Known long ago for its noble seafarers, adventurers and explorers, modern-day Portugal may just be Europe's proverbial best-kept secret. This tiny country–steeped in history and imbued with an innate cultural pride, venerable traditions and some of the finest cuisine in the world–offers a top-notch vacation experience in a host of fascinating settings.
From fairytale castles, regal palaces, ancient convents, mystical monasteries, romantic manors and unusual locations including the rim of an ancient volcano, the choices are vast.
Whether to go ultra "posh" and check into a palace, or revert to basics and get back in touch with nature, the choice is yours. No matter what you choose, you won't be disappointed. Here are our ten favorite places to bed down in Portugal.
Medieval castle of Óbidos offers a peek into the past — Photo courtesy of Pousadas de Portugal
Pousada Castelo de Óbidos
According to ancient lore, the medieval walled town of Óbidos was wrested from the Moors in 1148 by Portugal's first king, D. Afonso Henriques. In 1210 King Afonso II gave the title of Óbidos to the queens of Portugal, giving rise to its nickname of Vila das Rainhas (village of the queens).
Subsequently, King D. Dinis I remodeled the castle and presented it to his wife, Queen Santa Isabel. From that time until 1883, the town and its imposing castle was the property of Portugal's queens.
Today, the Pousada Castelo de Óbidos, a luxurious hotel where you can tuck yourself into the lap of luxury in one of 17 guest rooms–nine of them in the actual castle, eight in the recently opened cottage next door. Each room is distinctive and named for a departed Portuguese monarch. Modern-day amenities include free Wi-Fi, cable TV, minibar, AC and more.
Dining is an exceptional experience, not only because of the varied menu highlighting typical cuisine, but because of the antique tiles, copper pieces and ancient suits of armor echoing the past. In summer months, private tables offer panoramic views of the hamlet from the vantage point of a romantic patio.
Former chapel at Pousada Belmonte is now an inviting sitting area — Photo courtesy of Pousada Convento de Belmonte
Pousada Convento de Belmonte
Folded into the rolling picturesque hillside pine forest of the Serra da Esperança (Mountain of Hope) in central Portugal, the Pousada Convento de Belmonte is the striking result of the renovation of the 18th century Nossa Senhora da Esperança (Lady of Hope) Convent.
A prime example of all good things coming in small packages, the Pousada offers free Wi-Fi, cable TV, in-room safe, swimming pool, mini bar and other modern-day accoutrements.
Some of the region's finest cuisine is served in the Pousada's charming dining room, located in the central part of the former convent.
A Master Suite highlights wine barrel décor — Photo courtesy of The Yeatman Hotel
The Yeatman Hotel
You don't have to be a wine aficionado to stay at The Yeatman Hotel, but it might help if you are. Named for a distinguished wine family, the hotel is perched above the Rio Douro across from the World Heritage city of Porto. The Relais & Châteaux jewel opened in 2010 with 82 rooms and suites, each with a Portuguese winery theme.
Some suites have beds built into wine barrels, while all feature luxurious décor with private balconies overlooking the iconic wine capital.
The luxurious award-winning spa boasts breathtaking views of the storied city while presenting a variety of wine therapies, barrel bath immersions, signature body and facial treatments and invigorating Vichy showers.
As you might expect from a hotel housing one of the most extensive wine cellars in the world, The Yeatman offers regularly scheduled–as well as private–wine tastings and seminars. For a casual drink and light snacks, Dick's Bar (named for local wine personality Dick Yeatman) will quench your thirst, while the traditional flavors of Portugal are presented throughout the year in the chic hotel restaurant. Summer fare is dished up in the Decanter Pool Restaurant May through September.
Cozy "eco-houses," or breath-taking tree lofts promote comfort — Photo courtesy of Pedras Salgadas - Spa & Nature Park
Pedras Salgadas Spa & Nature Park
Whether you choose to snuggle in one of the cozy "eco-houses" or prefer to try the "head in the clouds" ambiance of a lofty tree house, Pedgras Salgadas Spa & Nature Park promises a unique experience.
Located in the lush forest of northern Portugal–just an hour's drive from Porto–this enclave gives new meaning to getting "up close and personal" with nature in a vacation spot once favored by Portuguese royalty.
Nowadays, it beckons with secluded hiking paths winding their way through the lush 50-acre park with natural thermal springs paving the way for total relaxation. Whether you indulge in an exhilarating "me Tarzan, you Jane" tree-climbing challenge, moving between treetops via a series of platforms, suspension bridges and ropes, or prefer to check into the therapeutic thermal spa for a slate of soothing treatments, the options are many.
Three pools (one indoors) and a restaurant serving typical local fare combine with a nearby adventure park, casino and local tours to provide plenty of other adventures.
Each room offers a different "journey" — Photo courtesy of Manuel Gomes
Areias do Seixo
Tucked amid sand dunes on the pristine, and largely untouched, coast near Lisbon, Areias do Seixo is an eco-boutique hotel showcasing 10 rooms and four villas. The mood can best be described as "hippy-chic" with Moroccan and Indian touches accenting comfortable accommodations, private patios and large windows overlooking the sea.
Rainfall showers, Jacuzzis, suspended fireplaces and other fixtures pave the way for a romantic rendezvous, while villas with multiple bedrooms are perfect for friends and family gatherings.
For total pampering, explore the spa with its roster of stress-relieving body and facial treatments–such as a rose petal facial, or yogurt, honey, sugar and sesame seed scrub. A Turkish bath, sauna and swimming pool add to the experience. For the ultimate indulgence, schedule a mani/pedi in your room.
Hand-painted 18th century tiles hint at a regal past — Photo courtesy of Palacio Belmonte
Drift back to a kinder, gentler time and experience life in an elegant palace when you check into Palacio Belmonte. Built by a Portuguese nobleman in 1449 atop Roman and Moorish ruins, this award-winning hotel sits at the foot of São Jorge Castle overlooking Lisbon, in silent testimony to the city's storied past.
Extensive renovations and expansions in the 17th and 18th centuries, followed by 21st century magic led to the opening of this luxurious gem in 2000. Each of the 10 suites–named for a famous person in Portuguese history–is a testament to the country's majesty. Outdoor terraces, an extensive library, rich antiques and Old World trappings are highlighted by exceptional, personalized service.
Beautifully landscaped Mediterranean gardens and a unique black slate swimming pool overlook the tranquil Rio Tejo, once an important Roman port. A charming restaurant/café blending local cuisine with live music and art, promises a delightful dining experience.
Sun sets on the ecological villas — Photo courtesy of ECork Hotel
It should come as no surprise that a country known for olive groves and cork trees would have a unique four-star hotel in the popular Alentejo covered with cork.
Located just a five-minute drive from the UNESCO World Heritage City of Évora, Ecork Hotel is an ecologically correct resort featuring 55 free-standing suites. The unique cork-covered main building was designed to offer maximum geothermal energy efficiency with which to heat the swimming pools and the hotel's principal areas.
All suites feature AC, cable TV, Wi-Fi, minibar and private terrace, while larger suites also have a kitchenette. A gym housing state-of-the-art equipment, and spa promise to soothe what ails you with a variety of treatments, a swimming pool, sauna and Turkish bath.
Fine dining takes places in the tranquility of Cardo Restaurant with views of the Alentejo tasty Portuguese and Mediterranean fare and local wines.
A chic getaway in the Algarve — Photo courtesy of Casa Arte
Nestled along the Algarve's popular coast amid olive and citrus groves, Casa Arte is close to popular beaches and proves the adage that "all good things come in small packages."
With only five luxurious accommodations tucked into white Moorish architecture, you'll feel as though you've dropped out of life in the fast lane and checked into a private Portuguese country estate.
Chic décor, including smart TV, internet and music system, open fireplaces, luxury bathrooms, private terraces and pool provide all the comforts of home. A small restaurant features freshly prepared regional dishes and noteworthy breakfasts. Cooking and wine workshops are available upon request.
The nearby 16th century cobblestoned fortress town of Lagos with its charming praças (plazas) assures shopping and sightseeing. Other area activities include: golf, horseback riding, sailing, hiking, boat trips and more. A car is recommended when staying here.
Regal elegance evokes a kinder, gentler time — Photo courtesy of Belmond Reid's Palace
Belmond Reid's Palace
Well-known for its history of lush vineyards and rich wine, Portugal's island of Madeira is also known for its hospitality. Sprawling atop the cliffs overlooking Funchal Bay, Belmond Reid's Palace has been a favorite with European royalty and Hollywood glitterati since it opened in 1891.
Sophisticated, elegant décor and Belle Epoque charm underscore the opulent furnishings and luxurious modern amenities throughout the resort. The vibe is definitely regal, with a touch of retro chic throughout the 163 rooms and suites, all of which offer private balconies and sweeping views.
Dining options abound, offering superb cuisine in a variety of venues: a dignified Edwardian dining room, romantic Italian ristorante, French bistro or casual terrace. Tea time is an established tradition here and is served every afternoon on the "Tea Terrace" overlooking the sea.
A luxurious spa offers total "R&R" along with a roster of soothing facial and body treatments, while four pools and a fully equipped fitness center–all with ocean views–promote exercise. When the sun goes down, Madeira wine-tasting, dance lessons and Portuguese classes offer more to do, if you're so inclined.
Families are especially welcome as the resort features a host of activities, kids' pool, playground and video games for children and teens.
A boutique gem tucked into natural surroundings — Photo courtesy of Furnas Lake Villas
Furnas Lake Villas
Sitting a scant 500 yards from a volcanic-heated lake in the Azores, Furnas Lake Villas ultra-modern, four-star boutique hotel is more than just a pretty place. It's the perfect excuse to kick back and explore nature, while being enveloped in "rustic luxury."
Ten free-standing Scandinavian styled villas, fashioned after traditional island warehouses, fit perfectly into the landscape, each of them with a fully-equipped kitchen, fireplace, satellite TV and DVD player.
When you're ready to explore, bike and car rentals are available to get you to the nearby spa village of Furnas, area beaches and golf courses. Adventure enthusiasts can sign up for Jeep tours, whale-watching, swimming with dolphins, rock climbing, canoeing and more. Extreme sports-types are encouraged to try canyoning–floating downriver using your body as the "vehicle."
A freshly prepared breakfast including honey, yogurt and cheeses from the Azores and baked goods are delivered daily to your villa. Private dinners can be arranged by request.