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 busloads 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.

Days 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-basics accommodations 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.

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