Here is Portugal in a nutshell, a tantalizing preview of what the country has to offer, and from which you can make choices about where you'd like to go.
Lisbon & the Costa Do Sol -- Portugal's capital is on hilly terrain beside one of the finest harbors in Europe -- the estuary of the Tagus (Tejo) River. Within a few miles of the city limits, the beaches of the Costa do Sol cater to residents of the capital, who easily reach them by bus and train. Until the development of beaches in the Algarve, those on the Costa do Sol were among the most crowded and glamorous in the country. The best-known resorts include Estoril and Cascais, long playgrounds of the wintering wealthy.
Estremadura -- The name translates as "the extremity," but it has radically different connotations from those associated with the harsh landscapes of Estremadura in neighboring Spain. Early in the development of the Portuguese nation, rulers based in the country's north-central region coined the term to refer to the Moorish territories to the south that the Portuguese eyed enviously. Technically, those territories included Nazaré, Óbidos, and Fátima; in many cases, the word is now used to include the territory around Lisbon as well. Estremadura's coastline is flanked by some of the country's richest fishing banks.
The Algarve -- Encompassing the extreme southwestern tip of Europe, the Algarve boasts a 161km (100-mile) coastline with some of the best beaches in Europe. It's permeated with memories of the long-ago Moorish occupation, when the region was called Al-Gharb. The garden of Portugal, this naturally arid district is laced with large-scale irrigation projects. Except for the massive development of beach resorts since the late 1960s, the landscape in many ways resembles the coast of nearby Morocco, with which it has much in common.
Alentejo & Ribatejo -- East and southeast of Lisbon, these regions form the agrarian heartland of Portugal. Underpopulated but fertile, and marked mostly by fields and grasslands, these are horse- and bull-breeding territories, with some of the most idyllic landscapes in Iberia. Their medieval cities, including Évora, Tomar, Beja, Elvas, and Estremoz, contain famous examples of Roman and Manueline architecture.
Coimbra & The Beiras -- Between two of the country's most vital rivers, the Beiras were incorporated into the medieval kingdom of Portugal earlier than the territories farther south, including Lisbon. Given their history, they're among the most traditional Portuguese areas in the country. The medieval university town of Coimbra is the highlight of the region; a cluster of spas and the legendary forest of Buçaco also draw visitors. The region technically consists of three districts: Coastal Beira (Beira Litoral), Low Beira (Beira Baixa), and High Beira (Beira Alta). The Beiras contain the country's highest peaks -- the Serra de Estrela -- and the Mondela River.
Porto & The Douro -- Porto, Portugal's second-largest city, has thrived as a mercantile center since English traders used it as a base for the export of port, London's favorite drink during the Regency. The river that feeds it, the Douro, flows through some of the world's richest vineyards before emptying into the Atlantic in Porto's harbor. Porto abounds with the 19th-century mansions of merchants who grew wealthy from growing wine grapes or through investments in such colonies as Brazil. The most popular resort in the region is the once-sleepy former fishing village of Póvoa de Varzim.
The Minho -- This is the northernmost region of Portugal, an isolated, idiosyncratic area with a population descended more or less directly from Celtic ancestors. The local tongue is a tricky dialect that more closely resembles that of Galicia (in northwestern Spain) than it does Portuguese. The Minho is almost a land unto itself; with most of the population centered in Viana do Castelo, Guimarães, and Braga. Ardently provincial and suspicious of outsiders, the district figured prominently in the development of medieval Portugal as a kingdom separate from Spain, producing early kings who moved south in their conquest of territories, which were held, until then, by the Moors.
Trás-os-Montes -- This far northeastern and least visited corner of Portugal is a wild, rugged land whose name translates literally as "beyond the mountains." Aggressively provincial, the region nevertheless has strong ties to its neighbor, the Minho. Local granite dominates the architecture. The district stretches from Lamego and the Upper Douro to the Spanish border. Vila Real is the largest town.
Madeira -- Near the coast of Africa, 855km (530 miles) southwest of Portugal, Madeira is the much-eroded peak of a volcanic mass. Wintering English gentry first discovered the island's recreational charms; today it's one of the world's most famous islands, known for the abundant beauty of its gardens. Only 57km (35 miles) long and about 21km (13 miles) across at its widest point, the island is an autonomous region of Portugal and has a year-round population of 255,000.
The Azores -- This island chain is one of the most isolated in the Atlantic Ocean. It constitutes an autonomous region and has some 240,000 year-round occupants who live amid rocky, moss-covered landscapes closely tied to the sea. The archipelago spans more than 800km (496 miles) that stretch from the southeastern tip of Santa Maria to the northwestern extremity of the island of Corvo. The chain's largest island is São Miguel, which lies a third of the way across the Atlantic, about 1,200km (744 miles) west of Portugal and 3,400km (2,108 miles) east of New York. Today the Azores are widely known within yachting circles as the final destination for annual sailboat races from Newport and Bermuda.