Here’s why Portugal is such a hot travel destination now
After stepping out of the taxi cab and thanking the driver in horribly mangled Portuguese, I walked along the beautiful tiling of the main boulevard toward the beach as I absorbed the sunny paradise of Cascais for the first time.
Historically a small fishing village, this coastal resort town started becoming known as a beach haven way back in the 1870s, when King Luís I of Portugal and his royal family made it their summer retreat. It shortly became a hotbed for the country’s aristocracy, and nowadays is the most popular holiday destination on the Lisbon coastline, attracting around 1.2 million tourists a year.
It’s also the primary destination for this summer’s International Safari to Portugal, hosted by JAZZ.FM91 in partnership with CAA. Jaymz Bee is leading this trip to Cascais, where we’ll catch Jamie Cullum, Tom Jones and Diana Krall at the 16th edition of the EDP Cool Jazz Festival.
It takes no time at all to see why Cascais is so appealing. Its bustling beaches and charming town centre offer a delightful setting to soak up the sun on a summer day. My partner and I strolled along the pedestrian walkways alongside the beach and admired the intricate artistry of their swirly stone patchwork patterns. We made our way up the pier, lined with fishing nets and crab cages, and shouted out words of encouragement to a group of local kids doing cannonballs into the bay. We stopped for a cerveja at an outdoor restaurant overlooking the water, and had a couple cups of gelato by the beach. We were there for only a few hours and did little more than explore the shops and scenery of the main town square, but that short experience was still one of the most memorable parts of our week in Portugal.
(Fun fact I only recently learned: Estoril Casino in Cascais was an inspiration for Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale.)
After the noise and bustle of Lisbon and the high altitudes of Sintra’s castles, that laid-back stroll through Cascais was the perfect way to cap off an afternoon in Portugal, a country that over the last few years has suddenly become a highly attractive destination for travellers from around the world.
In 2017, the number of visitors to Portugal jumped 12 per cent to a record 12.7 million people. Tourism in the country has been growing at a steady pace since 2011, and its recent surge coincides with the end of an economic downturn that had persisted through most of the new millennium, which came to a head with the Portuguese financial crisis of 2010 to 2014 that resulted in an international bailout. Now, Portugal is on the rise, and last year the Lonely Planet book publishers named it one of the top three hottest travel destinations in the world.
While the Portuguese capital of Lisbon and its second-largest city, Porto, are the most widely known of the country’s tourist destinations, Cascais is perhaps Portugal’s worst-kept secret — a not-so-hidden gem that offers visitors a resort getaway while still keeping the country’s major attractions within reach.
Cascais has luxury hotels, charming family-run restaurants and a buzzing nightlife in a town that’s bursting with character. History buffs can explore the 15th-century fortress that once guarded the harbour. Art lovers can visit the Museum Quarter — which includes the bright pink Centro Cultural de Cascais and the architecturally idiosyncratic Castro Guimarães — to see works by famous Portuguese artists, or walk along the stunning white backdrop of the modern art district. Those looking for postcard-worthy scenery can visit the Casa de Santa Maria, a 19th-century home in a prime coastline location that was built by an Irish millionaire and is now publicly owned. Then, you can walk or bike just outside of town to see the Boca do Inferno (which translated to Hell’s Mouth), a fascinating cliff formation carved out by the pounding waves of the Atlantic Ocean.
Not only that, but the wider region offers plenty of completely different experiences depending on your mood, and they’re very easy to visit if you’re staying in Cascais.
Sitting in our Airbnb in Lisbon, I went on my phone and cancelled the car rental I had booked for a day trip to the castles of Sintra and beaches of Cascais. Back home in Toronto, I hadn’t realized that they’re all within about a half hour of each other, and that we could take a train out and back in for only a few euros. (I had also read that driving and parking in Sintra is an absolute nightmare — so, crisis averted.) From Cascais, heading to Lisbon or Sintra by train or taxi takes less time than it does to get to downtown Toronto from Scarborough.
The first stop of our day trip was Sintra, another tourist town known for its centuries-old castles. First we climbed the Castelo dos Mouros, a hilltop medieval castle built by the Moors in the 8th and 9th centuries. It would later be taken by Afonso I, the first king of Portugal, in 1147 as part of the Reconquista. It was rewarding to finally reach the castle after the roughly three-kilometre hike up the stone stairs of the mountain, and the panoramic views from this ancient fortress were incredible. It was surreal to think that a civilization occupied this place more than 1,000 years ago, and there we were to see it still standing.
After that, we walked over to Pena Palace. If you’ve seen photographs of Portuguese castles before, there were probably lots of this one — it’s a picturesque, flamboyant, Disney-like structure that catches the eye with its vivid yellows, reds, purples and blues. This one is a 19th-century Romanticist castle, and a hedonistic display of royal extravagance by Ferdinand II. We were already exhausted as we started our trek up to the palace, passing by the lush gardens and ornate fountains along the way, but it was such a one-of-a-kind sight that it didn’t matter. We toured the whole castle inside and out, and it’s no wonder it’s considered one of Portugal’s finest tourist attractions.
And there are plenty of others, including the lavish white Sintra National Palace and the bold and ornate Quinta da Regaleira estate and chapel. And roughly equidistant from both Sintra and Cascais is Cabo da Roca, a breathtaking viewpoint that marks the westernmost point of mainland Europe.
It would probably take a whole other article to do a deep dive into the bustling culture of Lisbon. It only took a comfortable 30-minute train ride to get us from Cascais to downtown Lisbon. On our first night, we hit up the Hot Clube de Portugal, the oldest jazz club in Europe. The club has been running uninterruptedly since 1948 and has bands performing there daily. Earlier, we had browsed the shelves of Bertrand Chiado, which holds the Guinness World Record for the oldest bookstore in the world (it opened in 1732). In the ensuing days, we explored the Castelo de São Jorge — yes, another castle — strolled through the historic Alfama district, took the ferry across the Tagus to have dinner in Almada, enjoyed a classic Portuguese custard tart and some other treats at the jam-packed Time Out Market and visited Belém Tower, a fortified defence system built by King John II in 1514 that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
With endless views of terracotta roofs, distinctive blue and white azulejo tile mosaics, Roman- and Moorish-inspired ornate stone castles, stunning cliffside scenery and green fields of olive and wine country, Portugal as a whole is wonderfully picturesque and highly photogenic.
Whether you’re considering joining the JAZZ.FM91 International Safari to Portugal or have already booked your trip, these are just some of the sights and adventures you can enjoy in this incredible vacation destination. Portugal has seen tough times, but it has plenty to offer visitors looking for rich history, music, art and culture — and the rest of the world has been taking notice.