Overshadowed by its bigger Spanish neighbour, Portugal was often ignored by tourists travelling around Europe. That began to change dramatically several years ago during Lisbon’s new renaissance. It was a time when scores of upscale hotels and hip new restaurants took root in the city. As a consequence, the capital that was once an afterthought became a star on the European tourist circuit.
While Lisbon’s popularity continues to grow today, Portugal is also an amazingly diverse country offering plenty of fabulous places to visit both on the continent and on the numerous islands on the Atlantic Ocean, thus proving how much it truly deserves the title of the hidden gem of Europe.
Here are a few of my suggestions to help you get to know my country a little bit better:
City of Light:
With its old quarters perched on seven hills facing the Tagus river and with its infinite amount of sun light, Lisbon offers one of the best city-walking experiences in Europe. Both the historic Castelo Sao Jorge and the more hip Miradouro de Santa Catarina offer stunning views of a European capital with unique flairs of South America and Africa, thus reflecting the strong sea trading history of Portugal. For a fun and easy way to try the vibrant food scene of the city I would recommend the Mercado da Ribeira, one of the many old public markets recently transformed into gourmet and traditional food courts.
Sintra and Cascais
Within less than an hour from Lisbon, these were the mountain and beach resorts of the Portuguese royal family. Cascais, an old and stylish fishing town was often the first choice by European aristocrats as a home while in exile. For the ones who prefer a nice stay by the sea I would book a room at my all-time favourite boutique hotel Senhora da Guia, located on the way to the stunning beach Praia do Guincho. With its numerous palaces perched on top of the mountains, Sintra offers a unique fairy-tale atmosphere that captivated many romantic and creative minds such as Lord Byron and Hans Christian Andersen. After visiting the Palacio da Pena and the Quinta da Regaleira, a good resting spot in the old village is the Café Periquita where one can try Sintra's famous queijadas and travesseiros (almond pastries).
A UNESCO World Heritage site since 2001, the Douro valley offers breath-taking landscapes of the terraced vineyards and small villages along the Douro river. This is also one of the oldest demarcated wine regions in the world, producing not only the famous fortified Port wine but also some of the best reds of the country. Starting your trip at the northern city of Porto, the best way to visit the river valley involves a combination of a historical train ride and a boat cruise, where one can stop at many of the Port wine houses such as Sandeman’s, Fonseca’s or Taylor’s. For a true wine experience and with a stunning view of the city of Porto, I would recommend to stay at the impressive The Yeatman hotel.
Beaching and golfing around:
With its spectacular sea-carved archways and golden beaches, the Algarve has been Portugal's premier holiday destination since the '70s. The region is also considered to be one the best golfing destinations in the world and any golf enthusiast should at least play a round or two at the incredible courses of Quinta do Lago or Valle do Lobo. But what I like most about the Algarve is that among these vast and luxurious touristic developments, one can still find some corners full of tradition and simplicity, such as the spectacular barren headland of Cape of Sao Vicente, Europe’s south-western most point and the last piece of home that Portuguese sailors once saw as they launched into the unknown. With its Moorish inspired architecture and breath-taking sea views, the Vila Joya Home, Restaurant and Spa is my favourite spot in the Algarve.
Little is known, in Asia at least, about this far-flung archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Viewed by some historians as the remains of the legendary lost world of the Atlantis, it is hard to imagine a place better suited to nature lovers and fans of adventure sports. The beautiful volcanoes and lagoons on these islands remind me in some way of the Philippines, but its Atlantic weather and tiny population of Portuguese and Dutch descent give it a very different flair. The Azores are also best known for whale and dolphin watching as many of the islands are pit stops havens for numerous species. Well-organized tours run from the larger islands such as Sao Miguel and Terceira and also include visits to the excellent whale hunting museums, activity that played a huge role in the economy until the 1970s. Lastly, I cannot stop myself from mentioning the fabulous Sao Jorge cheese that these remote islands produce and that I wish they would sell in Manila!
Welcome to the time machine:
While the Alentejo as a whole is by far one of my favourite regions in Portugal, its northern half is a medieval gem, with a scattering of walled fortress towns and remote cliff-top castles such as Marvão and Castelo de Vide. The prefect trip would start by passing through the beautiful university city of Évora, but once beyond that point you’ll only see traditional life at its most authentic. The Alentejo’s hilly countryside filled with cork forests and olive groves is the perfect background set up for the many converted countryside houses and Quintas now providing a genuine taste of Portuguese rural life. However, my preferred place to stay is still the beautiful Pousada Rainha Santa Isabel in the town of Estremoz. The Pousadas de Portugal are a chain of luxury, traditional or historical hotels in Portugal run by the hotelier Pestana Group that really provide a unique accommodation experience across the country.
A spiritual journey:
No guide of Portugal would be complete without including the Sanctuary of Fátima, one the world’s most renowned catholic pilgrimage destinations. While, Fatima itself is just a modern and simple city, both the Capelinha das Aparições, location marking the exact spot where the Virgin Mary appeared in 1917 to three child shepherds, and the Basílica de Nossa Senhora do Rosário, offer an experience full of magic and spirituality. The candles procession around the Basilica which takes place every Saturday evening is an impressive show of light aesthetics and expression of faith. This year, 2017, also marks the centennial anniversary of the apparition and obviously Fatima is preparing for a very special celebration. Located just an hour drive from Lisbon, Fatima can be visited together with some really amazing non-spiritual sites just a few kilometers away, such as the medieval town of Obidos and the impressive convent of Mafra.