Beyond the Algarve in Portugal: the Allures of Awesome Alentejo

Portugal is a European tourism powerhouse because of the sun-and-sand allure of its southern Algarve, along with the history and culture of capital Lisbon and wine tourism in Porto as well as the Douro River valley. But once (or even before) you’ve done those, it’s also well worth a look at a more under-the-radar – yet also the largest – region of the country, which can boast charming historic villages and towns, its own handsome wine country, plus yes, also some rugged coastline and alluring beaches of its own. Alentejo is located just north of the Algarve, south and east of Lisbon, its rolling hills and plains perfect for hopping from town to town.

A great place to start – in fact at the top of the list – is Alentejo’s capital Évora (pop. around 57,000), located halfway between the Atlantic coast and the border with Spain. Its cobblestone-paved, UNESCO World Heritage old quarter is a well-preserved gem, still partly surrounded by doughty stone walls, and largely medieval, although there’s plenty from many historical periods, from Renaissance back to ancient Roman (the so-called Temple of Diana, built in the 1st century CE, is Évora’s best known landmark); just outside town there are a couple of fascinating megalithic sites, as well.

Other charming towns well worth a visit include whitewashed Estremoz, a half hour from Évora, with a marvelous 14th-century castle, a storybook medieval flavour, and a reputation for production of high-quality marble on a par with Italy’s Carrara, Elvas a half hour east (also a World Heritage Site thanks to its 17th-to-19th-century fortifications, built to guard against onetime possible invasion by Spain), and Vila Viçosa , just 15 minutes from Estremoz and 45 from Évora (as the base in the 15th and 16th centuries for Portugal’s influential dukes of Braganza, it boasts a fine castle, ducal palace, and various other magisterial buildings, also reflecting Vila Viçosa’s status as another major marble producer).

Then of course there’s Alentejo’s wine country, where winemaking dates back thousands of years to Roman Lusitania and which specialises in reds. Start at Évora’s Sala de Provas, where more than 70 vineyards offer tastings. Then if any of them particularly interest you, go out and explore wine routes including villages like Borba and Redondo (also home to an interesting wine museum).

So if you’re looking for something a little different in Europe this summer or fall, use your Iberia Joven discount to book an amazingly cheap flight to Lisbon and explore Portugal’s biggest region!

Photo: Philiprmiles