Under the radar: Portugal’s hidden gems

December 12, 2013 at 8:00 AM
Beautiful Alentejo is often overlooked (Photo: Francisco Antunes)

Beautiful Alentejo is often overlooked (Photo: Francisco Antunes)

Portugal is a great destination if you’re looking for beautiful sunsets, picturesque beaches, great wine, and good value for money, but underrated and overlooked is the perfect description for the Portuguese countryside that lies between the popular Algarve region and the bustling city of Lisbon. Although these well-travelled tourist hubs have plenty to offer tourists, Portugal has some hidden gems off the beaten track, proving that there is more to Portuguese breaks than beach holidays in the Algarve. We explore some of Portugal’s hidden gems that fly under the tourist radar.

Alentejo’s secret treasures

Evora's macabre Capela dos Ossos (Photo: Ken and Nyetta)

Evora’s macabre Capela dos Ossos (Photo: Ken and Nyetta)

Alentejo is the sleepy strip of Portugal that lies between the Algarve to the south and Lisbon to the north. The coastline is pristine and life in the small villages in the tranquil Alentejo countryside is unhurried. You can’t help but unwind in such peaceful surroundings where everything slows down.

The city of Evora is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is probably the most underrated city in Portugal. Tucked between the maze of Moorish squares and cobbled alleys of this beautiful medieval walled city you’ll find the ruins of a 1st century Roman temple, as well as Aqueduto da Agua de Prata, and the macabre Capela dos Ossos  at the Church of St. Francis. The chapel is a room decorated with the bones of 5,000 monks.

To the west of Evora, you’ll find Dos Almendres, an ancient megalithic site where 92 stones stand upright on a hillside. In the same area you’ll find caves with rock art and a burial chamber.

Alentejo is also the perfect place to put on your walking shoes and explore the unspoilt countryside where time seems to stand still. Although the coastal area is hilly and rugged, the flat interior makes cycling and hiking a pleasure. When you need to rest weary feet you can stop at charming hilltop villages like Monsaraz, where pottery shops and cafés line the cobbled street. Here you can put your feet up and enjoy local cuisine accompanied by the excellent regional wine.

As far as value for money is concerned, you just don’t get better value than holiday rentals in Alentejo.

Outdoor adventures in Arouca

Arouca Geopark is full of interesting geological formations (Photo: claudiofranco.net)

Arouca Geopark is full of interesting geological formations (Photo: claudiofranco.net)

In the northern part of Portugal, to the southeast of the city of Porto is Arouca, which is home to the Arouca Geopark. The area is renowned for its geological heritage, with 41 geosites within the park boundary including the Canelas Slate Quarry and the Castanheira Nodular Granite, which are known as “rocks giving birth to stones” (pedras parideiras).

The protected landscape of mountains, valleys and rivers is home to 14 marked hiking trails. There are also small villages and rest stops along the way where you can take a break and enjoy the views of the rugged landscape and colourful wild flowers. If you’re looking for outdoor adventure with some fascinating geology thrown in, this is definitely the place to be.

Beira’s wine, cheese, mountains and museums

The quaint village of Monsanto is like a living museum (Photo: Javier Habladorcito)

The quaint village of Monsanto is like a living museum (Photo: Javier Habladorcito)

For some off the beaten path adventures you can also head to the province of Beira, which is located in the northern half of the country. The region is famous for its wonderful selection of locally produced wines, including sparkling and fortified wines.

In the province of Beira you’ll find Portugal’s highest town, Guarda, which is at an elevation of 3465ft. Guarda has an impressive Gothic cathedral with a magnificent white marble Renaissance altar and beautiful vaulted ceilings. The cathedral overlooks the town square and nearby you’ll find the Town Museum, which is housed in the Bishops old palace. The museum has an interesting collection of paintings and archaeological treasures.

Guarda also makes a great base from which to explore the Serra da Estrela. This magnificent mountain range is perfect for skiing in winter and hiking during the summer months when the landscape is awash with colourful wild flowers. The sheep that graze on the mountains here provide milk which is used to produce local Beira cheese which is popular around the country.

If you’re looking for a taste of rural life in Portugal don’t miss visiting the delightful village of Monsanto. Built between enormous boulders, the village is like a living museum, seemingly untouched by time. Although it’s hard to reach, the tiny streets, granite houses, Romanesque chapel and magnificent views, make reaching Monsanto well worth the effort. Don’t forget to stop at one of the cafés that have rooftop terraces with splendid views of the countryside that surrounds Monsanto.

Tourism on the Tagus

Castelo de Almoural on the Tagus River (Photo: vitor)

Castelo de Almoural on the Tagus River (Photo: vitor)

The Tagus (Tejo) River is located in the central part of Portugal and empties into the Atlantic Ocean near Lisbon. Although there are plenty of popular tourist attractions along the river, there are also some hidden gems that are worth visiting.

Castelo de Almourol is one of those. The small castle was built on an island in the middle of the Tagus River near the town of Tancos, and is only accessible by boat. You can climb to the top of the tower and see the beautiful views downstream.  The well-preserved castle is a testament to the influence of the Knights Templar in Portugal.

Another Tagus treasure that is worth visiting is the town of Almada. Although this town is actually on the outskirts of Lisbon, it’s often overlooked by tourists. If you want to soak up the sun Fonte da Telha beach is the perfect place to do it. Although it’s popular with locals, you won’t find many tourists here. It’s also a great place for the adventurous to learn how to windsurf.

Have you been to Portugal? Let us know if you’ve come across any hidden gems on your travels.