Some 20 years ago just a few hundred thousand Americans visited Portugal. There were few travel agents and tour operators that specialized in Portugal, and the ones that did often combined it with Spain. I worked with Turismo de Portugal over a decade to build a distinct image - which we did through smart media relations. And then in 2017, we worked with Travel + Leisure magazine to see Portugal named as the destination of the year - and for the first time ever American travel to Portugal passed 1 million guests.
Everyone, it seemed, wanted to go to Portugal. But never had so many known so little about so much - and in the great rush to see Portugal, visitors have bypassed so much.
I remember Lisbon from when I was a kid in the 1980s. A big bustling city that seemed sophisticated compared to the rest of Portugal, still emerging from forty years of fascism. It was a city with challenges, including numerous abandoned buildings and poverty. But it was brilliant, like a faded capital of a long lost empire. The Rossio was full of local shops, and crowned by glittering neon signs. There were double-decker buses. Cars and trolleys bustled on the streets of the Baixa, and the Praça do Comércio was a massive parking lot.
Since 2017 much has changed. Once crumbling buildings are now full of luxe apartments and Airbnbs. Many of the longtime stores of the city have closed, and souvenir shops and so-so restaurants fill the now pedestrian streets of the Baixa. There is a lot to do, but the recovery of the city has also made it out of the range of Lisboetas, changing forever the culture of the great city.
This is why sustainable travel is a new luxury. Over-tourism from following the so-called bucket list may destroy the very thing so many seek. So, in this new era I say don't just go to Portugal to go to Portugal. Get to know this country and make the best of your time there.
If we travel to learn, we also need to travel to sustain and support. By giving back we can be a part of the solution - and help the very places we want to see. That often means having an open mind, not following the same old trap of not asking locals, but following Insta and Facebook posts. The real world is out there, the fun is finding it!
So read up on Portuguese literature, history, food, culture and lifestyle before you go. There is time to see a shift to sustainable travel by giving something back to a place, and favoring places that preserve nature and community. To that end, here are some smart Portugal alternatives:
So, enjoy Lisbon! But stay in Santarém. Lisbon is one of the world’s great cities — and it has so much to offer. But, 35 minutes away by rail is the historic city of Santarém Here one finds affordable hotels, strong walls set high over the plains of the River Tejo. There are great new places to eat, museums to explore - and a fast hourly train to and from Lisbon. And, you can save on lodging and meals, but also get to spend time in a Portuguese city with lots to see and do - without the crowds.
The Douro (and that is how it is spelled) River Valley is pretty cool, but it does not end at Pinhão - and the wild east is rarely worth it. Follow it to the border to the Douro Natural Park as far as Miranda - and ditch the lines and day trippers. Explore the Bairrada wine region too. There's so much to see and do there - from the pastries of Tentugal, the castle at Montemor, the wines of Cantanhede - and the wonderful leitão at Mealhada - plus classic spa towns at Luso and Curia- and the one-of a kind natural park at Bussaco.
Keep it clean! TukTuks can create air pollution, Airbnb’s can make apartment prices soar for locals. So maybe ditch that Airbnb for the local hotel without the hidden fees and that IKEA mattress that makes your back feel not so happy. Then there is the long lines, noise and overall disregard. Even the selfie can do real damage, like the couple who fell from Cabo da Roca to their deaths over a selfie, or the idiot who destroyed a statue of D. Sebastião on the Rossio station seeking a. selfie.
Yes to Sintra with its palaces. But with that joy comes all kinds of popularity related issues. Want another palace with a mix of cool castles, places and things to do? Portugal has more than 100 castles and dozens of palaces to be explored, most with no line, and bringing jobs and life to smaller places. Check out the palaces in Bussaco, Mafra, Vila Viçosa and Guimarães.
Industrial tourism is a great option too - No, not making steel but learning how things get done, from wine and olive oil to furniture and pottery. It means supporting and learning skills, and includes industrial and agricultural sites peculiar to a specific location.
Explore the shore, just not the jammed packed one. The amazingly preserved Alentejo coast, the beaches of the Centro Region, and the cove beaches of the Azores are a great alternative. In fact, there are dozens of coves, sea caves and coastal islands to explore all over Portugal without crowds or huge fees.
Want a walled town? Portugal has them by the dozen. I love Linhares, Almeida, Castelo Mendo, Marvão, Veiros, and Marialva to name just a few. All are charming and fun to explore.
As for castles, check out Santa Maria da Feira, Bragança, Sortelha, Portel and Viana do Alentejo. All very cool, accessible and complete with things to hike to and explore!
I guess my point is, ask a local. You may be amazed at just how different and memorable a trip you will have!