NEW YORK (CNNfn) - People have been coming to Portugal since 700 B.C. and yet some travelers still don't know what a good deal it is.|
There it is, just sitting along the Atlantic Coast of the Iberian Peninsula, down in southwestern Europe. Packed into its 35,672 square miles are beautiful cities, lovely beaches, fabulous cuisine—all at bargain prices.
"It's a gorgeous country with all sorts of history," Melisse Gelula, an associate editor at Fodor's Travel Publications. "A lot of Europeans vacation in Portugal, but it hasn't really caught on with North Americans."
If you like to eat, you'll find meals in Portugal are inexpensive, delicious and served in tremendous portions.
"Portugal is still one of those places," Gelula said, "where you can have a really great dinner out, which might cost $18 to $23 in Manhattan, only costs about $9 to $11 in Portugal."
Some travel types may view Portugal as a kind of side trip, some place to peak at while you're visiting Spain. However, once you experience the country's attractions, you may find there's quite enough on your plate without having to go anywhere else.
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Ups and Downs
The Celts first settled in the Iberian Peninsula in 700 B.C. and they were followed by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and Visigoths. The Moors began their occupation in the 8th century, bringing their culture with them, and were driven out during the 12th century.
People are still coming today. Lisbon, the capital city, offers travelers excellent museums, fine restaurants and a jumping nightlife, all in a town that was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1755.
"Lisbon is mostly an 18th century city," Gelula said. "It's as hilly as San Francisco."
If you're not one for walking uphill, there are turn-of-the-century funicular railways and elevators to make getting around a little easier.
Lisbon has been described as a series of self-contained neighborhoods. The Alfama, for example, is the old Moorish quarter, where you'll find the city's cathedral, the Se, and St. George's Castle. Belem is the site of the Jeronimos Monastery, which dates back to the 1500's and is considered by many to be the city's finest attraction. The nearby Torre de Belem, a Manueline-style tower standing in the Rio Tejo, is arguably the most photographed.
Lisbon's swanky shopping district, Chiado, is home to fine jewelry shops, shoe stores, and cafes, as well as the Museu do Chiado, a contemporary art museum.
The Museu Calouste Gulbenkian is regarded as the city's finest museum, with displays ranging from Egyptian artifacts to European art from the 15th through the 20th centuries.
Porto and the Algarve
Portugal has a wine-making tradition that goes back to the ancient Phoenicians. The north is home to the port wine industry and here you'll find Porto (or "Oporto"), Portugal's second city. Located about 200 miles north of Lisbon, Porto has been chosen—along with Rotterdam—as the European Cultural Capital in 2001.
Wine is big business around here, and the industry is headquartered across the River Douro in Vila Nova de Gaia. There are more than 25 companies with port-wine lodges and each of them offers a private tour of the facilities. Tours end with a tasting of a few wines and chance to buy some wine at the company store.
Feel like going to the beach? Then head south—way south. The Algarve region is Portugal's southernmost costal region and busiest tourist district. The area has some of Europe's best golf courses and finest hotels. The major resorts have bars and discos, and there are also open-air cafes for quieter times. Faro, a city of 100,000 people founded by the Moors, is the provincial capital of the Algarve.
"It's an expensive region," Gelula said. "Don't expect the best deals, unless you go to a small town like Sagres or Salema."
If you're considering a trip to Portugal, Lonely Planet says you'll find agreeable weather nearly everywhere from April to October, and nearly year-round in the Algarve. The wettest season runs from November to March and ski season runs from January to March, with February being the best prime skiers' month.
The peak tourist season is about mid-June to September, except in the Algarve, where things only quiet down in the depths of winter. Carnival and Easter are two major holidays with celebrations all over the country.
The American dollar will convert to about 224.036 Portuguese Escudo. A budget hotel or pensao, goes for about $15 to $25 per night, according to Lonely Planet, and a mid-range hotel costs about $30 to $60.
While the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs said Portugal has a relatively low violent crime rate, petty crime against tourists is on the rise. Pickpockets and purse snatchers may target tourists, particularly at the major attractions, restaurants or on public transportation.
Portugal has one of the highest rates of auto accidents and fatalities in Europe, the bureau reported, noting that Portuguese driving habits, high speeds and poorly marked roads all pose special hazards. Also, in continental Portugal, traffic fines can be heavy and usually must be paid on the spot.
"It's not a great idea to rent a car," Gelula said. "They drive a lot differently. Taxies are cheap and the trains are really comfortable. If you take a train in the peak season, you may want to think about getting tickets in advance. There is assigned seating."
On the road
If you have 10 days to spare, Gelula suggested spending about three nights in Lisbon, three to four in the south, and three or so nights in Porto. A little bit of Web searching turned up the following package deals:
- Skyline Travel has a 9-day vacation package dubbed "Heart of Portugal." The trip covers visits to the walled town of Obidos and the ancient university town of Coimbra. The cost of the package varies from about $978 to $1,856 and includes hotel, airfare and a 4-day car rental.
- If you're a horseback riding enthusiast, Hidden Trails has several rides in Portugal, including the "Blue Coast Ride," an 8-day ride along trails in Southwestern Portugal. The tour costs between $1,345 and $1,525, airfare not included, and covers accommodations and meals.
- Untours has a package that includes airfare, rental car, and 14 to 28 days in an apartment in the historic district of Sintra. Company staff members will also meet clients at the airport. Prices start at around $1,494 for two weeks, double person occupancy.