A country is not elected the best touristic destination for three years in a row by accident. Portugal boasts of such a feat, but its historical, natural, and cultural beauty remains largely unexplored. It barely made it to the Top 10 most visited European countries list.
Even inside Portugal, most tourists tend to cluster around the capital city of Lisbon or the southern beaches of Algarve. Those are good choices indeed, but as a native Portuguese, I feel like they leave too much unseen.
What if we dare to be a little more adventurous? What if we leave behind the great city of Lisbon and choose instead one of the lesser known — but equally interesting — cities as a hub to visit Portugal’s hidden gems?
This was the idea I had when my future wife visited Portugal for the first time. At that time, I had met a lovely Filipina online and wanted to make her first trip to my home country unforgettable.
As a devout Catholic, she wanted to visit Fatima, Portugal’s most important religious destination. As the place where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to three shepherd children, it has spiritual significance even to Muslims and Hindus. It surely warrants a visit.
So, what to do? Drive 130 Km back and forth between Lisbon and Fatima? Or get lodging in Fatima and draw my itinerary from there?
I chose the latter. And boy, was it a good choice.
If you are interested in visiting Fatima, here are some destinations that are less than an hour drive away from the sanctuary.
- Nazaré: Would you like to spend a day in the beach? Or maybe surf where the world record for largest wave ever surfed was broken? Or gaze at the horizon from a 300 meter cliff? Maybe visit a church atop of the cliff where a miraculous Marian image is said to have saved a medieval nobleman from falling to his doom? You can do all of these at Nazaré.
- Tomar: Are you interested in Knights Templar? What about a church built as a rotunda where you can see magnificent paintings and carvings as you go around it? Stone windows sculpted as nautical ropes and other sea motifs? Then the Convent of Christ is for you.
- Batalha: Do you fancy Paris’ Notre Dame? You will enjoy Portugal’s most impressive gothic monument.
- Alcobaça: Did you like Romeo and Juliet? Visit the Monastery of Alcobaça, and know of the forbidden love between Prince Pedro and Dona Inês. Torn from one another in life, they are now buried in front of each other awaiting Judgment Day.
- Mira d’Aire caves: Are you into natural wonders? What about exploring Portugal’s largest cave? Going as deep as 110 meters, this underground marvel is filled with geological formations of great beauty.
- Castles: Like medieval castles? You hit the jackpot. There are castles in the towns of Ourem, Almourol, Leiria, and Abrantes. There are guided tours that can help you bridge them together.
What you will need:
- Lodging at Fatima: Fortunately, the Fatima sanctuary is flanked by a variety of good hotels.
- Car rental: Many of these destinations can only be accessed by car. Rent a car as soon as you arrive to Lisbon airport, take the A1 highway, and then exit 8.
- GPS / Waze App: Insert the destinations and you are good to go.
Does this mean Fatima is the only city of the sort we can use as a hub? Far from it. In my next installments, I will mention other possible hubs for your Portuguese vacations.