Portugal - A Country Overview

Information on Portugal; its place geographically, history, government, climate, security, tourism and foreigners living in Portugal...


The Portuguese countryside is very varied. In the north the land is mountainous, with a rainy climate and is characterised by vineyards and small farms. The mountainous terrain is lush and green with rivers, forests and deep valleys. Central Portugal, which includes the capital city Lisbon, is more varied. Along the coast the land is a mixture of pine forests and sand dunes with many people earning a living from fishing. Inland, in the region known as the Beira, farming predominates along with some light industry and mining.

Much of Portuguese commerce and industry is concentrated in Lisbon and its suburbs. The Alentejo, in southern Portugal is an area of gentle hills and plains and is one of the driest areas in the country. It supports cattle grazing but not intensive agriculture. The Algarve in the extreme south of the country has a dry, warm climate and is an area of smallholdings and fishing. The coastline, which is typified by rocky bays and beaches carved by Atlantic waves, is very popular with tourists.

The Serra da Estrela mountains are the highest in continental Portugal. The range includes the highest point in the country at 1,993m. This point is the highest on a plateau rather than a distinct mountain peak. It is known as the Torre, or Tower in English, and can be reached by a paved road. There is a ski resort at the summit. The highest point in the republic is Mount Pico in the Azores which reaches an altitude of 2,351m.


Portugal is one of Europe's oldest nations. It gained independence from the other kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula under the rule of Count Afonso Henriques. He ended a nine year rebellion against the King of Leon-Castile and became King in 1140. Lisbon was subsequently captured from the Moors in 1147 and the country became close to its present shape when the Algarve was secured by Afonso III in 1249.

Inspired by Prince Henry the Navigator, Portuguese explorers had reached the Canary Islands by 1338. Explorers such as Pedro Alvares Cabral and Vasco da Gama went on to be the first Europeans to sail to and explore Africa, the Orient and South America. Portugal built a vast colonial empire with territories including Angola, Mozambique, Brazil, East Timor and Goa.

A dynastic crisis resulted in Phillip II of Spain taking the Portuguese throne in 1580. Spanish rule continued until a revolt put a Portuguese king on the throne in 1640 and the House of Bragança was established as the ruling family. The country underwent a steady decline over subsequent centuries culminating in the independence of Brazil, its largest colony, in 1822. The country became a republic in 1910 when the monarchy, and the House of Bragança, was overthrown.

The years following the formation of the republic were dominated by intense political rivalries and economic instability. A military government took power in 1926 and named Antonio Salazar, a prominent right wing economist, first as finance minister and then in 1932 as prime minister. Salazar and his successor Marcelo Caetano ruled Portugal as an authoritarian "corporate" state, or dictatorship, for the next 42 years. The country was neutral in the Second World War.

The dictatorship was overthrown on 25 April 1974 when a coup by the Armed Forces Movement seized power and established a provisional military government. The Portuguese legislative election of 1976 was won by the Socialist Party, whose leader Mário Soares became the Prime Minister of the 1st Constitutional Government.

Politics and Government

For much of the 20th century Portugal was governed by right wing dictators. Since the establishment of a parliamentary democracy, following the military coup in 1974, modernisation and development have been rapid. Initially there was a period of instability and communist agitation but a new constitution in 1976, and its subsequent revisions, heralded a stable liberal democracy in the country. The military were placed under strict civilian control and the powers of the president were reduced.

The government is led by the prime minister and has four main branches: the prime minister and government, the president, the parliament and the judiciary. The prime minister is nominated by the parliament, or assembly, and is confirmed by the president. The prime minister then names the government, or council of ministers, which then presents its ideas for government to the assembly. The president, who serves a five year term, and the assembly are elected via a system of proportional representation.

Mainland Portugal is made up of 18 districts each of which is run by a governor appointed by the Minister of Internal Administration. Both the Azores and Madeira are governed autonomously.


The economy of Portugal, which traditionally had a strong basis in agriculture and manufacturing, has expanded and diversified since the end of the dictatorship in the 1970s. Tourism now makes a greater contribution to the economy than agriculture. The economy is dominated by the service sector which includes retail trade, real estate, tourism, banking and finance. Portugal is a leading producer of tungsten ore.

Portugal joined the European Union in 1986 and the European Monetary Union in 1999. Both of these events boosted the nation's economy and the country subsequently exhibited stable economic growth. However, in recent years a growing budget deficit, negative growth and low competitiveness combined with the economic crisis in the Euro-zone have led to Portugal having extremely high sovereign debt and poor credit ratings.

In 2011 pressure has been mounting for the Portuguese government to seek a bail out from the International Monetary Fund or the European Union.


Portugal has a maritime temperate climate which varies markedly from one region to another, depending primarily on the altitude and the proximity to the sea. Most rainfall occurs in the winter months with the north of the country receiving much more than the south. The Atlantic coast of the country is wetter than the Mediterranean coast.

Summers in Portugal are hot and dry, especially in inland areas. The interior of the Alentejo can get very warm, with summer temperatures sometimes exceeding 40°C. Temperatures are slightly lower around the coasts.

Winters in the country are mild in comparison to the rest of Europe, particularly in the Algarve. The winters are colder inland and in the north of the country, with some snow falling in the Serra da Estrela mountains where skiing is possible.


Portugal has a relatively low rate of violent crime. Pick pocketing and car break-ins are the most common forms of crime experienced, particularly in the major cities and tourist destinations. The acquisition of passports and money is the main aim of the majority of petty criminals.

Foreigners Living in the Country

Until the mid-1960s there were few foreigners living in Portugal and most of those that had chosen to live in the country were European, particularly Spanish. The number of foreigners in the country slowly increased in the early 1970s as the economy of the county strengthened. The number of foreigners living in the country almost doubled after the military coup in 1974 when many Africans from the country's former colonies arrived. This trend continued during the 1980s with many Brazilians moving to Portugal for economic reasons. There was also a marked increase in skilled migration of highly qualified people from other European Union countries to work for large international corporations. In the 1990s there was an increase in the number of Eastern Europeans settling in the country. The majority of immigrants live either in the Lisbon region or in the southern coastal areas. The Algarve is particularly popular with retired people.


Portugal is one of Europe's most popular holiday destinations and tourism is an important part of the country's economy. The varied landscapes, good weather and lower prices than other European countries make it a popular choice with visitors.

The Algarve with its warm Mediterranean climate, golden beaches, Moorish history and renowned golf courses is particularly popular. In recent years Lisbon has been attracting more tourists than any other part of the country. The historical Belém region of the city is home to stunning architecture and two monuments that have received World Heritage Status: the Tower of Belém (Torre de Belém) and the Jerónimos Monastery (Mosterios de Jerónimos).

The beaches of the greater Lisbon area are also very popular with tourists, with the Estoril coast being known as the "Portuguese Riviera".

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