Despite its boundless popularity, Portugal continues to be one of the best value destinations in Europe. It has it all – a rich history, innovative art, stunning views and friendly, laid-back locals. Visiting has also become easier since TAP Portugal, the country’s main airline, has increased their stopover programme to five days.
Exotic flowers, balmy climate and, OK, quite a hair-raising approach by plane: there’s something special about Portugal’s subtropical island offcut, 1078km (670mi) southeast of the mainland in the Atlantic Ocean. Traditionally a winter retreat for older people seeking sunshine, it’s grown into the trendiest of Portuguese destinations – the capital, Funchal, offers one of the best New Year’s Eve parties in the world. Make sure to take the ferry to nearby Porto Santo Island, where you’ll find one of the most beautiful stretches of sand in Portugal. A visit at any time of year is worth your while.
Don’t miss Portugal’s second city. Like the capital, Porto unfurls beside a major river and possesses its own old, colourful townscape. Love azulejo tiles? You’ll adore nosing around São Bento station, where walls are gleamingly surfaced with these beautiful ceramics, as far as the eye can see. The pleasure of Porto is its digestibility – a long weekend is easily enough time to saunter about its gardens, medieval palaces and cathedrals before thoughts turn to dinner. The cuisine is widely held to be the best in the country, and even the simple francesinha – a ham and steak sandwich baked with cheese – is ambrosial. Visited not least for its celebrated port, Porto is also your gateway to the Douro Valley, where vineyards race away in braided expanses, to the horizons and beyond.
It’s for good reason the capital sits at the top of a zillion must-visit lists: it is a seduction of the senses, whether you’re loving the custardy sweetness of pasteis de nata, the savoury salt-fish zing of bacalhau, or the beauty of the calçadas (traditional mosaic walkways). Lisbon remains one of the most affordable, tranquil capitals in Europe. By day, it draws you up steep and winding alleyways to phenomenal lookout points. By night, mouthwatering aromas and wistful, melodic vocals (known as fado) drift from intimate restaurants lining the cobbled labyrinths. In trendy Chiado, discover the oldest bookshop in the world. And in boho-chic Bairro Alto, prepare to down a few crisp, cold Sagres beers as the neighbourhood becomes livelier with each passing hour.
Surfing is as good as a religion in Portugal, and the little fishing village of Ericeira has acquired a near spiritual status among incurable wave-riders. North of Lisbon, it’s no trouble to get to – you can be there by bus in barely more than an hour, for a smattering of Euros – and while it’s not the closest beach town to the capital, it is certainly one of the busiest. If surfing isn’t how you roll, that’s not a problem: in Ericeira it has evolved into something of a spectator sport these days, with eager crowds admiring the athletic antics. Ericeira’s restaurants major in fresh, delicious seafood. Pick your table, load up on sardines and octopus salad and graze away the days until late-night escapades in Lisbon beckon you back.
The Algarve is one of the best places to go if you like your weather warm, your hiking adventurous and your beaches trendy. Portugal’s southernmost region is a postcard of whitewashed settlements, manicured golf courses and expensive, expansive resorts. Sure it’s touristy, but it’s also a place of escape, with tiny fishing villages and coves where jewel-bright waters are cradled by dramatic cliffs. Whether you like it or not, everyone speaks English – handy if you need directions and can’t muster a word of Portuguese. After all, the Algarve has long been synonymous with retired Brits abroad, hence the air-brushed feel around such places as Albufeira and Vilamoura. Don’t lose heart if you want to break away from the tourist crowds: there is much still relatively undiscovered, and tranquil towns include Sagres, Tavira and Aljezur, to name but a few.
Poking up in the foothills of the eponymous mountain range, Sintra appears almost cartoonish at first sight, with its vividly coloured walls, its bottle-green gardens and its Disney-like crenelated castles. No wonder kids love it – and so many people day-trip out from Lisbon, 30km (19mi) or so to the southeast. You’ll need to stay overnight to take it all in, and you won’t regret investing 48 hours – or even more – in a hotel sojourn. From the romantic 19th-century Pena Palace to the medieval Castle of the Moors, this is a destination with all the fairytale appeal of Camelot or Westeros. So it comes as no surprise to learn that Hans Christian Andersen once lived in a house in the woods of Sintra. You may well stumble upon it as you bowl back downhill from the palatial sights.
Portugal isn’t all beaches, which brings us to Serra da Estrela, home to the highest mountain peak in continental Portugal (the highest being in Pico Island, the Azores). North of Lisbon, sharing its latitude with the Spanish capital, Madrid, it’s not the simplest destination to get to, but believe us, a visit more than repays the effort. This is Portugal for nature lovers and winter-sports enthusiasts: the remote mountain range of Serra da Estrela has plenty to see and do, and is a magnet for skiers in winter. Sparsely speckled with tiny villages, including one of the seven wonders of Portugal, the mountain feels deliciously remote, with the natural world the obvious attraction. But epicureans won’t be left in the lurch: the local homemade honey and creamy, pungent cheese are memorably delicious.
In the very heart of Portugal is a city that attracts more visitors than most of the others put together. The reason? Coimbra is home to a significant number of Roman and medieval ruins and has further historical pedigree, having once served as the capital of the country. Among the most visited tourist attractions is the University, which is one of the oldest continually-operating, degree-seeking institutions in the world. But Coimbra’s greatest claim to fame is its library; the Baroque-styled Biblioteca Joanina has been listed numerous times as one of the most beautiful libraries in the world.
Nearly halfway between the American and Portuguese coasts is the Azorean archipelago, each island as deserving of your holiday time as the next. The largest, São Miguel, is the easiest to reach by air, and is a wonderful rolling green oasis with plenty to absorb you for a few days. This is a thoroughly Azorean experience, helped by hiking trails, waterfalls and beautiful twin lakes called Lagoa das Sete Cidades. An absolute must-visit is the small village of Furnas: as the last word in volcanic power, here you’ll discover the natural, mineral-rich hot springs and calderas in the ground.
Here’s one for wannabe time travellers: Monsanto, near the Spanish border, has been known nationally as the most Portuguese village in Portugal since 1938, when the title was voted in. Occupying some challenging terrain, it derives its name from the 750m-high (2461ft) mountain about which it clusters, Mons Sanctus, and its fame stems from its unique looks. Like something from a children’s storybook, it was built to accommodate gigantic boulders already lying around, and its little granite homes appear in places to be almost squashed by them. Come to savour the atmosphere of an earlier century or era, wandering alleys barely wide enough for donkeys, let alone cars, and pass through little squares where elderly people chatter.
Alex Robinson contributed additional reporting to this article.