Europe’s West Coast is suddenly very fashionable. Portugal’s 1,000 miles of shore and California-style climate are attracting travelers in record numbers. The buzz is justified. Beyond the glorious beaches, this ancient nation is crammed with heritage ranging from Stone Age graffiti to villages clustered beneath medieval castles and forests filled with romantic palaces. Its lifestyle is laidback; its food and wine fabulous. Five hundred years ago, Portuguese explorers opened up the world; now it’s time to discover this little land of many wonders.
Mainland Europe’s westernmost nation has few rivals as a land where climate, landscape, and history combine so effectively to satisfy travelers’ wish lists. Atlantic breezes waft over beaches for every taste, from sheltered, family-friendly coves to strands of endless sand offering the continent’s best surf. The capital Lisbon and second city Porto are among Europe’s hippest cities, where the plaintive songs of traditional fado music or the guitars of student troubadours echo down medieval alleys that lead to waterfront nightclubs throbbing with the latest dance tunes.
Foodies can feast on a rich and varied cuisine that’s rooted in tradition and dominated by superlative seafood and wines. Crammed into a country the size of Maine are 17 UNESCO cultural World Heritage Sites, ranging from the rolling hillside vineyards above the River Douro and the mysterious stronghold of the Knights Templar in Tomar, to historic cities like Évora, Guimarães, and Angra do Heroísmo in the Azores islands. If your goal is relaxing in a year-round subtropical springtime, Madeira Island is the place.
Those seeking a more active break can hike the mountain wildernesses of the Peneda-Gerês National Park or Serra da Estrela highlands; race speedboats to watch dolphins frolic off Algarve beaches; or play a round on world-class golf courses. All that combined with its reputation for safety, low crime, and warm hospitality have made Portugal one of Europe’s hottest destinations.
CITIES Spread along the broad estuary of the River Tagus, Lisbon is the country’s political, economic, and cultural heart. It enjoys more sunshine than Madrid, Rome, or Athens. Commuter trains run from downtown to Atlantic beaches in minutes. There are gilded theaters, treasure-packed museums, and atmospheric old neighborhoods that recall the 15th-century golden age of Portuguese discoveries. Second city Porto is fast catching up as a city-trip destination, thanks to its UNESCO World Heritage riverside heart, cultural scene, and established reputation as a capital of cool. The ancient university city of Coimbra is regarded as Portugal’s most romantic, while regional centers like Guimarães and Braga in the far north, Évora in the Alentejo region, and Funchal on Madeira are treasure houses of tradition and culture.
COUNTRYSIDE For a small country, Portugal boasts a richly diverse landscape. The southern Algarve region is redolent of the Mediterranean, with balmy beaches, almond groves, and citrus plantations. Farther north in the vast rolling plains of the Alentejo, where black pigs feast on acorns under forests of cork oaks to produce fabulous hams. The land is punctuated by picture-perfect whitewashed villages. In the rugged interior of the central Beiras region, mainland Portugal’s highest peaks are found in the Serra da Estrella mountain range, home to the country’s only ski resort. Vine-covered slopes surround the River Douro inland from Porto, arguably the world’s most beautiful wine region. Beyond, the northwest Minho region is verdant and dotted with elegant manor houses, while Tràs-os-Montes to the northeast is marked by starkly beautiful high plateaus and a cuisine as robust as its climate. Madeira is known as the island of eternal spring, and the nine islands of the Azores display dramatic volcanic landscapes surrounded by the blue Atlantic.
EATING & DRINKING The Portuguese love to eat, and restaurant attendance in the nation is among Europe’s highest. Fortunately, eating out costs less here than just about anywhere in Western Europe. Portuguese cuisine isn’t as well-known as it should be, perhaps because it depends heavily on fresh local ingredients—fish newly plucked from the Atlantic, a multitude of seasonal fruits and vegetables that ripen in the warm climate, beef raised on lush northern pastures, lamb nourished on spring flowers.
COAST The Algarve is Portugal’s premier vacation region, its sheltered south coast is strung with beaches that range from flat, gently sloping sandbar islands (reached by bridge or boat close to the border with Spanish Andalusia) to the iconic coves hidden between honeycomb cliffs near the towns of Lagos and Albufeira. Unfortunately, some of the resort towns in the Algarve’s central strip suffer from the excesses of mass tourism with strips of ugly high-rise condos and bargain-booze bars, but beyond the dramatic headland of Europe’s most southwesterly point at Sagres, the coast changes. Wind and waves make the wild west a paradise for surfers and sailors. The world’s biggest surfed waves crash ashore near the picturesque fishing port of Nazaré. Even along the west coast, however, there are sheltered beaches—the soft white sands and gentle bays just south of Lisbon at Comporta and Arrábida are a delight.