Portugal is in vogue in the last years, with tourism booming in several parts of the country and the average interest about Portugal has been increasing globally. Despite this, Portugal is still much less famous than its neighbors Spain and France, yet it’s now far from being an obscure destination/country.
In this post, we are going to explore what is Portugal is known for, i.e., what foreigners think about Portugal what do they remember? As Portuguese travelers, we deal with this very often – sometimes the answers are obvious and common, others may be unexpected. Some people we met know very little about Portugal others know the country surprisingly well.
So, what is Portugal famous for?
Well known Portuguese Food and drinks
#1 Port wine
One of the most famous things about Portugal is Port wine. Port wine is a fortified wine produced with distilled grape spirits exclusively in the Douro Valley in northern Portugal. It is typically sweet, red and often served as a dessert wine, though it may also be dry, semi-dry, and white.
Port wine is produced in the Douro Valley for centuries now and even has a demarcated region. This demarcated region of Douro is considered one of the oldest in the world. Although, fortified wines similar to Port are produced in many other regions of the world like Australia, the US, France, South Africa, Canada, India, Argentina, Spain, if you want to try a true Port wine, make sure it comes from Portugal and the Douro Valley.
The Port wine is so important for Portugal and its culture that the Alto Douro wine region was inscribed as a World Heritage site. As per UNESCO itself “Wine has been produced by traditional landholders in the Alto Douro region for some 2,000 years. Since the 18th century, its main product, port wine, has been world-famous for its quality. This long tradition of viticulture has produced a cultural landscape of outstanding beauty that reflects its technological, social and economic evolution.“
#2 Pastel de Nata – Portuguese custard tart
Pastel de Nata, which foreigners usually call Portuguese custard tart, is probably the most famous Portuguese dessert. For those who haven’t tried them yet, a Pastel de nata is Portuguese egg tart pastry dusted with cinnamon. The crust is crispy and flaky while the center made of creamy eggy, sweet custard, slightly blistered on top.
The Pastel de nata (originally Pastel de Belem) was created before the 18th century by Catholic monks at the Jeronimos Monastery, but only during the 18th century, they started selling them to the public. With time, the Pastel de Nata/Belém became famous and began to be sold around the country and even exported to Brazil, China, Japan, etc…
The original recipe is still a secret and it is only sold the pastry shop next to the Jeronimos Monastery called Fáfrica dos Pasteis de Belém, where you can eat the pastel de Belem still warm and with icing sugar and cinnamon.
You should note that the pastry from Fabrica dos Pasteis de Belém is usually called a pastel de belém, while all the others sold through the country are called pastel de Nata.
#3 Piri Piri chicken
Piri Piri chicken is a dish very associated with Portugal, although in Portugal no one talks about Piri Piri chicken, and most people don’t even know what it is… why? In Portugal, it’s called Frango de Churrasco.
So, What’s Piri Piri chicken or Frango de Churrasco? It’s simply grilled chicken with Piri Piri sauce. Piri Piri is a special variety of chilies that the Portuguese brought from the Americas to Africa and Europe. It’s very very spicy.
The funny thing about Piri Piri Chicken is that it was created in Angola and Mozambique, not in Portugal. Though it was then brought to Portugal by the Portuguese who returned from the colonies and now can be found in every Portuguese city.
Besides, and to make things even more interesting, it became internationally famous because of Nando’s, a very successful South African restaurant chain that specializes in Piri Piri chicken. Though, the Piri Piri Chicken from Nando’s is slightly different from the Portuguese one.
#4 Bacalhao / Codfish
Portuguese love codfish! And anyone who visits Portugal usually learns quickly why and then spread the word of how good it is, and how the Portuguese love it. It is even said that there are more than 365 cod recipes in Portugal, one for each day of the year. Cod is so ingrained in the Portuguese national psyche that it is also the main celebrational meal at Christmas.
You should note that the cod eaten in Portugal isn’t “fresh”, but dried and salted cod. Furthermore, there isn’t codfish in Portuguese waters. So, How did Portugal became obsessed with codfish? This is a story with 2 acts, first during the age of discoveries and then during the 20th-century dictatorship.
During the age of discoveries, salted cod was one of the main ingredients because it could be stored without refrigeration for really long periods. And those voyages were really long. During the 20th century, Portugal was a very poor country and codfish continued to be one of the most important proteins in Portugal because it was very cheap, easy to store and transport making it the perfect option.
During the XV century, the Portuguese sailors brought sweet oranges from China and East Asia to Europe. These oranges were much better than the others and quickly became dominant in Europe, particularly in the Mediterranean. The Portuguese also used to plant orange trees along the trade routes to prevent scurvy.
Portuguese oranges became so famous that in many countries the name of fruit derives the name of the country they came from: Portugal. However, note that oranges don’t originally come from Portugal (they come from Asia), and today Portugal doesn’t really export oranges.
So in many countries (Arabic countries, Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Iran) when you think of Portugal you may be thinking of oranges… have a look:
- Albanian – portokall;
- Bulgarian – портокал (portokal);
- Greek – πορτοκάλι (portokali);
- Macedonian – portokal;
- Persian – پرتقال (porteghal);
- Turkish – portakal;
- Romanian – portocală.
- Even in some regional languages in Italy like Napolitan – portogallo or purtuallo
On a very related note, if you ever go to Portugal, try the Oranges from Algarve, they are some of the best in the world – sweet and juicy.
Famous sports and sportsman in Portugal
#6 Football and Ronaldo
I wouldn’t say it the most most important but it is probably the famous thing about Portugal today. Whenever we travel internationally the first thing people tell us when they learn we are Portuguese is: Ronaldo! He is easily the most famous Portuguese.
Ronaldo is considered to be one of the best football players of all time and won an incredible amount of titles and individual prizes. He is also one of the most followed celebrities in the world, both on facebook and twitter.
Besides Ronaldo, Portuguese football also produced many other like Figo, Rui Costa, Eusébio and Bernardo Silva. And let’s not forget José Mourinho, one of the world’s best managers. More importantly, Portugal is the current European Football Champion and the first winner of the UEFA Nations League.
#7 Surf destination
Portugal is widely famous among surfers as a great surfing destination, both because of its nice waves and climate. In fact, in Portugal, you can easily go surfing every of the year, with different kinds of waves spread through the extensive Portuguese coast.
In Portugal, you can find surf spots with waves for beginners and pros, and as the country is small all these diverse spots are relatively close to each other. There are small waves, tubes, long waves and even giant waves. In fact, the giant waves of Nazare are world renown as the biggest waves in the world.
Fun fact: According to the Guinness Book of Records the biggest wave ever surfed was surfed in Nazare in 2012 by the Hawaiian surfer Garret Mcnamara.
For all these reasons, every year thousands of surfers, bodyboarders, windsurfers, kitesurfers and so on, go to Nazaré, Sagres, Guincho, Ericeira, Peniche and many other destinations to enjoy its waves.
#8 Golf destination
Portugal is a very popular golf destination, particularly the Algarve region which manages to combine the warmest weather, some of the best beaches with the golf courses.
In 2019 Portugal managed to win both the best European golf destination and best golf destination in the world at the world golf awards. In fact, since 2014, Portugal has won 5 times this prize!!
According to top100 golf, the best golf courses in Portugal are Monte Rei North, West Cliffs, Oitavos Dunes, Troia and San Lorenzo.
History and Culture facts that Portugal is known for
#9 Age of discoveries
Anyone who studied history has studied Portugal and its role in world history, particularly during the age of discoveries. Portugal is well known to have been a major colonial power and the catalyst of the Age of Discoveries which completely changed the world.
Despite being a rather small country during the age of discoveries Portugal was a superpower. It was the Portuguese who reached and crossed the cape of good hope (Bartolomeu Dias), it was a Portuguese who found the maritime route to India (Vasco da Gama), it was a Portuguese who discovered (to the Europeans) Brazil…
Moreover, Fernão Magalhães (Ferdinand Magellan) the man who organized and lead (but didn’t finish) the first circumnavigation of the Earth is also Portuguese but did it working for Spain… Many people also believe that Columbus was also Portuguese, but there isn’t hard evidence of this claim. Finally, there are some documents and evidence that the Portugues also discovered Australia much earlier than the English, but didn’t settle there.
Fun fact: at that time, Portugal was so powerful and ambitious that signed a treaty with Spain, dividing the world in two with it. This was the Tordesillas treaty.
#10 Portuguese tiles, Azulejos
The azulejos are tin-glazed ceramic tile work and can be found literally everywhere, on the interior and exterior of churches, palaces, ordinary houses, schools, and nowadays, restaurants, bars, and even railways or subway stations. They constitute a major aspect of Portuguese architecture as they are applied on walls, floors, ceilings, street signs, and even public benches.
Almost everyone who visits Portugal falls in love with the Portuguese tiles. In Portugal, they are called azulejos, which comes from the Arabic Al-zuleique. Portugal adopted them like no other European country as they have a dual purpose, they serve as an ornamental art form, but also had a specific functional capacity like temperature control in homes.
Azulejos is now trending with tourists and art/design lovers. You can see them all over Instagram, blogs and even online shops. It looks like everyone wants a piece of them.
Fado is the most traditional and well known Portuguese music. It’s the kind of music that really reveals the Portuguese culture or at least a side of it. Fado is usually characterized by mournful tunes and lyrics, often about the sea or the life of the poor, and infused with a sentiment of resignation, fatefulness, and melancholia.
Some of the most famous fado singers include Amália Rodrigues (known as the queen of Fado), Mariza, Carminho, Ana Moura, Camané and Carlos do Carmo. Though fado is the Portuguese national music, it is mostly connected with Lisbon and Coimbra. In 2011 Fado’s importance was recognized by UNESCO and included in its list of intangible cultural world heritage.
#12 José Saramago
José Saramago is possibly the most famous Portuguese writer, or at least the one who won more national and international prizes, including the Nobel Prize of Literature in 1998. Saramago has been described as “the most gifted novelist alive in the world today” and the writing has a “distinctive tone to his fiction because he narrates his novels as if he were someone both wise and ignorant.”
The Shrine at Fátima is one of the most important religious landmarks, drawing pilgrims from all over the world, thus it’s very famous among Catholic Christians.
Fatima became a pilgrims destination after three little shepherds, Jacinta and her two cousins, Francisco and Lúcia, witnessed successive apparitions of Our Lady of the Rosary, in 1917. Initially, it was looked with suspicion by the Church, but cherished by the people, and only in 1930, the phenomenon was not acknowledged by the Bishop of Leiria.
The Shrine has become world renown during the papacy of John Paul II, a confessed devotee of Our Lady of Fátima. He traveled there in 1982 to give thanks for having survived an assassination attempt the year before.
Widely known geography facts about Portugal
#14 Sunshine and nice weather
Portugal is worldly renown as a sunny travel destination. Tourists come to Portugal every year looking for a few days of sun and nice weather. When many people think about Portugal they think about sunbathing and warm weather.
Yet we need to note that while the north is sunnier than many other destinations, it’s the south that really stands out in this aspect! Lisbon, for example, has about 2800 hours of sunshine per year, while faro breaks the record of 3000 hours…
#15 Beautiful beaches
Do you know what goes really well with sun and hot weather? Beautiful beaches and Portugal has them too. Yet again, despite all the Portuguese coast is stunning, it’s the south of Portugal that really stands out here (particularly the Algarve)!
Some of the best Portuguese beaches include:
- Caminha – up in the north, with beautiful but very cold water.
- São Jacinto Aveiro – wild beach fringed by pine forest and some large dune with almost 8 km long.
- Troia – long, beautiful beach close to Setubal. Beautiful water and amazing resort.
- Benagil – famous for its incredible sea-caves.
- Carvoeiro beach – wonderful sandy beach in Carvoeiro, the most picturesque village in the Algarve with its colorful houses tumbling down the cliffs
- Porto Santo – Huge, long beach with warm water and golden sand in Porto Santo island, Madeira
#16 Portuguese, the Language
Surprisingly, or not, Portuguese is one of the most spoken languages in the world! With more than 220 Million native speakers it’s the 6th language in the world. Brazil here obviously plays a big part in this, but you should note that Portuguese is spoken in 5 continents and the official language of 9 different countries.
Portuguese is also one of the main languages on the internet. About 4.1% of all internet content is in Portuguese and it’s only behind English, Chinese, Spanish, and Arabic.
Other famous Portuguese products and exports
#17 Portuguese shoes
Did you know Portuguese shoes are regarded as some of the best in the world? The quality of the Portuguese shoe industry is famous worldwide and is only surpassed by the Italian. This is a very dynamic industry, which has undergone a rapid and intensive transformation and now exports 95% of its production.
So, if you like shoes, and quality is important to you, it’s highly possible that you are wearing, or wore Portuguese shoes.
#18 Cork and Cork Products
The cork industry is big in Portugal, really big. Portugal harvests about 310 000 tons of cork every year, approximately half of the world production.
Cork is easily one of the most characteristic natural products of Portugal and it is part of everyday life. Cork is environment-friendly, natural, soft, keeps the cold and the warmth when it is necessary, and it is used to create a comfy ambiance.
Bottle stoppers are still the main product coming form cork, but there are so many things being produced with cork today. Fashion accessories, clothing and shoes, yoga mats, iPad covers, furniture, and floor or wall coatings, even Nasa uses Portuguese cork in their shuttles.
Cork is harvested from a specific oak tree the Quercus suber, which unsurprisingly is the Portuguese national tree. If you want to see these trees, the best region is probably Alentejo in southern Portugal. Though, they are spread all over the interior of the country really.
Side note: We have been reading quite a few uninformed opinions on cork, so it’s important to clarify that the trees don’t get cut or even damaged to harvest cork! They live for more than 300 years!
Things that Portugal should be known for…
Now that we have established most of the things Portugal is famous for, I believe we can list a few things that aren’t quite famous yet, but they should and probably will be in the future. These are some of the Portuguese products that are really good and we believe it will become widely known in the future.
Olive oil – azeite
Olive oil is a pretty amazing ingredient and that’s already well known, though what most people don’t know is how good Portuguese olive oil is, particularly the one produced in Tras-os-Montes and Alentejo region. If you have the opportunity to try Portuguese olive oil, don’t waste it, you won’t regret it.
Coffee, but only espressos
Portugal isn’t a coffee producer, but it’s a big coffee consumer. Portuguese love coffee, but only a very specific coffee. In Portugal, having a coffee means having an espresso. And obviously, we made an art of it! Portuguese people love their coffee so much, and only their coffee that the first thing a Portuguese misses when going abroad is their Portuguese espresso.
So, it has to be really good, right?
Portuguese coffee is obtained from a blend of slow-roasted Arabica and Robusta beans making it less intense than others but it helps to preserve the essence of Portuguese Coffee, giving it less acidity, a stronger aroma, more body, and sweetness.
Fresh fish and seafood
Portuguese eat a lot of fish and seafood, and there’s a good reason for it, it’s amazing! In Portugal, the fresh fish and seafood are both tasty and cheap. Tourists are starting to learn this, enjoy it and spread the word. It won’t take long for being one other thing Portugal is famous for!
Portuguese wine, besides Port wine
Portugal has plenty of great wines besides the Port. The weather is just perfect to produce wine, and many regions of the country produce pretty good and inexpensive wine. In terms of value for money, the Portuguese wine is one of the best in the world. They just aren’t that famous, yet!
Alentejo, Madeira, Dão are some of the best wine-producing regions, besides the Douro valley!
One thing people should know about Portugal is that the pastel the nata is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Portuguese deserts and conventual pastry in particular.
The Portuguese conventual pastry has a huge variety with hundreds of different cakes and pastries coming from dozens of different towns. How did they appear? Convents and monasteries used large quantities of egg-whites for starching clothes, such as nuns’ habits. So, monasteries and convents used the leftover egg yolks to make cakes and pastries, resulting in the proliferation of sweet pastry recipes throughout the country.
They are freaking amazing and as soon as the rest of the world discover them, they will explode in popularity, like what happened with the custard tart.
… and now I notice that these are all food related… ops 🙂 Well, I might as well remind you to have a look at our Traditional Portuguese Food Guide!
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