12 Surprising Facts About Portugal

As I get ready to reimagine midlife by moving to Portugal this fall, my days are filled with various preparations. Language practice; real estate searches; emailing and video chatting with contacts; reading about current events; tending to an extensive paperwork timeline; and research, research, research. I’m continuing to learn about my future home, and am writing monthly Midlife Expat Learning posts on different topics related to my expat journey. I’ve come across some interesting and surprising information that doesn’t really fit into any of my planned MEL articles, so I thought I’d just share these random facts here today.

Lisbon’s “Padrão dos Descobrimentos”
(“Monument to the Discoveries”)
Photo: Natalie Wester

Portugal claims to be the oldest country in Europe, dating back to 1139. Other sources put Portugal as one of the five oldest countries in Europe. Either way, it’s a very old country.

Portugal is a founding member of NATO. In 1949, there were 12 founding members of the Alliance: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The sale of African slaves began in Portugal. The first known public sale of African slaves was in Lagos, Portugal, in 1444. In 1482 the Portuguese built the first permanent slave trading post, in what is now Ghana. Various sources report Portuguese vessels shipped 5 million to 6 million people from western Africa to Brazil, making Portugal the largest transporter of human cargo during the Atlantic slave trade. Portugal abolished slave trade north of the equator in 1819. In 1858 Portugal abolished slavery in its colonies. In 2018 Portuguese citizens voted to erect a memorial to the victims of slavery, along the Tagus River in Lisbon. The memorial was to be opened last year.

Slave ships once moored here in Lisbon.
Source: Atlas Obscura
A planned memorial to the victims of slavery evokes a sugarcane plantation.
Source: Ver Angola

The Portuguese government forbids the collection of statistics on ethnicity or race, claiming it encourages discrimination. Portugal is among 20 of the 38 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries that collect no racial or ethnic identity data, including Japan, Germany, France, and Italy.

Despite being a majority Catholic country, Portugal became the sixth European country to officially legalize gay marriage in 2010 — five years before the US.

Portugal is home to the oldest bookstore in the world. Lisbon’s Livraria Bertrand is the world’s oldest bookshop. Founded in 1732, it opened a shop in 1773 on Rua Garrett, where it still stands.

Cork oak trees
Source: euractive.com/Credit: Helen Ross

More than half of the world’s cork comes from Portugal, which has the largest area of cork oak forests in the world. The evergreen cork oak tree is protected by Portuguese law. Cork is stripped from the trunks every nine years without damaging the trees.

Portugal’s Vasco de Gama Bridge was the longest in Europe from 1998 until 2018. This 10-mile, cable-stayed bridge crosses the Tagus River (Rio Tejo) in Lisbon. One of the properties I’m looking at online will require crossing this bridge, which cannot be done on foot or by bicycle. I have a fear of bridges. Oops.

Source: lisbonlisboaportugal.com

Japanese tempura is a Portuguese invention based on a dish known as Peixinhos da Horta, which Portuguese Catholics ate during Lent. In the mid-1500s Portuguese missionaries introduced Japan to the dish, which was originally battered and deep-fried green beans. Not only did the Portuguese bring tempura to Japan, but they also introduced chili, pepper, potatoes, and tomatoes to India and Thailand.

Portugal is a world surfing mecca. The “official” biggest wave ever surfed — nearly 80 feet — was in Portugal in 2017. An underwater canyon makes the coast of Nazaré, on Portugal’s Silver Coast, the location of the world’s biggest waves.

Source: surfline.com
Source: earthobservatory.nasa.gov

In 2001, Portugal implemented one of the most extensive drug law reforms in the world when it decriminalized personal possession and use of all illicit drugs. While all drugs have been decriminalized for personal use, selling drugs is still illegal and can lead to imprisonment. Drugs are still confiscated and possession in excess of small amounts may result in fines or community service.

And yet…Portugal is among the safest countries in the world, ranking third or fourth depending on the source. One source, Global Finance Magazine, ranks Portugal in 29th place due to the impact of COVID-19. The US is ranked in 71st place.

Safest Countries in the World 2022
Source: World Population Review

I’m loving learning about this fascinating country and my soon-to-be new home. Portugal continues to surprise me, and I’m looking forward to exploring, seeing, and learning more in person soon. Thank you for reading!


A big thank-you to both blogger Robert and a local subscriber for sending me a recent Wall Street Journal article on retirement in Portugal. Lots of good information and contacts!


The Hot Goddess

Instagram: retired_rewired_inspired


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36 comments

  1. Wait, you’re moving to Portugal?!!! That is amazing! So exciting! I lived overseas for several years and I’ll offer this:

    I learned that there are waves: 3 months, 6 months, a year, 18 months, 3 years. If you can get to 3 years you can stay forever 💗

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting facts!! Yep, the Elmina Castle for slave trade was the first built outside of Europe by the Portuguese. I visited it once when I went to Ghana. Portugal sounds like quite the progressive little country, all the best!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow – 12 interesting facts about Portugal and one surprising one about you. A fear of bridges – interesting. I suppose choosing to live somewhere that necessitates having to cross that one would be facing that fear! Love the world’s oldest bookstore and the cork forest. Fascinating!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I loved reading these facts. You have definitely picked a great place for “retirement”! That bridge might freak me out though! Thanks for sharing such interesting information and as always …. Best Wishes! Leigh

    Liked by 1 person

  5. My wife and I are doing the El Camino walk from Vigo to Santiago at the Portugal – Spain border this June . If you are anywhere around there by then, do let me know

    Best of luck for the move Natalie 💙

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Fun facts about your soon-to-be second home, Natalie. Even though Portugal is one of the countries I have not visited yet in Europe, it sounds like a really good place to live. New and exciting times ahead for you. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

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