The south-facing coast of the Algarve is the country’s tourist epicentre and justifiably so – it is here that you’ll find the archetypal picturesque Portuguese cove beaches, fringed by rock stacks and gentle cliffs, and it doesn’t take much to escape the high-rise resorts and golf courses. If it’s beaches you’re after, however, you have almost the entire west coast of the country to choose from. There are expansive stretches of sand not only on the Algarve’s western coast, but also in the southern Alentejo, on the coast around Lisbon and north to Figueira da Foz, and along the Minho coast north to the Spanish border.
Many of these beaches extend as far as the eye can see, and are rarely busy even in high summer, but as they face the full power of the Atlantic, they can be dangerous for swimming. It’s no big surprise then that many attract serious surfers instead, with Peniche, Figueira da Foz and Nazaré all major surf destinations.
The south of the country is dominated by the enormous Alentejo region, whose wide-open spaces, country estates, olive plantations and vineyards invite long drives and leisurely exploration. Here you’ll find a Mediterranean-type climate, sun-drenched, whitewashed villages bedecked with flowers and, in early summer, every spire and treetop capped by a stork’s nest. Closer to Lisbon is the flat hinterland of the Ribatejo, breeding ground for Portugal’s finest horses and for the bulls that still fight in bullrings around the country. Beyond, lies the historic heartland of Estremadura (now part of the Centro district), whose closely grouped towns feature some of Portugal’s most famous monuments.
The north of Portugal feels immediately different, and far less Mediterranean in look and temperament – the rolling hills are green and lush, and the coastline cooler, even in summer. Terraced vineyards cling to the steep slopes of the Douro River, its valley shadowed by one of Europe’s most memorable train rides. At the far north of the Porto e Norte district lie the remote towns and villages of Trás-os-Montes, while to the west Peneda-Gerês is Portugal’s only national park, a surprisingly verdant landscape of wooded mountains and gushing streams.
Standout city is, of course, Lisbon, with its dazzling hilltop and riverside location and alluring mix of old-world charm and modern flair. It’s not too much of a stretch to describe it as one of Europe’s must-see capitals, though the charms – and wines – of Porto, wedged into the Douro river valley, also make an excellent case for a long weekend city break. Other Portuguese towns and cities might not have the same profile, but they are both historical and beautiful – like Guimarães, the country’s first capital, the religious centre of Braga, the handsome university town of Coimbra, and Évora, another university town with Roman antecedents.
Beyond these attractions, how long have you got? Because in just about every town and village there’s a surprise to be discovered. Likeable Tomar is home to the impressive headquarters of the Knights Templar, while Aveiro is an unexpected treat, set on a series of canals lined with colourful houses. There are sumptuous monasteries and abbeys at Batalha, Mafra and Alcobaça and extraordinary fortified towns at Almeida, Elvas and Bragança; while in Fatima, Portugal boasts one of the world’s most revered Catholic shrines.