Editor’s note: A version of this article was previously published on June 8, 2020, and was updated on July 8, 2020, in light of the EU travel ban.
Summer travel was starting to feel like a distant memory when Portugal announced its plans to welcome back tourists this June. And not just because last summer’s getaways are already a year behind us. As COVID-19 brought international travel to a standstill this spring, any hope of going abroad in the ensuing months has seemed as distant as the big, bright star our planet orbits in a year.
Portugal is no consolation prize for the travel starved, however. It was top of the list for countless vacationers even pre-pandemic. For several summers, the streets of Lisbon and Porto have been as tightly packed as the sardines the Portuguese famously tin, and the Algarve’s beaches have been as speckled with sunbathers as they are grains of sand.
Under normal circumstances, all that activity is part of Portugal’s appeal. It’s small and social, throwing tourists and locals together in close, cobblestoned quarters. But travel in the COVID-19 era will be anything but normal. Rather than contribute to the crowds that are soon to descend on western Europe’s Atlantic coast, consider a more socially distant itinerary that, any other year, could be branded as off the beaten track. At the very least, do your part to abide by local regulations and take the same precautions abroad as you would back home.
Here’s everything you need to know about planning a safe, responsible, and undeniably one-of-a-kind trip to Portugal this summer.
Who can visit
Portugal entered the third and final phase of its plan to reopen on June 1. International visitors from 14 countries are currently welcome, per the recent EU travel ban, including travelers from New Zealand, Canada, Japan, and Morocco. US travelers are not presently permitted while the UK is being treated like an EU member nation until Brexit is complete.
TAP Air Portugal, the country’s flag carrier, has begun reinstating flights. While the airline is not imposing passenger limits, measures are being taken to uphold strict hygiene standards, including eliminating in-flight magazines, limiting meal and beverage services, and distributing only disinfected packaged products. Passengers are requested to wear masks and curb their movement around the cabin for the duration of their flights. Upon arrival at the Lisbon, Porto, Faro, Madeira, and Azores airports, travelers will also pass through newly installed body temperature measurement systems.
Where to stay when you land
There are two main factors to consider when choosing an accommodation that will decrease your COVID-19 exposure: contact and cleanliness. Experts have recommended booking entire Airbnbs whenever possible as person-to-person transmission carries the greatest risk of spreading the virus. Airbnb has also introduced new cleaning protocols to give travelers peace of mind, including implementing a vacancy period between bookings. Note that participation is not mandatory for hosts, though guests are able to see which hosts are compliant.
For hotel stays, the Portuguese tourism authority has created a Clean & Safe seal to spotlight accommodations committed to upholding the hygiene standards put forth by the Directorate-General for Health. To earn a stamp of approval, hotels must meet requirements such as supplying personal protective equipment for employees, giving guests access to sanitizers on every floor, following careful instructions for cleaning rooms and disinfecting common areas, training employees in interaction etiquette, and holding staff to daily self-imposed health checks. Accommodations must also have a dedicated space for travelers who are infected with, or suspected of having, COVID-19.
Keeping your distance in urban centers
Social distancing is the status quo throughout Portugal, which travelers are expected to respect. This is particularly essential in crowded cities and tourist centers like Lisbon, Porto, and Lagos in the Algarve.
Major attractions and location establishments have reopened with regulations around how many people are permitted in highly trafficked areas at one time. Restaurants and bars are required to limit their number of patrons, theaters have been marked to reflect reduced seating, and landmarks may control the flow of traffic to help sightseers social distance. Masks are also mandatory in enclosed spaces such as shops, eateries, supermarkets, and indoor attractions, as well as on public transportation, which is operating at two-thirds capacity. Taxis and rideshares are similarly required to keep the front passenger seat free and only fill two-thirds of the vehicle’s remaining space.
Tour operators, travel agencies, and other tourism-related ventures are also eligible for Portugal’s Clean & Safe certification. That includes museums and monuments, restaurants and cafes, golf courses, and rental car companies among other services and establishments. Seal or no seal, remember to keep taking the precautions you grew accustomed to back home, such as opting for takeaway instead of dining in.
Look to Portugal’s third, fourth, and fifth cities
It’s hard to talk travelers out of visiting the places that put Portugal on their radar in the first place. But if ever there was a time to stray from the beaten path, it’s during a global pandemic.
Luckily for city-dwellers, tourism tends to concentrate in Portugal’s capital and second city. Instead of inundating Lisbon, consider anchoring your trip in a city like Guimarães, a World Heritage site that served as the country’s first capital and has a population of around 50,000, roughly one-tenth of Lisbon’s permanent residents.
Evora, Alentejo’s regional capital, has a similarly modest population and UNESCO-designated city center, yet it’s far more spacious, opening to a patchwork countryside whose cork trees, vineyards, and farmsteads run like seams along undulating hills. Even Coimbra, Portugal’s liveliest university town, manages to stay pleasantly sleepy while the students are away during summer, despite having a permanent population of around 150,000.
If you’re planning a beach retreat, the easiest way to avoid the masses is to skip Faro and Lagos. Faro is the Algarve’s largest city, home to the regional airport and some 100,000 residents, while Lagos has long drawn the most tourists. Smaller towns like Tavira, Praia da Luz, and Odeceixe on the Alentejo border promise the same blonde and turquoise coves, plus all the fresh seafood, with only a fraction of the beachgoers to compete for sunbathing spots.
Hit the beach but respect the rules
Like elsewhere, social distancing is now mandatory at the beach. Visitors are required to maintain five feet between themselves and beachgoers outside of their party, as well as 10 feet between umbrellas, which can only be rented between morning and 1:30 PM. Group sports requiring more than two players are prohibited, excluding water sports, though pedal boats are banned. Bars and cafes are open, though seating is limited to respect distancing measures.
To help sunseekers find a secluded beach, green, yellow, and red signs are placed around the shore to let visitors know how full the beach is, signifying low, high, and full capacity, respectively. For a complete list of rules and regulations outlining COVID-19-safe beach conduct, visit the Portuguese Environmental Agency’s website.
Set up camp somewhere more remote
Camping may be the most reliable way to maintain a healthy social distance during your summer travels, no matter where the wind takes you. In Portugal, campsites and motorhome parks are currently open but limited to two-thirds capacity.
There’s only one national park in all of Portugal. It’s hardly Yosemite, but Peneda-Geres National Park, about an hour and a half north of Porto and a half-hour west of the Spanish border, makes for a pleasant place to pitch a tent nonetheless. Forested hikes follow along the Homem River, uncovering sneaky little waterfalls, which you have access to at the Parque Cerdeira campground. There, you’ll also find amenities like bathrooms equipped with showers, a small market and restaurant, and sports like zip-lining and horseback riding.
Smack in the center of Portugal, midway between Lisbon and Porto, the Redondo Lodges invite tent, caravan, and campervan campers to set up a temporary home amid orchards, pines, or fields. Outdoor activities range from hiking to wakeboarding to foraging for wild mushrooms, depending on the season. The campsite is located in Tomar, a city any traveler would be lucky to be based outside of with its massive aqueduct and striking castle and convent, both of which double as museums preserving the city’s Knights Templar heritage.
Campers can have a beach retreat in the Algarve, too. The Yelloh! Village Turiscampo in Lagos is not exactly remote, with cottage rentals and communal facilities including multiple pools and a wellness center, but there are places to pitch a tent or park an RV.
The beaches around Lagos can get congested, though. For something truly remote, consider wild camping a half-hour west in Praia Boca do Rio. It’s difficult to get a straight answer as to whether or not wild camping is technically permitted in Portugal, but it is common practice. There are no amenities in Praia Boca do Rio, just a long shoreline and empty coves that are ripe for paddleboarding. So, if you do decide to go for it, that’s where to go.
Consider skipping the mainland
To really get away from it all, you could set your sights on Madeira or the Azores, both autonomous Atlantic archipelagos belonging to Portugal. After all, even the islands themselves are socially distanced. Tourism in the Azores has picked up over the past few years, but most visitors flock to São Miguel. Escape to Graciosa, Flores, or Santa Maria instead.
If you end up visiting the Azores, note that travelers are required to submit proof of a negative COVID-19 test up to 72 hours before their departing flight, get tested upon arrival and stay isolated pending the results, or opt into a voluntary 14-day quarantine in a designated hotel. Similar measures are currently in place in Madeira, where the mandatory quarantine will be waived beginning July 1. You can learn more about visiting Madeira this summer here.