Portugal Feature

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Portugal Like a Local

If you want to get out and experience Portugal like a local, start with the following suggestions.

Drink your coffee neat. Milky coffee is all very well in the morning, but ordering it after a meal definitely marks you out as a tourist. The standard local style is neat, or at most with a drop of milk (as a pingado), and perhaps with a bag of sugar stirred in. Decaf (descafeinado) is now widely available in cafés and restaurants.

Watch the big weekend soccer match. But not in the stadium—in your local bar or café. At any time during the week, one surefire way to get a conversation going is to ask about how Benfica is doing these days: at least a third of the country's population is said to support the club. To really get in tune with the locals, order an imperial (small draught beer).

Shop till you drop. Consumerism swept a previously poverty-stricken country from the 1980s onward, and it’s at the local megamall that you’ll find many families on the weekend—though outdoor clothes markets remain popular, too. Larger shopping centers have cinemas, bowling alleys, ice rinks, and sometimes even roller coasters.

Choose your beach by its bar. In summer, the lure of the beach is stronger than the mall. A bar or café is invariably close at hand—as well as the lifeguard it is legally obliged to fund. Especially near cities, the kind of people on a beach is determined by the style of the bar that serves it, whether it’s for techno music fans or hires out kite-surf equipment.

Patronize like-minded businesses. In a country with a history of empire and migration, the name of a business often points to a dramatic life story. Locals know that a hotel named "Pensão Luanda" means the owner was probably born in colonial Angola (and might never have set foot in Portugal before his and other white and mixed-race families were forced to take refuge here). Similarly, a name like "Café Zurich" is a sure sign the owner had a spell working in Switzerland. Meanwhile, a grocer who migrated to Lisbon from the Beiras region will draw many clients with similar roots, who come to stock up on delicious cheese and sausages from back home.

Nibble local snacks with your beer. A common nibble in drinking dens is a plate of tremoços (soaked yellow lupin seeds), which bar staff hand you for free. Break the skin with your teeth and suck out the flesh; they’re mild but strangely addictive. In the south of Portugal, locals might order a plateful of caracóis —snails cooked in an herby broth—to accompany their afternoon beer. They’re smaller (and cheaper) than the ones you might have sampled in France and skewering them with a wooden toothpick can be quite a challenge. A chewier snack is orelha (pig’s ear), usually flavored with cilantro.

Adjust your hours. Touristy restaurants might start serving dinner at 7 but most Portuguese wouldn’t dream of dining at that hour. During the week, 8:30 or 9 would be a more normal time for locals to gather and on Friday or Saturday probably still later. As for going out dancing, don’t even bother turning up at a nightclub before 2 am unless you’re happy to be the only person on the dance floor.

Updated: 2014-03-26

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