Portugal Travel Guide – Part 2
Welcome back to our ultimate, candid and very helpful travel guide to one of the most charming and rich of culture countries in Europe – Portugal. Make sure you check part one of our guide to Portugal series, where we have already started discussing some of the must-visits and highlights of the country. Today we continue exploring all those little-hidden gems worth visiting and enjoying, so make sure you stay tuned to the end!
Porto and the Rio Douro
Lisbon is the Portugal’s capital, but Porto is not only a former main city but to this date is one of the most popular Portuguese destinations indeed. And there is certainly a big reason why. Mostly because of the scenic views and the dramatic location of the city, situated at the mouth of the Rio Douro, this place is not simply beautiful and charming, but massively moody and atmospheric, bringing the authentic Portuguese spirit and it is well worth at least a couple of days of time for strolling around and soaking the beauty. Located just across the river, do not miss to visit the famous wine lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia too.
The city of Porto has seen a massive tourism boom in the last couple of decades and it is easy to understand why, so Porto remains a serious highlight when visiting Portugal, attracting with impressive atmosphere and inspiration. When it comes to accommodation, eating and going out in Porto, you are certainly spoilt for choice, because the city is very well-developed for tourism. Additionally, the city is allowing a convenient distance to the coastline, where you can enjoy the little, pretty and charming towns like Vila do Conde as well as little wine-producing towns like Penafiel and Amarante.
Although Porto is the focal point of the region, what truly defines the area’s beauty and mesmerizing power is Rio Douro or River of Gold that creates truly spectacular views stretching beautiful landscapes from 200km from the Spanish border right to the seaside, with charming villages dotted along impressive terraced hillsides.
Another opportunity for you to spend some amazing time here is cruising all the way from Porto to Barca d’Alva on the Spanish border, while there are also some spectacular routes with breath-taking views, in case you love driving. At the very least, your unforgettable journey in this area is guaranteed, even if you choose to take the train and witness all the beauty of the little wine-producing villages dotted along the way.
Just to the south of Peso da Régua, we recommend you visit the small Baroque pilgrimage town of Lamego that is full of historic churches and buildings in its little-explored surroundings. Beyond Peso da Régua, another stop worth visiting is the picturesque wine-town of Pinhão. Here the route begins curving south of the river, where you can reach to an extraordinary collection of Paleolithic rock engravings near Vila Nova de Foz Côa.
The entire northwest province of Minho is another part of Portugal worth spending some time in. The beauty and importance of this province are defined by the river with the same name that is not only curving its way to the mountain to create spectacular views and beautiful landscapes but also has a historical importance for Portugal because the river Minho marks the border with Spain. The province of Minho is often popular among tourists as a rebranded sub-region of Porto and North Portugal.
To be honest, this is one of the regions of Portugal that offers the most of the picture-worth landscapes and views, a home to a piece of land that is like a whole microcosmos and has its own and a unique spirit. Here you can enjoy the nature’s beauty at its best with picturesque river scenes, awe-inspiring mountains, rolling vineyards, atmospheric historic towns, laid back and beautiful Atlantic beaches, ancient religious foundations, enigmatic archaeological sites and a lot more to please your eyes and soul.
Thanks to the modern network of roads and the well-developed infrastructure, practically each and every corner of this region are easy to access and it takes not more than an hour to get from the main town to remote mountain villages. Minho is probably the best for all those of you that are up to some Portugal-in-a-nutshell experience, because of its diverse culture and history and is also a strong attraction for many tourists and travellers all around the world.
The region also features a lot of local and interesting Portuguese traditions – the weekly market at Barcelos, which is a mix between a medieval fair and farmers’ market, the summer carnival (here called Romaria) Viana do Castelo, the handsomely preserved medieval towns Guimarães and Braga. Just in a half an hour drive from Braga, you will reach to the Minho’s coast, which offers a typical Atlantic coastline experience with wind-sweeped sandy dunes and wild surf for all the fans of extreme sports and activities. Locals have named it Costa Verde or the Green Coast and here you can find many dotted around small resorts and also the historic maritime town of Viana do Castelo.
The region’s another major river is Rio Lima that curves its way through a collection of little and charming towns, where there is not much to do, but definitely worth your time for soaking up in some relaxing and picturesque atmosphere. Further east, where the Rio Lima valley ends so the mountain hills start creating spectacular views, there you can enjoy the Portugal’s only national park Peneda-Gerês National Park. To the north, Minho region ends, where the country ends to the border with Spain to allow you have the last peak at a string of atmospheric little towns, one of the main one of them being the walled town of Valenca do Minho, which is a major crossing point into Spain.
The north region of Tras-os-Montes was once in the past the most remote one of Portugal, but since then borders of the country have changed. This isolated area once in the past has developed on its own and a unique way, so today the region has its very own and different from the rest of the country traditions, culture and history. It is characterized by quirky traditions, harsh dialect and a very different lifestyle from the rest. The emigration of the region was high once because many searched for better life in the big cities. At the same time, the region was also inhabited by foreigners and groups of different ethnicities, mostly Jews that have escaped here from the terrors of the Inquisition.
In fact, Trás-os-Montes remained a land apart until very recently, when in the 90s a fast and new highway was built to connect the land with the rest of Portugal. Then the region started developing slowly when it got agriculture and industry investments and urban renewal. Although most of the main towns and cities of the region are not hard to reach to, there are still some remove atmospheric towns that feel like a foreigner has never visited and this is especially true for the extreme north. The climate here can be described as pretty challenging with long and truly hardcore winters and short, but boiling summers.
The obvious starting point for a tour around this region is the charming town of Vila Real. From here, it is very easy to access the granite scenery and magnificence of the Parque Natural do Alvão. Behind Vila Real the motorway will lead you to the border towns, Chaves and Bragança, that besides holding a lot of historical importance have also their fair share in the great outdoors with a lot of opportunities for sports activities and strolling in nature.
Their closer location to some amazing and beautiful nature parks is another plus for all tourists that come here for nature’s beauty. South and east from Vila Real and Bragança the landscapes get gentler and nature settles in, but the journeys to little and remote towns tend to take longer time because of the winding routes. Some places that we recommend visiting in this part of the region are Miranda do Douro close to the Spanish border, the Roman bridge over the Rio Tura in Mirandela, the historic centre of Torre de Moncorvo, the towns of Mogadouro and Freixo de Espada à Cinta.
Alentejo is a region that covers about a third of the Portugal’s land, so you can expect a lot of diverse and varying landscapes and scenes here, as well as rich history and culture. Stretching south from Rio Tejo to the mountains in the north, Alentejo is often described as the Portugal’s garden thanks to nature’s beauty, fertility and diversity in this part of the country. The bulk of the region’s land is given over to huge cork plantations, wheat fields and vineyards, however, nature’s beauty is not the only thing that makes this region worth visiting and you can often be surprised by pretty, ancient castles, Roman ruins and sweeping Atlantic beaches here.
As we have mentioned, the most of the land is covered by farms, which define the region a lot and add a very differentiated atmosphere and charm. Besides the agriculture focus, Alentejo is a home to hundreds and thousands of wildlife species. However, most of the visitors and tourists are attracted by the vast collection of small and atmospheric towns in the area, two of which have a UNESCO World Heritage status – Elvas and Évora with its ancient Roman temple, medieval walls curving around the town and cathedral.
Elsewhere you can enjoy outstanding and quirky hilltop villages on their own and a unique character – Monsaraz, Marvão, Estremoz, Vila Viçosa and others. Little enjoyable historic towns with plenty of cosy accommodation are dotted south of Évora. Some of the best worth visiting are Beja, Moura, Serpa, Mértola. The coast is equally enjoyable and will turn into a favourite spot for those of you that hate crowded beaches, so make sure to relax and unwind in some of the atmospheric and very few resorts here.
The Algarve is the Portugal’s beachy heart, allowing you to enjoy the most of the country’s safest and loveliest beaches and a year-round enjoyable climate. Algarve is also the most popular area of Portugal for holidays, stretching its endless beaches across a long coastline from Faro to Albufeira. The beaches here are first-rate and the region is amazingly developed, mostly thanks to it being a heavy tourism spot. If you are not that much of a fan of the crowded beaches, worry not, because the region offers some laid back and more unwinding ones such as those around Sagres and Tavira.
In case you are up to some adventure and memorable experience, we highly recommend the rocky outcrops and cove beaches west of Vilamoura, mostly around the main resorts Albufeira, Armação de Pêra and Lagos. Heading west you will enjoy the coast getting wilder and wilder, where attractive and low-key smaller resorts blend with atmospheric fisher villages surrounding Burgau and Salema. The string of villages ends with Odeceixe in far west that is the perfect place for fans of really wild beaches and surfing.
In a full contrast with the western coast, the eastern coast between Faro and the Spanish border is completely different and what actually defines Portugal as one of the best destinations for a luxury and five-star beach resorts experience. Most of the eastern coastline is protected by a series of barrier islands fronted by extensive sandy beaches for an extra exotic experience. Faro is the capital of the entire region and is also popular as one of the main and most beautiful cities in the country, soaked into authentic Portuguese spirit and culture the way tourists and travellers imagine it and expect it to be.
Some of the other towns worth visiting that also allow an easy access to sandy and beachy islands are Olhão, Fuseta, Cabanas and Tavira. But don’t let the coastline create a completely misled first impression, because the rest of the Algarve region is still not that well-developed, especially around Alcountim to the Spanish border. However, if you are up to some adventure and you are tired of relaxing in Faro, consider a day trip to the market town of Loulé, Milreu Roman Remains, the old Moorish town of Silves, the quiet spa town in verdant woodland Caldas de Monchique or the picturesque mountain range Serra de Monchique.
When to go?
When we think of Portugal, we think of endless summer and to be honest, this is quite true. The country is an attractive destination for all-year round tourism. If you are up to some true holiday, the weather between June and September is practically heavenly and the best for visiting all those beach resorts, but also strolling around the big cities and little town. The temperature variation across the country in this period is practically minimal, so wherever you prefer to catch some sun, you won’t be disappointed. August is the Portuguese holiday month too and this is why the coastal resorts reach the peak of their busiest time, so bear that in mind, if you are not a fan of crowdy beaches.
However, August is also too hot for strolling around big cities and exploring nature too, so if your main goal is some hiking and so, perhaps you need to consider the earlier or next months. The best time for walking around all day is probably May or October when the weather is very mild and pleasant without being boiling hot. The most of the rain falls in wintertime, which in Portugal is from November to March, although you are probably not going to struggle with freezing cold weather if you decide to visit the country in this period. There is the sun during winter too, so Central Portugal becomes one of the most attractive destinations during this time of the year. In the south, the weather is mild all year round, while in the north it can get a bit of colder and you can expect even snowing, but not usually.
Portugal boasts 1793 km of coastline, which makes it the perfect destination for surfing fans, relaxation seekers, beach lovers and suntan catchers. The only neighbour of Portugal is Spain. Portugal and the UK share the same time zone. There are around 10 million people living in Portugal and just the same amount of people living outside the country, mainly in Brazil and the USA. The national dish of Portugal is Bacalhau, which is a dried and salted cod. There are 365 different ways for cooking it. Portugal is the world’s eighth largest producer of wine. There are 12 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Portugal.
There are regular and direct flights to Lisbon, Faro and Porto from all around Europe and all European capitals, as well as some US cities. Flying via London could come on a cheaper price instead of direct flights to Portugal, so make sure to check both options. If you want to visit the country, you can also consider a combination of ferry, rail and road, instead of flight. Air, ferry and train fares are at their highest in school holiday and summer season (from Easter to September). Traveling inland is not hard or expensive at all. Portugal is not a big country and you can practically travel to each and every corner of the country within a few hours, plus the infrastructure of the country is very well-developed, especially from and to the big cities and holiday resorts.
The easiest and most efficient way to travel inland is by bus or train. Regional trains are usually cheaper and some of them offer really scenic and breath-taking views. Accommodation in Portugal is usually cheaper compared than most of the western European countries. In almost every city and town you can find a guesthouse or a small hotel at a very decent price and with a relatively high quality and comfort. In the summertime, the accommodations at the beach resorts tend to get higher in price.
Portuguese cuisine is not necessarily the best European one, but the country still has its highlights in terms of food. The traditional Portuguese food consists of grilled meat and fish, hearty stews, casseroles, and, of course, the traditional salted cod, nearly always served with rice, potatoes and salad. Portuguese wine is one of the best ones in the world, so do not miss to try it! Most of the restaurants are very high value and decently priced. Fast-food chains are widely spread and some of the most popular foreign cuisines in the country are a Chinese, Indian and Brazilian grill.