Move over Spain, France and Italy. Portugal is making a name for itself as one of the most captivating tourism destinations in Western Europe with a flurry of new hotel openings, great value as compared to its neighbors, and a long list of unique cultural experiences.
There’s something truly captivating about this country, with more dazzling castles per capita than anywhere else in the world, secluded vineyards, rugged coastlines, lively cities, fairy tale villages awash in history, centuries-old pousadas, some of the best golf in Europe, and sun-kissed beaches. This is all peppered with the haunting sounds of the country’s native music, the Fado, as well as its renowned Port wine and a truly inviting ambiance. This is a destination that although geographically embraced by Spain is worlds away from that most flamboyant of neighbors.
And the U.S. traveler is certainly taking notice of this “undiscovered” jewel because as Jayme H. Simoes, communications consultant to Turismo de Portugal in New York, says, “the U.S. is our number one growth market. We have seen the number of Americans coming to Portugal triple in just five years.” In fact, he adds, “The U.S. is up 18 percent this year in spending per guest in Portugal. So that means more Americans and they are spending much more, so we are reaching a higher end market.”
Simoes notes that a few reasons the U.S. traveler is heading to Portugal these days is because the country offers authenticity of experience, great value, and, of course, its proximity to the U.S. “Portugal is the closest nation in Europe to the U.S. It is easy to get to and represents one of the best values in Western Europe for the American traveler—we have five-star hotels at a cost of a three- or four-star in other nations and we have a great affordable rail network to get around.”
“Once clients start investigating the destination,” adds Neomie Menahem, managing director, Escapade Vacations, “they are charmed by all it has to offer. It has everything—history, culture, gastronomy, heritage, sun and fun.”
Travel agents, says Simoes, are crucial to the success of Portugal as a top tourism destination. “We are not Paris or London; we have a lot that is new and fresh to the traveler, and they need help in planning for the right hotel, car, rail and tour—a good travel agent will make a vacation in Portugal truly special. We recognize that and we support it.”
hop-scotching across portugal
Of course, Lisbon, built on hills along the banks of the River Tagus, is a must for travelers visiting Portugal for the first time. Here, travelers will find a delightful cityscape with wide avenues not simply brimming with history but with fine shops, eateries and museums, where travelers can find fine cuisine and a great music scene. There are also countless narrow lanes cutting through the capital’s historical quarters that beg to be explored. These quarters have sultry-sounding names like Alfama, Castelo, Mouraria, Bairro Alto, Bica and Baixa and all are worth discovering, but definitely recommend a stroll through the elegant shopping and residential district of Chiado, which still maintains its 19th century charm and was once the preferred meeting place of intellectuals and artists. While taking a sip of bica—the traditional Portuguese black coffee—on the terrace of A Brasileira, one of the district’s most famous cafes, tell clients they are encouraged to gaze out at the gorgeous baroque architecture of the surrounding churches. “And from Lisbon,” says Menahem, “they can visit the surrounding beautiful towns of Sintra, Caiscais and Estoril in addition to exploring the Alentejo region.”
One of the most enchanting of those towns is Sintra, a favorite with visitors and locals. It’s absolutely stunning with striking monuments such as the Pena National Palace and the equally dazzling Castle of the Moors looking over the historic town from their hillside perches. Sintra is, naturally, on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list and although the “cultural landscape” here will leave visitors mesmerized, they should also not miss the local travesseiros, puff pastries, which according to legend have been made since the 12th century.
Beyond Lisbon, Simoes points north to Porto as a must-visit. “It’s a cultural capital, with a reborn river district, new cultural institutions, and shopping on par with any capital city on the continent.” Porto, located at the mouth of the Douro River, has narrow medieval alleyways, typical granite houses and monuments, and a historic center that’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“Porto has become a real media star,” says Simoes, “but a lot has also been written about the unspoiled natural beauty of the Azores, and the Alentejo is fast emerging as Portugal’s hidden jewel,” adding that, “the city of Funchal on Madeira is a wonderful place to escape to.”
Menahem agrees, pointing out that, “Porto is getting a lot of buzz today, as is the Douro Valley region, and we have been receiving more calls for the beautiful islands of Madeira.”
Beyond the main tourist draws, tell clients to take a detour to one or several of the country’s historical villages, where they’ll find notable historic landmarks, green pastures and a peaceful way of life. One of the most important of these is Monsanto, located on a high cliff and known as the “most Portuguese village in Portugal.” A must for history and architecture enthusiasts, the village is said to have one of the most interesting landscapes in Portugal, with granite boulders used as walls for the houses, and in some cases roofs consisting of a single block of stone.
“Of course,” adds Simoes enthusiastically, “Portugal also has more than 500 miles of sandy beaches, and some of the best weather in Europe to enjoy them by. From the warm water of the Algarve, to the healing sands of Porto Santo, Portuguese beaches are welcoming. Golf, too, is more than just a sport in Portugal; it is an experience, with a dozen championship courses, many following the sea.”
Complementing these wonderful cities, islands and villages is an unrivaled hotel landscape—from historic pousadas to the epitome of modern accommodations. “Imagine palatial manor houses welcoming you as their guest with all the elegance of 800 years of tradition,” says Simoes. “Imagine the most modern of hotels rising like a cloud above the mystic seven hills of Lisbon. There are more than a dozen new hotels opened in the past five years, and they are not all in Lisbon or Porto. The new hotels are spread across the nation—from the plains of Alentejo to the coast of Terceira Islands. So we have a fresh, broad-based product that we did not have just five years ago.
“We offer wine hotels and green hotels,” he continues, “renewed 18th century manors and hotels built in windmills and in castles. Why go 2,000 miles to get what you can get across the river from your house? More than 90 percent of our hotels are locally owned, and while the big chains are expanding, their footprint is much smaller in Portugal.”