Most tourists see Portugal simply as a place to enjoy good sun and great beaches at the right price, or less-so, a country of easy-access, spectacular architectural confections in the shape of churches, hilltop castles and outlandish decoration.
Sintra. A view up to the Moorish Castle.
Sintra is a major tourist attraction for day-trippers from Lisbon and around due to its collection of elaborate and occasionally Disneyesque royal architecture. Encircling the town are mountains and attractive green walks in the Sintra-Cascais Nature Park, along with royal palaces, estates, castles and other extravagances built by the wealthy Portuguese between the 8th and 19th centuries.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site 18 kilometres east of the Atlantic Ocean and 28 kms from Lisbon – less than an hour’s drive if you manage to avoid the peak-hour traffic jams on the IC19 highway. Sadly the rail route is equally busy.
The Portuguese people, however, believe theirs is a country of Fado, Fatima and Football.
Fado is the country’s uniquely tragedy-dedicated style of folk songs, while Fatima is a little town north of Lisbon where a miracle occurred in 1917, part of which included a secret prophecy known only to successive popes, that there would be an assassination attempt on the Pope in 1981, which of course came true. The bullet that wounded the Pope has been welded into the crown of the Virgin Mary in Fatima town and the place now experiences massive twice-yearly pilgrimages to a Lourdes degree of overcrowding.
As for Football, well, Europeans countries have recent proof of how skilled and dedicated the Portuguese are in that sport.
Evora’s Roman ruins.
This is Portugal’s second most interesting town after Lisbon, set in the Alto Alentejo countrysideand home to a wide variety of historical monuments, from the Roman temple above to large and intact Moorish walls, churches gleaming with gold and fine azulejos (Sao Joao and Misercordia), baroque giants (Nossa Senhora da Graca), gruesome bones and skulls decor (Sao Fransisco’s Capela dos Ossos), or just elegant townhouses with balconies and arches.
The town’s main square, Praca do Giraldo, has seen many public executions, including Inquisition burnings in the 16thC, and now sees a lot of wandering tourists and coffee sipping students. Evora is a lively town, partly thanks to 6, 000 university students based there, and has a good selection of restaurants and accommodation.
Only 20 minutes away by car are cork tree forests and the lovely, lonely prehistoric stones of Cromeleque dos Almendres.
• The countryside is often unattractive and disappointing, especially the Algarve away from the beaches.
• The sea, being the Atlantic Ocean, is on the cool side, though the southern Algarve beaches are warmer and calmer than the west coast.
• Car transport in many towns is a nightmare of narrow one-way streets and endless traffic jams caused by medieval roads trying to handle a recently affluent 4-wheel society.
• High speed tailgating inches from your bumper on roads/highways outside towns.
Length of stay
Minimum worthwhile stay, not including flights: Lisbon for a weekend.
Recommended time: A couple of weeks to see Lisbon, some of the ancient nearby towns such as Sintra, Obidos, Evora or hit the beaches around Cascais (west) or Caparica (south), or both. Consider renting large villas in Portugal?
Batalha Abbey, also known as Mosteiro de Santa Maria da Vitoria.
Just over an hour’s drive north of Lisbon are three outstanding religious sites: the Convent of Christ in Tomar town, the fortress home to the extraordinary Knights Templar; Alcobaçar Monastery, a massive place where monks dined like kings; and Batalha Abbey (close to Alcobaça) and its brilliant, unfinished Manueline décor.
Portugal’s grand history
In the 16th century Portugal’s sea-based discoveries and colonies included the Azores, Brazil, Guinea, Angola, Mozambique, Macao and India and made it the world’s #1 superpower.
This was called the Age of Discoveries and led to enormous wealth and power. In fact, as late as 1974 the Portuguese controlled the world’s largest empire.
That was the year of the overthrow of the long-term Salazar dictatorship and independence of the African colonies.
Under Salazar’s 48 year reign Portugal’s development was restricted and it continued as a modest backwater state until the 90’s when the EU started pumping funds in for infrastructure improvement, while major events – like Expo ’98 – restored the country’s lost pride.
From the 14th century until today the Portuguese and British continue with Europe’s longest defence alliance. Many of the country’s surprise victories against overwhelming French or Spanish armies were with the assistance of British forces which is why the locals have an especial regard for the British people over their continental neighbours.
An Atlantic Ocean beach near Braga, northwest Portugal.
Portuguese beaches are big and beautiful but the waters are not as safe as those of the Mediterranean due to the power of the Atlantic, particularly on Portugal’s surf-popular west coast.
Consequently the Algarve on the country’s south coast is favoured because that’s where the weather is more consistently sunny, the water is calmer and general facilities are foreign tourist oriented, and thus where most of the visitors to these pages will be going.
Best weather: June – September, and you can expect it to be very hot July-August.
OK: April, May, October. This is a maybe time. Maybe wonderfully sunny and warm, maybe rainy and cool, it’s a gamble.
Worst: November – March. Cool and often wet, including the Algarve.