Britain’s love affair with its oldest ally is set to be reignited this summer. The UK is Portugal’s biggest overseas tourist market, and it became the first EU country to allow Britons fast-tracked entry, post-Brexit, via electronic passport gates. Thanks to the easing of Covid travel restrictions, hundreds of thousands of British travellers are expected to head back there this summer, drawn mainly by its sunny south coast. But Portugal has so much more to offer than the beaches and bars of the Algarve.
Tourists driving south to the Algarve or east to the Spanish border may think of the Alentejo (meaning “beyond the Tagus” river) as an endless stretch of cork oaks and olive trees that takes forever to cross. Barrel across its vast plains and the only thing you’ll notice is that it is big; Alentejo is the largest and flattest of Portugal’s provinces, occupying more than a third of the mainland.
But in its north-east corner, close to the Spanish border, the Serra de São Mamede is a mountain range that defies this idea of the Alentejo (there might even be snow in the winter). Some of the towns in this range have breathtaking settings, particularly Marvão, a serene and storied medieval village dramatically set 862 metres high on a granite crag. With its narrow lanes, whitewashed houses and formidable castle, Marvão offers views across the Alentejo plains and over the mountains into Spain.
Nearby Castelo de Vide is another beguiling walled town, its castle rising above the town’s dazzlingly white houses, flower-lined cobbled lanes and peaceful squares. Locals are proud of the crystal-clear mineral water that spouts out of the pretty public fountains in this former Roman spa town.
Those in search of a beautifully unspoilt Portugal will find much to love in this part of the country, where life eases along at a slower tempo. And there is no better way to soak in the mood than taking one of the two scenic routes offered by Rail Bike Marvão (from €20) along a disused railway line. Between June and September, the company runs “full moon” night tours three times a month (€35 including drinks, petiscos and live music). Visitors use customised, two-person pedal-powered rail bikes to zigzag through megaliths in the stunning Serra de São Mamede natural park with views over Marvão and Castelo de Vide.
Where to stay
Launched last year, Gavião Nature Village is near the sheltered river beach of Alamal and makes a great base for adventures in the region. As well as 13 glamping tents (doubles from €145), it has 10 lovely cork eco-shelters that sleep two, four or eight, and the restaurant affords a fine view of 12th-century Belver castle. Further south, Pousada Mosteiro do Crato (doubles from €130), in Flor da Rosa, is a converted 14th-century monastery with a stunning pool.
Ponte De Lima, Alto Minho
Portuguese holidaymakers are rediscovering Alto Minho, the country’s greenest area, tucked away in its north-west corner. Its rich soil, ample rainfall and thermal springs keep it perennially verdant, unlike much of the rest of the country. On a hot summer’s day there is little better than taking a shady walk in the hills and enjoying a chilled bottle of vinho verde, the distinctive white wine of the region. Green only in name, it is slightly effervescent, with a fruity nose and acidic bite, making it one of the great delights of travelling in northern Portugal.
Alto Minho’s main town is Viana do Castelo, in a delightful setting on the Lima estuary. Its medieval centre has elaborate mansions, windy streets and pretty squares. It makes a great base for exploring the Atlantic coast; the unspoilt beaches of Cabedelo and Moledo are popular with locals, who regularly brave the cold Atlantic waters.
But the highlight of the region is Ponte de Lima, a half-hour drive east from Viana do Castelo. This market town is one of the oldest and loveliest in Portugal, yet it sees comparatively few visitors. Built along the mellow banks of the Lima, the town is named after its elegant medieval bridge; five of the bridge’s 13 stone arches date back to Roman times.
The small, historic centre with winding alleys has cafes and mansions, but it’s also worth seeking out the romance of Ponte de Lima’s leafy outskirts. Centro Aventura organises guided kayak and paddle trips (from €30), and there are eco-trails and bike paths on both sides of the river.
Further afield, the delightful Lima valley is sprinkled with ancient towns, historic manor houses, Romanesque churches and lush vineyards. Historic Quinta do Ameal, one of the top vinho verde producers, offers tastings and tours (€25) of the attractive vineyard and winery, only 15 minutes’ drive from Ponte de Lima.
Where to stay
Viana do Castelo was an important provider of ships and seafarers for Portugal’s great maritime discoveries of the 16th century. Armadas Lodge (sleeps eight from €475 a night) near Caminha, is a small eco-friendly house recently converted from the mansion of a skipper who sailed with Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama.
Closer to Ponte de Lima, Terra Rosa Country House & Vineyards (doubles from €180) is a renovated 18th-century wine estate run by charming father-and-daughter team Francisco and Eliana Rosa. Casa da Roseira (doubles from €75 B&B) is a 19th-century farmhouse with a lovely outdoor pool in a quiet, rural spot five minutes’ drive from Ponte de Lima.
Vila Nove de Milfontes, Alentejo
Hippy-chic but overpriced Comporta, on the coast south of Lisbon, has lost its title as one of Portugal’s best hidden beach destinations (Jeff Bezos was photographed there with his girlfriend over Easter this year). If you are driving from the Portuguese capital, ignore Comporta, head past the industrial refineries of Sines and continue to lovely Vila Nova de Milfontes, one of the most attractive and friendly towns on the Alentejo coast, if not the whole country.
Popular with domestic tourists, but largely unknown to the outside world, Milfontes is a hotchpotch of pretty squares and sun-bleached houses. The old town, overlooking the sleepy Mira estuary, grew around a tiny 16th-century castle built to defend it from pirates. Milfontes also has great restaurants that offer Alentejan food and seafood feasts, yet somehow the town has a relaxed atmosphere even at the height of summer.
The river remains an undiscovered gem in the region. A boat trip upriver offers the chance to enjoy the silence while gliding through the landscape, admiring the birds on the banks. It’s a picture-perfect tableau even most Portuguese don’t know about. Mil Emotions offers a variety of trips departing from Milfontes (€10-€30).
In this region, the Atlantic coast offers scenic beaches galore, plus the Rota Vicentina’s network of walking trails. Milfontes itself has great beaches on river and sea, but 20 minutes away is the stunning Praia do Almograve, perfect for enjoying the sunset. Other lesser-known options include Brejo Largo and Praia de Nossa Senhora.
A little further away, Praia da Amália is named after the most famous fado singer in the country, Amália Rodrigues, who had a holiday home there. Also nearby is the promontory of Cabo Sardão, where dramatic high cliffs face the unrelenting Atlantic waves – certainly one of the best natural viewpoints in the region.
Where to stay
Recently opened Monte da Bemposta (doubles from €210) is a converted farm with 10 houses, three studios and a pool. Also near Vila Nova de Milfontes is rural-chic Herdade do Amarelo (doubles from €220). For more affordable accommodation in the area try the new Ocean House Alentejo (doubles from €70 B&B) in cute Porto Covo, a former fishing village with one of the prettiest squares in the country.
Finding somewhere undiscovered in the Algarve has become practically impossible, but the small village of Alcoutim is probably the one that comes closest. It’s a charming, unspoiled village about 30 miles inland, on the banks of the Guadiana River, which forms the border with Spain. It’s a tiny place where the pace of life is slower than on the bustling beaches to its south.
Alcoutim’s importance as a strategic river port meant visitors in centuries past tended to hang around. None stayed longer than the Moors, who occupied Alcoutim from the beginning of the eighth century until 1240, when King Sancho II finally drove them out. The river was a key trading route at the time, but its significance faded from the 16th century, and Alcoutim became the sleepy, charming place we know today, with its white churches and impressive castle.
As temperatures rise in summer, nearby Pego Fundo, a white-sand river beach on a small tributary, is the perfect place for a cooling dip. Adventurous types can take a short ferry ride across to the Spanish village of Sanlúcar de Guadiana in Andalucía – and return via the world’s only cross-border zipline at speeds of 50mph (€20, Límite Zero).
Those with a car will find plenty to do in the surrounding villages, from the picturesque Castro Marim with its impressive walled castle, to the enchanting, cobbled village of Cacela Velha, which has a pretty church and a pocket-sized fort. For nature lovers, the Vale do Guadiana nature park to the north and the Sapal nature reserve further south both offer trails and a large variety of plant and bird life, including migrant flamingos.
Where to stay
The former customs house in the border town of Vila Real de Santo António is now a Pousada hotel with three pools (doubles from €115) and is perfectly placed for exploring Algarve’s far east. Another nearby option is Monte do Malhão (doubles from €125), a charming, peaceful nine-room eco-hotel on a hilltop near Castro Marim. The drive along the Guadiana River to Alcoutim takes about 40 minutes. Alcoutim is also handy for eastern Algarve beaches such as Praia Verde and Praia de Cacela Velha, which are quieter and where the sea is usually warmer.
Trancoso, Beira Alta
Many years ago, when I first took my English girlfriend – now my wife – home to Portugal, she was charmed by the way we could just drive, hassle-free, into medieval castles. You could even see washing lines of clothes hanging between the ancient walls.
While you can’t do that any more, it’s still hard to beat Portugal for its castles, and few are more magical and less explored than those of Beira Alta – an otherworldly region of sun-bleached plains and hilltop fortress towns. Close to the Spanish border in north-east Portugal, the province has a rich history as for centuries it was riddled with Moorish and Spanish invasion routes.
One of my favourite fortress towns here is Trancoso. Once an important stronghold, Trancoso is where the young King Dinis married Isabel of Aragon in 1282; the dowry comprised 12 castles and four towns, including Trancoso. Today, it’s a sleepy place with a delightful tangle of picturesque squares, churches and narrow lanes, all within mighty 13th-century walls.
Another gem in this often-overlooked region is Marialva, a hauntingly beautiful medieval village within 12th-century walls that was all but abandoned in the 18th and 19th centuries – one theory for its desertion being that it was just too difficult to reach (its population is now 177).
Most people use a car to tour this harsh but striking landscape, but the most exciting way to explore is to hop into a motorcycle sidecar with seasoned bikers Rob and Zayne. Based in central Portugal, their Gusto Motorbikes & Sidecar Adventures (from €200 a day) offers tailor-made trips and the chance to drive down winding country lanes on a truly off-the-beaten-track experience.
Where to stay
The new Casa no Castanheiro (doubles from €200), in Valeflor, 20 minutes from Trancoso and Marialva, is a striking cabin made of wood and cork. It won Portugal’s 2021 national architecture prize for construction in wood and offers stunning views over the valley and the Marofa mountains. Within the village of Marialva, minimalist-chic Casas do Côro (doubles from €218) is an idyllic mini-village with 13 houses and a lovely swimming pool.
A great-value option – again inside medieval castle walls, this time of Sernancelhe, half an hour from Trancoso – is Casa do Castelo (doubles from €50 B&B). It used to be the priest’s house and has been turned into a charming guesthouse.