All About Portugal
Tiny Portugal, snuggled below Spain as the westernmost nation of mainland Europe, was a global powerhouse from the 15th to 18th centuries, its fortunes borne high by the exploits of its daring sea explorers during the Age of Discovery… and then it faded. Earthquakes, Napoleon, and the loss of its biggest New World colony, Brazil, turned Portugal into something of a backwater—in the process helping preserve its glorious architecture, laid-back vibe, gorgeous countryside, and distinctive Iberian culture for the ages. Lisbon is known for its tangle of medieval streets in the Alfama and panoramic view from the castle of São Jorge, a lively cafe and arts scene, and in the suburb of Belém, from which many great explorers set sail, the 16th century Mosteiro dos Jerónimos with Vasco de Gama’s tomb. Inland from Lisbon, hilltop Sintra has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its centuries-worth of fanciful pleasure palaces, convents, and gardens built by royalty and the nobility. A few hours north of Lisbon by train, Arab-styled streets of the historic university town of Coimbra beckon.
Porto is the capital of the north, a gritty-pretty port city with a medieval riverfront district under baroque church towers where you can sip their famed wines. Óbidos is the postcard Portuguese town of whitewashed houses trimmed with bright colors, all of it girded by a stone defensive wall—and ownership of it was the traditional wedding gift from Portuguese kings to their queens. Portugal has something for every type of visitor, from fado music to seafood feasts to gorgeous Moorish-influenced hand-painted ceramics. Pilgrims flock to the holy town of Fátima, wine enthusiasts to the vineyards and almond groves of the northern Douro River Valley, and sun-seeking hedonists (and hikers and mountain bikers) to the the southern Algarve coast and its cliff-backed beaches.
When to Go to Portugal: Early spring and early fall are the best times to visit Portugal. Summer is frankly too hot for anything other than sizzling on a beach—and legions of Europeans come here to do just that. Winter can get rainy along the coast and snowy inland, though it’s actually not that cold (averaging in the high 50sºF), making it often pleasant time to explore without the higher-season crowds.
Events and Holidays in Portugal:
|On Portugal's "Day of the Kings," carolers sing door to door, children put on plays and pageants, and friends sit down to share a traditional Bolo Rei (crown-shaped "King cake") baked with both a good-luck charm and a bean (whoever gets the bean has to buy the cake next year).|
|Óbidos's medieval narrow streets and grassy lawn before the castle are filled with stalls and tents showcasing everything chocolate, with plenty to sample and purchase and chocolate cooking activities for kids.|
|Fantas an international film festival focused mainly on fantasy, horror, sci-fi movies—both commercial and indie—in Porto, Portugal.|
|This is the main pilgrimage gathering at one of Europe's holiest shrines, Fátima, celebrating the Apparition of the Virgin Mary with a candlelit procession the first night and a closing procession the next day. (Repeated October 12–23)|
|This jazz festival in a small town on the coast just west of Lisbon features concerts by top international jazz musicians and groups.|
|Serralves em Festa is one of the largest contemporary arts festivals in Europe, a free, non-stop, 40-hour party in Porto including concerts, dance, theater, family-oriented activities, circus shows, and fairs.|
|In mid-July, the walled city of Óbidos goes full-on Middle Ages with a bustling marketplace, hundreds of costumed performers, jousts and other contests by the castle, and medieval dinners.|
|Portugal's version of Burning Man has its roots in a psychedelic festival of trance, house, and electronic music accompanied by a broad variety of visual art exhibits and tons of neo-hippie spirituality.|
|The picturesque fishing village of Nazaré is named for a statue of the Virgin brought from Nazareth, the childhood home of Jesus, and this annual celebration of its namesake includes bullfights, musical concerts, and folk dancing.|