Landscape with Praia do Camilo, famous beach in Algarve, Portugal Photo: Adobe Stockk
Landscape with Praia do Camilo, famous beach in Algarve, Portugal Photo: Adobe Stockk

An Insider’s Guide to Portugal

This no-stress country, one of Europe’s oldest, offers a Mediterranean vacation with sun, sand, and charm to spare.

Portugal, a strip of coastal land on the western Iberian peninsula, is a prosperous country, rife with culture and touristic pleasures. Begin your visit in and around Lisbon, the capital, and continue to less-urban exploration: namely, the must-see beaches and towns of the Algarve and, time permitting, the wine country of the Douro Valley. (For a bigger side trip, consider flying from Lisbon to the subtropical splendor of the Madeira archipelago.)

If you’re accustomed to major European cities, you’ll find Lisbon manageable. Positioned in the southern third of the country on the Tagus River (which empties into the Atlantic), it has a midsize-city vibe. Its population is a third of Barcelona’s and a small fraction of Madrid’s. The Portuguese capital does not overwhelm; rather, it insinuates and charms. With its hills, electric trams, and water views—and overall quaintness—it can be seen as sort of an Iberian San Francisco. 

A good place to get your bearings is Avenida da Liberdade, which is a wide boulevard—10 lanes—made welcoming by the green spaces that divide it in half. Luxury boutiques, hotels, and restaurants line “The Avenue,” which runs more or less perpendicular to the coast. Because Lisbon is one of the world’s oldest cities and was a thriving trade route, it showcases a wide variety of decorative architectural styles, including a local gothic-influenced type called Manueline and the more human-scale Pombaline (which took hold after a 1755 earthquake), with its shallow wrought-iron balconies and tile facades.

Lisbon's Gloria funicular classified as a national monument opened 1885 located on the west side of the Avenida da Liberdade connects downtown with Bairro Photo: Adobe Stock
Lisbon's Gloria funicular classified as a national monument opened 1885 located on the west side of the Avenida da Liberdade connects downtown with Bairro Photo: Adobe Stock

Parallel and to the east of Avenida da Liberdade is Rua Augusta, a lively, mosaic-tiled pedestrian street designed in the four-story Pombaline vein. It is filled with outdoor cafes where you can enjoy a typical seafood meal of Portugal’s ubiquitous salt cod as well as prawns and grilled sardines. Rua Augusta represents the beating heart of the Baixa neighborhood, the city center; the street’s south end is marked by the ornate Rua Augusta Arch, one of Lisbon’s top landmarks, which was completed in 1873.

A 15-minute walk from Rua Augusta will land you in Alfama, one of the city’s oldest barrios, which is replete with ambiance and texture. Like many a neighborhood that started as working class, today’s Alfama has been gentrified to the extent that it has become a magnet for chic shops, gastronomy, and cafes dotting its steep, narrow streets. Somehow, Alfama has held onto its authenticity, and what hasn’t changed about the neighborhood is its association with fado, a melancholy, histrionic type of indigenous singing regularly performed at fado houses such as Tasca do Chico. (A tasca is a small family tavern serving bar snacks and generous portions of hearty traditional food—cheeses, olives, cod cakes, stews, steaks, and grilled fish.)

Lisbon, Portugal: the Triumphal Rua Augusta Arch, Arco Triunfal da Rua Augusta at sunrise. Photo: Adobe Stock
Lisbon, Portugal: the Triumphal Rua Augusta Arch, Arco Triunfal da Rua Augusta at sunrise. Photo: Adobe Stock

Day Trips from Lisbon

Part of the allure of Lisbon is the opportunity for easy day trips to the affluent Portuguese Riviera—Cascais and Estoril are within a half hour’s drive, as is the fairytale-like Sintra. In Cascais, the easily accessible pocket beach of Praia da Conceição is the starting point for the seaside promenade that leads to Estoril, which is known for having the biggest casino in Europe. Either town is a relaxing place for a seaside lunch, a swim in turquoise waters, and admiring the castle-like architecture. 

Sintra ranks as one of the most beloved spots in Portugal, a sort of fantasy destination of 19th-century castles and palaces awash in vivid hues. Perhaps the most famous—and most photographed—edifice is the Pena Palace, whose construction began in the Middle Ages and was completed in 1854. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is identifiable by its bold red and yellow façade and is decorated with rococo trompe-l'œil interiors. Featuring drawbridges and a clock tower, the palace is a fanciful Romanticist concoction of architectural styles, from Neo-Gothic to Moorish to Neo-Renaissance, complete with elaborate gardens crisscrossed with pathways where you can get happily lost.

If the pretty but modest beaches of the Portuguese Riviera whet your appetite for more surf and sand, head to the country’s south coast, to the Algarve (200 miles south of Lisbon), which boasts spectacular scenery. It takes just two hours to drive from the region’s southwestern tip of Sagres to Praia de Santo António, one of its easternmost beaches before the Guadiana River, the dividing line between Portugal and Spain. 

In that short distance, the Algarve serves up a succession of beaches unlike any other in Europe and perhaps in the world. The sands are routinely golden and walkable if a bit coarse, and the water is great for swimming if a bit colder than those who frequent Mediterranean resort areas might expect. But what makes the strands of the Algarve so distinctive are its dramatic rock formations, some so close to shore that you can swim laps around them. Plus, there are tiny coves, caves, and rock ledges from which to cliff-jump. The rugged beauty of the coast, therefore, offers beachgoers a kind of safe adventure and an otherworldly atmosphere that would be difficult to match anywhere else in Europe.

The lay of the land isn’t difficult to grasp, as Portugal’s south coast is a jagged horizontal line; it’s easy to drive from one Algarve cove to the next. The most scenic beaches require clifftop parking and making your way down to the sand, whether by trail or stairs. From west to east, the major towns include Lagos, Carvoeiro, and Faro, where an airport is located. 

Cliff-backed Beaches

Note that the entire coast is not blessed with the gorgeous cliff-backed beaches that launched a million Instagram shots; to access those, it’s best to base yourself around Lagos or Carvoeiro, which are a 35-minute drive apart. (The eastern beaches, closer to the Spanish border, are flatter and less touristy.) For the picturesque striated cliffs, sea stacks, grottos, arches, caves, and luminous waters that range from the deep blue to pale green for which the Algarve is known, keep a handy list of these beaches (from west to east): Praia do Camilo (about a 10-minute drive from Lagos, on the same peninsula, reached by a series of wooden stairs), Praia do Vau (an organized beach backed by red cliffs, about a 30-minute drive from Lagos), and Praia da Rocha (a popular, family-friendly, and amply developed beach not far from Praia do Vau that is very wide and features a boardwalk). 

At this point, the Arade River, which flows to the sea, separates the Lagos-area beaches from the Carvoeiro-area ones. Across the river and near Ferragudo lies Praia dos Caneiros, a beach composed of a pair of magnificent coves. Then there’s small, scenic Carvalho, 15 minutes east of Carvoeiro, accessible via a short downhill hike. Another sandy cove that’s well-known because it’s been so frequently photographed is Benagil. Tucked under a rock ceiling, it’s more like a cave with a skylight, and it’s best reached by boat or swimming (for strong swimmers, it takes five to 10 minutes to freestyle over). 

Streets of Cascais by night, Cascais, Portugal. Photo: Adobe Stock
Streets of Cascais by night, Cascais, Portugal. Photo: Adobe Stock

The towns of Lagos and Carvoeiro, though only about 40 kilometers apart, offer such a contrast that it’s worth spending considerable time in each. Lagos, with more than 30,000 residents off-season, is a hub of activity, mainly for its beaches, some within a short drive or walk. Many gravitate to the seafront, with its line of bars and restaurants, but the historical core is even more charming. Its cobblestoned streets, devoid of cars, are eminently walkable. Two plazas—Praça Gil Eanes and Praça Luís de Camões—are fine places to grab a seat at a café and people watch; the latter contains a three-story, green-tiled house that is likely the most photographed spot in town. (Decorative tiles—azulejos—are found all over Portugal and help to define its handcrafted design aesthetic.) 

Compared with Lagos, Carvoeiro is tiny, with only a few thousand residents. It earns regular mention as a must-see Algarve village and a prime place to purchase a second home or retire, but like the rest of the Algarve, it is not as illustrious as it might be; therefore, it retains a local, genuine flavor. It’s also breathtakingly beautiful, a quintessential beach town: the V-shaped village that climbs up from a deep, nearly triangular, cliff-backed cove—Praia de Carvoiero—suggests a Portuguese version of Amalfi or Positano, but earthier, less posh. You could easily spend a week here, using the town as a base to explore more remote beaches, and to stick around at nightfall in summer is to be utterly charmed by live music and a sense of community—children atop their fathers’ shoulders, teenagers dancing. Carvoeiro is arguably the Algarve’s most magical place.

Finally, oenophiles should make note of two other holiday destinations in the country. The Douro Valley, the oldest designated wine region in the world, is around 60 miles from Porto; Portugal’s second-largest city, 200 miles north of Lisbon, is where port wine originated. The lush river valley is nirvana for hikers, who will enjoy navigating the terraced hillsides that overlook the Douro River, while wine lovers will want to visit during the grape harvest and base themselves in a bucolic village such as Pinhão.

Traveler Fast Facts

What It Is: An empire during the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal has retained its exclusive quality throughout the centuries. Today, the country is a prosperous, sought-after tourist destination with a world-class capital, Lisbon, distinctive culture and cuisine, and some of Europe’s most magnificent beaches. 

Climate: The region enjoys a Mediterranean climate, especially in the coastal areas, which are the most popular places to visit. March and April tend to be temperate, with daytime temperatures in the 60s (F), while May reaches into the 70s. Like most Mediterranean resort destinations, Portugal is hottest, driest, and most crowded from June through August—the perfect time for swimming, with daytime temperatures in the high 70s and 80s and nighttime temperatures in the 60s. September and October are similar, but with fewer people sharing the shore and streets.

Getting There: Lisbon’s Humberto Delgado Airport—Portugal’s main airport—accommodates business jets and is also serviced by Tap Air Portugal and its Star Alliance partners (United Airlines, Air Canada, and Lufthansa). Other major airlines serving Lisbon include American, Delta, Air France, KLM, Iberia, British Airways, and Swiss. Faro Airport, in the Algarve, receives private jets and many of the international carriers listed above, such as Tap Air Portugal, United, American, and British Airways. Porto Airport welcomes private aviation, as well as carriers like Tap Air Portugal, British Airways, and Lufthansa; it also services seasonal flights via United from Newark, New Jersey.

What to Know Before You Go: Portugal lifted COVID-19 restrictions on July 1, 2022. A negative COVID-19 test, certificate of vaccination, or certificate of recovery is no longer required in airports, at borders, or for air and sea travel. Portugal is a modern and sophisticated country that is easy to manage. English is widely spoken all along the coast and in the major tourist areas. Lisbon and the Portuguese Riviera are best enjoyed on foot, so push vanity aside and pack comfortable shoes for the cobblestone streets and oceanfront promenades. Algarve’s beaches typically require descending and ascending multiple staircases or steep paths, so bring appropriate footwear. Note, however, that, unlike many beaches in Italy or France, Portugal’s beaches tend to be sandy—like Spain’s. 

Traveler Report Card

Accommodations: Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon (A), renowned for its extensive art collection, is a top urban resort, with a rooftop track, a 59-foot freeform lap pool fringed by cabanas, and an indoor lap pool. Less than a half-hour from Faro’s airport and 45 minutes from Carvoeiro, the lavish Conrad Algarve (A) offers luxurious modern accommodations, a spa, a restaurant helmed by Michelin three-starred chef Heinz Beck, and access to six nearby golf courses. 

Cuisine: Expect some wonderful meals, but don’t be surprised if cod is on every menu you encounter. The Michelin two-starred Alma (A+) is a Lisbon institution, known for its five-course coastal tasting menu and its Asian influences. Floresta Das Escadinhas (A), also in Lisbon, has a non-touristy atmosphere—and excellent squid and octopus—even though it’s in the center of town. It’s hard to pass up dining with a view in the Algarve, and ZaZu Beach Club (A), on Praia da Luz, fits the bill for its prawns and sangria. Writer’s Place (A-) in Pinhão boasts spectacular views from the terrace. You can opt for one of four preparations of salted cod, and the menu also offers salmon, lamb, and risotto.