How Empty Monasteries Are Portugal's Next Tourist Boom

A lovely church in Elvas, located in front of the towns historic aqueduct
A lovely church in Elvas, located in front of the town's historic aqueduct | © gvictoria / Shutterstock
Nina Santos

“If you build it, they will come,” they say, but in Portugal’s case, it may be more a case of, “If you convert it, they will visit.” It’s no secret that Portugal has become a fashionable destination, known for its beaches, cuisine, and attractive prices, but most visitors beeline to bright Lisbon, historic Porto, and the exotic Algarve, skipping much of this amazing country and its historic sights. That may change, however, and the future may see visitors exploring more of the country, as a result of a new drive to convert historic buildings into tourist accommodation.

Tourism in Portugal rose by 12% in 2017, and an ongoing initiative by tourist boards and city officials is dedicated to redirecting some of the tourist flow towards other parts of Portugal than the traditional favorites. How? By converting, and thus also preserving, historically significant yet abandoned buildings into beautifully rustic, contemporary, four-star hotels. Showcasing Portugal as much more than a beach destination, the project also seeks to attract visitors year round, rather than just in the warmer months, by highlighting the country’s heritage and unique culture.

Pousadas like this one in Alvito, Portugal, blend modern luxury with tradition and history

This isn’t a new idea, and the Pousadas de Portugal hotel chain, known for converting monasteries, castles, palaces, and convents into luxury hotels, started growing in the early 1940s with their first hotel in the Alentejano town Elvas, located near Badajoz in Spain. Although this hotel closed a short time later, others have been successful, and a few even hit international radars such as that of the NY Times. Among the more popular Pousada hotels are the Convento de Évora and the Pousada do Castelo in Óbidos.

Who wouldn’t want to sleep in a beautifully preserved castle, or an ancient and mysterious monastery? Much of the allure surrounding the Pousadas de Portugal comes from the fact that it allows visitors an up-close experience of centuries-old buildings, as well as an opportunity to sample regional recipes inside impressive yet traditional dining rooms, talk to locals, and hear local stories, myths, and legends.

A lovely church in Elvas, located in front of the town’s historic aqueduct

Heading back to the place where it all started, it looks as if the star-shaped fortified town of Elvas will soon have a Pousada built into a local, ancient convent. Unique and beautiful, Elvas is one of the many remote towns of Portugal that is far off the beaten path, but the hope is that this new luxury hotel will attract some of the country’s tourist crowds. Another lovely location that may soon be on the Pousada must-visit list is the baroque Cape Espichel Sanctuary near Sesimbra.

Cape Espichel

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