The pretty streets you’ll find in Évora, Alentejo’s capital Alentejo landscape
Image: Rui Cunha Turismo Alentejo
Alentejo is Portugal’s largest region, yet somehow this south-central heartland retains a sleepy, old-fashioned vibe for those seeking the slow lane. Olive trees shimmer like satin on hillsides, wheat fields ripple and, in springtime, wildflowers erupt like confetti. Expect hilltop villages topped with castles, fortified towns such as Serpa (settled since Roman times), and the historical ‘white city’ of Estremoz, with its clusters of white houses surrounded by plains of golden farmland. The region’s capital, the World Heritage-listed Évora, blends Roman ruins, Moorish architecture and startling bursts of rococo prettiness. Even Alentejo’s sumptuous coastline is overlooked except by the Portuguese themselves – despite its glorious beaches and charming whitewashed villages such as Zambujeira do Mar.
A visit to Guimarães could have you thinking you’ve stepped onto a medieval film set. The historical old town centre is a World Heritage site, and you only need to take in the graceful iron verandas, granite balconies and towers to see why. Located in the very heart of the city is Guimarães Castle, a must-see ancient fortress. Built in the 10th-century, it’s one of the most impressive castles in all the country, and it was here the first king of Portugal, Afonso Henriques, was born in 1111. And don’t miss the Paço dos Duques de Bragança, a former palace that now houses a wealth of tapestries, weapons and artworks.
A little further from the city center, the cascading gardens at the Vila Flor Palace and Cultural Centre are well worth a visit, as is the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Consolação e Santos Passos – one of Portugal’s prettiest baroque churches, at the far end of Largo da República do Brasil. Twenty minutes drive from Guimaraes is Braga, the capital of the Minho region, and the most agreeable ‘unknown’ city in Portugal, despite being just 30 miles from the much-visited Porto. Its attractions? Gnarled churches everywhere, but plenty of laid-back bars and chic boutiques as well. Be sure to also check out Bom Jesus do Monte and Sameiro sanctuaries outside the town for baroque excess and spectacular views.
Steps of the Five Senses, Bom Jesus do Monte, Sanctuary of Braga
The stunning nature reserve, Parkque Natural da Arrabida
Image: Paulo Ribeiro
Traditionally overlooked by tourists, the center of Portugal’s fishing industry, Setubal, is now growing in popularity because of its proximity to some of the most picturesque towns and sparkling beaches in the region. It’s also one of few areas in Europe where a pod of bottlenose dolphins are routinely seen splashing around in the wetlands of the Reserva Natural do Estuario do Sado in the south. Stroll through the natural reserve Parque Natural da Arrabida for clifftop views of gleaming beaches, then head down to the nearby town of Sesimbra, a quaint fishing village. For the gourmand, a visit to Azeitão is a must. The area is renowned for its handcrafted, soft-centered cheese that you can wash down with local wines at the Bacalhôa wine estate. Tip: make sure you try the Moscatel Roxo (it’s just like a sweet sherry).
The enchanting walled village of Marvão
Image: Joao Paulo
Castelo Branco might be a secondary city, but the region still packs a big punch with history and nature.
Grab some good walking boots and head to Portugal’s ‘star mountain’ Serra da Estrela. This is not only the highest mountain range in mainland Portugal, but it’s also a region in its own right, divided into six municipalities of nearly 250,000 acres. Meander around the 12 historic villages including the steep, narrow streets of Monsanto, a medieval settlement that was dubbed the ‘most Portuguese town in Portugal’ in 1938. Here you’ll also find the 15th-century Torre de Lucano, an ancient bell tower topped with a silver rooster.
In Castelo Branco, head to the newly opened Barrocal Park. Its striking contemporary walkways and observation platforms lead through 310-million-year-old landscapes of huge granite blocks. One hour south of here is the stunning village of Castelo de Vide, where whitewashed houses dot the hillside, while less than twenty minutes drive is the equally lovely town of Marvão. Visit in November when the annual Chestnut Festival is on, as the whole village comes to life to celebrate the local culture and cuisine.