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Top Destinations for 2015: Portugal

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Portugal: a beautiful land of marked contrasts, whose bold and exciting culture as well as its maritime climate entices travellers from across the globe all year round.

Vibrant and beautiful towns sprinkle the vine-covered, woody hills of the north, which melt into the stunning cork tree-coated plains of Alenteio and the country’s capital: Lisbon. Finally, the rolling green hills of Monchique give way to the stretches of white sandy beaches of the Algarve, all the while encompassing fascinating cultural heritage in the cities that dot the region.

Boasting ancient mountain sides and rich volcanic caves, a number of cultural festivals and diving excursions that will leave you in awe, Portugal is undoubtedly one of the most underrated destinations to visit, regardless of your holiday intentions. Whether you are out to experience the endless natural beauty the country has to offer, are captivated by its cultural heritage or simply desperate for a relaxing retreat away from reality, there is something for everyone.  Around 850km of beaches bathed by the Atlantic ocean offer the chance to relax and unwind, whilst the combination of tradition and modernityof the cities blend together in such perfect harmony, you’ll be torn for where to go next.

Where to go

Dying to immerse yourself deep in Portuguese culture and heritage? You could start by visiting Sintra, also known as The Moon Hill, a place where nature and man have combined in such perfect symbiosis, that it has been granted world heritage site status. The Vila Palace, a summer retreat for 14th century Kings, paints the way to Palácio and Quinto da Regaleira, an 18th century palace with walls adorned with impressive decorations laden with Masonic references. If you’re visiting during the months of July and August, take a trip to the Olga de Cadval Cultural Centre, where the Sintra and Pena palaces host the Sintra Festival, featuring incredible dance and music performances.

Soak up the abundance of attractions in the heart of the country’s capital: Lisbon. Only half an hour away from Sintra, Lisbon features some of the most incredible scenery you could imagine. By day, visit Chiado, Bairro Alto, Alfama, Baixa and the Castelo de São Jorge; a must for any visitor to the city, and by night dine in the riverside setting of the Praça do Comércio Square, host to an array of restaurants, lounges and open-air terraces, offering panoramic views of the city.

Let Madeira’s Natural Park satisfy your taste for nature and serenity. Created in 1982 to preserve its vast natural heritage, the park features exuberant and diverse vegetation, with a patchwork of plants rich in shades of green scattering over two thirds of the island. The Laurissilva Forest, Marine Nature Reserve of Garajau and Rocha do Navio Nature Reserve are among the top attractions for those after an ecological retreat.

Porto has been described as mystical, and if you’re travelling within the area, it is certainly worth a visit. Its bridges, monuments, flowering balconies and shopping streets that merge beautifully with the River Douro make it too enticing to miss. If nothing else, take a trip to Porto’s riverfront, its historic riverside barirro of Ribeira is now a UNESCO world heritage site and features some of the most picturesque views in Portugal.

The Algarve is host to long stretches of sandy white beaches, bound by golden cliffs in small bays nestled between rocks and coves, which provide beautiful backdrops for unforgettable trips. With over 200km of coastline, the Algarve is home to some of the most stunning preserved coastal areas in Europe, and those most recommended are: the Vicentina Coast, the Ria Formosa, and the Marshland of Castro Marim, rich in fauna and flora. Experience authentic Portuguese cuisine in the endless sea of restaurants and cafes. Seafood fans are in for a treat, with the spotlight naturally being on the fresh fish and seafood locally caught and prepared thanks to the nation’s well-developed fishing industry.

What to do

Take to the skies

Take a helicopter ride in Madeira to Funchal. What better way to soak up the beautiful sights of the island, as well as an opportunity to try something new?

Paddle through a hidden oasis

Take in the inspiring and unique surroundings of Aveiro: Portugal’s ‘hidden gem’, whilst floating through the canals and lagoons on a brightly coloured boat. Alternatively, take control and kayak on the Mondegoriver and enjoy the gentle float down the Verdant valley.

Chase down a school of dolphins

Book a sea excursion and swim in the clearest blue seas of the Atlantic. Trips to the sado estuary near Setúbal can take you out to the best areas for dolphin watching, and if you choose to scuba dive, you may even be rewarded by catching a rare glimpse of a whale!

Relax in an outdoor hot tub

Hot springs are an often forgotten attraction, but are definitely worth a visit, especially to those on the archipelago islands just off of the mainland. Choose to explore the springs which are so hot, they are used to cook some of the best Portuguese cuisine, as well as those that have been turned into outdoor hot tubs and pools, perfect for natural spa treatments and relaxation.

Trek to the volcanic Azores...

Visit the Azores: a collection of nine volcanic islands that form a geopark. Here, scenery is at its most beautiful, with unique profiles of land and wonderful natural formations such as caves and waterfalls.

...or to the sole national park

Visit Parque Nacional Da Peneda-Gerês; the country’s only national park, offering alluring trails past gushing streams and alpine scenery.

Explore the coast

Mountain bike along some of the great cycling treks in the Algarve, perfect for those wanting to take in the sights in an active way! When you’re done, stop off at one of the beaches or coves, and enjoy some typical Portuguese food on the finest sandy beaches. If you prefer water to land, why not try one of the various water sports on offer? Surfing, parasailing, water skiing and jet boats are amongst the most popular.

Embrace street art 

Lisbon's urban culture can be uncovered with the £50km Street Art Tour, which takes place on Tuesdays and Sundays and promises to give visitors a unique look behind the scenes at this hugely artistic city. Budding photographers will have the chance to up their holiday snaps game with an alternative to the usual tourist haunts.  

Travel the length of the country 

If you can't decide where to go (and let's face it, it's going to be a difficult choice) why not take the plunge and travel through the whole country? The Portugal Rail Pass, released last year, allows visitors to travel via train from Porto in the north right down the the Algarve, using just one ticket. With a three or seven-day option and costing between £84 and £139 depending on length and whether you choose first or second class, we can't think of a better way to drink in everything that Portugal has to offer. What are you waiting for...? 

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