It’s January, it’s dreary, and everyone’s dreaming of a holiday. England recently received good news: fully vaxxed passengers and under 18s only need to take a LFT upon arrival back home. Self-isolation on arrival has also been scrapped – hoorah!
So now things are a little easier, where to go? Portugal’s still popular, since its borders remain open to UK dwellers. While you might’ve ticked off the Algarve and Lisbon (and if not, check out our guide), there are truly stunning areas to visit just beyond the tourist traps.
Gothic Sintra, retro Cascais, beachy Comporta and sleepy Alentejo: destinations well worth exploring, each markedly different from the last. Grab a cup of tea, settle in and get inspired. Here’s your hit list…
Why go? A cutesy fishing village 40 minutes away from frenetic Lisbon, here you’ll find little sandy beaches, a buzzy marina and a handful of super swanky restaurants. The area generally gets sunny weather, so avoid the touristy promenade in high summer. Plan (and book) ahead, and you can expect a full weekend of breezy bike rides, life-affirming hikes, fresh seafood, stunning scenery and beachside cocktails. No trip is complete without two scoops of strawberry and basil ice cream at Santini.
What to do: Hire a bike and freewheel along the coast, stopping at Casa de Santa Maria’s lighthouse and seaside cliff formation Boca do Inferno. Continue to Guincho beach for some surfing, or drop in at Museu do Mar Rei Dom Carlos I for your culture fix.
Lunch: The coolest spot has to be vibey Hifen overlooking Cascais Bay (and planted directly opposite the superb Villa Cascais, our favourite hotel in the area). Reserve a couple of hours for craft cocktails and sharing plates.
Dinner: Dress up for a heady night of deft cooking and dangerously good lychee cocktails at Zôzô, a living room-like space filled with trinkets, tucked away on a quiet street. Plump for linguine with Spanish prawns, or beef wellington on a dollop of truffled potato purée, finishing up with a ‘raspberry kiss’. Elegant, colourful and all the fun.
Making a weekend of it? Stay at Villa Cascais
Villa Cascais offers a classy, boutique hotel experience in complete contrast to the homogenous, sprawling resorts that surround it. It’s a design lover’s dream: picture a 19th Century aristocratic residence, each room now swathed in block colour from top to bottom. A handful of bedrooms are awash with green, others cornflower blue.
Our favourite (which we lovingly came to call ‘the Big Blue’) boasted a small balcony looking out onto the Bay of Cascais. Just below sits a terrace, made for sinking Aperol Spritzes at sunset. When the sun disappears, venture inside for a field tour around Portugal via wines by the glass in Reserva da Villa.
Got the kids with you? Stay at Martinhal Cascais
A properly child-friendly hotel that doesn’t skimp on style. Rooms are large and luxurious, a smattering of bougie duplex villas offering a more private experience for families. At every turn you’ll marvel at the attention to detail that makes sure you and your family are having a belter of a time: think bike hire, zip wires, football pitches, outdoor soft play areas and even a trampoline built into the ground.
All seamlessly blend into the hotel’s chic surrounds, flanked by stunning cork trees and gorgeous swimming pools for everybody to enjoy together. Well, except the adult’s-only pool. Take advantage of the hotel childcare offer and get your lengths in, before propping up the poolside bar.
Expect play areas by the breakfast buffet so you can eat your omelette in peace. An expansive kids and baby menu includes ‘Little Gourmet’, catering to future food critics. Everything’s available in half portions, too. Hooray!
Chances are, you might not’ve heard of Comporta. Seasoned visitors and locals keep this little gem quiet.
Picture a sleepy seaside village boasting about 60km of completely pristine white sands. It’s forbidden for them to be built on. Year-round, you’ll find world-class seafood and each Autumn, the surf becomes fantastic.
Why go? I’d book it for the people watching alone. This is the type of place that attracts incredibly fashionable and socially-conscious folk from the world over, each adding to the air of laid back, traveller cool. The longer you stay, the more whispers you hear about visitors past. Kate Moss and Carla Bruni have been known to spend summers here.
What to do: Make like Madonna and Shakira, trotting along the stunning empty beach with Cavalos na Areia horse riding school.
Lunch: It has to be Restaurant Sal (Madonna’s reported favourite). Gorge on supremely fresh seafood and white rice; simple dishes require just a little salt and a squeeze of lemon, letting the day’s fresh catch (and gorgeous beach surrounds) speak for themselves.
Craving a true escape? Hide in a Cocoon Eco Lodge
Think ultimate privacy, with a magnificent view of the natural landscape. Cocoon’s network of Lodges and Suites boast spacious outdoor decks perfect for meals, and finally reading your book. If you do want to drop back into society (occasionally) there’s free internet access, and. a TV. But do make sure you do as we did, arriving with a boot-full of fresh Portuguese produce to throw together in the fully equipped kitchen.
Outside, there’s a stunning biological pool to dip in, plus free bikes to roam the surrounding plains. Take time to explore the biological vegetable garden, while the kids explore the garden area (complete with a treehouse and slack line and swings). If you’re travelling as a family, we highly recommend a T1 Suite, which feature bunk beds.
Why go? These vast, wild plains still feel somewhat undiscovered, despite a scattering of rustic farmhouse-style accommodation and one or two luxe hotels starting to move in. With vast horizons, towering cliffs and endless stretches of natural beauty, here’s much to find here, too. Foodies travel from afar to sample the city of Évora’s unparalleled regional fare, while the hilly and jagged coastline enjoys amazing seafood.
What to do: Pull on your hiking boots and tackle São Mamede Natural Park, or set off to Rota Vicentina on the West Coast for genuinely breathtaking views. Walkers should make a beeline for Porto Côvo, a spectacular coastal hiking route, so large it takes around four days to tackle in total (but has hardly any elevation gain, #winning).
Lunch: Plan your visit around a long lunch at Alma Nómada Food Experience, paying no mind to the slightly offbeat holiday park location. We can’t stress enough how exciting chef Ricardo Leite’s cooking is, whether he’ s making a mean Thai curry with crispy wild shrimps, or stuffing pasties with tender piglet.
Prawn rice, cooked in a wood oven and shared between two, is casually excellent. Wine is expertly chosen, too. We loved our citrusy Vendima Tardia Vital (hailing from Portugal’s Casal Figueira) so much, we left with a second bottle.
Walking the trails? Rest up at Herdade da Matinha
The word ‘idyllic’ gets about halfway to describing the laidback, homespun charm of Herdade da Matinha. Imagine inheriting a country house from an older relative, that just so happens to sit bang in the middle of bucolic walking paths travellers fly from around the world to explore. That’s what happened to owners Mónica and Alfredo, who’ve spent years turning the traditional buildings into a riot of colour, their flair for modern design (and passion for local cuisine) shining through.
Two large swimming pools beckon you to lay back and drink in the silence, but if you’re the active type, you’ll be well occupied. Long runs and horse rides (the hotel has its own stables) are enjoyed on the surrounding network of trails, and you can surf at nearby Malhão beach. Book on to a ceramics workshops or yoga class, before ordering a fabulous picnic lunch to enjoy anywhere in the expansive, sun-dappled grounds. True bliss.
Heaven for romantic literature lovers and architecture geeks, mystical Sintra is an enchanting playground filled with turrets, tunnels and gardens. Its sublime beauty has attracted literary greats the world over. Lord Byron touched down there after being castigated outside a Lisbon theatre by an angry husband, the “delicious land” inspiring his epic poem, ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’.
Why go? If you’re a bookworm with a big imagination, hours can be lost in the Myths & Legends museum, exploring the area’s myriad tall tales. Duck into Sintra National Museum in the middle of the Old Town, before stopping for a bica (coffee shot) in the square.
What to do: Save half a day for Pena Palace (the huge yellow one) towering high above the Sintra Mountains and the Portuguese Riviera. Drawig on the Islamic principles of symmetry, Monserrate park and palace mustn’t be missed.
Lunch: Climb a winding alleyway up to Sintra Terrace, where you can toast the astonishing view with a good bottle of Douro Valley wine.
Don’t want to break the spell? Sleep over at Sintra Marmòris Palace
If you want to fully immerse yourself in the romance of it all, Sintra Marmòris Palace draws heavily on the theme – picture a fairytale-like, deliberately dated dwelling in the very heart of the town. The Sintra Cultural Landscape is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and you’re right in the middle of it. Meals and drinks receptions are a bizarre, calming affair; breads, cheese and fruit quietly served in front of this utterly breathtaking backdrop while peacocks preen themselves on the grass.
Though in need of a refurb in places (if words like chintz and kitsch make you squirm, run a mile), its charm lies in its carefully restored 19th century detail. Quirky design choices will make you giggle (think TVs hidden in giant gold mirrors, heavy pelmets and marble everything) but it’s all part of the fun.
Straddling Sintra and Cascais? Stay at Penha Longa Resort
Sintra lies 17km north of Cascais (and they’re connected by rail and road), so it makes sense to hit both in one go. Penha Longa Resort sits between the two hot spots, handily set within the Sintra National Park – ideal for a super posh sleepover. It’s the sort of enormous, superbly high end hotel Donald Trump probably loves, its golf courses ranked in Continental Europe’s Top 30.
Outstanding food and excellent staff would tempt us back again (not to mention the unforgettable pool setting, from which you can watch golfers thwack balls for miles across manicured grounds). The stonkingly posh sushi-based tasting menu at Michelin-starred Midori is a delight, melding Japanese tradition with Portuguese flair.
Menus Kiri or Yama are made up of eight or nine ‘moments’, each more theatrical than the last. Gorge on lobster sashimi with pennyroyal, cured crayfish with carrot from the Algarve, mushroom and truffle Ochazuke, or beltfish tempura with banana and miso purée. Sweet and umami desserts are dramatically unveiled in a cloud of dry ice.
Don’t leave without taking a turn around the Penha Longa Monastery and cloisters, a beautiful open-air space attached to a 16th Century chapel. Puff your way to the top of the huge rock visible from the hotel, too. Penha Longa means ‘long rock’ after all, its fascinating origin story dating back to 1355.
Where to stay: Penhalonga.com
Travel rules are forever changing in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, so be sure to check Gov.uk before you go. At the time of writing, trips to mainland Portugal from the UK require proof of a negative PCR or antigen test, and a Passenger Locator Form to be filled in.
We had a truly fuss-free experience with Covguard‘s supervised at-home Fit To Fly PCR test service. For peace of mind (and a same day turnaround) we booked a Premium expedited test the day before we flew. The process was tailored to our needs by a consultant, who arranged for an assistant to visit our home at an allotted time. We were helped to take the test correctly, then the swab was taken away and hand-delivered to a London laboratory. Results arrived in our inbox just a few hours later. Job done!
We book transfers with Daytrip in Portugal, and they’ve not let us down yet. This is a direct or sightseeing service with consistently considerate, kind drivers who can’t do enough for you, operating all over Portugal. Highly recommended.