Portugal is one of Europe’s oldest extant nations, an ancient kingdom defended by hilltop castles and dramatic walled towns. First-time visitors are usually struck by the friendliness of the people, the affordable food and wine, and the diversity of a country that is relatively easy to traverse; you can travel Portugal in just a few days.
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Mountains make up the bulk of the frontier with Spain, with the large rivers of the Minho in the north and the Guadiana in the south adding to this natural divide. Beaches and high mountains aside, the rest of Portugal is a diverse and verdant country of deep valleys and rolling hills dotted with stone-built villages. For generations, families have eked out a living from the steeply terraced vineyards of the mountainous north, and from the cork oak plantations roamed by wild boar that dominate the vast agricultural plains of the south.
Places to visit in Portugal
Portugal's cities – notably Lisbon and Porto – amply showcase Portugal’s former role as a maritime superpower that ruled the waves from Brazil to East Asia, though it’s not all about history: the cities boast some of Europe’s best clubs and most adventurous modern architecture. Head inland and there are endless possibilities, from touring wine estates to walking, cycling or kayaking down inland rivers. It is the coast, however, that is the biggest draw. From cliff-backed coves to endless stretches of sandy dunes, you are rarely far from a stunning beach. While its western Atlantic dunes are still relatively unknown to those outside the surfing community, the calmer waters of the Algarve offer the quintessential laidback beach experience.
Best time to travel to Portugal
One of the many perks of Portugal is its year-round sunshine. Although the winter months can be a little chilly - average daytime temperatures are still around 16 degrees - the sun is often shining and skies are blue. The best time to travel to Portugal is during late spring (March to May) and early autumn (September to October) when the weather is warm. In the summer months, beaches become crowded, hotels rates are higher and the temperature can be unbearably hot.
Itinerary for when you travel to Portugal
Portugal's relatively small size allows for much of the country to be seen within a small time frame whilst also allowing for it to be explored in depth over a longer period. The must-see places involve a perfect concoction of history, culture and beaches. You can create your own tailor-made itinerary with Rough Guides if you are looking for something especially catered to you, or for more inspiration check out our range of itineraries to suit your every travelling wish!
Days 1 - 2: Lisbon
Lisbon, Portugal's capital, is the best starting point for your trip. The city is rich in authenticity and charm and offers a perfect example of Portugal's culture, making it an ideal introduction to the country. Wander the pretty streets of Alfama where you will find the National Pantheon and Sao Jorge Castle. Head to Rossio Square and take in the beauty of the historical buildings and fountains while sipping on coffee from a local cafe, and check out Praca do Commercio. Other sites include Santa Catarina and the tower of Belem.
Days 2 - 4: Nazare, Estremadura
Nazare, a former fishing village, is located in Estremadura, about a two-hour drive from Lisbon. This seaside town boasts the world's largest wave ever surfed so it is no surprise that this Atlantic resort is a surfer's paradise. Packed with delicious seafood restaurants, a stunning beach with soft sands and blue waters, and charm like no other, Nazare is a perfect spot to relax and enjoy the sunshine.
Days 4 - 6: Porto
On the northern coast lies Porto; a small city in size, but full of flavour. Check out the Livraria Lello Bookstore whose interior looks like it is straight out of a movie, climb the stairs at the Igreja dos Clerigos for a beautiful view, stroll along the Ponte Luis Bridge and explore the colourful streets of this gorgeous city.
Days 6 - 7: Dao Valley
What would your trip to wine land be without visiting a vineyard? Portugal boasts some delicious wines thanks to its ideal climate, so head to the Dao Valley! Framed by scenic mountains and rolling countryside, and with remnants of Roman civilisation, this wine region is a perfect place to unwind and enjoy the views whilst sipping some of the best wines made in the country.
Culture in Portugal
Portugal's prestige and economy have never regained the heights they attained during the golden ages of the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries. Yet although it remains one of the EU's weakest economies, Portugal is a remarkably unified country - there are no minorities agitating for independence, while rivalry between the north and south consists of little more than gentle mockery. Indeed Portugal is generally a very tolerant nation and has integrated a substantial population from its former colonies in Africa, Asia and Brazil with relative ease.
Contemporary Portuguese tastes are influenced by the flavours, sounds and styles of Brazil, Angola and Mozambique in particular.
It’s a Catholic country – there are ancient churches in every community – and while support for the institutions of the Church may have waned, a belief in traditional values remains. The Portuguese have embraced contemporary life without ever quite getting rid of the more appealing aspects of previous centuries. Fully wired town centres have wi-fi hotspots and cell-phone shops by the score, but they also have a butcher, a baker and (quite literally) a candle-stick maker. Children will be both seen and heard at any time of the day or night, as the family remains at the centre of most things.
Cuisine in Portugal
The food in Portugal is something to be celebrated. Caldo Verde is a simple yet traditional soup dish made up of potatoes, greens, olive oil, salt and garlic, and sometimes meat. Seafood is popular along the coasts, for obvious reasons. A tasty treat is pastel de nata, a custard tart dusted with cinnamon; you can find them in bakeries all over the world but of course, the original is always better. If you really want to dive into the food world of Portugal, read about the food and drink that will make you eager to travel to Portugal right away!
Drink-wise, Portugal produces some of the best wines in Europe and is the birthplace of Port, a fortified wine. Much like France with its Champagne, true Port comes only from Porto so be sure to try some whilst on your travels!
Top image: Porto riverfront on Duero River, Porto © Shutterstock