Overview of Continental Portugal
Portugal is bordered in from its north and east by Spain, the larger coinhabitant of the Iberian peninsula, while the cool Atlantic laps up onto its western and southern coasts.
The country boasts a great diversity of landscapes and climates. From low-lying coasts and hot interior plains to 2,000-meter Serra da Estrela mountain peaks, each nook holds deep history, rich gastronomy, picturesque settlements, charismatic people and unique vibes. Fresh seafood spoils the coast, while succulent pork, excellent cheese, charcuterie, game, salt cod and hearty vegetables fuel the hard-working agrarian interior.
Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, and so called ”second capital”, Porto, are coastal and cosmopolitan yet unmistakably traditional cities. Their cobblestone streets, ancient neighborhoods and medieval architecture are gateways into more charming towns, rural countryside and wild nature inland. Portugal is a safe and enchanting travelers’ playground.
Visiting Northern Portugal
Green Minho is full of sandy dune and jagged rock beaches, fertile coastal plains, jungle-like forests, cooler and wetter weather and towns like Viana do Castelo whose proud people upkeep the minhoto culture, rich in tradition and folklore tied to Celtic roots.
Further down the coast, well-kept resort towns like Povoa de Varzim and Vila do Conde house wealthy 19th-century merchants’ and colonizers’ mansions alongside textile factories and fisheries just north of quaint and culture-rich Porto.
Inland, between the cities of Guimarães (Portugal’s birthplace) and Braga, lie stunning mountain and river gorge scenery and Gêres Natural park.
Agriculture focuses further east, on the wild and rugged plateau of Trás-os-Montes, “behind the mountains” from Douro. Unesco World Heritage Douro Valley site is the first demarcated and regulated wine region in the world and the birthplace of world-famous Port wine.
Olive trees in Tras-os-montes
Cut off from the Atlantic by the Mourão mountains, these arid lands experience extreme winter and summer temperatures, as is the case throughout Portugal’s eastern interior along the Spanish border.
Visiting Central Portugal
South of Porto, Aveiro’s impressive salt marshes and Peniche’s and Nazaré’s big-wave surf competitions, Caldas da Rainha’s Bordalo Pinheiro ceramic factory and Bairrada’s industries and finger-licking suckling pig eateries dot Portugal’s Silver Coast and its immediate interior.
The Farah Trading Co team visiting the vineyards of Bairrada
Further east, between Viseu and Guarda, the Serra da Estrela mountains and natural park offer cozy mountain hospitality and amazing outdoor experiences.
Near Coimbra (home to Portugal’s first university, one of the oldest in Europe) is the impressive Conimbriga Roman settlement excavation site, Buçaco palace and hot springs, and fortified mountain villages like Monsanto hold their ground along with Portugal’s perhaps most authentic dialects and traditions.
North and east of Lisbon, fertile Estremadura and Ribatejo grow Portugal’s fruits, vegetables and grains and breed thoroughbred horses and bulls. This historically wealthy region boasts a concentration of heritage sites like Fátima and Alcobaça.
Lisbon and the Tagus River Valley make up Portugal’s smallest, but most highly populated region with the most hustle and bustle.
Belém Tower in the Lisbon Area
The classical yet modern capital is built on seven hills and benefits from warmer and dryer weather than Porto. Its outskirts feature a mix of industry as well as forested hills, coastal cliffs and sandy beaches.
Historically, Portugal’s Bourgeoisie flocked to Sintra, coastal mansions in Cascais and beach houses along the Costa del Sol during the summer.
Visiting Southern Portugal
Alentejo makes up the bulk of Portugal’s south, stretching from Lisbon to the eastern border with Spain and south to Algarve. The Moors held their ground here the longest and their influence perculates words starting with the Arabic Al- (like Alentejo and Algarve), architecture saturated with horseshoe arches, medieval castles and whitewashed towns.
Laid-back people and nostalgic Alentejano chants have for centuries endured blazing Mediterranean heat in Portugal’s underpopulated agrarian heartland. Crops here are fed from Alqueva (the largest manmade reservoir in Western Europe) which is also a bird estuary and Dark Sky Reserve for pristine star gazing.
Alentejo also hones strong craftwork, from clay vessels for aging wine called talhas to beautiful pottery, cookware and tapestries.
The untamed Costa Vicentina is full of desolate beach coves and fisher villages like Sines. Inland, fortified towns like Évora, Estremoz, Monsaraz and Portalegre overlook cork forests, olive orchards and rolling hills where cows and porco pretos (acorn-fed black pigs) roam.
The town square in the city of Evora in the Alentejo Region
Southern gastronomy is some of the most diverse and gratifying - think porco à alentejana (clams, pork and pickled vegetables over fried potatoes) and açorda (hearty bread stew) inland, fresh seafood along the coast and citrus, almonds and figs in Algarve.
Portugal’s Algarve beachline is also its oldest “tourist destination”. 161 km of sandy beaches, warm water, limestone grottos and sunbathed towns like Portimão, Lagos and Albufeira have attracted locals and foreigners since the 60s and make for a great place to start or end your Portugal adventures!
The beautiful town of Tavira in Portugal's Algarve region
Stay tuned for our next blog post about visiting Portugal's Islands; Madeira and the Azores!