Your Quintessential Guide to Portuguese Culture
Portugal Is A Land Of Contrasts, As Is Portuguese Culture
You have neighboring regions that are so different in nature, people, and even level of development that it seems unbelievable that they are the same country. There are wild parties and conservative values, a culture of acceptance and a culture of conservative values, even the dialects they speak in different parts of Portugal are incredibly different.
How do you make sense of it all as a foreigner? You will not. It will seem quirky and illogical, and wonderful the way all new countries are at first. Then slowly you will find yourself not only understanding but loving and even picking up local customs.
If you want to speed it up: here is your quick but thorough introduction to Portuguese culture.
Geography And Language
Starting off with the basics: do you know where Portugal is and what kind of language they speak?
Don’t hate me for underestimating you! I am just trying to start off from the actual foundation of your future expertise on Portuguese culture (cool expression, huh?).
Well, if you have seen a map of Europe before, you know the answer to the first one. Portugal is that elongated country, squished by Spain on the Iberian Peninsula. Their only neighbor is Spain. And then there is the Atlantic ocean, which is just one of the reasons tourists adore Portugal—gorgeous beaches.
But that is not all there is to it. There are two archipelagos in the Atlantic that also belong to Portugal — Madeira and the Azores. Let me hype up the Azores for a second. Yes, they are a bit far away from… Basically everything.
But they are also a heaven for nature lovers, adventure enthusiasts, and just kind, Earth-loving people that want to spend their vacation in a sustainable way.
If you are going to be living in Portugal as an expat — keep an eye on airplane ticket offers and book them as soon as you see a good deal. You can thank me later!
For regions, the most popular with tourists are of course Algarve (year-round sunshine, wonderful beaches, and buzzing nightlife, is there really any need to explain), Estremadura, and the Ribatejo.
Porto is where, surprise-surprise, production of port wine is centered, but it is also great if somewhat underestimated destination.
The capital is Lisbon and it is famous for the trams, the stunning architecture, and the unspoiled charm of a city that has yet to be ‘conquered’ by the crowds of tourists. It is not an undiscovered gem, either so don’t go around expecting to be the first foreigner people have seen, all I am saying is that it is lovely to see a city that has such genuine and yet modest beauty.
Portuguese is the language they speak in Portugal.
Yes, thank you for this obvious statement. For a tongue that has over 215 million native speakers, there are too few foreigners that take it up as a second language. Most just prefer to study Spanish, convinced that they would get by in Portugal, too.
This is certainly true and I recommend Spanish over Portuguese as a second language to most people.
However, if you are going to live there, or travel long-term, or if you are just curious enough about Portuguese culture so as to be reading this article, go for Portuguese.
Out of the two, it is more difficult, which means that if you happen to want to learn Spanish it will be a piece of cake. Also, it is much more exotic, a definite CV enhancer (or even a source of job opportunities in itself), and the Portuguese will love you for learning it.
The best program to learn Portuguese is definitely Rocket Portuguese.
And while we are at it, let’s get to the single most important aspect of Portuguese culture — the people.
What A Typical Portuguese Is Like
Unlike Spaniards, the Portuguese are more modest, family-oriented, and can often come across as overly conservative.
Actually, what am I saying? One of my best Portuguese friends is basically the rock star of the group. He is always out and about, doing stuff, going out to clubs every night, making friends with all sorts of wonderful strangers, traveling on most weekends. You name it, he does it.
But he also madly respects his mother and family.
I have rarely seen such a strong and genuine relationship between a mother and a son. He even got her favorite quote tattooed on his arm. So this is the example of a Portuguese young person that I want you to keep.
They love life, they love to have fun, they enjoy just about any form of art (or maybe it is that the Portuguese I know happen to be cool people). But it does not mean that family is not ultimately above it all.
Looking Pretty And Seeing Pretty
Another aspect of Portuguese people is how much they value beauty. It is not in a superficial way either. Not necessarily anyways. Take style for instance. Virtually all the Portuguese I have met have an effortless sense of style. They are truly the epitome of using style to express yourself. And they do so in a natural, no-fuss, no one hour of doing hair and makeup in the morning, every morning, nothing like that.
Think of them as a nation of fun-loving people that like pretty things. They also love art, as I mentioned above. Right now, I am seriously considering whether this is not just the Portuguese I know. Maybe everyone I have come across has this hipster streak in them? Well, go figure it out by yourself (such an informative Portuguese culture guide, I know).
But we never talked about food? How come I am doing an article on a culture that has not talked about food yet? Excuse me while I go check if I have a fever. Yes, OK, anyways:
The one thing you need to remember is that if you can’t eat seafood, you will struggle.
Like, struggle a lot, because in many regions (if not in all of them), the daily menu is based on fish or other seafood. But if in Porto, and if in love with slightly junky food (hey, higher risk of coronary heart disease), there is another dish you should absolutely try.
Wikipedia says it is a sandwich, but I beg to differ. The francesinha is way too complex and rich to be called a mere sandwich. It is a meat dense ‘sandwich’, covered with melted cheese and hot, thick tomato paste. The sauce (yes, it’s served in a sauce) always varies. The only constant ingredient is the beer, which should also accompany the dish, of course. The rest depends on the restaurant. In Porto, every local has a favorite francesinha place where the sauce is always ‘a secret recipe’. Just ask around, explore, and you will soon find the perfect francesinha eatery for you.
With all that covered, all that is left is dessert. The pasteleria will become your new favorite place in whatever city or town you are staying in. Pasteleria is Portuguese for pastry shop also known as the chamber of secret delights. The pastel de nata should be the first thing you try, of course.
You will soon figure out why it is so universally adored. But after you have that covered, branch out to bolos de mel (honey balls), toucinho de ceu (literally an almond cake from the heavens), and my personal favorite — the barriga de freira. With a name that translates to nun’s belly and a buttery, caramel flavor, this dessert is as wonderful as it is diet-unfriendly. In fact, a diet killer because once you taste them you will be hooked.
What Makes A Portuguese…Portuguese
And now that we have satisfied our hedonistic foodie tendencies, let’s talk about something more serious.
If I could use one word to describe the Portuguese national character, it would definitely be nostalgia.
You can see the respect and love these people have for their past everywhere. The national flag includes the armillary sphere, an instrument used for marine navigation, to symbolize the era of Portugal’s global exploration. Even in art, there is almost always the underlying feeling of saudade.
Saudade is the melancholia of an expat living far from the homeland, loving it, but never reaching it.
Love for the motherland is one thing all Portuguese share. As with other things in Portuguese culture, it is not nationalism per se, but a deep-rooted patriotism. The fado music, for instance, expresses this ever sorrowful love and longing for home.
Even if you only googled Portuguese culture for fun and stumbled upon my article, please listen to some fado.
It seems to me that what I failed to explain, this quintessentially Portuguese music will manage to. And while we are at it, why not take up Portuguese?
It will give you an entirely different and more profound insight into this beautiful country and culture.
PS: Get instant access to the best way to learn Portuguese right here.