Great Portugal Itineraries

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Great Portugal Itineraries

Classic Portugal

This classic itinerary hits all the highlights for your first trip to Portugal. You'll start in the Algarve, Portugal's southernmost region of gorgeous beaches, vibrant resorts, and secluded hill villages, and continue north via the country's major towns. Landscapes along the way include the picturesque coast and the arid plains of the south; vibrant Lisbon and its lush environs; and the rivers, valleys, forests, and mountains of the north.

Days 1–2: The Algarve

Faro makes an ideal base for exploring the most attractive resorts and villages in the Algarve. Don't miss lovely riverside Tavira, bustling Lagos, and gorgeous mountain-based Monchique.

Day 3: Évora

On your way north, spend a day in Évora, one of Portugal’s most charming and historic cities. Stroll the Cidade Velha (Old Town) maze of narrow streets and lunch on traditional Alentejo regional fare. Before continuing on to Lisbon, consider stopping at one of the area’s cromlechs and dolmens—prehistoric stone monuments.

Days 4–5: Lisbon

Don your walking shoes and range across the seven hills of the Portuguese capital. If your knees can't cope, hop on one of the vintage street trams that snake up and down the hills. You should plan on enjoying at least one meal by the river on a terrace; the views of the city are magnificent. Take in a fado show, as well.

Day 6: Sintra

On the way out of Lisbon, stop for a day to see Sintra’s roster of palaces, castles, and romantic gardens, which together make it a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The leafy Serra de Sintra range is a lovely place for walks and you could easily spend an extra day or more here, all told.

Day 7: Mafra to Óbidos

After all that trudging, take it easy with a meandering drive through the fertile Estremadura region. You'll pass Mafra, the giant 18th-century palace whose construction was financed by gold from Brazil on your way to Óbidos, the enchanting walled village once given as a royal wedding present. Famous for its cherry liquor and chocolate, it’s a wonderful place to rest for a night after the hectic pace of touring Lisbon and its environs. You can even sleep in a castle-turned-pousada.

Tips

Bear in mind that August is the Algarve's hottest and busiest tourist month, so try to plan your trip around this, if possible. Sintra is best avoided on summer weekends, when it gets very crowded; visitors must weigh that against the fact that entry to state institutions is free on Sunday until 2 pm.

Drop into the Lisbon Welcome Centre and buy a Lisboa Card; it will prove seriously euro-economizing on travel and admission to museums and monuments.

Many monuments close on Monday, though some instead take time out on Tuesday (the palace at Mafra, for instance) or Wednesday (Sintra’s National Palace).

Day 8: Coimbra

Coimbra, a delightful town abuzz with students, boasts heady architecture, a sophisticated shopping scene, and romantic squares and gardens. The place oozes history: Portugal's first king was born and buried here. It's a hilly city so be prepared, but the center is reasonably compact and you should be able to cover all the main sights easily in a day. Don't miss the quirky elevador—a combination of funicular, elevator, and walkway—or fado, the most characteristic of Portugal's folk music.

Days 9–10: Porto

Portugal's second city and gateway to the north, Porto has a beguiling air of faded grandeur, with its peeling buildings and medieval tangle of river-frontage streets. Start by picking up a map at the tourist office and heading for the atmospheric Ribeira embankment, with its strung-with-washing buildings and superb tascas where you can tuck into fresh fish and admire the colorful lights of the impressive port lodges across the water. Some visitors might want to take a half-day boat trip up the River Douro, whose amazing terraced vineyards form another World Heritage Site.

Day 10: Braga

The country's religious nerve center, Braga is an ecclesiastical heavyweight with a massive archbishop's palace at the center. A tiara of impressive religious buildings and sanctuaries encircles the town, including the extravagant Bom Jesus baroque pilgrim church, located 5 km (3 miles) to the east. Braga is a city for strolling. If you have the time, it's an easy day trip from Braga to medieval Guimarães with its lovely town center and magnificent palace of the dukes of Bragança.

Day 11: Viana Do Castelo

A low-key Portuguese resort and the country's folkloric capital, this elegant seaside town has grandiose 16th-century buildings, superb restaurants, and sweeping beaches. Chug across the Rio Lima by ferry to the local strip of sand, stroll around the picturesque town center, and, if your timing permits, visit the bustling Friday market to pick up a few hand-embroidered linens as gifts for the folks back home.

Byways and Backwaters

This meandering tour of the northern rivers, valleys, and mountains steers clear of the hustle-bustle of cities and tourist crowds, allowing you to absorb the local life and culture—Portugal's mellow pleasures. This makes a great add-on to our classic itinerary, or is great for repeat visitors who want to see something new.

Day 1: Ponte de Lima

You can do this handsome town justice in a day. Its highlight is the ancient bridge with its 31 arches spanning the River of Oblivion, as it was known. Riverside promenades, mansions, elegant manor-house accommodations, museums, and churches are included in the attractions; pick up a map at the helpful tourist office.

Day 2: Barcelos

If you like markets, you have come to the right place. Held every Thursday (just follow the shopping baskets), this is celebrated as one of Portugal's biggest and best. Despite the coachloads of visitors, the market is essentially organized by locals for locals and chockablock with ceramics, baskets, toys, fresh produce, agricultural supplies, clothes, shoes, and household equipment. We recommend Barcelos as a day trip, because the market is so well attended that overnight accommodations are scarce.

Tips

Winter is not the time for this trip. Northern Portugal can be cold and wet from December to February; spring is ideal, however, as much of the countryside is blanketed with a dazzle of wildflowers.

The driving conditions are relatively relaxing and easy in this region, mainly because of the lack of Portuguese drivers with their penchant for overtaking on blind corners.

One of the most delightful stretches of train track in the country runs from the Douro mainline at Livração to Amarante. There are up to nine trains a day on this narrow-gauge railroad, most with connections to Porto.

Day 3–4: Guimarães

After its reign as the European Capital of Culture in 2012, and the European capital of Sports in 2013, the once-sleepy northern town of Guimarães is seeing a tourist boom, and deserves two days of your time. Stroll its charming historic quarter, often called the "birthplace of Portugal" because the country’s first king was born here. The entire city was recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Day 5: Bragança

Within the walls of the Cidadela (citadel) is a superbly preserved medieval village. Wander the cobbles and gaze at neighboring Spain from the castle walls, then descend to the modern town. Parking is refreshingly easy in this town, with plenty of places by the bus station and even up in the citadel itself. Just follow the signs.

Days 6–7: The Eastern Beiras

With fertile valleys, medieval villages, castles, and fortresses, this area is atmospheric and rugged with tucked-away villages and towns like Fundão, Castelo Rodrigo, and Almeida. Every castle wall tells a story, while every abandoned house or tower harbors a ghost or two. Note that a car is essential for this part of the route as the bus coverage is patchy and sporadic.

Day 8: Sortelha

It's not quite the land that time forgot, but Sortelha comes as close as anywhere in Portugal. Ancient walls, crumbling houses, cobbled streets, and simple back-to-basic accommodation all contribute to the stuck-in-a-time-warp atmosphere. Again, getting here by public transport is possible but problematic, as several of the bus lines operate only during school-term time.

Castles, Cromlechs, and Cork

Lisbon residents increasingly see the wide-open spaces of the Alentejo as a refuge from city hustle, and life definitely moves at a slower pace here. Across mile after mile of rolling plains, sheep graze and black pigs root for acorns under cork oaks that are stripped of their bark every few years. The region bears the marks of ancient civilizations, and hilltop fortresses regularly heave into view. There are more fairy-tale castles along the River Tagus, just to the west.

Day 1: Évora

The capital of the Upper Alentejo, the walled town of Évora is steeped in history. Lose yourself in the Cidade Velha, but be sure to see the main square, the Praça do Giraldo, and the impressive Roman temple to Diana.

Rota dos Vinhos do Alentejo. Wine buffs can pick up information on touring the region's wineries at the Rota dos Vinhos do Alentejo, which also has tastings. Praça Joaquim António de Aguiar, Praça Joaquim António de Aguiar No. 20-21, Apartado 2146, Évora, 7001-901. 266/746–498 or 266/746–609. www.vinhosdoalentejo.pt.

Day 2: Arraiolos and Estremoz

Before leaving the Évora area, consider stopping off at a local cromlech or dolmen—prehistoric stone monuments. Then stop off in Arraiolos, famed for its handmade tapestries, before traveling on to Estremoz, the most important of the region’s "marble towns" (Portugal is Europe’s second biggest producer after Italy).

Day 3–4: Portalegre

Base yourself in the Portalegre area for a couple of days. Though the charms of the town itself are fairly soon exhausted, many stimulating trips out are possible: to the stunning hilltop villages of Castelo de Vide and Marvão, with its ancient battlements; to the Parque Natural da Serra de São Mamede—a lovely area for walking; or to the former royal stud farm at Alter do Chão.

Day 5: Abrantes

Head northwest toward the Tagus River, sighting the spectacular castle at Belver on your way. The flower-bedecked village of Sardoal makes for an enjoyable stop on the way to Abrantes—and yet another hilltop castle.

Day 6: Constância and Almourol

The pretty little town of Constância, on the confluence of the Zêzere and Tagus rivers, is a good base for canoeing and other outdoor pastimes, or just to picnic on the neat riverside parkland. A little farther on, the castle at Almourol on its own island in the Tagus is perhaps Portugal’s most fairy-tale edifice.

Day 7: Santarém

If you don’t need to head straight back to Lisbon to catch a flight, spend at least half a day in the regional capital of Santarém, with its impressive Gothic church and fine views over the plains that you have just traversed.

Tips

High summer is not the time to head inland, where temperatures can be scorching. Spring, by contrast, is delightful, with wildflowers galore. Fall sees many food-related festivals taking place in both the Alentejo and the Ribatejo.

The driving conditions are relatively relaxing and easy in this region, with long-distance roads fairly flat and no more than gently curving. As for public transport, the Alentejo is not well served by trains but express and local bus services are reliable.

Both the Alentejo and Ribatejo are up-and-coming wine-producing regions, and many vineyards are pleased to welcome visitors. The Portuguese tourist office can provide contact details.

Sanctuary and Solitude

One of Portugal’s best-kept secrets used to be its southwestern corner, where deserted beaches and cliffs are protected by Natural Park status. But a new ecotourism project—a 345-km (215-mile) hiking trail called the Rota Vicentina (www.rotavicentina.com)—has sparked a sustainable tourism boom. More ecolodges and facilities are popping up, but beaches remain pristine, and the fish and shellfish served at local restaurants is among the freshest and best to be found anywhere in the country. This area also boasts some of the country’s best surfing spots.

Day 1: Arrábida and Setúbal

If you’re starting out from Lisbon, don’t miss the Serra de Arrábida, with its deep-green pine forests. The sheltered beaches on its southern flanks are bathed by warmer waters than those on the west coast of the peninsula. Overnight in the city of Setúbal, which boasts one of Portugal’s earliest examples of Gothic architecture.

Day 2: Alcácer do Sal

This ancient town is famed for its salt-making tradition, castle, and profusion of storks. The nearby Reserva Natural do Sado offers opportunities for walkers, or you could head for the beach at Comporta, which also has several excellent restaurants.

Day 3: Vila Nova de Milfontes

Just to the south of the port city of Sines, the real wilderness begins: the Parque Natural do Sudeoeste Alentejao e Costa Vicentina. Vila Nova de Milfontes is among the few towns along this bit of coast, which has stunning beaches at places such as Zambujeira do Mar.

Day 4: Vila do Bispo

As you cross the border into the Algarve, smaller local roads continue to lead off the highway to an amazing variety of beaches, such as Arrifana. They lack fancy hotels and restaurants but are popular with water-sports enthusiasts. End your day at Vila do Bispo, a handy local base.

Day 5: Sagres

Even nonsurfers will find plenty to enthuse at Portugal’s southwestern corner. The views from the hilltop fort at Sagres and the lighthouse on Cape Saint Vincent are truly spectacular. From here you can head east for a spell at noisier, more sociable resorts such as Albufeira, or head north from there up the motorway to Lisbon.

Tips

Public transport is limited and infrequent in Portugal’s wild west, so for much of this itinerary you’ll need your own wheels. Road surfaces are decent, but routes often narrow, so be patient to stay safe.

Facilities are limited in this less developed area, so if you want to stay in small pensões or even hunt for rooms in local houses, plan ahead or arrive early.

The Atlantic waters along this coast are never warm, but on hot summer days they’re just what is needed after a spell of sunbathing. The water is often warmer toward the end of the summer, or even as late as October.

Make sure to sample fresh fish, grilled simply in a local restaurant.

Romantic Getaway

With its huge variety of natural scenery and a swashbuckling history, Portugal is a wonderful place for the romantically inclined—whether lone daydreamers, honeymooners, or inseparable couples.

Day 1: Sintra

There’s nowhere in Portugal more Romantic in the aesthetic sense of the word than Sintra. In the 19th century this royal retreat was Europe’s first center of Romantic architecture; the pioneering approach to landscaping evident in its lush gardens also help underpin its status as a World Heritage Site.

Day 2: Óbidos

This postcard-perfect hilltop village wows couples, who are almost as charmed by its flower-bedecked houses and stone battlements as they are by each other. A fairy-tale castle that is also a pousada (a luxury hotel) completes the scene.

Day 3: Alcobaça

Continue north for your first encounter with Pedro and Inês, star-crossed protagonists of one of history’s great true-life love stories. The gorgeous 12th-century monastery at Alcobaça contains their tombs: placed so that on Judgment Day the first thing they would see on rising from the grave would be each other.

Day 4: Tomar

Head northeast for Tomar, once the headquarters of the Knights Templar. Their remarkable Convento de Cristo is studded with over-the-top architectural features; the grounds afford wonderful views and are the perfect place for romantic musings.

Day 5: Coimbra

There are more links to Portugal’s most famous love story at Coimbra, where Pedro and his lover dallied at the Quinta da Lágrimas (today a luxury hotel and spa with a renowned restaurant) and Inês was later shut up in the now ruined convent of Santa Clara-a-Velha. At night, try to get to a fado venue. Unlike the Lisbon fado, the local style here developed from medieval troubadour music and was traditionally sung by male students at the university, often to serenade lovers.

Day 6: Penacova

Head up the River Mondego toward Penacova, a small town that affords breathtaking views. There are more thrills nearby in the form of opportunities to go hiking or kayaking. For something a little calmer, visit the medieval monastery at Lorveiro, a place that seems frozen in time.

Day 7: Buçaco

With its neo-Gothic touches and cod medieval decor, the former royal hunting lodge at Buçaco is a uniquely atmospheric place for a meal or to stay. Marked trails here lead into the cool green depths of a dense forest where you might see elves at any moment. Climb all the way up to the Alta Cruz and you’re rewarded with fine views.

Tips

Both Óbidos and Alcobaça are centers for the production of ginjinha, a liqueur made from the ginja, or sour cherry. Make sure you try it. In some bars, it may be served in cups made of chocolate—to be eaten afterward, obviously!

History buffs won’t want to miss a visit to Conimbriga, Portugal’s largest Roman site, where you can easily spend a couple of hours wandering the mainly outdoor ruins. Open daily, it’s served by a bus from downtown Coimbra.

The west of Portugal can be notably chilly and damp between November and February, particularly in hilly or forested areas. So dress warmly and check in advance whether your lodgings have heating.

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