Shaped like a rectangle, with an area of 57297.86 square miles, and an extensive coast that covers half the territory (if you leave off the archipelagos of the Azores and Madeira), where to go in Portugal in 2018 has to be the most difficult question to answer.
With Portugal tourism booming, it seems like every glossy travel magazine or online travel blog has covered every inch of the map. And, yet, tourists seem to shuffle (in mass) between these three polls: Lisbon, Porto, and Algarve.
It’s not really the best places to go in Portugal that are always making the final cut of unimaginative bucket lists. It’s the same old places, over and over. And then it becomes a vicious cycle. The more famous a destination becomes, the more people visit, the greater the income and the greater the investments in improving infrastructures and facilities. Which attracts more tourists, which makes these Portugal destinations become even more famous, which brings more money. Do you see where I’m going with this?
Although the IMF warns Portugal not to depend solely on tourism revenue, cultural tourism actually looks at the industry as something different. While traveling in the country (and increasing the revenue of classical tourism-related companies like hotels, tours, and restaurants), some smaller tourism boards are also connecting tourists to local artisans, businesses, and producers (like wine, oranges, avocados). You can’t see this only from a one-sided perspective which is why I believe cultural tourism is increasingly important at a broader scale.
One of the best weapons against overtourism is not to stop it altogether. Tourism is a thriving industry in Portugal that contributed 16.8% of the national GDP in 2017. However, I believe in decentralizing tourism instead of concentrating it in the same places year in and year out.
With that in mind, I put together this (consciously subjective) list of places in Portugal you must visit in 2018. Before that, I also take time to explain my selection and what I thought about my first time at the BTL (Lisbon Tourism Fair) – if you want to skip over this, simply click on the first destination in the table of contents.
Table of contents (click to skip to a section)
- Considerations & Selection Criteria
- Flores and Corvo Islands (Azores)
- Center Region
- Vidigueira (Alentejo)
- Silves (Algarve)
- Estremoz (Alentejo)
- Rota do Românico (Valley of Sousa, Douro, and Tâmega Rivers)
Considerations & Selection Criteria
A bit of context before we start. The BTL – Bolsa de Turismo de Lisboa (or Lisbon Tourism Fair in English) as a five-day long event where the first two are meant for industry professionals only (including hotels, tour guides, content writers, journalists). In the last three days, Friday to Sunday, the event opens its doors to welcome potential clients and luring them with cheap tour packages, raffles, and lots of free food and brochures.
Thirty years ago when this event started, there was no Internet and people who loved to travel would come here looking for inspiration, discounts, and, I’m sure, to see if their trusted travel agent was really making their dream trip as cheaper as possible. Who are the clients who visit now? I confess I didn’t stick around long enough to find out since I was expected in Porto for the weekend.
To keep up with industry trends, they have been hosting a Travel Bloggers Awards since 2012.
I was there as an industry professional, a travel blogger and freelance travel writer looking for story angles and destinations worth mentioning. Now, to be clear, I lack some essential networking skills namely chit-chatting (unless I’m truly interested in the conversation), which may or may not make me sound arrogant (I see it as an ability to cut to the chase, but I could be seeing this from the wrong angle).
The bigger the better show booths, piles of brochures, stickers, free food, and other marketing tricks don’t appeal to me. At all. Do you have a website, an app, a Facebook page, or an Instagram profile? Cool, I’ll find out more about you there. If. And only if, I was excited to know more about your destination, if I see a story coming to life there, and if it stands as a place cultural tourists would like to visit.
There’s a chance my pet peeve with professional fairs and industry conferences grew during the times I had a corporate job. But I still tried to make the best of the half-day I spent there.
(I was planning to go for two full days but I didn’t have the energy nor I think I would make more of it than I already had)
I believe the following list of places to visit in Portugal is fairly diverse. I also love a tourism professional who knows their destination like the back of their hands, the positives and the negatives, and is not afraid to promote it for what it is. A tourism professional that understands that the value of the destination is its singular cultural identity has me hooked in seconds.
Most of the destinations with the big budgets (easily spotted from miles away either for being loud or bright or both) lacked soul. At some counters, overflowing with stacks of brochures, I waited more than 10 minutes to talk to someone before giving up. Some of them were empty, despite the fair had opened two hours before, with no signs of anyone ever showing up. Some of them had a “be right back” sign, which I let go of because going to and coming back from the restrooms at FIL takes a while.
Flores & Corvo Islands (Azores)
Usually, I’m very critical of how tourism is handled back home but the more time I spend on the islands and the more I talk to locals, I realize how I’m not always seeing the big picture.
It took me two, maybe three visits to the middle pavilion to discover their booth. When I was looking at the map, I was slightly upset to find out only one of the counties was represented (Flores Island has two counties, Corvo has one) and I immediately assumed they were going for the each-man-for-himself approach. However, once I spotted the group of familiar faces, I was pleasantly surprised.
The Western Islands are the most remote, therefore reaching there is harder and, usually, more expensive. Not to mention that both Corvo and Flores are UNESCO Biosphere Reserves which makes any development on the islands to be under scrutiny. Anywhere else this would represent a challenge (and it did for a long time). But the local government officers representing the islands brought the heavy guns (and they also, in good time, chose to have a separate booth from the official Azores tourism board, as to not be overshadowed).
They brought local food, handicrafts, brochures from every local hotel, restaurant, or tour that couldn’t be there, but, most importantly, they brought tons of knowledge of what Flores and Corvo can be and can never be as a destination.
To paraphrase the Mayor of Corvo, there’s not much to see or do in Flores and Corvo but a lot to experience.
Instead of detailing all the places you can visit in the center of Portugal, I want to focus on the region as it was presented at BTL.
The summer of 2017 was particularly hot and particularly tragic with wildfires killing 109 people and destroying miles of forest. It’s a period we all, as a country, wish to forget. Donations to local fire departments and to families of the victims help in the short term but we have to aim higher.
Don’t feel discouraged if you think you’ll only find burned trees and other signs of tragedy. You will. Reforestation is on course and nature always finds a way to heal itself, but for the landscapes to be Instagram-worthy again it will take time.
But it’s not the tragedy I want to focus on, nor do I want this region to be the destination for “pity tourism” (if such thing exists). On the contrary, I admire how the regional tourism board for the Center of Portugal advertises the region as a country inside the country.
Coimbra might be one of the most famous cities when it comes to heritage and history, but it’s just the (very tiny) tip of the iceberg. Tomar, Alcobaça, and Batalha are also the home of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
- Figueira da Foz
The tiny booth of Vidigueira was the first one I approached, partly because I was intrigued, and partly because I love people with a good vibe and positive energy (especially that early in the morning, in a rainy and windy day).
I asked the question “so what does Vidigueira have” with care and a big smile, just in case she felt the urge to tell me to butt off. Then came a list of all the things one can do in this little town of Alentejo, with nearly 3,000 people.
It’s not what they have, it’s what they make of it. And the woman behind the counter was very assertive – “Vidigueira is mostly a day trip destination, and we advertise it as such. Although, people are welcome to spend more time if they want to.”
Have I mentioned how I love a destination that knows how to market itself without pretending to be something they’re not? It takes vision.
Wine tourism is Vidigueira’s strong suit, but don’t dismiss a visit to the Roman ruins of São Cucufate and a stroll through the village.
- Museu Municipal de Vidigueira (Local Museum)
- Núcleo de Exposições de Marmelar (architectural route showing the different influences over the centuries)
- Ruínas Romanas de S. Cucufate (Roman Ruins)
- Wine tourism and wine production:
- Festival Gastronómico Sabores do Rio (food festival in July where the main dish is fish)
- Festival Gastronómico Sabores da Caça (food festival in February where the main dish is game)
I have a confession to make. The few times I was in the Algarve region was in the small town of Odeceixe. I avoid the Southernmost region of Portugal like the plague because I’m not a beach person and I always think its overrun by sun-burned drunk tourists. I understand this has led me to never recommend the Algarve to anyone, not even the readers of this blog.
But the exception makes the rule, right?
I was passing through the Algarve booths, without any intention to stop but to only browse to see if something caught my attention. My expectations were as low as they could be, which I think accounts for the moment of serendipity that followed.
I stopped at the sight of a brochure for Silves, with the city’s castle on the cover, and remembered a conversation I had had with someone who grew up there. I distinctly remember her saying how Silves was not quite like the other Algarve.
Similar to what had happened at the Vidigueira booth, I introduced myself as a blogger who focuses on sustainable cultural tourism and asked why would my readers want to visit Silves. Well, I got a very polite History lesson on the Islamic cultural heritage of the city and an enthusiastic first introduction to a new route they’re creating around oranges. Silves is the capital of orange.
When the Orange Route is launched I promise I’ll travel to Silves to tell you all about it. I’m intrigued and excited too!
(Because I’m a geek who gets excited about all cultural tours, bear with me.)
- Casa da Cultura Islâmica e Mediterrânica (cultural center for Islamic and Mediterranean heritage)
- Silves Castle (Medieval castle)
- Centro de Interpretação do Património Islâmico de Silves (interpretation center for Islamic heritage)
- Museu Municipal de Arqueologia (Local archeology museum)
- Praia Grande (beach)
- Praia de Armação de Pêra (beach)
- Jazz nas Adegas (Jazz music festival at wineries, every January)
Estremoz has been under my radar since the clay figures were listed on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, so this was the only booth at the fair that I sought.
The production of these figures has been following the same process since the 17th century and local artisans keep the tradition alive by teaching younger artists through workshops.
Of course, there’s more to see and to in Estremoz (the historic center, experiencing local wine and local cuisine) but my main reason to visit will always be the clay figures. I also happy to know that you can visit some of the artisan’s shops, watch the process in real life, and buy directly from them.
- Megalithic monuments
- Centro Histórico Medieval de Estremoz (Medieval historic center)
- Villa Romana de Santa Vitória do Ameixial (Ancient Roman villa)
- Castelo de Veiros (Medieval castle)
- Castelo e Cerca Medieval de Evoramonte (Medieval castle)
- UNESCO World Heritage clay figures (list of artisans in Estremoz):
- Afonso Ginja
- Fátima Estróia
- Irmãs Flores
- Ricardo Fonseca
- Maria Isabel Pires
- Artesanato Amaro José Saruga (shop)
- Artesanato Santo André (shop)
Rota do Românico
I had downloaded the Romanesque Route’s (Rota do Românico in Portuguese) mobile app one year ago, long before I ran into them at the BTL. As the promoter explained the routes to hotel desk managers interested in suggesting this to their guests, I found myself taking info sheet after info sheet of routes I’d like to explore.
The route includes Romanesque buildings in different places of the valley of the Sousa, Douro, and Tâmega Rivers in the North of Portugal. For architecture geeks (or people like me) any itinerary here is the perfect one.
Again, the person behind the counter knew the product very well and was quick to point out that the route exists to promote local heritage and architecture. The more people visit, the more money goes into restoring buildings and maintaining others.
The program is also flexible. You can either plan your own itinerary (they will arrange to open up the monuments for you and even have someone guide you along if you want to) or choose one of the existing ones. Whatever you choose, you always get the same thing: a history lesson mixed with local culture and local cuisine.
Remember, decentralizing is the key to fight overtourism.