|Famed for its sunny, mild climate and its delicious wine, Portugal has been attracting visitors ever since the fall of the Salazar dictatorship in the 1970s. Most of these visitors make their way straight to the Algarve, Portugal's southern coastal strip and one of Europe's most popular beach destinations. However, beyond the famous resorts and beach towns of the Algarve, Portugal enjoys a rich history and regional diversity that is guaranteed to offer a little something to all tastes. City lovers need look no further than Lisbon, renowned as the cheapest major city in all of Western Europe. As the largest city and capital of the country, it is a modern and cosmopolitan metropolis with a lively nightlife, including some of the finest clubs and restaurants in Europe. Although leveled by an earthquake in the 18th Century, Lisbon does continue to retain a few of its older buildings, such as the Castle of St. George, the Se, the Tower of Belem and the Jeronimos Monastery. Those looking for a taste of Portugal's history, however, will need to look elsewhere.
A good start is Evora, just a few hour's drive from Lisbon. This city retains its old Roman aqueducts and most of a Roman temple, as well as an excellent Catholic ossuary. The country also has several examples of walled, medieval fortress towns. Close to Lisbon is the storybook town of Obidos, which is also well known for its local ginjinha, or cherry liqueur. In the Alentejo, the hinterland of central Portugal and one of its best wine-making regions, there are towns like Castelo de Vide, Marvao and Monsaraz. These fortresses were built centuries ago to keep out the Spanish, and perched on their walls one can look east and easily take in the view of the Spanish plains. Other cities like Coimbra and Braga are rich with medieval history. Coimbra is the capital of Crusader-era Portugal, and continues to be the home of one of the oldest universities in Europe. Braga is the center of Portuguese Catholicism, and blessed with many excellent cathedrals.
For those who like to spend their time outdoors, Portugal has a lot to offer. It is not as well-supplied with hiking trails as some other parts of Europe, but there is the great forest of the National Park of Peneda-Geres in the north. This is easily the greenest place in Portugal, with a landscape more reminiscent of a warmer version of Scotland than anything found due south of it. It is criss-crossed by hiking trails that take in some truly impressive scenery, as they wind up over high mountains overlooking deep river valleys. Trips there can be based either on camping or in stone cottages in tiny farming villages nestled deep in those valleys. There are also some fantastic golf courses in Portugal. Certainly, it is a lovely place to get away from it all.
There are even more opportunities for water sports. With beaches like Guincho, the Atlantic coast of Portugal is one of the best places in Europe to surf. Wind-surfing and para-sailing are also very popular. Scuba divers will find good spots in the Algarve, Setubal, Porto and especially in the Berlengas Islands off Peniche. Good sailing and sport fishing is to be had virtually everywhere in coastal Portugal.
One of the things Portugal is most famous for is its port wine. Port is a wine fortified with grape brandy, and often served as a desert wine. Many trips to Portugal are centered entirely on a tasting tour of Porto, where all the great port wine houses are, and then followed by a scenic tour of the Duoro River Valley and its vineyards. However, Porto and the Duoro are hardly the only place in Portugal that has a claim on being a center of wine-making. The Alentejo is where most of Portugal's most popular red wine comes from. The far northern area outside of the aforementioned park of Peneda-Geres is also famous for being a maker of vinho verde, or once-fermented green wine. Even the area just south of Lisbon, in the Setubal Peninsula, is home to a number of renowned wine-makers. Portugal is truly a land for xenophiles, and a great place for the wine tourist.
For a country so in love with fine wine, it should come as no surprise that Portugal is a nation of food lovers. The national dish is baccalau, or dried and salted cod, which comes in over a hundred different varieties there. Past the cod, they are very in love with seafood. Everyone in this long, narrow country lives within a few hours of the coast, so everywhere enjoys some access to good, fresh seafood. If you like grilled, fresh fish or shellfish-based stews, Portugal is a great country to eat out in. They also have a taste of locally-raised beef and pork, as well as some truly excellent artisanal sheep's milk cheeses.
Portugal is a small country, yet with its many regions it is so diverse that one could never get to know everything about it in a single visit. That is part of its charm. A person can go back year after year, and still find something new and exciting to occupy every visit.