January 4, 2019 by Ellis Dixon
Driving Through Portugal: See it All in 50 Stops (Part 3)
Continued from part two of the three-part series.
You’re a beast at the wheel if you’ve made it this far. Think about it — you’ve been to about 35 cities from part one and part two combined, and now you’re on your last leg. Parabéns, partner, you already know Portugal better than most, but it’s time to finish your journey by starting in Beja and swooping through the Algarve on your way back to Lisboa.
FROM BEJA TO LISBON VIA THE ALGARVE: Beja – Mértola – Alcoutim – Tavira – Faro – Lagoa – Monchique – Sagres – Aljezur – Odeceixe – Zambujeira do Mar – Grândola – Alcácer do Sal – Setubal – Arrábida – Sesimbra – Lisboa
Beja: Like so many other towns in Portugal, this one is built around a central castle with the highest of all Portuguese castle towers, at 40m, which offers pretty spectacular views of this formerly Roman town. Do like the tourists do and learn about the town’s history at the nearby Latin-Visigothic church of Santo Amaro and check out some iconography at the Regional Museum of Dona Leanor. If you’re more into Portuguese surrealist sculpture, the Jorge Vieira Museum is pretty cool. We usually go for a huge helping of rabbit and wild boar at the impeccable Adega Tipica Restaurant on our way through town.
Mértola: As you make your way down the N265 from Beja, stop by the ruins and mosaic floors of the Roman palace at Pisões. It’s not too large a site, but it’s a nice excuse to stretch your legs. Once in Mértola, the main tourist attractions are the Matriz church, which was originally built as a mosque by the Moors in the 12th century, and the Islamic art and artifacts at the Mértola Museum. This town is known for its Festival Mouros (Moorish Festival), which takes place every May.
Alcoutim: Welcome to the Algarve! You’re likely covered in car sweat from the heat of the Alentejo, so take a dip in the Ribeira de Cadavais at Pego Fundo‘s praia fluvial before diving into the 14th-century Moorish Castle of Alcoutim located in the city center. There are lots of artisans selling their goods in this town, so here’s where you should do some souvenir shopping for pottery, blankets, and rugs for Mom’s birthday. Not into shopping? You can rent a boat for an hour or so and go for a guided or self-guided cruise on the Guadiana river.
Tavira: On your way into Tavira, exit the A22 to the three-meter-high Pego do Inferno waterfall for a shower. Once you finally arrive in town, take a walk down the cobblestoned Praça Republica. The main attraction here is the Santa María do Castelo Church, which houses the tombs of seven knights killed by the Moors. Ready for something stunning? Head about 5km south from Tavira to Praia do Barril and see one of the best beaches in the Algarve, known for its rows of half-buried anchors and white sand. Take the little train from the parking area or walk over — both ways are delightful.
Faro: Walk through the famous arch and check out the 1,000-year-old stonework on your way to visit the Episcopal palace and cathedral in the central square of the old town. Peek into the tiny Museu Marítimo Almirante Ramalho Ortigão to get a taste of what makes the town tick before you head out on the Rio Formosa with a guide to see oyster and mussel farms and do a bit of birdwatching. If you’re a naturist, take the ferry 7km south to the abandoned Barreta Island for some peace, quiet, and privacy at the southernmost tip of continental Portugal.
Lagoa: Just southeast of Lagoa is the famous natural arch of the secluded Praia de Albandeira beach, and just to the west along the coast are the stunning Benagil caves. Keen for a dip? You can access the caves from Praia Benagil if you’re a strong swimmer and there are no waves — but be careful, people do drown here. If you want to take a boat tour along the coast, we recommend comparing prices at the Vilamoura marina in Lagoa and popping in for a pint and something fried upstairs at O’Neills Irish Bar.
Monchique: This town is known for its black pork sausage, folding scissor chairs, thermal baths, and hiking trails, and it’s a welcome escape from the often crowded coast of the Algarve. Walk through the forest to the ruins of the 17th-century monastery of Nossa Senhora do Desterro and marvel at what is purported to be the largest magnolia tree in Europe. Then, hop over to Caldas de Monchique to pamper yourself with a hydromassage or just a soak in the 31-degree sacred waters of the Caldas de Monchique Termas. Looking for a less expensive place with a pool to crash for the night? Try the charming Albergaria do Lageado.
Sagres: On your way to the Southwest tip of the country, don’t miss a stop at the Lagos Zoo. The monkeys alone are worth the price of admission, and there’s a quintinha (petting farm) where you can get up close and personal with some barnyard friends. They even sell feed for donkeys and goats here. After your animal-infused intermission, head towards the Cabo de Sao Vicente lighthouse, make a stop at the Fortaleza de Sagres to pay homage to Henry the Navigator, and go diving at the Praia da Mareta. Sagres is best known for its surfing, so if you know how to hang ten, here’s where you’ll want to go.
Aljezur: Take a leisurely drive north along the coast from Sagres (alongside the well-known hiking trail called the Rota Vicentina), stop to look out over the stunning cliffs of Carrapateira, and squeeze some sand between your toes at the Praia da Arrifana. Once in Aljezur, try a dish made with their famous sweet potatoes at one of the restaurants in the main square and visit the ruins of the 10th-century Moorish castle. It’s fun to walk aimlessly along the cobblestone streets between iconic whitewashed houses, so set some time aside to do just that.
Odeceixe: If you ask any Portuguese, it’s likely they will tell you this is their favorite beach. While there are plenty of tourists about, this sleepy beach town has somehow managed to hold on to its…authenticity? Ha! It offers excellent food and fair prices at its cafes and a pristine beach for relaxing or surfing if that’s your thing. It’s your last stop in the Algarve, so park here overnight for stellar views and a hot meal before bed.
Zambujeira do Mar: If you happen to be making your trip in August, keep in mind Zambujeira is the host of the international music festival called Sudoeste, so it’s likely to be packed with music-loving beachgoers. But this beach town is worth a stop year-round. The beach (excellent for surfing) is situated below the town, flanked by the charming Nossa Senhora do Mar church at the north and the Palheirão rock at the southern end. This is the place to go for locally-caught octopus and our favorite — the strange-looking goose barnacles called percebes.
Grândola: Do a drive-by of this town as you consider the song “Grândola, Vila Morena” by Zeka Afonso, famously known as the signal for action for the Carnation Revolution on the 25th of April, 1974. Aside from paying tribute to inspiration for revolution, check out Grândola for its cork trees, the Sado Estuary Nature Reserve, which is great for birdwatching, and the dunes at Tróia. If you like golf, there is a Bobby Jones-designed course near here.
Alcácer do Sal: This agricultural town is Portugal’s main source of local rice. Along the South bank of the River Sado, the areas formerly used for salt production are now home to beautiful extensive rice fields, certainly worth a gander. If you don’t mind a dead-end drive westward, we recommend you take the N253 to Comporta to see old wooden docs and fishing boats both in use and abandoned. Keep your eyes peeled for grey herons, storks, and flamingos en masse.
Arrábida: Situated between Setúbal and Sesimbra, Arrábida is a natural park complete with a 1500s convent, caves with bats, and the Serra do Risco— the highest cliff on the Portuguese coast at 380m. If you’re a climber, you’ll want to stop at Fenda (from III+ to 8b), and if you’d like to learn about the marine life in the area, you’ll want to visit the Oceanographic Museum, installed in the former Fort of Nossa Senhora da Arrábida, next to Portinho beach. Cycling through the serra is also quite popular, but you’ll be out of place without a cute spandex outfit.
Sesimbra: This fishing town is the launchpad to several cool destinations along the bay but, like Setúbal, should be visited for its choco frito (fried cuttlefish). Nearby are the kitesurfing practice grounds of the Lagoa de Albufeira, the nude beach at Meco, the former convent Cabo Espichel that dates back to the 15th century, and of course, the charming lighthouse nearby. The stunning views from this area should be reserved for sunset and stargazing.
Lisboa: You’ve made it back to where you began so parabens! Surely you’ve planned what you will do in Lisboa to celebrate, but if not, I recommend saving gas and parking your vehicle so you can do some exploring on foot. Tip: If you’re in a camper van, there’s free parking (for the time being anyway) near Urban Beach in Santos next to the Rio Tejo. You can access this area via Cais do Sodré or Alcântara. Here’s the top speed tour to Lisboa if you’re short on time, but do your best to relax and reflect if you can. You’ve seen a lot and you’ll need time to process it all. A glass of wine helps.