From old forts to former hospital ships, ex convents to renovated theatres, Portugal has countless memorable places to stay. Matthew Hancock picks his favourites.
If you thought the Algarve was overdeveloped, this stylishly-renovated seventeenth-century sea fort will make you think again. Sitting in an olive grove, it is just minutes away from the pretty fishing village of Cabanas. Once through the imposing castle gates, you find yourself in a tranquil – and very secure – hideaway. Traditional rooms in the castle itself and designer rooms in a modern extension look onto a large grassy courtyard, and service is second to none. A pool is innovatively built into the ramparts, where you can also take a home-made breakfast of local jams, pastries and cheeses overlooking the Ria Formosa nature reserve.
Continuing the castle theme, but on a grander scale, this spectacular hilltop fort was built by the Spanish in the sixteenth century. You’d be hard pushed to find a better view than the one from its highly-rated restaurant and terrace, which gaze out across the Sado estuary. Rooms have all mod cons, though you won’t forget you’re inside a castle: walls are several feet thick and some rooms are even in the former prisoner’s cells. It’s a short drive to the dramatic hills of the Parque Natural da Arrábida, which has some of Portugal’s most idyllic beaches.
A simple and inexpensive guesthouse built into a slice of the medieval city walls, this has character by the bucket load. At over 1,000m in altitude, the historic border town of Guarda is the highest town in Portugal, which you can appreciate from Residencial Santos’s little roof terrace. From here, you can peer out across the plains towards Spain in one direction and the wild mountains of the Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela in the other.
Another memorable budget option, Navio Gil Eanes is due to re-open soon following a revamp. Here you can bed down in the compact cabins of a former hospital ship, now moored in the docks of Viana do Castelo, one of northern Portugal’s most interesting coastal towns. The ship was commissioned in the 1950s to offer medical care to fishermen as they sought cod from as far away as Newfoundland: now, during the day, it serves as a floating museum dedicated to the ship’s history.
Another former hospital is now one of the most grandiose places to stay in the country. Built in 1793, the hospital became a hotel in 2009. Rooms are gathered round enormous covered cloisters, a dramatic space now used for functions and as a bar. There’s an outdoor pool and an indoor spa squirreled away in the former hospital chapel. On your doorstep, historic Viseu lays claim to having the best quality of life in Portugal.
Fishing has always been a mainstay for the Portuguese and just outside Tavira what is now the Vila Galé Albacora was once a thriving tuna fisherman’s village and market. The old buildings have been tastefully renovated into a spacious and stylish eco-friendly hotel, with a giant swimming pool, restaurant (often featuring tuna, of course) and its own ferry to one of the Algarve’s best sandspit beaches on the Ilha de Tavira.
Rural getaways don’t come much better than this former convent partly dating back to the twelfth century, in a hidden valley close to the most westerly point in mainland Europe. All the low-ceilinged rooms and a self-catering apartment ooze history. There’s an outdoor pool and fab local walks, with the UNESCO World Heritage site of Sintra a short drive away.
This is the first of my three favourite conversions in the capital. Wedged hard up against the walls of Lisbon’s Castelo de São Jorge, a former eighteen-century mansion encompasses part of the former palace kitchens. There’s plenty of period furniture, but otherwise this has modern boutique flare, with rooms around a lovely inner courtyard where a sumptuous breakfast is served in the summer.
Right in the centre of town, the simple, compact studios and apartments are to be found in a former Art Deco theatre overlooking one of the main squares, Praça dos Restauradores. Head to the roof terrace for the bar and an infinity pool with a real wow factor.
This gem of a place is part hostel and part quirky hotel. Once the Socialist Party HQ and Swiss Embassy, rooms are in a fabulous old building in a prime location in the Bairro Alto, Lisbon’s liveliest district. Dorms with towering ceilings sleep up to 12, while double rooms nestle in the roof space with stellar views over the city. The downstairs bar and restaurant are both hip places to hang out.
Matthew Hancock is a co-author of The Rough Guide to Portugal.
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