Winter Sun in Portugal

A beach in The Algarve
Christmas is a long distant memory. We have packed away the festive baubles and greeted the new year. But in these dark and gloomy months there’s one last present you should consider giving yourself - the chance to bask in some winter sun.

With many glorious options on our European doorstep there’s no need to go long-haul. Instead, consider destinations such as the Portuguese capital Lisbon or, my personal favourite, the lovely and leafy Algarve, says Jo Knowsley

When I first visited this popular area of southern Portugal - which has an average winter temperature of around 16C - I’d been lured by winter sun. But I cynically expected it to be a sort of bustling tourist trap. It’s so popular with the British that I feared it might have lost its charm.

Instead, it rapidly won my affections, with its warmth, beauty and the variety of its scenery: from picturesque mountain ranges with pretty villages to the lively town of Lagos, with its beaches, rooftop bars and scrumptious restaurants.

Beaches in the Algarve are wilder and less populated than in the rest of the country, and at this time of year it’s not difficult to find a private cove.

Accommodation is varied too, ranging from affordable little pensions and rural guest houses to some truly splendid spa hotels.

The capital of the region, Faro, where you will arrive if you come by plane, is often overlooked by tourists as simply a jumping-off point. But its Old Town is surprisingly atmospheric, and it’s worth spending at least a day strolling around and immersing yourself in its history.

If you like to drive, do hire a car. Nowhere is very distant in the Algarve and there’s an unbeatable freedom in having your own wheels.

One of the prettiest towns is Tavira, less than an hour’s drive from Faro, with its beautiful harbour and a nine-mile beach. There’s a certain sense of romance here, in the colourful little bars and cafés strung along the waterside.

In winter, without the crowds, it’s delightful to wander its winding streets and explore its ancient churches and castles. The Igreja da Misericordia is one of the finest churches in the area, and for the best views in town head to the dramatic and lofty stone towers of the 13th-century Castle of Tavira.

If you want to st ay a little further off the beaten track, head inland to the rural Hotel Quinta do Marco, set in acres of rolling countryside, with its menagerie of animals, a sauna, massage area and spa.

If it’s a winter golfing holiday you’re after, visit Vale do Lobo, an exclusive golfing resort where you can test your skills while enjoying stunning views.

But it was the medieval village of Silves that stole my heart. A tiny town which sits below a lofty, hilltop castle, alongside a meandering river, it is just half-anhour’s drive from Lagos and is the perfect base for exploring the area.

I confess I was also swayed by the fabulous La Maison Bleue Algarve hotel - a lovingly-restored historic home that is now a wonderfully chic and elegant guesthouse, with a little pool and garden and the most delightful and helpful hosts.

A beach in The Algarve
If you’re more of a city slicker with a penchant for colourful history, you should head to Lisbon or Porto for a dose of sunshine and culture.

It won’t be as warm as the Algarve (Lisbon’s winter average is about 17C and Porto’s 14C) but you’ll be rewarded with some great walking, glorious sunshine and an abundance of museums and galleries.

Lisbon, Portugal’s capital, has been influenced by a range of cultures over its long past, yet there is still a village feel in each historic neighbourhood.

Stroll through the grid of streets in central Baixa, which borders the estuary of the Tagus river, then follow its path to discover some of the city’s best-known sights: Belem, with its spectacular Jeronimos Monastery, the medieval quarters and the extraordinary Belem Tower, a 16th-century fortification.

There is an excellent range of accommodation in Lisbon, from the quirky to the fabulous. The five-star InterContinental Lisbon, where all the rooms have a view of the Tagus, is well positioned for exploring the historic capital. After a day of wandering its hilly cobbled streets, visiting ancient ruins, domed cathedrals and appreciating the colourful street art, the hotel is something of a sanctuary. And it’s just a step away from Parque Eduardo VII.

Its Akla restaurant is renowned for using the best local and seasonal ingredients in its scrumptious and authentic Portuguese dishes. The Uptown Bar, with mirrored walls and colourful interiors, is also great fun for a latenight cocktail.

Wherever you are in Lisbon, listen out for fado, traditional Portuguese singing that has also been awarded world heritage status. You can hear it most nights in the bars and clubs of traditional neighbourhoods.

To the west of Lisbon, a short train ride away, is Sintra, a World Heritage Site and resort town in the foothills of the mountains. Once a royal sanctuary, its heavily forested hills are studded with pastel-coloured villas and extraordinary palaces.

The Moorish and gothic-style Sintra National Palace boasts dramatic twin conical chimneys and elaborate tilework, while the hilltop 19th-century Pena Palace is known for its whimsical design.

South of Sintra are Cascais and Estoril, two of the lovely towns that make up the Portuguese Riviera. Once a sleepy fishing village, Cascais is now a sophisticated coastal town with excellent restaurants, fascinating museums and glorious beaches.

Portugal’s second city, Porto, is just as ancient and fascinating as the capital. In the medieval centre, which is a World Heritage Site, you can wander along the riverside or through narrow cobbled streets. Find a café and sample a pastéis de nata, delicious egg-custard tarts that are regarded as a national dish.

The city lies on the Douro river, which is spanned by the spectacular Dom Luis I bridge, an enormous steel double-decked structure that carries trains and cars. Porto’s main claim to fame is as the home of port, the fortified wine named after the city.

Among the historic sights are the magnificent cathedral and the lovely Chapel of Souls, which is covered with nearly 16,000 blue and white ceramic tiles.

Find travel inspiration in every issue of The Lady, in shops on the first Friday of every month!
Find travel inspiration in every issue of The Lady, in shops on the first Friday of every month!