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The region around the capital of Portugal is an exciting destination that can just by itself keep you busy for a week. Besides the city of Lisbon, with its vibrant light and colours, hilly landscape and the memories of a glorious sea-faring past, you will also find here the magical town of Sintra, that served as the old kingdom’s royals’ favourite summer retreat; the quaint seaside resorts of Cascais and Estoril; the surfing hotspots of Ericeira and Guincho; the breathtaking landscapes of Cabo da Roca promontory and Arrábida mountains; and the great wines of Colares and the Setúbal Peninsula. Find out more.
This region has developed around the outlet of the River Douro, and it has historically been a hotspot of entrepreneurial activity, from international trade to crafts and industry. Porto (Oporto in the english fashion) is a historic city, the second largest of Portugal, with a variety of picturesque settings, from its maze of narrow worn-out cobblestone streets in the ancient Ribeira quarter by the river front, through the grandeur of the upper city’s Trindade district. Departing the city, a variety or river cruises are available for those seeking a different perspective. Across the river, Vila Nova de Gaia hosts the rich heritage of the Port Wine trade, as seen on the multitude of cellars that are a major tourist attraction. Nature lovers and hikers are also treated with great points of interest, such as the impressive walkways of the river Paiva valley, in the Arouca municipality. Find out more.
This area is defined by the wine region of the Douro river valley, to the south, and the highlands of the Trás-os-Montes region to the north, as well as the Spanish border to the East. Steep hill slopes laboriously sculpted into spectacular terraces with vineyards exposed to the sun are the trademark of the Douro valley, where wine has been king for centuries. This region has grown in popularity among travellers over the past few years and the level of accommodation and restaurants has been greatly elevated too. Navigating the Douro river, or driving along its shores is an absolute delight for the senses and an experience that shouldn’t be missed. To the north, the rural highlands hold many riches. Since classic antiquity, gold has been extracted from these highlands. Nowadays locals toil for a different kind of treasure, the “green gold” — fine olive oil. But also almonds and honey, that are produced here as a labour of love by the people who are keen to preserve their mysterious folk traditions. Find out more.
Drive 20 minutes north of Lisboa and you’ll find yourself already on the West region, an area that is heavily effected by the temperamental Atlantic coastal climate. This fertile region played a vital role in the expansion of the Portuguese kingdom during the 13th and 14th centuries, as catholic monastic orders took on the organisation of the territory, its inhabitants, defense, and farming. It was in this region that the defensive lines built by English and Portuguese military have defeated and repelled Napoleon’s invading armies in 1810. Nowadays, fishing and farming still play important roles in these communities, but the amount of travellers looking to visit landmarks such as Óbidos, Alcobaça, Batalha or Fátima mean that the region is now well equipped for tourism. And if you’re into surf, you surely won’t want to miss the fishing town of Nazaré, where its gigantic oceanic winter waves keep on attracting the bravest surfers on the planet. Find out more.
Portugal’s beach resort par excellence, the south-bound coast is lined with some of the prettiest beaches in Europe, which benefit from mild-tempered ocean waters, hot summers and mild winters, courtesy of the proximity with the Mediterranean and North Africa. Nowhere as in the Algarve the rich heritage of the Moors is so noticeable, from the architecture to the people, not to mention its gastronomy. Voted for several years as the world’s best golf destination, the Algarve is built for leisure, but there’s more to it than just its coastline. The mountains on the back end of the region offer great possibilities and lovely landscapes for hikers and nature lovers who appreciate taking a break from the often busy beachfront. Find out more.
Once called the “Green Coast”, owing to the predominant colour of the landscape, this region occupies the northwestern corner of the country and was the birthplace of the kingdom of Portugal in the 12th Century. It’s an incredibly versatile region, where people, nature, food and wine converge for a memorable experience to the visitor. The natural park of Peneda-Gerês is a source of year-round beauty for the nature lover. This region is proud of its traditions, that can be experienced in places like Braga, Guimarães, Viana do Castelo, Barcelos, Valença, Monção, among others. This is also the home of the elegant “Vinho Verde” (Green Wine) that complements what is arguably the country’s richest gastronomic palette. No visit to the north of Portugal is complete without spending some time in Minho. Find out more.
Perhaps one of the lesser-known regions for those just starting to learn about Portugal, this area stretches from the south of the Douro Valley into the mountainous region of Serra da Estrela, the highest point of continental Portugal. This is a place of rough natural beauty, where throughout history men and women had to work hard to find any suitable stretch of arable land and pasture among the harsh landscapes of granite and shale. This was also a frontier territory often fiercely disputed between Portugal and the Spanish kingdoms, as attested by the remains of numerous medieval castles in the region. Perhaps the country’s most authentic and unspoilt region, with character, generous people and delicious homey cuisine, chestnuts, cherries and wine (the important wine region of Dão is here), and something interesting to see in every little village along the way make the visit to this region a worthwhile surprise. Find out more.
Occupying the central portion of coastal Portugal, the main references of this region are the cities of Aveiro, to the north, Leiria, to the south, and, at the heart of it, the historic city of Coimbra, Portugal’s second capital, home of one of the oldest universities in Europe and where the traditional elites of Portugal have been educated. In this diversified region, secular forests, curative springs, and long sandy beaches meet priceless treasures of architecture and history, together with fine crafts of porcelain and crystal. Renowed by its sweets, the gastronomy here is split between robust meats and fresh fish, while the wines of Bairrada area are getting more and more attention. The region is worthwhile a visit on its own, or if you’re travelling between Lisboa and Porto, at least worth spending some time here. Find out more.
Before meeting the Atlantic Ocean in Lisboa, the Tejo River — the longest in the Iberian Peninsula — crosses Portugal from East to West, creating a large hydrographic basin. This geographic barrier has historically divided north and south of Portugal, and determined the life of the populations that settled along its wide, shallow fertile valley. This region is relatively close to Lisboa, and its dominated by the city of Santarém, often referred to as “the Gothic Capital of Portugal”. Many medieval era castles are a testimony of the days when this valley was a much disputed frontier territory between christians and moorish muslims. It was in Tomar that the Templar Knights made their headquarters in the kingdom, and later, when they were converted into the Company of Christ, their headquarters housed the coordination for the formidable Portuguese maritime expansion in the 15th century. Nowadays, agriculture, horse and cattle breeding are the main activities in this region where life certainly moves at a slower pace. Find out more.
The term “Alentejo” literally means the territory beyond (south) of the Tejo river. The northern half of that vast territory is what we call “Upper Alentejo”. Mostly a rural countryside, it is known for its plains and gentle rolling hills covered with wheat, lavender, cork and olive trees and vineyards. Here, human clusters are few and far between, and the landscape is punctuated by farm estates (locally known as “montes”) and property walls painted white and lined in vibrant blue or yellow colours. There’s no rush in Alentejo, as things get done in a slow paced fashion. Hence, this is the perfect spot for those looking for tranquility, open spaces, and a change of pace. The gastronomy in the Alentejo is rich and tasty, with some unusual combinations such as pork and clams. The wines produced in this region are famous and many local wineries are open to visitors. Much ornamental stone is extracted from marble quarries near the spanish border. The historical city of Évora and its surroundings is well worth the trip, but the region has more to offer if you’re willing to invest the time to explore around. Find out more.
The Lower Alentejo region continues the theme of the Upper Alentejo, with vast plains and rolling hills, but the weather here is even warmer and drier, making farming more challenging. The east side of this region benefits from the waters of the Guadiana River, where a huge artificial lake, the largest of its kind in Europe, called Alqueva, was created. This project is quietly revolutionising the farming and tourism in the region, as irrigation ducts start taking water to previously semi-desertic sun-baked terrains, allowing for new farming projects other than the more traditional cattle breeding or cork production; and the lake allows for great boat trips, watersports and fishing. Near Castro Verde is located one of the largest copper and zinc mining operations in Europe. However, the main city of the region is Beja, which has been a relevant settlement since the Roman empire, when it was known as “Pax Julia”. Beja has a rich historical patrimony; with its own international airport, this region has an enormous potential for growth. Great wines and olive oil are being produced around here, and the producers are eager to show their products to visitors. Find out more.
Stretching 150 kms from the Tróia peninsula to the western shores of the Algarve, the coast of Alentejo is a paradise of sprawling sandy wild beaches that haven’t been discovered by mass tourism yet. With scarce population density and few top quality resorts, this coast is dominated by Sines, Portugal’s largest harbour and petrochemical industrial complex. Away from the main highways, the coast awaits the visit of those with an acute sense of pioneering curiosity. Some of its beaches aren’t even accessible by car! The coastline is punctuated by small villages who warmly welcome visitors and there’s always a cozy simple restaurant by the seaside serving fresh catch of the day. Many trails for hikers and all-terrain cyclists follow the coastline, offering mesmerising views of the formidable Atlantic – including unforgettable sunsets. Find out more.
“The Pearl of the Atlantic” is how Madeira island has been known for a long time. Located southwest of mainland Portugal, and only 700 kms from the coast of west africa, these islands are blessed with a gentle climate all year round, making them an excellent travel destination for a short break of a few days. Porto Santo, the smaller island, is the fantastic sandy beach that Madeira can’t have, because this island of volcanic origin is like a massive rugged boulder sticking out of the ocean. But what a precious boulder it is! Owing to its geographic position and orography, the lush green sub-tropical vegetation of Madeira island, coupled with its dramatic slopes, is absolutely jaw-dropping. The island’s capital, Funchal, nested on the delta of several creeks, whose harbour is a favourite stop of many cruise liners, is a major attraction for its botanical gardens and the spectacular fireworks show on New Year’s eve. A paradise for experienced trail walkers, you shouldn’t miss the “levadas”, the man-made waterways that carry irrigation water from the north part of the island to the south, across the mountains. Find out more.
Born out of formidable forces of nature, the nine Azores Islands are the visible peaks of several submarine volcanic mountains rising from the ocean floor along the north Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Located West of mainland Portugal, these islands are about two hours flight from any mainland airport, but one can fly directly from north America as well. Shaped by the volcanos, the islands’ unique geological features originated many breathtaking dramatic landscapes of steep ridges, waterfalls and lagoons, that have challenged men and women to cultivate its rich black soil in some very creative and daring ways since the earlier settlers arrived in the 14th century. Positioned along migration routes of many maritime species, the Azores islands are a paradise for trail walkers, divers and whale-watchers; surfers are also starting to discover its potential. Dairy farming is the main activity here, but the islands are also known for its tea, pineapple and tobacco plantations. For something different, you must consider visiting the Azores islands! Find out more.
GET TO KNOW...
LisboN Metropolitan Area
Population: 2.812.678 (2015)
Surface Area: 3.015,24 km2
Density: 940 / Km2
GDP per capita: 23.200 €, PPP
Human Development Index: 0,886
Main Urban Centres: Lisboa; Sintra; Cascais; Loures
About this region:
The region around the capital of Portugal is an exciting destination that can just by itself keep you busy for a week. Besides the city of Lisbon, with its vibrant light and colours, hilly landscape and the memories of a glorious sea-faring past, you will also find here the magical town of Sintra, that served as the old kingdom’s royals’ favourite summer retreat; the quaint seaside resorts of Cascais and Estoril; the surfing hotspots of Ericeira and Guincho; the breathtaking landscapes of Cabo da Roca promontory and Arrábida mountains; and the great wines of Colares and the Setúbal Peninsula.
Before Nationality: Its origins go back to the pre-history, as early humans settled on the hills of the northern bank of the Tejo and lived from hunting nd fishing. During classic antiquity, the local Celt-Iberian tribes traded products with visiting Egyptian, Phoenician, Greek and Carthaginian merchant ships. The Iberian Peninsula was finally integrated into the Roman Empire during the second half of the 1st century BC and the city was renamed “Olisipo”, after the greek hero Ulysses, to whom the mythological foundation of the city was credited to. The city prospered and grew thanks to its good harbor, but with the collapse of the Roman rule in the 5th Century AD it ended up ransaked by germanic tribes and integrated into the Visigothic kingdom during the 7th century, now renamed “Ulishbona”, as the new lords embraced christianism. The muslim expansion from the East saw the invasion of the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors of North Africa, and in 711 AD the city was conquered and integrated into the Omíad Caliphate of Damascus, and renamed “Alushbuna”. The integration into the vast muslim domain brings renewed prosperity to the city.
Kingdom of Portugal: The christian counter-strike known as “Reconquista” (722-1492 AD) lead to the final conquest of the city for the newly formed christian Kingdom Portucalensis in 1147 by its first king, Afonso Henriques.
As the territory became secure from enemy counter-strikes, in 1255 king Afonso III relocated the royal court from the capital Coimbra into the now much more prosperous Lisboa, making it the de facto capital of Portugal (as a matter of curiosity, no document was ever signed to that effect). As the kingdom of Portugal became interested in expanding overseas, Lisbon gained increased importance as its harbour saw the growth of seafaring activity that came with the successful exploration of new maritime paths along West Africa, South America, India and the Far East. Due to political ramifications stemming from the untimely death of King Sebastião in an ill-prepared military campaign in North Africa, Portugal came to be under the rule of Spanish monarchs between 1580 and 1640.
The modern kingdom: After regaining sovereignty under the leadership of the noble house of Bragança, Portugal invested heavily in the colonisation of Brazil, and a new period of prosperity came to Lisbon during the reign of João V, but that was short-lived, as the devastating earthquake of November 1st of 1755 and the ensuing tsunami and fires turned the city into heaps of rubble and ash.
Thanks to the tenacity of Sebastião Carvalho e Melo, the Marquis of Pombal, who was put in charge of the affairs of the kingdom, ambitious plans were quickly elaborated to build a new, modern metropolis, while attempting to rebuild and restore a few precious architectural gems that witnessed the city’s glorious past. However, it took more than a century to achieve such goal, as the country got crippled by the Napoleonic invasions (1807-1814) whence the capital of the kingdom was temporarily moved to Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil; and then by a fratricidal civil war known as The Liberal Wars, between 1828-1824. Despite emerging out of it as a modern constitutional monarchy, the end of the century saw a growing dissatisfaction with the monarchy, that culminated in the assassination of King Carlos I in Lisbon in 1908.
Republic: In 1910, following a military uprising, the monarchy was replaced by the republic and hopes were high; but Portugal got dragged into a disastrous participation in the First World War and in its aftermath, the young republic soon fell under a long ultra-conservative dictatorship with Mr. Oliveira Salazar at the helm. Portugal managed to remain neutral during World War Two, but its economy and society stagnated. Weakened by more than a decade of exhausting wars in three of its African colonies, the authoritarian regime fell apart in a swift military coup on the 25th of April of 1974.
The change was warmly welcomed by the population, bringing about political and civil liberties that the majority of the population had never experienced before in their lifetimes. After a period of stabilisation of its democratic system, Lisbon and Portugal embraced the European Community, with the accession treaty being signed in 1985 by then President Mário Soares at the Hieronymites Monastery of Lisbon, symbol of the nation’s openness to the world. In the 1990’s, Lisbon underwent a vast program of urban renewal leading to the World Expo of 1998, themed around the Oceans. In 2004, 2005 and 2014, Lisbon organised the final football matches for UEFA’s European Nations League, Europa League and Champions League, respectively.
Today: Nowadays, Lisbon is a vibrant, cosmopolitan and diverse city that immediately makes every visitor feel at home. There’s extensive urban renovation taking place, with great care being put in renovating old buildings to modern specifications while retaining their elegant old facades. Some graffiti aside, the city is kept very clean, and in general people feel very safe on the streets. The locals are friendly and laid back, and always ready to help. Although most people of younger generations speak english as second language, everyone will make an honest attempt to communicate and be helpful, and get extremely flattered if the visitor makes even a lame attempt at uttering a couple of words in Portuguese. In general, the Portuguese are very hospitable and family-oriented; hotels and restaurants are usually very accommodating of young children.
The climate of Lisbon is normally quite pleasant, in fact is one of the European cities with the most temperate, almost Mediterranean-like climate, with the lowest temperatures never reaching freezing point, although in winter there may be an alternation of very rainy and windy days with days of fantastic blue sky. Lisbon is served by one international airport that sits relatively close to the city centre, while a second airport on the south side of the Tejo river is in the works, and several train lines connect the city to its suburbs, other regions and also Spain. There’s a suitable health-care system in place, both public and private. In fact, in recent years, many foreigners have moved to this area or bought second homes here, because it feels like a very safe investment and a wonderful place to live and enjoy a pleasant retirement. The city isn’t lacking in monuments, museums and cultural offering, and it becomes immediately apparent that the locals are profoundly proud of their historical heritage and take great care in preserving it for future generations.
Located on the hills, less than 30 Kms to the west of Lisbon, Sintra was a place favoured by the Portuguese royal courts as a summer retreat since the late 14th century through the end of the monarchy in 1910. The soft climate, beautiful landscapes and abundance of game attracted several monarchs to this place, along with other aristocrats from the court, and rich merchants, who went on to build exquisite estates in the area.
Often and justly described as “the most romantic place in Portugal”, Sintra managed to retain its quaint singularity, offering magnificent pieces of architecture and gardening perfectly integrated into a breathtaking lush natural setting of rocky outcrops and dense conifers forest.
“Magical” is another term that often comes to mind when contemplating this scenario classified as World Heritage by UNESCO. Over centuries, in fact, since antiquity, this place has touched people with a special vibe that invites to spiritual retreat. Religious meditative orders have set here their monasteries and hermitages and likewise esoterical-leaning people and earth religion followers came here, all of them seeking to somehow get closer to the unfathomable. But the old fortress on top of the hill known as the “Moorish Castle”, keeping watch over the town below and the coastline at the distance also reminds the visitor that Sintra was once also a place of key strategic military importance in the past.
More than just the town, Sintra is also the name of the mountain chain and natural park that ends up diving into the Atlantic in the dramatic promontory of Cabo da Roca, the most western point of continental Europe.
Today, Sintra is one of the most visited sites in Portugal and visitors queue to see such attractions as the Pena Palace and Park, Regaleira Estate, National Royal Palace, Moorish Castle, among other lesser known attractions that are no less worth discovering. Exploring on foot the old section of the town is like stepping back in time, with its maze of steep narrow streets lined with charming little shops, bistros and pastries mixed with palatial homes. Speaking of which, no one should leave Sintra without trying the delicious local sweets, known as Queijadas and Travesseiros. They may not be friendly towards a rigorous diet, but surely they will put a smile on your face.
The nearby vineyards and wine cellars of Colares the beaches of Adraga and Praia Grande, and the picturesque village of Azenhas do Mar, stubbornly clinging like a limpet to the side of a cliff with swimming pools carved out of the rocks below are also worth a visit. Not too distant, the royal palaces of Queluz and Mafra, and the surfing hotspot of Ericeira also invite you to extend your stay here.
Cascais AND estoril
Since the days of the Roman Empire, Cascais has been a hub of fishing activity and industries related to it. Archaeological findings reveal that a fish paste delicacy called “garum” was produced here as well as the noble purple ink, extracted from sea shells. Its position at the entrance of the bay leading into Lisbon also gave this town a strategic military importance, and several fortifications were built to ensure the defence of the coastline.
After the devastation inflicted by the earthquake and tsunami of 1755, a new fortress (nowadays known locally as “Cidadela”) was built at the rocky outcrop adjacent to the fishing harbour located at the outlet of the Ribeira das Vinhas creek. When the court of King Luís I thought Cascais was a good place to spend the summer of 1870, architects were called in to build a royal residence inside the fortress, plus other several attractive houses for the court members. It was a this point that Cascais began to outgrow its fishing village status.
In the wake of the frequent visits of the royal court, especially since prince heir (and future king) Carlos was a keen sailor and oceanographer and kept his private boats here, hotels, restaurants and shops followed and the future of Cascais as a summer resort was assured. In 1895, a train line linking Lisbon to Cascais was concluded, and the town became a suburb of the capital city where the aristocracy came to spend leisure time by the sea. In 1940, the panoramic seaside road known as “Marginal” connected Lisbon’s western river front to Cascais. From here, the coastal road stretches towards west, towards Guincho beach and to Cabo da Roca promontory, then turning north towards Colares and Ericeira.
Estoril was nothing but a coastal area mostly covered with atlantic pines and some vineyards until the start of the 20th century. Then, around 1915, a local entrepreneur, Mr. Fausto Cardoso de Figueiredo envisioned a “Portuguese Riviera” and setup a corporation to develop a resort. Magnificent villas and expensive hotels were built on the gentle slopes overlooking the bay of Cascais. The Estoril Casino was inaugurated in 1931. For many years Estoril was looked on as a playboy’s paradise where the rich , and occasionally the famous too, spent their time playing golf, big game fishing, horse racing or motor racing.
During the Second World War, when Portugal remained neutral, Estoril was reputed to be a gathering point of spies from both sides of the conflict, dispossessed royals, wartime adventurers, and rich refugees from central Europe in transit to the United States. The casino served as inspiration for Ian Flemming’s first Bond 007 novel “Casino Royale“. Nowadays, Estoril is mostly a posh residential district adjacent to Cascais, but the old label “Estoril Coast” still echoes in the tourism industry, being associated with big events such as the ATP tournament Estoril Open that has been played at the local tennis club, and the nearby Autódromo do Estoril, an active motor racing circuit that has hosted Formula One and Moto GP championship races up until recently. In the hippodrome of Cascais, the international equestrian jumping competition CSI 5 Star attracts competitors from all over the world.
The quaint town of Cascais is nowadays sought after by visitors who are looking to stay close to Lisbon, having the sea right in front and the hills on the back, while avoiding the frenzy of the big city. Local attractions include the Boca do Inferno geological feature, the mansion-museum of the Counts of Castro Guimarães, the Paula Rego Museum and the Cidadela fortress. A superb all year round dwelling place, served by a sizeable local aerodrome, good public transport system, adequate health care units, golf courses, quality hotels, fantastic restaurants, good shopping, varied cultural events, international schools and just a short ride from Lisbon and Sintra, Cascais attracts many expatriates in work assignments in Portugal and foreigners looking to spend a pleasant retirement.
Arrábida hills and the setúbal peninsula
If you’re standing near the coastline of Lisbon all the way through Cascais and look towards south, chances are that you’ll see some hills standing out on the horizon. Those are the Arrábida hills, locally known as “Serra da Arrábida”. Stretching across the municipalities of Sesimbra, Setúbal and Palmela, on the north shore of the estuary of river Sado, in a East/West direction, these hills protect the farming grounds to the north from the whimsical Atlantic weather. These are generally poor clay soils, saturated with sand, but offer ideal characteristics for the cultivation of vineyards and olive groves. Thus, the wines of this region have been famed since at least the 16th century, but the story is much older, as the fist vineyards of the Iberian Peninsula were planted here, circa 2000 years B.C.. Around Palmela, Azeitão and Setúbal, several wine producers open their doors to visitors, eager to show the treasures of their land.
Setúbal, with its 120.000 inhabitants, is the third biggest harbour of Portugal, and an important industrial hub centred around naval construction and fishing activities. On a hill dominating the city rises the Castle of São Filipe, built in 1582 on instructions of Philip II of Spain to keep an eye on the population as well as protecting the coastline from attacks by the English fleet. The view from the ramparts is quite impressive, encompassing the vast estuary of the river Sado as well as the peninsula of Tróia to the south. Driving west of Setúbal towards the fishing town of Sesimbra, two roads cross the hills, overlooking the ocean, one running in the middle of the slopes, another following the coastline, cutting through the National Park of Arrábida in what are without question some of the loveliest drives in Portugal. Down below, the cove of Portinho da Arrábida, with its incredible white sand beach embedded into the steep slopes of the mountain, is a worthy detour to take. The park offers hill climbers and ramblers plenty of trail walks across wide spaces with nothing to distract them from the breathtaking view.
Sesimbra is a blooming holiday resort, but, like many of these in Portugal, it was born out of the fishing activity, and its picturesque harbour full of colourful trawlers and the jumble of little streets and alleys struggling up the hillside are a testimony of those roots. The castle, towering over a hill above the town, offers breathtaking views, and it’s worth a quick visit before one heads down to town to enjoy a meal with the fresh catch of the day. Vila Fresca de Azeitão is just nearby, with its wineries, decorative tiles workshops, and the delicious rolled egg pies known as “Tortas de Azeitão“.
Slightly north of Setúbal sits a large castle brooding over the picturesque white town of Palmela. Originally a Roman fortress, the castle was enlarged by the Moors, who also added a mosque inside, and was taken back and forth by christian and muslim forces between 1147 and 1205, and finally donated by King Sancho I to the friars of Santiago who, in the early 14th century, and then again the next century, enlarged and reinforced the castle once more. The castle and the monastery were badly damaged by the earthquake of 1755, but restored between 1940-1945, and the facilities of the old convent were prequalified as an inn.