With its cobbled streets, bougainvillaea-clad squares and relaxed vibe, Portugal’s capital can’t fail to charm. Overlooking the estuary of the River Tagus and straddling seven hills, it offers fabulous panoramas and is awash with intriguing sites and galleries – Museu Nacional do Azulejo, celebrating the country’s decorative tiles, is a must-visit. The steep inclines here can be challenging but happily there’s an excellent tram service; number 28 stops by the chief attractions. At Lisbon’s heart is the tiny Baixa district, grandly rebuilt after an earthquake in the 18th century. Immediately east is the medieval tangle of Alfama, dramatically topped by the Castelo de São Jorge and filled with haunting strains of fado music most evenings. West are the funky Chiado and Bairro Alto neighbourhoods while on the water’s edge in the far west is Belém, with its magnificent monastery and tower ‒ and bakery, too; Pastéis de Belém is much acclaimed for its pastéis da nata (custard tarts). Further out are a number of excellent beaches, including Costa da Caparica. Stay in chic comfort at Santiago de Alfama, an exceptional boutique hotel in Lisbon’s most atmospheric quarter.
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Clustered around the mouth of the beautiful River Douro, this superbly scenic city is, of course, most famous for its port wine. But it has many other strings to its bow, from its six splendid bridges to its marvellous medley of medieval and Baroque buildings and its recent injection of contemporary cool, with chic bars and restaurants along the river banks. The heart of Porto ‒ a labyrinth of narrow alleyways giving on to a striking, fortress-like cathedral ‒ has been a World Heritage Site since 1996. Wander the cobbled streets of Ribeira, one of the oldest neighbourhoods, take in the grandeur of the Neoclassical Palácio da Bolsa, or stock exchange, and stop for lunch of freshly grilled sardines at a pavement café. Then make for the church of St Francis, its interior glittering with gilded columns and carvings, and walk over the magnificent Dom Luis I bridge to Vila Nova de Gaia where there’s a wide choice of port lodges to visit. For fabulous views, sink-into comfort and a Michelin-starred restaurant, stay at The Yeatman, which sits among port makers just south of the Douro.
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THE DOURO VALLEY
Between Portugal’s border with Spain and Porto on the North Atlantic coast, the River Douro flows through serene wine country. The gently snaking waterway is lined by steep hills etched with terraces of vines that often reach right down to the water’s edge. Here and there, ancient manor houses preside from vantage points, trails of small roads zigzagging up the slopes to reach them. The region has been producing wine for nearly 2,000 years and the landscape, moulded by human activity, has been UNESCO-listed since 2001. This is prime walking terrain, with wide panoramas and trails through villages, vineyards and olive groves. Enjoy a tasting session at one of the many wineries; visit Peso da Régua - humming with riverside bars, it is the centre of port production; take a spectacular train ride on the Linha do Doura railway linking Porto with Pocinho high in the Alto Douro. Stay in chic, organic comfort at Six Senses Douro Valley ‒ about 80 minutes’ drive from Porto, it offers sumptuous food, exquisite wines and a glorious spa.
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SINTRA AND CASCAIS
You would be forgiven for thinking you’d wandered into a fairytale in Sintra. About 20 miles northwest of Lisbon, this UNESCO-listed town is a place of castles, palaces, turrets and pastel-hued mansions. Set in the Serra de Sintra mountain range and surrounded by lush forest, it exudes otherworldly charm ‒ visiting in the early 1800s Lord Byron described it as a ‘glorious Eden’. See the battlemented ruins of Castelo dos Mouros; explore Palácio Nacional, a royal palace until 1910; marvel at the romantic villa Quinta da Regaleira; browse Sintra’s enticing boutiques. Then head to the seaside. A 20-minute drive south is Cascais, a fishing village which in the 19th century became an idyllic retreat for the nobility. It presents a trio of glorious golden-sand beaches while its centre is a hub of galleries, urban art and some of the best seafood restaurants in Portugal.
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Golden shores, dazzling light and year-round sunshine make the Algarve a winner of a destination. Stretching across the southern edge of the country, it is fringed by Portugal’s most acclaimed beaches, some backed by weird and wonderful rock formations, others, such as two-mile Mei Praia beyond Lagos, extending beyond view. The region is a golfer’s paradise, with at least 30 courses to choose from, and it offers handsome coastal resorts and towns, too: historic Tavira with cobbled streets and Moorish remains; Faro proudly presenting a picturesque Old Town and cathedral; pretty Albufeira, once a fishing village and now one of the liveliest centres in the area; remote, westerly Sagres with its surfing culture. Head inland and you’ll find dramatic hill country, unspoilt villages and charismatic old settlements such as Silves, with its ancient castle, and quaint Loulé, founded as a Roman fort. Stay in halcyon luxury at Vila Vita Parc, midway along the coast; its abundance of delights includes spa, golf, tennis and a two-Michelin star restaurant.
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Dotted with sleepy, picturesque towns and quiet, whitewashed villages, the Alentejo is the least populated and most rural of the country’s regions. Spread across about a third of the country, it is sometimes called the garden of Portugal; its dry and sunny landscape encompasses wheat fields, olive groves, vineyards and large forests of productive cork trees. Visit its glorious capital, Évora, with its striking architecture and cobbled lanes. Enjoy its near-deserted Atlantic beaches ‒ Praia de Almograve and Praia da Alberta Nova are among the most impressive. Explore hilltop medieval villages ‒ Monsaraz and Marvão are particularly rich in Moorish history. Be sure, too, to sample its ever-more applauded wine (vineyards are increasingly replacing the region’s wheat fields): there are eight distinctive wine areas and tasting routes around them.