Portugal may be best known for its Algarve, that stretch of sandy beaches and sparkling seas that starts at Faro, runs to Cape St. Vincent and then stretches to the north. Add to that the fact that Portugal is one of the cheapest eurozone countries (cheaper than Spain) and there are plenty of cheap flights to Portugal from UK and Irish airports and so far, so summer holiday, but there is much more to it than that.
Apart from the perfect beaches, there are national parks and nature reserves, mountains and rivers. The Atlantic coast is wild and offers the swells so beloved of surfers. More gently, perhaps, the Algarve is heaven for golfers. The Azores, a group of nine volcanic islands 1,500km from the mainland, and Madeira are also part of Portugal.
Portugal's capital, Lisbon, is a beautiful old city, lying across seven hills and bordered by the River Tagus.
The Portuguese know how to live well, celebrating high days with gusto. Accompanying the hearty - and healthy - cuisine (salt cod is a specialty) and good wines (including Port and Madeira of course) there is a laidback "coffee and café" culture.
Portugal enjoys a Mediterranean climate. Summers in Portugal can reach 29 degrees and are hot and dry. However, breezes from the sea are a moderating influence. The northwest parts of the country get heavy rains from the end of November to the start of March.
When to fly to Portugal
A favourite destination of European holidaymakers the school holidays are high season (particularly in the coastal areas) - July and August, October and February half-terms, Easter and Christmas.
The low season months are January and February. Travel when the children are in school for lower rates and cheaper flights to Portugal.
March and April (with the exception of Easter) and October and November (with the exception of the half-term school holidays) are good times to visit Portugal. The weather is still good and the tourist crowds have receded.
Getting around Portugal
TAP Air Portugal, the national airline, offers domestic Portugal flights between Faro, Lisbon, Porto, the Azores and Madeira. If you are visiting the Azores, apart from airports in Ponta Delgada, Santa Maria and Angra, there are flights to the other islands and ferries between the islands.
Bus: there is a good, cheap bus system which connects the country's biggest cities and towns.
Train: the Alfa Pendular runs from Braga (north of Porto) to Lisbon and on to Faro. In addition, there are intercity and regional trains that offer a decent network throughout the country.
Lisbon also has an underground metro, and a ride in one of the city's ancient funicular railways (elevadores) is a tourist staple.
Taxis are cheap, but renting a car gives you complete freedom. Auto Jardim, Avis, Budget, Europcar, Hertz, Nationa/Alamo, Rentauto and Sixt are some of the car rental companies that can be found at the major airports.
Portugal insider information
- Madeira has a thriving ecotourism industry. There is, for example, a 2,500-acre ecological park above Funchal.
- Pay a visit to windswept Cape St. Vincent in the Algarve to look at the lighthouse. The cape - about 6km beyond Sagres (look out for the local lager) - is Europe's most southwestern point, and is where the ancients thought the world ended. It is also the site of the Battle of Cape St. Vincent (between Britain and Spain).
- Listen to some Fado - the Portuguese blues. The more popular forms of Fado are to be heard in cities by the sea, such as Lisbon or Porto.
- Portuguese souvenirs vary with the region. There's no such thing as a catch-all stick of rock really. From the Algarve bring back wicker crafts, straw hats and baskets, copper and tin objects, ceramics, and sweets made from figs, almonds and eggs. From the Azores, embroideries and lace, blankets and bedspreads, artificial flowers made with fish scales and blue and white ceramics. From Madeira, as well as embroideries, tapestries and wicker work, a pair of red-rimmed leather boots.
- Trivago is a handy website for user reviews of accommodation in Portugal. The site includes information on hotels in the Algarve, hotels in Lisbon and hotels in Porto.