Portugal is a roughly drawn rectangle on Europe’s southwestern seaboard. It’s about 550km (350 miles) from north to south, 200km (110 miles) from east to west. To the north and east it’s bordered by Spain. On the south and west it’s bathed by the Atlantic Ocean. There are two Atlantic island groups: Madeira lying off the coast of Morocco; and the nine Azores islands, a third of the way to Atlantic City.
As a general rule, the landscape north of the River Tagus is hilly and often rugged, while the south has softly rolling plains. Over 80% of Portugal’s 10.5 million people live in districts bordering the ocean, while the interior is thinly populated.
Within that general picture, regions vary greatly. The Algarve occupies the southern coastal strip. Separated from the rest of the country by low forested hills, it basks in a Mediterranean-type climate that facilitates the growth of orange, lemon, fig, and almond trees and draws tourists to its sheltered, south-facing beaches.
Above it lays the Alentejo, a region that covers a third of the country. Here the endless, sun-soaked grasslands bring to mind the African savannah, but with the baobabs replaced with umbrella pine, cork oak, and olive trees, and, instead of herds of antelope, flocks of sheep or black pigs rooting around for acorns. The Alentejo’s whitewashed towns and villages are among the country’s most beautiful, and the coast here is fringed with wild surfing beaches. Even in the Alentejo there are occasional hill ranges, like the Serra de Grândola overlooking the coast or the Serra de São Mamede topped by the stunning fortified town of Marvão overlooking the Spanish border.
The River Tagus, known in Portugal as the Tejo, cuts the country in half. “Alentejo” means “beyond the Tagus.” The river rises deep in Spain and reaches the Atlantic just downstream of Lisbon. East of the capital, the flat Tagus valley is characteristic of the Ribatejo region. This is cattle country. Local festivals feature bullfights and displays of horsemanship by campinos, the local cowboys, sporting red vests and green tasseled caps. Much of the old province of Estremadura, along the coast north of Lisbon, has been rebranded as the Oeste (West). It features a gentle landscape filled with vineyards, apple and pear orchards, and hills topped with stubby white windmills. The hills of Sintra create a cool, lush microclimate that’s resulted in the growth of thick rainforest, while the Arrábida range south of Lisbon has Mediterranean weather and overlooks some of the country’s best beaches.
The Beiras form a vast region covering the center of the country. The coastal strip (Beira Litoral) is cultivated and low lying, including the marshlands of the Aveiro lagoon and the Bairrada wine region, but the Beira Interior is made up of austere landscapes of boulder-strewn plateaus and bare mountains. The mainland’s highest peaks are in the Serra da Estrella, reaching almost 2,000m (6,500 ft.). The land here has an epic grandeur. Rough-hewn villages and the few cities preserve a hearty cuisine and age-old handicraft traditions. Cutting a green swath through the region is the valley of the River Mondego, the longest wholly Portuguese river.
The far north is made up of two contrasting regions. To the northwest, the Minho is green, its hills covered with trellised vineyards and dissected by fast-flowing rivers. It’s well populated, a center for the textile and footwear industries. Farther east lies remote Trás-os-Montes, a region whose name means “beyond the mountains.” Here, life can be harsh; locals sum up the climate as “nine months of winter, three months of hell.” The high plains are bare and empty, but starkly beautiful. Girdling the north, the River Douro flows from the Spanish border to the Atlantic near Porto. Farthest east it forms the frontier and cuts a deep canyon where vultures and eagles soar. Downstream, its banks are cultivated to grow grapes, creating perhaps the world’s most beautiful wine region.
Finally, the Azores islands are nine specks of grass-covered volcanic rock rising from the Atlantic, containing Portugal’s highest mountain (the astounding volcano of Pico) and a unique variety of landscapes and culture. Subtropical Madeira enjoys a climate of year-round spring. Its mountainous interior and thick forests are a paradise for hikers.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.