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Golden beaches, low prices: Portugal's most beautiful seaside destinations to visit in 2020

Originally a little whitewashed fishing village, Cascais became a summer residence for wealthy Lisboetas in the late 19th century
Originally a little whitewashed fishing village, Cascais became a summer residence for wealthy Lisboetas in the late 19th century Credit: getty

Trimming the western edge of mainland Europe, Portugal is a mere 135 miles (217km) wide, which means that its thousand miles or so of Atlantic coastline defines the country. Portugal gazes outwards, its back turned to Spain, facing the seas it navigated to bring a wealth of gold and spices to its shores, and it faces the distant horizons, where fishermen bravely went in search of cod.

Tales of those times still run in the veins of the Portuguese today, alongside the haunting melody of fado, which expresses saudade, or longing, for those who have set sail for distant lands. The words of the great 19th-century poet Fernando Pessoa perhaps say it best in “Portuguese Sea”: “God placed danger and the abyss in the sea,/But he also made it heaven’s mirror.”

The long coastline is extraordinarily diverse, from the mellow limestone cliffs of the Algarve to the dramatic granite mountains of the cooler north; but wind your way along it and you will find Portugal, its history, its heart and its soul, in every curve of the shore.  

While Portugal is divided into seven counties or districts, the country has also been split into five larger separate tourist regions, which have been used here for simplification. Within each region two standout towns have been highlighted, along with a nearby not-to-be-missed attraction, food and wine suggestions, and hotel recommendations. 

Porto and the north

The coast here is sometimes referred to as the Green Coast or Costa Verde, from the verdant vegetation that the wetter weather gives it. 

The country’s second-largest city, Porto, is where you fly to. There are connections from multiple airports in the UK via Ryanair (ryanair.com), BA (britishairways.com), easyJet (easyjet.com) and TAP (flytap.com), and the area is worth dallying in for a few days to enjoy the lovely beach at Foz, where the Douro river pours into the Atlantic Ocean, and to visit Porto’s wealth of ancient churches and contemporary museums. 

The beach at Foz Credit: GETTY

Head up the coast into the region of Minho, where life is still firmly rooted in tradition, with frequent folk festivals, street markets and bucolic countryside where ox-carts still rule. 

Considered the birthplace of the nation, and home to medieval Guimaraes, declared Portugal’s first capital city in 1139, this area remains remarkably untouched by tourism and the 21st century.

Go visit

Viana do Castelo 

In a beautiful setting on the Lima estuary, the streets of this historic town are lined with opulent mansions in Manueline, renaissance and baroque styles, built using the wealth with which the 16th-century explorers returned from their seafaring travels. 

The main square, Praca da Republica, with its notable 16th-century Misericodia building, three arcades of which are supported by caryatids, is at the centre of the town’s winding streets. The capital of Minho folk culture, there is a thriving handicraft industry here. 

The region of Minho is beautiful and affordable Credit: GETTY

Vila do Conde 

This small town was important as a shipbuilding centre in Portugal’s Golden Age of Discovery some 600 years ago. Now it is a tranquil fishing port known for its long tradition of lace-making. The lace museum is worth a visit, as is the 16th-century cathedral, for its ornate Manueline doorway. The historic centre is dominated by the 13th-century Monastery of Santa Clara, which overlooks the river.

The best beach

Protective wooden walkways lead through flower-scattered sand dunes to the vast expanse of sand that makes up Praia de Afife at Viana do Castelo. The strong waves here are ideal for surfers, while in the southern part of the beach a small river runs into the sea, sometimes forming a lagoon, which children will enjoy.

Head inland

About 45 minutes from the coast, on the forested slopes east of Braga, is Portugal’s most impressive religious sanctuary. The giant baroque stairway built of granite with whitewashed walls was devised in its zigzag form in 1722 as a meditative way of approaching an existing small shrine. (bomjesus.pt)

Bom Jesus at Braga Credit: GETTY
Eat up

One of the most impressive restaurants in Portugal, Casa de Cha da Boa Nova (casadechadaboanova.pt/en; £££) was built by Pritzker prize-winner Alvaro Siza Vieira, right on the rocks by the Atlantic. Go there for an early dinner, to add the pleasure of a beautiful sunset. Rui Paula’s Michelin-starred menu pays homage to the ocean it borders.

Casa de Cha da Boa Nova Credit: NELSON GARRIDO
Drink deep

Meaning “green wine”, vinho verde is not a grape variety, but a method of production typical in this part of Portugal, which releases the young wine (hence “green”), three to six months after the grapes are harvested. Gently sparkling and very refreshing, Soalheiro Alvarinho is one of the best.

Where to stay

On a budget: Villa C Boutique Hotel (villacboutiquehotel.com; doubles from around €100 including breakfast) is a clean-lined, design hotel just outside Vila do Conde and a short walk away from Azurara Beach.

In style: Open since September, Vila Foz, on the edge of Porto, has been converted from a 19th-century palace by leading designer Nini Andrade Silva. It is right on the sea front, offering wonderful views. (vilafozhotel.pt/en; doubles from around €250 including breakfast).

Central Portugal

The intense reflections of the light on the sea gave rise to this part of the coast being referred to as Costa de Prata (Silver Coast). Here, the bracing waves make the coast a surfer’s paradise. Inland, the region is rich with historical monuments, from castles to abbeys, while the vineyards from the Bairrada region, just south of Aveiro, are worth exploring. Fly to Porto or Lisbon.

Go visit

Aveiro 

Described as “the Venice of Portugal” because of its canals and the colourful, gondola-like boats, or moliceiros, which navigate them, the city is also celebrated for the bright art nouveau façades that line its main canal. Visit the fish market, filled with the eels and sea snails that feature in local cuisine. 

Aveiro Credit: GETTY

Nazare

Best visited out of season, for this is a popular – and crowded – summer resort. Nazare has a glorious beach that curves around a bay backed by high cliffs. Its origins as a fishing village are evident and it maintains old traditions such as the regional dress that the women wear in the fish market. 

The beach at Nazare Credit: GETTY
The best beach

Sheltered by cliffs, Praia de Concha at Marinha Grande is a small beach, with its name concha, or seashell, due to its shape. It’s tucked into a beautiful bay, offering calmer conditions than most beaches on this stretch of coast, where the Atlantic pounds the shore.

Head inland

Driving inland for around 20 minutes brings you to the beautiful hilltop town of Obidos. Its whitewashed houses and churches are enclosed within 14th-century castellated walls. Do try the local ginja, a handmade sour cherry liqueur that is often served in a chocolate cup.

Obidos Credit: getty
Eat up

Considered the best restaurant in Aveiro, Salpoente (salpoente.pt; ££) is housed in a couple of former salt warehouses and serves traditional Portuguese food with a contemporary twist, which draws on the seafood on its doorstep.

Drink deep

The Bairrada region produces some delicious wines, with Caves Sao Joao’s red (baga, touriga nacional grapes) from 2014 a good choice with food.

Where to stay

On a budget: Surfer’s Lodge in Peniche (surferslodgepeniche.com; doubles from around €90 including breakfast). 

In style: Areias do Seixo, Povoa de Penafirme (areiasdoseixo.com; doubles from €315 including breakfast). 

The beach at Peniche Credit: GETTY

The Lisbon coast

The rocky coastline north of Lisbon is where the elite used to summer in centuries past, and large villas and a beautiful promenade still line the shore in front of Cascais and Estoril. South of Lisbon lie the nature reserves of the Tagus and Sado, unspoilt beaches and the Arrabida Mountains, which run along the shoreline. Fly into Lisbon with Ryanair (ryanair.com), BA (britishairways.com), easyJet (easyjet.com) and TAP (flytap.com).

Go visit

Azeitao

This town is famed for the artisanal cheese to which it has given its name. The oldest producer of table wine in Portugal, José Maria da Fonseca, also has its cellars here. Just outside the town is the Quinta da Bacalhoa, a winery and 15th-century architectural gem, once owned by the royal family.

A vineyard in Azeitao Credit: GETTY

Cascais 

Originally a little whitewashed fishing village, Cascais became a summer residence for wealthy Lisboetas in the late 19th century. It is now a busy, modern town, but along its shoreline, it still has palatial villas, many of which have been turned into hotels, and its pretty town square and old cobbled streets have kept their character. 

The best beach

Praia Conceicao in Cascais is popular due to its clear, calm waters and restaurants and bars that line the promenade.

Head inland

Take the 30-minute scenic route from Cabo da Roca – the most westerly point of mainland Europe – to cool, lush, fern-filled Sintra. Spend a day here to see the Royal Palace, the Pena Palace and the Palace of Monserrate with its exotic gardens.

Pena Palace Credit: getty

Eat up

Buffeted by the Atlantic, the fortress of Guincho is now a hotel with a Michelin-starred restaurant.

Drink deep

Moscatel from Setubal is considered one of the country’s best dessert wines. Try the Alambre from José Maria da Fonseca if you visit its wine cellars.

Where to stay

On a budget: Villa Cascais (doubles from around €130 with breakfast).

In style: Farol Design Hotel, Cascais (doubles from around €180 with breakfast). 

Farol Design Hotel

The Alentejo

The Alentejo’s wide plains are scattered with medieval, hilltop, fortified towns, Roman remains and dolmens, cork groves, olive trees and vineyards, while its coastline offers unspoilt, under-the-radar beaches and quiet coves as well as a well-signposted walk, the Vicentina Route, which comes up the coast from the Algarve, following the footsteps of the fishermen.

Go visit

Comporta

The little village of Comporta has, until recently, been a secret of the cognoscenti. With hotels now starting to open, make the most of it before the crowds come. Turquoise waters lap on to such picture-perfect white sands that it’s hard to beleive you’re in Europe: walk the beach at sunset, or weave your way on horseback through the green rice fields before a meal of the freshest of fish on the seashore.

The dunes of Comporta Credit: GETTY

Zambujeira do Mar

Standing between the fierce Atlantic and the plains of the Alentejo, the little fishing village of Zambujeira do Mar has one of the region’s most beautiful beaches, backed by high basalt cliffs. For five days in August, one of Portugal’s biggest youth music festivals, MEO Sudoeste, is held here (sudoeste.meo.pt/en; dates for 2020 are August 4-8).

Zambujeira do Mar Credit: GETTY
The best beach

The long, sandy stretch at Praia da Comporta forms part of the Sado Estuary Nature reserve and is backed by a forest of pines.

Head inland

Santa Clara a Velha is one of Europe’s biggest reservoirs, a 45-minute drive from the coast. Ideal for nature lovers, there is excellent bird watching here, as well as fishing in the lake. Kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding are available.

Eat up

Sal (restaurantesal.pt; ££) on powder-white Praia do Pego, serves the freshest fish on beautiful hand-painted plates, accompanied by a drizzle of local olive, chilled white wine and the chance of seeing Harrison Ford.

Drink deep

The Alentejan Herdade dos Grous is a deliciously buttery white wine.

Where to stay

On a budget: Herdade do Touril on the Vicentina Route (doubles from around €115 with breakfast). 

In style: Sublime Comporta (doubles from around €190 including breakfast). 

The spa at Sublime Comporta

The Algarve

With a 125-mile (200km) coastline that stretches from the Spanish border in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west, and seashore rimmed by golden sands, the family-friendly Algarve is one of Europe’s top beach destinations, averaging more than 300 days of sunshine a year. The central Algarve is the most developed; the west is home to big waves, limestone cliffs, surfers and beaches of real beauty, such as Praia de Odeceixe; the east is the least spoilt, with warmer, gentler seas. Apart from the beaches, the Algarve has a nature reserve, the Ria Formosa Park, which follows 37 miles (60km) of coastline. Here a chain of barrier islands, or sand spits, protect the lagoon, which is rich in wildlife. Fly into Faro with Ryanair (ryanair.com), BA (britishairways.com), easyJet (easyjet.com) and TAP (flytap.com).

Go visit

Lagos

White-washed Lagos manages to maintain its character and charm while offering a lively nightlife for locals and tourists. An important naval centre in the 15th century, Lagos was also capital of the Algarve from 1576-1756. Extensively damaged in the 1755 earthquake, the town now consists of mostly 18th and 19th-century buildings. Visit Santo Antonio Church for its blue and white tiles and gilded woodwork. 

Tavira 

The Algarve’s most attractive town, founded in 400BC, is full of church spires and houses with characteristic four-sided roofs, which turn upwards like a Chinese pagoda. The seven-arched Roman bridge and renaissance church of the Misericórdia are among many historical sites worth visiting. Ilha de Tavira is a popular sandy island offshore, accessible by ferry.

Tavira Credit: getty
The best beach

Considered one of the most beautiful beaches in the Algarve region, Praia da Marinha near Lagos is famed for its tall rocks – one of which forms an M in the water.

Praia da Marinha Credit: getty
Head inland

The pretty market town of Loule, with obvious Moorish origins, as seen in the bell tower of 13th-century Sao Clemente, has a bustling Saturday market with local produce. 

Eat up

The Rei das Praias restaurant (restaurantereidaspraias.com; £££) on lovely Caneiros Beach is a gem, with fresh fish that still tastes of the sea, delicious wines and service with a smile.

Drink deep

The Joao Clara rosé is a fruity, full bodied, wine made in the Algarve. 

Where to stay

On a budget: Memmo Baleeira in Sagres (doubles from around €105 including breakfast).

In style: Vila Vita Parc in Armacao de Pera (doubles from around €210 including breakfast).