Portugal rests on the western side of Spain, with its entire western and southern perimeter facing the Atlantic Ocean. It has the distinction of continuously being the home to settlements since the prehistoric eras. First Neanderthals, then Homo sapiens, established organized societies, even if they couldn’t be called prosperous settlements.
Over the ages, it has been occupied by the Celts, the Romans, the Germanics and the Moors, but finally became an independent kingdom in 1139 AD, making it the oldest nation-state in Europe.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal, along with Spain, was a major mover and shaker in the exploration of the globe. Seeking new trade routes to Asia, after the fall of Constantinople ended land-based trade links with Asia, Portugal hoped to control the highly lucrative trade in spices, gold and silver.
During this extended period of exploration and colonization, Portugal became the first global empire. And with that status lasting nearly 600 years, they also became the European colonial empire with the longest reign. It endured from 1415, when the Portuguese captured Ceuta, until 2002, when they granted independence to East Timor.
When Vasco de Gama finally reached India in 1498, it began a period of economic prosperity for Portugal. The largest expansion of its empire ever undertaken by Portugal was Brazil, which Pedro Alvares Cabral discovered in 1500. Ten years later, Afonso de Albuquerque conquered Goa in India, Malacca, in Malaysia and Ormuz in the Persian Strait.
The Portuguese empire dominated commerce in the Indian and South Atlantic Oceans from the 15th century into the beginning of the 16th century, partly due to the Treaty of Zaragoza with Spain, which effectively gave Portugal control of half the New World. This made Portugal the greatest military, political and economic power of that era.
Like the rest of Europe, Portugal was decimated in 1348 and 1349 by the Black Death (bubonic plague) that wiped out approximately half of Europe’s population.
In addition, Portugal suffered military declines as a result of two major defeats in the 16th century, which severely impacted its ability to defend its holdings in South America, Africa, Asia and Australasia. The first was the defeat of their 18,000-strong forces by over 60,000 Moroccans and Ottomans in the 1578 Battle of Alcácer Quibir in Morocco.
The second, in 1588, can be attributed to Spain’s unsuccessful attempt to conquer England. Portugal was party to a dynastic union with Spain, with brought them into the Anglo-Spanish War as a supplier of ships to Spain. However, Portugal’s Treaty of Windsor with England was restored after the Treaty of London ended the Anglo-Spanish War in 1604.
The Treaty of Windsor, pledging mutual support between England and Portugal, is still in effect and stands as history’s longest lasting diplomatic alliance. Originating in 1373, it was ratified in 1386. Portugal has honored this treaty many times, supporting England in times of military need, and England has reciprocated.
The two nations, once both large global empires, have fought side by side on several occasions, including the expulsion of the Spanish from Portugal in 1640, the defense of Portugal against French invasion in the Peninsular War of 1808-1814, the Seven Years War of 1756-1763, which spanned the globe, and World War I. In World War II, Portugal provided military bases in the Azores for English use.
The largest expansion of its empire ever undertaken by Portugal was Brazil, which Portugal ruled for 322 years, until Brazil gained its independence in 1822.
Nearly 36% of Portugal’s power is generated by either solar or wind power.
Many Portuguese are superstitious, clinging to a number of old customs, such as the phases of the moon and the Evil Eye. In the rural areas, it is still commonly expected for a widow to wear black for 7 years, for instance.
There are still an estimated 100,000 semi-nomadic Gypsies living in Algarve, in the southern portion of the country.
There are about ten million people living in Portugal, and an estimated four million more Portuguese living elsewhere around the world.
The city with the highest Portuguese population outside of the country is Paris, France.
Luxembourg has nearly 15% of its population that is of Portuguese descent.
Portuguese immigrants originally introduced the ukulele to Hawaii.
Portuguese explorers discovered Brazil, the sea route to India, made the first circumnavigation of the globe and were the first to round the Cape of Good Hope.
It has been illegal to kill the bull in a bullfight in Portugal since the 18th century.
The largest gambling casino in all of Europe is located on the outskirts of Lisbon.
Portuguese is the official language of nine different countries.
Lisbon sports the world’s oldest bookstore.
70% of the world’s cork is produced in Portugal.
The University of Coimbra, was established in 1290 AD.
In 1755, Lisbon was victim to a 9.0 magnitude earthquake which leveled the entire capitol city, killing 275,000 people. A tsunami followed, along with devastating fires, leaving the city in smoldering ruins.
Portugal was the world’s first colonial empire to abolish slavery.
The British habit of drinking tea was introduced to England in the 17th century by the Portuguese Princess, Catarina de Bragança.
Belem - the embarking point of Magellan and da Gama on their voyages to seek the New World, is a slice of history directly out of the Age of Discovery.
Costa Vincentina National Park – Breathtaking sunsets, viewed from the high, windswept cliffs above the sea make this stop a must on any visit to Portugal.
Azores – these nine islands, nearly 1,000 miles off the coast of Portugal, are incredible paradises that you’ll never forget.
Porto – a center of industry, but filled with museums, shops and restaurants to make your visit worthwhile. Visit the Historic Center of Porto and be sure to see the magnificent cathedral.
Ponta da Piedade – massive sea-carved cliffs and boulders, with many natural passages, give Lagos a surreal touch.
Historic Center of Evora – the mix of ancient architecture here is fantastic. Don’t fail to see the Temple of Diana and the Megaliths from 5000 BC.
Monsaraz – step back into Medieval Portugal in this Middle Ages walled town and see the massive castle that overlooks the countryside.
Monastery of Alcobaca – Afonso Henríques promised to build an impressive monastery if God would grant him victory is expelling the Moors from Portugal. He kept his word – impressive is the only fair description.
Madeira – this awesome archipelago sits atop a submarine volcano and boasts top-drawer accommodations and festivities. Don’t forget to enjoy some of their world famous Madeira wine while you’re there.
Convent of the Order of Christ - This convent was originally a stronghold of the Knights Templar, built in the 12th century.
Oceanarium – The Oceanarium is the world’s second largest aquarium. Its four aquariums replicate the ecosystems found in the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian and Antarctic oceans, with a huge five million liter tank dominating.
Historical Center of Braga – this Roman settlement from 20 BC still thrives. You’ll be awed by the Sé, or Braga Cathedral and the Archbishop’s Palace.
How to Get Cash
There are ATMS in all the urban areas of Portugal, including many smaller towns, particularly in tourist areas. However, many banks are transitioning to the embedded chip cards with a PIN, rather than the magnetic strip cards you may be used to. Look for the emblem of your card to select the right machine.
You can receive Western Union transfers at Millennium BCP banks or CTT Correios de Portugal (post offices). In Portugal, recipients must be 18 years of age or more.
As in most countries, you can get cash advances on your credit card at most banks. Hefty fees may be included.