The Alentejo covers a huge area, around a third of the country, stretching south from the Rio Tejo to the northern mountain ranges of the Algarve – the name derives from the words além do Tejo, beyond the Tejo River. This is Portugal’s garden, the bulk of the region given over to huge cork plantations, wheat fields and vineyards – and though much of it is flat, the region repays exploration, offering unexpected surprises, from ancient dolmens and superbly sited castles to Roman ruins and sweeping Atlantic beaches. Much of the population make a living from the huge agricultural estates known as latifúndios, which are handed down from generation to generation – many have been in existence since Roman times. The vast farms are generally wildlife-friendly – the Alentejo is home to wild boar and hundreds of species of bird, from black stork to great bustard.
For most visitors, the region’s major draws are its towns, two of which have UNESCO World Heritage status: the spectacular fortified town of Elvas, and Évora, whose Roman temple, medieval walls and cathedral have put it firmly on the tourist circuit. Elsewhere in Alto Alentejo (Upper Alentejo), you’ll find the dazzling hilltop villages of Monsaraz and Marvão, and the marble towns of Estremoz and Vila Viçosa, where the local marble quarries have given an opulent look to many of the buildings.
South of Évora, in the plains of Baixo Alentejo (Lower Alentejo), the attractions lie further apart and can be difficult to see without a car. However, there are some good overnight targets, including the main town of Beja, as well as nearby Moura, Serpa and Mértola, all enjoyable historic towns with a wealth of accommodation. The coast, too, is an unexpected joy. Only a few small resorts – prime among them Vila Nova de Milfontes – attract summer crowds, but the beaches are superb and you can reach them all by public transport.