Away from the busy coastal resorts, Portugal is a timeless and magical place. To the north and east, there are wild mountains and sparkling lakes; to the south and west, there are dusty olive groves, secret beaches and hidden caves; and everywhere you will find rustic villages, standing stones, magical woodland and hilltop castles. So head inland from the airports on one of these three weekend itineraries and discover a country where shepherds bake bread, villagers make wine, honey and olive oil, and the hospitality is perennial.

North-east from Porto
Serra da Peneda-Gerês/Soajo

Wild ponies in Serra da Peneda

In the mountains of Serra da Peneda-Gerês, eagles wheel over a wilderness inhabited by roe deer, Iberian wolves and wild ponies. This northernmost area of Portugal is peppered with hidden tors, hilltop settlements and prehistoric rock art, while tangled woods envelop ancient Roman roads, yet it’s easy to reach from Porto.

Tipi at riverside Lima Escape

End the day listening to the lapping of the river Lima from a moonlit tipi or tree-house at Lima Escape, about three miles west again, a luxurious campsite in pine forest where two tributaries join the river (pitch from €3.50 a night, plus €4 per adult, €2.50 child; bungalows and chalets from €45).

Wake up to a pink dawn and start the day with a walk to nearby Mosteiro de Ermelo, a 12th-century Benedictine monastery on the riverbank. Its bells toll in the ancient dry-stone village and the wild oranges here are said to be the sweetest in Portugal. Or head off for a morning dip in mountain pools near the hamlet of Froufe, just a mile away. Waterfalls cascade down to fill a chain of quartzy blue bathing pools. For those feeling energetic, there’s a four-mile hike uphill from Froufe to Ermida, a medieval ruined summer town, now inhabited only by cattle.

A glass of vinho verde at Restaurante Miradouro do Castelo.

For the last part of the weekend, pack a picnic for a wild lunch and drive an hour north to Castro Laboreiro, where a wind-torn mountain track leads from the town to a 9th-century Galician castle. Stand high on the battlements and absorb the stunning views across Portuguese wilderness. Eagles swoop above this castle and lizards scuttle underfoot. Try a glass of vinho verde at Miradouro do Castelo restaurant (+351 251 465 469, no website) as the last rays of sun turn the turrets deep orange.

There is camping at Montes de Laboreiro (pitch from €2.80 a night plus €3.20 adult, €2 child), which also has holiday homes to rent and a few cabins in the woodland (from €50). It runs canyoning trips in the nearby Laboreiro waterfall. Keep an eye out for red squirrels.

South from Lisbon
Costa Azul of Setúbal

Hiking in the Serra da Arrábida

The Setúbal coastline, just south of Lisbon across the Tejo river, is known as the Costa Azul. The turquoise and emerald sea certainly lives up to its name and there are sea caves, islands, clifftop monasteries and delicious wine produced in its many vineyards.

Nossa Senhora, on the cliff edge at Cabo Espichel

In the wild wooded Arrábida hills, a great place to sleep close to nature is Parque Ambiental do Alambre. This campsite has eight wooden bungalows (from €44 for two), plus a few pitches, or try Casal do Frade, an eco-friendly but luxurious farmhouse (doubles from €98 B&B).

In the morning, make a pilgrimage to the dramatic coastal peninsula of Cabo Espichel (a 12-mile drive west). Here, explore the grand lighthouse and the 17th-century white church perched on the cliff-edge looking out across the sea. Stone dinosaur footprints, said to be 145m years old, run up the cliff-side and were once thought to be the footsteps of the Madonna. There are several coves around, though my favourite is Praia da Baleeira (a 2½ mile walk east), a scramble down through wild rosemary to a tiny secret beach, perfect for a skinny dip.

The stilted harbour at Carrasqueira

The local town is Setúbal, famous for its choco frito – fried cuttlefish – the Portuguese take on fish and chips. One of best places to try this lunchtime treat is Rei do Mar (Avenida Luísa Todi 50, +351 918 634 700, no website). Afterwards, take one of the regular car and passenger ferries which leave from the nearby pier and head for the Tróia peninsula. Look out for the bottlenose dolphins that might chase alongside the boat, as they come here to feed on the cuttlefish, too.

Tróia is known as the “Pompeii of Setúbal” – a phrase coined by Hans Christian Andersen on a visit here – and this giant sand bar, almost an island, was once the largest known industrial fishing port in the Roman world. Today, it’s still possible to see their fish-salting vats and an early Christian basilica. A short hop along the shore are several more lively and equally ancient fishing communities. The village harbour at Carrasqueira is built on wooden stilts and alive with fishermen returning with their catch. Try any number of deliciously fresh fish treats – local dish arroz de lingueirão (razor clam rice), is heavenly. One of the best places is Retiro do Pescador (Avenida dos Pescadores, +351 265 497 172, no website).

North from Faro
Almodôvar and south Alentejo

The Oeiras river at Morgadinho

Once done with Faro’s busy coastal resorts and packed-out bars, escape north to the ancient hilltop villages and sparkling rivers of south Alentejo – a land of idyllic farmhouses, thatched huts and endless views across hills strewn with rock-roses.

Camping at Monte da Rocha

For some rural luxury, try Monte Gois Country House, an exquisite retreat in a typical Alentejo house with hammocks in the gardens (doubles from €85 B&B).

Those who prefer camping will like Monte da Rocha (around €10-15 a pitch,, where guests wake to misty views over a vast reservoir. Alqueva Rural Camping, 25 miles north from Pulo do Lobo along the Guadiana river (pitch for two plus car, €10) is part farm, part campsite, and has a menagerie including goats, llamas, ponies and young Miranda do Douro donkeys – a rare, indigenous breed with a thick, woolly coat. For a lazy morning, take a picnic to the hilltop 15th-century chapel of São Pedro das Cabeças near Castro Verde. Gaze out across fields which, in 1139, rang with the cries of the Battle of Ourique when Afonso Henriques defeated the Moorish kings. Some of the best bread in Portugal is to be found in this area, and delicious tosta mista, ham and melted cheese in crusty rolls, is ubiquitous. But the best place to eat great baskets of bread with regional dishes and great local wine is Restaurante O Bombeiro (Rua da Seara Nova 4, +351 286 327 168, no website).

Edwina Pitcher is the author of Wild Guide Portugal: Hidden Places, Great Adventures and the Good Life (£16.99). To buy a copy for £14.44, inc UK p&p, go to

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