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.
SAMPLE ROBUST WINES AND FRESH FISH
Every small Portuguese town has its own wine, traditional cakes, and cheeses. In the Alentejo, cheeses are curdled with thistle flowers and washed down with rich, earthy red wines. Base yourself in Évora, a city founded by the Romans, expanded by the Moors, and enriched by the Portuguese kings. Each group left its monuments; the cork forests and vineyards around the city are strewn with Iberian dolmens, for example. About 150 miles north, in the mountainous Beira region, is the village of Pinhel, famous for its red wines and vanilla-flavored cavaca candies—invented by nuns from the local convents in the Middle Ages. Pinhel is a delightful maze of winding streets, and makes a great base for hiking in the nearby park land, Serra da Estrela, or for visiting the Côa Valley, where rock faces are inscribed with Paleolithic art.
The Douro River flows out of Spain into a deep valley stepped with some of Europe's oldest vine terraces. Port wine comes from here, together with some of Portugal's heartiest reds. The Douro Valley is easily seen on a boat cruise from Porto, a destination in its own right. Here stands one of the largest collections of Renaissance buildings in the Iberian Peninsula. Every other corner leads to a little baroque church whose modest façade hides an interior encrusted with tons of gold. Winding streets in the city's medieval center lead down the hillside to the river. Wander along the quays in Gaia across from Porto city and drop in on the various port wine warehouses for free samples. It's a great way to decide what kind to bring home as a gift. Cap off your day with dinner on the banks of the Douro at D. Tonho. The house specialties are bacalhau (salted cod served steamed or in little deep fried crispy balls), followed by pork fillets with clams or hake au gratin with seafood sauce.
7 INSIDER TIPS
1. English is widely spoken, and it's always more welcome than Spanish, which might even produce a scowl. Portugal and Spain have an age-old rivalry. Visitors trying to speak a few words of Portuguese will make many friends.
2. In the Algarve, everyone sees the ocean from the beaches. But it's just as much fun seeing the beaches from the ocean. Book an afternoon boat trip out of Albufeira Marina with one of the numerous agents on the Rua 5 de Outubro and be sure to take a camera to capture the golden afternoon light on the crumbling cliffs.
3. Portugal can be a difficult country for vegetarians. Even vegetable soup is cooked with meat stock. Be sure to state clearly that you don't eat any meat or fish—even as seasoning.
4. For the coolest night out in Lisbon, head to co-owner John Malkovich's waterfront warehouse club, Lux Fragil, which is always packed with the most fashionable crowd on a Friday or Saturday night.
5. Lisbon has some of the liveliest African music in Europe; terrific Cape Verdean, Angolan and Mozambican singers make the city home. The hottest acts play at the Club B.Leza nights at Cabaret Maxime (from $20). For schedules of Luso-African concerts all over Lisbon, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
6. Portugal is a great country for driving. Small distances and an excellent and well-signposted road network mean that it's never a long journey to the next place of interest. And the whole country can be driven from north to south in a little over a day. But beware of Portuguese drivers. Hugging the fender and flashing headlamps furiously on the highway is common practice—as is reckless passing.
7. Portugal is great for kids. Lisbon has a huge aquarium, and the dolphin and seal shows at the Zoomarine on the Algarve are some of the best in Europe. There are swimming pools and restaurants here, so you can stay for the whole day (adults $14).
Portugal is sweltering in the summer (June through August) and very busy with European tourists. The spring (April through May) and autumn (September through October) are cooler, just as sunny, and far less busy. The winter (November through March) is wet and cold.
• Pint of locally brewed Sagres beer: $2 (€1.55).
• A Francesinha, a filling, spicy sausage sandwich hailing from Porto, $4 (€3).
• A bottle of Alentejo Conde D´Ervideira Reserva red wine: $14 (€11.20).
• A 24-hour combination ticket on Lisbon's public transportation system: $4.75 (€3.70).
• Average rate for a two-star hotel in Lisbon: $63 (€50).