Explore the summer destinations where locals travel in Portugal

Small, beautiful and historic, Portugal is a favorite for travelers from around the globe thanks to its fabulous beaches, exciting cities, rich history and mild climate. Yet such popularity can bring throngs to some of the country’s better-known spots. This is why we’ve asked four of our Portugal-based writers to recommend places they love to go for a break – places you might never have heard of before. 

Escape the crowds at these off-the-radar places in Portugal, recommended by our local experts.

Villages in the Serra da Lousã offer rural charm in awe-inspiring mountains © Daniel James Clarke

1. Serra da Lousã

Daniel James Clarke used to frequently holiday in the Algarve, until one day he decided to stay and call the southern coast home.

Why Serra da Lousã?

When summer brings crowds to the coast, I’m forever drawn to Portugal’s lesser-visited interior. The Serra da Lousã, in the hinterlands of the historic Beiras region, is a bolthole blend of near-forgotten aldeias do xisto (schist villages), tranquil hiking trails and creative rural hideaways. 

Around 30 minutes from Coimbra, the town of Lousã is the mountain range’s gateway where HI Hostel Lousã’s modern private rooms are my affordable go-to. For a genuine retreat, however, stay in a renovated rock home at one of the once-abandoned villages, such as 17th-century Talasnal or Candal.

Must-do activities

By night, the Milky Way dazzles, especially in the Dark Sky Reserve of Pampilhosa da Serra, slightly further inland.

Make a reservation at O Burgo or Villa Lausana to enjoy typically hearty dishes such as chanfana (a clay-pot lamb stew), best paired with the local mineral-rich red wines produced from the regional grape, baga.

In fall, with a copper canopy, the serra is equally enchanting, while winter’s occasional sprinkling of snow is perfect for evenings by the fireplace. No matter when you visit, you’ll find a Portugal that time seemingly forgot.

Serra da Lousã tips

The assiduously restored hamlet of Cerdeira, reborn as Cerdeira Home for Creativity, is now an artist’s retreat, offering workshops and idea-generating spaces for those eager to harness nature’s inspiration. What a place it is to disconnect. A soundtrack of birdsong and the much-welcome river beaches at Cabril do Ceira gorge or Praia Fluvial Senhora da Piedade – crowned by Lousã Castle, an 11th-century monument – provide daytime escapes.

Panoramic view of the small village of Villa do Corvo, located in Corvo island. This image was taken on a clear summer morning from one of the viewpoints located close to it. The main runway of its airport and also its harbor are visible, as well as Flores island in the distance.
Land on the tiny air strip by the village of Villa do Corvo and immediately relax © Created by drcooke / Getty Images

2. Corvo

Sandra Henriques was born in Portugal’s Azores islands and has called Lisbon home for 20+ years.

Why Corvo?
One of the nine islands of the Azores, an archipelago some 1100 miles off the coast of Portugal, this 6.8 sq mile lump of land with under 400 inhabitants remains well off-the-beaten track. Most of the Azores islands have grown in in popularity over the last decade but the minute you get off the plane on Corvo the peacefulness of this village-like island washes over you (you’ll barely feel the jet lag).

Vila do Corvo, the only municipality on the island, is a minute cluster of houses and narrow streets on cliffs overlooking the ocean, with everything within walking distance. Its main natural attraction – Caldeirão, the lagoon on the the crater of the volcano that formed the island – is a two-hour, 6km/3.7-mile hike uphill. To learn about local history and heritage, visit the museum Casa do Tempo and the old animal-powered grain mill Atafona do Lourenço.

Must-do activities

This is where I go to release, recharge and enjoy the outdoors and small-town living. Forget planning or a packed calendar of activities: instead, prepare for days of lazing around, mingling with the locals and dividing your time between mornings hiking and afternoons at the beach.Whatever you plan, rolling with the punches when the weather doesn’t agree with what you had in mind is essential.

Corvo tips

Short-term rentals are available on the island, though I recommend staying at the family-owned Hotel Comodoro. This two-star guesthouse offers the comfort of staying with relatives, including a complimentary homemade breakfast. The only restaurant on the island, Restaurante Caldeirão is right next to the airport and your go-to spot for lunch or dinner with a view. For drinks, casual meals, and laidback chit-chat with the locals, head to BBC – Caffé & Lounge.

Man on his back looking at the historic stone barns in the town of Lindoso in Portugal as it rains.
Explore granite villages in the Trás-os-Montes region © Getty Images / iStockphoto

3. Trás-os-Montes

Austin Bush is a writer and photographer based in Lisbon.

Why Trás-os-Montes?

I’ll almost always opt for mountains over the beach – and in Portugal, my favorite destination for the former is Trás-os-Montes. Portugal’s northernmost region, “Behind the Mountains” is a relative term: don’t come expecting towering summits or ski resorts (although the area can get snow in the winter), but rather a remote-feeling, rocky area of charming villages and protected natural areas.

Must-do activities

Trás-os-Montes is a fascinating region for food. When I’m up there, my guide is Tabernas do Alto Tâmega, a network of 15 eateries across the region. Expect massive, hearty dishes cooked over wood-burning fires; smoked meats; and home-style hospitality. My favorite eatery in the network might be Casa de Souto Velho, a fantastic restaurant in the eastern part of the region where just about every ingredient is grown, raised or produced in-house. 

This sense of time travel is also possible in Pitões das Junias, yet another ancient granite village, this one positioned at the edge of the Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês, a protected natural area that spans Portugal and Spain.

A short walk from the village takes in a beautiful landscape that combines an abandoned 12th-century church, jagged granite outcroppings, old-growth oak forests, rushing streams and a waterfall.

Trás-os-Montes tips

The ideal way to approach the region is to rent a car from Porto, only a two-hour drive away. A highlight of Trás-os-Montes is its granite villages, where you feel that you are not only traversing geography but also time. Vilarinho Seco in Boticas, for example, is one of Portugal’s best-preserved granite villages, a place where it feels like the clock stopped somewhere around the year 1500. Locals here still raise long-horned Barrosã cattle, who sleep in ground-floor pens beneath the two-story stone homes.

Walkway leading to Praia do Malhão beach
Golden hour brings a pinkish hue to Praia do Malhão in Potugal’s Alentejo region © Paul Melki / Shutterstock

4. Vila Nova de Milfontes

Joana Taborda grew up in Lisbon and now splits her time between the capital and Madeira. 

Why Vila Nova de Milfontes?

The southern coast has always been a favorite holiday spot for Portuguese families. Most end up in the Algarve – but lately, many are switching it up for the Alentejo’s quieter sands.

When I was younger, I spent my summers camping near the beaches of Vila Nova de Milfontes in southern Portugal, and I often return there. It’s one of the many coastal towns in the Alentejo, a region of sprawling with wild beaches and scenic hikes like the Fishermen’s Trail. This famous walking route crosses a natural park (no high-rise hotels here) and takes you along steep cliffs with ocean views all the way through.

Must-do activities

I used to stay at a camping site just above Praia do Malhão, walking down every morning to the beach for a full day of swimming and the occasional surf lesson. These days, I’ve been sticking closer to town and its 16th-century castle. I enjoy grabbing my breakfast croissant from Mabi and catching the sunset from the dunes behind Praia do Farol before ending the night with a cocktail.

Vila Nova de Milfontes tips

There’s no bad time to visit. Late spring and early September are beautiful and calm, but even at the height of summer, Vila Nova de Milfontes offers a peaceful seaside vacation away from the crowds.

This article was first published Jul 26, 2023 and updated May 27, 2024.

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