The Portuguese often compare their country to California, and in some ways that isn’t far-fetched. Both comprise long and relatively thin coastal strips that lie at the western edge of a much larger landmass; both have a cool, rainy northern region and a sunbaked southern one; and both have areas devoted to fine gastronomy and wine production. Of course, California is twice as long and has a population four times as large. But why quibble? For a small country, Portugal is an exceptionally rewarding destination: Its people are welcoming, its landscapes are varied, and it is surprisingly inexpensive.
The charms of Lisbon — its great museums, fine restaurants and setting on the estuary of the Tagus River — are well-known. What is surprising, however, is that so much of the country remains under the radar. On a recent trip, I decided to explore central Portugal, a lush green swath lying between Lisbon and Porto and stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the mountains along the border with Spain. The region combines unspoiled landscapes, historic towns like Coimbra and Viseu, and one of Europe’s great wine regions, the Dão River Valley.
Leaving Lisbon just after noon, we stopped for lunch in Santarém, a pretty little town on the Tagus about 75 minutes north of the airport. Friends had suggested Taberna Ó Balcão, a stylish contemporary tavern, where chef Rodrigo Castelo cooks delicious dishes like river fish soup with barbel roe, and sirloin with coriander and lemon rice. A further 90-minute drive brought us to Coimbra. The delightful university city is perched on a hill overlooking the Mondego River, and there, it was a pleasure to reacquaint ourselves with the 52-room Quinta das Lágrimas. One valet saw to our luggage and another parked our car while we walked up to the 18th-century main villa through a green tunnel of vines.
Perhaps the hotel’s most spectacular amenity is the lush and meticulously tended 12-acre botanical garden that surrounds it.
During registration formalities, we were informed that we’d been upgraded from a Grand Suite to the King’s Suite. This set of high-ceilinged rooms with moldings, French doors, parquet floors and indigo-and-ivory chintz curtains and upholstery brought the aristocratic pedigree of the property vividly to life. Our large lounge had a working pink-marble fireplace, an overstuffed dove-gray sofa and several antique armoires. In the bedroom we found a mirrored dressing table and a wood-framed bed covered by a duvet. A short hallway led to the bath, which was equipped with two sinks and a walk-in shower. The suite also had a large private terrace overlooking the gardens in front of the villa.
Perhaps the hotel’s most spectacular amenity is the lush and meticulously tended 12-acre botanical garden that surrounds it. With plants and trees collected from all over the world, its centerpiece is the Fountain of Tears — “Fonte das Lágrimas” in Portuguese — a name that references the most famous love story in the Portuguese-speaking world, the tragic tale of Pedro, the son of King Alfonso IV, and Inês de Castro, lady-in-waiting to Pedro’s wife, Constance. Suffice it to say, Pedro and Inês fell in love and, upon the death of Constance in childbirth, married secretly. Upon learning of the union, Alfonso had Inês beheaded near the fountain. Today, Pedro and Inês are buried side by side in the 12th-century royal Cistercian Monastery of Alcobaça.
After taking a stroll in the gardens, we lingered in the hotel’s interior courtyard garden for cocktails before dinner. Afterward, in the fine-dining Arcadas Restaurante, we were greeted by José Miguel Júdice, the friendly director of the hotel and a scion of the Osório Cabral de Castro family, which built the original villa on the hunting estate formerly used by the Portuguese royal family. Chef Vítor Dias works with seasonal organic produce to create delicious contemporary Portuguese dishes and continental classics. His foie gras with pumpkin-and-fig jelly and shrimp with apple-and-cucumber compote were intriguing starters. These were followed by a succulent chanfana, a delicious Portuguese stew made with lamb and seasoned with bacon, mint, garlic and hot red peppers. The hotel has two other restaurants: Pedro & Inês for informal dining and the casual Arcadas Gastro Bar.
Other amenities at the hotel include the Bamboo Garden Spa with indoor and outdoor pools, a sauna and a steam room. Quinta das Lágrimas also has a has a golf academy, which is managed by PGA professionals and equipped with a nine-hole course and a 35-station driving range.
After an excellent breakfast the following morning, we set out to explore the surrounding region. First, we headed south to Condeixa-a-Nova, where the ruins of the Roman town of Conímbriga are still being patiently excavated over a century after the site was declared a national monument, in 1910. Some strikiing mosaics and stone-and-brick walls are all that remain of the thriving town founded around 139 B.C. After visiting the small but interesting museum, we drove for 40 minutes to the Bussaco Palace Hotel, a spectacular 19th-century edifice, originally constructed for the Portuguese royal family in a style known as Neo-Manueline, which delivers a romanticized version of the 16th-century architecture that characterized the Portuguese Age of Discovery. Its magnificent gardens are open to the public, and even though the hotel itself cannot be recommended due to an urgent need for renovations, it is a charming place to stop for lunch.
The magnificent gardens; fascinating history; excellent food; and great spa.
The lack of a shuttle service into the center of Coimbra.
If you’re traveling with children, the charming Portugal dos Pequenitos (Portugal for the Little Ones) amusement park, which reproduces famous historic monuments on a small scale, is a 10-minute walk from the hotel.
A 30-minute drive brought us back to Coimbra. There, we exchanged the sylvan setting of Quinta das Lágrimas for the contemporary 22-room Sapientia Boutique Hotel, which is located on a cobbled lane just below the city’s 13th-century university. (Coimbra was founded around 25 B.C. by the Romans; it was also the capital of Portugal from 1139 to 1385 and the birthplace of six Portuguese kings.) The hotel opened in 2017 having been created from three whitewashed tile-roofed 18th- and 19th-century buildings.
We had booked a Junior Suite from the wide variety of accommodations, which include Lofts and Apartments. With a cathedral ceiling, exposed beams, white walls, pine floors and French doors leading out to a spacious balcony with views over the hotel’s courtyard garden, we immediately felt at home. (We were in Building C, but perhaps the most desirable accommodations are the Junior Suites in Building B, which combine private outdoor terraces with spectacular views.) The spacious, sunny lounge area of the suite came with a couch, a counter with four metal stools and a small kitchen with an espresso machine. A sliding wooden barn door led to a bath with a roomy walk-in shower.
Having settled in, we went upstairs to the hotel’s Cheio de Estrelas rooftop bar in time for Porto tónico sundowner cocktails (white Port with tonic water). This open-air terrace bar has fine views, so we were able to watch a sculling team on the Mondego River far below and study the varied architecture of Coimbra, including several assertive modern buildings imposed upon it by the late Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar. Afterward, we headed to dinner at the hotel’s Tasca das Tias Camellas restaurant, which serves delicious Portuguese comfort food, like creamy codfish rice with spinach and cilantro, and flame-grilled chouriço sausages.
The following morning, we set out early to visit Coimbra and found ourselves among the first four people to be admitted to the university’s magnificent baroque Joanina Library, which has more than 300,000 works dating from the 16th to 18th centuries. As we looked around, the guard on duty pointed out the very small door next to the main ones and explained that it was for the library’s cats, which catch the mice that could eat paper and leather and damage rare manuscripts.
The guard on duty pointed out the very small door next to the main ones and explained that it was for the library’s cats, which catch the mice that could eat paper and leather and damage rare manuscripts.
No one should visit Coimbra without hearing Coimbra fado, which is closely linked to the university and sometimes known as student fado in consequence (the other fado style comes from Lisbon). These melancholy songs, performed with the guitarra de Coimbra, a modified version of Lisbon’s fado guitar, typically express a longing for a person or thing that is absent. Both singers and musicians wear traditional academic robes, capes and leggings. Derived from the medieval troubadour tradition, fado is sung at night in city squares or streets. One of the most typical venues is on the steps of Coimbra’s Sé Velha (Old Cathedral). However, we opted for àCapella, a wonderful fado club, instead.
We headed to our next destination with no specific itinerary, just the vague idea that we would stop for lunch at O Vicente, a low-key rural restaurant in Loriga, a village in the mountains 65 miles to the east. Ignoring our car’s GPS, we plunged into the countryside. Villages of granite houses scattered across the undulating landscape were a reminder of a simpler rural past. But unlike similar villages in France or Spain, these seemed not to have been depopulated. Wood smoke scented the air on a cool autumn day; women could be seen cutting kale to make lunchtime soup; and we heard singing, first from a schoolyard and then from a walled convent. We were hungry when we reached Loriga, where we enjoyed a hearty meal of air-dried ham and grilled mutton chops with fried potatoes at friendly O Vicente.
The ideal location; delightful young staff; comfortable and stylish rooms; very good local cuisine.
The lack of a valet to take your car to a parking garage.
Navigating the maze of one-way streets in Coimbra is a challenge, so be sure your rental car has a GPS.
Continuing our drive, we climbed into the Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela, which contains the highest mountains in Portugal. Light rain refreshed the conifers and created veils of mist before, suddenly, the landscape disappeared in a fog so thick that it took an hour to travel no more than 10 miles. It was a relief to finally reach the 21-room Casa de São Lourenço, where we were immediately invited to an upstairs lounge to sit by the fire and relax. The hotel’s cozy public rooms are casually chic, with cow-skin rugs on granite floors, heavy wooden furniture and wrought-iron light fixtures. The property provides a showcase for the art and furniture of Maria Keil, along with works by other well-known Portuguese designers.
Enraptured by the beauty of its mountain setting, they undertook a $4 million renovation that aimed to make the property a showcase for Portuguese design.
When it opened in 1948, the hotel was one of the country’s first pousadas (government-owned inns, often housed within historic buildings). With its magnificent setting and sturdy granite structure, it became popular during the winter months among Lisboans coming to the mountains to ski. Due to mismanagement, the pousada faded until, finally, it was purchased by João Tomás, former chief counsel for one of Portugal’s largest banks, and his wife, Isabel Costa, onetime president of a supermarket chain. Enraptured by the beauty of its mountain setting, they undertook a $4 million renovation that aimed to make the property a showcase for Portuguese design, including the beautiful wool fabrics and blankets from the Burel textile mill in the nearby wool-weaving town of Manteigas. (The couple purchased the factory and encouraged local artisans to come out of retirement to teach a new generation.) Today, Casa de São Lourenço is one of the most original and imaginative country house hotels on the Iberian Peninsula.
Our Junior Suite was located in the original building. Its well-lit bedroom came with walls covered by yellow burel (rather like a soft, supple felt), and white-painted cement floors. The sitting area was appointed with a gray wool-upholstered sofa, a wooden armchair lined with caramel-colored leather pillows, a desk and a bleached-oak chest of drawers. The simple bath was equipped with a large single vanity and a walk-in shower. A door led to a private terrace.
Once we’d settled in, we spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the hotel’s sauna, steam room and spring-fed indoor swimming pool. These are contained within a new building that also houses a spa offering treatments employing products made with local botanicals. Activities at the hotel include trekking and mountain biking on over 200 miles of nearby trails.
Dinner that evening in the candlelit dining room was outstanding. Chef Miguel Figueira paid homage to São Lourenço (the patron saint of cooks, among other things) with delicious contemporary Portuguese dishes made with seasonal produce and inspired by regional recipes. These included deep-fried fritters of free-range pork, risotto with wild mushrooms, and roasted goat.
Following an exceptional breakfast of local cheese and charcuterie, omelets made with eggs from a nearby farm and housemade bread and preserves, we headed to the Burel factory. When Costa and Tomás bought the business, it was nearly bankrupt, the last mill still working in a town that previously had more than a dozen such factories. They decided to save it as part of a wider initiative to bring new life to the region’s traditional textile-based economy. Subsequently, the renovated mill has become an international success, producing fabrics, blankets and clothing that are now exported around the world.
After a 90-minute drive from Manteigas, we reached the vineyards of the Dão wine-producing region. There, we did a tasting of excellent wines at the architecturally striking Quinta de Lemos wine estate before sitting down for a memorable lunch at Mesa de Lemos, its Michelin one-star restaurant. Chef Diogo Rocha’s cooking finds a balance between authenticity and sophistication in dishes like Azorean tuna loin in a coulis of onion, white wine and brown beans, and a luscious roast pork loin with quince in a Madeira wine sauce.
The superb setting; chic décor; stunning views; delicious food; splendid spa.
At such a relaxing hotel, we missed having a tub in our Junior Suite.
Make dinner reservations as soon as possible, since the dining room fills quickly and it’s a winding drive to another worthwhile restaurant.
After lunch, we arrived at the handsome 84-room Pousada de Viseu, which we’d chosen as our base for visiting the Dão region. Perched on a hill overlooking Viseu, one of the most charming towns in central Portugal, this hotel was created through the meticulous renovation of a stately 19th-century hospital building. An easy walk from Viseu’s most interesting sights, the pousada is also a perfect illustration of how this formerly state-owned chain has been reborn since it was taken over by the Portuguese Pestana hotel group in 2003.
The centerpiece of the hotel is the atrium courtyard, an arcaded three-story space where the bar and two restaurants are located. Our spacious suite occupied a corner of the newly built fourth floor on top of the original structure. Sunlight flooded in through sliding doors leading to a balcony that ran around its entire exterior. The bedroom came with glossy parquet floors, a king-size bed made up with high-quality white Portuguese cotton sheets and a walk-in wardrobe, while the lounge featured modern wool-upholstered armchairs, a sofa and a writing desk. The tiled bath was equipped with a double vanity, but only a combination tub and shower.
That night, we had a very good meal at the pousada’s Viriato restaurant in the atrium courtyard, with local specialties such as cubes of roast veal with roasted potatoes and sautéed greens, and roasted baby goat from the Beiras region with wild mushrooms, rice and chestnuts. Amenities at the property include an outdoor pool, a heated indoor pool, a sauna, a whirlpool and a gym, plus a small spa. Oblivious to the irony, a fumoir occupies the pharmacy of the former hospital.
We spent the next day visiting Viseu, a delightfully old-fashioned town of vintage storefronts and one-of-a-kind boutiques. And instead of the globally branded coffee-shop chains, we found some wonderful cafés with house-roasted coffee and delicious pastries. After two nights, we headed back to Lisbon with great regret. Historically rich and unselfconsciously cultivated, central Portugal amply rewards anyone willing to venture off the beaten path and be a little adventurous.
The warm and attentive staff; good value; comfortable accommodations; excellent local food.
Breakfast was underwhelming; more regional cheeses and charcuterie would represent an improvement.
The hotel is perfectly situated as a base for visiting the Dão wine estates.