Portuguese Culture

Core Concepts

  • Saudade
  • Modesty
  • Formality
  • Expressiveness


Portugal is situated in Western Europe, making up one-sixth of the Iberian Peninsula. It borders Spain to the country’s north and east while the Atlantic Ocean lies to the south and west. Portugal occupies the westernmost point in Europe and has a long, exposed coastline; these geographic characteristics have made it a historical focal point for invaders, seafarers and explorers. Most Portuguese are proud of their cultural heritage, particularly the country’s deep affiliations with the ocean.


Political changes, especially through the construction and dismantling of the country’s empire, have significantly shaped Portugal. For example, António de Oliveira Salazar (the dictator of Portugal from 1926 to 1968) promoted the ‘Three Fs’ of society; the fado (a sombre Portuguese folk song), Fátima (a Catholic shrine in central Portugal, symbolising devotion to Catholicism) and futebol (soccer). These three elements continue to be central to the Portuguese identity. Perhaps reserved and formal at first, Portuguese are generally deeply expressive and warm people.


Geography, Environment and Lifestyles

Portugal has been profoundly influenced by the country’s proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and the region’s mild climate. Many take pride in their country’s history and traditions in seafaring. Moreover, the environment has helped create the relaxed, slow-paced lifestyle of most Portuguese. For those residing near the coastline, visiting the beach is a popular pastime, particularly in the region known as the Algarve.


A highly treasured element of Portuguese culture and lifestyle is the production and sharing of food. The long coastline of the country has helped create a national cuisine heavily based on fresh seafood. Further inland, it is common to see an abundance of fresh fruits, vegetables and other agricultural products. Many Portuguese feel connected to the land through the experience of cultivating farms and creating food from the produce. Eating food is seen as a communal affair, where people gather to partake in food and drink (such as wine) as a way to bond with one another. Thus, the experience of food – from its production to preparation – is a great source of pride for many Portuguese. 


A common distinction in Portugal is between the regions to the south and north of the Rio Tejo (Tagus River). The two regions differ in customs, traditions and geography. For example, the Alentejo (‘beyond the Tejo’ or ‘south of the Tejo’) has Moorish influence due to its proximity to Northern Africa. One way the Moorish influence is evident is in words beginning with ‘Al-‘ (e.g. ‘Algarve’, the southernmost region of Portugal). The distinction between the north and south has somewhat changed due to population distribution. In Portugal, population distribution is quite urban-centric, concentrated along the coastlines. Seaside towns and cities have high population densities as many migrate in hopes of better employment opportunities in the country’s economic hubs. Some rural areas have experienced considerable population losses as a result of this phenomenon, which in turn has had severe effects on local economies. This is most evident in parts of the north and the southern inland areas.


In urban parts of Portugal, many rent or own an ‘andar’ (apartment) in large apartment blocks referred to as ‘prédios’. These apartments often have a small veranda where people grow potted plants, hang their clothes to dry and keep their pets (usually birds). It is very common for those living in urban areas to visit their relatives residing in their rural ‘terra’ (homeland). Urban Portuguese tend to maintain strong ties to their hometowns or native regions by trying to visit as often as possible. Many of these visits are planned far in advance since the visitor usually stays for several days.


The Colonial Empire and Contemporary Political Changes

Exploration, and political upheavals have characterised much of Portugal's history. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Portuguese colonists began to build an empire in far-flung regions visited by Portuguese explorers. The colonies of Portugal included Brazil, Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Sao Tome, Principe, East Timor, Macau and Goa (a region in India). The Portuguese empire’s expansion was pursued for various reasons: Spice trade, gold, resource extraction, the creation of overseas markets and to spread Catholicism. The empire lasted for over six centuries, ending when Macau was handed over to Mainland China in 1999.


The political developments that occurred in the country from the 20th century onwards are related to Portugal’s history. From 1926 to 1974, Portugal was under a corporatist authoritarian dictatorship known as the ‘Estado Novo’ (‘New State’), led by António de Oliveira Salazar until 1968. During the dictatorship, the country’s economy improved. Some believe that the economic progress of the country came at the expense of the suppression of political freedoms. For example, the state-imposed censorship and saw the congregation of more than three to four people in public as suspicious. Salazar also prioritised the role of the Catholic Church and its ideology, making the church one of the most powerful institutions in the country (see the Religion section for more information).


During the last 13 years of Salazar’s rule, Portugal underwent various independence wars in their former African colonies of Mozambique, Angola, Campe Verde and Guinea-Bissau. The wars also saw many of Portugal’s younger generation being sent to the former colonies to fight. Today, it is common for Portuguese to have lost a loved one due to the wars or know of someone who suffered a loss, sensitive and sombre feelings are associated with this time.


In 1974, a socialist military group led by General António de Spínola took control of the government, marking the end of the nearly fifty-year-long dictatorship. This coup was aptly known as the ‘Revolução dos Cravos’ (‘Revolution of the Carnations’) since Portuguese civilians placed carnations in the muzzles of rifles and uniforms of the military. The revolution was non-violent and saw little resistance from the dictatorship’s remaining loyal followers. Directly after the overthrow of the dictatorship, independence was granted to most of Portugal’s former colonies, marking the end of European in Africa.


The decolonisation process that occurred after the revolution had significant demographic and economic repercussions on Portugal. Over 500,000 Portuguese , some of whom were born abroad, returned to Portugal from the colonies. Known as ‘retornados’ (‘repatriates’), these repatriates filled Portugal's cities and towns, leading to high unemployment rates that continued into the next decade. In addition, locals from various colonies came to escape from the political turmoil that ensued in their countries. Nearly one million refugees settled in Portugal, most of whom were from Angola, fleeing from the civil war that came after decolonisation.1


The end of the dictatorship also led to various political and social changes in the country. For example, literary and artistic production flourished after the state-imposed censorship was lifted. Moreover, the end of the 20th century saw the restoration of and the full withdrawal of the military from the political sphere, after several revisions of the constitution. Although Portugal is no longer politically connected to its former colonies, there are still economic, cultural and linguistic ties. The ‘Community of Portuguese-speaking Countries’ (formed in 1996) consists of nine member countries and serves to retain cultural connections between Portugal and the former colonies.2


Ethnicity, Homogeneity and Identity

Portugal’s composition is quite homogeneous, with most of the population being ethnically Portuguese. The country has seen an increase in diversity in the 21st century due to recent waves of immigrants from former colonies in Africa and Asia. This is particularly evident in the capital city of Lisbon and its surrounding metropolitan area. These populations tend to be residentially segregated in neighbourhoods with poorer housing conditions. However, for the most part, they are considered Portuguese, regardless of their place of origin.


Portugal’s official language – Portuguese – contributes to its national identity as well as the country’s relationship with its former colonies. Today, Portuguese is the first language of nearly the whole population and is the sixth most widely spoken language in the world. Many of the former colonies still speak it, such as Brazil, albeit with slight variation. Within Portugal, various regional accents can be heard throughout the mainland and in Portugal’s islands. Nonetheless, these regional differences are minor and rarely affect the quality of communication among the Portuguese. Ultimately, the Portuguese language provides an enduring source of national unity. Multilinguality is extremely common in Portugal, with many Portuguese having a grasp of Spanish, English and French.


Comparisons are often made between Portugal and neighbouring Spain. The two countries do share numerous affinities and cultural connections. However, it is important to acknowledge Portugal’s unique cultural identity by ensuring one does not categorise Portugal and the Portuguese people as ‘Spanish’, ‘Hispanic’ or ‘Latino’. Indeed, Portugal is quite different from Spain in various ways, and these distinctions often underpin ideas of the Portuguese identity. Some notable distinctions relate to Portugal’s cultural connection to the ocean, the Portuguese language, and a closer relationship with its former colonies.


Social Stratification

Economic and political changes throughout contemporary Portugal have impacted and interactions. For the most part, Portugal is a hierarchical society and stratification tends to occur based on one’s education and economic status. Education is a core value, and it is common to find families who begin saving for their children’s tertiary education as soon as they are born. Homeownership is another indicator of one’s status. Indeed, parents will often help their children buy their first home.


One such way people have attempted to improve their economic conditions is through emigration. Large-scale emigration began during the second half of the 19th century and well into the 20th century. Many Portuguese have moved and continue to move abroad in hopes of better opportunities for themselves and their families. However, most maintain strong ties to their homeland, hoping to one day return and retire in Portugal.


Interactions and Outlook

At times, Portuguese may come across as somewhat reserved upon first meeting. Once they have become familiar with those around them, they are quite warm and hospitable. Among those they are close to, Portuguese communicate expressively and openly. Economic factors may play a large role in social interactions. There is an expectation that one will be modest and will avoid boasting about one’s wealth, putting oneself above others or dressing provocatively. Moreover, as Portugal is a society, maintaining one’s reputation and dignity is considerably important to ensure one is respected as an individual as well as to protect the honour of one’s family.


Another factor that determines how Portuguese interact with one another is their propensity to avoid uncertainty. According to Hofstede Insights, Portugal scores high on the dimension of (score of 99).3 This indicates that the Portuguese have a general tendency to avoid uncertainty. Arguably, this is in part due to Portugal’s long-standing military dictatorship, whereby the country experienced a reasonable amount of stability and certainty in their day-to-day lives. The Portuguese tendency to avoid uncertainty is evident in the way in which many Portuguese carefully consider major changes before accepting them. One example is the following of traditions; people tend to uphold traditions they have followed throughout their lives and will usually consider if their actions will break a tradition.


Sebastianismo and Saudade

The concept of ‘Sebastianismo’ reflects sentiments of hope, longing and sadness that many Portuguese people experience. The concept emerged from the death of Portugal’s former King Sebastian in Morocco in 1578. After his death, many of his subjects believed he would return to save them from Spanish rule, thus creating the messianic belief known as ‘Sebastianismo’. At its core, Sebastianismo reflects a sense of hope that something desirable will come true while simultaneously feeling that it will never happen. For example, one may hope that they will achieve a job opportunity they applied for, yet feel that this is not fated for them. 


An interrelated concept is ‘saudade’, which refers to a combination of longing, nostalgia and melancholy. It reflects the desire for someone or something that is far away or unattainable, such as a loved one, one’s homeland or a distant memory. Portuguese may feel saudade when they are living abroad and feel homesick, or when they are separated from a loved one. The concept of saudade emerged during Portugal’s seafaring and exploration days; people would experience a strong feeling of longing for their loved ones and the Motherland. Artistic expression in Portugal fosters and thrives on saudade and Sebastianismo as a source of inspiration for artists, musicians and poets. One example is the lyrics composed for a ‘fado’ – a popular urban song form that usually expresses a sense of sadness, regret and longing. The fado is played with the Portuguese guitar and is always a sombre occasion. Once a fado begins, no one is to talk, and in some instances clapping is inappropriate.



1 Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018
2 See Comunidade dos Países de Língua Portuguesa, https://www.cplp.org/
3 Hofstede Insights, 2018


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