Few countries have experienced a tourism boom this decade to match Portugal’s. Back in 2010, 6.8 million foreign travellers visited the country. Fast forward to 2018 and that figure has surged to 22.8 million – an increase of 235 per cent. It is Europe’s fastest growing major destination. Globally, only Japan can trump it.
It’s good news for the Portuguese economy, but such rapid growth causes problems on the ground. It means strained infrastructure, overcrowding in big cities and at major attractions, and anti-tourist sentiment among locals.
Portugal’s biggest urban draw is its capital Lisbon. Here, annual tourists outnumber residents by 10 to 1 and the honeypot sites – such as the Tower of Belem and Jerónimos Monastery – attract huge crowds for much of the year.
“The central downtown areas have become more or less only for tourists,” says Trish Lorenz, a journalist and Lisbon resident. “The Baixa district, for example, which covers an area of 1.5 square kilometres, now has more than 70 hotels, while tourist-oriented restaurants, souvenir shops and big international brands have displaced local businesses.
“The surge has happened very quickly and infrastructure isn’t keeping up. There are huge queues for tickets at railway stations, standing room only on public transport, and issues around noise and litter mean locals are increasingly fed up.”
So what can tourists do to help? Going somewhere other than Lisbon (or Porto, the country’s second most popular city break) would be a good start. Ignore social media and the so-called travel “bucket list” – and pick somewhere less obvious. Here are some ideas.
Five alternative city breaks in Portugal
This central Portuguese gem exhibits the sort of melancholy beauty you would expect of a city with a history stretching back 2,000 years but whose golden age was several centuries ago. Hilltop Coimbra served as the capital of Portugal from 1131 until 1255, when the honour was handed to the equally venerable Lisbon, and while the latter is now inundated with tourists, few make it to the former.
It attractions, besides the lack of crowds, include one of the world’s oldest universities, founded in 1290 (just 81 years after Cambridge) and headquartered since the 16th century in the city’s Royal Palace. It lends the place a certain vitality – expect to see idealistic young scholars filling its cafés and fado bars.
There’s also an impressive 18th-century library, where more than 300,000 books line richly gilded walls, a 12th-century cathedral, a couple of handsome monasteries and a botanical garden. Some of Portugal’s best preserved Roman ruins can be seen in Condeixa-a-Nova, around 10 miles to the south.
How to get there: A clutch of budget airlines serve both Porto and Lisbon airports; Coimbra is halfway between the two and can be reached by rail.
Where to stay: Quinta das Lágrimas is the city’s most luxurious hotel, offering gardens, a spa and a fine dining restaurant, Arcadas.
“Described as ‘the Venice of Portugal’ because of its waterways and the colourful, gondola-like boats, or moliceiros, which navigate them, Aveiro is also celebrated for the bright art nouveau façades that line its main canal,” says Mary Lussiana, Telegraph Travel’s Portugal expert. “Be sure to visit the fish market, filled with the eels and sea snails that feature heavily in the local cuisine.”
How to get there: Fly to Porto and catch the train – it takes around an hour.
Where to stay: Meliá Ria offers smart rooms and a swanky spa.
One of Portugal’s most underrated gems is just a stone’s throw from Porto. “If any city can be described as adorable, then it is Guimarães,” wrote Tim Pozzi for Telegraph Travel after a trip there. “Its pedestrianised heart is a web of gently winding cobbled streets and washing-hung alleyways bejewelled with tiny bars and cute cafés. Those alleyways lead to pretty plazas that, rather satisfyingly, tend to be any shape but square, while its dinky, idiosyncratic shops, specialising in lacework, hats or birdcages, are a joy to discover – without a Body Shop or a Zara in sight.”
Attractions include the photogenic remains of a 10th-century castle and the José de Guimarães International Centre of Arts, or take the 10-minute cable-car ride over residents’ back gardens to the 2,000ft peak known as Penha.
How to get there: Fly to Porto and catch the train – it takes just over an hour.
Where to stay: Spectacular Pousada Mosteiro de Guimarães occupies a 12th-century former convent.
Football fans might have come across this city before – it is home to one of the most striking stadiums in the world, carved into the side of a rock face. Elsewhere you’ll find Portugal’s oldest cathedral, a rich Roman heritage, vibrant cafés and some of the country’s finest cuisine. And on the forested slopes east of Braga there’s Bom Jesus, the country’s most impressive religious sanctuary. It features a giant baroque stairway built of granite, with whitewashed walls, devised in its zigzag form in 1722 as a meditative way of approaching a small shrine.
How to get there: Fly to Porto and catch the train – it takes less than an hour.
Where to stay: The five-star Meliá Braga.
“The Algarve’s most attractive town, founded in 400BC, is full of church spires and houses with characteristic four-sided roofs, which turn upwards like a Chinese pagoda,” says Mary Lussiana. “The seven-arched Roman bridge and renaissance church of the Misericórdia are among many historical sites worth visiting, while Ilha de Tavira is a popular sandy island offshore, accessible by ferry.”
How to get there: Fly to Faro and catch the train – it takes 45 minutes.
Where to stay: Quinta dos Perfumes, just outside Tavira, offers 15 rooms amid 36 hectares of orange trees.
Two cities further afield
Older than Lisbon, and with the same rich seafaring heritage, Cadiz sits on the end of a peninsula, meaning you are never more than a mile from the sea.
“Golden light shimmers at the end of the long, straight streets, flanked by stone mansions painted in pastel tones of pink, green and blue,” says Annie Bennett, Telegraph Travel’s Spain expert. “The tempting smell of fish frying wafts from every bar. Order a glass of chilled manzanilla sherry, the colour of straw, made just down the coast in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and some tortillitas de camarones – featherlight fritters speckled with the tiniest shrimps – and maybe some sea urchins or anemones if you’re feeling adventurous.”
How to get there: Jerez is the closest airport – Cadiz is a 35-minute train ride away.
Where to stay: See our guide for the best hotels in Cadiz.
Theo The Telegraph