Bathed by the Atlantic Ocean to the West and cradled by Spain to the East, often-overlooked Portugal has a lot to offer. Its friendly people, fascinating history, world-class foods, and wines, and its luxurious hotels, will have you immediately falling in love with this tiny, welcoming country. Portugal’s diverse climate and geography allow many different experiences in a small amount of space. From the Duoro Valley’s terraced vineyards in the north to the craggy beaches of the Algarve on the southern coast, Portugal offers something for everyone.
“Portuguese is cheerful and sweet, like a language of birds.”Paulo Rónai
BEFORE YOU GO
Portugal’s two major airports are Lisbon and Porto while Faro serves the Algarve (plenty of flights from the UK here) and Madeira for the Azores. There are several non-stop flights from America’s east coast but if coming from the west, you will most likely need to change. Portugal’s airports are well served from just about any European major airport.
While train travel is easy and efficient between major cities, we highly recommend traveling around by car, whether it be a rental or private chauffeured. One of the many delights of Portugal is to explore the rural areas oozing with authenticity.
Portugal is often combined with a trip to Spain, but we recommend making it its own travel experience. Lisbon and surroundings can easily fill up a week, whereas Porto deserves 2-3 days and then a couple of nights in the Douro Valley. The Algarve is a wonderful “vacation from the vacation” destination – again, a whole week could be spent here. In between there is plenty to enjoy: Minho region to the north of Alentejo between Lisbon and the Algarve are ideal add-ons.
The roots of Portuguese food lie in both native peasant cookery and the ingredients obtained through trade routes established many centuries ago. Bread, rice, spices, pastries, sausages, and seafood — especially cod — remain the staples of many Portuguese meals.
Portugal cuisine has often been (unfairly) overshadowed by the culinary traditions of Spain, as well as Italy and France, but in recent years, Lisbon and Porto have been moving into the forefront of a gastronomic revival. Beyond its passion for fish (which they do oh so well!), the foundation of Portuguese tends to be hearty, based around bread, rice, spices, pastries, sausages and meats. Many will be happy to know that Portugal does not follow its neighbor Spain in late meals. Lunch is normally served between noon and 3 PM, with dinner hours starting as early as 7:30 PM.
Portugal has long been famous for its excellent port and Madeira fortified wine. In recent years, the 14 wine regions have finally started making a well-deserved name for themselves. You will find for the most part, the wines are less expensive than those of their European counterparts, but with no compromise to quality and taste.
English is well-spoken throughout the country, but the locals welcome anyone willing to tackle a bit of conversational Portuguese.
No visas are necessary for North Americans for travel less than 90 days.
WHEN TO GO
Portugal is graced with an undeniable mild climate making the cities year-long destinations. While you may encounter a bit more rain in the north, you will find almost spring-like temperatures along the Algarve, even in the winter. Summers can sizzle inland so we suggest sticking to the north and coastal areas then. Lisbon and Porto are year-long destinations.
WHERE YOU’LL STAY
Just like with the cuisine, Portugal has recently had a bit of a renaissance in the lodging department. While the Algarve boasts many large resorts (for good or bad), there are a plethora of fantastic, boutique and deigns hotels throughout the country. Additionally, we suggest trying out the traditional farmhouse style called “Quintas” as well as the “Pousadas” which are painstakingly restored historical buildings turn into accommodations of class and charm.
MEMORIES YOU’LL MAKE
- Live it up in Lisbon – If you are visiting Portugal, there is a good chance you are arriving in Lisbon. There are so many different sites to see and things to do in this cosmopolitan and welcoming city, it would long surpass any top ten list. Make sure you have 3-5 days to scratch the surface. A walking tour of the city is a “must” and can be split into several different ones: the Alfama, another being the Castle, Sé Cathedral, Jerónimos Monastery, Belém & River Cruise tagged on. Ride Yellow Tram 28 from Martim Moniz up to Campo Ourique. Listen to Fado over a glass of vino verde. Visit the Monastery of Jerónimos, an incredible UNESCO heritage site. Climb Belem Tower and then make sure to treat yourself to the famous Pasteis of the neighborhood. Eat local at Time Out Market Lisboa. Enjoy the azulejos in the National Tile Museum…and the list goes on!
- Meander the Ribeira District – No visit to Porto would be completely without experiencing to the old quarter of the city known as the Ribeira. Colorful, lively and overlooking the scenic River Douro, it’s a great area to dine and enjoy a bit of nightlife. Just across the river from the Ribeira Distrct, you will find yourself immersed in Adegas or port houses where you can tour and taste Portugal’s most a famous export.
- Explore the Douro Valley – The Douro Valley is where most of the wineries producing port are actually located, even though Porto is where the wine is aged, bottled, and stored. This is the oldest demarcated wine region in the world. Even if you have no interest in port or its production process, it is worth a visit to the Douro Valley for its scenery alone. Picturesque landscape of rolling hills covered in vineyards (the colors of the fall are priceless), winding backroads, and a river twisting through it makes this destination special even for the non-wine lover. Highly recommend is a cruise down the river with lunch and wine tasting aboard.
- Taste Portugal – With its continually growing popularity of eno-gastronomic delights, the country has many culinary activities to enjoy. Whether it means simple sampling of “petiscos” while discovering the streets of Lisbon, taking a class on making the famous Pastéis de Belém, savouring the olive oil and ham of the Alentejo, or fishing and clam shucking (and eating!) on the Algarve, we have a wide arrangement of gourmet outings to experience.
- Surf your way up the coast – Portugal is world famous for its waves and big surf culture. For the best of the best (and biggest), one can stop for the day or more along the mid-country coast between Lisbon and Porto to experience “the big three”: Figueira da Foz, Nazaré, Peniche, and Ericeira. You can even attend a local surf camp. But even if you don’t physically make your way into the water, the spectacle is worth watching from a nearby café on the beach or cliffs above. One should note, the lovely town of Obidos can easily be visited should you be making a day trip of it (but no surfing there!)
- Savoring Sintra – Just a 45minute drive from the center of Lisbon, you can experience three palaces (Regaleira, Pena, and Royal Palaces) and a Moorish Castle all in one day. The village is also worth a stroll with its chambering buildings, cobblestone streets and lovely natural parks. We love combining this day with a visit to Cabo de Roca, continental Europe’s most westerly point, and other points along the beautiful Estoril Coast.
- The archaeological treasures in Evora – Set in the province of Alentejo, Evora is a delightful city that exuding Portuguese charm. Best known for its Roman history after the Romans settled here in 57 BC, there are some incredible ruins of a Roman temple here that is thought to have been built between the second and third centuries. The city was also major trading and boasts a large number of historical monuments, all of which are all conveniently situated within the city’s ancient walls. While the Evora can visited as a day trip from Lisbon, surrounding the city, you will find a region of sun-baked olive groves, fortified towns and traditional villages, thus making it tempting to spend a few days.
- Make a pilgrimage to Bom Jesus do Monte Sanctuary – this beautiful religious sanctuary a located just outside the city Braga (also worth visiting). It lies at the top of a hill with gorgeous views. We suggest walking up or down the amazing zig-zagging staircase (each landing has something interesting to see) but there is a funicular for less active option.
- Explore Ria Formosa Natural Park – Ria Formosa Natural Park is made up of a large lagoon and coastline that stretches for 60 km. It’s main purpose is to protect the unique ecosystem of the marshlands of the Algarve. Here you will find every changing landscapes such of sand dunes, marshes, salt pans, and small inlets and lakes. It is a bird watcher’s paradise
- Soak up some sun – Portugal can proudly show off over 1100 km of coastline and possesses some of the most gorgeous beaches in Europe. Many of the most picturesque lie along the Algarve but you will find so many choices up and down the coast. Our favourites include Praia de Marinha, Praia do Camilo, Benagil, Praia da Ursa, Matosinhos and Praia do Guincho.
PORTUGAL ITINERARIES FOR INSPIRATION
We invite you to peruse our sample itineraries for your next trip to Italy, which can be fine-tuned to your travel wishes…