Things to do for Cultural Tourism in Portugal

Things to do for Cultural Tourism in Portugal

Far from being an exhaustive list of all the events on the calendar, I want to show the infinite possibilities for cultural tourism in Portugal. The country is compact, but its cultural identity is one of the richest in Europe.

Portugal has been collecting prizes and awards in an unprecedented mood-lifting era, of which the most famous are the European Football Championship in 2016 and the Eurovision Song Contest in 2017. The country of past glories is proving to the world that not all its great achievements are buried in the Age of Discoveries.

Fantastic weather, mouth-watering cuisine – laced with influences from South America, Africa, and Asia – reputable wines, and rich culture are Portugal’s calling card. Find out the absolute best things to do for cultural tourism in Portugal, in each of the nine regions, including the events you can’t miss and what’s happening in each season.

Portugal's cultural snapshot

For a small country, Portugal’s climate is surprisingly diverse. From cold winters and hot summers in the center regions closer to Spain to mild all-year-round weather in the areas closer to the Ocean, like Algarve. Madeira’s subtropical influence makes it one of the favorite destinations, whereas the Azores’ climate is a bit more temperamental.

Throughout its History, Portugal has been influenced by Romans, North African Muslims, and North Europeans, so if you feel when visiting that something you are eating, drinking, or watching reminds you of something you’ve experienced elsewhere, chances are you are probably right. However, despite all those influences that make us who we are today, our cultural identity is unique.

Most of the population is Catholic, but a lot of the religious events are laced with pagan influences, some dating back to harvest and prosperity celebrations, and one doesn’t overrule the other.

Portugal has 15 properties inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, 14 of them are cultural. Six elements are inscribed on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, including Fado, the Mediterranean diet (alongside other countries), and falconry (a diverse list that includes other countries from Europe, the Middle East, and Asia).

Cultural Tourism in Portugal in the Spring (March to May)

Spring in Portugal begins on March 21st and lasts until June 20th. The temperatures start to rise, and days grow longer, and, although the beach season doesn’t open officially until mid-June, some days in mid-May are warm enough for people to seek some time by the sea. Locals make the best of the over 500 miles of beaches.

Culturally, it’s the season to celebrate Easter (although, sometimes the calendar marks it closer to the end of winter) and the popular saints (santos populares).

Suggestions of Things To Do

Easter celebrations in the North are unique, filled with a dark symbolism sometimes, and often seem to take the religious theme a bit too far. Nevertheless, the “burning of the Judas” in Montalegre (in the Vila Real District) is a (somewhat) religious spectacle where the locals burn an effigy of Judas made of hay, as a symbol of the victory of good versus evil.

In Porto, a strongly cultural city, events are aplenty during the spring. From Serralves em Festa, a free-entrance festival in the Serralves Park, to the widely popular São João (the six-century-old celebration of St. John’s Day) and the NOS Primavera Sound (a music festival that quickly climbed spots to the top of the lists of best festivals in Europe), June is definitely the hot month to visit Porto.

In Covilhã, a city in the center of Portugal, half-an-hour from mainland’s highest mountain Serra da Estrela, June is the month for WOOL. This urban art festival has roots in the city’s former past in the wool industry, hence the name, but the goal was to become one of the most important urban art events in the country when they first started in 2011. In a country where, usually, the coast cities get all the attention, WOOL is breaking that trend.

In Lisbon and the neighboring Sintra, it’s also popular saint’s season. The postcard-perfect, colorful strings begin to invade the narrow streets of the old neighborhoods in the capital, food stands, and grills get ready for sardine-craving eaters, and semi-amateur bands go up on stage to entertain you for the night with Portuguese, pun-filled songs.

Further south, the tiny town of Mértola in Alentejo pays tribute to its Arabic roots with the bi-annual Islamic Festival in May. The town’s center is transformed into a giant souk during the festival, while world music bands perform on the stage by the river.

In the Azores islands, this season is a mix of religious and cultural events throughout the archipelago.

In São Miguel, April is the month for TREMOR – an innovative music festival that’s raised to the top of the best festivals in the country in less than five years. In May, the island’s main city turns to devotion in one of the most popular religious events of the year, the Festas do Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres. Terceira celebrates St. John’s Day with a series of colorful and exceptionally planned events, while the neighboring islands to the West are welcoming the island-hopping artsy Azores Fringe Festival from May to June.

There’s more to Madeira than New Year’s Eve fireworks and almost tropical weather, as two of the most popular spring cultural events show. Mid-June is time for Regional Arts Week and one of the oldest world music festival in Europe, Festival Raízes do Atlântico.

Browse cultural events by region:

  1. São João, Porto (Local cultural event in June)
  2. NOS Primavera Sound, Porto (Music festival in June)
  3. Serralves em Festa, Porto (Music festival in June)
  1. WOOL, Covilhã (Urban art festival in June)
  1. Indie Lisboa, Lisbon (Film Festival in May)
  1. Islamic Festival, Mértola, Alentejo (Local cultural event in May – bi-annual; last event was in 2017)
  2. Festivities of Santo António da Atalaia, Tavira, Algarve (Religious event in June)
  3. Caldeirada and Seafood Festival, Silves, Algarve (Food Festival in June)
  1. TREMOR, Ponta Delgada, São Miguel (Music festival in April)
  2. Festas do Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres, Ponta Delgada, São Miguel (Religious Event in May)
  3. Azores Fringe Festival, several islands (Arts Festival in May / June)
  4. Holy Ghost Festivities, all islands (Religious events from March / April to June)
  1. Regional Arts Week Madeira, Funchal, Madeira (Arts festival in June)
  2. Festival Raizes do Atlântico, Funchal, Madeira (Music festival in June)

Cultural Tourism in Portugal in the Summer (June to August)

I mentioned the 500 miles of beaches before, and summer is definitely beach season for most between June 21st and September 21st. This is also the time of year when Portugal has more music festivals going on than one can keep track of. In recent years, the country has become one of Europe’s favorite travel destinations for festival-goers, with events flaunting impressive and hard-to-choose-from lineups.

Suggestions of Things To Do

From North to South, reaching all the way to the North Atlantic Portuguese archipelagos, the country is shaken, rattled and rolled by heaps of outdoor music festivals as diverse in music genre as they are in location. Festivals like Paredes de Coura in the North, Maré de Agosto in Santa Maria Island (Azores), and the ever-surprising NOS Alive in Algés (Lisbon area) may top the list of the well-established, but every year there seems to be a handful of new music gigs to keep an eye on.

You must have seen the photos of colorful umbrellas hanging over narrow streets before, but what you probably didn’t know is that the artful display is linked to AgitÁgueda – the urban art festival taking place in this city in the center of Portugal, about half an hour away from the also colorful and vibrant city of Aveiro.

In case you haven’t noticed already, the Azoreans are a creative bunch, and if once the islands were the dream trip for nature and outdoor lovers, in recent years the archipelago has been put on the map as a cultural tourism destination thanks to recurrent events like the performing arts festival Walk & Talk in São Miguel Island.

Overall, summer is the season when Portuguese emigrants return home for their annual vacation (usually around the month of August). This is the time when more traditional events take place, some religious, some not, and when you have the opportunity for a fully immersive cultural experience.

Browse cultural events by region:

  1. Festival Paredes de Coura, Paredes de Coura (Music festival in August)
  2. Mirandela Music Fest, Mirandela (Music festival in June)
  3. Rock Nordeste, Vila Real (Music festival in June) 
  4. Curtas Vila do Conde (Film Festival in June)
  5. MEO Marés Vivas, Vila Nova de Gaia (Music Festival in July)
  6. Milhões de Festa, Barcelos (Music Festival in July)
  7. Festival Mêda+, Mêda (Music Festival in July)
  8. NeoPop Festival, Viana do Castelo (Music festival in August)
  9. Folk Celta, Ponte da Barca (Music festival in August) 
  10. Indie Music Fest, Baltar (Music festival in August / September)
  1. Sound Waves, Ovar (Music Festival in July)
  2. RFM SOMNII Sunset, Figueira da Foz (Music Festival in July)
  3. Feira de S. Mateus, Viseu (Local cultural event in September)
  4. AgitÁgueda, Águeda (Arts Festival in July)
  5. Boom Festival, Idanha-a-Nova (Music festival in August)
  6. Entremuralhas, Leiria (Music festival in August)
  7. Woodrock Festival, Figueira da Foz (Music Festival in July)
  8. Vagos Metal Fest, Vagos (Music festival in August)
  9. Bons Sons, Tomar (Music Festival in August)
  10. Festival Forte, Montemor-o-Velho (Music festival in August)
  11. Festa dos Tabuleiros, Tomar (Local cultural event in July, every four years; the last edition was in 2015)
  12. Sumol Summer Fest, Ericeira (Music Festival in June / July)
  1. NOS Alive, Algés (Music Festival in July)
  2. Super Bock Super Rock, Lisbon (Music Festival in July)
  3. Out Jazz, Lisbon (Music festival from May to September)
  4. Musa Cascais, Cascais (Music Festival in July)
  5. CoolJazz Fest, Oeiras (Music Festival in July)
  6. O Sol da Caparica, Caparica (Music festival in August)
  7. Lisb-ON, Lisbon (Music Festival in September)
  1. FMM – Festival Músicas do Mundo, Sines, Alentejo (Music Festival in July)
  2. “Terras da Ria” Petisco Route, Faro, Algarve (Food festival from June to September)
  3. Festa dos Pescadores, Arrifana, Algarve (Local cultural event on the last weekend of July)
  4. Festival Med, Loulé, Algarve (Music Festival in July)
  5. Festival de Lavre, Montemor-o-Novo, Alentejo (Music Festival in July)
  6. Festival do Crato, Crato, Alentejo (Music festival in August)
  7. MEO Sudoeste, Zambujeira do Mar, Alentejo (Festival music in August)
  1. Maré de Agosto, Vila do Porto, Santa Maria (Music festival in August)
  2. Carvalhadas de São Pedro, Ribeira Grande, São Miguel (Local cultural event in June)
  3. Sanjoaninas, Terceira (Local cultural event in June)
  4. Semana Cultural das Velas, São Jorge (Local cultural event in July)
  5. Cais de Agosto, Pico (Local cultural event in August)
  6. Semana dos Baleeiros, Pico (Local cultural event in August)
  7. Festas da Vindima, Pico (Local cultural event in September)
  8. Semana do Mar, Faial (Local cultural event in August)
  9. Festa do Emigrante, Flores (Local cultural event in July)
  10. Cais das Poças, Flores (Local cultural event in August)
  11. Festival dos Moinhos, Corvo (Local cultural event in August)
  12. Monteverde Fest, Ribeira Grande, São Miguel (Music festival in August)
  13. Walk & Talk, São Miguel (Arts festival in July)
  1. NOS Summer Opening, Funchal, Madeira (Music festival in July)

Cultural Tourism in Portugal in the Fall (September to November)

The Fall is that sweet spot in time for tourists who don’t like crowds. It’s also that time of year when the most popular cultural events revolve around food and wine (not that they don’t in the rest of the year, but this is the season to take it all in, slowly). Even though the days aren’t as cold in other European countries, the tendency is to move the events to indoor venues.

Suggestions of Things To Do

In the North, the popular cultural events are thematic. The country’s birth city welcomes jazz enthusiasts to another edition of Guimarães Jazz, Porto puts together the Festival Internacional da Marioneta (International Festival of Puppetry) in October, and Espinho showcases the best in animated film in the over four editions old Cinanima in November.

Remember the food and wine topic? The Festival Nacional de Gastronomia in Santarém is precisely what you need to experience the whole Portuguese cuisine in one single place. In the Portuguese capital, the slogan “the whole world fits in Lisbon” is the motto for another edition of the international documentary film festival DocLisboa. The art of comics takes over Amadora in November during one of the most important comics festivals in Europe, AmadoraBD.

All small things grow when nurtured, and that is the case with AngraJazz – Terceira Island’s one-of-a-kind jazz music festival in October. With a rich line-up of North American and European renown jazz performers, the festival always includes at least one National and one Regional band.

In Madeira, there’s a mix of gastronomic and religious events throughout the season, with the Madeira Wine Essence as one of the staple events for wine connoisseurs and enthusiasts.

Browse cultural events by region

  1. FIMP – International Festival of Puppetry, Porto (October)
  2. Cinanima, Espinho (Animated film festival in November)
  3. Guimarães Jazz (Music Festival in November)
  4. Semibreve, Braga (Music festival in October)
  5. Misty Fest, Porto (Music festival in October)
  1. Festival Nacional de Gastronomia, Santarém (Food Festival in October)
  2. CineEco, Seia (Film festival in November)
  1. DocLisboa, Lisbon (Film Festival in October)
  2. Amadora BD, Amadora (Comics Festival in November)
  1. AngraJazz, Angra do Heroísmo, Terceira (Music festival in October)
  1. Madeira Wine Essence, Funchal, Madeira (Wine festival in November)

Cultural Tourism in Portugal in the Winter (December to February)

Despite the usually mild temperatures, especially on the coast, it’s typically rain season, with shorter and colder days. Events are scarcer and we tend to crave the sugary comfort of Christmas treats around this time of year, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of cultural events to choose from.

Suggestions of Things To Do

Christmas-themed events in December and the Carnaval celebrations in February are the top happenings of the season all over the country.

Some of the most popular celebrations of Carnaval happen in Podence (in the North), Torres Vedras (in the Center), Sesimbra and Loulé (in the South), and diversely in Madeira and the Azores Islands (particularly Terceira and São Miguel).

With plenty of gaps to fill in the music festival’s winter calendar, two major events contradict the myth that there is nothing interesting to do here – Vodafone Mexefest in Lisbon and Barreiro Rocks in the former industrial city of Barreiro, on the south bank of river Tejo.

Browse cultural events by region

  1. Fantasporto, Porto (Film Festival in February / March)
  2. Carnaval (Local cultural event February / March)
  1. Christmas in Penela, Coimbra (Local Cultural event in December)
  2. Carnaval (Local cultural event February / March)
  1. Super Bock Em Stock (formerly known as Vodafone Mexefest), Lisbon (Music Festival in November)
  2. Carnaval (Local cultural event February / March)
  1. Carnaval (Local cultural event February / March)
  1. Montanha Pico Festival, Pico (Local cultural event in December)
  2. Carnaval (Local cultural event February / March)
  1. Carnaval (Local cultural event February / March)

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