Long overshadowed by Western European vacation hotspots like France, Spain, and Italy, Portugal is in the midst of an unprecedented tourism boom.
For eight years Portugal’s tourism has increased without interruption, reaching a record 12.8 million arrivals in 2018. Having increased by 8.1 percent, Portugal’s tourism sector witnessed the most growth of any its fellow European Union members last year.
According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the Portuguese tourism industry is set to grow by an additional 5.3 percent in 2019—more than double the average of other countries in Europe.
Earlier this summer, Portugal was named Europe’s Leading Destination in the 2019 Travel Awards. So what’s behind Portugal’s record-breaking surge in tourism?
As it turns out, this colorful seaside country is pulling travelers in droves for many reasons. We’ve explored five of them below.
Portugal is a patchwork of bustling cities, rustic villages, and rugged mountainous landscapes. The nation is fringed with more than 800 kilometers of coastline with precipitous cliffs and some of the most pristine beaches in Europe.
Located 1,500 kilometers to the west of Lisbon lie the volcanic Azores islands, where sperm whales, dolphins, humpbacks, and other marine mammals feed on the islands’ underground cliff and clouds of steam waft out of geothermal springs and fumaroles.
Within the same day, you can surf spectacular waves on the beaches just outside Viana do Castelo before hiking the boulder-strewn mountain ranges of the Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês.
Afterward, a quick hour-long journey will bring you to Porto, where you can unwind with a glass of wine on a trendy roof terrace bar overlooking the riverfront.
“Get ready to eat,” the Uber drivers will advise you when they pick you up from the Lisbon Portela Airport upon hearing it’s your first trip to Portugal.
And you should – Portuguese cuisine is notorious for being both irresistible and generously portioned. The cooking of the country is deeply rooted in fresh local ingredients, including sea bass plucked straight from the Atlantic, plump free-range suckling pigs, and sun-ripened produce.
Markets are a treasure trove of diverse seafood, from massive tunas to sea breeze-scented clams. Dishes are soaked, slow-cooked, and drizzled with olive oil, hand-crafted from single-farm olives from the groves of Alentejo, Beira Interior, and Tras-o-Montes.
In addition to classic dishes like the smoky, zingy bacalhau salt cod and the robust seafood cataplana stew, you can chow down on ultra-modern dishes in the country’s capital city, where the restaurant scene is experiencing a gourmet awakening.
But whatever you decide to eat, make sure you save room for the pastéis de nata – Portugal’s beloved egg tarts with cinnamon-spiked custard tucked into a wonderfully flaky crust.
For too long, Portuguese wines remained in relative obscurity compared to the Chiantis of Italy, the Bordeauxs of France, and the Tempranillos of Spain.
All of this is changing under the country’s current generation of ambitious winemakers who are putting Portugal on the map among the major wine countries in Europe.
Portugal produces a variety of wine styles, most of which are incredibly underpriced for their exceptional flavor and quality. The country is home to more than 200 indigenous grapes, and many have never traveled outside Portugal.
A wine lover’s paradise waiting to be discovered, Portugal is made up of 14 unique wine regions organized in five different areas:
Porto and the Northern Region: Vinho Verde, Trás-os-Montes, Porto and the Douro Valley, and Távora and Varosa;
Center region: Bairrada, Dão and Lafões, and Beira Interior
Lisbon region: Lisbon, Setubal Peninsula, and Tejo
South region: Alentejo and Algarve
Islands: Madeira and Azores
Perhaps best-known among these regions is the Douro Valley, a lush river gorge outside the city of Porto. Legendary for its port wines, the Douro Wine Region has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The oldest country in Europe, Portugal is a treasure trove of medieval castles, marble villages, and blue-tiled cities. The culture and heritage of the 2,000-year-old Iberian nation were shaped by Celtic, Roman, Visigoth, Moor, and Christian influences.
Discover the neighborhoods of Lisbon, where vintage tram cars amble up hills crowded with historic buildings and azuelejo-painted facades to longing soundtracks of Fado music, the country’s profoundly melancholy traditional singing.
Thumb through hardbacks in the Betrad Bookshop—the oldest bookstore in the world—in Lisbon’s Bairro Alto neighborhood.
Travel back to the Old World with a visit to the World Heritage City of Porto, where wooden vessels cruise down the Douro River beneath Porto’s striking bridges as they have for centuries.
Dive into legends from Portugal’s past, like the Templar Knights in Tomar or the mystique of Coimbra University.
From celebrations of sardines to multi-day international music events, festivals pack Portugal’s calendar year-round.
Nearly every town in Portugal has its own festival or pilgrimage, often to honor a local saint or celebrate the harvest season. Major cities like Lisbon and Porto draw big names from all over the music world with festivals like Rock in Rio Lisboa and NOS Primavera.
Other not-to-be-missed events include the international sand sculpture festival in Pera and Porto’s Festa de São João when street parties range until the morning light, and revelers bash each other with plastic hammers, and fellows toss garlic flowers at pretty ladies.
Of course, these are only a handful of reasons to visit this enchanting, sun-washed country. With its cinematic scenery, renowned food and drink scene, historic charms, and a lively festival scene, Portugal’s tourism rates are set to skyrocket in the coming years.
We suggest visiting this long-overlooked gem sooner rather than later.
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