25 Fun Facts About Portugal That Will Surprise You

Portugal is one of the oldest nations in Europe. It’s full of character, peculiarities, and traditions that differentiate it from other Mediterranean countries. As such, there are plenty of fun and interesting facts about Portugal that aren’t so well-known by the global audience.

Whether you’ve visited Portugal and explored its rich history or you haven’t yet enjoyed its incredible food and sunny disposition, you’ll certainly want to know more. Which is exactly why we have compiled a list of 25 facts about Portugal that will help you learn more about this fascinating country.

Fun & interesting facts about Portugal

1. Portugal is the oldest nation-state in Europe 

In fact, it’s maintained its original borders since 1139. And to put this into perspective, its capital city of Lisbon has been around four centuries longer than Rome.

2. Portuguese is the official language of 9 countries

As Portugal was the ruler of one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen, it’s not surprising that the Portuguese language has traveled way beyond its borders. As a matter of fact, it’s said that more than 236 million people around the world are native speakers of Portuguese! It’s the official language of Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and São Tomé and Príncipe. It is also spoken in Goa (India), Macau (on the southern coast of China), and East Timor (Southeast Asia).

3. More than half of the world’s cork comes from Portugal 

The cork oak is one of the few indigenous trees still in existence in Portugal. The country definitely reaps the benefits of that as it produces around 70% of the world’s cork. It is actually illegal to cut down a cork tree unless licensed by the government. Isn’t that crazy?

4. The oldest bookstore in the entire world is located in Lisbon

There are many independent bookstores huddled around the city’s trademark cobbled streets. As a nation of book lovers, it comes as no surprise that the oldest bookstore is located in the Portuguese capital. The name of the oldest bookstore is Bertrand, and it is located in the Chiado neighborhood and opened its doors in 1732. This curious fact about Portugal was verified by the Guinness Book of Records in 2011.

5. Portugal became the sixth country in Europe to legalize same-sex marriage

Fortunately, Portugal managed to evolve considerably since the dark days of the fascist regime of Estado Novo. Back then, homosexuality was prohibited and punishable by imprisonment, much like in many other countries during this period. But in 2010, Portugal took a big step forward in favor of LGBT rights. Within the first year, about 380 same-sex couples got married, a number that continued to increase continuously since then.

Facts about Portuguese food

6. Monks and nuns are responsible for the creation of some of Portugal’s best traditional sweets

And funnily enough, most of them have saintly (and odd) names, like nun’s belly, angel’s double chin, or bacon from the heavens. These are all exquisitely delicious and contain absolutely no meat, I promise! What they do contain, and in a large number, are egg yolks. Historically, these clergy people used egg yolks to starch their habits and preserve wine. So, they began to use the leftover yolks to make wonderful sweets and pastries.

If you’re curious to know more, you should check out this article on Portuguese desserts, as many of the featured perfectly exemplify this fact.

Photo by guitorres

7. The world-renowned ‘pastéis de belém’ (custard egg tarts) were created by monks in the 13th century

This fact goes very much in line with the previous one, but as it is the most famous Portuguese pastry of all, it deserves a shoutout of its own. The monks who came up with it were those of the Jeronimos Monastery in Lisbon.

Apparently, the building was in danger of being shut down following the Liberal Revolution of 1820, so the monks began to sell their egg tarts to a nearby refinery. Three years later, the owner of said refinery opened the first Pastéis de Belém store, which has remained open until this day and is still managed by the descendant of the founding family. So, if you find yourself in Lisbon, don’t miss out on the opportunity to try one of these out yourself.

8. The Portuguese made a pork sausage without any actual pork meat in it

And no, it’s not a vegan alternative. It’s called ‘alheira‘, absolutely delicious and it’s got quite an interesting origin story. You see, it was invented by the Portuguese Jewish communities in the 16th century, to disguise their faith during the Inquisition. Inspectors would often do random checkups on houses, so the Jewish made the sausage out of chicken and bread, which very much resembled a pork sausage when hung up to be smoked. Ingenious, right? Alheira is now one of the staples of Portuguese gastronomy and is eaten by all.

Photo by Robert Grant

9. There are more than a thousand ways to cook codfish in Portugal

Portuguese gastronomy is known to be quite diversified, so it’s no wonder they could make so many variations with a single item. Not one person knows how to prepare codfish (or bacalhau) in a thousand different ways but every true Portuguese will know of at least ten! The tradition of eating this fish comes from the rich nautical history of the Portuguese people, dating back to the discovery era. And if codfish isn’t your favorite, I’m sure there are hundreds of ways to cook other fishes, too.

Facts about Portuguese people

10. In Portugal, people greet each other with two kisses

Regardless of whether you’re well-acquainted with someone or not, it’s customary to greet people with two kisses, one on each cheek. Doing this means you are well-mannered. If you’re curious to know more, I’ve covered it in more detail on this Portuguese greetings post.

11. Porto and Lisbon are the two oldest and biggest rivals in the country

And yes, I know that in other countries it’s also normal for there to be a rivalry between North and South. But the thing with this particular instance is that the feud is only between the two biggest Portuguese cities, not the regions. Despite sharing many things that should bring them together, Porto and Lisbon natives really do hate one another with a passion. And it’s even worse when soccer is concerned, particularly between FC Porto and Sl Benfica fans. 

12. Lisbon natives are affectionately called ‘lettuces’

There are many theories to explain the fact, but the favorite seems to be related to the Moor invasions. You see, the Moors first cultivated ‘al-hassa‘ (which became ‘alface‘ in Portuguese, meaning ‘lettuce’) in Portugal. During wartime, the only thing left to eat in the city were lettuces, as a big part of its hills were lettuce plantations. Well, the name has stuck, and everyone in Portugal (but themselves) still refers to them as ‘lettuces’ – some more affectionately than others.

13. Porto natives are called ‘gutters’, as in ‘guts’

Yet the origin story is actually proven, unlike the previous one. During the rule of King John I, in the 15th century, a secret maritime expedition was organized to conquer the city of Ceuta, in North Africa. It is said that the people of Porto provided all the food for the fleets, especially meat, remaining only the entrails of the animals for themselves. Nowadays, a dish done with those entrails has become a region’s staple – the famous ‘Porto-fashioned guts’ (tripas à moda do Porto).

Historical facts about Portugal

14. Portugal’s empire was the longest-lived of the modern European empires

This isn’t necessarily a good thing, as the Portuguese were also the first Europeans to deal in the slave trade. But at its peak, Portugal’s empire stretched across what are currently 53 different nations. All former colonies were independent by the end of 1975, in the aftermath of the Carnation Revolution. The only exception was Macau, which was transferred to China only in 1999, after an astounding 442 years since colonization.

15. Lisbon was nearly completely destroyed by an earthquake, followed by a tsunami only 40 minutes later

On November 1st, 1755, during the religious celebration of All Saints’ Day, Lisbon was shaken by a monumental earthquake that destroyed a big portion of the city. Reports of the incident indicate that it lasted between three and six minutes and cracked open rifts five-meters-wide in the center of the city.

To make matters worse, approximately 40 meters later, a tsunami engulfed the downtown and port area. Two more waves followed. On top of that, the candles that had been lit all over the city for the religious ceremonies were knocked down during the earthquake, making the city burn for hours even after the tsunami receded.

This is the reason why you’ll seldom find buildings or structures dating back significantly in the Portuguese capital – mostly everything was destroyed and had to be rebuilt.

16. The origin of the Japanese tempura is attributed to Portuguese merchants

I bet you didn’t know this one, uh? But it is true that in the 16th century, a Chinese ship with three Portuguese sailors on board headed to Macau was diverted from its route, ending up on the Japanese island of Tanegashima. Those three were actually the first Europeans to set foot on Japanese soil, considered ‘southern barbarians’ by the uncultured locals. However, as Japan was in the midst of a civil war, the people began to trade with the Portuguese.

Besides firearms, soap, tobacco, and wool, some recipes were also sold, including the notorious tempura, which quickly became a regularly consumed item.

Weird facts about Portugal

17. The Portuguese national symbol is an undead rooster

And every self-respecting souvenir shop in Portugal will have at least one form of the Barcelos rooster to sell! In short, the legend goes that the rooster miraculously rose from death (even after being roasted) to prove the innocence of a man who had been falsely accused and sentenced to be executed.

If you’d like to know the legend in full detail, which more of a folk tale actually, just type ‘Barcelos rooster’ on Google and give it a go. And if you know Nando’s, you’ll certainly recognize the rooster in its logo.

18. In Portugal, there is a predetermined list of names you can call your child 

If you know a handful of Portuguese names, chances are you know them all. Unfortunately, the Portuguese aren’t allowed to get too creative with names, as they cannot register their baby unless it’s on the list. This is likely done so a person’s first name doesn’t generate doubts about the individual’s biological gender. The rules don’t apply to foreign parents who register their children in the country, of course. And a lot more names have been included over the years, so my first statement might have been a bit of an exaggeration.

Want to know if yours made the cut? Check out the government-issued list, then.

19. The Hogwarts uniforms were based on the traditional Portuguese academic attire

When you visit Portugal, don’t find it too odd if you see young people dressed in black capes, reminiscent of the robes worn by the protagonists of Harry Potter. This is actually the academic attire worn by students who choose to partake in the ‘praxis’ (a custom similar to hazing).

The connection makes perfect sense too, as Harry Potter author J.K Rowling lived in Porto for 18 months, which is why many believe that the student garments along with several spots across the city have inspired elements of the saga’s plot.

20. There’s a festival in which you’re encouraged to hit people with leeks

Which is by far the weirdest addition to this category, wouldn’t you agree? But this happens on the night of the 23rd of June when Portuguese people hit the streets to celebrate the St. John’s festival. Especially in Porto, the capital of the North!

It obeys an old courtship custom, and many refer to the event as the ‘festival of lovers’. So on this night, you’ll see people hitting those they find attractive with plastic toy hammers or bouquets of leeks.

Facts you might not know about Portugal

21. Portugal has an untranslatable word for a feeling

And that word is ‘saudade‘. It is a profound emotional state of nostalgia or melancholic longing for something or someone who’s absent but deeply loved. More than that, it often carries the implicit understanding that the object of longing might never be recovered.

As it may describe both happy and sad sentiments, the closest equivalent in the English language would be ‘bittersweet’. But even then, it’s not accurate enough…

22. The biggest waves in the world were surfed in Portugal 

In fact, the country is well-known for its extensive 800-kilometer shore and favorable climatical conditions for surfing. As it never gets too cold or too hot, you can go surfing pretty much every day of the year. Many surf competitions are held on Portuguese shores, and the world records for the biggest waves surfed were also achieved here. Gnarly!

23. The 5 o’clock tea tradition isn’t actually British, but Portuguese

It was Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess, who popularized the afternoon tea culture. She married Charles II of England, providing a generous dowry consisting of far too much gold, the right for England to trade in any Portuguese territory and the city of Bombay. And as history goes, Portugal was the first European country to establish trade routes with China and commercialize tea. So it follows that the pious princess Catherine imposed what would become the most British of all habits – the 5 o’clock tea.

24. Portugal has its own musical genre

It’s called ‘fado’, meaning fate, and it dates back to the 1820s. The themes for the genre are usually the harsh reality of everyday life, balancing the sentiments of resignation and hope. And of course, they also sing of the very Portuguese ‘saudade‘. Fado is likely the thing that gives the Portuguese people the inaccurate reputation of being melancholic.

And if you’d like to learn more about the specifications of the genre, I go into a bit more detail in this article about the things Portugal is famous for.

25. A woman was pronounced Queen after she was already dead

And this is actually more romantic than morbid, I think… And I’m of course referring to the greatest (and true) Portuguese love story, that of Peter and Inês de Castro, perpetuated by the verses of Luis de Camões, the nation’s poet.

It’s a tale of forbidden love between a prince and a maid, how his father and the people disapproved of it and had Inês killed, which drove Peter mad with rage and made him rip the hearts out of the executioners. When Peter’s time came, he finally joined his beloved forever, as they both are buried facing each other, never to be separated again.

It is a bloodier tale than Romeo and Juliet, sure, but it also precedes it, and it’s based on true events. If you’d like to learn the legend in full, I invite you to check out Tia Maria’s post.

And so we’ve reached the end of this long list. I hope you’ve learned a new thing or two and that you’ve become sufficiently interested to want to (re)visit the wonderful country of Portugal. And if you’re wishing to discover more about the Portuguese language, the people, holidays and cuisine, I invite you to read our article on Portuguese Culture: Customs & Traditions.

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