATM. This all depends upon the local bank and your own bank. Potentially, you could incur double the transfer fees.
12. Watch Out for Pick Pockets
Portugal is the 6th safest country in world (out of 163 countries). However, they do have their share of petty crime. The most common are car break-ins (they love electronic items) and pick-pockets, particularly in tourist areas.
Just like at home, don’t leave valuables unattended. Try to minimize how much temptation you put in a person’s path. They’ll steer clear of you and move on to an easier target.
We didn’t run into any of them in our travels. However, before we left, we purchased a crossbody antitheft chest backpack. We kept our passports, phone and cash in there for extra security. It worked great!
13. How To Order Coffee You'll Like
I love my coffee in the morning! And Portuguese coffee is exceptional. It’s so full of flavor and texture, it’s an enjoyable experience.
Sounds like it should be easy to order one, right? Not so much. As with most European countries, when you ask for a “café”, you’re going to get an espresso.
While I love strong coffee, I usually ordered a “café Americano” (espresso with hot water) to dilute it a bit. There are different varieties depending on your preferences. “Meia de leite” is the same as a latte. It's espresso served in a large cup and is 1/2 milk.
It might be worthwhile to know what your particular style of coffee is called, so you know before you arrive.
14. Make Sure What You Buy Is Authentic
Shopping can be a little bit of a challenge. There are souvenir stores everywhere selling everything from cork purses to wine toppers with Portuguese stylings/images on them. All very beautiful.
However, I soon discovered you had to be diligent in checking out what you were buying. I wanted a little change purse made out of cork, their national product. I saw tons at a bunch of different stores. When I opened a lot of them, it had a tag “made in China” in the pocket.
Even the stores which said “authentic Portuguese items" were guilty of this. We eventually found a little store run by a local and I was able to get an authentic change purse.
It’s a situation of “buyer beware” and double check the authenticity of the item you're looking to purchase.
15. Beware Of Monday Closures
The last, but not least, of the Portugal travel tips for older adults is a lot of businesses and attractions are closed on Mondays. Not all, however quite a few take the day off including some restaurants.
One Monday in Lisbon, we were going to buy an all-day transit pass to explore the city. The hotel owner even drew us a map on which buses/trains to take to see as many interesting sites as we could.
However, the two tickets booths which sold the passes were both closed. So, that plan went out the window. We also noticed both Belém Tower and Jerónimos Monastery were closed on Mondays.
Closing Thoughts on Portugal Travel Tips for Older Adults
As I write these words, winter is rapidly approaching. The sunny carefree days are over and I’m left with memories of a wonderful vacation. Like anywhere, there were a few quirks and inconveniences, mainly due to cultural differences.
In all fairness, mostly minor stuff which prompted me to share these tips on how to make the most of your vacation. Mind you, much of this would apply to Spain or almost any other southern European country.
Overall, visiting Portugal was the best thing I ever did. I absolutely fell in love with the country and our six weeks flew by far too quickly. In retrospect, I really miss it and wish we had stayed longer.
Some of the reasons include the people, feeling safe and secure, the lower cost of almost everything and the mild climate. While this might sound strange, Portugal captured my heart and I really felt at home!
Apparently, many others feel the same and we met expats and retirees from all nationalities. The common theme revolved around quality of life.
For anyone contemplating moving there, you might be interested in our article, The 8 Amazing Advantages of Retiring in Portugal.