The coastal regions of the Iberian Peninsula are undoubtedly some of the most beautiful in the world; from the dramatic coastline, with its golden sands and sparkling waters, to the rising medieval spires of historic and culture-packed cities, there is something here for everyone, no matter what type of holiday you are looking for.
With so much to see and do, working out where to go can be a challenge, so, here is a quick guide, that will take you on a route from the picturesque Bay of Biscay, in northern Spain, down into Portugal and on to the wild and romantic coastline of the Algarve
Travelling around this part of the world could not be easier, the public transport is great and the roads are mostly of a high standard (you may find a few exceptions on some rural back-roads, as well as a few narrow and winding roads in the mountains). There are plenty of car rentals around or, depending on where you are travelling from, bringing your own car is easy, either via ferry, or driving in from France. All the urban destinations mentioned below are connected by train, with the longest journeys taking about 5 – 6 hours, and tickets will set you back about €20 – 30 (most are considerably shorter and cheaper).
Start your Iberian adventure in the beautiful resort town of San Sebastian. With a reputation for fantastic food (per capita, San Sebastian has the 2nd highest number of Michelin starred restaurants of any city in the world), golden beaches and azure waters, its no wonder that this has become one the most popular seaside destinations in Spain.
Spend your days wondering the colourful streets of the old town, admiring beautiful 19th century architecture, before stopping off in one of the many bars to sample some of the local tapas. Alternatively, head down to one of the beaches, Playa de la Concha, with its gentle waters, if you are just wanting a relaxing afternoon, or, Playa de la Zurriola if you fancy a surf.
The Museo de San Telmo is a must for all culture vultures wanting to learn a bit about the history of the Basque region and its peoples.
Monumento Natural de Ojo Guareña
After saying goodbye to San Sebastian, I recommend adding a quick detour to your itinerary to take in the caves of Ojo Guarena (they are a couple of hours inland, by car, from San Sebastian). This one of the ten largest cave networks in the world and is a great place to visit for history lovers, nature enthusiasts and thrill seekers alike. The caves are home to spelunking routes of varying difficulties, fantastically preserved archaeological sites and a few species of vertebrates that have not been recorded elsewhere. All of this lies in the midst of a scenic hilly landscape, typical of northern Spain.
Leon, the capital city of the Leon province of Spain, offers a fascinating blend of history, culture and nightlife. It was founded by the Romans around 29BC and is now considered to be one of Spain’s most impressive historic cities.
If you only visit one historical building during your time in Leon, make it the cathedral – founded in the 13th century AD, this fine example of French gothic architecture is considered to be one of Spain’s architectural gems. If you can squeeze in another, go to the incredible Basilica of San Isidoro. The site this is built on has been of religious significance since Roman times and the current church was founded in the 10th century AD.
In the evening head to the Barrio Humedo (a nickname for the old town, literally meaning ‘the wet district), to experience Leon’s party scene. Most of the action is centred around the Plaza de San Martín, where you will find a slew of tapas bars, restaurants and clubs that stay open into the early hours.
Galicia’s third largest city, Ourense, is often, and a little unfairly, overlooked by tourists, but. Their is a beautiful medieval quarter, containing one of the oldest cathedrals in northern Spain and enough bars and restaurants to give it a decent atmosphere come evening. Thermal springs, though, are the city’s real attraction; these are spread out along the banks of the Miño river and many have been recently refurbished. For a somewhat surreal experience, take a dip in the As Burgas Thermal Pool, right in the heart of the historic quarter, or, if you prefer, check out the A Chavasqueira Thermal Station, which has been done up in the style of a Japanese bathhouse and lets you combine your spa experience with massages, beauty treatments and a sauna.
Peneda-Gerês National Park
As you cross the mountainous border between Spain and Portugal, make sure to spare some time for exploring Peneda-Gerês, Portugal’s only national park. This is an area of extreme natural beauty, rugged landscapes, waterfalls and wildlife. There are lots of traditional hamlets and villages dotted throughout the park providing excellent places for a bit refreshment for any weary travellers.
There are multiple hiking trails, some easier than others, either hire a guide, or head off on your own and explore (look out for wolves though!).
Porto, Portugal’s second city is a vibrant place that has been voted Europe’s Best Destination twice in the last four years. Start your time there with a climb up the Torre dos Clérigos to get a panoramic of the city and then head over the Ponte de Dom Luís I to Gaia, to visit a wine cellar and sample some of the fortified wine that Porto is famous for. While away an afternoon on a boat trip down the Rio Douro or exploring the traditional shops along Rua das Flores.
Any bookworms make sure to seek out Livraria Lello (on Rua das Carmelitas), one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world, and the kind of place you might expect to run into Harry Potter browsing for a new book of spells!
For a true taste of Portugal, try the Francesinha at Cafe Santiago. Portugal’s answer to croque monsieur, consists of a sandwich filled with cheese and fine meats, sometimes topped with a fried egg and always finished with a spicy beer sauce. It’s as unhealthy as it sounds!
Portugal’s colourful and cosmopolitan capital is the kind of city in which you can spend a lifetime and still find new experiences and plenty of surprises. For those on a more limited timescale, there are a few must-do activities. Visit the 15th century Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (a Manueline monastery), a stunning example of gothic architecture and the final resting place of some of Portugal’s most important historic figures. Take a walking tour around the cobbled streets of Alfama and, if you get tired, hop on the vintage, wooden tram 28 and take in a few more sites. At sunset, head up to the medieval, Moorish citadel of São Jorge, for a picturesque view of the city skyline.
One of Lisbon’s most famous creations is the Pastel de Nata (traditionally known as Pastéis de Belém), a delicious little pastry, originally made by the city’s catholic monks. With a crispy puff pastry shell and a filling of egg custard and cinnamon, they are as divine as their history would suggest. Do not leave without trying one … or maybe two!
Most of the cities in this part of the Algarve are worth a visit, but, for the sake of this guide, I am focusing on the historic seaside town of Lagos. Although it is a popular tourist destination, Lagos has managed to retain a sense of traditional Portuguese culture and it is a great place to base yourself when staying in the Algarve, with good transport connections to neighbouring towns, plenty of culture, a substantial nightlife and some of the best beaches in Portugal.
You can easily spend a day wandering along the cobbled streets of the old town, dipping in and out of churches (Santo Antonio is a good place to start), museums and even a 17th century fortress. In the evening, go for a seafood dinner – O Camilo’s is a great option: delicious, traditional Portuguese food and fantastic views over the ocean.
If you are after natural beauty, make sure to visit the Ponta de Piedade. This consists of a series of sandstone cliffs that have been slowly eroded by sea and wind into one of Portugal’s most beautiful formations. There are hiking trails that run along the top of the cliffs, but, if you really want to appreciate their myriad grottos, caves and arches, you will need to get a boat from Lagos marina.
Other fun activities around Lagos, include a trip to the Lagos zoo, a high ropes and treetops adventure at the nearby Luso Aventura, or, simply hiring a bicycle and exploring the surrounding countryside and neighbouring villages.
For the last few days of your trip, head to Faro. Despite being the capital city of the Algarve, Faro has never really taken off as a tourist town meaning you won’t have to worry about crowds as you stroll along its pretty streets. As with so many other towns and cities in this part of the world, Faro has a historic quarter stuffed full of amazingly well preserved medieval buildings, quirky museums and locally owned cafes. It is also a student town and, where you find students, you will find bars and a thriving nightlife scene.
After exploring so many old towns and climbing up more church towers than you can count, you may be in need of a bit of beach-time r & r. If a beach party sounds like your idea of fun then get yourself to Faro beach, but, if you want peace and quiet, you would be better off getting on a boat (either a private hire or a public ferry) and sailing out to one of the offshore islands. Both Ilha Culatra and Ilha da Barreta have beautiful golden sand beaches and plenty of space, allowing you to lie back and soak up the sun whilst looking out at an uninterrupted view of the Atlantic.
This guest post was contributed by Bali Villas.
With extensive experience in servicing Australian clients, Bali Villas know exactly what families are looking for in terms of location, style and pricing. Each of their family friendly villas situated on the beautiful island of Bali have been hand-picked by their ‘family expert’ – someone with children who knows exactly what families are looking for. Bali Villas aim to take the stress out of planning your holiday, so you can concentrate on creating lasting memories with your family.