With its temperate year-round climate, bountiful wine and seafood, and sun-drenched surf-destination beaches that run the length of its western border hugging the Atlantic coastline, it’s no wonder Portugal is often referred to as the “California of Europe.”
While the country’s capital, Lisbon, and sister city, Porto, are destinations in and of themselves, the center of Portugal offers an authentic escape where tradition and modernity meet. On the heels of Portugal’s reopening to American tourists, I recently had the chance to visit two can’t-miss areas in North-Central Portugal: Douro Valley, aka Portugal’s wine country, and Serra da Estrela, which boasts the highest mountain range in Continental Portugal, scaling 1,993 meters, or 6,539 feet, above mean sea level.
If you’re looking for a travel destination that offers breathtaking natural landscapes and outdoor activities, delicious gastronomic creations, and some of the best wine straight from the source, all presented by some of the most gracious hospitality, be sure to add these incredible places and experiences in the heart of Portugal to your travel bucket list.
A designated UNESCO World Heritage site, Portugal’s Douro Valley is known as the country’s wine producing center and the world’s oldest demarcated wine region since 1756. With the sparkling Douro River cutting through rolling hillsides zigzagged by terraced vineyards, the area has been producing Portugal’s signature port wine for the past 2,000 years.
Take a relaxing and romantic boat trip down the Douro before tasting your way through sweet port wine variations and vintages with a tour of the certified-organic wine estate Quinta do Tedo by French-American couple Vincent and Kay Bouchard.
To stay, sprawling and storied estates and country manor houses abound in the region. Wake up to sweeping views of vineyards, fruit orchards, and olive groves at Hotel Rural Casa dos Viscondes Várzea, which is still owned and operated by the original family since the 18th century. Dine on fresh, seasonal cuisine with ingredients that are often sourced from the manor’s onsite gardens in the elegant dining room that’s outfitted with classic period art and decor. Close the evening with a glass of port in the stately living room overlooking one of the region’s historical gardens.
For a truly luxurious experience, Six Senses Douro Valley is the area’s preeminent five-star resort. Mixing its original 19th century foundations with contemporary design across 19 stunning acres, guests at Six Senses are able to effortlessly experience the region’s best all in one place, including: an extensive wine list of 700 local varieties at the Wine Library; contemporary Portuguese cuisine sourced from seasonal produce and the resort’s own organic garden; locally-inspired holistic therapies at the 24,000-square-foot spa, which includes a gym and yoga studio overlooking the majestic vineyards; and so much more.
Local activities such as wine and dinner cruises, interactive oenology courses, and excursions to nearby picturesque villages, historic churches, and castles can also be arranged upon request.
Serra da Estrela
Literally meaning “star mountain,” Serra da Estrela National Park is the largest protected area in Portugal. Luxuriously remote, nature lovers and winter sports enthusiasts will fall in love with the region’s flower-dotted meadows and mountains, glacial valleys, and wildlife with activities such as hiking, mountain biking, bird watching, skiing, and more.
For an unforgettable stay, head to Casa de São Lourenço. The boutique luxury hotel and the region’s only five-star lodging features panoramic views overlooking the stunning Zêzere Glacier Valley and the charming lowland town of Manteigas.
Look around and a heartfelt homage to Portuguese art and design is incorporated in every corner—from original furniture by renowned designer Maria Keil to burel, a locally-spun wool fabric that’s expertly cut and dyed, which decorates walls, pillows, blankets, drapery, and more. Learn how the hotel’s owners lovingly revived the artisanal craft utilizing provincial shepherding traditions with a complimentary tour of their Burel Factory.
Due to its high altitude, people throughout the centuries have sought out the pure mountain air of Serra da Estrela for its wellness properties. Enjoy one of the hotel’s daily guided mountain walks, savor a picnic, or relax with a soothing spa treatment of all-natural products comprised of local herbs. Dine in the sky as the clouds pass by outside of the floor-to-ceiling windows on Portuguese home cooking at St. Lawrence restaurant, and don’t forget to try the region’s signature sheep cheese, queijo Serra da Estrela, and sweet local honey that will have you planning your next visit before the first is even over.