Lisbon's Belem Tower is a UNESCO monument. // © 2017 iStock
Feature image (above): Lisbon at night // © 2017 iStock
Until recently, many clients wouldn’t have been able to point out Portugal on a map, and suggesting travel there might have netted you a blank stare.
Maybe it’s the financial crisis that severely damaged Portugal’s economy, or the idea that European travel has become synonymous with trips to France, Italy and Spain. Whatever the reason, it’s a mindset that would have left 15th-century Portuguese conquistadors shaking their heads in disbelief. Back then, the tiny country possessed a colonizing might that rivaled Spain, forests that made nobles drool and shorelines that proved perfect for palatial homes.
In an effort to enjoy Portugal’s former glory, operators across the country have been toiling away, crafting tourism offerings and banking on the idea that travelers would once again be interested in visiting.
And that time has come: In 2017, Portugal is hot.
These days, you’ll find the destination on the yearly "must-see" lists released by notable publications and on the tips of expat tongues.
It helps that the world’s appetite for a “safe country” has grown in appeal, and Portugal is ranked among the top five most peaceful countries on the planet, according to the "2016 Global Peace Index" from the Institute for Economics and Peace.
From the charm of Lisbon to the call of the Algarve; from the wines in Douro Valley to the thermal springs of the Azores; and from the castles of Sintra to the fashion-forward streets of Cascais, Portugal is poised for its moment in the tourism sun.
The only questions that remain to be answered are where to start and how long to stay? Here’s how travel agents can narrow clients' choices and craft trips with destinations that deliver exactly what they’re after.
The Foodie: Lisbon
Travelers should arrive to Lisbon hungry. (If they leave thinner than they came, they’re doing it wrong.) The lasting remnants of those early expeditions of Portuguese explorers to South America, Asia and Africa can be found within the myriad of spices and flavors now regarded as typical in Portuguese cuisine. Every taste has a story and a connection to a history that is as interesting as the food itself.
During food tours of the city from operator Culinary Backstreets, former journalist Celia Pedroso offers insights that enhance the tasting experience. On my trip, we learned about how Lisbon’s custards developed because clergy used egg whites to starch their robes and had to come up with a use for the yolks. We sipped "ginja" (sour cherry liquor) with an 88-year-old local in the shop where he has worked since 1945. And we discussed how the Portuguese "carne de vinha d’alhos" transformed into Goan "vindaloo" (an Indian curry dish) after people in the colony tried to reproduce the meal but lacked the wine to do so. As we sampled tasty snacks, we also took in the architecture of each neighborhood.
The Romantic: Sintra
Castle lovers; people who are fascinated by the well-to-dos of centuries past; and those who simply appreciate a strollable park, peaceful gardens and beautiful design will fall in love with Sintra. An easy 40-minute train ride from Lisbon, Sintra sits on the edge of the Sintra-Cascais Natural Park and at the foot of the Sintra Mountains. To describe the UNESCO World Heritage Site as “pretty” would be like describing the Mona Lisa as “a painting.” Though it's an accurate description, it falls short of adequately conveying the town’s magic.
Sintra was the dream destination for Portuguese elite, who sought out its cooler climate to build elaborate palaces and estates for when they needed an escape from the city. There are more than 10 national monuments in the area, but they are separated across steep hills and challenging trails.
The trick to a successful visit: good walking shoes, a light jacket and plenty of time, as Sintra isn’t visited as much as it is absorbed. Rushing through the area or attempting to see it all in a day would be a mistake; instead, stick to one or two key sites.
Start with Quinta da Regaleira estate, constructed in 1904 by a wealthy Portuguese businessman, and its 10-acre gardens, which hold symbols that refer to the Knights Templar. The candy-colored Pena Palace, one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal, is also well worth exploring for a half day. Need to build in a break? Take a breather in Sintra’s historic center, which offers many shops and cafes. Visitors can people-watch while keeping their eye on the gothic Palacio Nacional Sintra and munching on the famous "travesseiros" (almond pastries) sold at Casa Piriquita bakery nearby.
The Community Seeker: Cascais
Cascais, a town of about 200,000 inhabitants located west of Lisbon, sports five-star hotels, stunning summer homes and a 20-mile coastline of golden-sand beaches and clear, azure waters. Some 20 percent of its residents are people who came to Cascais from around the world, fell in love with the city and never left. As a result, more than 120 nationalities make up its diverse, worldly and wealthy population. Add to that the approximately 450,000 international visitors who pass through each year, and you have the makings of a city buzzing with interesting conversations.
Leisure ranks high as an interest here and draws tourists seeking the same. The town has a thriving arts scene and boasts around 17 museums. You’ll find mosaic-tiled sidewalks in the city center; arresting public art sculptures and murals; and historic fortresses and lookouts.
Families with young kids will love the area home to the luxury Martinhal Lisbon Cascais Family Hotel, which is accessible to almost 62 miles of walking and bicycle paths and offers rental bikes and a kids’ club.
If Cascais seems to have this holiday destination thing down pat, it’s for good reason. The city was first named an official royal summer destination spot in 1870, and it is often referred to as the “Cote d’Azur of Portugal.” But don’t let its fancy suiting fool you. Locals will happily share the city’s sullied history, which includes pirates who lured passing ships into the coast to rob them. Those stolen riches would become the foundation for the nobles who went on to rule (and holiday on) the land.
The Village Stroller: The Algarve
The Algarve, along Portugal’s southern coast, is a region most tourists know best — clients will often beeline from the airport in Lisbon or Faro for their spot on the area’s beautiful beaches. But despite the swells in population (especially in July and August), many of the local fishing villages that dot the region have managed to retain their local nature. Guests will feel this even more so during the winter or shoulder seasons, when prices drop and the weather is cooler but the views are no less stunning.
Options here are endless, but the farther travelers stray from Faro, the more likely they’ll be to get a true sense of village life. Renting a car is recommended. Advise clients to head east to Tavira for a town that retains much of its original old-world charm with large community squares and quiet beaches. Albufeira offers a more typical beach stay, while Lagos — which was once a major trading post — will appeal to history buffs. To the west, Sagres is a pretty town with a mix of military forts, local restaurants worth lingering in and quiet beach alcoves in which to spend the afternoon. If time permits, clients should drive up the western Algarve, which is perfectly situated for day trips. They can end the day viewing a stunning sunset in the tiny fishing village of Azenha do Mar, home to a popular restaurant of the same name and incredible views from cliffs overlooking the North Atlantic Ocean.
The Wine Aficionado: Porto
To visit Portugal and not sample the fruits of the vine would be to have never really gone at all. Reputable reds and whites are available throughout the country, but for a fulsome immersion, wine lovers should head north. Porto, the country’s second-largest city, and its neighboring Douro Valley are at the heart of port wine production. There, rolling green hills and terraced vineyards sit in direct contrast with the bustling cities farther south. The coastal breezes and cooler climate make it perfect for port-makers and visitors alike.
Start a client’s exploration of Porto with the grapes. A great way to explore this region is by booking one of the many river cruises that sail the Douro River. Visitors can travel in style on luxury ships that stop in quaint villages along the river to explore the offerings at various wineries. Travelers can continue their “research” in the UNESCO World Heritage city of Porto, where they’ll be able to slip into gorgeous bars set in historic squares and pair drinks with award-winning cuisine. The "ribeira" (riverfront) district has a good selection of bars from which to choose, and hosts here will be well versed in the subtleties of each pour.
The Island Hopper: The Azores
With nine islands to choose from in the Azores — an autonomous region off the coast of Portugal — travelers can change their viewpoint as often as they like. The archipelago boasts varying landscapes and a mix of experiences that are as laid-back or intense as clients choose. For the ultimate adventure, send travelers hopping between the islands on flights or ferries.
First, they can fly to Sao Miguel Island to explore the waterfront Ponta Delgada, which is walkable and offers a first glimpse into the island’s vibe.
Paradise can be found by straying farther afield. On Sao Miguel, head for the parish of Furnas. Clients can get pampered at Furnas Boutique Hotel, which offers 10 spa treatment rooms, indoor and outdoor thermal swimming pools and more. Or, book them a guide for an informative hike along forested trails to the mystical Lagoa do Fogo (Lake of Fire).
And when guests are ready to investigate the archipelago further, let their whims be your guide. Will it be exploring lava tubes on Terceira Island or climbing Mount Pico, a strato-volcano on Pico Island? The Azores offers a bounty of activities for all types of clients. They can take a dip in natural swimming pools along the rocky shores of Sao Jorge Island; escape the crowds on Flores Island; chat with locals over gin and tonics at Peter’s Cafe Sport bar on Faial Island; and whale and dolphin watch throughout the islands.
And there’s still more: The island of Madeira is also part of Portugal.
After a two-hour flight from Lisbon, guests will find even more breathtaking hikes, sumptuous meals and opportunities to engage in Portuguese culture. Felicidades!