Portugal spots that are far from the madding crowd
From former capital Coimbra to the unexplored north, rich with natural splendour, there are pockets of Portugal that remain largely untouched by tourism and are perfect for post-lockdown holidaying, writes Florence Derrick
This summer, Portugal is set to be a firm favourite among British holidaymakers seeking sunshine and European culture following a long winter. Although moved to the amber list in the latest round of changes, Portugal is already a popular holiday destination, with passengers mainly flying to Faro to flop on the sun-soaked Algarve coastline or to the ancient yet cosmopolitan capital, Lisbon.
The travel industry has ramped up its offerings in preparation for a busy summer tourist season in Portugal, with airlines like BA, Ryanair, TUI and Wizz Air now operating flights for the first time in months.
But the post-lockdown holiday landscape isn’t the same as it was pre-Covid, when it saw about two million Brits visiting Portugal each year. This year, passengers are seeking responsible breaks that embrace the great outdoors – increasing their appetite for avoiding the country’s established tourism hotspots. This presents a great opportunity for tour operators to highlight areas of Portugal that have historically been given a little less love.
The Algarve region is the number one destination for Brits holidaying in Portugal, with 1.2 million UK tourists visiting in 2019. But while it’s known for its family resorts and Blue Flag beaches, there’s so much more to this sunny, coastal spot – and the diverse landscapes continue in neighbouring Alentejo, just north of the Algarve.
Unesco-listed Évora is the capital of Portugal’s south-central Alentejo region. Best-known for its 14th-century historic centre and Roman Temple, it’s one of Portugal’s most beautifully preserved medieval towns. It’s also a university town, which adds a youthful energy to its healthy range of wine bars, live music venues and patio restaurants.
One big draw of Portugal’s southern regions is the climate – which, in the Algarve, rises to an average of 29 degrees Celsius in July and August and brings endless opportunities for outdoor activities.
Make a beeline for Portugal’s protected coastal areas like the Algarve’s craggy, windswept Cabo de São Vicente headland. Once thought to be the end of the world, this is the south-westernmost point of Europe. Today, it’s a prime birdwatching destination and – stormy weather permitting – one of the most revered sunset spots in Europe.
Near the Algarve tourist town of Portimão is the scenic Seven Hanging Valleys walking trail, which runs along the clifftops from Praia da Marinha to Praia de Vale Centeanes – two of the region’s most stunning beaches. And to the north is one of Portugal’s best hiking spots: the Monchique Mountains. The area’s highest mountain is Fóia, at 3,000 metres altitude, while the foothills are carpeted in pine and eucalyptus. You can drive to the peak to watch the sunset, or for the starting points of the mountains’ most breathtaking hikes. Aching muscles can be tended to post-trek in the pretty village of Caldas de Monchique, where thermal baths have been healing locals since Roman times.
Then there’s the Alentejo region. Within the Southwest Alentejo Natural Park is the Trilho dos Pescadores – a practically empty, long-distance footpath that clambers over cliffs and meanders between seaside settlements. You’re more likely to see herds of wild ponies and goats than people, and you can draw it out over a few days, stopping at small towns between the end points of Porto Covo and Odeceixe – a little-known surf mecca.
From its pastel-hued old city to its ancient pastel de nata pastry shops, it’s undisputed that Lisbon is an incredible capital city. But to avoid the crowds this summer, consider the former capital of Portugal, Coimbra, instead – and go on to explore the region’s natural offerings.
Between Lisbon and Porto, Coimbra’s medieval old town is home to the country’s oldest university – built on the grounds of a former palace. A university city, Coimbra is at its liveliest during term time, but the summer months bring a welcome calm to its cobbled streets, overshadowed by the Romanesque cathedral and ringing with the sounds of fado singers.
For a more remote experience, there’s Sortelha, which might just be Portugal’s most traditional village. Near the Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela and home to just one restaurant and a handful of old guest houses, a stay here is the definition of getting away from it all.
Well-connected Coimbra makes a great jumping-off point for exploring central Portugal. Outdoorsy travellers head to the Serra da Estrela Natural Park – the country’s largest and oldest protected natural space. Covering 888 square kilometres, it’s home to mainland Portugal’s highest point: Torre, at 1,999 metres altitude. The hiking trails here are rugged and dramatic, spanning sheer drops into wooded valleys and sulphur-rich hot springs.
When it comes to beaches, the Estremadura province is often overlooked in favour of the Algarve. But this quintessentially Portuguese area, which stretches from the Tagus River to the Atlantic Ocean, is alive with white-sand beaches, castles and villages – and a fraction of the number of tourists you’ll find in the south. Take a coastal road trip that ends up in Peniche, a working port town that’s also a surf haven, with eroded limestone cliffs plunging into the churning ocean at the Cabo Carvoeiro headland. From there, you can take day trips to Berlenga Grande: a picturesque island of rock formations and caves, with offshore shipwrecks and sea caves tempting divers and kayakers into the water.
Most British tourists don’t consider the northern regions of Portugal. But they’re missing out on a region rich with natural splendour, ancient culture and very few other visitors.
In the far north of Portugal is the country’s third-largest city, Braga. Many visitors come here for spiritual reasons: Bom Jesus do Monte, the much-visited Christian pilgrimage site with its chapels, fountains and views, is five kilometres away – and the city itself hosts religious festivals to the constant chiming of Baroque church bells.
Even further north is Viana do Castelo, a picturesque medieval town with pretty, riverside palaces, leafy boulevards and the neo-Byzantine Santa Luzia church. If you really want to escape the crowds, this is your place: the only other visitors there are likely to be Portuguese families.
Portugal’s only national park, the remote and wild Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês, is situated in its far northern reaches. This 703-square-metre mountainous region is the definition of off-grid exploration. Hikers pick paths between granite peaks, pine forests, waterfalls and wildflower fields, keeping an eye out for wild horses, ibex, deer and even Iberian wolves. And the region doesn’t only preserve biodiversity, but also the lifestyle of settlers that live in over 100 granite-stone villages that have hardly changed in almost 1,000 years.