Portugal is a small country, but it has an amazing geographical diversity. The country occupies one-sixth of the Iberian Peninsula, its entire western part. Few countries in the world have taken off and then fallen into the abyss like Portugal. From a great superpower of the 16th century, rich and with many colonies, the country has turned into a state on the fringes of Europe. And yet Portugal has remained optimistic and is now undergoing another period of transition.
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Portugal is easy to get to, and it’s not difficult to travel around the country. Even with limited time, you can see a variety of regions and attractions – famous beaches, rocky mountains, luxurious castles, traditional villages and magnificent medieval towns. However, most tourists are limited to the beautiful capital, Lisbon, and the sunny beaches of the Algarve. In addition, the country has a rich cultural heritage, which you can get acquainted with in any city and village. The Portuguese themselves are very open and hospitable, they have excellent food and excellent wines.
In Portugal you can shop, taste local wines, play golf, visit museums, watch birds, explore national parks, roam the hills, sail or fish. But remember, no matter where you go or what you do, you will always be close to stunning beaches. Portugal’s coastline is 563 km long and 225 km wide. Portugal is washed by the Atlantic Ocean to the South and West. And everywhere you’ll find sparkling white sand. The most beautiful beaches in the south are on the Sotavento coast. From Faro, there are numerous coves and small beaches in the south-west and further west, popular like Albufeira or more intimate like Carvoeiro. From the western coast of the Algarve to the northernmost point of the country are astonishing beaches, one better than the other. And often, it is possible to be the only guest on such a luxurious beach.
In general, in this country even the most fastidious traveler will not be bored.
Cities of Portugal
Strong traditions and new horizons
As part of the new united Europe, Portugal has struggled to keep up with its neighbors. Some parts of the country have become remarkably modern and cosmopolitan, while others stubbornly retain their traditions. Tourists marvel at the architectural and fashion wonders of Lisbon and Porto, yet local women still continue to dress head to toe in black. In the more remote parts of the country, fields are still plowed by oxen. Only after the great earthquake of 1755 has there been such a sharp contrast between the old and the new.
Portugal’s history has left an indelible mark on the country and its people. The Phoenician merchants were the first to arrive here, followed by the Romans who started building cities and roads. The Jews were doctors, craftsmen and cartographers, while the Moors left behind great fortresses, almond orchards and snow-white towns with mazes of narrow streets. The northern regions are home to blue-eyed, white-skinned people whose Germanic and Celtic influences are evident in their appearance. Dark Moorish eyes and olive skin are typical of the inhabitants of the south.
And in their long songs one can hear Arabic motifs.
Like Ireland and Spain, Portugal has given the world many immigrants. Seeking a better life, Portuguese immigrants have gone to Germany, France and America.
As Portugal’s economy grew stronger, however, many returned home. A testament to the wealth gained abroad were the new houses that sprang up in small towns across the country. Most of these houses are in the northern regions. Although Portugal has relinquished control of its colonies in Africa, Latin America and Asia, the democratic and stable country attracts a mass of immigrants, making the ethnic and cultural atmosphere in Portuguese cities even more diverse.
Tourists today are discovering the real treasures of Portugal, even though many are limited to the sunny beaches of the Algarve or the sophisticated city life in the capital city of Lisbon. Although Portugal’s most famous attractions are well known in Europe, those who venture off the beaten path will be generously rewarded. Portugal is half the size of Britain. Only about 10 million people live here. Nevertheless there are hundreds of sights to see, which are surprisingly easy to visit. Portugal is astonishingly diverse landscapes in such a small area.
There is so much to see during even a short trip through the country.
There are about 200 medieval castles scattered around Portugal. Some of them are rebuilt ancient Roman fortresses, others are fortified cities. The Cay Jorge castle in Lisbon and the ruined fortress of Sintra have a distinct Moorish influence. Most of the castles were built for the Portuguese kings who had to defend their possessions against land and sea invasion. The main builder in Portuguese history was Dinis, son of Afonso III. He became king in 1279 and built and rebuilt one castle after another until his death in 1325. The castles of the province of Alentejo can be considered typical Portuguese fortresses. The majestic castles are striking in their opulence – just think of Almurol, located on a river island near Toma-ra. The castles of Estremoz, Obidos, Palmela, Setubal and Almeida have been transformed into pouzades, luxurious historic hotels.
Lisbon was completely rebuilt after a massive earthquake in 1755. Today Lisbon is a stunningly beautiful city that has not forgotten its Moorish past. Lisbon is located on seven hills above the Tagus River. The mighty river originates in Spain and runs through central Portugal. Although Lisbon has long been considered a rather provincial city, today it is a true European capital.
About 160 km from Lisbon are the beaches of the Algarve, a favorite holiday destination of Europeans. The mild climate, conditions for sports, great beaches and many hotels attract tourists just as much as the rest of Portugal. Don’t expect to see a cluster of hotels and carefully trimmed golf lawns. The Portuguese coastline stays true to itself. Lovers of sunbathing head south to the crystal-clear ocean, golden beaches and secluded coves fringed by ochre cliffs.
North of the Algarve stretches the farmlands of the hot Alentejo province. The province’s capital, Évora, was founded by the Romans. Along the Spanish border there are mountain castles, wheat fields, groves of olive and cork oak and small snow-white towns.
North of Lisbon on the Atlantic coast and central plains are the provinces of Estremadura and Ribatejo.
It’s a land of fishing villages, beaches and agricultural towns along the Tagus River. There are great religious monuments such as the monasteries of Alcobaça and Batalha, the famous temple of Fatima, the monastery of Christ in Tomar and the picturesque town of Obidos.
Further north there is the forested area of Beiras, the Serra da Estrela (which is the highest point in Portugal and where the most famous local cheese, the Serra, is made). If you come here, you’ll see picturesque fortress towns, sea lagoons and the famous University of Coimbra, the center of intellectual life of Portugal and the oldest in Europe.
The north of the country is quite different from the south and central regions. On the green hills, ancient traditions are kept sacred. The Douro River valley is covered with terraced vineyards. The grapes harvested here are used to make excellent port wine. Barrels of wine from the wineries along the river are taken to the cellars in Vila Nova di Gaia. This town is across from Porto, Portugal’s second largest city. Porto was once an industrial city, but now culture and the arts flourish here.
North of Porto is the province of Minho. There once was an ancient state of Portucale, which gave its name to the whole country.
This is the most beautiful part of Portugal. It’s home to the Peneda Jeres National Park and architectural gems such as Guimarães, Braga and the popular seaside resort of Viana do Castelo.
In the northeast of Portugal is the most remote and unusual region of the country, Tras aos Montes (literally “beyond the mountains”) . This region has long been considered the land of witches and wolves. The few locals here live just as they have for centuries. The region is popular with hikers, who are attracted by the lush forests, the wild marshes, the secluded towns and the mighty fortresses of towns like Bragança and Chaves.