We know you have been thinking about when to take that much awaited trip to Portugal. When plans are beginning to take shape and you decide you are ready for a fantastic trip to the country, then winter arrives! What now?
We’ll let us ask you something: when you dream, do you dream of traveling without any crowds anywhere? In that case this might be exactly the right time of the year for you to travel!
The months between November and March are what is usually called the “low season” of Tourism however we believe that if you are fortunate enough to visit Portugal during this season you will be of one the lucky few visitors from abroad who will get to know about some of the best off-the-beaten-path locations and who will have the incredible chance of experiencing the truly local traditions by the most authentic folk.
The fall and winter represent a chance of getting acquainted with the real Portugal and eventually to stretch your holiday a bit for good value for money so that you get more for a better cost. And there is so much to see and do! We recommend that you do go with one of the main tours of Portugal to cover all the highlights but keep the list that we present you with next at hand so that you find some of the hidden gems of the country.
Some places are unmissable of course, but there are others that hold a particular charm during this time of the year. It is time to know about some of the best locations to visit in the winter.
All of the mentioned places have a special appeal to them during the colder months. Let us tell you why. Here is a list of 5 locations North to South in Portugal that you might not want to miss out this winter!
1) Bragança: a snowy winter and a cozy fire.
For those looking for a snow destination in Portugal, but prefer the comfort of a fireplace with a wine glass in hand to the adrenaline of the ski slopes, we suggest a few days in Bragança.
Bragança is a town located in the far North East of the country, 2h30 driving from Porto and nearing the border with Spain, in a region that is known as Trás-os-Montes.
Its Human occupation goes back to dozens of thousands of years. There is a variety of heritage sites from prehistoric, to Roman but also Medieval and Contemporary. In terms of Portuguese weather Bragança’s winter is the coldest in the country, with some rain and snow occurring occasionally. However, per European or even American standards the region’s winter is a lot milder than in other cities in both continents. Throughout the year, in general the temperatures vary from 1 °C (33ºF) to 29 °C (84ºF) and are rarely below -4 °C (24.8ºF) or above 35 °C (95ºF).
There will be plenty of days when you can walk around the ancient cobbled streets at ease as there are many sunny days even during the winter. When the city is covered in white you can explore some of the landmarks of the city such as the Graça Morais Contemporary Art Center, that celebrates the works of the modernist painter who was born in the region; the Bragança Castle, a magnificent 13th century rampart with a view over the region and even over Spain, or the Iberian Mask and Costume Museum, a place to learn about the traditions related to the winter and carnival festivals of Trás-os-Montes and of the surrounding regions, that boast a diversity of celebrations with costumed characters and rituals where the mask assumes the primordial role of the festivity.
If you your preference goes to nature related activities the Montesinho Natural Park is about a half hour drive away from the city and Spain’s Puebla de Sanabria Nature Park is less than 1 hour driving. Take a walk along one of the park's trails and keep an eye out for the local fauna. Deer and birds like the golden eagle are usually spotted there.
The region's gastronomy is excellent and a cozy comfort for the colder days, with traditional dishes you have to try like the feijoada transmontana a thick bean stew with a variety of meats; the butelo with casulas which is a type of spicy sausage stew served with bean-shells in a sauce or the amazing posta mirandesa a beef steak from a unique breed of cattle only possible to find in the region. There is an excellent offer in the region in terms of cheeses and charcuterie as well as traditional sweets where simple but delicious recipes take the podium like the cookies called Súplicas made out of eggs, sugar and flour or the Brigantino with honey, olive oil and both almond and chestnut flours.
If you visit Bragança between Christmas and early January, take the opportunity to attend both the Christmas Market and later the Festa dos Rapazes, a traditional event that is like the rite of passage for teenage boys and young men whose origins date back to centuries ago and are much related to the former Winter Solstice celebrations. During the festival which usually takes place between December 24th and January 6th the young men wear costumes and masks and go around the town, from house to house, urging the population to gather by toiling bells and singing until everyone is gathered and ready to attend their show which consists in a comic pantomime about the town and its inhabitants as well as a collection of funds for next year’s party. There is food and music and you will get the general feeling that all of a sudden you stepped into centuries gone by and are now part of a chapter of the region's History.
2) Serra da Estrela: The star of winter time
The Serra da Estrela (Star) mountain range is probably one of the most popular places to visit in Portugal in winter. The region is located 2h30 to 3 hours driving South East of Porto in the Beiras district. The highest point in continental Portugal is sought after by lovers of ski and other winter sports as soon as news of the first snowfall arrives.
However, there is more to see than the mountain top where the slopes are, the so-called Torre Resort. Set off to discover life in the mountains. There are more than 300km of trails in the Serra da Estrela Natural Park through which you can discover the springs of the main Portuguese rivers but also the stunning glacial valleys of Loriga and Manteigas, or the most fascinating bird species that nest here. Nature is truly generous and offers you the freshest springs whose waters contain incomparable therapeutic and relaxing properties.
Take your time to explore the surrounding region and visit some of the most beautiful villages in Portugal, like Belmonte a medieval town displaying Jewish heritage of the last Sephardic Jews in Portugal or Castelo Rodrigo near the border with Spain. Discover urban art and the heritage of the wool industry in Covilhã, the millennia old streets of Guarda and Gouveia where there is an Ecological Nature Park.
The Bread Museum in Seia is another point of interest that you must visit, where traditional and delicious breads are made and can also be souvenirs you can take home. Another possible souvenir from the region is the burel, a handmade fabric made of wool from the Bordaleira breed of sheep. Its durability and resistance provide protection against both cold and rain, but also against the sun and heat. Locals relied on it in the Past to face the harsh climate conditions in a time when the offer was scarce. Nowadays the tradition has been adapted and you will find a variety of new designs.
After a day spent on the snow-covered slopes or walking cobbled streets with amazing views to high mountains and deep valleys, soothe your body and soul with traditional regional products such as the famous Queijo da Serra spread cheese made with local sheep’s milk and a trademark of the region but also pork and poultry sausages, corn bread or rye bread with a dash of pumpkin jam or locally produced honey. The choices are many and all of them delicious!
3) Óbidos: the land of Christmas, of Chocolate and of Fairy tales!
If you are traveling with children or feel as if the child within yourself is very much awake, then Óbidos is your place to go to this winter. Óbidos is a medieval walled town in the center of the country between Porto and Lisbon and close to the coast. It sits high on a hill and is surrounded by millennia-old ramparts with stunning views over the encompassing valleys and farming fields. Since the beginning of Portugal’s nationality Óbidos was part of the dowry of the Queens and therefore much esteemed and tended for. The city still bears witness to the presence of royalty in its medieval castle turned into a Pousada (historic hotel) and on the finest decoration of churches with exquisite glazed tiles and paintings.
Óbidos becomes a dream come true for children in winter time, when the most famous Christmas Village (Vila Natal) in the country takes place. With activities and events allusive to the Christmas season, in this walled town there is no shortage of Christmas lights, lots of fun and even artificial snow! There are merry-go-rounds, carousels and music shows for over a month starting in December.
While the kids work on their letters to Santa Claus, take a chocolate break. The younger ones can recover energies with a cup of hot chocolate and the adults can take the opportunity to try the traditional Óbidos ginja a delicious sour-cherry liquor which is actually very sweet and is served in a chocolate cup.
The charms of Óbidos deserve much more than just a trip to visit the Vila Natal so we suggest you extend your stay for an extra day or two, or enjoy a long weekend in the region. Seeing the view from the top of the wall or exploring the local shops in Rua Direita are just some of the things you must experience in the town.
4) Reguengos de Monsaraz: the capital of winter relaxation.
Reguengos de Monsaraz is the healthy alternative to mass Tourism: located in the Central Alentejo region about 2 hours East of Lisbon the area is become trendier but has been able to maintain superbly its authenticity and traditions.
The Alentejo is famous for its vast plains dotted with cork oak and olive tree fields as far as the eye can see. The air is so pure and the night sky so incredibly clear that since 2011 the region around Reguengos de Monsaraz in the Alentejo has also become the perfect destination for stargazing.
The area surrounding the Great Alqueva Lake Dam in which Reguengos de Monsaraz is included, was the first place in the world to be certified as a Starlight Tourism Destination for its exceptional conditions such as the absence of clouds and the ideal degree of darkness.
The megalithic monuments found in this region are testimony to the importance that the stars already had in prehistoric times and how people then already spent a few hours admiring the Milky Way. During the day, take the opportunity to drive along the Megalithic Route and discover these historical remains between Évora and the Great Lake of Alqueva.
This region appeals more to those who like to relax, but there are also activities for those who like to keep moving! In between trying to identify constellations you can take the opportunity to do some wine tasting, participate in an astro-photography outing or bird watching tour or go up the castle walls in the quaint nearby town of Monsaraz located on one of the highest hills in the area and with a fabulous view over the plains and the Great Lake.
The intervals in between each activity can and should be filled with some of the best food and wine in the region: try the local lamb stews and Iberian Pork roasts and make sure to include wines in your meal as some of the best in the whole country are produced here. The locally made Syrahs and Touriga Nacional are of incredible quality and excellent value for money. Let yourself be absorbed by the many enchantments of the Alentejo in the coziest of seasons of the year when you will definitely feel as if you are a local enjoying the best things that Reguengos de Monsaraz has to offer!
5) Funchal: the anti-winter destination in Portugal!
For those who prefer warmer climates, but want to avoid having to go halfway around the world to enjoy the sun, the city of Funchal in the island of Madeira is an excellent alternative for it is one of the best places to visit in Portugal in the winter. The island is located just a short 1h45m plane trip away from Lisbon or Porto and temperatures are very mild throughout the year despite some precipitation in the wintertime. Maximum temperatures range from 25°C (77ºF) in summer to 20°C (68ºF) in winter, while minimum temperatures range from 20°C (68ºF) in summer to 13°C (55ºF) in winter.
In this destination where it seems to be spring all year round, there are fewer tourists in the colder months at least until New Year's Eve. If you travel around that time you will see a firework show in the bay of Funchal incomparable to any other. It happens on the first night of the new year and is one of the biggest tourist attractions of the island!
Wander the streets of Funchal's Old Town and enjoy the view of the city from a cable car ride up to Monte, the highest hill. If you like to feel the all the thrills that this destination has to offer, dare to go back down to Funchal aboard one of the wickerwork carts driven by experienced guides.
The island of Madeira is a true delight for the eyes and is commonly referred to as the Garden Island. From the local dark sand beaches, to the natural pools of Porto Moniz and the small town of Curral das Freiras perched from a hilltop overlooking the ocean, there are so many unique landscapes to discover and new things to try, that the island is well worthy of a few days of exploring. If you enjoy the views from high places or are a photography lover, add the two stunning cliffs of Pico Ruivo and Pico do Areeiro with infinity views over the island, to your list of places to visit.
Along with discovering the numerous natural beauties of the island, make sure get to know the famous Madeira wines and gastronomy. The local specialties include freshly grilled tuna and swordfish, fried polenta and barbecued meat skewers served with sweet-potato bread buns. For dessert, enjoy a passion fruit pudding or a blackberry jam and finish it off with a shot of poncha the local punch-like drink made with fruit, sugar cane brandy and brown sugar which is a real trademark of Funchal!
One thing is for sure, as soon as you arrive, we are certain that you will feel that you have reached paradise!
Winter is the new Summer!
We could have referred many more locations on this list as many more could fit into the category “better visited during winter or low season”. Portugal is a great family or solo destination throughout the year but the same places will provide for different experiences in different times of the year. You may feel like saving some money, or that you want to avoid crowds or even that you want to get more for what you paid for in which cases we can assure you that the best option for you is to travel in the winter to Portugal. Start looking now for what could be the best tour for you and we will be happy to help every step of the way!