You may be like me and struggle when asked your favorite destination. For me, each place has its own unique charm, beauty and experience.
But the World Travel Awards (the Oscars of travel) named the small country of Portugal as the World’s Leading Destination for both 2017 and 2018 – the first European destination to win this prestigious award since they began in 1993.
I’ve long been enamored with Portugal with its beautiful and varied landscapes, centuries-old history, long coastline of stunning beaches and cliffs, renowned hospitality, mild climate, safety and stability, sunshine and value.
Here’s why Portugal needs to be on your must-visit list!
Portugal is one of the oldest countries in the world with borders set in 1279. In the 15th and 16th centuries superb naval expertise resulted in Portugal becoming the first global powerhouse, discovering the first sea route to India, circumventing the globe, and establishing colonies such as Brazil, Mozambique, Angola, and in India and other locales. This history, wealth and achievement are evident throughout the country today, including many UNESCO World Heritage Sites. A Romance language, Portuguese is one of the most spoken languages in the world.
From hotels to transportation to meals, Portugal is one of the most affordable destinations on the continent; and the dollar is strong right now against the euro, Portugal’s currency as an EU member. For example, nightly rates at the Six Senses Douro Valley, among the country’s most magnificent hotels, start at 330 euros in the low season. Another plus is the country hasn’t been overly developed to cater to tourists and remains quite authentic. It’s hard to find McDonalds and Starbucks!
Thanks to its location on the southwestern edge of Europe, Portugal has an ideal climate with over 300 sunny days a year. Winter is more temperate than other southern European countries. When I was there last November temps averaged 68 degrees and I enjoyed a walk on the beach in shorts and swim in the gentle waves. The busiest and most expensive time of the year is in August when many Europeans take their summer holidays. Shoulder seasons offer great weather and rates.
Diversity of Landscapes
I love Portugal’s mix of charming old cities, beautiful farms and countryside, olive trees and vineyards, national parks, and coastlines with rugged cliffs, perfect beaches, and panoramic vistas and range of activities and excursions from scuba diving to hiking. An additional plus are the unique islands of Madeira and Azores.
Here’s a rundown on the main regions of Portugal, all very accessible as it’s a small country. For example, driving from Porto to Lisbon takes less than 3 hours.
Known as the City of Seven Hills, Lisbon is one of the oldest, most charismatic and vibrant capitals of Europe. With its steep hills, yellow trams winding through narrow streets and blue-and-white tiles Lisbon is visually vibrant and has lots of indoor and outdoor restaurants, bars, boutique stores and markets.
Check out the hip LX Factory, an area of old warehouses and factories that have been transformed into shops, restaurants and bars. At the National Azulejo Museum discover the history and fine examples of Portugal’s famous tile industry. Top sights include the Belém Tower, hilltop 11th century castle and the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos.
One of my favorite hotels is the Memmo in the heart of the Principe Real, one of Lisbon’s trendiest neighborhoods. With only 41 rooms and a great lap pool, the Memmo is the area’s first five-star luxury boutique hotel.
Not to be missed among the many day trips from Lisbon is a visit to the culturally rich village of Sintra, home to royal palaces, mansions and an old castle. You can even stay in a former palace and one of the country’s finest hotels: The Tivoli Palácio de Seteais.
From where the country derives its name, Porto is a historic and varied city with great night life. Explore the narrow streets that make up the ancient Ribeira, Se and Baixa districts. Sample world-famous ports at warehouses located along the city’s waterfront. Travel by boat down the Douro River bordered by lush and serene vineyards.
A favorite hotel The Yeatman is all about wine from its decanter-shaped pool and the 25,000-bottle cellar to the grape-pip treatments at its spa. The hotel boasts a Michelin-starred restaurant and mesmerizing views over the city, with spacious rooms to boot.
Or hang out for a while on the Douro River at the sumptuous Six Senses that offers a stunning setting where you can enjoy trips to nearby towns and wineries, sensational food and wine, wellness programs and a superb spa.
The sun-soaked southern coast of Portugal is home to some of the loveliest beaches in Europe. Some are long and wide; others hidden between craggy rock cliffs and caves. A favorite, Praia da Marinha is known for its steep cliffs, soft sand, and calm waters ideal for snorkeling. Small towns such as Lagos, Tavira and Faro are quaint and make for fun exploring. Although the area boasts golf courses and luxury resorts, there’s a fantastic network of hiking trails and nature-rich wetlands.
This area extends from the remote eastern mountains of the Serra da Estrela to the stunning western beaches of the Silver Coast. My favorite sights include historic Tomar, the old university town of Coimbra, Alcobaça Monastery, the pilgrimage destination of Fatima, Óbidos, the walled city and medieval home of Portuguese royalty, and towns hewn from granite and schist.
Relax in healing waters in small spa towns, such as Curia and Luso or on massive river beaches. Hike in ancient forests and the Bucaco woodlands. Explore monasteries, convents, castles and churches.
Stay in one of my favorite working country estates – the centuries old and family run São Lourenço do Barrocal. The restaurant and spa are excellent.
Closer to Morocco than Portugal this island is the birthplace of soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo. But its main claim to fame are the impressive cliffs, mountainous terrain, laurel cloud forests, rich biodiversity, year-round mild climate, laid-back ambiance, great hiking and oh yea, that great Madeira wine. Stay at Madeira’s grand dame hotel Belmond Reid’s Palace, where every room has a balcony overlooking the ocean and famous dignitaries and celebrities have stayed over its long history.
Thrill-seekers and nature lovers are currently discovering this other Portuguese volcanic archipelago far off the coast that resembles something akin to the lush otherworldly landscapes of Avatar. A nonstop flight from New York or Boston can whisk you away to volcanic crater lakes, natural hot springs and black-sand beaches, as well as activities including scuba diving, kayaking, hiking, whale-watching, birding, and surfing.
Portugal is known for its world-class wines and port, but its food it also exceptional. Enjoy fresh fish on a seaside esplanade, the many dishes made with bacalão (cod fish) or an array of smoked meats. Enjoy a cooking class wherever you go…a favorite of mine is the Algarve seafood stew cataplana prepared in a closed wok utensil made just for this dish. Portugal is also known for its desserts, such as the ubiquitous and delicious pastel de nata (custard tart). Legend has it that monks invented these tarts as a way to use egg yolks after using the whites to starch their white habits.
Sitting in a small bar, perhaps at a table shared by locals, listening to fado is one of the most authentic experiences you can have. At once heartbreaking, hopeful and nostalgic, the fado originated in port towns from the days when the men-folk were at sea and the women sang for their safe return. Nowadays, usually a single man or woman sings a song accompanied by one or two musicians.
One of the best-known contemporary groups combining traditional music going back to medieval times with modern folk is the multi award winning Madradeus.
It’s quite common to see musicians performing in squares and on sidewalks, day and night.
Photo credits: Susan Bruce, Creative Commons, or as attributed
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