As far as touristy towns go, Lagos (lah-goosh) has got the lot. It lies along the bank of the Rio Bensafrim, with 16th-century walls enclosing the old town’s pretty, cobbled streets and picturesque plazas and churches. Beyond these lies a modern, but not overly unattractive, modern sprawl. The town’s good restaurants and range of fabulous beaches nearby add to the allure.
Portugal’s third-largest city is an elegant town laced with ancient narrow lanes closed to vehicles, strewn with plazas and a splendid array of baroque churches. The constant chiming of bells is a reminder of Braga’s age-old devotion to the spiritual world. Its religious festivals – particularly the elaborately staged Semana Santa (Holy Week) – are famous throughout Portugal.
With its rippling mountains, dewy forests thick with ferns and lichen, exotic gardens and glittering palaces, Sintra is like a page torn from a fairy tale. Its Unesco World Heritage–listed centre, Sintra-Vila, is dotted with pastel-hued manors folded into luxuriant hills that roll down to the blue Atlantic.
As the mercury rises, the promise of sun, sea and mouth-watering grilled fish lures lisboêtas south to the Setúbal Peninsula for weekends of ozone-enriched fun. Beach bums make for the Costa da Caparica’s 8km sweep of golden sand to laze on a lounger, dip in the chilly Atlantic and unwind over sundowners in beachside cafes.
Cascais (kush-kaish) has rocketed from sleepy fishing village to much-loved summertime playground of wave-frolicking lisboêtas ever since King Luís I went for a dip in 1870. Its trio of golden bays attracts sun-worshipping holidaymakers, who come to splash in the ice-cold Atlantic. Don’t expect to get much sand to yourself at the weekend, though.
Once a scenic fishing village, Albufeira has tragically lost its vestiges to its past – fishing boats are now moored at the ultramodern marina southwest of town. These days, the town is a den of mass-market tourism; the old town – and its pretty cobblestone streets and Moorish influences – is concealed by neon signs, English menu boards and rowdy bars.
Set on either side of the meandering Rio Gilão, Tavira is a charming town. The ruins of a hilltop castle, an old Roman bridge and a smattering of Gothic and Renaissance churches are among Tavira’s historic attractions. Its enticing assortment of restaurants and guesthouses makes it an excellent base for exploring the Algarve’s eastern section.
Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela
Fascinating both for its natural and cultural history, Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela was one of Portugal’s first designated parks, and at 1011 sq km remains the country’s largest protected area. The rugged boulder-strewn meadows and icy lakes of its high country form one of Portugal’s most distinct and unexpected landscapes.
Literally meaning ‘Above the Tejo’, Ribatejo is the only Portuguese province that doesn’t border either Spain or the open ocean. A string of Templar castles are proof of its strategic importance, though these days its clout is economic, thanks to industry along the Tejo and the rich agricultural plains that spread out from the river’s banks.