With over 500 miles of beautiful coastline, a rich, fertile interior dotted with pretty villages and towns, historic World Heritage Sites and sophisticated cities, Portugal is wrongly overshadowed by its better known neighbour, Spain.Guincho beach | Coastal classic
The people are friendly and welcoming, and you’ll find sunshine and blue skies for most of the year in this popular package holiday hotspot. If it’s beaches you’re after, the Mediterranean Algarve boasts some of Europe’s best beaches. If lying on the beach is last on your list, you’ll be pleased to know that Portugal is one of Europe’s premier golfing destinations. Tennis and horse riding are popular and watersports on offer along the coast include windsurfing, big game fishing and surfing.
Also consider a trip to the Portuguese island of Madeira famed for its sub-tropical climate and raw, natural beauty.
Getting there/getting around in Portugal
There are various direct flights with no-frills, charter and scheduled airlines to capital Lisbon, as well as smaller cities like Porto and Faro, from regional airports throughout the UK. Normally airport transfers are included in your holiday package, but if you are travelling independently, there is a regular bus from Lisbon Airport (number 91) to the city centre or plenty of taxis.
From Faro, there are buses and taxis the four kilometres into the town. From Porto there is a subway into town and a bus service (120) to Santa Cruz, Leca, Matosinhos, Guifoes and Custoias. It’s best to hire a car if you want to explore the countryside, however, if you are staying in a resort or city it’s unlikely to be worth the extra cost.
Beaches in Portugal
Beach lovers’ first stop should definitely be the Algarve. It has a warmer year-round climate than Spain’s Costas, and from mid-April to October there’s almost unbroken sunshine with which to enjoy your beach experiences. Popular resorts include touristy Albufeira and upmarket Vilamoura which also has a smart marina full of sleek yachts and plenty of upmarket stores and al fresco eateries.
Dancing and drinking all night long is the norm in places like Praia da Rocha and Praia da Oura, while the charming, traditional town of Tavira hasn’t yet succombed to the lure of the tourist pound. From swanky Quinta do Lago to Cacela Velha you’ll find the Ria Formosa Nature Reserve, a protected treasure trove of unspoilt beaches, deserted islands and motor-sport free waters.
Other areas of Portugal with lovely beaches include the Alentejo coast, next door to the Algarve or the cosmopolitan resort of Estoril near Lisbon.
Sightseeing in Portugal
Visit the historic, medieval city of Lisbon which nestles along a series of hills around one of Europe’s most important harbours. Visit the warren of narrow alleys and streets of the Alfama district which dates back to medieval times and dine in Bairro Alto, known as ‘Lisbon’s Kitchen’ as it has the highest concentration of restaurants in the city.
The Bairro Alto is also one of the most picturesque and Bohemian quarters in Lisbon and is great for atmospheric wandering. Unmissable sights include Castelo de Sao Jorge (Saint George’s Castle), which dates back to the 10th century; the Se (cathedral) which dates back to the 12th century, the much photographed Tower of Belem and museums like the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation Museum.
In Oporto, visit the Se (cathedral) which like the one in Lisbon, dates back to the 12th century, the modern Funacao Serralves, a contemporary art gallery and take a cruise down the Douro river to the port lodges of the Douro Valley. The historic Ribeira district alongside the river is Unesco world heritage listed and is a delightful area to explore.
National parks where you can indulge in outdoor activities like hiking, mountain biking and caving include Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela and northerly Parque Nacional da Peneda Geres. Inland, Unesco world heritage listed Evora is a historic, walled city containing a Roman temple and classic Renaissance architecture.
If you go to Madeira, head to Funchal boasting a stunning mountain backdrop and nearby valleys. Explore its pretty gardens and visit its impressive cathedral. The island’s coastline is great for sailing and fishing while there are also two excellent golf courses.
Family attractions in Portugal
In the Algarve there are plenty of entertainment options which are geared up for families. Water parks near or along the N125 road include Slide and Splash, Aqualand (formerly Big One) or Atlantic Park in Loule. Krazy World in Silves has mini golf, a petting farm and fairground among its many activities.
The Zoomarine aquatic park near Albufeira has dolphin shows and performances from seals and parrots. Zoolagos in Lagos has 120 types of animal and for natural fun, the old copper mines and prehistoric reconstructions at the Cova dos Mouros Mining Park in Alcoutim is a must. Portugal dos Pequenitos in Coimbra is a miniature park of Portuguese houses and monuments aimed at kids. Porto’s river boat rides are great fun and in Lisbon you can visit Parque das Nacoes, which has Europe’s largest Oceanarium.
In Madeira, take the kids on a hot air balloon ride over the city or enjoy a ride in a two-seater wicker toboggan through Funchal’s steep streets. The capital has a lido, which is excellent for bathing.
Day trips in Portugal
If you are staying on the Algarve, visit the wildlife-rich, natural beauty of Ria Formosa Natural Park where you can hire sail boats or go windsurfing. Alternatively, watch surfers take to the waves down at Sagres or Cabo de Sao Vicente. A day trip to the Algarve’s capital city, Faro with its compact Cidade Velha (Old Town) is also well worth leaving the beaches/golf course for.
For those staying in Porto, a trip along the Douro Valley is a must. Go walking, hiking or cycling along the Upper Douro or visit some of the historic port lodges that are situated here. Port was developed here around the 17th century by British merchants trying to keep their Douro wine fresher for longer by adding brandy to the mix. The towns of Peso da Regua and Pinhao are the main grape-growing areas. The charming riverside town of Amarante is a delightful spot to have lunch or dinner.
If you are taking your holidays in Lisbon, take a trip out to the spectacular coastline around the popular beachside resort of Estoril. The area is an up-and-coming golfing destination to rival the Algarve. Nearby Sintra’s rich pine and oak forests dotted with verdant ferns and a delight to explore by foot.
Eating out in Portugal
The Portuguese enjoy simple ingredients like fresh fish, meats, olive oil and tomatoes, flavoured by delicate spices – a throw back to Vasco da Gama’s international travels back in the 15th century – and features hearty soups, homemade bread and a variety of cheeses.
If you are a meat lover, head to a churrasqueira where you’ll find a selection of succulent grilled meats. Fish (peixe) is a favourite and you’ll see bacalhau (salted cod) everywhere. Those with a sweet tooth can rejoice too, in Portugal you’ll find rich chocolate mousse, custard tarts and lemony rice pudding which you can wash down with copious amounts of delicious port.
Nightlife in Portugal
In the Algarve, head to Praia da Rocha in Portimao, Gale in Albufeira, or Praia da Oura and Vilamoura if you like to party the night away. Finally, if you’re so hip it hurts, take a trip to the beach of Ancao, between Quinta do Lago and Vale de Lobo, two of the finest resorts in the Algarve. The rustic simplicity of the wooden restaurants belies its seriously cool and sophisticated crowds.
Lisbon’s latest nightlife addition is the Casino which opened in 2006, situated in the Parque das Nacoes, the former site of Expo ’98 and there’s a lively atmosphere in the evenings. For more traditional nightlife Lisbon style, head to Bairro Alto, home to fado music and countless bars. Cafe A Brasieira in the Chiado region is to Lisbon what Cafe de Flore is to Parisians. A place where literary minds came together to debate, in an intellectual fashion.
In Porto the riverside region of Ribeira is jammed with colourful houses on narrow streets which have been converted into lively bars or restaurants.
Shopping in Portugal
In Lisbon, the main shopping district is Baixa, while Rua Garrett in the Chiado is an elegant, sophisticated shopping area home to a wealth of upmarket boutiques and elegant, turn-of-the-century department stores.
In Porto, head to Rua Santa Catarina, a shop-lined pedestrian street which also has a shopping centre. Buy your souvenir port from Garrafeira do Carmo on Rua do Carmo 17.
In the Algarve, upmarket resorts such as Vilamoura and Quinta do Lago have plenty of suitably swanky shops. Apart from a bottle of port, other national specialities include ceramics, leather goods, honey, olive oil and woollen blankets.