During Portugal's golden age, the 15th and 16th centuries, the small Portuguese nation built an overseas empire that stretched halfway around the globe. Prince Henry the Navigator (Henrique Navegador, 1394–1460) laid the foundations of the empire. Among the leaders in overseas exploration were Bartholomeu Dias (1450?–1500), the first European to round the Cape of Good Hope; Vasco da Gama (1469–1524), who reached India and founded Portuguese India in 1498; and Pedro Alvares Cabral (1460?–1526), who took possession of Brazil for Portugal in 1500. Ferdinand Magellan (Fernão de Magalhães, 1480?–1521) led a Spanish expedition, the survivors of which were the first to sail around the world, although Magellan himself was killed after reaching the Philippines. Afonso de Albuquerque (1453–1515) was foremost among the builders of Portugal's Far Eastern empire.
Famous literary figures of the golden age include the historians Diogo do Couto (1542–1616) and João de Barros (1496–1570); Portugal's greatest writer, Luis Vas de Camões (1524?–80), the author of Os Lusiadas, the Portuguese national epic, and of lyric and dramatic poetry; the dramatists Gil Vicente (1465?–1537?) and Francisco de Sá de Miranda (1482–1558); the poets Bernardim Ribeiro (1482?–1552) and Diogo Bernardes (1532?–96?); and the travel writer Fernão Mendes Pinto (1509–83). Portugal's leading painter was Nuno Gonçalves (fl.1450–80).
Among the noted Portuguese of more recent times are Sebastião José de Carvalho e Mello, marquis de Pombal (1699–1782), the celebrated prime minister of King Joseph Emanuel (José Manuel, 1715–77); the novelists Camilo Castelo Branco, viscount of Correia-Botelho (1825–90), and José Maria Eça de Queiróz (1843–1900); the poets João Baptista da Silva Leitão, viscount of Almeida-Garrett (1799–1854), Antero Tarquinio de Quental (1842–91), João de Deus Nogueira Ramos (1830–96), Teófilo Braga (1843–1924), and Abilio Manuel Guerra Junqueiro (1850–1923); the satirist José Duarte Ramalho Ortigão (1836–1915); and the painter Domingos António de Sequeira (1768–1837). António Caetano de Abreu Freire Egas Moniz (1874–1955) won the Nobel Prize in physiology in 1949. António de Oliveira Salazar (1889–1970), prime minister for more than 30 years, was Portugal's best-known modern leader. Gen. (later Marshal) António Sebastião Ribeiro de Spínola (1910–96) played a key role in the revolution of April 1974. Gen. António dos Santos Ramalho Eanes (b.1935) became president in 1976 and was reelected in 1980. The main political leaders of the late 1970s and early 1980s were the Socialist Mário Alberto Nobre Lopes Soares (b.1924), prime minister in 1976–78 and 1983–85 and became president in 1986 and was reelected in 1991; Francisco Sá Carneiro (1934–80), a leader of the Social Democratic Party and prime minister in 1979–80.