Vacationing in Portugal is not just about Lisbon and Porto. While I agree that these cities are definitely must-sees for first-time visitors, I have to admit that for even a small country, you are really missing out on so much more if you don’t venture beyond these areas! If you take a look at this Basic Regional Map, Portugal is firstly divided into 5 distinctly different geographical regions, but then these are further split into.
Sub-Regional (Right) & District (Left), with the districts named after their capital city. These smaller divisions represent how even more different they are from each other within not just geography, but also architecture, culture and cuisine (including wine!). That then gives you a perspective of just how much of Portugal you’re actually missing out on experiencing!
I read recently that it used to be that most tourists in general searched for a vacation spot according to the three S’s- Sun, Sea and Sand, which is still apparent on Portugal’s long coastline for being a tourist hot spot. But now, more and more people are shifting to looking for a vacation with the three L’s- Land, Lore and Leisure, meaning they prefer to stay in a place that best represents the land around them, to learn about the place’s history and folklore while being able to enjoy it through relaxing leisure activities. And for me, this one seems to fit my natural inclinations very well.
For the last 3 years, Miguel and I have maintained a tradition of taking two mini-vacations around Portugal, one in the summer (June/July) and one in the winter (November/December). And each time, we have made sure to go as deep into the country as we can, in search of finding a hotel that provides those three L’s, along with some other preferences we have. For example, a comfy bed is a must, as I don’t know how one can relax on vacation without a good night’s sleep! Also, we prefer a room with a balcony, specifically one with a great view of the land around there, so I guess you could say we normally tend to go to the mountains. And lastly, if we go in the summer months, a hotel with a pool is usually nice to have.
All of this you can easily find in a hotel using my favorite search site, Booking.com, just put in your dates and type “Portugal” as your destination then scroll down to the map and Portugal Overview where you can search by cities or provinces/regions or even closest airports. You can also check out Wonderfulland.com which recommends great Portuguese guesthouses and pousadas (luxury boutqiue hotels built within hisorical sites like castles, monasteries etc.) or Pousadas.pt directly for the entire list of pousadas. However, I find that these sites tend to be pricier to book with for the same hotel that you can almost always find on Booking, so I suggest that if you find a hotel on one of those latter two sites, look it up on Booking next to compare prices before reserving.
So now you may be asking yourself, when do you recommend the best time to go? What do I look for exactly? Well below are the guidelines I like to go by when choosing a hotel:
My Guidelines For Picking The Right Getaway Hotel in Portugal For You:
1. Avoid going in August at all cost!
EVERYONE in Europe goes on vacation in August, so most hotels, especially on the coast, are 2-3 times more expensive than other months. And even if you’re willing to pay the money, it’s almost guaranteed that your hotel will be packed to the brim with lots of families and screaming children….not exactly ideal for a relaxing getaway, you’d almost be better off staying at those people’s empty homes!
If you want the beach without so much of the craziness, try booking in late September/October when it’s still quite warm most of the time and the water has had the opportunity to heat up all summer Just saw a room at a 5-star hotel in Sagres for more than a €100 less per night in mid-October than if you had booked it in mid-August! And of course, staying during the week versus the weekend will always be cheaper.
2. Always check the hotel’s room photos carefully to see exactly what you’re sleeping in/on.
I’ve encountered some gorgeous little hotels in the most absolutely beautiful locations to find out that their rooms look like creepy medieval dungeons. Maybe some people think it’s cool sleeping on a 500yr old piece of history but I prefer my relaxing getaway bed NOT to be a rock-hard tiny mattress that’ll break you’re back as you stare up at a giant gnarled black crucifix. About as romantic as staying at your deeply-religious grandmother’s house for vacation….Pass!
3. Order your search results by highest rated, NOT most popular.
You don’t necessarily want the most popular hotel, especially if the popular vote comes from families with screaming children. However, you do still want an overall high rating for your hotel to begin with, as this usually narrows down your search to places with high-quality service and facilities. I usually tend to not go below about a 7.7 out of 10.0, however I have found exceptions to that before. If you want to really be sure, read several of the comments from past guests, making sure to read specifically the comments from your specific guest profile. As I said, it may be great according to families but not so much for young couples looking for a relaxing, romantic getaway. Also, older couples and families with small children tend to complain the most about any little thing, such as rating the place a 5 out of 10 just because there was no TV in the room. I think these are unfair complaints when they could have easily chosen a different hotel with those desired features beforehand, instead of crapping on an otherwise fantastic place to stay!
Bottom line, if you spend a little extra time searching, narrowing down and looking in detail at the placese you have in mind, you’ll have a better chance of choosing the right hotel in the right area that you´ll be satisfied and happy with after.
So, are you looking for some recommendations to start with? Well, if you have similar preferences as the ones I stated above, then check out the 5 hotels below that I’ve stayed at on my mini-vacations in the last 3 years!
Hotel Folgosa Douro-Folgosa, Douro Valley (Norte) | http://www.hotelfolgosadouro.com/en/
This small but modern 3-star hotel was just a little over a year old when we stayed there for the first time in November, 2009. Situated in the tiny village of Folgosa, near Peso da Régua, it’s in the heart of Douro wine country. Which is what we mainly did on our vacation there, spend the day driving up and down the mountains exploring the area and checking out the all the wineries and vineyards and the breathtaking views of the valley. We liked this place a lot for it’s location right on the river with a great view of the mountains and neighboring villages. The cleanly decorated rooms have comfy beds and nice mood lighting and the bathrooms have huge bathtubs that made for a great bubble bath to soak in after a day of wine tasting in the colder months.
The staff were very nice, offering us a complimentary glass port upon arrival and were very accommodating throughout our stay. The small restaurant serves inexpensive, good food presented nicely in front of their large window with a great view of the river. And if you’re willing to splurge, you got the famed Restaurante DOC by Chef Rui Paula just across the street from the hotel!
Hotel de Caramulo-Caramulo, Viseu (Centro)
This hotel is basically the only one perched at the top of the Caramulo mountains, just outside of the town of Caramulo. Don’t be turned off by its lower rating, this is mainly because the hotel is on the older side and some of the facilities need some fixing up but they have plenty of other reasons to make up for it. The rooms are modest but large and if you book a room with the “Valley View”, you get two double door windows opening up to a large balcony with a table and chairs and of course that GORGEOUS VIEW. The balcony was also great sitting out there in the evening in our hotel bathrobes and slippers breathing in the delicious mountain air under a star-filled sky with the towns all lit up below.
If the view still isn’t enough for you, the hotel has a fully equipped gym, spa, sauna, steam room and both an indoor and outdoor pool. The restaurant is a bit pricey but has good food, however their adjacent lounge/bar has a great mini-menu of soups and sandwiches and afternoon tea goodies that are great to spend a quiet, relaxing afternoon/evening with still that great panoramic view of the valley.
Hotel El-Rei Dom Manuel-Marvão (Alto Alentejo)
This was the last hotel we stayed at back in early December and also our first time vacationing in the region of Alentejo. I must say, we couldn’t have picked a worse weekend to go, with the cold, rain and immense fog, it made it hard at first to appreciate one of the best aspects of the hotel (room) and area-the view! But thankfully the fog did clear up enough for us to enjoy it and I can say it was definitely worthwhile after that.
This is only one of two hotels (the other is the pousada, which has a much lower rating) that are located in the historical village of Marvão, perched at the top of a large hill, complete with the ancient ruins of a castle. This makes it a perfect location to walk through the village and explore the castle and take in all the incredible vistas without ever having to worry about transportation.
Most of the rooms are small and a bit old-fashioned in decor, but the added rooftop terrace of a superior double room evens it out. The restaurant also serves good food, especially at breakfast and the staff are very hospitable.
This cozy, 10-room guesthouse located in a tiny aldeia (village) was rebuilt out of a 12th-century stone manor house and is run by incredibly hospitable Antonio Borges and his family, who live on premises. All the rooms are spaciously decorated with extra-comfy beds and some with a private courtyard or an outdoor terrace overlooking the countryside. Our room was located in the original stone house so we had the delight of the thick stone walls keeping our room naturally cool during the day and snuggly warm at night.
The family puts out a simple but homemade breakfast every morning with local fresh fruit and fresh baked sweets and though there is no restaurant, you can request to have a meal prepared for you in the dining room or you may be invited to dinner instead, if they are already cooking for themselves. This is what happened to us and the rest of the guests the first night and we had a casual, yet delicious family-style dinner, complete with Antonio and his family, they made everyone feel right at home!
The estate has an outdoor pool and you can also get recommendations from Antonio on local sports activities to do, such as hiking, horseback riding, canoeing, rafting, rapeling, BTT and more.
Casas da Lapa- Lapa dos Dinheiros, Serra da Estrela (Centro)
This tiny 8-room boutique hotel was built totally out of local stone and is perched high up in the Serra da Estrela mountains at the top of the tiny aldeia, Lapa dos Dinheiros. The super comfy rooms are stylishly decorated with even softer beds and furniture and all are equipped with jacuzzi bathtubs.
The outdoor pool has a great view of the valley and village below and since the hotel is so small, you almost feel like you’re the only guest there! There are also two rooftop terraces for guests to sit out and relax on, sunbathing or taking in the great view. The staff and service are impeccable and still retain the warm, local friendliness.
Breakfast is great and showcases a lot of local goodies, lunch is available and dinner can be arranged for you on their front terrace at your prior request. The night that we arrived though, it was already quite late, but the staff the kind enough to offer us the dinner menu that another group of guests had requested before so we lucked out!
Outside the hotel, you can walk up and down the historical cobblestone streets of the village and there is a praia fluvial (“river beach”) a short drive/walk down through the woods with a crystal clear mountain lake with a local “pub” that’s great to watch the moon come up over the mountain at night And of course, this place is perfectly located to explore all around the beautiful Serra da Estrela mountains and surround villages.
Boa Viagem & Happy Vacationing!