Although Lisbon has lots of similarities with other European capitals, you should know how to avoid a cultural shock in in Lisbon.
Lisbon is a mix of stunning urban landscapes, amazing light and old trams. The city sits on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean where Tagus river ends, under the warm Portuguese sun. There are plenty of activities in and around Lisbon that will make your visit worthwhile.
If Portuguese cooking doesn’t charm you, at least the Portuguese people will!
Bring large clothes because you’re gonna gain weight.
We are proud of our food and don’t be surprised if the first place a local wants to take you is a restaurant.
Lisbon, nowadays, has restaurants from every region in Portugal. So, you can take a gastronomic country tour inside Lisbon. Just, loosen those belt loops and brace yourself to eat like you’ve never eaten before.
Portuguese cuisine is one of the most diverse in the world, considering our population and country size. According to Ferré Adriá, the famous El Bulli chef, we have the best fish and see food in the world.
Breakfast may be considered the most important meal of the day, but in Portugal, so is lunch and dinner. We love and live to eat.
You don’t have a sweet tooth? You will now.
Besides the famous Pastéis de Belém, Portuguese pastry is sweet and delicious and, usually, we always have desert after lunch and dinner at a restaurant.
Speaking of restaurants here’s some pointers, so that you know how to avoid a cultural shock in a Lisbon restaurant:
- Appetizers or Couvert
The bread, olives and butter that are presented to you when you sit at your table are not free. Some tourists think it’s complimentary and complain about this. This is common practice and it’s not intended to cheat foreigners.
Tipping is optional. Usually we give between 5 to 10%. It kind of depends on the service you had. Just remember that waiters usually are paid minimum wage (580€ per month) and all the spare change you have will be largely appreciated.
Some tourists, especially American, complain about Portuguese service at restaurants. Remember that firstly, if you’re having a cheap meal it’s mainly because wages are low. Secondly, Portuguese don’t like to be bothered all the time with a “is everything ok?” question. If we want something, we’ll ask for it. For the rest of the time, we like to be left alone.
Traditional restaurants lunch time is between 12h30 (sometimes 12h00) and 15h00 and dinner time between 19h30 and 22h00 (some restaurants now serve later than that). The kitchen is closed for the rest of the time and forget about large meals in these places.
In Portugal, an expresso in a gas station is better than in the best American specialized coffee shop. Seriously, coffee in Portugal is that good. And remember, regarding coffee, size doesn’t matter. Don’t drink to many or you’ll only get some shut eye when you’re back home.
ATTENTION: If you ask for a Café (coffee) you’ll get an expresso. If you want a variation you have to ask for a “meia-de-leite” (a cappuccino without foam) or “abatanado” (bigger, but still a lot smaller than a regular American coffee).
Due to it’s diverse climate and terroirs, Portugal is a country with a lot wine differences. From smooth and bodily “alentejanos” to fresh and light “verdes” from Minho you can try, but you won’t have the time, to taste the more than 10 000 wine references that currently are being sold in Portugal.
Having said that, don’t drink Porto wine with your meal. You’ll be the laughing stock of everyone at the restaurant.
Portuguese kiss a lot
The Portuguese are quite formal, but greeting norms are relatively complex, especially for foreigners. It may look simple, but even for us it can lead to awkward moments.
- Men greet each other by shaking hands.
- Women greet man or other women with two kisses, the first on the right cheek and the second on the left.
If it is a professional meeting it might be just a handshake or even just a distance “how do you do?”.
In Lisbon there are some tricky exceptions. For instance, close friends kiss only once, on the right cheek. So, as you start making friends in Portugal, you might go through a period of hesitation: should I greet them with one or two kisses? It’s a price well worth paying for the joy of having Portuguese friends.
Usually foreigners are a bit lost in big gatherings. If it’s family reunion, everybody kisses everybody. If it’s just friends it… depends. Some kiss, some just say hello.
We’ve seen some of our foreigner friends greet everybody with a kiss when arriving at the restaurant, including the waiters.
In doubt, just kiss everybody. No one is going to be insulted and at very worst, you’ve stolen a couple of kisses.
There’s a reason there isn’t a famous world expression regarding Portuguese punctuality, like “British punctuality”.
In Portugal you’ll re-learn time. Remember Einstein relativity theory? Well, he never visited Portugal, otherwise his equations might have been proven wrong. Time has a different pace in Portugal and Portuguese loose track of time easily. According to some psychologists, people who are always late are very optimistic. If that’s true, then optimism is our middle name.
This sounds confusing, I know. If you’re the kind of person who plans every minute of their day, you’ll have a hard time in Lisbon. Southern Portuguese are quite laid back. Opening hours are just a suggestion. Don’t expect them to apologize for opening a store or if the waiter said the waiting time for a table is 10 minutes and turns out to be half an hour. Just go with the flow. You’re on vacation!
Can I go to the beach and veggie out?
This is not actually a cultural shock, but don’t plan your entire vacation to just try out our cuisine, learn about heritage or hike our 7 urban hills.
Portuguese love the beach. So, take a day to enjoy the sandy beaches!
All surrounding beaches are perfect for a relaxing day doing nothing. There’s beautiful urban beaches in the Estoril coast line and some colder Atlantic beaches of Guincho and Praia Grande. A lot of locals from Lisbon go to the almost always sunny Costa da Caparica, with its own microclimate.
It’s quite common even in January to see people just walking around or laying on the sand embracing doing nothing.
If you want to have a local experience, what better than that?
During summer time, some beaches are a little crowded over the weekends but, if you go either early in the morning or just before sunset, you’ll find a place to relax and splash for a while.
Don’t confuse us with Spanish
The old rivalry between the two Iberian countries is long gone and we even call Spaniards “nuestros hermanos” (our brothers). So, nobody will be offended if you consider us Spanish, but you’ll look ignorant.
If you speak a little Spanish, Portuguese will talk something called “portunhol” (a mix between Portuguese and Spanish/Espanhol) in order to help you.
Just a few tips of things that are quite different:
- No siesta.
- There’s no paella.
- Bull fighting is different. We don’t kill the bull. We try to catch with nothing but our manly arms dressed in gay looking pants and leprechaun’s green hats.
- We can understand Spanish but they don’t understand Portuguese.
- Portuguese people are more introspective, but paradoxically friendlier. Usually, foreigners feel more welcome in Portugal after breaking the small introverted barrier.
- Portuguese cuisine is simpler than Spanish, but the bakeries and pastries are better in Portugal.
- Portuguese are more nostalgic while Spanish are more extroverted.
- Fado is our national song, but that’s not the only thing we listen to. We are more open to foreign music than Spanish. Regarding flamenco, we listen to it as much as a Finnish.
- Surf beaches are better in Portugal.
- Portuguese wine is far better and cheaper. Don’t tell Spanish people this. It will be our little secret :).
Portuguese drivers have a bad reputation but a lot has gotten better over the past years. Actually, Portugal is doing very well to reduce what used to be a truly horrific record, having the greatest reduction in deaths in the EU over the last 10 years. Still, every life is worth saving and we realize that a lot still has to be done.
Speed limits are sometimes ignored and if you’re a pedestrian don’t confidently start crossing the road. Drivers will stop and let you pass, but there are still some drivers that don’t pay the necessary attention.
Despite appearances, it’s illegal to use a mobile phone while driving unless it’s hands free. Stopping your car in the middle of the road to take a call isn’t an option either, although some people don’t seem to realise this.
In rural areas, don’t be surprised to find a car stopped in the middle of the road and the occupants catching up with local gossip. They will usually wrap up their conversation and drive off when they see you, but may need a little encouragement in the form of a gentle beep.
Portugal is well-known for our sluggish approach to life: a relaxed, slowed down pace that usually sounds appealing. So, remember to take a breath before it leads you to frustration and exasperation.
Culture shock can be overwhelming but once understood it’s easily avoided. Portugal share’s its culture with all the western countries. It’s just the little things you have to consider.
See you soon.
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