Where to go in Portugal in 2018 (post-Lisbon Tourism Fair inspiration)
Shaped like a rectangle, with an area of 57297.86 square miles and an extensive coast covering half the territory (if you leave off the Azores and Madeira archipelagos), where to go in Portugal in 2018 has to be the most challenging question to answer.
With Portugal tourism booming, it seems like every glossy travel magazine or travel blog has covered every inch of the map. 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 always make 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 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 differently. Some smaller tourism boards connect tourists to local artisans, businesses, and producers (like wine, oranges, avocados).
You can’t see this only from a one-sided perspective, so I believe cultural tourism is increasingly important at a broader scale.
One of the best weapons against overtourism is not to stop tourism 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).
Considerations and destinations selection criteria
A bit of context before we start. The BTL – Bolsa de Turismo de Lisboa (Lisbon Tourism Fair) is a 5-day event where the first two are meant for industry professionals only (including hotels, tour guides, content writers, journalists).
On the last three days, 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. Travelers came here for inspiration, discounts, and, I’m sure, to see if their trusted travel agent was really making their dream trip as cheap 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, looking for story angles and destinations worth mentioning. Now, to be clear, I lack some essential networking skills, namely chit-chatting, which may or may not make me sound arrogant.
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.
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 believe the following list of places to visit in Portugal is relatively 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 destination’s value 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 booths, overflowing with stacks of brochures, I waited more than 10 minutes to talk to someone before giving up.
Although the fair had opened two hours before, some of them were empty, with no signs of anyone ever showing up.
Flores & Corvo Islands (Azores)
Usually, I’m very critical of how tourism is handled back home. Still, 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 central 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). 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 more challenging and, usually, more expensive. Not to mention that both Corvo and Flores are UNESCO Biosphere Reserves which puts any development on the islands 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.
They brought local food, handicrafts, brochures from every local hotel, restaurant, or tour that couldn’t be there. Most importantly, they brought tons of knowledge of what Flores and Corvo can be and can never be as a destination.
Paraphrasing 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 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 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. 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 a 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 for 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.
The tiny booth of Vidigueira was the first one I approached, partly because I was intrigued. I love people with a good vibe and positive energy (especially that early in the morning, on 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.
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 part of Portugal like the plague because I’m not a beach person, and I always think it’s 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 passed through the Algarve booths without any intention to stop but only browsing to see if something caught my attention. My expectations were as low as they could be, which I think accounts for what 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.
Like what had happened at the Vidigueira booth, I introduced myself as a blogger who focuses on sustainable cultural tourism and asked why my readers would want to visit Silves. Well, I got a very polite History lesson on the city’s Islamic cultural heritage 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 to travel to Silves to tell you all about it. I’m intrigued and excited too!
Estremoz has been under my radar since the clay figures were listed on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. This was the only booth at the fair that I sought.
These figures’ production 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 was 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.
Rota do Românico
I had downloaded the Romanesque Route’s (Rota do Românico) mobile app one year ago, long before running 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 Sousa, Douro, and Tâmega Rivers in the North of Portugal. For architecture geeks, any itinerary here is the perfect one.
Again, the person behind the counter knew the product very well and quickly pointed out that the route exists to promote local heritage and architecture. The more people visit, the more money goes into restoring buildings and maintaining them.
The program is also flexible. You can either plan your own itinerary 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.