LOCATION: Portugal

POPULATION: 10.5 million

LANGUAGE: Portuguese

RELIGION: Roman Catholicism; Islam; Judaism; Protestantism


Portugal was one of the first European nations to be unified into a single country. It gained independence from Spain with the accession of King Alfonse I in 1143. The country is located in southwestern Europe. Due to colonization and emigration, there are Portuguese-speaking peoples living in North and South America, Asia, Africa, and Australia.

The Portuguese Age of Discovery began in the fifteenth century. This marked the beginning of a vast overseas empire which expanded for over three centuries. Portugal's wealth and importance declined after the loss of Brazil in 1822. In 1910, the monarchy was eliminated and a republic was declared. This was replaced by the dictatorial rule of António Salazar (1889–1970) in 1926.

The Salazar government was finally overthrown in 1974. A democratic government was established and a new constitution was adopted in 1976. During this period Portugal granted independence to its remaining colonies, including Angola and Mozambique. In spite of continuing poverty, especially in rural areas, the nation has seen numerous advances since the 1970s.


Portugal occupies about one-fifth—and most of the western coast—of the Iberian Peninsula (the rest of it is Spain). It is bordered on the south and west by the Atlantic Ocean and on the north and east by Spain, its only neighbor.

Portugal's population of 10.5 million people is ethnically homogeneous. This means that nearly all the people are of the same ethnic group. There is a small Muslim population of guest workers from North Africa and small Jewish and Protestant communities composed mainly of foreigners. There are also as many as 100,000 Roma, sometimes called Gypsies, mostly in the Algarve region.


Portuguese is a Romance language that is most closely related to the Spanish dialect Galician. Over time it was modified by the language of the Muslim Moors living in lands taken over by Portugal.


English Portuguese
good morning bom dia
good afternoon boa tarde
good evening boa noite
yes sim
no não
please por favor
thank you men say "obrigado;"
women say "obrigada"
goodbye adeus


The Portuguese are a deeply superstitious people. Their formal Catholicism is mixed with pre-Christian practices and beliefs. Offerings to saints—intended to promote healing—hang on strings near many church altars. Images on these offerings depict whatever is to be (or has been) healed. These include hands, heads, breasts, babies, and animals.

Popular superstitions involve the phases of the moon, the healing power of fountains, and the evil eye, which is the power to inflict bad luck on someone. The evil eye is feared in a number of situations. Ceremonies surrounding death and the occult abound. Portuguese widows are expected to wear black for about seven years, and many wear it for the rest of their lives. The loss of a parent is mourned for up to three years.


The overwhelming majority of Portuguese (97 percent) are Roman Catholics. Catholicism is at the center of Portuguese life. Portugal's holidays, its moral and legal codes, health and education systems have been greatly impacted by its Catholic heritage. While only about a third of the population attends church regularly, almost all Portuguese are baptized and married within the church and receive its last rites when they die. Religious observance is greater in the northern part of the country than in the south.

Churches occupy a prominent physical location in almost every Portuguese village. Many Portuguese make pilgrimages (romarias) to religious shrines. The most famous such shrine is the one at Fátima where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared before three children in 1917. The cult of the Virgin is very powerful in Portugal, and images of Mary and Christ are commonly seen even in such non-religious places as labor union offices.

There are small numbers of Muslims, Jews, and Protestants.


Most holidays celebrated in Portugal are those of the Christian calendar. Those with the status of national holidays are Shrove Tuesday (in February or March), Good Friday (in March or April), Corpus Christi (in June), All Saints' Day (November 1), the Immaculate Conception (December 8), and Christmas (December 25). Secular holidays include New Year's; Liberty Day (April 25), which commemorates the death of the national poet, Luiz Vaz de Camões, in 1580; Portugal Day (June 10), which celebrates the 1974 Revolution; Proclamation of the Republic Day (October 5), celebrating the founding of the Republic in 1910; and Restoration of Independence Day (December1).

In rural areas, villagers honor their patron saint during the annual festa. This celebration is both religious and secular. There is a procession, and people fulfill their religious vows (promessas) for the occasion. The festivities may last several days and often include such non-religious elements as picnics, dancing, fireworks, and bullfights.


Portugal is a modern, industrialized, Christian country. Because of this, many of the rites of passage that young people undergo are religious rituals, such as baptism, first communion, confirmation, and marriage. Also, a student's progress through the education system is marked by many families with graduation parties.


When the Portuguese greet each other, they kiss on both cheeks. Those who live in the northern part of the country, which has been isolated from foreign influences, are formal, conservative, and reserved among strangers. In the south people are generally more casual, relaxed, and friendly. In the north, many people are referred to by nicknames (alcunhas), which are an important part of their identities.


Over half of all Portuguese rent their homes. Rural villagers often live without electricity or running water. Migration to the cities made an already existing shortage of urban housing worse. It also resulted in the growth of shantytowns (bairros da lata) which lack sewage systems. In response to this situation, the Portuguese government has instituted a $2 billion program to clear these slums and build low-income housing units.

Almost all sectors of Portuguese society have access to modern medical care. Portugal's national health service was inaugurated in 1979. While infant mortality rates were cut nearly in half between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, the government program is still insufficient to meet the nation's health care needs. It is supplemented by church-supported services. While home birth was common as recently as the 1960s, today almost all Portuguese women have their babies in hospitals.


The nuclear family headed by a father is the ideal throughout Portugal. But in reality families vary considerably according to class and region. Middle-and upper-class Portuguese, and those in the southern part of the country, are more likely to conform to the tradition. Women stay at home to raise children and run the household while men engage in business or the professions.

Among the poor, especially in the northwest, the relationship between husband and wife is a more equal one. Households are headed jointly. In farming families, women may work the fields alongside their husbands. Fishermen's wives may help repair nets or sell the day's catch. Due to high rates of male emigration, a relatively large number of women in the north never marry. Many have traditionally managed their own farms and remain financially independent.

The position of women in Portugal improved greatly after the end of the military dictatorship in 1974. The 1976 constitution guaranteed them full legal equality. By the early 1990s, women accounted for more than half of all persons enrolled in higher education and 37 percent of the country's physicians.


Western-style clothing is the norm, and people in the cities, especially in the city of Lisbon, dress well. However, traditional clothes—such as berets and loose-fitting shirts for men and black shawls for women—may still be seen in some rural areas.

12 • FOOD

Fish is the main staple of the Portuguese diet. Cod is the most popular. The average Portuguese eats about 100 pounds (45 kilograms) of it every year. It is prepared so many different ways in Portugal that there is said to be a different recipe for every day of the year.

Other commonly eaten seafoods include sardines, salmon, sole, sea bass, and hake, as well as eel, squid, octopus, and lamprey. Practically every Portuguese meal is accompanied by soup. The most popular is caldo verde (green soup), made with couve galega (Galician cabbage), sausage, potatoes, and olive oil. Another popular soup is sopa alentejana, simmered with bread, garlic (another staple of the Portuguese diet), and other ingredients. Caldeirada, a fish stew, is another popular national dish.

Portugal's varieties of succulent fruit, which vary regionally, provide some of its best desserts. These include peaches, strawberries, oranges, figs, plums, pineapples, and passionfruit. Of the sweet dessert offerings, the most common is arroz doce, a cinnamon-flavored rice pudding. Flan, a custard with caramel topping, is also very popular.


Education is free and compulsory to the age of fifteen. Many children, however, drop out after primary school to begin working. Secondary education is completed either at state-run high schools or at technical or professional institutes. The twelfth grade (at age eighteen) consists of preparatory study for university or technical college.

An estimated 2 percent of the population continue their education beyond the secondary level. Portugal's main universities are located in Lisbon, Porto, Aveiro, Coimbra, and Braga. There is also a government-supported adult education program, as well as hundreds of private schools, most supported by the Catholic Church.


Portugal's most famous poet was Luiz Vaz de Camões (1524–80), who wrote during Portugal's Age of Discovery. He was also an explorer himself. His epic poem, Os Lusiadas (The Lusiads), is based on the life of the famous explorer Vasco da Gama (c.1460–1524). In modern times, the poems of Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935) are popular. Freedom of expression has thrived in the period since the 1974 revolution. It has seen the publication of books that used to be banned as well as new ones by women writers such as novelist Olga Goncalves. Portuguese-Africans, including Angolan Jose Luandino Viera, have also become popular writers.

The Age of Discovery produced the Manueline style in architecture. This style expressed the national passion for exploration and the sea through the use of sailing images in buildings. Famous examples of this style include the Tomar and Batalha convents.

Also unique to Portugal are the decorative tiles known as azulejos. Adopted from Spain, they were modified by the Portuguese, who added a variety of colors, most notably the blue, or azure, from which they get their name.

In music, Portugal is known for its fado songs. These plaintive songs reflect the fatalistic Portuguese spirit of melancholy and nostalgia known as saudade. Performers of fado (which, roughly translated, means "fate") are known as fadistas.


Portuguese are known for being reliable and hard working. Industry employs about a third of the country's labor force. Nearly half work in service jobs. This is partially accounted for by the rapid growth in civil service employment since 1974. Employment varies by region.

In the Portuguese islands, the Azores and Madeira, the main occupation is agriculture. Madeira's embroidery industry employs about 70,000 women. In the south, the people in Portugal's Algarve region find employment in agriculture, fishing, and the tourist industry. Fishing is most important in the coastal villages. Cash-crop agriculture (wheat, corn, rice) employs most people in the Alentejo region in the southeast. Heavy industry, including steelworking, shipbuilding, and iron production, is concentrated in the Lisbon-Setubal region to the south. Other occupations include forestry, furniture making, food processing, winemaking, and pulp and paper production.


Soccer (called football) is the foremost sport in Portugal, as in much of Europe. Golf has grown increasingly popular, and the country now boasts more than twenty world-class golf courses. Tennis is widely played as well, and auto racing becomes the focus of attention during the annual Grand Prix of Portugal held in September.


One of the most popular recreational activities in Portugal is bullfighting (Tourada), with cavaleiros (bullfighters) dressed in eighteenth-century costumes. These costumes include tricornered hats, silk jackets, and riding breeches. In contrast to the violent bullfights in Spain and parts of Latin America, in Portugal the bull's horns are sheathed to avoid injuries, and bulls are not killed at the end of the event.

Another well-known national pastime is dancing. The fandango and other popular folk dances are enjoyed throughout the country. Other forms of recreation include horseback riding, fishing, hunting, skiing, and water sports.


Traditional craft industries can be found throughout Portugal. The people of the south are renowned for their rug making. Other regions are known for fine embroidery, black pottery, and basket weaving. Characteristic folk art is also seen on floats carried in religious pageants.


Violent crime is rare in Portugal. Murders generally occur in the context of personal conflicts rather than during the commission of other crimes, such as robbery. Many illegal drugs are shipped through Portugal because of its strategic location in relation to Western Europe and South America. There is no serious domestic drug problem, however. Emigration has served as a release for social tensions and discontent, helping to keep the crime rate low.


Ballard, Sam, and Jane Ballard. Pousadas of Portugal. Boston: The Harvard Common Press, 1986.

Cross, E., and W. Cross. Portugal . Chicago: Children's Press, 1986.

Gall, Timothy, and Susan Gall, eds. Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations. Detroit: UXL, 1996.

Hubbard, Monica M., and Beverly Baer, eds. Cities of the World: Europe and the Middle East. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993.

Kaplan, Marion. The Portuguese: The Land and its People. London: Viking, 1991.

McCarry, John. "Madeira Toasts the Future." National Geographic (November 1994): 90–113.

Moss, Joyce, and George Wilson. Peoples of the World: Western Europeans. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993.

Porter, Darwin. Frommer's Comprehensive Travel Guide (Portugal '94–'95). New York: Prentice Hall Travel, 1994.

Severy, Merle. "Portugal's Sea Road to the East." National Geographic (November 1992): 56–93.

Solsten, Eric. Portugal: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1994.


Investments, Trade and Tourism of Portugal. [Online] Available http://www.portugal.org/ , 1998.

World Travel Guide, Portugal. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/pt/gen.html , 1998.

User Contributions:

Report this comment as inappropriate
Nov 15, 2006 @ 3:03 am
ur article is amazing. i really got what i wanted. now i do not need to search the web again n again n again.
yassin garces bejraoui
Report this comment as inappropriate
Mar 18, 2007 @ 10:10 am
it's really good to achieve what i want only one little comment ,it will be nice to have a bit about most famous people in portugal. thanks a milion
Natali Fermin
Report this comment as inappropriate
May 10, 2007 @ 4:16 pm
I like this article alot because it helped me learn about that half of my religion. But I have one questions What are portuguese people called? for example Dominicana or Dominicano for a girl or boy who is Dominican...i want to know what that is for Portuguese females.
K. Freitas
Report this comment as inappropriate
Dec 8, 2009 @ 6:18 pm
Hey thanks, this is very complete and to the point. It is also very true. I've seen some people say good morning is buenos dias, which bugs the crap outa me cuz its not, so thx for gettin' it right!
Report this comment as inappropriate
Jul 29, 2010 @ 4:16 pm
We saw folk dancers perform while in Portugal on vacation. There was a black hat that was soft that the men wore that was kind of like a small windsock. What is that called? Where would I be able to purchase one?
Report this comment as inappropriate
Apr 25, 2011 @ 4:16 pm
Hey! I'm portuguese and I have to say the article is very good, maybe some "traditions" (like for example men working and women staying at home) are a bit old fashioned.
But actually, there is a mistake about the Holidays. Liberty Day (April 25, today!), is the celebration of the 1974 Revolution, while Portugal Day (June 10), commemorates the death of the national poet, Luiz Vaz de Camões, in 1580 and not the other way.

About the question by Natali, portuguese men are called portugueses and women portuguesas :)
Susan, I think the hat you mean is called bóina!
And buenos dias is spanish! The language is a bit similar maybe that is why unfortunately some people misunderstand it.

Beijos ;)
Report this comment as inappropriate
Dec 28, 2011 @ 10:10 am
Looking for the sheet music for the folk dance of Madeirs: I think it's called balinha de Madeira.

Would like to have a copy to play at gatherings of family from Madeira.

Thank you.
Report this comment as inappropriate
Apr 17, 2013 @ 10:10 am
I really liked this site! It was VERY helpful. Thanks!

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: