South for 2 Weeks of Culture & the Coast
An alternative to heading north out of Lisbon would be to discover the attractions of mainland Portugal’s two southernmost regions, the Alentejo and the Algarve. They are very different. The Alentejo, taking up a third of the country, is mostly rolling farmland broken up by occasional hill ranges. Amid vineyards, olive groves, and forests of cork oak are some of the country’s best-preserved historic towns and villages, painted white to reflect the sun which pushes summer temperatures over 40° C (100° F). The Algarve is separated from the rest of the country by a range of scrub-covered hills running east-west. It enjoys a Mediterranean-style climate where almond and citrus trees thrive. The beaches on the sheltered southern coast are among Portugal’s biggest draws for visitors.
On this tour by car, we’re assuming you’ll want to spend some time chilling on those beaches, so we’ve have spaced out the sightseeing accordingly.
Days 1, 2 & 3
Follow the Lisbon schedule at the start of “Lisbon & Around in 1 Week,” above.
Days 4 & 5: Comporta ★★ & Alcácer do Sal ★★
Heading south out of Lisbon, you cross the red-painted Ponte 25 de Abril suspension bridge high above the River Tagus toward the outstretched arms of the Cristo Rei statue on the south bank. It’s less than an hour to the handsome town of Alcácer do Sal on the banks of the River Sado. Whitewashed Alcácer is an ancient center for rice production. It’s surmounted by a convent wrapped in a castle that’s now a luxurious hotel overlooking the rice fields. Spend a couple of hours there before joining the sun-worshipers on the fine sandy beaches 30 minutes farther west. The beaches curve south for almost 60km (40 miles) from the headland of Tróia to the fishing port of Sines. The village of Comporta and its beaches have become the “in” place for Lisbonites (and international celebrities) to escape for the weekend. If you have the cash, bed down at rustic-chic Sublime Comporta resort.
Days 6, 7 & 8: Lagos & the Western Algarve ★★★
To get to the Algarve, it will take you 2 hours down the A2 toll highway. Head to Lagos, the best town in the western Algarve, which you’ll make your base for the next 3 nights.
Day 6: Explore the town that was the center for Portugal’s 15th-century
voyages of discovery. The old town lies within the walls that once protected it from pirates. It retains its charm, although Lagos’ popularity with a youthful surfer crowd means it’s hopping on summer nights. Lagos is surrounded by beaches, quiet coves among honey-colored cliffs, curving dune-backed strands, and deep blue lagoons.
Day 7: Drive out to the headland fortress of Sagres, Europe’s southwestern tip, where Prince Henry the Navigator established his headquarters for launching the Discoveries. It is a wild atmospheric space. Try to be there for the spectacular sunsets. North of Sagres are some of Europe’s best surf beaches.
Day 8: Drive inland through orange groves to spend the morning in the former Moorish capital of Silves with its mighty medieval fortress. After lunch, head south to the coast. In the tiny cove of Benagil you can pick up a skiff that will take you to amazing sea caves carved into the sandstone and the beach at Praia da Marinha, arguably the most beautiful in Portugal.
Days 9 & 10: Tavira & the Eastern Algarve ★★★
Slow down and relax. The eastern Algarve, close to the border with Spain’s Andalusia region, is known as the Sotavento, meaning “sheltered from the wind”—in contrast to the breezy west. Beaches here, many of them on long, sandbar islands, are tranquil and have warmer water. Tavira is a sweet town, with manor houses lining the banks of the Gilão River and streets filled with restaurants and cafes. There are plenty of good places to stay here and excellent beaches to explore. Be sure to take a boat tour in the marshy Ria Formosa reserve, a magnate for birdwatchers.
Day 11: Mértola ★★
Before leaving the Algarve coast, look in on Vila Real de Santo António , a border town built after the 1755 earthquake, which is a rare example of 18th-century town planning. Then head north following the River Guadiana for about an hour to Mértola, one of Portugal’s most beautiful villages. Strung out on the crest of a ridge, its white houses and crenellated battlements are perfectly reflected in the river’s still blue waters. This was once the capital of an Arab emirate and a busy medieval trading hub. Its parish church is one of the few in Portugal that still clearly shows the signs that it was once a mosque.
Days 12 & 13: Évora ★★★
It’s a 2-hour drive north to Évora, the majestic capital of the Alentejo, a UNESCO World Heritage city. Take the slow road, winding your way through picturesque villages like Serpa, Moura, and Monsaraz, which occupies a spectacular location overlooking the Alqueva reservoir, Western Europe’s largest man-made lake.
Arriving in Évora in the late afternoon, spend your time moseying around its white-painted heart, admiring the medieval fortifications and 16th-century aqueduct before preparing to feast on Alentejo food in one of the city’s excellent restaurants.
Next day, start out in the main square, the Praça do Giraldo, once a scene of executions and the horrors of the Inquisition, now an elegant focal point for city life and serious coffee drinking. Spend the rest of the morning visiting the 12th-century cathedral—being sure to admire the views from the roof—and the Temple of Diana, whose columns form one of the best-preserved Roman ruins in the Iberian Peninsula.
In the afternoon, visit the Igreja de São Francisco, which, besides being an impressive example of Portugal’s “maritime discoveries–inspired” Manueline architecture, is best known for a chapel with walls made from human skulls and other bones.
Day 14: Elvas ★★★ & Marvão ★★★
For the final day, visit two very different frontier fortress towns. First Elvas, whose defenses, built during Portugal’s war of independence from Spain in the 1640s, are the biggest of their type in the world. A giant complex of overlapping walls and ditches encircles the ancient city on the old road leading to Lisbon from Madrid. It’s also a World Heritage Site.
Just over an hour to the north, Marvão perches on a spur of rock surging 860 meters (2,800 ft.) above the plain. It was fought over since ancient times due to its commanding position over the lands below. Inside its stone walls, the town of red-tiled, white-walled houses seems to grow out of the rocks. There’s a peaceful atmosphere now, but it’s easy to imagine as a battlefield between Celts and Romans, Christians and Moors, and Spanish invaders versus the British redcoats helping defend Portugal in the 1760s.
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.