You would be forgiven for having heard little about the Alentejo. Despite being the largest region in Portugal, it receives nowhere near as many international tourists as the Algarve, Lisbon and Porto. Fortunately, that also means its natural beauty and human heritage have been well preserved.
This vast region is living proof that rural and remote destinations are not lifeless – quite the contrary. Alentejo has its own distinct cultural identity which is visible everywhere you look, from the architecture that dots its serene landscape, to the delicious but humble cuisine.
It accounts for roughly a third of Portugal’s total land area but less than 10% of the country’s population, which makes the Alentejo an ideal place to escape the crowds. No surprise then, that the total number of coronavirus infections have been very low in most areas, and others have yet to even see their first case.
Central and Alto Alentejo are perhaps the best connected parts, with motorway access to Lisbon and Spain. The landscape is mostly dominated by seemingly unending soft rolling hills of cork oaks and vineyards, interrupted only by small villages and walled towns laden with historical significance. Here, the warm weather brings with it a wonderfully slow pace of life.
Here is a guide to the Central and Alto Alentejo regions, with the best towns to visit, landscapes to see, resorts to experience and the most delicious food to try.
Towns and villages
To spend a day in Évora is to seamlessly get a taste of several civilisations that influenced Mediteranean Europe.
The Roman presence stands out with the ruins of the gigantic Temple of Évora set right in the middle of a public square, free for all to enjoy. Just a stone’s throw away is the Catedral de Évora, the largest Medieval cathedral in the country. It was in this Gothic 13th-century building that the explorer Vasco da Gama is said to have had his sails blessed before he went on to be the first European to sail to India.
Through the labyrinthine old town, the memory of Evora’s Moorish rule lives on. It’s a pleasure to lose your way around these cobbled streets and find quaint little cafes tucked away among the historical buildings.
Equally unmissable is the Capela dos Ossos, a 17th-century chapel which the Franciscan friars meticulously lined with bones of those who had passed. The stunning decoration tells a tale of human fragility which must be seen to be understood.
Eat at the Dom Joaquim restaurant to experience typical Alentejo cuisine cooked to perfection. Here the naturally hearty gastronomy is balanced with deliciously rich flavours which is so typical of Portuguese cuisine. If there is ever a definition of “honest food”, this it.
Vagar walking tours: £120 for 4 people, includes entrance fees and coffee break.
Landmarks and landscapes
In stark contrast to the rest of the Alentejo landscape, the Serra de São Mamede Natural Park offers proper mountains topped with walled villages. Marvão is a prime example. Park your hire car at the village entrance and pick your way through the twisting streets until you reach the 13th-century Castelo de Marvão. This is one of the highest points of the mountain range so you will be rewarded with a spectacular 360-degree view. Once a strategic military lookout, this castle now offers an unparalleled perspective on the Alentejo landscape. Allow plenty of time for both castle and village, as it is a difficult place to walk away from.
Just over an hour’s drive from Marvão is the Forte de Nossa Senhora da Graça. This vast 18th-century fortress is worth discovering even if military tourism is not your bag. The sheer size and complexity of this structure are what hook most people in, but climb to the top and you’ll be rewarded with another fine view of the Alentejo’s golden landscapes. It is not furnished, so a guided tour is necessary to fully appreciate what is before you. Ask about the fort’s use during the Portuguese 20th-century dictatorship for some dark tales.
You don’t have to be in Alentejo for long before you hear about the Coudelaria de Alter. It is one of the oldest equestrian stud farms in the world, having been created in 1748 by king John V of Portugal to preserve the majestic pure-breed Lusitano horses.
Thanks to a partnership with the premium hotel chain Vila Galé, this relaxing equestrian resort is a great place to spend a couple of days, even if your interest in horses is only mild. Aside from the usual riding and hiking activities, you’re invited to tour the facilities where these world-class horses are cared for and watch them train.
There are also falconry displays and a museum to explore, in between much-needed dips in the pool. Because the hotel is integrated in the Coudelaria’s facilities, you feel a part of the estate rather than just a hotel guest. Rooms from £120, including breakfast.
While this part of Alentejo does not have any beach resorts, NAU Montargil Hotel offers a good alternative. This five-star facility is set on the shores of the Montargil Dam reservoir, formed from a naturally-occurring river. You won’t be bothered by waves or currents so it’s a good chance to try boating or jet-skiing. If one body of water won’t suffice, one of NAU’s five pools should do the trick.
Food and drink
Alentejo’s cuisine is famous throughout Portugal for good reason. Simple yet high-quality ingredients are turned into incredibly rich meals through basic cooking methods. Food is in the DNA of Alentejo, meaning no list is extensive enough to cover all the recommendations.
Try a Porco Preto (Black Iberian pig) dish and you will never taste regular pork the same way again. It’s a specific species of pig which feeds mostly on acorns and when grilled it yields thin yet succulent slices.
There are dozens of pork-based dishes typical to Alentejo and most are worth trying. Carne de porco a alentejana is the famous potato, clam and pork stew that has found its way into so many restaurants around the country.
Migas is another must-try classic which is often served as a garnish but shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s bread-based puree made with olive oil, garlic and usually a vegetable (asparagus is my personal favourite).
For a fish dish try sopa de cação, a fish soup (or stew, depending who you ask) cooked in olive oil and garlic, accompanied by typical sliced bread.
If you leave room for dessert, a slice of sericaia (egg and cinnamon pudding) is a great way to sign off a meal. Equally delicious is the bolo cigano, an almond cake with debatable origins and often secretive recipes.
Accompany a fish dish with the entry-level white Monte Velho, and try the higher-end red Cartuxa with a meat dish. Other regional reds worth trying are Herdade do Peso Trinca Bolotas and EA.
Where to stay
Travassos 11 in the walled city of Elvas as an intermediate stop-off point for the other activities in this guide. This boutique guesthouse occupies a 19th-century mansion which the owners went to great lengths to preserve. It perfectly combines original features like the old wooden floors and typical wall tiles with tasteful decoration. Some of the rooms continue that historic theme while others adopt a modern minimalistic style, but both are spacious and cosy.
For a resort-oriented experience closer to Lisbon, stay at the aforementioned five-star NAU Montargil. With a large spa and several pools you will have plenty of choice to unwind and cool off, while the rooms are spacious and modern.
Fly via Faro (Ryanair, Wizz and BA all offer services) or Lisbon (with Ryanair, EasyJet or Wizz) and hire a car.