Gap Year In Portugal

As well as sun, sea and sand, Portugal wil also provide the Gap year traveller with rich history, interesting traditions, fun festivities and delightful cuisine.

Why visit Portugal during a Gap year?

If you feel deep inside some affinity with Portugal this may reside in the fact that she is the UK’s oldest ally.

The Treaty of Windsor cemented this alliance way back in 1368. Portugal also has a claim to be the oldest nation state founded in 1139.

Located on the western fringe of Europe, Portugal was a base for European exploration and, more darkly, exploitation of the wider world in fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

In 1484 they made probably one of the biggest mistakes in the history of exploration in turning down Christopher Columbus’s plan to sail west to find India - clearly on a par with Decca’s decision not to sign the Beatles. Christopher sold his idea to the Spanish, and the rest is history.

The positive spin is that the clever Portuguese knew that Chris had got it all wrong; the way to India was to the east not the west.

In 1487 Bartholomew Diaz rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and in 1498 Vasco de Gama landed at Calicut (now Kozhikode) in India.

Not content with that, Joao Fernandes Lavrador set foot in Canada (Labrador is named after him) and in 1500 Pedro Cabral landed in Brazil and claimed it for the Portuguese crown.

A lesser known story that of the Portuguese terra firma exploits; for example the intrepid Pero da Covilha found his way to Ethiopia in the fourteen nineties.

Suffice to say that for nearly two centuries Portugal was a world power, establishing trading posts particularly in the Orient, and gaining much from mercantile trade.

Things went a little downhill after the succession crisis of 1580 when King Sebastian died with out issue, and Spain decided to press its claim by invading.

A little more of this exciting story later, including Europe’s most devastating earthquake, as we go on explore some of  the contemporary highlights and cultural artefacts of Portugal.

Where to go and what to see on your Portugal Gap year

Let’s start in the south.

You can top up your tan on the beaches of the Algarve before moving on to Evora, an ancient town whose name is believed to derive from the Celtic Ebora meaning 'of the yew tree'.

This gives us another link back to Britain, in the sense that York was known to the Romans as Eboracum, from the Celtic meaning 'the place of the yew trees'.

The town has a well preserved centre containing evidence of the Roman occupation, including the remains of a Corinthian temple dated to the first century AD (though the date is disputed).

The Aqua de Prata is the town’s aqueduct; not Roman though, this one was built between 1531 and 1537.

The cathedral was mainly built between 1280 and 1340 in the Gothic style and is mainly noteworthy for the carvings of the Twelve Apostles dated to the fourteenth century.

The Royal Palace is an example of Manueline Architecture (after King Manuel 1 1469-1521), a distinctive style linking European tradition to influences from Portuguese travels to the east.

Lisbon is built on and around seven hills (what is it about cities and seven hills?), which will increase your level of fitness if you are exploring on foot.

The city has funicular and elevator systems to deal with some of the climbs.

Almost all of Lisbon dates from post 1755, because on 1st November of that year an earthquake devastated the city.

Not only an earthquake but a subsequent tsunami and fire destroyed close to ninety percent of this flourishing metropolis.

The fact that this catastrophe occurred on All Saints Catholic Holiday fuelled an out pouring of Enlightenment literature on religion and philosophy.

How could this be, as Doctor Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candid claimed, ‘the best possible, in the best possible of all worlds?’ Discuss.

Two buildings that survived the earthquake are worth your time here: the Torre de Belem and the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos.

Torre de Belem which translates as "Tower of Bethlehem" is known, just to confuse people, as the "Tower of St. Vincent".

It is built in the Manueline Style as a defensive fort on the River Tagus.

Originally constructed on a small island in the river, its position relative to the Tagus has changed due to alterations in the flow of the river.

Completed in 1519 it is a symbol of Portuguese exploration and, no doubt a glad sight for sailors returning after a long voyage. More details at

The Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, Monastery of Jerome was initiated in 1495, stated in 1501 and completed in 1601 (well, it’s a big building).

Again, built in the Manueline style but with elements of the Spanish influenced Plateresque architecture.

It is a wonderful building containing the restored tomb of Vasco de Gama, and incorporates the National Archaeological Museum and the Maritime Museum. 

A visit to the remains of a once great building, the Carmo Convent and Church, a victim of the earthquake, could have an addition benefit if you are feel you need a little more licence in your life.

Pope Clement VII (in post 1592-1605) granted forty days indulgence "to any Christian visiting the church".

In the heart of Portugal now with the city of Fatima located almost midway between Lisbon and the second city of Oporto.

Fatima is famous for being the location of an apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1917 witnessed by three shepherd girls (sadly two of them became victims of the post World War One Spanish Flu epidemic).

The two main pilgrimage dates are 13th May and 13th October; on other dates, no doubt, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima has a different sense of tranquillity.

Coimbra, site of an ancient university, was Portugal’s capital between 1131 and 1255.

The university has an astronomical observatory (it’s not that big really), which is open to the public, but we recommend you check first.

Currently located in a modern building the original motivator of the project was the Marquis de Pombal, the man behind the rebuilding of Lisbon post 1755, including work on earthquake proof buildings.

The museum at the observatory holds a collection of instruments used to track and measure the stars.

The old cathedral was started sometime after 1139 to replace an existing church, and is the only intact example of Romanesque architecture in Portugal.

An experience you may wish to consider, providing your emotions are in check, is the Portuguese contribution to world music – Fado.

It has been called soulful, melancholic might also fit; songs usually about longing and loss.

There are two styles: Lisbon – solo singer, and Coimbra – usually a small group (to be cynical – usually a group of students from the university).

Fado can be found in certain restaurants and in Fado Houses (Fado de Casa). More information at

Should you prefer to check out what demands are going to be made on your emotions before committing yourself you could visit the Fado Museum in Lisbon or purchase a CD. Well known performers are: Mariza and Cristina Branco.

Before you go

A UK National can remain up to three months as a tourist in Portugal; any longer and a Registration Certificate needs to be obtained from the Camara Municipal (Town Hall).

The police have the right to demand to see proof of identity.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice is that carrying a copy of the data page of your passport is OK, however if the authorities insist you may have to be accompanied back to your hotel to produce the original (assuming, presumably that’s where you left it).

There are currently no warnings on the FCO Website specific to a particular location in Portugal other than one for visitors to the island of Madeira.

Which concerns walking in the Levadas (ancient water channels), where you should let a third party know where you are going and what time you intend to return, and to carry your phone. Sounds exciting.

Further information

For more advice on taking a gap year in Europe, please see: