Bordering the western edge of mainland Europe, Portugal is just 135 miles (217 km) wide, meaning its roughly 1,000 miles of Atlantic coastline defines the country. Portugal looks outward, with its back turned to Spain, facing the seas it sailed to bring wealth to its shores.
Tales from that era still flow through the veins of Portuguese people today, alongside the haunting melody of fadoexpressing saudade, or nostalgia, for those who have set sail for distant lands. The words of the great 19th century poet Fernando Pessoa say it perhaps best in “The Portuguese Sea”: “God placed danger and the abyss in the sea / But he also made it the mirror of the sky.
The long coastline is extraordinarily diverse, from the gentle limestone cliffs of the Algarve to the dramatic granite mountains of the cooler north; but meander 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 divided into five distinct major tourist regions, which have been used here for simplicity. In each region, two notable cities have been highlighted, along with a nearby must-see attraction, food and wine suggestions, and hotel recommendations.
Costa Verde: Porto and the North
The coast here is sometimes referred to as the Green Coast or the Costa Verde, because of the verdant vegetation given to it by the wetter weather.
The country’s second largest city, Porto, is your destination. There are connections from several UK airports via Ryanair (ryanair.com), BA (britishairways.com), easyJet (easyjet.com) and TAP (flytap.com), and the region is worth lingering for a few days to enjoy the beautiful beach of Foz, where the Douro River flows into the Atlantic Ocean, and to visit Porto’s wealth of ancient churches and contemporary museums.
Travel up the coast to the Minho region, where life is still firmly steeped in tradition, with frequent folk festivals, street markets and a bucolic countryside where ox carts still rule.
Considered the cradle of the nation and home to medieval Guimaraes, declared Portugal’s first capital in 1139, this region remains remarkably untouched by tourism and the 21st century.