"If there is one portion of Europe which was made by the sea more than another, Portugal is that slice, that portion, that belt. Portugal was made by the atlantic."
A slender slice of territory occupying the westernmost point of mainland Europe, Portugal has a long history of maritime prowess and global influence. It is in fact the oldest nation in Europe, having defined its borders way back in 1139, and many centuries and upheavals later you will find a varied country where the modern and the traditional effortlessly coexist in its lively cities, historic towns and dazzling offshore islands. A ravishing coastline tempts many visitors to simply enjoy the beaches, but it is the mix of people, vibrant culture, delicious food and charming landscapes which truly captivate. As one of the favourite destinations in Europe, a holiday in Portugal, Madeira and the Azores can be as much of an adventure as you want it to be.
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Top things to do in Portugal
With buzzing cities, a glorious coastline and more edible delicacies than you can shake a stick at, there are bountiful attractions to this incredible nation. Here are some of the top things to do on your holiday to Portugal, as recommended by our local partners.
Experience Lisbon's vibrant culture
Spread across several hills at the mouth of the river Tagus, Lisbon is a sunny and scenic city with a wealth of attractions to discover. It's a pleasant city for ambling around the jumbled lanes of hillside Alfama, the lower town of Baixa and the vibrant hilltop neighbourhood of Bairro Alto. Waterside plazas, brilliant museums, excellent dining, scenic tram rides and lots of great viewpoints crown this enchanting waterside city, one of the most versatile capital city destinations in Europe.
Head inland for outdoor adventures
It comes as no surprise that because of its maritime heritage, many of Portugal's best known highlights are located within reach of the coast. Yet there is so much more to explore than the seaside, as lovely as it is. Head inland for a glimpse of a peaceful, rural destination dotted with grand monuments, quaint stone villages basking in the warm sun, forests, hills and some especially impressive river valleys. For pristine natural glory how about a trip to the Serra da Estrela mountains or the wild expanse of Gerês National Park.
Sun and sea on tap
Sun drenched and scattered with picturesque coves, the shoreline of the Algarve is a popular year-round holiday spot, and with good reason. Pretty, whitewashed towns punctuate the coast, most with a handful of beaches to while away pleasant hours admiring the juxtaposition of ochre cliffs, golden sand and the cool blue waves beyond. Popular as it is, there are still stretches of quieter coast which retain more of a traditional feel - head for Sagres for laid back charm.
Delve into dramatic Porto
Portugal's second city tumbles down the riverbank to the handsome, historic waterside district of Ribiera which is the obvious focus of activity. Ranks of colourful old merchant's houses pile up the hillside making this venerable trading city as dramatic as it is welcoming. Porto is an excellent jumping off spot for trips to the beautiful port producing region upriver, and to the pounding surf of the atlantic coast. Porto's appeal also comes from its youthful energy and lively nightlife.
Explore Portugal's islands
Flung far out into the Atlantic 1,000 kilometres from Lisbon, two small archipelagos are enticing outposts with a distinctly Portuguese flavour - Madeira and the Azores. Both enjoy lush vegetation and exotic crops, rugged scenery and a sense you have stumbled into a lost world dripping with flowers, draped in mist and ripe for exploration. Both destinations offer scenic hiking, varied landscapes and a rich underwater world. When you are not admiring the view from a breathtaking trail or sampling the exotic fruits, spend some time on or under the water. These islands are home to many species of whales and dolphins and their pristine marine life is a prime attraction.
Lesser-known highlights of Portugal
You know about Porto and the wonderful beaches - but what about Portugal's lesser-known highlights? Read on to discover what else makes this country a wonderful holiday destination.
Alentejo's lovely landscapes
You won't go far in the Alentejo region without somebody reminding you that wine was being produced here long before the arrival of the Romans. This vast and largely flat region in the central south area of Portugal is fertile and productive, made up of villages, farms, cork forests and vineyards. Explore historic, whitewashed towns and sample fantastic food and wines as you meander through this ancient landscape. Despite being largely inland, there are also some gorgeous stretches of coastline that belong to the region on Portugal's southwest.
Easily reached from both Porto to the north and Lisbon to the south, Coimbra is a cultural gem to stop off at en route. Crowning the hill upon which the city rests is the university which was founded in 1290 making it one of the oldest in Europe. It makes an impressive monument standing over hundreds of picturesque whitewashed houses above the river. Whilst there you should also visit the library - a renowned baroque masterpiece - before finding peace and beauty in one of several convents and pair of cathedrals.
Castles and Palaces
A wealth of historical monuments await discovery in Portugal, from hilltop monasteries and rural churches to city centre palaces and defensive castles. Some of the finest can be incorporated into your tailor-made Portugal holiday, and where better to start than Sintra where a cluster of unique palaces are located. Belem Tower is a symbol of Lisbon, while Tomar's fortress and the castle at Guimarães are imposing medieval structures that offer a taste of the past.
From the classic Mediterranean products such as olive oil and wine to the famous Portuguese speciality Pastel de Nata, there are plenty of exciting flavours to discover in Portugal. As a welcome bonus, eating out is extremely good value here, making Portugal one of Europe's most affordable destinations. Enjoy the simple cuisine which highlights the abundant fresh produce, showcasing excellent quality meat and fish by simply grilling and serving with good oil and a squeeze of lemon, plus tasty vegetables on the side.
Douro River vineyards
Drift down the Douro by boat, paddle on a kayak, take the train or maybe drive. However you travel, the scenery will enchant and delight as vines and orchards make the broad sloping riverbanks into a verdant patchwork. Pop into a historic winery or two to sample the rich local port wine famous the world over.
Interesting facts about Portugal
You might think you know quite a bit about Portugal, but were you aware of any of these interesting facts?
- Portugal is making great strides as a nation at the forefront of renewable energy innovation and use. For five straight days in 2016 it sourced 100% of its energy needs from renewables including water, wind and sun, and continues to work hard towards making this the norm.
- A holiday in Madeira often involves hiking the 'levadas' - a 2,000 kilometre network of aqueducts created to funnel water from the mountains to the dry agricultural lands in the island's south.
- The world's oldest nation is home to 15 UNESCO World Heritage sites, one of the oldest universities in existence, Europe's most extensive cork forests, and the most westerly point in Europe. Including its islands, Portugal has 1793 kilometres of coastline.
- International acclaim must be bestowed on the great gastronomic legacy of Portugal to the whole world - Piri piri chicken. The fingerlicking combination of chilli, lemon and garlic makes a delicious marinade for flame grilled chicken enjoyed worldwide.
- Known for its seafaring prowess and long history of global exploration by ship, Portugal's influence belies its tiny territory. The Portuguese influence can be felt as far afield as Africa, Asia and in particular, South America. A total of 236 million people speak Portuguese.
- The volcanic origins and lush vegetation of the Azores have earnt the islands frequent comparisons with Hawaii. They are indeed a uniquely tropical and dramatic corner of Europe.
Best time to go to Portugal
Mainland Portugal enjoys a classic Mediterranean climate involving hot summers and mild winters. The northern regions are consistently a little cooler and wetter than the south all year around, but the climate is pleasant and offers plenty of sunshine hours for much of the year. The best time to visit Portugal for activities such as hiking, golfing, surfing and sightseeing is basically anytime - it's a year-round destination with plenty to do in all seasons, though in the heat of the summer hiking and biking are more manageable at higher altitudes where it isn't quite so hot.
Winters (December to February) are generally mild especially in the southern region of The Algarve when average daytime temperatures even in midwinter hover around 16°C and you can expect plenty of sunny days mixed in with some rainy and windy weather.
Spring (March to May) brings fresh greenery to the whole country, and warmer weather perfect for coastal and countryside hiking, biking or cultural pursuits. The landscapes are especially beautiful during spring with flowers blooming everywhere.
Summer begins in earnest in June, with temperatures reaching the high twenties centigrade and sunny days the norm. July and August are peak holiday season in Portugal and availability is correspondingly lower while prices and footfall rise. Beachgoers will enjoy the fierce summer heat, but active travellers in search of biking or hiking routes may need to head for the mountainous regions where it is cooler.
Another great time to visit Portugal is autumn (September to November) when the sea is still balmy, the weather is generally warm and dry, but the number of visitors is far less than in high season making the experience calmer and often cheaper.
So in summary, the best time to visit Portugal depends to some extent on what you are hoping to do while there, but no season should be excluded as they all have their merits. For a busy itinerary of sightseeing and outdoor activities beyond the beach, spring and autumn are probably the best seasons to visit.
Madeira and the Azores
Portugal's islands of Madeira and the Azores have a relatively stable temperature profile, with minimums rarely dropping below 15°C or rising far above 25°C. An exception to this is when a hot wind blows in from the Sahara which can nudge summer temperatures over the 30°C mark. An important consideration is the state of the sea, especially if you plan to spend time on or under it, so for the calmest period the best time to visit Madeira and the Azores is between April and October. For whale and dolphin watching, which is a major reason for travelling to the Azores, summer (June to August) is the best time. Whales and dolphins are present year round but the calmer seas and migration patterns make summer the sweet spot.
Inspiration for your trip to Portugal
There's plenty of reading out there to inspire you for your trip to Portugal, but here are a few recommendations to get you started:
"The High Mountains of Portugal" by Yann Martel
Abandon your preconceptions of what a novel should be when you embark on this surreal and magical quest set in different decades of 20th century Portugal, exploring love, loss, faith and the journey through grief.
"Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire" by Roger Crowley
Portuguese mariners played a starring role in empire building, exploring new regions of the world and ultimately dominating world trade. This fascinating account of how Portugal spread its influence so far and wide is an insightful dive into history.
"Journey to Portugal: In Pursuit of Portugal's History and Culture" by José Saramago
A travelogue and love letter to the author's homeland, this is a book which weaves history and modernity together to give the reader a thorough and vital snapshot of a beloved nation, its past, present, people and places.
"Tango in Madeira: A Dance of Life, Love and Death" by Jim Williams
A sinister and tense thriller where the stakes are high for many of the characters and the complex plot leads the carefully depicted cast on a merry dance through the eloquently depicted island of Madeira.
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