The Alentejo is Portugal’s hidden treasure. Boasting spectacular beaches, traditional fishing villages, historical towns and perfect hikes – here are five spots in the Alentejo you shouldn’t miss.
While I’ve been to Portugal many times, I’d never visited the Alentejo until last year. Perched above the Algarve, below Lisbon, and extending into the heart of the country, the Alentejo is the secret spot that those in the know don’t want you to find out about.
Not sure where to start? Here are my five favourite spots in the region that you simply shouldn’t miss.
1. Azenha do Mar, Odeceixe
Tucked behind the rugged cliffs of the Alentejo coast, Azenha do Mar is a small village that dates back to the sixties. While the village welcomes a slowly-increasing number of visitors, in no small thanks to the stunning Rota Vicentina Fisherman’s Trail (which I named one of the best hikes in Europe) that winds its way along the Alentejo Coast, fishing still remains the main livelihood of the village’s inhabitants.
It’s quiet, the small natural harbour framed by the rocky outcrops and towering cliffs typical of this section of the coast. One of the biggest attractions is simply grabbing a spot on one of the coastal bluffs, watching and listening to the roar of the Atlantic as it thrashes against the rocks.
Like much of the Alentejo, locals are friendly and welcoming. Seasoned by years of battling against difficult conditions, they’re proud to talk about the village’s unusual history – it was set up by a handful of people trying to make a better life for themselves during the difficult times of the Portuguese dictatorship.
Even today, they don’t lead an easy life. The fisherman make and repair their own lines – tying hundreds of small hooks to thin lines that they cast out. At the end of the day, each one has to be painstakingly looked over and repaired.
Food also plays a central role in village life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering its location, Azenha do Mar is also home to one of the Alentejo’s best seafood restaurants. You may have to wait in line to grab a table at this busy spot, but it’s totally worth it – a feast of the freshest Portuguese seafood awaits.
2. Santiago de Cacém
Brimming with history and charm, the cobbled town of Santiago de Cacém has long been a stop for Portuguese Pilgrims taking the Portuguese Way on the Camino de Santiago. It also marks the beginning of the Historical Way, a long-distance hike that takes you through the centre of Portugal, through cork groves, eucalyptus forests and remote villages.
More than this, Santiago de Cacém is an enchanting destination that is definitely worth spending some time in during your trip to the Alentejo.
The town itself has a rather curious history. Named as a result of the victory of a warrior princess over a moor called Kassen on Santiago’s Day, over time the name of Santiago de Kassen evolved to its modern-day moniker – Santiago de Cacém.
So what’s there to see? Take some time to walk through the town’s gorgeous cobbled streets, each one lined with an array of colourful houses and intricately-designed Portuguese azulejos (tiles).
An imposing castle sits at the centre of the town, a rectangular formation of ten towers, each with spectacular views of the Santiago de Cacém itself and the surrounding countryside. Next to this, the 13th-century Parish church is only a fraction less impressive, thanks to a series of renovations and alterations that have taken place throughout the centuries.
3. Monte da Estrada
Delve into the heart of the traditional Portuguese cork forests in the Odemira region. Put on your hiking boots and take to the paths that wind their way through the area.
It’s an overused term, but Monte da Estrada is a place to escape from it all and explore the natural surroundings. The forests offer some hiking opportunities that are too good to miss – if you’re lucky, you might even spot some of the local wildlife, spottings of wild boar happen far more often than you might think.
Other than the wildlife, Monte da Estrada’s highlights include the peaceful chapel of Senhora das Neves, perched on a tall hill (beware, it’s a steep puff to get to it) above the region. Watch out for the slightly disconcerting Anjo Homem statue by sculptor Esmerelda Sobral as you make your way up. Make it to the top and you’re rewarded with far-reaching views of the surrounding area and a nice ridge walk before you scramble your way back down into the valley again.
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4. Santa Clara a Velha
The small village of Santa Clara a Velha is everything that you think of when you conjure up an image of a traditional Portuguese village: whitewashed houses with splashes of colour, a maze of small streets clustered around a pretty church.
While the village itself is worth spending some time in, take the opportunity to explore the surrounding region – crammed with dramatic vistas and a chance to glimpse at the local life of days past. A 22-km hike passes through Santa Clara – the centre of its figure-of-eight route – the perfect opportunity to see the region on foot.
The region is dominated by the large Barragem de Santa Clara dam – created in the thirties to stimulate agriculture in the region. Over the decades, the dam has provided the backbone for a unique habitat – notable for its bird watching opportunities and fertile lands filled with flora and fauna.
Interestingly, the relative remoteness of some parts of the region enables visitors to step back in time to the Alentejo of days long ago. There are no roads, no large cities, no big population. You can experience local culture in a way that you can’t in more developed areas.
Locals are fiercely proud of their heritage – none more so than Maria Odete Ramos de Oliveira, who has preserved her house exactly as it was five decades ago. Book yourself onto a tour of Odete’s homestead – immersing you into the traditions that governed the farm, the house and even the local schoolroom, all through the words of the characterful Odete herself. If you’re lucky, she’ll even dish out a small glass of the local firewater medronho.
5. Vila Nova de Milfontes
The Alentejan town of Vila Nova de Milfontes might not be a secret to the Portuguese, but surprisingly few people outside of the country (other than dedicated surfers and keen hikers) have ever heard of it. A shame as this coastal town has a lot going for it.
Beach-wise, you’re spoilt for choice – Vila Nova de Milfontes is situated in a particularly beautiful stretch of the Alentejo coastline.
Hotspots like Praia do Malhao practically demand a few hours of sunbathing on its fine sandy shores. Many of the beaches are framed by large coastal dunes, which burst into colour during the spring as the wildflowers come into bloom.
Though the town itself is relatively small, it too has its charms – an old fort overlooks the mouth of the river as it leads to the ocean. There are several small restaurants and cafes, such as Stress Free, a small venture run by a young Portuguese couple from Lisbon who were attracted by the town’s laid-back outdoorsy lifestyle. The menu is bursting with fresh ingredients and Portuguese flavours – a must-try while you’re in town.