You would be forgiven for having heard little about the Alentejo. Despite being the largest region in Portugal, it receives nowhere near as many international tourists as the Algarve, Lisbon and Porto. Fortunately, that means its natural beauty and human heritage have been well preserved.
Historically favoured by kings and nobility, Alentejo still to this day commands an understated respect from the Portuguese for being the source of unmatched cuisine which has shaped the country’s favourite dishes.
This vast region is living proof that rural and remote destinations are not lifeless – quite the contrary. Alentejo has its own distinct cultural identity which is visible everywhere you look, from the architecture that dots its serene landscape, to humble but delicious cuisine.
It accounts for roughly a third of Portugal’s total land area but less than 10 per cent of the country’s population, which makes the Alentejo an ideal place to escape the crowds. While even this part of the country hasn’t been immune to Covid-19, infections have stayed relatively low, which results in a blissful illusion of escape from our troubled reality.
Central and Alto Alentejo are perhaps the best connected parts, with motorway access to Lisbon and Spain. The landscape is mostly dominated by seemingly unending soft rolling hills of cork oaks and vineyards, interrupted only by small villages and walled towns laden with historical significance. Here, the warm weather brings with it a wonderfully slow pace of life.
Here is our guide to the Central and Alto Alentejo regions, with the best things to see, eat and experience.
Towns and villages
To spend a day in Évora is to seamlessly get a taste of several civilisations that influenced Mediterranean Europe.
The Roman presence stands out with the ruins of the gigantic Temple of Évora set right in the middle of a public square, free for all to enjoy. Just a stone’s throw away is the Catedral de Évora, the largest Medieval cathedral in the country. It was in this Gothic 13th-century building that the explorer Vasco da Gama is said to have had his sails blessed before he went on to be the first European to sail to India.
Through the labyrinthine old town, the memory of Evora’s Moorish rule lives on. It’s a pleasure to lose your way around these cobbled streets and find quaint little cafes tucked away among the historical buildings.
Equally unmissable is the Capela dos Ossos, a 17th-century chapel which the Franciscan friars meticulously lined with bones of those who had passed. The stunning decoration tells a tale of human fragility which must be seen to be understood.
Eat at the Dom Joaquim restaurant to experience typical Alentejo cuisine cooked to perfection. Here the naturally hearty gastronomy is balanced with deliciously rich flavours which is so typical of Portuguese cuisine. If there is ever a definition of “honest food”, this it.
Vagar walking tours: £120 for 4 people, includes entrance fees and coffee break.
Landmarks and landscapes
In stark contrast to the rest of the Alentejo landscape, the Serra de São Mamede Natural Park offers proper mountains topped with walled villages. Marvão is a prime example. Park your hire car at the village entrance and pick your way through the twisting streets until you reach the 13th-century Castelo de Marvão. This is one of the highest points of the mountain range so you will be rewarded with a spectacular 360-degree view. Once a strategic military lookout, this castle now offers an unparalleled perspective on the Alentejo landscape. Allow plenty of time for both castle and village, as it is a difficult place to walk away from.
Just over an hour’s drive from Marvão is the Forte de Nossa Senhora da Graça. This vast 18th-century fortress is worth discovering even if military tourism is not your bag. The sheer size and complexity of this structure are what hook most people in, but climb to the top and you’ll be rewarded with another fine view of the Alentejo’s golden landscapes. It is not furnished, so a guided tour is necessary to fully appreciate what is before you. Ask about the fort’s use during the Portuguese 20th-century dictatorship for some dark tales.
You don’t have to be in Alentejo for long before you hear about the Coudelaria de Alter. It is one of the oldest equestrian stud farms in the world, having been created in 1748 by king John V of Portugal to preserve the majestic pure-breed Lusitano horses.
Thanks to a partnership with hotel group Vila Galé, this relaxing equestrian resort is a great place to spend a couple of days, even if your interest in horses is only mild. Aside from the usual riding and hiking activities, you’re invited to tour the facilities where these world-class horses are cared for and watch them train.
There are also falconry displays and a museum to explore, in between much-needed dips in the pool. Because the hotel is integrated in the Coudelaria’s facilities, you feel a part of the estate rather than just a hotel guest. Rooms from £120, including breakfast.
While this part of Alentejo does not have any beach resorts, NAU Montargil Hotel offers a good alternative. This five-star facility is set on the shores of the Montargil Dam reservoir, formed from a naturally-occurring river. You won’t be bothered by waves or currents so it’s a good chance to try boating or jet-skiing. If one body of water won’t suffice, one of NAU’s five pools should do the trick.
Alentejo’s cuisine is famous throughout Portugal for using simple yet high-quality ingredients, which are turned into incredibly rich meals through basic cooking methods. Food is in the DNA of Alentejo, meaning no list is extensive enough to truly cover all the recommendations.
Try a Porco Preto (Black Iberian pig) dish and you will never taste regular pork the same way again. It’s a specific species of pig which feeds mostly on acorns and when grilled it yields thin yet succulent slices.
There are dozens of pork-based dishes typical to Alentejo and most are worth trying. Carne de porco a alentejana is the famous potato, clam and pork stew that has found its way into so many restaurants around the country. Migas is another must-try classic, often served as a garnish but one that shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s bread-based puree made with olive oil, garlic and usually a vegetable (asparagus is my personal favourite).
For a fish dish try sopa de cação, a fish soup (or stew, depending who you ask) cooked in olive oil and garlic, accompanied by typical sliced bread. If you leave room for dessert, a slice of sericaia (egg and cinnamon pudding) is a great way to sign off a meal. Equally delicious is the bolo cigano, an almond cake with debatable origins and often secretive recipes.
For a taste of the full potential of the region’s favourite drink, wine, visit Howard’s Folly. Set just a stone’s throw away from the centre of the medieval town of Estremoz, this winery focuses on producing premium small-batch wines using native grape varieties.
Take a tour of their facilities to learn all about each step of making these highly specialised productions, including how they hand pick grapes at the start of the process.
For a refreshing and smooth rosé with a pleasant fruity aroma, try their Sonhador 2019 which is grown in the above-mentioned São Mamede mountains. To be pleasantly surprised, ask to try their upcoming Fresco, a red wine made specifically to be served chilled. This makes for an ideal pairing with Alentejo’s traditional meaty dishes while managing to combat the intense heat of the summer season.
Their restaurant, Folly, serves traditional Alentejo flavours in a contemporary style – a break from the usually heavy Alentejo dishes. Don’t miss the alheira croquettes (poultry sausage).
Make sure to try their Carcavelos to finish off the meal. This rare fortified wine was produced in the region of Lisbon after which it’s named, but today only a tiny amount of barrels are sold. Its intense flavour is perfectly balanced with aromas of dried fruits, spices and nuts to deliver a drink which you won’t easily forget. Be warned, it will be hard to leave their winery without a case.
Where to stay
Travassos 11 in the walled city of Elvas as an intermediate stop-off point for the other activities in this guide. This boutique guesthouse occupies a 19th-century mansion which the owners went to great lengths to preserve. It perfectly combines original features like the old wooden floors and typical wall tiles with tasteful decoration. Some of the rooms continue that historic theme while others adopt a modern minimal style, but both are spacious and cosy.
For a resort-oriented experience closer to Lisbon, stay at the aforementioned five-star NAU Montargil. With a large spa and several pools you will have plenty of choice to unwind and cool off, while the rooms are spacious and modern. For more hotel recommendations in the Alentejo, see our guide.
Fly via Faro (Ryanair, Wizz and BA all offer services) or Lisbon (with Ryanair, EasyJet or Wizz) and hire a car.