7 reasons why your first post-pandemic vacation should be in Portugal
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Spain has always been a favorite for travelers — and with good reason. But part of the Iberian peninsula also belongs to Portugal, a neighboring country often overlooked in favor of its popular Spanish sister.
Although Portugal is slowly emerging as a vacation hotspot, you may find parts of the country tourist-free, and it’s extremely affordable for those on a budget. Plus, Portugal has everything a vacationer could ever dream of, like sandy beaches, hiking trails, cultural landmarks, cities full of art, architecture, lively nightlife, exotic islands, hidden villages, night sky starlight reserves, surfing spots and even pilgrimage routes. So read on for all the reasons why Portugal needs to be on your shortlist of post-pandemic vacation destinations.
1. It’s affordable
Portugal is one of western Europe’s most affordable destinations. You can enjoy a nice meal out for a low price, dining on fresh seafood with wine for $18 per person (or less) in many spots within the country. Beer and wine prices are just a few euros per pint/glass, and you can easily find a vacation home for two for a bargain. There are luxury accommodation options, too, and in most cases, you’ll pay much less for a night in a fancy hotel in Portugal than you would for a hotel of the same caliber in other European countries such as Ireland, Germany, France or Scotland.
Budget travelers should plan to do as the locals do. Shopping at supermarkets, eating local food at cafes, using public transport and staying away from the typical tourist traps will ensure you spend much less during your Portuguese vacation.
2. The variety of landscapes
Looking for that perfect summer beach trip? Portugal’s western and southern coast features some of the most beautiful beaches in Europe. Those wanting to combine a Lisbon city break with beach time are in luck as there are plenty of pristine beaches to choose from around the capital city, such as Cascais, Guincho or Ribeira do Cavalo (this one is reachable only by boat or hike). The southern Algarve coast features golden sand beach after beach, separated only by towering sea cliffs. Even northern cities like Porto have sandy beaches. And Portugal also has some of the best surfing spots in Europe, such as Peniche and Nazaré.
If you prefer shady woods or cooler mountains to sunny sands, you’re in luck. Portugal’s highest mountain range, the Serra do Estrela, features summer hiking, walking, kayaking and winter skiing. The Serra da Lousã range is home to the famous schist villages, protected tiny towns where all the buildings are made from a unique type of slate rock. For those who are in the mood for a pilgrimage, Portugal has its own version of Spain‘s Camino de Santiago: Camino Portugués, or the Portuguese Way. And those who prefer a seaside pilgrimage can do the Portugues coastal walk, while religious devotees can hike to the sacred town of Fátima — the spot where the Virgin Mary reportedly appeared to children in 1917.
Plus, Portugal has around 500,000 acres of vineyards separated into 14 different wine regions — read on to discover more on the wine front.
3. Delicious wine
The most popular wine region in Portugal is the Douro Valley. Considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the region weaves around the Douro river, covered with hilly, terraced vines and sprawling historical Quintas (wine estates). Visitors heading to Porto will find the Douro Valley an easy add-on to their city break.
Minho, also near Porto, is another special wine region known for producing Portugal’s delicious Vinho Verde, or green wine. But it’s actually not green, just a young wine, and some varieties feature a light sparkle.
One of the most underrated wine regions in Portugal is Alentejo, a short drive from both Lisbon and the Algarve coast. The hot, dry region produces mainly red wines. For those that don’t want to stray too far from the capital, there are plenty of spots just north of Lisbon along the coast. The most famous are the Alenquer and Bucelas areas.
4. The cityscapes: Lisbon and Porto
Although we’ve briefly touched on Lisbon and Porto, we haven’t really explained what makes each of the cities so special — besides the fact that they’re some of Europe’s most affordable areas. Lisbon’s varying neighborhoods offer ample opportunities for exploring. You can wander the cobbled hills of the Alfama area, stepping back in time to explore the iconic Sao Jorge castle. Just a few minutes on the famous 28 tram will take you down to the Baixa neighborhood, where you can dine or sip cocktails in chic restaurants and hip bars. Further afield, the Belem area’s sea breeze will cool you down while you discover the 16th-century Belem Tower overlooking the ocean. And don’t forget to indulge in the famous Portuguese tart pastries at the famous Antiga Confeitaria de Belém — they produce over 20,000 per day!
Further north, Porto’s red roofs and magnificent Dom Luís I Bridge will immediately charm you. Make sure to cross the Douro river to wine taste in Vila Nova de Gaia, where the famous port wine cellars like Sandeman and Cálem offer tours and tastings. Admiring Porto from up above is easy by walking across the top of the bridge (those with vertigo should avoid this) and taking the cable car en route to wine tasting. Make sure to take an hour-long riverboat ride to admire the six bridges that cross the River Douro.
5. The country’s small size means you can see it all
Portugal is roughly 38% of the size of England. Its small size means that you can easily get around as distances between landmarks, cities and other points of interest are shorter. This means travelers can see more during their trip and can spend less time in cars, trains, planes or buses.
During a two-week stay, you can explore a large portion of the country — and even a week-long visit would be enough to check out the country’s two largest cities Lisbon and Porto. Or, you can pick a region and get to know all the nooks and crannies of a particular area, for example, visiting all the small villages along the Algarve coast, checking out hidden hiking trails amid the Serra da Lousã or visiting a number of different wineries in the Douro Valley.
Just make sure to understand the Portuguese rules of the road and the toll system if you rent a car.
6. It’s prime for stargazing
We’ve already covered the basics: the history and culture of Portugal’s cities, epic wine regions, beaches and mountain ranges. But the country offers so many more special things to see and do. In fact, Alqueva, Portugal is known as one of the first starlight tourism destinations in the world, meaning it’s certified as one of the best places to stargaze.
The Alqueva Reserve is about 1,800 miles of land surrounding the Alqueva Lake. The reserve has very little public light, so visitors can best enjoy the night sky, spotting the Milky Way, the moon, planets and shooting stars. Alqueva is located in the Alentejo region, meaning you can sample wine by day and stargaze at night.
7. The exotic islands of Madeira, Azores and beyond
Portugal is not just about mainland fun. Visitors to the Algarve can hop on ferries to visit Culatra and Tavira — beachy islands which are both right off the coast. Those wanting year-round sun should opt for Madeira, an archipelago that sits just above Spain’s Canary Islands. Plan to fly to Funchal, the capital of the main island Madeira and explore the beaches, mountains, volcanic peaks and green hills. Madeira’s vineyards produce a stronger, more fortified wine — perfect for a post-volcano hike break. You can also visit Porto Santo, the other main island in the archipelago.
And don’t forget about the Azores, an exotic island archipelago that sits in the Atlantic ocean between Europe and the United States. Probably the most far-flung spot in Portugal, the archipelago has nine volcanic islands to choose from — the most popular island is São Miguel. With activities like hiking, whale watching, surfing, swimming in hot springs and scuba diving, it’s a naturist’s dream. But there are also cultural activities (museums, carriage rides and beyond) to do as well. Pico is also known as the wine island, using special cultivation techniques that merge with natural resources such as basalt volcanic rocks.
Portugal is just a quick trip from the east. coast of the U.S. — and what’s not to love? The small country is affordable, accessible and has a variety of activities and destinations that work for any type of traveler.
Whether it’s summer surfing and beach days, autumn wine tasting and stargazing, winter city breaks or spring hikes, you can visit Portugal at any time of year for a wonderful vacation post-pandemic. And those wanting a winter sun break can always consider Madeira as an alternative to the Canary Islands for mild temperatures year-round.
Featured photo by Marco Bottigelli/Getty
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