Ocean-facing Portugal has long been a nation of great seafaring adventurers, with explorers like Vasco da Gama bringing back untold riches during the 15th and 16th-century Golden Age. This legacy lives on in the form of magnificent historical monuments and sumptuous palaces, and in cultural influences from former African and South American dominions. The origins of the mournful fado music are less clear, but this soulful lament perfectly encapsulates the national spirit of saudade – a nostalgic ‘longing’ for a past out of reach, and a sense of being a ‘land apart’. And although this is literally true, with Portugal’s position at the western edge of Europe meaning it’s not a place you might easily stumble upon, it is an incredibly rewarding country to visit, with vibrant, colourful cities and wonderfully unspoiled corners, both inland and along the beautiful Atlantic coast.
Read on to discover more of what Portugal has to offer...
Unpretentious, fascinating Porto sits by the River Douro, with layers of historic housing clambering up the hillside from its vibrant waterfront, the UNESCO-recognised Ribeira district. On the opposite bank, in Vila Nova de Gaia, the giant signs of Sandeman, Graham's and Cockburn emblazon the rooftops of the famous port lodges, waiting to open their prized barrels to the day's visitors. Everywhere is a maze of churches, museums, restaurants and tram lines, and we highly recommend a ride on electrico no.1 out to the pretty suburb of Foz do Douro, where the river meets the Atlantic Ocean.
River of Gold
Portugal's most picturesque train ride, the journey from Porto to Pinhão, follows the course of the Rio Douro (‘river of gold’) as it snakes its way up the valley towards the impossibly picturesque vine terraces that are the source of the area’s highly prized, crimson-coloured fortified wine. From Pinhão, riverside paths lead to family-owned quintas where grapes are still trodden by foot, and where flat-bottomed rabelo boats sit in calm waters, in stark contrast to the days when transporting barrels downriver was a far more perilous exercise.
Elegant & Studious Coimbra
Coimbra, formerly the Portuguese capital, is a fascinating if little-known city – a redoubtable seat of learning that is home to the country’s oldest and most prestigious university. Baroque palaces and churches lord it over pastelfronted houses which tumble down the hillside towards a wonderful ‘old town’ – a maze of alleyways where elegant academic buildings are interspersed with a delightful jumble of flower-festooned balconies and hidden courtyards. Coimbra’s thriving student population helps to ensure an eclectic mix of bars and restaurants, and a lively, fun atmosphere for visitors.
The Fado Tradition
A uniquely Portuguese style of folk music, fado (or ‘fate’) has different meanings for different people. For emigrés, it acts as a home-sick lament for the place they have left behind; while for outsiders, it can form a precious window into the nation’s soul. But for locals, whether listening to the exclusively male version in Coimbra or the slightly different style sung in Lisbon’s Alfama district or Bairro Alto, fado must enact the eternal themes of despair and loss, and a performance can only be deemed successful if it has moved its audience to tears.
Slowly Through Lisbon
Trundling along Lisbon's streets in a yellow tram built in the 1930s is a memorable introduction to Portugal's endlessly absorbing capital city. The no.28 creaks its way through atmospheric Alfama, a maze of narrow streets below Castelo São Jorge, before levelling out in aristocratic Baixo, characterised by noble squares, wide streets and monumental fountains. Then it climbs to reach the Bairro Alto, Lisbon's lovable ‘wild child’, whose tight network of bars has been the toast of this engaging and beautiful city for five centuries.
Pasteis de Belém
Chargrilled fish, cataplana (seafood stew), crisp vinho verde and 365 ways of preparing bacalhau (salted cod) – one for each day of the year. Yes, the Portuguese seem to have got simple and delicious food and wine down to a fine art. But as you approach the pastry shop in Belém, near Lisbon, any time between 8am and 11pm (midnight in summer), you will sense something special about to happen. For it is here that an ever-present queue of customers is quietly clamouring to sink its collective teeth into the revered pasteis de nata (egg custard tarts). The demand is such that they’re always warm – fresh from the oven and even tastier than you had imagined.
Sintra's Palaces & Poets
The battlements of Sintra's Moorish Castle undulate across the hillsides like a European ‘Great Wall’, offering views of a landscape the Romans called 'Mountains of the Moon'. This is a world of flamboyant creations like the astonishing Pena Palace, with its fairy-tale onion domes, turrets and portcullises; and a former playground of kings and queens that became the darling of writers and poets. Lord Byron wrote of “Cintra's glorious Eden”, and it’s not hard to imagine why.
The gentle hills and quiet valleys of the Serra de São Mamede Natural Park form a natural border with Spain; and exquisite, fortified towns such as Marvão and Castelo de Vide are testament to a long and turbulent past. And with smuggling across the frontier during the Salazar and Franco eras, it’s little wonder that locals still refer to this area as a raia (‘the line’). But a glorious peace now reigns in this land of cobbled lanes, quiet villages and woodland, with the shocking red of recently peeled cork-oak trees the only discordant note amid an astonishingly beautiful landscape.
Évora is a small but mightily impressive city that sits above the Alentejo plains in magisterial splendour. Among many impressive sights is the 2nd-century Temple of Diana, the best preserved in Portugal, plus Roman Baths and a huge Gothic cathedral that dominates the skyline. There is also a circuit of medieval walls, a superbly preserved collection of 16th-century mansions and palaces, and a delightful tangle of Moorish alleyways whose whitewashed houses, decorated with azulejos tiles and wrought-iron balconies, brim with charm.
Along the rugged, unspoiled Costa Vicentina, virgin beaches backed by dramatic cliffs are washed by a restless, deep-blue ocean. The pace of life is refreshingly unhurried, and down-to-earth inhabitants of sleepy fishing villages offer a welcome that is as warm as any you could wish to find. The lighthouse of Cabo Sardão is also a great vantage point for spotting birds from Europe’s only marine stork colony: here, where their favoured offshore sea stacks lie so close to the coast, you can watch them for hours.