Whimsical cities and rugged coast
Portugal is the oldest nation in Europe, having had a defined border since 1139. The capital city, Lisbon, even predates Rome. And, when you’re as old as Portugal, you don’t worry about silly things like schedules, instead you savor each moment and enjoy the pleasures of the season. Indulge in spontaneous conversations over afternoon espresso or sample the fruits of wine-harvest. Eat dinner a little later and don’t be afraid to enjoy a snack before you do—it’s all part of the Portugal experience.
The whimsical architecture and green hills of Portugal almost seem like a play set. How could artistry exist otherwise? As you explore, there’s no shortage of beautiful details to discover, from the mosaic sidewalks to perfectly browned pastel de nata. See the rocky outcrop of Cabo da Roca’s coast and the Moorish of Pena Palace. Of course, you’ll want to head inland for unforgettable wine, but wherever you go don’t forget about the fado. In order to truly encounter the dramatic beauty of Portugal, you’ll have to hear these mournful ballads of love and loss in-person.
Guarding the mouth of the Tagus River, the Tower of Belém stands as a reminder of Portugal’s prowess during the Age of Exploration. Be sure to pay attention to the eclectic ornamentation of the facade—see if you can spot the gargoyle and hippo among the filigree. This may not seem like the makings of a fortress, but when it was built in 1520 that was indeed the purpose. It’s connected to the Monastery of the Hieronymites, so be sure to visit there as well.
Quinta da Regaleira is the Da Vinci Code, come to life. This theatrical mansion in the hills of Sintra was designed by an Italian Opera set designer in the early 20th century and includes symbolism from the Knights Templar, the Masons, and dark alchemy. Enjoy the luxurious garden terraces as you venture down a spiral staircase and enter secret chambers and tunnels that run the length of the grounds.
In mainland Europe, you can’t go further west than Cabo da Roca without taking a swim in the Atlantic Ocean. You’ll find this outcrop within the National Park, Sintra-Cascais. Hiking here is almost always windy, but it’s worth it. From the western horizon to the Sintra Mountain Range, the views here are legendary—and it’s just 26 miles from the capital.
Nowhere are the many cultural influences of Portugal more apparent than the Pena Palace. One glance reveals the Manueline and Moorish influences on this Romantic masterpiece of the 19th century. Inside the forested Pena Park, you can see the colorful terraces and decorated battlements and mythological statues. Tour the staterooms, and appreciate details like the copper crockery branded with the filigreed palace insignia—FPP, “for Palacio da Pena.”
If you want city life at a port town pace then look no further than Portugal’s capital. Take the tram through Lisbon’s old town and seek out a viewpoint or “miradouro” on one of the city’s seven hills. From there, enjoy the bay vista and an afternoon bica espresso before checking out the must-sees like Praça do Comércio, the city’s main square which opens to the sea, and Jerónimos Monastery, an exemplary work of late Gothic architecture attached to the Tower of Belém,
The Duoro Valley is the oldest demarcated wine country in the world, earning it a spot as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Explore the terraced wine fields that rise from the Duoro River and sample the regional varietals. Find some tascas like suckling pig or salted cod to pare with the house port and settle into your secluded vineyard estate.
Portugal is a year-round destination with summer, July through August, being the most popular time, followed by Easter and Christmas. Summer is the height of tourist season with the temperature hovering in the upper 70s. Spring, mid-May through June, and autumn, September through mid-October, are less crowded times to travel and temperatures only drop a few degrees. Spring distinguishes itself with freshly blooming flowers, while wine lovers may choose autumn for the grape harvest. During the winter months, some locations may close or only maintain part-time hours.
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