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Physical Features and Climate of Portugal

Updated on April 17, 2014
Azenhas do Mar, Portugal
Azenhas do Mar, Portugal | Source

Portugal is a country in Europe on the western side of the Iberian Peninsula between Spain and the Atlantic Ocean. Roughly rectangular in shape, it extends 350 miles (560 km) from north to south and has a maximum breadth of 135 miles (215 km). The Azores and Madeira, groups of islands in the North Atlantic, are part of Portugal.

Although Portugal occupies only one sixth of the Iberian landmass, the country shares with Spain the great geographical contrasts that are characteristic of the peninsula. Extremes, however, are less pronounced. Altitudes are not so great as in Spain, and the climate is more evenly mild and humid because no part of Portugal is very far from the ocean. The two main rivers—the Tagus (Tejo) in the center and the Douro in the north—rise in Spain and flow westward across Portugal into the Atlantic.

Map of Portugal
Map of Portugal | Source


Lowlands or lands of medium height predominate in Portugal, over 70% of which lies at elevations of less than 1,300 feet (400 meters). But the distribution of highlands is very unequal north and south of the Tagus.

Northern Portugal is largely hilly or mountainous, especially north of the Douro, where 95% of the land is above 1,300 feet. Huge plateaus are intersected by deep valleys, and in some places mountains rise more than 3,000 feet (915 meters) within 30 miles (50 km) of the sea. Between the Douro and the Tagus there is a triangular coastal plain, and inland are a few wide valleys. Extending toward Spain, the Serra da Estrela reaches 6,552 feet (1,991 meters) at the Torre, the highest peak in continental Portugal.

South of the Tagus, about 60% of the surface is below 650 feet (200 meters). This is an area of plains and low tablelands, of broad low-lying river basins, and of gentle undulating country. Outcrops of hills are rare, and only one mountain range, the Serra de São Mamede, exceeds 3,000 feet.

Rivers and Coastline

Portugal coastline
Portugal coastline | Source

Portugal has made extensive use of its rivers, especially those in the north, for the generation of power. About 65% of installed electric generating capacity is hydroelectric.

Because of its long coastline, Portugal has always been attracted to the sea. The only large cities are near the mouths of the two great rivers: Lisbon, on the Tagus, and Oporto, on the Douro. The best natural harbors are those of Lisbon and of Setúbal, at the mouth of the Sado River. At the entrance of the Douro, the deepwater harbor of Leixões had to be built to serve Oporto. In the south, the port of Sines is being developed in conjunction with a complex of heavy and light industries.

The coast is lined with extensive beaches and with stretches of cliffs that in places rise more than 300 feet (100 meters). The beaches, notably along the Costa do Sol near Lisbon and in the Algarve, constitute one of Portugal's prime tourist attractions.


The climate of Portugal ranges from temperate in the north, which receives snow in the mountains and high plateaus, to subtropical along the southward-facing Algarve coast. During the winter, cool moist winds from the west prevail in Portugal; however, as summer approaches, hot dry air moves up from the south and there is little rain. In general, the north has a wetter as well as cooler climate than the south, because it is subject to westerly ocean winds for a longer part of the year. Moreover, its mountain ranges favor condensation. Rainfall decreases progressively southward from the Tagus; the vegetation becomes sparser, with drought-resistant types more in evidence; and the hot dry summer is prolonged.

The Portuguese coast has more nearly uniform temperatures than the interior, where the effects of surface relief are felt. In Lisbon, midway along the western coast, temperatures in January average 45°–59° F (7°–15° C); in July, 64°–82° F (18°–28° C).

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    • CYong74 profile image

      Kuan Leong Yong 17 months ago from Singapore

      An exotic place I must try to visit one of these days. Hmmmm!