Portuguese Culture: Customs & Traditions

At the mention of Portugal, most people will have Cristiano Ronaldo’s name roll out of their mouths, or they will praise the beautiful beaches down south and how there’s an impeccably tailored wine for every person. Yet Portuguese culture is so much more than meets the eye and so much more than what you’d assume by what you’ve seen or heard.

It has its origins in Celtic, Galician, African, Iberian, Germanic and Roman cultures, but it differs greatly from countries that share these roots. Let’s discover all there is to know about Portuguese culture, from language and religion to art, holidays, traditions and celebrations.

porto riverside
Porto riverside, viewed from Gaia pier

Language

The official language of Portugal is Portuguese, one of the first cultured languages of medieval Europe alongside Provençal, and its writing is influenced by the latter.

Portuguese is a West Romance language originating in Galician-Portuguese, spoken in the Kingdom of Galicia and northern Portugal. After the establishment of the Portuguese Kingdom in 1139 and the following expansion to the south as part of the Reconquista, the language got even further diffused, especially later to the Portuguese colonies, Brazil, Africa, and other parts of the world.

There is a town where some people still speak a language derived from one of an ancient kingdom, the Kingdom of León, called mirandês. This language has less than 15,000 speakers (mostly as a second language) and is only spoken in small villages. Picote is the only place where nearly 100% of the population is monolingual in this language, which is quite curious for a culturally and linguistically homogenized country like Portugal.

There’s plenty of dialects from several parts of the country like Açoreano and Madeirense, from the archipelagos of Azores and Madeira respectively; Alentejano and Algarvio, from the southern regions of Alentejo and Algarve; and Tripeiro and Transmontano, the former from the second-most populated Portuguese city of Porto and the latter from the northern countryside area.

Religion

catholic church portugal

The Portuguese population is mostly Catholic, mainly due to tradition and historical circumstances. Catholics make up about 81% of the Portuguese population, according to the 2011 census, thus giving the Catholic Church considerable influence in society, although nowadays not as much as before.

There is also a relatively significant presence of Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses (0.5%). Jews, Anglicans, Muslims, Hindus, Orthodox, Bahá’ís, Buddhists, Gnostics, and Spiritists are the remaining minority religious groups in Portugal.

According to a study carried out in 2005, about 12% of the population believes in some other “form of spirit or life force” and about 6% don’t believe in any “divine force or spirit”.

Values

The Portuguese people, especially the ones living abroad, take great pride in their country. Many families emigrated during the 1960s and 1970s to avoid military service and escape poverty during the fascist dictatorship, settling in other European countries like Switzerland and France or in the United States. Natives of these countries see the Portuguese people as hard-working, warm, and family-oriented. Although many ex-pats never returned, these emigrants never forewent the Portuguese ways of life, and you’ll often find decorative tokens of Portuguese culture in their homes.

There’s an unspoken rule to be welcoming to foreigners – not that Portuguese people aren’t friendly to start with, but as tourism has a very significant impact on the country’s economy, folks tend to pay special attention to visitors.

Respect and hierarchy are a pretty big deal. While addressing someone with an academic degree, Portuguese people will use the appropriate terms. When addressing someone they aren’t familiar with, the polite speech form will be used (this usually entails using the 3rd person instead of the 2nd). This last rule also applies when speaking to someone considerably older.

Portuguese cuisine

Francesinha: essentially a sandwich stuffed with ham, linguiça, fresh sausage, steak, covered with melted cheese and a hot, thick spiced tomato and beer sauce; typically served with french fries.
Francesinha: essentially a sandwich stuffed with ham, linguiça, fresh sausage, steak, covered with melted cheese and a hot, thick spiced tomato and beer sauce; typically served with french fries.

Portuguese culture is a synonym for gastronomy, with both Atlantic and Mediterranean influences, as demonstrated by the amount of fish traditionally consumed.

The influence of Portugal’s former colonies is also notable, especially in the wide variety of spices used, like piri piri (small, fiery chili peppers), white and black pepper, paprika, and cumin, to name a few. Garlic and onions are common ingredients, along with herbs such as bay leaf, parsley, oregano, thyme, and coriander. But the holy grail of Portuguese cuisine is, unarguably, olive oil.

Some of the most common Portuguese dishes include Caldo Verde (a nice green soup with some chouriço sausage), Bacalhau (codfish, said to be cooked over a thousand different ways), Cozido à Portuguesa (an ensemble of different meats and vegetables boiled together), Feijoada (a meaty stew with beans) and the popular Francesinha.

Also Read: 25 Mouthwatering Portuguese Desserts You Must Try

Clothing

The Portuguese people don’t especially stand out in the fashion and clothing design department like their fellow Southern European neighbors. Even though not widely used, the Portuguese have their own traditional outfits that are evocative of Portuguese culture.

One is the Traje Minhoto, an outfit originated from the Minho region, in the North of Portugal, worn by women on some municipal holidays. It’s reminiscent of peasant wear, with flowy white blouses and a long rounded skirt, yet elevated, with floral embroideries and scarlet red color. The look is finished with a headscarf and pure gold statement earrings and necklaces.

The other is the Traje Académico, worn by university students in the major cities. It’s said that author J.K. Rowling got the inspiration for the Hogwarts uniforms from Porto scholars whilst she lived there. Just like depicted in Harry Potter, the outfit is made up of formal wear: a suit for the boys and a shirt and skirt for the girls, topped off with a long black cape. For the vast majority, the right to wear it is earned through a series of hazing activities – it’s a symbol for a rite of passage.

Art & Literature

luis de camoes portuguese poet

When it comes to art, it’s fair to say that the biggest name is Almada Negreiros, who occupied a central position in the first generation of Portuguese modernists.

Serralves Foundation, in Porto, is one of the most important art institutions worldwide, ranking in the top 100 most visited museums in the world. It includes a Contemporary Art Museum, designed by renowned Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza Vieira, a park and a villa, each one an example of contemporary, modernist, and art deco architecture.

Portuguese literature, however, bred great literary innovators, like poet Camões, who (much like Homer) wrote a fantastical interpretation of the Portuguese voyages of discovery – “Os Lusíadas” – or Fernando Pessoa, a great poet and philosopher of the twentieth century, known for writing not only under his name but also approximately seventy-five others, single-handedly translating his work to both English and French, and lastly, a Nobel prize for Literature winner, José Saramago.

Also Read: 15 Best Souvenirs From Portugal To Bring Home With You

Holidays and Celebrations

With the majority of the population being Catholic, the Portuguese celebrate all the main religious holidays, such as Christmas and Easter. They also celebrate Carnival (in a way similar to that of Brazil but more understated) and holy holidays, each city with its patron saint.

Here are the most important national holidays:

  • Liberty Day (April 25) – marks the Carnation Revolution, which dismantled the dictatorship in 1974
  • Portugal, Camões and the Portuguese Communities Day (July 10) – marks the death of the legendary poet Camões and is also used to recall not only past achievements but the millions of Portuguese people living outside their native country
  • Establishment of the Republic (October 5) – celebrates the end of the monarchy in 1910
  • Restoration of Independence (December 1) – celebrates the restoration of the independence in 1640, the end of 60 years of Spanish rule

Sports

Sport in Portugal is an important element of Portuguese culture, with soccer being the most popular. There are many other well-organized annual competitions at both professional and amateur levels, including basketball, swimming, tennis, gymnastics, futsal, roller hockey, handball, volleyball, surfing, and rugby among many others. In Portugal, there are more than 400,000 practitioners of federated sport.

Summer sports are also very popular and competitions are held nearly every year all over the country for beach soccer and volleyball.

People

bus stop portugal

Portugal is a soul-filled country with a rare individuality, an awareness of its unique features, and little-known treasures that make it so enigmatic and magnetic. The Portuguese are the people of “saudade”, which goes way beyond nostalgia or melancholia. It also means loving life with a burning passion, acknowledging the victories, and gathering strength from both good and bad moments.

Being Portuguese is being welcoming; it’s making their best effort to speak your language even when they don’t know it at all. It also means valuing friends and family, in fact, Sunday is reserved for family activities, like a nice family lunch at grandma’s.

They’re naturally curious, very open-minded, and talkative. They can talk for hours on any topic and they’ll surely make you feel heard and included. They’re also advocates to their culture, history and food, so tour guides won’t ever be necessary, any person you come by will happily teach all you’ll want to know.

Traditions

When talking about Portuguese traditions, Fado cannot go by unnoticed. It is a Portuguese musical style, marked by suffering and melancholy. It is usually sung by a single person (fadista) accompanied by a classical guitar and a Portuguese guitar. Fado was elevated to the category of Cultural and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

Another example of Portuguese tradition that stood the test of time is handicraft, which has a strong link to popular culture and is very characteristic of rural areas, where traditions remain alive, essentially transmitted orally from generation to generation. Each region has its own traditional and peculiar craftsmanship.

Handicraft is a big part of Portuguese tradition. It comprises:

  • Jewelry
  • Tapestry
  • Embroidery
  • Weaving
  • Basketry
  • Painted pottery

Also Read: What is Lisbon Famous For?

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