The coast around Lisbon provides an easy, breezy escape from the capital, whose proximity has made it the stomping ground of kings for the last 1,000 years. In summer, Lisboistas stream into elegant Estoril and Cascais to escape the heat of the city; year-round, surfers hang loose on the west coast waiting for the rollers to crash down on the sand. The region is also home to some of Portugal’s historic jewels, which attract thousands of visitors: the ancient walled town of Obidos, the 12th-century monastery at Alcobaça, the Catholic pilgrimage site of Fatima, and the fairytale palaces of Sintra.
But it’s easy to escape the crowds: simply pull off the main routes and take the country roads, following the Atlantic north from Ericeira to Peniche, or south to the Tróia Peninsula and the chi-chi town of Comporta. On the way you’ll come across small harbour villages, hilltop castles, estuary reserves with flocks of flamingos, and mile upon mile of beach. Alternatively, follow the River Tejo northeast into Ribatejo, where numerous vineyards make some of the best wine in the country; the trip inland is well worth the bother.
Take the road from Cabo da Roca (the most westerly point of mainland Europe) to Peniche and you’ll pass tracks that lead down to beach after beach, all sandy and pounded by surf; our favourite is Praia da Ursa, famed for its wind-sculpted rock formations. Also unmissable are the beaches of Pinhal de Leiria, which run between Sao Pedro de Moel and Pedrógãgo, to the north of Peniche. They’re backed by a vast 700-year-old pine forest that was commissioned by King Dinis to halt the advance of sand dunes. Further south, the Caparica Coast on the Tróia Peninsula has more than 30 miles of uncrowded beach.
Perched above wooded slopes, Sintra is known for its turreted palaces, the most famous being the ornate Palácio Nacional and the pink and yellow Palácio da Pena. The town’s cool hilltop air has long attracted writers, artists and aristocrats in search of a summer retreat, and by day the cobbled lanes are thronged with tourists. We recommend exploring in the evening, when the whole place takes on a quieter, more mystical air. Our favourite spots are the rambling, grotto-filled gardens of Quinta da Regaleira, and Periquita, a little bakery on Rua das Padarias that has been churning out delicious queijadas (similar to cheesecakes) since 1850.
This abandoned monastery lies a few km from Sintra, on a remote country road (there are no buses, so you’ll need to take a taxi if you don’t have a hire car). It’s wonderfully eerie, with cork-lined cells, derelict chapels and overgrown fountains scattered across silent woodland. It’s best seen early in the morning, when mist often shrouds the trees.
Photo: W. Rebel
This 12th-century walled town was the gift of King Dinis to his queen Isabel, and it remained in the Queen’s household ever after. Rampart walls circle high above, so climb up and follow them for fine views over the whitewashed buildings (be careful as there are no railings) - the best is from the pretty, tree-shaded terrace outside the Miradouro café-bar. The tidal lagoon below Obidos is a great spot for fishing, swimming and sailing, while the beach at Foz do Arelho to the north is a vast, sandy expanse for surfing, long walks and games of Frisbee.
The estuary of the River Sado, which separates the regional capital of Setúbal from the Tróia Peninsula, is a tapestry of silvery salt flats and aquamarine water, with mud banks that glisten in the sun at low tide. It’s home to flocks of flamingos and pods of bottlenose dolphins, who hunt and breed in its fish-rich waters. Regular boat tours depart from Setúbal and Alcácer do Sal.
Mira de Aire is a rather dull town, but the vast caves which lie beneath are well worth a visit. There are wild rock formations, giant stalactites and stalagmites, all with eccentric names (‘The Martian’, ‘Hell’s Door’, ‘Jellyfish’) and illuminated by atmospheric coloured lighting. You exit into a water park, entry to which is included in the price, so bring your bathers.
Photo: Edgar Jiménez
The Berlengas archipelago lies 10-15km off the coast and can be accessed by boat from Peniche. Berlenga Grande, often known simply as Ilha Berlenga, is the largest and the only inhabited island of the group, and has been visited by the Moors, the Vikings and English pirates. It’s home to beaches, caves, barrier reefs and the historic Fort of São João Baptista de Berlengas, a penal colony built in the ruins of a 16th-century monastery. The archipelago is also a protected nature reserve thanks to its wildflowers and sea birds.
The little fishing town of Comporta has been compared to St Tropez in the 80s thanks to its chic yet laid-back vibe and destination restaurants. Its pristine sands are backed by windswept dunes and emerald rice fields, with irrigation canals, lakes and bird-filled reserves to explore. It’s become the holiday spot of choice for international designers, artists and royals, but the atmosphere remains delightfully low-key.