In recent years, Portugal has become a magnet for travelers seeking a blend of old-world charm and modern allure. For backpackers, this Iberian gem offers an added advantage: it’s one of the most budget-friendly destinations in Western Europe.
Whether you’re wandering through the cobbled streets of Lisbon, surfing along the Algarve coast, or exploring the verdant valleys of the Douro region, Portugal promises a rich experience without breaking the bank.
Reasons Portugal is great for backpackers
There are lots of reasons to backpack Portugal, but here are a few of the main ones:
- Affordability: Compared to many Western European countries, Portugal offers a high-quality experience at a fraction of the cost, from meals to transportation. However, prices have increased in recent years, so be sure to book in advance.
- Great Hostels: Portugal boasts a range of hostels that are not only budget-friendly but also offer top-notch amenities, communal vibes, and often, stunning locations. Depending on your style, there are a variety of hostels to pick from including surf hostels, party hostels, and hostels for digital nomads.
- Surf Scene: The country’s coastline, especially areas like Ericeira, Nazaré, Sagres, and Peniche, is renowned for its world-class waves, attracting surfers of all levels. Plus, many surf schools and camps cater to budget travelers.
- Beaches: Portugal’s extensive coastline offers a plethora of pristine beaches, from the secluded coves of the Algarve to the wild shores of the Atlantic, perfect for relaxation or adventure without any hefty price tag.
- History and Culture: Cities like Lisbon and Porto are treasure troves of history and culture. From ancient fortresses and cathedrals to vibrant street art and music scenes, these cities offer rich experiences that are often free or low-cost.
- Safety: Portugal consistently ranks as one of the safest countries in Europe. Its welcoming and friendly atmosphere makes it especially appealing for solo female travelers, allowing them to explore with peace of mind.
Best locations for backpackers
Although you can travel anywhere in the country (and it’s absolutely worth doing so) there are a few locations that tend to attract backpackers more than others. The following are the most popular locations:
- Lisbon: The capital city, with its iconic yellow trams, historic neighborhoods, and vibrant nightlife, is a must-visit. Wander through the narrow streets of Alfama, enjoy the view from São Jorge Castle, and experience the lively atmosphere of Bairro Alto. With numerous hostels, affordable eateries, and a plethora of free attractions, Lisbon is a backpacker’s dream. Be sure to visit nearby Sintra for at least a day where you can see attractions like Pena Palace and Castelo dos Mouros.
- Porto: Situated along the Douro River, Porto enchants with its medieval charm, iconic Ribeira District, and the famous Dom Luís I Bridge. Don’t miss tasting the city’s namesake, Port wine, at one of the many wine cellars. Porto also offers a range of budget accommodations and is known for its welcoming locals.
- Lagos: Located in the Algarve region, Lagos is a haven for beach lovers and adventure seekers. Explore the stunning cliffs of Ponta da Piedade, relax on the sandy shores of Praia Dona Ana, and dive into the town’s bustling nightlife. The town’s hostels often organize group excursions, making it easy for backpackers to meet fellow travelers.
- Évora: Situated inland in the Alentejo region, this destination is popular for its historical attractions, including the famous bone chapel. This is a much more laid-back experience than Lisbon or Porto, with less of a focus on partying and more of a focus on visiting historical attractions.
If you’re looking to extend your trip, however, you should also consider the following destinations too:
- Coimbra: Home to one of the oldest universities in the world, Coimbra is a blend of history and youthful energy. Explore the ancient university grounds, stroll along the Mondego River, and immerse yourself in the city’s rich Fado music tradition.
- Madeira: This island paradise offers breathtaking landscapes, from lush forests to dramatic cliffs. While it’s a bit pricier than the mainland, backpackers can find budget accommodations and enjoy nature hikes, especially in the famous Laurisilva Forest.
- The Azores: An archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic, the Azores are perfect for those seeking off-the-beaten-path adventures. With volcanic landscapes, hot springs, and endless hiking trails, it’s a nature lover’s paradise. There are nine islands to choose from, but if you’re only doing one, São Miguel is the best one to begin with as it offers the most attractions.
- Sagres: At the southwestern tip of Portugal, Sagres offers rugged coastlines and a laid-back vibe. It’s a popular spot for surfing and watching breathtaking sunsets.
- Ericeira: A renowned surfing destination, Ericeira is a charming coastal town with cobblestone streets and whitewashed buildings. With its surf hostels and camps, it’s a hotspot for backpackers looking to ride the waves and soak in the seaside ambiance.
Tips for keeping things budget-friendly:
- Book accommodation in advance: If you’re visiting Lisbon and Porto, be sure to book your accommodation in advance as both of these cities have become extremely popular. Booking.com is a great site to use, along with Airbnb, but it’s also worth checking out comparison sites like Trivago or HotelsCombined to see if another accommodation site offers a better deal.
- Travel out of season: July and August are the two most expensive months in Portugal, but it’s actually better to travel outside of this period due to the crowds, costs, and high heat. Consider the shoulder months in advance and if you’re just travelling to the Algarve and South of Portugal, you can even consider the winter period.
- Look out for menu do dias – Many restaurants offer a lunchtime menu during the week, and this typically includes 2-3 courses and is priced at around €10. Some even include coffee and wine. This is usually better value than the evening meals, so try to have your big meal during the middle of the day.
- Shop at supermarkets – Some supermarkets have delis with fried snacks (salgados), including grilled chicken and rice, which makes for a tasty yet affordable picnic. Larger supermarkets outside of the city centres usually have canteens where you can get a main meal for less than €10. Tip: You may get asked for a NIF or Número de contribuinte, but just say “Não tenho nenhum.” This is a Portuguese tax number that’s often asked for at the supermarket, but it’s completely optional to give one over when doing groceries.
- Book train tickets in advance – Train tickets are usually cheaper if you book at least 5 days in advance, and even cheaper if you book further in advance. There are also discounts for youths (18-25) and those with youth cards (up to age 30). Train tickets (which can be booked at cp.pt) are often cheaper than bus tickets (see Rede Expressos) but flixbus.pt offers cheap bus tickets too).
- Compare flights to all of Portugal: Most people either work start from the North and go South, but you could go vice versa too. Skyscanner is a useful website for comparing flights, as you can compare flights across all of Portugal allowing you to decide whether it’s cheaper to start in Faro or Porto.
What to Eat
There are lots of great dishes that you should try while in Portugal, but a few stand out options include:
- Pastel de Nata: A creamy custard tart with a flaky pastry crust, often sprinkled with cinnamon and powdered sugar. Not only are they delicious, but with a typical price of around €1, they’re also incredibly affordable.
- Bacalhau: Codfish is a staple in Portuguese cuisine, and there are said to be 365 ways to prepare it – one for each day of the year. Some of the most popular dishes include:
- Bacalhau com Natas: Codfish baked with creamy sauce and potatoes.
- Bacalhau à Lagareiro: Codfish roasted with olive oil, garlic, and potatoes.
- Bacalhau à Brás: A delightful mix of codfish, finely chopped straw fries, and scrambled eggs.
- Grilled Fish: Especially robalo (sea bass) or dourada (sea bream). These fish are often grilled to perfection with simple seasonings, allowing their natural flavors to shine. As a frequent “dish of the day” in many local eateries, they can be a budget-friendly option for travelers.
- Caldo Verde: A comforting green soup made from thinly sliced kale, potatoes, and chorizo. It’s a popular starter and is deeply rooted in Portuguese culinary traditions.
- Francesinha: Hailing from Porto, this indulgent sandwich is filled with cured ham, steak, and sausage, covered in melted cheese, and drenched in a rich tomato and beer sauce. Often served with a side of fries, it’s a hearty dish that’s sure to satisfy.
If you’re vegan or vegetarian, be aware that Portugal isn’t a very vegetarian friendly country (although this is starting to change). Porto and Lisbon are exceptions to this, and here you’ll find everything from plant-based buffets like Da Terra to higher end restaurants such as AO26. There are even places that offer vegan custard tarts.
Travelling Solo in Portugal
Portugal is a dream destination for solo travelers, offering a blend of rich cultural experiences, stunning landscapes, and a warm, welcoming atmosphere. One of the standout features of traveling solo in Portugal is its relative safety. The country consistently ranks as one of the safest in Europe, and this extends to solo travelers, including females. While it’s always essential to exercise standard precautions, Portugal’s friendly and respectful culture ensures that solo adventurers can explore with confidence and peace of mind.
For those looking to socialize and meet fellow travelers, hostels are an excellent choice. Many hostels in Portugal offer meals, creating communal dining experiences that foster connections and friendships. Sharing a traditional Portuguese meal, like bacalhau or caldo verde, with fellow backpackers can lead to shared adventures, travel tips, or simply great conversations. Plus it’s affordable: usually it’s priced around €10.
While you don’t need to be fluent in Portuguese to travel around the country, picking up a few basic phrases in European Portuguese can enhance your experience. Locals appreciate the effort, and even simple greetings or thank yous can open doors to more authentic interactions. Remember, in Portugal, it’s European Portuguese that’s spoken as opposed to Brazilian Portuguese, so focusing on this variation will serve you best.