Head north out of Lisbon and the sights soon stack up in the historic provinces of Estremadura and Ribatejo. The monastery at Alcobaça, the extraordinary abbey at Batalha and the headquarters of the Knights Templar in Tomar – some of the most famous buildings in Portugal – are all easily accessible, even by public transport, and offer a fascinating glimpse into the country’s tangled past. Other attractions are equally high profile, from the walled medieval town of Óbidos to the tremendous castle at Leiria, while the obscenely ornate palace-monastery of Mafra always intrigues. Heads are also turned by the shrine at Fátima, the country’s (and, indeed, one of the world’s) most important pilgrimage sites.
Along the Estremaduran coast, the main resorts are the holiday fleshpots of Nazaré and Ericeira, though there are several smaller, perhaps more charming resorts – notably São Martinho do Porto – and plenty of less crowded beaches too, while ferries sail from Peniche to the remote offshore bird sanctuary of the Ilha da Berlenga. Inland, getting off the beaten track means delving into the spectacular underground caverns around Porto de Mós and viewing the amazing nearby sauropod tracks, all of which lie within the Parque Natural das Serras de Aire e Candeeiros.
Contrasting with the fertile agricultural land and market gardens of Estremadura is the flatter plain of the Ribatejo – the traditional bull-breeding territory that runs alongside the banks of the Rio Tejo. The river valley itself boasts some of Portugal’s richest vineyards, while it’s Santarém, the Ribatejo capital, which has the province’s longest history.