Much like New Jersey with New York or Uruguay with Argentina, Portugal is Spain’s little stepsister, lost in the shadow if its more dazzling neighbor. This is unfortunate, as Portugal is a fantastic destination in its own right, offering beautiful beaches, fascinating history, world-class souvenir shopping, friendly people and majestic palaces and churches. Top it off with friendly people, efficient transportation and some of the lowest prices in the European Union, and you’ll be glad to let all of the other tourists flock to Spain and have this small nation all to yourself.
Much of Portugal’s history mirrors that of Spain. It was home to different peoples during its early years, such as Celts and Lusitanians, before being conquered and added to the Roman Empire. Much of it was captured by the Moors, who ruled until the twelfth century. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Portugal became a world power, largely based on the strength of its navigators and sailors, considered the best in the world. Many of the most important explorers of the era, such as Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan, were Portuguese. Portugal was briefly (1580-1640) part of Spain, but they managed to become independent once again.
Although the twentieth century was a turbulent one for Portugal, it has matured into a modern, democratic nation boasting excellent services, safety and infrastructure sure to please any visitor. There is much to see in Portugal, from the modern capitol Lisbon to the coastal beaches and the majestic palaces and cathedrals spread out all over the land. The food is excellent, especially if you like seafood. The locals obviously speak Portuguese, but travelers who speak only English and/or Spanish should be able to get by fine, especially in touristy areas.
Portugal is generally considered to be made up of several different regions. From North to South, they are Porto and the North, Central Portugal, Lisbon and surroundings, Alentejo and Algarve. Also part of Portugal are the islands of Madeira and the Azores.
Porto and the North includes everything to the north of the Douro river, and is comprised of the provinces of Viana do Castelo, Braga, Porto, Vila Real and Bragança. Central Portugal runs from the Douro River in the north to the Tagus River and includes the provinces of Aveiro, Coimbra, Viseu, Guarda and Castelo Branca. Lisbon and surroundings includes the provinces of Lisboa, Leiria, Santarem and the northern part of Setubal. The Alentejo includes the southern part of Setubal, Portalegre, Evora, and Beja.
The Algarve is the southern coast and is comprised of solely the state of Faro.