While Brexit negotiations hog the headlines this side of the pond and all thoughts of Europe centre around what will or won’t happen next with the EU, the unassuming country of Portugal has been quietly taking strides into the limelight. And for all the right reasons. Over the last few months there have been murmurs about Portugal being the next star of the travel world. Those murmurs are fast becoming excited cries. So if you didn’t already know, here’s why Portugal is indeed Europe’s hottest destination.
Portugal is home to no fewer than 14 UNESCO sites. And that’s pretty impressive for a relatively small country. From colourful palaces to historic trade towns, magnificent monasteries to Roman-era temples, Portugal really does have it all. There’s even prehistoric rock art.
Thanks to its location near Lisbon, the glittering, fairy tale-like Pena palace in Sintra is one of Portugal’s most popular UNESCO spots. Closer to the capital is the spectacularly ornate Jerónimos Monastery. While the must-see city of Porto in the north claims, not only a charismatic historic centre, but also the impressive Dom Luis I bridge. It was designed by none other than Monsieur Eiffel.
Elsewhere in Portugal you’ll find the Monastery of Batalha with its astonishing high vaulted interior, striking unfinished chapels and imposing late Gothic architecture. In the city of Coimbra you can visit a 13th century university with an air of Harry Potter and Hogwarts about it. Students wear black capes and it’s believed that author JK Rowling took her inspiration from Portugal’s most important university town.
The Douro Valley
Portugal is home to the world’s oldest demarcated wine region. So the Portuguese know what they’re doing when it comes to wine – they’ve been doing it a while. Two thousand years to be precise. It’s here where you can sample traditional Port wines as well as fine, rich unfortified wines (both red and white) that are quickly becoming world renowned.
Aside from all the delicious wine (obviously), there’s also the Douro River to enjoy. Boats cruise the waters, affording beautiful views of the surrounding hills, ingenious bridges and quaint wine estates.The whole region was recognised by UNESCO in 2001 with World Heritage Status so you can bet you’re onto something special here.
The Douro is also a foodie heaven with upmarket and quirky restaurants (dining beside railway tracks, anyone?) serving sumptuous local produce with international flair. And it’s also a great place to stay in a quinta – a traditional farmhouse or country estate that, in this part of the world, comes attached to small, independent vineyards. Hotel heaven!
With a generous 1,794 km of coastline, it’s little wonder that Portugal can also brag about owning some pretty amazing beaches. Brits will already be familiar with the Algarve, a south-facing strip of coast that attracts sun worshippers with soft, golden sands and sandy coves backed by rugged cliffs.
But it’s not just the south where you’ll find beaches. The western coast also boasts a number of top sandy spots. For starters, there’s the former fishing village of Nazaré. Thanks to its wide, clean beach it’s now a thriving resort with pastel-coloured huts and great seafood restaurants.
Not all of Portugal’s beaches come with crowds. Away from the main tourist trail you’ll find dozens of secluded coves and shoreline that, depending on the time of year, you might have all to yourself. And if you like your beaches hidden then you can’t go wrong with the magical Benagil beach. It’s a cave grotto that can only be reached by boat.
Leave your preconceptions at the door. It’s not all about sardines and custard tarts. Though it’s a fabulous place to start. In Portugal sardines come fresh, succulent and large, grilled BBQ style and eaten with rustic bread, a simple salad and (unusually for fish) a glass of red. They also come packaged in trendy tins that make surprisingly good souvenirs.
Custard tarts (or pastéis de nata as they are known in Portuguese) are possibly the country’s most famous culinary export. These sweet, eggy treats are best enjoyed with a sprinkling of cinnamon and icing sugar. And if you’re visiting Lisbon, head straight for Pastéis de Belem, a blue and white-tiled temple to Portugal’s food icon.
As well as these quintessential dishes, other popular eats to look out for are salted codfish (bacalhau), croquettes and seafood stews. It’s true that Portuguese cuisine doesn’t benefit from the high profile that neighbouring Spain or culinary powerhouse Italy do. But with a healthy repertoire of fresh ingredients, hearty recipes and a burgeoning stock of creative chefs, that could easily change.
With a warm Mediterranean climate gracing the majority of the country, the weather is another part of Portugal’s appeal. There’s often a solid eight months of perfect sightseeing conditions. In the spring months (March to May) you can expect mild temperatures and sunshine with the mercury rising in summer (June to August). Though not unbearably so with the sea breezes keeping it nice and fresh.
As you might expect, the summer months are the most popular time to visit. The coastal resorts become especially busy during this time. And you can partly blame that on the fact that summer means the rest of Europe is on school holidays. But if you want reliable sunshine then this is the best time to go.
Winter (December to February) means rain in Portugal. This time of year brings a distinct wet season with often windy conditions too. However, the temperatures hover at a pleasing 10°C/50°F so even winter here is mild. And there’s the added bonus of cheaper prices and fewer crowds. So don’t let a little rain put you off!
Ready to get on the band wagon? Check out our offering of group tours to Portugal.