25 Fun and Quirky Facts about Portugal You Should Know
Written by Nadia
Located on the edge of the Iberian peninsula in southwestern Europe lies a fascinating country with a world of wonders to explore.
Welcome to Portugal – a land of friendly and welcoming people, gastronomical delights, sunny weather, and rich history and culture. Don’t assume Portugal is all football, port wine, and Fado – the quirks of this country run much deeper.
If you think you know all the big facts about Portugal, think again! I’ve put together a detailed list of fun facts about Portugal, from its old capital city Lisbon to its history traced across the Atlantic Ocean.
So grab a glass of vinho do Porto and let’s get into it!
1. Portugal is One of the Oldest Nation-States in Europe
Portugal may not be as big as some of its neighbors, but it packs a mighty historical punch! This ancient nation-state officially became a kingdom way back in 1139. Its borders have remained mostly unchanged since the late 13th century when the Portuguese and Spanish signed a treaty handing over the Algarve to Portugal.
In 1142, Portugal saw the rise of its first king, Afonso I, who paved the way for a monarchy that would last a whopping 800 years. However, in 1910, the country bid farewell to its long-standing monarchy and became a republic.
But the country’s rich history stretches back even further to prehistoric times. It’s been home to the Celts, Romans, and Carthaginians.
2. Lisbon is Home to the Oldest – and Smallest – Bookstore in the World
For the bookish person, a visit to Portugal’s capital city Lisbon is a must! The city’s tiled streets are brimming with independent bookstores, a testament to Portugal’s deep and abiding love for literature.
But the Portuguese people’s love of literature runs even deeper, reflected in Livraria Bertrand – the world’s oldest bookstore. Having first opened in 1732, the Bertrand bookstore is a treasure trove of literary history, where centuries-old stories share shelf space with contemporary bestsellers.
This unique bookstore proudly holds a position as the longest-operating bookstore in the Guinness Book of Records.
3. Lisbon is Home to One of the World’s Oldest Universities
Founded in 1290, the University of Coimbra stands as one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the world, boasting an impressive legacy that spans centuries.
Over the years, the university has grown and expanded, spreading throughout the city of Coimbra and creating a vibrant University City. In 2013, UNESCO recognized its cultural significance by designating it a World Heritage Site. This further cemented the university’s position as a hub of academic excellence.
4. The Birthplace of Some of the World’s First Explorers
As early as the 14th century, Portugal turned to the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean as its outlet to the wider world. Under the leadership of Prince Henry the Navigator, the country played a crucial role in the Age of Discovery and Exploration.
The pioneering spirit of Henry and his peers fueled an era that witnessed the expansion of European influence across the globe. Some of the most pioneering achievements include:
- Ferdinand Magellan’s first circumnavigation of the globe.
- Vasco de Gama’s discovery of the sea route to India.
- Bartolomeu Diaz’s voyage around the Cape of Good Hope (the Southern tip of Africa).
- Pedro Alvares Cabral’s discovery of Brazil and other parts of Africa, Asia, and Europe.
These fearless navigators from Portugal marked a significant milestone in the history of exploration and world geography. Talk about a worldly fact!
5. The First Country in the World to Decriminalize the Consumption of All Drugs
Portugal’s drug laws are quite dope! In 2001, the country took a bold step and became the first country in the world to decriminalize all drugs, from marijuana and cocaine to even meth and heroin!
While drug trafficking is still a major no-no, the possession of drugs for personal use isn’t legally prohibited and does not carry criminal penalties.
This progressive move was made to combat the rising drug epidemic and HIV cases that plagued the country in the 90s. Nowadays, Portugal has some of the lowest drug usage rates in the European Union (EU).
6. Port Wine – Portugal’s Most Famous Export and National Drink
Vinho do Porto is a fortified wine that’s been putting the “port” in Portugal for centuries. With its distinct rich and sweet flavor, deep color, and boozy punch of 20% alcohol, it’s no surprise that port wine is Portugal’s most famous export and national drink!
The grapes used to make this wine can only be grown on the steep terraced hillsides of the Douro Valley near Porto. It’s one of the oldest wine-producing regions in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, making this tasty beverage all the more unique.
7. The Portuguese People are Famous Fatalists
The Portuguese really know how to embrace their emotions, even the bittersweet ones. It’s a part of their culture to accept their destiny, be it good or bad, and to think that no choices or actions will make a difference.
That’s where the soulful music genre that they’re so well-known for, Fado, comes in. This soul-stirring music weaves together the raw emotions of love, loss, hope, and resignation. This traditional form of Portuguese singing has even been granted the prestigious UNESCO World Intangible Cultural Heritage status.
Fado also appears in everyday speech. For example, the word “saudade” is said to be untranslatable but oh-so relatable. It’s that feeling of longing for something or someone you can’t have. Melancholy yearning, you might say.
8. Lisbon Suffered One of the Largest Natural Disasters in World History
Portugal’s capital city Lisbon is not only famous for its picturesque streets, ornate architecture, and tradition of Fado music but also for a seismic event – the Lisbon earthquake – that almost saw the city wiped out completely.
In 1755, a massive earthquake, which registered between 8.5 to 9 on the Richter scale, brought utter devastation to Lisbon. Contemporary reports state the earthquake lasted between three and six minutes. It was followed by a tsunami shortly after, which engulfed the harbor and downtown area in mere minutes.
To add to the catastrophe, lit candles that had been placed throughout the city for All Saints’ Day were knocked over, causing widespread fires that raged for hours.
The aftermath was devastating, with tens of thousands of people losing their lives and the majority of the city’s buildings, including palaces and libraries, destroyed.
9. The Portuguese Were the Actual Inventors of Tempura – Not the Japanese!
As far as wild and fun facts about Portugal go, this is definitely one of the craziest! Did you know that tempura, that source of deliciously light and crispy fried goodness, actually has its origins in Portugal?
It’s crazy but true! In the 16th century, the Portuguese came across Japan during their explorations. Before Japan closed its doors to trade, the Portuguese brought with them various culinary delights, including tempura and castella cake – which is now a specialty in Japan.
10. The Proud Rooster is an Important Symbol in Portugal
The noble rooster being a symbol in Portugal is no boring tale. Celebrated for its courage and tenacity, its status as a national symbol actually has an interesting history behind it.
The story is a long one but the gist of it is: a man was wrongly accused of a crime and, despite his protests of innocence, was sentenced to death. But just as he was about to be hanged, a rooster appeared and let out a crow that proved the man’s innocence.
Talk about being in the right place at the right time!
The rooster, known as Barcelos, became a symbol of hope and justice. Today, you can find Barcelos roosters everywhere – from plush toys to hand-painted plates.
11. Certain Baby Names are Banned
Did you know that if you want to start a family in Portugal, you can’t just name your baby anything you want? You heard right – the Portuguese government has a whopping 80-page-long list of banned baby names.
Some banned baby names include Ashley, Brian, Charlotte, Douglas, Logan, and Jimmy. There are even crazy specific banned baby names like Do Sorriso, Ivanhoe, Jaiantcumar, and even Portugal. Nicknames and abbreviations are also not allowed.
So, Portugal's got some rules about baby names to keep things traditional and respectful. The government peeps (IRN) have a list of cool and not-so-cool names. They don't want names that are foreign, offensive, confusing for gender, weirdly spelled, or surnames as first names. They're all about keeping Portuguese culture and heritage in check! And yes, they update that list now and then to keep up with the times. 😉
Plus, don’t even try to sneak in pop culture references, Portugal has also banned the name Rihanna and even Olaf! Sorry for all the Frozen lovers.
12. Portuguese is One of the Most Widely Spoken Languages
…And one of the most romantic! Derived from Vulgar Latin and Medieval Galician, Portuguese is the official language of Portugal and the 7th most spoken language in the world.
As a result of the country’s colonial empire, the Portuguese language spread worldwide and is now the official language of several independent countries and regions. These include Brazil, Cape Verde, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Sao Tome, and more.
With around 230 million native Portuguese speakers, it’s no wonder it’s considered one of the most romantic languages. People love hearing the melodic and rhythmic sounds of the Portuguese language.
13. It’s a Surfer’s Paradise – Plus, the Biggest Wave Ever Surfed Was in Portugal
For surfers, Portugal is the ultimate playground. Not only does it have epic waves, but it also has an awesome surf culture.
The rugged coastline of Nazaré is legendary among surfers seeking to conquer towering waves. In fact, this region holds the world record for the biggest wave ever surfed!
In 2011, American surfer Garrett McNamara made history by surfing a colossal wave that measured a staggering 78 feet, setting a new world record.
The feat was then repeated in 2020 when German surfer Sebastian Steudtner broke the record with a jaw-dropping 86-foot wave.
14. You Can Find the World’s Most Beautiful McDonald’s in Portugal
If you’re lovin’ McNuggets and Big Macs – you’re in for a real treat! Portugal is home to the most beautiful McDonald’s in the world.
Housed in an Art Deco building that was once the legendary Imperial Cafe, this McDonald’s is a feast for the eyes. With stunning stained-glass windows, ornate friezes, and elegant chandeliers, you’ll feel like you’re dining in a palace instead of a fast-food joint.
Despite looking like an eatery worthy of royalty, they still serve up all those delicious favorites you can find at the less-pretty McDonald’s.
15. Over Half the World’s Cork Comes from Portugal
As far as fun facts about Portugal go, this is not necessarily the most exciting but it is one of the more interesting facts about the country.
Portugal boasts the world’s largest cork forest and produces over 70% of the world’s cork exports. The cork tree flourishes in Portugal’s climate – the country is blessed with even rainfall, sunny days, mild winters, and short dry periods.
The USA, the UK, and Germany are among the biggest importers of this versatile material, which has a variety of uses from wine bottle stoppers to flooring.
16. Portugal is One of the Most Peaceful Countries
Portugal is a true haven of tranquility and contentment, boasting a status as one of the most peaceful countries. In fact, this European country ranked 6th out of 163 countries in the 2022 Global Peace Index.
With its harmonious society and low crime rates, Portugal offers a safe and secure environment for locals and visitors alike.
17. Aye! – the ‘Pirate’s Code’ Was Invented by a Portuguese Buccaneer
If you’re familiar with ‘pirate-speak’, you’ve probably heard the term “parley”. But where does this come from? Was it real and did pirates actually follow it?
Well, legend has it that the infamous “Pirate’s Code” was written by the Portuguese buccaneer Bartolomeu Português. This swashbuckling pirate operated in the 1600s and his, albeit infamous, legacy lived on in the form of the Pirate’s Code.
18. Portugal’s Most Famous Dessert Was Invented by Monks
Anyone with a sweet tooth will love the taste of the delicate and flaky Pastéis de nata – Portugal’s most popular dessert. While this egg-custard tart can now be found in cafes all throughout the country, they were first enjoyed exclusively by monks in the centuries-old Jerónimos Monastery in Belém.
To this day, the monks’ secret recipe remains closely guarded. But you can still taste the authentic flavor of these famous treats by visiting the pastry shop, Fábrica dos Pastéis de Belém.
19. It’s Home to a Beautiful (but Eerie) Chapel of Bones
Located in Portugal’s south-central Alentejo region, the city of Évora holds one of the most fascinating and macabre attractions, Capela Dos Ossos (See on the map). Translated as “Chapel of Bone,” this unique site is built from human bones and skulls.
The chapel was built in an effort to combat the overcrowded graveyards. Three 17th-century Franciscan monks used the bones and skulls of some 5,000 individuals to create a sort of monument.
What makes this particular monument so eerie is the bone-chilling phrase “We bones that are here await yours” inscribed over the entrance.
20. To Pee in the Ocean is illegal
Among these quirky and fun facts about Portugal, this one is perhaps the most outrageous. In Portugal, there’s a law that protects the environment and keeps the sea clean from our number ones!
If someone is caught urinating in the ocean, they could end up paying a fine or even end up in the slammer! Although, it’s hard to imagine how the authorities can even detect that…
So, if you’re planning on visiting Portugal for a beautiful beach vacation, be sure to head to the bathroom before you go swimming!
21. The Portuguese are Serious World Record Holders
Portugal loves to go big or go home when it comes to setting world records. But they’re not satisfied with just breaking any old record, it has to be the weirdest and wackiest one possible.
Some of the records set by Portugal in the Guinness Book of Records are hilarious, while others are impressive feats of skill and determination.
Here are some of the world records Portugal holds:
- Smallest newspaper in the world, measuring a tiny 2 by 2.5 cm (0.7 x 0.9 inches)
- Largest Aletria, a traditional dessert that weighed a whopping 357 kg (787 lbs)
- Most espressos made in one hour by a team (21,000), achieved by Nestlé Portugal
- Largest gathering of people dressed as snowmen (489)
- Largest Portuguese folk dance, consisting of 747 people
- Most piano key hits in one minute (824), achieved by Antonio Domingos
22. Football: Portugal’s National Sport and Greatest Love
Football (soccer) is more than just a sport in Portugal, it’s a national obsession. The passion for the game is evident in the record-breaking number of paid-up members of the country’s most supported football club, S.L. Benfica.
However, it’s not just Benfica that commands the loyalty of the Portuguese. Other football clubs such as FC Porto and Sporting CP also have a massive following, making football an integral part of the country’s culture and identity.
Who can mention Portuguese football without mentioning the iconic Cristiano Ronaldo? Recognized as one the best soccer players in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo hails from Portugal’s Madeira archipelago. He’s won numerous awards throughout his career and is a beloved icon in Portugal.
23. Ruled Beyond The Grave – Portugal’s Posthumous Queen
Throughout its long history as a monarchy, Portugal has had some truly bizarre rulers. Perhaps the strangest of them all was not even alive when she was crowned: the infamous Dead Queen.
This strange story goes back to 1357 when King Pedro I, in a spur of passion, named his deceased lover Inês de Castro as his queen.
Not one to be deterred by death, the king ordered her remains to be exhumed and proceeded to crown her as Queen Inês de Castro, much to the bewilderment of his subjects. It just goes to show that love truly knows no bounds, not even death!
Their love affair is much like the Portuguese version of Romeo and Juliet, complete with quarreling families, exiled lovers, and tragic revenge. Except this is not a tale of fiction.
24. A Portuguese Woman Inspired The English’s Love of Tea
When you think of the English, it’s hard not to think of their love affair with tea. But did you know that it was a Portuguese woman who inspired their love for the beverage?
During the 17th century, Catherine of Braganza (daughter of Portugal’s King John IV) married King Charles II, bringing with her a large dowry that included loose-leaf tea.
To be fair, tea had been introduced to England before Catherine’s arrival, but it had not gained much popularity and was mainly consumed for medicinal purposes. However, because Catherine was used to enjoying the beverage as part of her daily routine, it became popular as a social drink rather than a health tonic.
25. Portugal Has Its Own Form of Martial Arts
You would be right to associate martial arts with East Asia and their impressive styles like Kung-fu, Taekwondo, and Karate. But Portugal actually has its own unique style of martial arts known as Jogo do pau, which translates to “game of the stick.”
Jogo do pau was created by medieval farmers who wanted to learn self-defense. They used sticks, or paus in Portuguese, to fight off attackers.
The practice has evolved over the centuries and is now a highly respected martial art with formal training programs and competitions.
Interesting facts about Portugal FAQ
What are some fun facts about Portugal for kids?
Here are some fun facts about Portugal for kids:
- An egg-citing achievement – Portugal made the largest omelet in the world. Weighing a whopping 6.466 tonnes, the omelet was made with 145,000 eggs, 880 lbs of oil, and 220 lbs of butter. It took 55 chefs to cook it!
- The history of the Portuguese flag is as rich and colorful as the flag itself. The green and red colors represent hope and blood spilled for the country, while the coat of arms tells the story of Portugal’s exploratory past.
- You can find Europe’s westernmost point on mainland Portugal. Located on the cliffs of Cabo da Roca, just a short drive from Lisbon, you can find the westernmost point of continental Europe.
What are 5 important facts about Portugal?
- The Portuguese established the first global maritime and commercial empire: In 1494, the Treaty of Tordesillas was signed, giving Portugal control over the eastern half of the “New World”, which included parts of Africa, South America, and Asia. This established the Portuguese Empire as the first global empire in history.
- Portugal and England share the world’s oldest diplomatic alliance: The Anglo-Portuguese Alliance was established in 1373 and is still going strong today. The alliance has been put to the test, with both countries coming to each other’s aid in times of war.
- Portugal was the first colonial power to abolish slavery: Although Portugal took an active role in the transatlantic slave trade, it became one of the first nations to abolish it. In 1761, Portugal declared the end of slavery, almost 100 years before the US and 50 years ahead of other European nations such as Britain, France, and Spain.
- Portugal became the 6th country in the European Union to allow same-sex marriage: Happily, Portugal has come a long way since the fascist Estado Novo regime when homosexuality was outlawed and punished by imprisonment. Portugal’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage in 2010 was a significant stride towards LGBTQ+ rights.
- Portugal is named after its second-largest city: Founded in 1128, Portugal is named after its second-largest city, Porto.
What is Portugal famous for?
Portugal is a country famous for many things. From seafood delicacies to beautiful beaches and stunning architecture from its maritime empire days. It’s a country renowned for its legendary soccer players, empirical history, and soulful fado music. Let’s not forget about the delicious port wine and the fascinating attractions dotted throughout the country!
These 25 fun and quirky facts about Portugal only scratch the surface of this beautiful country. Whether you’re a seasoned traveler like myself or a curious beginner, there’s no doubt that Portugal will keep you intrigued. It certainly has me fascinated!
So after reading all these fun facts, why not add this incredible destination to your travel bucket list? Learning about Portugal’s quirks is ten times better when you’re visiting.