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Portugal vacations offer European experience at cheaper cost

There's much classic architecture in Portugal, such as

There's much classic architecture in Portugal, such as Pena in Sintra. Credit: SIME / eStock

These days, you can’t open a travel magazine or newspaper without being dazzled by the accolades heaped on once-modest Portugal. Yes, Spain’s little neighbor to the west is positively blooming, and increasingly so. Whether it’s the hottest new Lisbon restaurant, the best beaches in The Algarve or an acclaimed Port wine from the Douro Valley, Portugal is on every trend-seeker’s radar.

Why is Portugal so popular? Here are 10 reasons.

PROXIMITY Draw a line from New York to Lisbon and you’ll find it’s the closest European city as the jetliner flies. In just 6 ½ hours (flight time), you can be eating Belém pastries, walking curvy cobblestone streets and ending the day in a red-lit bar listening to Lisbon’s own Fado — an intoxicating, quivering, melancholic low-register music wrenched from the singer’s emotional gut.

GRACIOUS, WARM PEOPLE The Portuguese are welcoming and helpful, with a bantering American sense of humor, aversion to pretension, and deep pride in their country and culture. Most speak several languages (English, Portuguese and Spanish), exhibiting a refreshing open-mindedness toward foreigners.

DIVERSE TOPOGRAPHY It takes only 7 hours to drive from the sandy beaches of the southern Algarve to the mountainous, river-threaded northern wine and olive oil region. On the way, plan several days in the cities of Lisbon and Porto. Though Algarve sees the most foreign tourists, Portugal is blessed with 600 miles of Atlantic Ocean shoreline, with an accessible public beach in nearly every coastal fishing village. Some, of course, are more upscale than others. Cascais, just north of Lisbon, is now the hot spot for upwardly mobile professionals, with a shopping district reminiscent of Miami Beach. And lately, Portugal’s northern realm has been drawing more and more visitors away from the coast; oenophiles have discovered the charms and highly rated wines of the Douro Valley, which is fast becoming the new Tuscany.

BARGAINS Traveling to most of Europe is a costly endeavor, but prices in even the most luxurious Portuguese hotels, spas, restaurants and shops are half of what you’d pay elsewhere, sometimes less. Excellent local wines by the glass run from $4-$6, and three-course dinners with wine max out at about $50 per person (e.g., at the highly acclaimed DOC Restaurant in Douro Valley). Custom-fitted leather gloves from Luvaria Ulisses, a 90-year-old shop in Lisbon, can be had for $60, and hourlong spa treatments at top hotels run about $80-$90.

PUBLIC PALACES Portugal was a monarchy until the 1910 revolution, when all royal homes and palaces were opened to the public seemingly overnight. The most popular of these magnificent structures is the whimsically colorful Pena Palace in the exquisite hilltop town of Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site just 30 minutes from Lisbon and worth a day to see. In Porto, an 18th century palace is now the newly renovated InterContinental Hotel. In the north, King Carlos I’s estate, built in 1910, serves as the ultra-luxurious five-star spa and golf resort Vidago Palace Hotel.

CLASSIC AND CUTTING-EDGE ARCHITECTURE Well-tended sidewalks and pedestrian walkways in Lisbon are paved with playfully designed black-and-white mosaics, while artful tiles form the facades and interiors of many buildings. In fact, you’ll encounter the past and present of Portuguese architectural beauty simply by visiting two train stations: first, the Beaux Arts style São Bento railway station in Porto, built in 1900, featuring walls adorned with ceramic panels that depict the history of transportation in Portugal; and second, the futuristic Oriente train station in Lisbon, designed by Santiago Calatrava, visionary architect of the just-opened dove-shaped World Trade Center Transportation Hub in downtown Manhattan.

TROLLEYS The trolley cars in Lisbon are as famous as the cable cars in San Francisco, but routes curve tightly through narrow cobblestone streets and are arguably more picturesque. No. 28 is one of the most historic routes, still employing wooden-seat trams built more than 100 years ago.

THE J.K. ROWLING CONNECTION Rowling lived in Porto for more than a year, and rumors abound that the magically unusual Livraria Lello bookshop inspired the Hogwarts Library in the “Harry Potter” series. After the “Harry Potter” movies came out, so many tourists came to Porto just to visit this bookshop that the store instituted a 3 euro entrance fee (applied against purchase).

WINE AND OLIVE OIL Portuguese wines and olive oils have been competing — and winning — on the world stage. And those winning producers love to give visitors a taste. Quinta do Crasto Estate (with vintages that have earned points in the high 90s from Wine Spectator) invites you to a wine-pairing lunch in the family’s private home on a hilltop offering breathtaking views of the Douro Valley. And in Portugal’s northern region, where groves of hillside olive trees replace the vineyards of the south, the award-winning olive oil producer Casa de Santo Amaro in Mirandela welcomes guests to tour and sip in the family-owned facility. You might even stumble on busloads of countrymen lining up specifically for 5-liter plastic jugs of virgin cold-pressed (16 euro).

THE FOOD Any globetrotter knows that food is integral to a positive and immersive travel experience, and Portugal handily delivers. In the northern region, cuisine is provincial and rustic: heavy on pig products like smoked hams and country sausages, and on bacalhau — dried, salted cod imported from Norway. On the coast, family-style fishing village cafes offer incredible just-caught sea bass, simply grilled with olive oil and a bit of salt, filleted and served tableside by the chef/owner with boiled potatoes and cabbage greens. And like every country in the civilized world, Portugal has its share of celebrity and Michelin-starred chefs who can be found in innovative restaurants in Lisbon, Douro Valley and Porto. Sample the goods of up-and-coming chefs at the top-shelf “food court” Time Out Market in Lisbon. And, in Porto, take a taxi to out-of-the-way O Paparico, housed inside a former stone stable, for an epicurean experience par excellence.

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