Portugal and Portuguese: First Impressions

Portugal was a nice break from the strikes in France last week and I am already planning to return to see more of this adorable country. Lisbon is one of those capital cities that makes you forget how many people live there and the fact that it is such a large city. The subway was incredibly clean, the architecture was beautiful and colorful, the people were nice, the prices were low, and I never once felt stressed or scared or annoyed as I often do in other large cities (especially Paris!)

The public transportation system is easy to use so you don’t have to spend 15€ on tourist hop-on hop-off buses if you don’t want to. The train to Sintra is 3.50€ and a day pass for the entire system is 3.75€, which we took advantage of the second day to visit Belém for the pastéis (tram 15) and the modern eastern side of the city where the World Expo ’98 took place (red line on the metro). In addition to the 1.45€ fare for bus 22 to & from the airport and 2.60€ for the bus to return to Sintra train station from the Palace of Pena (we walked the entire way to Pena, which I do not recommend because it takes 1.5 hours, all uphill with no sidewalk), I only spent around 13€ on transportation. Our lovely hotel only cost 49€ a night, and I doubt I spent more than 25€ a day on meals. Even a cup of coffee was only 80 cents!


Our biggest expense was the plane ticket since we took a regular airline, but free food and drinks and knowing that we wouldn’t be treated like dirt was worth it. Thanks to the strikes in France, we had to waste an extra 20€ to get to the airport in Geneva by taking the expensive bus since there were no trains. And of course the bus was late and we got stopped at the border because French customs apparently had nothing better to do than annoy people trying to leave the country. Shouldn’t they be more concerned about people entering the country?

Once we arrived in Lisbon, my frustration with France disappeared instantly. There is a tourism center at the airport where you can get a free map of Lisbon and the bus stop for either the Aerobus (which you should take if you have lots of luggage; costs 3.50€ but your ticket doubles as a day pass for the public transportation system) or the local buses is directly across from the exit. Our hotel was incredibly easy to find and so clean and bright and the reception was helpful and pleasant. The downtown area of Lisbon is completely walkable and I saw very few people begging or harassing tourists for money. Normally I despise large cities because of people who try to harass you on the streets, but I did not experience that at all in Lisbon.


Obviously I loved Lisbon, and as a linguistics nerd, being surrounded by the Portuguese language was interesting since I’m familiar with many other Romance languages. Even though I haven’t yet really started studying Portuguese, I was able to understand a few words and phrases; and when we came across the one person who couldn’t speak English, we were able to communicate in French. I sat down at a bus stop before getting on the metro to head to the mall because I was feeling sick and an adorable old man was concerned that we were at the wrong stop because he had seen me look at the map and point to a place that he knew the buses didn’t go. How cute is that? Seriously, the Portuguese are very good at English, probably because they subtitle instead of dub TV and movies.

Portuguese is the 5th most spoken language in the world with 260 million speakers (the most in Brazil, of course), though it is not studied as much as Spanish, French or even Italian. Most language learning communities, such as Livemocha, Busuu and Mango, all offer Brazilian Portuguese, but few offer the European accent from Portugal. I hope they add the European dialect someday, and I certainly plan to incorporate it into the Portuguese tutorial currently available on ielanguages.com. If you are interested in reading authentic European Portuguese from everyday life, I’ve already uploaded Portuguese realia.

Portuguese is closely related to Galician, spoken in the northwestern part of Spain. At one point, they were considered the same language, but political boundaries have separated the two. Portuguese is not quite mutually intelligible with Spanish (Castillian), but the written language is easy enough to decipher if you do know Spanish. Understanding the spoken language is much harder. Portuguese is closer to Catalan and French in pronunciation because of the sibilants and nasal vowels, and some people say it sounds more like a Slavic language rather than Romance.

For those who speak Spanish and want to learn Portuguese, there are some resources available, such as Foreign Service Institute’s From Spanish to Portuguese and the University of Texas-Austin’s podcast Tà Falado: Brazilian Portuguese Pronunciation for Speakers of Spanish.

If you are planning a trip to Lisbon, the official tourism website is Visit Lisboa and I’ve written up some travel tips about my experience in Lisbon, Sintra, and getting to and from the Lisbon airport. Also don’t forget to check out my Lisbon & Sintra photos to see for yourself how beautiful Portugal is!

  • I’m glad you had a good time in Portugal 🙂 I guess that I have now to add Lisbonne to my long list of places to visit while living in Europe!

  • Gwan

    Cool, I want to go to Lisbon after having a good time in Porto. I was surprised by the sound of Portuguese as well, I was pretty much expecting Spanish (not that I speak Spanish either), but it sounds so different! Even so, I managed a couple of basic conversations based on French as well, since the guy who checked me in to the hotel didn’t speak English. My brain often short-circuits in foreign countries & I start speaking French instead of English anyway, but sometimes that comes in handy!

  • Gwan

    Cool, I want to go to Lisbon after having a good time in Porto. I was surprised by the sound of Portuguese as well, I was pretty much expecting Spanish (not that I speak Spanish either), but it sounds so different! Even so, I managed a couple of basic conversations based on French as well, since the guy who checked me in to the hotel didn’t speak English. My brain often short-circuits in foreign countries & I start speaking French instead of English anyway, but sometimes that comes in handy!

  • Nanimosun

    Thumbs up for great article, thanks for sharing this. Never been to Portugal (would love to go some day) but I was amazed when I noticed how much I could understand our new colleague on campus, who was from Portugal. Because I had only studied Spanish and some Brazilian Portuguese (the latter through self-study). I totally loved how it sounded, sounds more like a melody, more so than Castellano, I should say.

  • Soleil

    Sounds like you have a new country to add to your list of places to live!

  • Hey there!

    I haven’t been to Portugal yet, which is ridiculous, considering that my family is Portuguese on my mom’s side, but I’ve heard some mixed opinions about it. I myself don’t normally like the Portuguese mood; I find them to be exceedingly formal and gloomy and not really outgoing like I’m used to as a whole (I’m Brazilian and live in Italy, probably the two most outgoing countries in the world), but of course I’ve also met a couple of very nice Portuguese people (although they, too, were strangely formal in a cute way that made me smile). My mom has been to Lisbon and said it looked and felt a lot like Rio, which can be interpreted as a compliment – or not. She did have this feeling that it is quite different from other European cities she’s been to. Anyway, I’ve met people who loved it and others who couldn’t think of a more boring place to visit. I’ve been meaning to visit the city for a while now; hopefully this year I’ll convince my husband to spend a few days there.

    Language-wise, I remember taking the bus to Assisi once (where I used to work) and overhearing three people talking, and thinking “Man, Polish is such a strange language, I wonder what it’s like speaking with hardly any vowels”. And then I saw one of them fishing out an Assisi guide out of a bag, and I saw the Portuguese flag on the cover, and in absolute awe I adjusted my ears and started catching a familiar word here and there and thought “omg that’s FREAKING PORTUGUESE!”. It’s so absurdly different from spoken Brazilian Portuguese that it does sound like another language altogether, depending on which part of Portuguese the speaker comes from. I’ve been told that Portuguese and Russian (or other Slavic languages, for that matter) use the same phonemes – I can’t tell if that’s true since I know nothing at all about Slavic languages, but that would account for the fact that I’ve been asked if I was Russian a few times when overheard speaking Portuguese, even though I MOST DEFINITELY don’t look Russian 😉

    As a translator, I’m sometimes asked to proofread en/it/es > pt texts, and although I’ve told my clients a hundred times that I don’t do European Portuguese stuff because, well, it’s just not my language, I still sometimes find myself doing it, and the differences are incredible. I mean, a Brazilian wouldn’t have any trouble understanding something written in European Portuguese, but it does require some brain adjustment because some structures exist in only one version of the language, some verb tenses are used differently, a lot of pronouns are used differently – and I’m not even talking about spelling, of course.

    I find these differences between dialects fascinating 🙂 It’s amazing to see how versions of the same languages have drifted apart in such a remarkable manner.

    • I need to visit Rio then so I can compare the two. 🙂

      I’m always fascinated by language change; especially for languages separated by the Atlantic. I’ve heard that Brazilian and European Portuguese sound completely different, but then again, I suppose it will sound like that if you don’t really speak the language(s). But yes, European Portuguese uses a lot of fricatives and affricates that also exist in Slavic languages. There are sh’s and ch’s all over the place!

      • There are sh’s and ch’s all over the place in the version spoken in Rio – and only in Rio; nowhere else in the country. Something we inherited from the Portuguese royal family during their stay in the city while running away from the British. The main difference between European and Brazilian Portuguese is the vowels – the Portuguese don’t really pronounce them much, while we tend to mark them in Brazil, and exceedingly so in Rio (read Benny’s post on speaking like a carioca, he’s totally hit the mark there). So a Portuguese says “lsboa” while I’d say “lisboua” 🙂

  • What about Paris makes you stressed or, especially, scared? Maybe a good topic for a post? 😉

    Also, that’s fantastic to hear that English is so widely spoken in Portugal, I would’ve thought it would be more like Spain (most people don’t speak conversational English).

    I’m completely with you on absolutely hating being harassed by people on the street, which actually brings up another good question and potential post topic: what has your experience with the Roma in France been like? I know you’re not a fan of what Sarkozy did with them recently, but my European friends are almost ALL very anti-Roma: they may not want to deport them, but they sure don’t like them and the general impression of them by the public in Europe seems to be that they’re thieves and they’re violent, not very favorable…


    • I know you asked Jennie but I live in Europe too so I can give an idea of what feelings in Italy are like.

      There’s a parking lot for campers and trailers right next door to my in-laws. On national holidays it gets full of, well, tourists in their camper vans and trailers, but sometimes the Roma spend a few weeks there too. That’s when everybody’s chickens start to disappear – my in-laws’ and their neighbors. Sometimes a woman shows up with a kid asking for water, and twice they refused because it wasn’t “cool enough to drink”, according to my mother-in-law, who then told the woman solemnly to go f* herself off. From my in-laws’ windows I can see their women yelling at their kids, washing them with buckets outside their camper vans, and their husbands doing nothing but chatting while leaning on their old Mercedes and BMWs all day long.

      A close friend of mine owns a car dealer and told me that a Roma came once and bought an Audi Q7 C-A-S-H – I mean, about € 70,000 in bills and coins. It took them an entire afternoon just to count the money. His mother begs in front of the Basilica in Santa Maria degli Angeli, below Assisi.

      There are A LOT of cases of hit-and-run in Italy involving the Roma. Their campsites are the filthiest thing you can imagine – I’ve never thought such a mess was even possible. There aren’t many Roma in Brazil so we don’t hear much about them; the first time I saw one of their campsites on TV here in Italy I honestly thought it was staged because such levels of filth and mess simply did not look humanly possible. It does make sense, in a way, if you consider they’ll always be leaving that behind when they go live somewhere else.

      I myself don’t really know what to think about them. They have no government to protect them, but other nations can’t really take the responsibility for them either, and as they cause a lot of trouble one would argue that it’s not fair, having to put up with them. But what should one do with them, then?

      All I know is that non-Roma Romanians get pretty angry when others mistake them for Roma.

    • It’s mostly because I’m slightly anti-social and obsessive-compulsive about germs, so any big city with lots of people (and therefore germs) stresses me out. But it seems to be the worst in Paris because there are so many people everywhere, and someone always trying to sell me something or begging for money every 10 seconds. Even standing in Gare de Lyon for 40 minutes while waiting for a train, there are a dozen beggars circling the passengers like vultures and of course the police do nothing about it. I don’t like being constantly harassed like that.

      The stereotype about the Roma is a bit exaggerated. I have never had a bad experience with them, aside from random begging in the street, but that also happens with non-Roma. They definitely have a bad reputation as thieves but that’s just plain racism. There are plenty of people who steal and beg and live in campers and yet they’re not considered as bad as the Roma because they are French citizens.

      I feel bad for them since Romanians & Bulgarians tend to hate them too, so where are they expected to go? I try not to make any distinction between groups of people because they’re all human beings and should be treated exactly the same, even if I don’t agree with the way they live. Sarkozy deporting them makes me sick because it’s just history repeating itself and yet no one seems to care. Once you start dehumanizing people by claiming they’re too different from everyone else or that all of them are criminals because of their genetic makeup, it just leads to more violence, intolerance and eventually genocide.

      If the rest of Europe doesn’t want the Roma in their countries, then they shouldn’t have let Romania and Bulgaria into the EU until those countries made sure that the Roma would respect EU laws. But they don’t care about the Roma either and want them to leave their countries too. I just think it’s all very sad, especially for the children who want to settle somewhere or go to school. But if you’re born into poverty, chances are you will stay poor forever, especially with racism working against you.

  • Zhu

    I find Portuguese is fairly easy to understand if you speak either French, Italian or Spanish. Written Portuguese was easy for me in Brazil, but understanding people was more difficult due to the unique pronunciation of Portuguese. Lots of nasal sounds which I wasn’t used to.

  • Zhu

    I find Portuguese is fairly easy to understand if you speak either French, Italian or Spanish. Written Portuguese was easy for me in Brazil, but understanding people was more difficult due to the unique pronunciation of Portuguese. Lots of nasal sounds which I wasn’t used to.

  • Meg

    I visit your blog from time to time, and never comment: but you have now written about my hometown..and I am so glad that you loved it!
    Also, as I have been living away for 5 years now, I am homesick and always love seeing photos that truly depict how beautiful Lisbon is…
    I am living proof that subtitling instead of dubbing is much better, as I learnt english by watching television, as did almost all of my friends…
    European Portuguese and Brazilian-Portuguese is like UK English and USA English. We can all understand what the others are saying, although Portuguese people are more used to the brazilian accent as we have all been watching the brazilian soap operas for more than 30 years now (there was almost no portuguese television production up to a few years ago, so the television networks always bought the brazilian soap operas…).. so there you go, another example that shows how television is important for language learning.
    And yes, even I sometimes hear russian people and at first I think it’s Portuguese…and I have lost count of the times I have been asked if I’m russian…

    • I absolutely adored Lisbon – such a great place!!! Thanks for the info on Euro/Brazilian Portuguese. I find it so fascinating. Thanks for commenting!