The world has definitely become smaller in recent decades with the advent of the internet and the mass media. More and more, it seems like we are all connected in this global village of ours and that we currently know more about the world than previous generations ever did. Because of that sometimes we may feel overwhelmed, as if we need a break from the constant streaming of light and noise that somehow the world has become. We understand this now and are valuing increasingly our rest and our peace of mind in such a fast-paced society. As far as we see it, the southern region of Alentejo in Portugal has always been a perfect getaway precisely for that - and now the secret is out as the prestigious Forbes magazine has it on its front page, electing Alentejo as one of “The 23 Best Places to Travel In 2023”!
Where is the Alentejo? (And other demographics)
The Alentejo is located in southern Portugal, between the Tagus River and the Algarve, about 2 hours driving either from Lisbon, the capital city and estuary of the river Tagus, and Faro in the southern-most region of the Algarve. The reference to its geographical location is exactly what the name Alentejo means: Beyond the Tagus. To the east it borders with Andalusia and Extremadura in Spain, and to the west its shores are located by the Atlantic Ocean.
It is an extensive region, essentially rural, with vineyards and olive groves dominating the landscape. The local economy relies mostly on tourism, farming and livestock breeding, including cattle, sheep and the so famous Iberian Pig, which provides for a dark-skinned animal with very tender meat. The region is divided into two large areas: the Upper Alentejo, which includes the more rural districts of Portalegre and Évora; and the Lower Alentejo, which includes the district of Beja and the coastal municipalities of Alcácer do Sal, Grândola, Santiago do Cacém and Sines, belonging to the district of Setúbal.
Due to its natural geographic characteristics, the Alentejo has always been sparsely populated, although it occupies about one-third of the national territory! It falls short of a surprise to think that this is one of the main reasons why this is just the perfect place to wind down and relax!
Where should I go?
If we had to define the Alentejo in a nutshell, we would say that it is a vast plain with very few inhabitants, charming villages, good and abundant gastronomy and some of the best vineyards and olive tree groves in Portugal. Sometimes the region is even referred to as the Portuguese Tuscany but with less tourists! On top of that, the pace is different in Alentejo - time seems to pass more calmly. Its people are kind, friendly and very willing to show you their traditions. Pour yourself a good glass of Alentejo wine and take your time! Alentejo is better seen at a more relaxed pace!
The list of “23 Best Places to Travel In 2023” by Forbes mentions the whole region and its vineyards as a place worth visiting for an “immersive experience” in local life and customs, however choices on where to go need to be made when you have a limited amount of time. Some places can be added according to your tour of Portugal and according to your preferences, but here are some of the unmissable places of the Alentejo.
Portalegre, Castelo de Vide and Marvão
These three locations are part of the Upper Alentejo region and are surrounded by a lush patch of green called the Serra de São Mamede, a mountain range and nature park.
In Portalegre you should visit the local tapestry museum. The tradition of tapestry in the region goes back hundreds of years and all the pieces are still done manually and only by order. The colorful designs include depictions of flora and fauna but also more modern ones like cityscapes or even poems. Go through the ancient stone arch of Porta da Devesa and enter the historic center where you will find a 16th-century cathedral, the Municipal Museum and the medieval castle.
Go to Castelo de Vide and prepare yourself for time traveling, as the town’s streets and heritage have kept their historical character since medieval times. The pretty streets lined with whitewashed houses and flower pots were once a refuge for persecuted Iberian Jews. The town has a number of Jewish-related heritage giving testimony to the rich history of the region.
Finally, in Marvão you will be stunned by the incredible views over the castle that encircles the small town! The Pousada, a historic hotel on a hill, features some of the best countryside views in town.
Another reason to keep coming back to this part of the Alentejo is definitely the food: the delicious variety of roasts and stews include less common treats such as poultry and game, as well as the freshest vegetables and legumes.
Évora, Estremoz and Monsaraz
There is so much to do and so much to see in the Central Alentejo that the main city in the area, Évora, has been considered for decades the capital of the whole Alentejo. Rolling golden plains of wheat and poppies sprinkled with whitewashed houses are a common sight around here.
In Évora, park the car outside the city walls and stroll through the cobbled streets of the historical center to reach the main square Praça do Giraldo. From there you can easily reach the cathedral and the roman ruins or on the opposite side, the beautiful Church of Saint Francis or the eerie Bone Chapel. Along the way find a number of quaint small cafes and restaurants to try some of the best gastronomy in Portugal, including roast lamb and pork, vegetarian soups and aromatic stews and broths made to dip thick slices of Alentejano sourdough bread.
Head to Estremoz to discover a lovely town built around a 13th-century castle that was used as a military stronghold against foreign invasions in the 16th century and is now a Pousada (or historic hotel). If you are in town on a Saturday, make sure to visit the miles long antiques market which, weather permitting, is held outside in the morning. Drive around the city towards the marble quarries where you will be able to see even from a distance, the amazing variety of hues of the stone.
Before you start driving Southwards, stop at Monsaraz, a real gem at the heart of the Alentejo. Enjoy a walk up the ramparts of this centuries-old town with a fabulous view over the plains, the Alqueva Lake Dam and even Spain just a few kilometers away. Go around the central square with the Santa Maria da Lagoa whitewashed Romanesque church and discover the different views from the many walls and turrets: this town is a paradise for photography lovers!
Beja, Serpa and Mértola
The Lower Alentejo might actually be the highest point of your trip if you are one to enjoy absolute silence, relaxation and exquisite cuisine and wines!
Use the sub-region’s capital Beja as your base to explore the surrounding towns as the city is centrally located and within easy reach from any point in the region. In Beja visit the castle, which is one of the best-preserved castles in the area and has a superb view over the city center and the fields around; go to the Regional Museum of Beja, an extraordinary museum with fabulous paintings and a glazed tile collection, and to the nearby Núcleo Museológico, a rich display of archaeology of the region. The incredible Roman Villa of Pisões is just a mere 15 minutes’ drive away and is well worthy of a visit too!
Once you are in Serpa, make sure to go to the castle and to the aqueduct to get some amazing photos, but also to the curious and unique Museu do Relógio (Museum of Clocks), with a collection of clocks and watches from around the world and from different ages. The town center is very quaint, with cobbled flat streets sprinkled with traditional low-height whitewashed houses.
If you are going down to the Algarve and have some time to spare, take the back road and visit the pretty and ancient town of Mértola, also referred to as the “jewel of the Guadiana river”. The small town perched over the said river has been considered a fundamental trading post by different people throughout the ages. Due to the fact that it has been inhabited for millennia, Mértola is now home to a rich collection of heritage, which has consistently been studied and put in exhibition for the last decades. From archaeological digs open to the public to mosques turned into churches, and from medieval ramparts to traditional Moorish street markets, there is always something that will allow you to travel in time and be able to see first-hand how people lived in Mértola and the surrounding region in by-gone times.
The local gastronomy is worthy of distinction with a variety of sausages, cured meats and cheeses taking the podium. Some traditional dishes include chick-bean stew seasoned with mint and, when in season, fresh water fish stews such as pike or largemouth bass.
If you travel during the summer, take the chance to discover the many river beaches in the Lower Alentejo, which can be a much quieter alternative to the more crowded sea destinations. If you are traveling during the fall and the winter months, you are lucky: it will be mostly you and the locals at the main sites, and getting a hotel or restaurant reservation should be as smooth as gliding through the Guadiana River waters.
So, Forbes was right!
Yes, it was and we are happy to confirm it for you: the Alentejo is definitely one of the best travel destinations for 2023. Because luxury can come under many forms and has different meanings for different people. For us - and it seems that for Forbes too - luxury is spending the day exploring History-filled places with barely any tourists in sight and ending the day by sipping a glass of red wine in a local winery after a delicious lunch or dinner overlooking the vineyards and the olive fields around at a calm, relaxed, almost zen pace. If this sounds just like what you have in mind for your next holiday, let us know and together we will plan the trip of a lifetime in the Alentejo.