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Experts say Portugal is one of the top 10 countries to visit this year – and we agree! If you do too and you’re planning a trip to one of Europe’s most affordable, safe and historic nations, consider our insider picks for Portugal’s hottest destinations of 2016:
If you’ve ever wondered where James Bond stays when he’s in Portugal, look no farther than Cascais, a quaint yet upscale oceanside retreat less than 20 miles outside Lisbon.
The environs of Cascais are perfect for the traveler who wants to be near Lisbon, but not necessarily in Lisbon. Known for yachting, golf, tennis, motorcycle racing and beautiful beaches, including nearby surf spot Guincho, the area has long been a draw for the international jet set, who are lured by the former as well as the Casino Estoril – the largest casino in Europe and the WWII inspiration for Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale.
Also don’t miss the nearby mountain town of Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage site for its Romantic-era National Palace and other architecture, on any car tour or train trip to Cascais and the Estoril coast.
A four-hour flight from the East Coast of the U.S. and two hours from the Portuguese mainland, the Azorean archipelago sits in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, in some respects nearly a land that time forgot. The world’s long indifference has worked out very well indeed—in 2014 the Azores was voted the most sustainable vacation destination not just in Europe but in the entire world. That distinction and a host of other travel honors in the last few years have meant goodbye Portugal’s best-kept secret and hello ecotourism hot spot.
The attention has resulted in upgrades for tourists—the deregulation of flights, a brand-new modern highway on Sao Miguel, more cruise ship opportunities, and a bevy of new places to stay at and ways to have fun. Check out the Azores for whale-watching, sport-fishing, scuba-diving, hiking, golfing, horse-riding, kayaking, surfing and more—including what some in the travel field like to call “geotourism” (exploring the volcanic landscape, including hot springs, fumaroles, craters and ravines). And May through mid-October on the island of Terceira, don’t miss the touradas à corda (“bull on a rope”) festivities—a particularly Azorean form of bull-running, in which the bull is never killed but the bull handlers may experience serious rope burn.
Think of the Douro as the original Napa Valley. Seriously—as the first demarcated wine region in the world with some of the most native grapes—it really is the original Napa, Bordeaux and Burgundy all wrapped up in one.
As a wine center, the region is known for port as well as countless other wines that span the flavor spectrum. In fact, it’s so important that it has earned UNESCO World Heritage status. Add to that, another UNESCO listing for the region’s biggest and most historical city, Porto, where the Douro River flows into the Atlantic, and another for the prehistoric art sites in the Coa area that date back to around 20,000 B.C., and the Douro Valley is well worth a long meander (Travel & Leisure thinks so too!)
Sandy beaches, hip hotels and restaurants, Age of Discovery history and stunning limestone cliffs, Lagos has it all. And even though the Algarve region is consistently voted the number one place in the world for seniors to retire, Lagos is better known for youthful and exuberant nightlife. In summer, the music and parties spill onto the beaches, which are among the most popular anywhere in Europe and just a boat ride from the magical Benagil sea caves.
But take a step back from the coast and you enter a place of reflection and tranquility. Did we mention that Lagos has its own wine region, famous for its muscatel appellation? Or that it’s near the national parks of Sines and Faro; close to Monchique, a spa town in the mountains; and just a quick jaunt from Silves and Loulé, two towns popular with the Catholic pilgrim set? Truly, whether driving through or taking the train, there’s a little something for everyone in Lagos and the Algarve.
Even in a country known for its history, Evora stands out as a living museum of ancient Portugal. The name itself dates back 2,000 years to the Celtic-era “ebora,” meaning yew tree.
Here you can experience existing Roman ruins—temple, city walls, bath—along with Moorish arches and buildings from the Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque periods. But for many, the pièce de résistance is the Capela dos Ossos (literally, “chapel of bones”), which was built by a 16th-century Franciscan monk out of human bones and skulls.
After the bone chapel, you may need a drink. Luckily, Evora is a great jumping off spot for tasting local delicacies and wines in the emerging Alentejo wine region and for visiting other notable gems in the area, including Arraialos, Estremoz, Vila Vicosa, Reguengos de Monsaraz, site of neolithic megaliths, and Marvao. You will not go thirsty in Evora.
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