A mesmerizing blend of old and new, Portugal enchants its visitors with medieval castles, cobblestoned roads, vibrant street art, and possibly the world’s strongest coffee. If you’re considering a trip to Europe, this historic, culturally rich country guarantees amazing encounters.
Lisbon, the idyllic capital of Portugal, may be known for stunning architecture, music, and food – including the famous egg custard tart – however, this city is rapidly evolving into a new world fashion capital. The combination of nice weather, low prices, and a safe atmosphere make Lisbon the perfect locale for creativity. The Principe Real is this European city’s hippest neighborhood, filled with fashion shops, concept stores, and contemporary galleries.
Add a meaningful week or more supporting the community with a development and restoration project or assisting at a wildlife conservation center, and you’ll bring home a photo album filled with unforgettable experiences.
Use this guide to learn more about how to volunteer in Portugal, and connect with the vibrant country.
Volunteering in Portugal: Know Before You Go
Portugal lies along the Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula in southwestern Europe. Formerly one of Europe’s greatest empires, it still shares cultural and geographic similarities with its Mediterranean neighbors.
The country has been continually settled and invaded since the Second Century BC by a succession of different people, including the Pre-Celts, Celts, Carthaginians and Romans, Visigoths, Suebi Germanic, and Muslim Moors before the “Reconquista” (reconquest) of the Iberian peninsula from AD 722-1492. After the 700+ years of reconquest and repopulation of the peninsula, the territory became a Roman Catholic realm.
Portugal’s head of state is the democratically elected President of the Republic, with a five-year term. The president selects a prime minister, who heads the government. The national parliament is the Assembly of the Republic, consisting of 230 elected officials.
Portugal abolished its death penalty, one of the first countries in the world to do so. It also decriminalized the usage of common drugs, however, trafficking and possession of larger amounts are punishable by fines and jail time. Because of this, overall drug use has declined, as well as HIV infections, which dropped by 50 percent. Portugal legally recognizes same-sex marriage, allows same-sex adoption, and LGBT+ rights have increased within the past decade.
Volunteering and Teaching Opportunities in Portugal
Portugal is a stable country with more than 13 million tourists each year, so you may be wondering why volunteers are needed here.
The financial crisis experienced worldwide in the late 2000s, which many economists believe to be the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, struck Portugal’s children and poor the hardest.
As a result, some underfunded communities are burdened with crippling poverty and unemployment is as high as 14 percent. A recent study, “Unequal Portugal,” reports that a quarter of the nation’s “new poor” are children and that a million workers earn the minimum wage.
In 2016, research into the long-term effects of the Medieval re-conquest and colonization revealed that territory quickly re-taken and given to nobility (Lisbon and Porto are examples) more than 500 years ago still suffer from long-term development problems and inequality.
This means the capital, Lisbon, is where volunteers are most urgently needed, working with youth and the poor, helping to stem the waste of food, as well as assisting with construction and renovation of housing.
Portugal also has exciting outdoor opportunities for volunteers interested in marine habitat and wildlife conservation. Let’s take a look at a few volunteer programs that you can be a part of in Portugal.
The Best Volunteer Programs in Portugal
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Affordable, trusted, and extremely popular with volunteer travelers, International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ) works with local organizations and NGOs in more than 40 countries, providing 200 affordable and safe projects worldwide. Since its founding in 2007, IVHQ has hosted more than 80,000 participants, and sends more than 10,000 people abroad annually, connecting travelers with meaningful projects.
With an eye on responsible, sustainable partnerships, IVHQ works with local NGOs to provide programs for individuals to volunteer from one week to six months. Program fees start at a very affordable $180 for your first week abroad.
An innovative organization, IVHQ preps volunteers with email and phone correspondence and has developed an exclusive, online training module for registrants. Upon sign-up, International Volunteer HQ volunteers receive a comprehensive information booklet and guidance in preparation for their trip.
Once in-country, IVHQ staff and local teams have established safety procedures for volunteers with its programs. If an emergency arises, the team is available to provide 24-hour support. Each registrant is prepped with top safety tips while traveling, while IVHQ implements its risk management program. While IVHQ does all it can to minimize problems, volunteers are encouraged to secure their own travel insurance.
Prepare for teaching in Portugal with IVHQ’s online TEFL certification course, offered in partnership with CCELT for only $399.
Volunteer for a project that improves the lives of people living in poverty. No experience is needed to help repair and rehabilitate houses and community associations. You’ll stay with other volunteers in a dorm close to your program site, and on weekends, you’re free to visit other parts of Lisbon and surrounding areas. Program fees start at $375 for one week, and there is a surcharge of $300 to cover resources, supplies, and additional supervision.
Work as a positive role model with youth ages 11 to 18 from underprivileged backgrounds in an after-school program. As a volunteer, you can help with homework, teach English, share your experience with using a computer or use arts and crafts to connect in a creative way. You also can work with teenage mothers by teaching English or by taking care of their babies while they are working. This program starts at one week for $375.
Join a community movement with the goal to eliminate food waste and end hunger. You’ll work with local centers to recover food from restaurants and supermarkets and distribute meals to more than 300 people per day. As a volunteer, you’ll work for several hours starting at 6:30 p.m., leaving your days free to explore Lisbon and surrounding areas. Fees start at $375 for one week.
Located outside of Lisbon, this conservation center provides community education to the public, as well as protection for wolves that cannot live in the wild. Volunteers assist with feeding and replacing water and wolf behavior observation, though interaction is limited and no direct contact with wolves is allowed. On the education side, you’ll work with school groups visiting the center and monitor visitors. As a conservator, you’ll assist with building maintenance, fire prevention, clearing Eucalyptus trees, and reforestation of the habitat. You’ll stay for a minimum of two weeks, and a typical workday is five hours. You’ll have weekends off and can use this time to relax or explore the art, history, and culture of Portugal. This program’s fee starts at $595 for two weeks.
This marine conservation project is open to beginner divers without any scuba experience. While onsite, you’ll earn your Open Water PADI Dive certification, or take specialty diving courses if you’re already certified. All equipment is provided. Once trained as a diver, you’ll work with a local diving school in Cascais to help contain underwater pollution and conserve marine life. Volunteer tasks include removing garbage from the seafloor, recording the type and amount of trash and other items collected, observing sea life, identifying and counting fish, and learning how to protect the underwater ecosystem. Program fees start at $825 and include the required PADI manuals, crew packs, PIC cards, and full scuba equipment.
For three decades, Frontier volunteers of all ages have enjoyed meaningful travel experiences. Founded in 1989 as a nonprofit organization, Frontier’s earliest projects were helping the World Wildlife Fund in Tanzania, creating the world’s first multi-user marine park at Mafia Island. The project continues to host volunteers today, a testament to Frontier’s mission of safeguarding biodiversity and building sustainable endeavors.
Frontier is a global organization with tremendous impact, having expanded to 60 countries and offering more than 400 projects worldwide. With an emphasis on conserving endangered wildlife and threatened habitats and building livelihoods for under-resourced communities in the world’s poorest countries, Frontier strives for solutions that are innovative, forward-thinking, and apolitical.
Scientific research is a hallmark of Frontier, and it maintains relationships with communities, universities, institutions, and governments to offer unique, discounted opportunities to undergraduate and postgraduate students. Its dedicated staff has published more than 450 articles in peer-reviewed journals.
Frontier offers two programs in Portugal – one in community development, and the other an adventure activity learning how to surf. And, with hundreds of miles of coastline, Portugal’s beaches are among the best in the world. Its connection with the ocean resulted in Lisbon building the largest aquarium in Europe – the Oceanarium.
Consider these Frontier programs in Portugal:
Travel to Lisbon and leave your mark on the city’s architectural history, volunteering for a construction and remodeling project. This is manual labor, allowing you to gain hands-on experience while helping to create better lives for disadvantaged families in Portugal. No skill is needed, just a willingness to join a meaningful, physical project. Program fees for one week begin at $845 and include accommodation, food, supervision, and training.
Set your own pace and learn how to surf in a serene, spacious surf camp on the Atlantic coast of Portugal. Experienced instructors guide you, whether you’re a beginner or an active surfer looking to improve your technique. Gain knowledge of the ocean and develop board skills in a safe location at Frontier’s exclusively licensed surf beach. Avoid the crowds and be monitored by lifeguards as you attend surf class twice daily, for lessons that last about two hours each. Enjoy the Friday beach barbecue and watch the week’s video footage. Program fees begin at $495 and include accommodations in a house close to the camp.
Find Yourself Volunteering in Portugal
Choosing a destination like Portugal for your volunteer experience brings with it the opportunity to learn more about the history of Europe. As one of the longest-settled countries on the continent, it has seen a succession of cultural influences, and these attributes are still visible in the landscape. While you’re there, immerse yourself in one – or more – of the impactful volunteer projects that help the people and wildlife of this amazing country. And, as a world traveler, give yourself permission to enjoy its ancient castles, gorgeous beaches, picturesque towns, award-winning wines, and mouth-watering pastries.
Robin Van Auken · Writer
Robin is a researcher, writer, and a registered professional archaeologist, a skillset she uses every day as a cultural communication specialist with Hands-on Heritage. Her projects connect communities with an emphasis on interpretation and education and conserve cultural and environmental legacies.