A FIRST APPROACH
Which Portugal Is Right for You?
Here's a snapshot of Portugal's defining experiences: beaches, cities, and food and wine. Get a sense of which ones fit your travel style and your budget.
FIND A SECLUDED BEACH
The Algarve, southern Portugal's balmy riviera, sees nothing but blue sky 300 days of the year. Admire the ocean views from the roof terrace at Dianamar, in the whitewashed old center of Albufeira, just a block from the beach. Rooms are simple, but all have private terraces, and the price includes a generous breakfast buffet and afternoon cake (doubles from $65). The most dramatic coastline is along the drive to the medieval fortress town of Lagos. (Cars can be rented for around $30 a day in Albufeira; book online with companies like Europcar.) Between Praia de Dona Ana and Porto do Mós, the cliffs have been broken by the wind and sea into jagged rock formations pierced by blowholes and grottoes. Secret half-moon bays of golden sand lie hidden from view from all but the ocean. An hour beyond Lagos is Europe's southwesternmost point: Cabo São Vicente, a cape whose plunging cliffs are dotted with crumbling medieval churches and castles. More than 500 years ago, Portuguese sailing ships left to explore the world from these shores. There's great hiking in the fragrant pine woods and peach orchards less than 20 miles inland, around the spa town of Monchique—a cluster of tiny houses and 18th-century mansions tumbling down a steep, wooded valley. The trail up to the Picota peak has magnificent views out over the coast all the way to the cape.
Families from Lisbon take weekends on the beaches of Cascais, less than 20 miles from the capital. There they jostle for space on three broad, short beaches and wander, ice cream in hand, along the ocean esplanade or the clusters of narrow streets crowded around the town's imposing fort. For wilder, lonelier sand, head to Guincho, four miles west. This sweeping, gently curved shoreline is pounded by some of the best surf in the eastern Atlantic. An almost constant wind makes for superb windsurfing; a world championship is hosted here most Augusts. But watch out for those rips and prepare for cold water. While the Algarve is good for swimming from spring to autumn, you'll need a wet suit around Cascais for all but the summer months. The town is easily reached from Lisbon; trains leave from Belém station every 15 minutes and take just over half an hour ($4.50 round trip). But if you choose to stay, take a room at the Solar Dom Carlos, a 16th-century manor in a quiet Cascais backstreet (doubles from $30). There's a pocket-size former Royal Chapel on the hotel grounds.
MARVEL AT OPULENT CHAPELS AND PALACES
Lisbon spreads in terra-cotta and cobblestone over seven hills, staring out over the Tagus River to the shimmering Atlantic. A rugged Moorish castle tops the skyline, and the streets are lined with baroque churches and Gaudíesque art nouveau buildings. Allow at least three days for a first visit, and make time for the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. Extravagantly decorated doorways lead through long cloisters to a church supported by pillars adorned with stone ropes and coils of faux seaweed. These rise to a fan-vaulted ceiling whose thousands of tons of stone somehow look light and airy. Many Portuguese notables are buried at this monastery, including Luís de Camões, author of Portugal's national epic, Os Lusíadas, and the explorer Vasco da Gama.
The Gulbenkian is one of the world's great small museums. Oil magnate Calouste Gulbenkian acquired a huge collection of Egyptian, European, and Oriental artifacts and Renaissance art, which was brought to Lisbon after his death. Highlights include intricate Roman jewelry, opulent Moorish carpets and tapestries, paintings by Rembrandt and Van Dyck, and an extensive collection of René Lalique's art nouveau glassware.
Finish your day with a late afternoon's wander around the narrow, cobbled streets of the Bairro Alto neighborhood on a cliff overlooking the 18th-century city center. There's a pretty medieval square or a magnificent church at every turn. The most beautiful is the Igreja de São Roque, whose simple exterior hides what was said at the time to be the most expensive chapel ever built—a feast of rich gold work and beguilingly complex mosaics of lapus lazuli, ivory, agate, and precious metals. Built in Rome in 1742, it was blessed by the Pope before being transported in its entirety to Lisbon.
It's an easy day trip from Lisbon to Sintra, a former royal hill retreat in cool forested hills near the coast. It looks like a Disney fantasy: pastel tiered castles crown the hilltops; faux-Moorish domed palaces lie hidden in wooded gardens; and extravagant, neo-Gothic mansions loom at the top of steep driveways. The grandest of all is the Palácio Nacional da Pena, rebuilt by Portugal's half-mad Austrian king-consort in the late 18th century (park and palace admission $14). It's a fascinating mishmash of Italian colonnades, Ottoman/Oriental turrets, and windows painted in garish pinks and yellows. The interior of the building is preserved as it was when royalty fled during the 1910 revolt—down to the tables set for dinner and the lamp-stand statues of turbaned Turks holding light bulbs.