Characterised by wonderful sprawling countryside, rolling hills, and wild coastline, the Alentejo is the largest region in Portugal, covering nearly one-third of the country. Despite its size, it is home to only 5% of the permanent population, making it ideal for those seeking peace and tranquility in a wonderful, rural setting.
The south of the Alentejo region (Baixo Alentejo) is characterised by open countryside and vast stretches of unspoiled coastline. The southern Alentejo is more sparsely populated, but there is plenty of wonderful nature to explore.
This region is home to Parque Natural do Vale do Guadiana, a natural park in Serpa, and Mértola in the valley of the River Guadiana, one of Portugal’s most important rivers. Rich in flora and fauna, this protected zone houses several rare and endangered species including the black stork and Bonelli’s eagle. The park even has prehistoric remains and there are several walking trails that you can follow to explore this zone of natural beauty.
In Mértola you can also visit one of the best, fortified castles in the Alentejo region, Castelo de Mértola. The region of Mértola has been hugely important historically, principally due to its location and access to the Guadiana River. The site of its castle dates back to 318 B.C but most of the castle was constructed in the middle ages. The site was very important during the Islamic rule of Portugal. Its hilltop location was historically essential for defense and today provides some wonderful views across the town and region.
The city of Beja is the capital of Baixo Alentejo. Like Mértola, the city of Beja has a rich history and is a wonderful place to explore. The name Beja comes from the word peace, as the city was named after the peace accord between Julius Caesar and the Lusitani tribes around 48 BC. The Roman ruins in Beja are open to the public and there are many examples of Roman architecture in the town and surrounding areas.
The northern Alentejo (Alto Alentejo) has a slightly cooler and more humid climate, meaning that the countryside is richer than the vast plains of open land in the south. In the mountain regions, you can even spot some rare wildlife and birds such as the griffon vulture, eagle owl, and Bonelli eagle.
Up in the hills of São Mamede close to the border of Spain, you’ll find Portalegre and the Parque Natural da Serra de São Mamede. Portalegre was strategically very important in the Middle Ages due to its location up in the hills and its proximity to the Spanish border. The city, however, dates back far further than the Middle Ages which is reflected in the large amount of Roman ruins and architecture in the region.
Up in one of the highest points of the São Mamede mountain range you can gaze over views of the countryside from one of the finest examples of military architecture in the region, Castelo de Marvão (Marvão Castle). The castle underwent a lot of alterations in the 15th century but still retains its 13th Century cistern, doorway, keep and gates.
The city of Évora is one of the most important cities in the Alentejo region, dating back more than five millennia. Its rich history is reflected in the city’s architecture, design, and monuments. Due to its historical and cultural significance, Évora became a UNESCO World Heritage site. Évora was conquered by the Romans in 57 B.C and expanded into a walled town, elements of which can be seen in the city walls and Roman baths that remain, including the famous Roman temple in the city.
As well as the Roman ruins, impressive Gothic cathedral, and historic centre, another particularly impressive prehistoric site just west of Évora, is the Almendres Cromlech. This is a neolithic era monument that predates even Stonehenge, despite only being discovered in 1966, and is well worth a visit.
Elvas, a city close to the Spanish border, is another great place to visit in Alto Alentejo. Just like Évora, the city of Elvas has a rich history and as such is a wonderful place to visit and take in the scenic surroundings and thousands of years of history.
The natural park of the Southwest Alentejo and Costa Vicentina extends up from the Algarve into the Alentejo and offers some breathtaking scenery. The Alentejo coast (Alentejo Litoral) is known for its wild, yet well preserved, coastline that is home to a variety of flora and fauna.
An excellent way to explore this region is to take a hike along one of the many trails in the Rota Vicentina. The most popular coastal trail is the Fisherman’s Trail. It is a single track that spans over 226km, broken down into 13 main steps. Not only does it offer some breathtaking views of the countryside and Atlantic ocean but also allows access to fishing grounds and a multitude of stunning beaches. The Historic Way is another fascinating hiking trail to follow, encompassing several centuries of history in its scenic route.
The coastal cities of Odemira, Sines, Porto Covo, Zambujeira do Mar and Milfontes are well worth a visit. Odemira is known for its beautiful beaches and rural scenery. It is situated on top of a hill, meaning that the city has many viewpoints from which you can take in some scenic views of the Alentejo and its coast.
Zambujeira do Mar is another fantastic coastal town, known for its beautiful beaches and nature. Milfontes has a wonderful historic centre that has been well preserved despite an increase in development. Its narrow winding streets and whitewashed houses all add to its charm making it a wonderful choice for an escape to the Alentejo.
Whether you enjoy relaxing on the beach, long walks along the coast, taking part in water sports, or even dolphin and whale watching, the Alentejo coast has it all. It is the perfect place to escape into nature and enjoy the wild Atlantic coastline in a tranquil, rural setting.
Life in the Alentejo is more laid back than in other regions of Portugal, and the pace of life is a little slower. If you are feeling drawn to the region and the charm of the Portuguese countryside then it’s well worth visiting the region and getting to know different towns better.
The Alentejo is not only a region of beauty, but also a region known for its food and wine, and there are plenty of opportunities for you to sample the local cuisine and produce. From culinary tours to fresh food markets, the Alentejo has something to satisfy even the biggest foodies.
Many of its most famous and popular dishes came about as a result of the creativity of those with very little and these recipes were passed down over generations. The Alentejo cuisine focuses on using local produce and simple ingredients to create hearty, flavourful family dishes.
The family values of those that live in the region are apparent. The population in the Alentejo is known for being hugely welcoming and friendly and always ready to share the breathtaking region of the Alentejo with visitors and newcomers.