Anyone who takes time to visit, however, quickly realizes that – for such a relatively small republic – it not only competes with the country next door in terms of attractions and experiences, but also has a host of unique attributes that together make it one of the most exciting places to vacation in southern Europe.
Away from the golden beaches sprinkled liberally along its perimeter are no fewer than 14 UNESCO heritage sites of cultural or environmental significance, ranging from the laurel forests of Madeira to the historic city centers of Evora, Guimaraes and Porto.
Combined with exciting festivals, a 2,000-year-old tradition of winemaking and a cuisine infused with spices procured during the country’s age of exploration, these natural and architectural charms make Portugal a truly peerless destination.
Plenty of European cities are steeped in history, but Portugal’s heritage as the powerhouse of the ‘Age of Discovery’ – responsible for locating the Cape of Good Hope, India and Brazil, among other destinations – has left an indelible mark on its municipalities.
Chief among these is Europe’s second oldest capital, Lisbon, which flourished in the 16th century as a result of the riches its mariners brought back from their explorations overseas. With this newfound wealth came a surge in construction and artistic creativity, much of it employing a distinctively Portuguese late Gothic style known as Manueline. And today examples of this sophisticated genre can still be witnessed in Lisbon, with prominent examples including the stunning architecture of the Jeronimos Monastery – last resting place of the explorer Vasco de Gama – and the artwork of Jorge Afonso and Cristovao de Figueiredo, key pieces of which can be found in the city’s National Museum of Ancient Art.The capital isn’t the only location to have benefited from the Age of Discovery, however. Some 200 miles north, Portugal’s second city, Porto, has a UNESCO-protected historic center whose Manueline features are present in the exquisite Church of Santa Clara.
Other later but equally spectacular historic landmarks include the Clerigos Church and its iconic bell-tower – the tallest building in Portugal at the time of its construction in the mid-18th century – the imposing 19th-century Stock Exchange Palace and the Maria Pia railway bridge. The latter built by Gustave Eiffel in a style highly reminiscent of his famous Parisian tower.
VINEYARDS & VILLAGES
There are 29 wine-producing territories dotted across Portugal, but follow the Douro River upstream from the northern city of Porto, and you’ll find yourself in one of the country’s most famous.
The Alto Douro Wine Region, celebrated for its production of high quality table wines and fabulous ports, appears to the first-time observer like a vast patchwork quilt – each segment adorned with neat braids framed by dusty gravel pathways and thick rocky walls. Upon closer inspection, however, it’s clear the majority of vines snaking across this breathtaking landscape are in fact situated on steep terraces, the giant steps of which course down to the eponymous river below.Designated a UNESCO heritage site in 2001, the 60,000 acres comprising the Alto Douro have been chronicled for their wine production for more than 2,000 years. But it was in the mid-18th century that production really took off when the Portuguese prime minister, the Marquis of Pombal, first demarcated the region’s port vineyards and embarked upon a comprehensive classification exercise to identify the finest wines – those deemed most suitable for export.
Today, the highest grade ports are available throughout the US, but oenophiles will doubtless agree they’re best enjoyed in their native setting: in one of the port houses or wineries peppered across Alto Douro’s picturesque villages and hamlets. And with many of these ‘quinta’ – as they’re known locally – offering restaurants alongside cellar visits and wine-tasting experiences, they’re the perfect destination for gastronomes, too, with the opportunity to sample local fare such as caldo verde (green soup) and tripas (tripe) as well as the viticultural produce.
COAST & COUNTRY
Although there’s technically only one national park in Portugal – the dramatic Peneda-Geres, situated in the far north and famous for its wild Garrano ponies as much as its granite peaks, oak forests and early settlements – there are dozens of nature parks, reserves, natural monuments and protected landscapes scattered around the country.
Some of the most charming of these are located in settings close to key tourist destinations. Take the stunning, 44,500-acre Ria Formosa Natural Park in the far south. Famous for its 37-mile stretch of sand dunes and the 200 species of birds congregating within its wetlands – a key feature of which are its regiments of flamingos – this tangle of canals, marshland and barrier islands is less than an hour’s drive from the popular beaches of Albufeira: one of the Algarve’s premier vacation hotspots.
More than 1,100 miles west, meanwhile, the volcanic archipelago of the Azores has designated each of its nine islands a nature park in their own right. Here, awe-inspiring areas of natural beauty include Faial island’s ‘Caldeirinhas’: the relic of two submerged craters whose distinctive snowman shape, the head of which opens out on to the deep blue ocean beyond, is a haven for migrating birds.
Other features sure to delight are the twin lakes of Lagoa Rasa and Lagoa Funda on Flores – the former appearing from a distance as if it may spill over into the latter at any moment – and the Azores’ version of Mount Fuji: the towering stratovolcano of Mount Pico on Pico island, also Portugal’s tallest mountain.
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