What's New in Portugal

It's something of a mistake to say that Portugal's golden age was 500 years ago, when it was the richest country in the world. Sure, this was when Vasco da Gama and other explorers were heading out on the high seas in search of wealth, and when the most beautiful churches, convents, and national monuments were being built. In the 21st century, Portugal is going through a second golden age; the country is seeing growth like it hasn't encountered in decades, foreign investment is pouring in, and local economies are on the upswing. Construction is booming, with cranes dotting the skylines in the major cities, once-neglected older buildings being restored, and near-abandoned neighborhoods suddenly becoming trendy.

An expanding economy

The economic crisis that began more than a decade ago is largely a thing of the past. The austerity measures that were instituted have mostly been lifted. Portugal is not without some formidable challenges, but there is a sense of optimism. Some of the country's young people who went abroad to find jobs are returning because the country provides them with a good quality of life, a buzzing creative scene, and opportunities in burgeoning fields like technology. Immigrants of all stripes are joining them, giving the cities an increasingly international vibe.

Portuguese ingenuity and creativity are undiminished. In industries like textiles that were hard hit by globalization, companies fought back by producing better and better products. Portuguese winemakers raised their international profile, applying new methods to a unique roster of native grape varieties. Portuguese chefs finally caught up with their Spanish peers in applying new techniques to traditional dishes. And an industry of renewable energy—produced by wind, sun, and even tides—is branding Portugal the new "West Coast of Europe."

Tourism is Booming

The sluggish growth in tourism that has affected many other countries has left Portugual unscathed. That's thanks in part to its presence on seemingly every "hot new destinations" list in recent years. A steady stream of restaurants has opened in the major cities, and hotel occupancy has been rising steadily. By 2018, the number of travelers exploring the country was close to 13 million. The Lisbon area is now a leading destination for corporate conferences, thanks to year-round mild weather, relatively affordable facilities, and friendly locals. And with an increase in flights from North America and Europe, Porto is also emerging as one of Europe’s top destinations.

Until recently, Portugal was hands down the best-value destination in Western Europe. That has started to change as popular spots like Lisbon and Porto have gotten more expensive, but everything from dinner in a nice restaurant to a stay at an upscale resort hotel has remained relatively affordable. You can eat delicious traditional food for as little as €8 for a main dish—a fraction of what you’d pay in a North American city—and it will be complemented by a flavorful local wine that's often cheaper than bottled water. Portugal is dotted with comfortable bed-and-breakfast accommodations at affordable prices. And all forms of transportation, even in the cities, remain affordable, with a one-way ride anywhere in the Lisbon subway system costing just €1.50.

Wines attract lots of attention

It wasn't long ago that foreign wine drinkers knew just a couple of varieties from Portugal, especially the old standards of port and Madeira. But in the past several years, exports of dozens of different wines have skyrocketed. In the United States alone, imports of Portuguese wines more than tripled between 2000 and 2017. Regions that foreign drinkers had scarcely heard of, such as northern Portugal's Douro Valley, have become favorites on the international market.

Portugal produces many excellent dry wines, both high-end and ageworthy, as well as honest and straightforward youthful ones that you can buy inexpensively. If you’re looking to try something different, Portugal has more than 300 native grape varieties in use, which makes for an endless procession of delicious experiments. Portuguese wines also come in a wide variety of wine styles, including sparkling, still, rosé, dessert, and fortified wines. At mealtimes in restaurants it is common for house wine to be brought out in jugs. The white is often served à pressão—from a pressurized tap—and is lightly sparkling. Don't be afraid to try it—these table wines are usually astonishingly cheap and surprisingly pleasant.

Renewed pride in its traditions

Throughout the year, traditional festas are held up and down the country on local saints’ days or in line with ancient pagan traditions. These often involve processions in traditional dress, neighborhood dance competitions, and rustic, traditional food tied to certain celebrations and regions. Far from being staged for tourists' benefit, festivals are a central part of Portuguese life, and emigrants generally try to ensure that trips home coincide with the local festa, particularly the ones that take place across the country during the month of June. Youngsters these days have a renewed interest in their heritage, and are taking an active part in keeping festival traditions alive—although they also flock to a world-class roster of vibrant rock festivals.

Commitment to renewable energy

Portugal garnered global attention with its massive investment in renewable energy; according to the most recent figures available, it is now one of the top countries in the European Union in terms of capacity relative to population, with a ratio that is well above the continent's average. The EU has committed to getting 20% of energy from renewable sources, but Portugal set more ambitious goals of 31%. More than half its electricity already comes from wind, solar, or hydroelectric power—saving $1.1 billion a year in oil imports. The country's hydroelectic production has in some years been affected by droughts, but scientists are pursuing other solutions. The country has been promoting wave-power projects, and has rolled out a nationwide network of charging points for electric cars, as well as urban networks of shared electric bicycles and scooters.

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