FFrom the colourful, cultural cities of Lisbon and Porto to the coastal landscapes of the Algarve, visiting Portugal is an experience to savour, just like the country’s wine…
1: Strap on your Hiking Boots on Madeira
Cliffs at Ponta de Sao Lourenco, Madeira, Portugal – Image by Anna Luyre
Once considered little more than a retiree’s holiday haven and a wine stopover, Madeira’s natural charms are now at the forefront of its allure. This volcanic island, just under two hours by plane from Lisbon, is home to mile after mile of hiking trails across its jagged landscape.
Pico Ruivo is the highest summit to reach at 1,862 metres above sea level, quite a feat for an island just twice the size of the Isle of Wight, and don’t miss wandering up Madeira’s levadas, the old irrigation channels.
2: Listen to Fado in Lisbon
Lisbon skyline with Sao Jorge Castle- Image by TTStudio
The melancholic sounds of fado, Portugal’s signature style of music, is an unmissable part of the country’s culture. Dotted across the capital are fado bars where you can fall under the spell of saudade, a profound sense of longing, a word that any Portuguese native will tell you simply can’t be translated into English. Among the city’s renowned venues are Clube de Fado and Tasca do Chico. Pull up a chair and pick at some tapas while listening to a singer croon their heart out. Hop between different bars to get a feel for alternative styles and atmospheres.
3: Have an Adventure in Peneda-Gerês National Park
Mountains at Peneda-Geres National Park – Image by Sergey Peterman
Peneda-Gerês is Portugal’s only official national park, made up of more than 700 square kilometres, with over 90 villages and peaks soaring up to 1,500 metres high. This is Portugal’s adventure playground, where you can hike and bike for days on end, often undisturbed.
It’s a popular place for locals to come on their summer holidays, but comparatively few foreigners venture up here to where the park shares a border with Spain’s Galicia province. This is definitely a top spot if you’re looking to get off the beaten track. It’s best to hire a car to navigate its winding roads.
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4: Go Whale-Watching in the Azores
Sperm whales swimming, Sao Miguel Azores – Image by Willyam Bradberry
Flung 1,000 miles out from mainland Portugal in the Atlantic Ocean, the Azores are completely unique, with plenty to explore, from colourful flower-filled landscapes to cycling along trails used by Charles Darwin on his brief stops on the islands.
Until as recently as the 1980s whales were hunted here by locals, but as the demand fell, the focus shifted to whale-watching for tourism. The Azores are now among the best places in Europe to witness marine life. Join a boat trip here between May and October to spot up to 25 species, including fin, sperm, minke, and humpback whales, as well as groups of common and bottlenose dolphins leaping up out of the waters next to your vessel.
5: Get Lost in the Alentejo
Monsaraz village in Alentejo region, Portugal – Image by Evgeni Fabisuk
Portugal’s Alentejo is one of the country’s most overlooked regions, despite being one of the largest, covering 10,000 square miles directly north of the Algarve. The best way to discover its many highlights is to hire a car and drive directionless for days at a time, stopping by the countless vineyards, hiking across its baron farmlands (the world’s biggest cork tree forest) and surprising locals by your presence in the crumbling villages.
6: Journey Through the Douro Valley
Vineyards of the Douro Region, Portugal – By Simon Dannhauer
Breathing life eastwards from the city of Porto, the Douro is one of the most important bodies of water in Portugal. Wine traditions run deep here, dating back as early as Roman times. Through the centuries, endless quintas (wine estates) were built, making this one of the world’s oldest wine regions.
Among the seasoned wineries are Quinta do Vallado, established in 1716, and Quinta da Pacheca followed in 1738. Make stops to sample their wares on a road trip, making sure to travel along the N-222, considered one of the best driving routes in Europe. Alternatively, you can take the train along the valley for a more romantic experience.
7: Go Port-tasting in Porto
Traditional Wooden Barrels – Image by Bondvit
The south bank of the River Douro that runs through central Porto is dotted with dozens of Port cellars that will teach you all about this famous tipple on its home turf. Spend at least a day during your time in Porto ambling from one to the next, wandering between rows of giant barrels and going on tours and tastings of the more famous cellars, such as Caves Cálem and Caves Ferreira.
Look out for the producers that also pair the Port sampling with cheese or chocolate tastings for an especially indulgent experience.
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8: Get to know Portugal’s History in Guimarães
The Castle of Guimaraes, Portugal – Image by Sergio Gutierrez Getino
Also known as the birthplace of Portugal, Guimarães is one of the country’s unsung heroes. This small city, just over 55km northeast of Porto, was where Afonso Henriques, Portugal’s first king, was born. This historical significance is felt throughout the city to this day through the small, cobbled old town, but the student population has also given Guimarães new life, bringing a wealth of bars and restaurants to the scene.
Take the cable car up to Penha, a granite hill just outside the city, for the best views across the region, and keep your eyes peeled for a Torta de Guimarães, a local pastry you’ll definitely want to try.
9: Discover the little-visited Trás-os-Montes region
Montesinho National Park, Portugal – Image by Russ Heini
Trás-os-Montes (meaning ‘behind the mountains’) is one of the least visited regions in Portugal. The culture here is therefore among the most authentically preserved in the country.
This rural province, located in the far northeastern corner of Portugal, has a diverse range of experiences, mostly notably the history in its capital Bragança and nature on a grand scale in Montesinho Natural Park. Come here to witness village life as it has been for hundreds of years, particularly in Rio de Onor, a village that’s split down the middle by a border with Spain, where you can wander freely between the two countries.
10: Be Blown Away by the Western Algarve
Praia da Bordeira, Algarve, Portugal – Image by S, Gruene
The Algarve is by far one of Portugal’s most popular regions, often filled with tourists. However, head over to the region’s far west to where the Atlantic hits against the towering cliff scenery, and its easy to find an uncrowded patch of sand.
Praia da Bordeira, Praia da Arrifana, and Praia da Amoreira are all must-visits, where you can sunbathe, walk along giant stretches of sand flats or learn to surf.
Keep your eyes peeled for the local fishermen, who stand nail-bitingly close to the clifftop edges to dangle their rods in the sea for the best catch.
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Emma Higgins is a British writer who lived and travelled extensively in Portugal. Her book, A Year in Portugal, documents her highlights of this beautiful country and offers ample inspiration for anyone looking to get to know this corner of Europe better.