I love Portugal. You might think, as my family do, that there are so many cities and countries that I wax lyrical about that this statement is flat, but Portugal is a real favourite of mine. It was Lisbon I fell for first, with its cafés, fado music, exquisite architecture and tiles, and feeling of being both here and now, but also back then and there. And from there I visited Porto and Madeira and the Algarve, and I really loved it all. So I really can’t stress enough how enjoyable it is to recommend these places to you.
The Beach: The Algarve
The Algarve is one of Europe’s sunniest regions, a place of dreamy, perpetually cloudless blue skies and long, long stretches of golden sand. These days there are numerous golf courses, a rich diversity of bird life, and a string of unspoiled towns and hamlets with cobbled squares and pretty gardens. You’ll love the bars, cafés and restaurants of these fishing villages, old ports and hilltop towns. I should warn you that, once you start visiting the Algarve, it can be difficult to stop.
August heat encourages laziness and an addiction to cool waters, but at other times of the year visit the old Moorish castles and forts, walk up in the hills, fragrant with the smell of delicate almond blossom or sample the freshest of fish from the day’s catch at one of the rustic beach restaurants right at the sea’s edge.
Where to Stay?
The Vila Monte Farm House is an elegant, Moorish-style retreat set amongst orange groves and organic gardens, and it’s perfectly located for the beach and some of the Algarve’s highlights. There are 53 light, airy rooms, which the décor magazines might describe as ‘effortlessly stylish’, but which are also comfortable and private, and start from around €266 per night B&B. There’s also a gourmet restaurant where food is sourced as locally as possible – including from the gardens themselves, plus two pools, tennis courts, free bike hire and an open air cinema. If you’re looking for an added dash of romance the Farm House will arrange a beautiful beach picnic for you.
Or there’s Villa Rio – a colourful guesthouse right on the seafront at Portimão, and is hard to beat you’re looking for style and value. There are just eight rooms, the best of which have floor-to-ceiling windows with views out over the port and four-poster beds. Breakfast is served on the terrace and there’s a hidden courtyard with a small private pool. Rooms start around a very reasonable €59 per night.
Practical Details: Faro has the Algarve’s main airport, and it’s well linked to the UK by both budget and regular airlines, especially during summer, though the Algarve is really a year-round destination.
The Countryside: Alentejo
The Alentejo is warm and wide-horizoned, known for the way the changing light dramatically alters the colour of the scenery. And for its vineyards, white hilltop towns and for megalithic monuments. The best way to sell it is to say the Alentejo is like Tuscany before everyone visited. But much, much bigger. Places here feel, and treasure, their rural heritage. If you’re looking for a beach just for two, have no fear, there will be plenty to choose from.
Alentejo covers almost a third of Portugal, from the Atlantic coast to the Spanish border and the Algarve, but it has only about seven percent of the population. The charming old white towns, where nothing has changed for decades, are sparsely dotted amongst olive groves and cork forests. Alentejo’s beaches are beautiful and on a road trip along white cliffs and virginal coasts you’ll feel like you’re the only people in the world.
Where to Stay?
The Casa Azimute isn’t what you think it’s going to be. The name makes it sound traditional, but it’s anything but. This is a spacious, airy, beautifully designed modern hotel, but in one of Portugal’s least spoiled, modernised regions. There are just six rooms and suites, all with plenty of glass and light, and outside beds suitable for stargazers, as well as your standard rain-proof inside bed. There’s also a beautifully designed, inviting looking pool, and a sunny terrace and gardens. There’s no restaurant, but you’re not in the middle of nowhere, you’re within a short walk of some wonderfully rural, but surprisingly good restaurants. This is a wonderful spot for a honeymoon or a romantic escape. Rooms start from €110 per night including breakfast. The nearest town is Estermoz.
Or there’s Quinta do Barranco da Estrada whch is in an equally unspoiled spot. There are no neighbours for miles around. It’s right beside a lake, with just 12 rooms, and an eco-friendly, family-friendly vibe. The rooms are rustically styled, but very comfortable and there’s a really fantastic array of activities onsite to keep everyone happy, from fishing and sailing, to birdwatching and hiking, to Shiatsu massages and a sauna. Guests are encouraged to come together to eat. Rooms start from €115 per night B&B. The nearest town is Padrona.
Practical Details: If you’re travelling direct to Alentejo the closest airport is Faro in the Algarve, but you might find better connections if you go via Lisbon. I did say this is a big place, though, so you probably need to check a map for a definitive answer on the best way to travel. Summers here are hot, especially inland, but that doesn’t seem to stop people.
The City: Lisbon
Lisbon is, for many, an introduction to Portugal, and the place to set one’s heart aflutter about this beautiful country. To say Lisbon is vibrant is understating the colour and the sound: melancholic fado music and the characteristic rattling of yellow trams as they trundle past decorative tiled façades. Built across seven hills, and largely rebuilt post-1755-earthquake, this is an easy city to explore, the kind of place where you’ll turn a corner and find a wonderful Gothic cathedral, or a pleasing little museum, a pretty palace, the odd monastery or a square lined with charming cafés, bars and restaurants. This is also a city on the ocean, which keeps things balmy, and Lisbon is probably one of Europe’s warmest winter city break destinations.
Where to Stay?
Solar do Castelo is an award-winning luxury boutique hotel, both in the heart of Lisbon and in one of the most unusual locations you might imagine: within the walls of St. George’s Castle. This medieval castle is arranged around a shaded inner courtyard garden, and the rooms, all 14 of them, are within the walls, though they’re mostly contemporary, with just the odd exposed beam or ancient stone brick wall. Castle-dwellers are surrounded by a fascinating warren of cobbled Moorish streets of the Alfama district, with markets, beautiful fountains, great cafés and boutiques. Rooms start from €195 per night.
Practical Details: Part of the appeal of Lisbon is that it’s very easy to get to. There are plenty of airlines who’ll fly you into Lisbon Portela, and from there you’re just over six kilometres from the city, and about 25 minutes from the centre of town – the easiest route is via the Metro, but taxis here are good too. You also have the option of arriving by train: it’s about 24 hours from Paris.
The summer here is hot, with plenty of 30°C days, and in winter it rarely drops below 15°C during the day. I like Lisbon in April, May and September, but there’s really no bad time to visit!