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Portugal – Beautiful Travel Destination in Europe

Located along the Iberian Peninsula in western Europe is a wonderful vacation destination – Portugal. This relaxed, affordable vacation destination is one of the best-kept secrets in Europe, a place where travelers can stop, let go of the rest of the world, and simply enjoy a pace of life that is made for savoring.

A country of history

Portugal is a seafaring country, thanks to its long Atlantic coastline and impressive history of harvesting the riches of the sea. It was also an important part of European exploration of the New World, serving as a jumping off point for some of history's most famous explorers such as Vasco de Gama, Henry the Navigator, and Ferdinand Magellan. Indeed, Portugal's history and very identity are infused with the energy and tremendous will that was necessary for Portugal to become a colonial power in the 15th and 16th centuries.

For the traveler interested in Portugal's history of exploration, there are many sights and places to visit in the country. For example, in Lisbon visitors can spend time exploring the Monument to the Discoveries. This beautiful monument is a tribute to Portugal's famous explorers, who are a great source of national pride. The monument includes statue carvings of Portugal's great explorers and a map of their respective journeys that is set into the pavement in and around the monument.

A vacation hot spot

Today, Portugal's great weather and stunning beaches make it a popular year round choice for taking a much needed vacation. The Algarve in the south is a most popular destination, thanks to its long stretches of golden sands, breathtaking azure seas, and striking rock formations all along the coast. For those who want something more than just a beach holiday, try playing golf at one of the many stunning courses located all across Portugal, or head up in to the Algarve mountains for a vacation filled with adventure, scenic landscapes, and some coveted peace and quiet.

If you are more interested in taking a break to enjoy some city activities, the capital city of Lisbon is a wonderful choice, as is Porto. There you will find many rich examples of Portuguese architecture, with its Moorish and Oriental influences. When you get hungry and it is time for a great meal, you can also enjoy a wide variety of Portuguese cuisine. Most Portuguese food is based heavily around fish and other seafood, and of course, the best meals are accompanied by world famous Port produced there. After dinner, you will be ready to dance the night away thanks to an abundance of traditional folk music in many different locations.

Accommodations in Portugal

As with most other wonderful vacation destinations, Portugal boasts a wide range of accommodations. You can choose from five star luxury resorts and hotels, lower cost but still clean and comfortable hotels, or the even more basic yet comfortable self catering apartments and villas. Beachfront and ocean view accommodations are in high demand, but despite this, travelers are often surprised at just how affordable Portugal is when taking a vacation. In fact, dollar for dollar, Portugal is one of the best values anywhere in Europe.

If you want a truly authentic vacation experience in Portugal, though, think about arranging to stay in one of the many small, family run guesthouses. Much like a bed & breakfast, these accommodations allow you to experience Portuguese hospitality and lifestyle in a very personal way. They may not be the fanciest or most modern places you can find, but they will definitely provide you with a most memorable vacation trip.

all about Portugal


Moliceiro boats bobbing in Aveiro. Photo: Rui Morais de Sousa
Portugal is one of Europe's least-explored corners and still something of a hidden gem.

For nearly 50 years until 1974 this former colonial power languished behind an isolating dictatorship and was dismissed by travellers as a mere slither of land to the west of Spain. Since being welcomed into the European Community in 1986, Portugal's affluence and profile has been rising steadily.

The most affordable country in Western Europe, Portugal's sun-drenched Algarve is a playground for golfers, retirees and package holidaymakers from Britain and northern Europe.

But travellers are increasingly venturing beyond the sandy southern coastline and discovering the culturally rich cities of Lisbon and Porto, the world-class surf beaches, the myriad nature reserves and the architectural gems that encompass monasteries, castles and Roman ruins.
Portugal is 220km wide and 560km long, and from north to south there are huge variations in landscape and culture. The mountainous, rainier north is more conservative, Catholic, hardworking and traditional, while the dry south enjoys the sun, long sandy beaches, azure sea, colourful flowers and relaxed lifestyle typical of the Mediterranean.


The sun-soaked Algarve is full of white-washed houses Photo: Regiao de Turismo do Algarve
While Portugal's well-known exports are olives and cork, many visitors are surprised to find the Portuguese countryside smothered with fast-growing Australian eucalyptus trees.

Meanwhile, cast out into the Atlantic, two distant archipelagos also come into Portugal's territory - the lush, volcanic Azores lies some 1,300km west of the mainland while subtropical Madeira is 600km from Morocco.

Survival guide

On a continent of appalling drivers, Portugal is up there with the best of them. The speed at which people drive is absolutely astonishing.

Another hazard to look out for is the mosaic-tiled footpaths that become hair-raisingly slippery when wet. Many Portuguese men have a tendency to spit in public – another contributor to slippery sidewalks. In addition, solo female travellers who have been ogled and harassed here might argue that the feminist revolution has yet to hit Portugal.

Portuguese is a Romance language spoken by 10 million Portuguese, more than 130 million Brazilians, five African nations not to mention numerous pockets of Asia. However, contrary to popular belief, the Portuguese language does not sound similar to Spanish and its pronunciation is notoriously difficult. For the lowdown on Portuguese food, see the Stuff your face section.

Beware the slippery mosaic-tiled floors. Picture: Jose Manuel
Price of accommodation in touristy areas of Portugal is dependent on the season. High season is

March to November in the Algarve and June to September elsewhere. Outside of high season you are likely to get some sensational deals, especially on classy hotels. Anything with a sea view is always in high demand. Accommodation in Portugal ranges from camping, hostels and guesthouses to quaint farmhouses, former monasteries and luxury hotels. At bus and train stations, you will often be approached by persistent people offering you a quarto (private room); these are often quite reasonably priced.

Portugal has international airports in Lisbon and Porto, while Faro is heavily serviced by charter flights. Portugal's main air carrier is TAP Air Portugal. Many travellers arrive in Portugal from Spain and other points in Europe via bus or train. The bus network within Portugal is very reliable, while train travel is usually cheaper but slower.


Looking across to the World Heritage Ribeira district in Porto

Porto

Portugal's second-largest city is at once seedy and elegant. For the best view of this bustling, industrial centre which lies on the banks of the Duoro River, climb the 225 steps to the top of the baroque tower, the Torre dos Clerigos.

Rising up from the river you'll see the steep and atmospheric Ribeira district – now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.Its wonderful tangle of alleyways are filled with malnourished dogs and boisterous children as well as moody mamas hanging washing from the balconies of colourful, tumble-down houses.

Porto's culinary specialty may be tripe, but the city's choice of tipple is far more tasteful – sipping your way through the port wine lodges located just across the river from the Ribeira district is not a bad way to while away an afternoon

Lisbon

Exuding a faded grandeur and a cosmopolitan buzz, Lisbon is the most affordable and one of the most vibrant capitals in Western Europe – a barrage of noise, narrow streets, stately buildings, sweeping parks and brilliant sunshine bouncing off mosaic sidewalks. It is also an exhaustingly hilly city, but thankfully trams and funiculars are only too keen to whisk you to the top of hills for superb views over the Tagus River. Start off your exploration in one of Lisbon's oldest districts - the former Moorish neighbourhood of Alfama. Now a working class stronghold, the maze of medieval

streets are a joy to get lost in. It is here that fado, Portugal's signature mournful music, is believed to have originated and the Casa do Fado museum has an impressive audiovisual display outlining fado's history. At night, fado can be heard coming from intimate tavernas.

Further afield, Lisbon's Belém district was once the departure point for Portugal's massive maritime feats and the huge limestone Monument to Discoveries is a tribute to the country's famous explorers.

At night, bars and nightclubs are concentrated around the Alcantara and Bairro Alto districts, while the Doca de Alcântara area is an up and coming hangout for Lison's chic.

A day trip to the fairytale hilltop town of Sintra, an hour's train ride west of Lisbon, is an essential side excursion from Lisbon.

Coimbra

Known as “the Oxford of Portugal”, Coimbra's prestigious university is the heart and soul of this hilly little city. Lying on the banks of the River Mondego, the 13th century Velha Universidade overlooks Coimbra and is still attended by black-caped students.

Beneath it, Coimbra's narrow, walled old city streets are filled with medieval archways, museums, cathedrals and terrific shops.

The restaurants in Coimbra are cheap and cheerful and during term time, the nightlife is especially lively. The mournful strains of Coimbra-style fado (even more depressing than the Lisbon variety) waft from dimly-lit fado houses and the city hosts an annual fado festival in May.

Portugal's most impressive Roman ruins, Conimbriga, lie only 15km from town.

Lagos

Sex, sand and sangria – Lagos is the town that's got it all. Don't be put off by the fact this fishing port is one of the most popular tourist haunts in the Algarve.

Its historic old town is attractive, the restaurants are tip-top, the bars are always pumping and the beaches are some of the loveliest you'll ever clap eyes on. Avoid the main beach Meia Praia – a vast sandy stretch that could be anywhere – and head west of Lagos where secluded sandy coves are framed by dramatic eroded sandstone cliffs. Outside of high season, you can grab a beach all for yourself.

A boat trip is a good way to view the coastline's romantic grottoes and rock formations that jut out of the sea. Other day-time activities in Lagos include dolphin-spotting tours and parasailing, or take a trip out to Sagres and be blown away by the windswept cliffs at Europe's most southwestern point.


hidden gems in Portugal

Alto Duoro (upper Duoro valley)

Port wine has been produced and swilled here for nearly two millennia, and in 2001 UNESCO toasted the region's introduction to the World Heritage list. Terraced vineyards wrap around mountainsides dotted with traditional stone villages while ambling old men guide their wood-carting donkeys around the windy roads.

Up here the air is crisp and fresh and the quintas (wine lodges) generous about loosening the taps on the large oak vats to let you sample Portugal's most famous export. Remember the alcohol content of Vinho do Porto is pretty high (between 19 and 22% vol.), so if you're driving, stick to quaffing the region's famous honey and olives or in February and March, admiring the almond trees in full bloom.

The Alto Duoro can be reached by taking a scenic slow train ride from Porto; the last stretch winds along the edge of the Duoro river. The journey is particularly spectacular in autumn when the vineyards are dazzling shades of orange and red.

The town of Peso du Régua makes a convenient base for exploring the region, but Pinhão, 25km upstream, is considered the port wine centre of the universe. The region is getting increasingly tourist savvy and food and wine appreciation tours are a good way to see the sites.

Parque Arqueologico Vale do Côa (Côa Valley Archaeological Park)

This is the world's largest collection of open-air Palaeolithic art (10,000 to 40,000-years-old). And to think it all nearly disappeared under water. This stretch of valley peppered with 17 kilometres-worth of rock engravings was only rediscovered in the late '80s when government surveyors began scoping out the area for a potential hydroelectric dam. When salivating archaeologists got wind of the Stone Age discovery, a fierce battle ensued to save the valley.

The rock shelter etchings – including thousands of images of horses, ibexes, red deer, fish, aurochs (ancient wild cattle) as well as human figures – changed the way archaeologists view Stone Age art. In 1998, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site.

The Côa Valley is situated in Portugal's northeast, only 15km from the Spanish border. The closest town is Vila Nova de Foz Coa.

Sagres

Dramatically situated on Europe's barren southwesternmost corner on perilous cliffs with epic Atlantic winds whipping through, its no wonder the Portuguese once believed Sagres marked the end of the earth. That many of the Portuguese explorers who set sail from near hear never returned, only strengthened the theory that they had sailed off the edge of the world.

Sagres makes an easy day trip from the Algarve resort town of Lagos. Aside from the thrill of getting thoroughly windswept while standing at Cabo de Sao Vincent - Europe's most southwestern point - or watching old men with massive rods fish for sea bass off sheer cliffs, the town has many historical points of interest. Henry the Navigator ran his navigation and ship design school out of Sagres, training the men who discovered routes to China, Japan, India and Brazil and went on to establish the Portuguese empire. The Fortaleza de Sagres museum features a slide show on the town's history.

It is worth the 6km clifftop trek from here out to Cabo de Sao Vincent if only to climb the formidable lighthouse and watch the sun disappear into the ocean.

what to do in Portugal


Fadistos howl into the night in Coimbra Picture: Regiao Turismo

Listen to Fado

Fado is sung by black-clad men and women with a severe case of the blues. Dramatic, intense, slow and mournful, fado, which means “fate”, has been wafting from the dark tavernas of Lisbon and Coimbra for more than 150 years. These days, the bars and restaurants of both cities hold regular performances; here you can witness a tortured-looking fadista draped in a black shawl channel the heart-wrenching pain of some poor sod who lost their lover to the raging sea. Fado is a musical expression of the uniquely Portuguese trait of saudade – a deep nostalgia, an inexplicable yearning and a longing for a glorious past. Traditionally it was the music of the working class, with some theories being that it has Moorish roots or was brought to Portugal by sailors who had journeyed through Africa and Brazil. The fado singer is usually accompanied by Portuguese guitar (shaped like a mandolin, with up to 12 strings). Portugal's best-loved fado singer was Amalia Rodrigues – her music is on sale everywhere. Her successor is Mariza, a sassy blonde diva who is causing a stir on the international stage.

Stuff your face

Portuguese fare may not have a leg to stand on next to other cuisines of the world, but if you're adventurous, carnivorous and willing to forsake vitamins and fibre for the duration of your journey, you're in for a real treat. Compared to other Western European countries, the olive oil-soaked food here is excellent value for money. Coastal areas serve up a cornocopia of shellfish and delicious fresh fish – try seafood and rice stew, grilled sardines and swordfish or tuna steak. Sooner or later on your travels, you'll find yourself plate to face with bacalhau - dried and salted cod – Portugal's national dish. Veal, steak, beef and lamb all make regular appearances on restaurant menus, as does the ubiquitous barbecue chicken with chill – a hangover from Portugal's colonial days in Africa. Dishes also vary by region: in central Portugal the local delicacy is eel stew, sucking pig and marinated pig's feet fried with black pudding and chestnuts, while the folk up north have a fondness for stomach tissue and are teased by southerners for being tripeiros (tripe eaters).

Desperate vegetarians in Portugal will end up quaffing huge amounts of bread and cheese – but oh – what bread and cheese! Bread rolls are fluffy and white on the inside and have a crunchy exterior. Portugal also makes some fine cheeses from goat's and ewe's milk. Oddly, it is hard to find vegetables on most restaurant menus – even as an accompaniment to fish or a slab of meat. Fresh food markets – of which Portugal is not deficient in – are great places to stock up on fruit and vegetables. And if all else fails on the cuisine front, you'll be easily won over by the bite-sized custard tarts (pasteis de nata). They are sold absolutely everywhere, but word has it that Lisbon's Belem district is where to sink your sweet tooth into the best in the world.

Surf

With little between the United States and Portugal's 830-kilometre coastline to slow the Atlantic waves down, Portugal is the best place in Europe to surf. It attracts consistent swells and professional surfing competitions. The best waves come crashing in between September and April. The most popular spots for surfing include the 8km stretch south of Lisbon known as the Costa da Caparica and in the Algarve (the waves north of Sagres are the finest out there). A number of summer surf schools are set up around the country to cater for Europe's hoards of wannabe riders – check out Cascais (near Lisbon), the Estremadura coast around Peniche and Ericeira or Figueira da Foz, west of Coimbra.

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