It might not be the first destination you think of when considering a winter break but Portugal is actually a fabulous choice at this time of year. While many countries in Europe feel the temperature drop and get blanketed in snow, Portugal, for the most part, remains a balmy paradise, ideal for those seeking a bit of winter sun. In addition to this, it is a time when the crowds are fewer and accommodation and transportation are cheaper, so you will get to enjoy all the sights and attractions without battling the hordes and at a great price too.
But if Winter is the offseason, is there actually anything to do in Portugal during the cooler months? You will be pleased to know that the country is just as delightful with a multitude of things to do in winter than it is in summer. So if you are wondering where to go and what to do on your Portugal winter vacation, take a look at this comprehensive guide.
Known as one of the best winter sun destinations in the whole of Europe, Madeira may have a reputation for being filled with travelers of the older generation but it is actually a fantastic place to visit for all ages during winter. The biggest reason why so many people head over to this archipelago in the North Atlantic Ocean is the mild climate; in January the temperature averages around 17°C and even if it does rain, it rarely drops below 10°C. However, there are lots of things which will make you fall completely in love with Madeira. The islands are famous for their stunning landscapes with their imposing mountains, rugged cliffs, and lush green tropical vegetation, plus the beaches are pretty much empty at this time of year.
If you happen to be traveling to Madeira in December, you will be able to experience the islands lit up with festive lights. And they are not just standard lights either; the islands are famous for their 3D illuminations which are delightful enough to visit all on their own. As the focus of your festive trip, you should start with the capital Funchal, which turns into a winter wonderland at this time with carol singing and nativity scenes, just with better weather! It is also worth sticking around for New Year when the city holds its incredible fireworks display.
Other wonderful Portuguese islands to visit during the winter months are the Azores and in particular Pico Island, named after the highest volcano in Portugal which is the main attraction on the island. Often lauded as the next Iceland, Pico Island has begun attracting tourists mostly because of its magnificent landscapes which look all the more beautiful in their ruggedness and wildness during winter. Pico Island is known for being the most volcanic of all the Azores Islands, but you will find all kinds of landscapes here, from lava fields to green meadows. The volcanic nature of Pico lends itself well to the island’s wine-making industry, so make sure you sample some while you are there.
One of the downsides of visiting Pico Island in winter is the unstable weather; because of the Azores’s remote location in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the weather is extremely changeable and can go from sunny and bright to rainy and grey within a matter of minutes. However, this is true for the majority of the year and there is no reason why this should put you off. While it is possible you may get more chance of rain in winter, the temperature will still be quite mild.
This is also the season that is said to be the best for relaxing in the wonderful hot springs another island boasts – São Miguel. Maybe a combination of both would be great?
Caldas da Rainha
Situated in western central Portugal, the city of Caldas da Rainha is not on the usual traveler itinerary and it is all the more attractive for this. Founded in the 15th century, Caldas – as the city’s name is often shortened to – was primarily known as a thermal spa destination. The waters here cured a wound of Queen Dona Leonor’s and, seeing how in demand the curative waters were to the local people, prompted her to set up a hospital; a village subsequently appeared around the hospital, eventually becoming the city we see today. The town flourished particularly in the 19th century when taking to the waters was a fashionable pastime. The hospital re-opened this year and it is now possible to once again take to its waters, and who does not love a spa holiday, especially in the middle of winter? There is also a museum here so you can learn more about the thermal hospital’s fascinating history.
As well as the thermal hospital, there is plenty in Caldas to keep you occupied. Caldas is a UNESCO Creative City and home to nine museums covering a wide variety of fields, including painting, ceramics, and sculpture. You should also make sure you visit the Dom Carlos I Park, the city’s main green space where you’ll find the amazing and unique Pavillion of the hospital that some compare to Hogwarts and think J.K. Rawling was inspired by its architecture.
Lisbon and Wonderland Lisboa
Lisbon is a wonderful city to visit no matter what time of year: it has beautiful architecture, delicious cuisine, a vibrant nightlife, and is well-known as one of the most affordable capitals in Europe. But there is a huge reason why you should definitely consider visiting Lisbon in winter – Wonderland Lisboa. Running between the end of November to the beginning of January, this fabulous event combines a Christmas market with festive funfair and guarantees to have something for everyone. Each year there is an ice rink, ice ramp, carousel, Ferris wheel, and a giant snow globe, plus there are dozens of stalls selling all kinds of local artisan gifts and lots of tasty food and drink. Best of all, the entire event is free, so no matter what your budget, you will be able to experience everything Wonderland Lisboa has to offer.
Obidos Christmas Village
Obidos has long been a favorite of both locals and tourists because of its perfectly preserved medieval town surrounded by formidable city walls. In other parts of the town, you will be enchanted by the colorful houses and churches, and it is a fantastic place to purchase some of the exquisite porcelain which the town is so famous for.
Another reason for visiting Obidos in the winter months is its Christmas Village, taking place from the beginning of December. Set within sight of the medieval castle, the Christmas Village brings fun for children and adults alike, with a Santa Claus house, ice rink, a number of fairground rides, face painting, a variety of winter shows and performances, and lots of festive food and drink stalls. To make the most of your stay, you should definitely consider staying at the pousada, the castle guest house. With their beautifully decorated rooms and great views over the town, a stay here will add that little extra special something to your winter trip.
Nazare and Surfing
Winter is peak wave season in Portugal, making it the perfect time to visit if you are looking for a surf break. Located just 90-minute drive north of Lisbon on the Silver Coast, Nazare is one of the most popular seaside resorts in the country and has long been attracting surfers from across the globe due to its world record-breaking waves – between 80 and 100 feet, in fact. The town offers fantastic surfing throughout winter, but when the waves are huge, so many people descend on the town that you would be forgiven for thinking that it is the height of summer. Even if you are not a surfer yourself, it can be pretty exciting watching the surfers take to the waves. The annual surf event takes place between late October and early February, and when giant waves are predicted, it is a cool sight to see jet skiers pulling the surfers in order to catch the next wave; the waves are so powerful and fast that it is impossible to paddle towards them.
In addition to watching the best surfers on some of the largest waves in the world, there is plenty in Nazare to make a trip here worthwhile. The beaches themselves are divine – the main beach of Praia da Nazare has been voted one of the best in the country – and the old town is particularly picturesque with its winding streets and beautiful buildings. It is also a great place to sample some wonderful fresh seafood; specialties include barnacles harvested from the rocks nearby and polvo a lagareiro, octopus roasted with garlic and olive oil, which are perfect when washed down with a glass of beer or wine.
Winter Sun in the Algarve
The Algarve has been a popular summer destination for many decades now, but an increasing number of travelers are discovering that this area of Portugal has its charms in winter too. The temperatures here average between 10°C and 15°C during winter, which may not be great for sunbathing, but is perfect for the abundance of other activities which are on offer here, including mountain biking, kayaking, bird watching, golf, surfing, and hiking. Traditionally, many attractions have closed for much of the winter season but every year they are staying open longer and longer as the Algarve gets more popular during this time; in fact, many restaurants and hotels now stay open permanently and you will find a fairly lively atmosphere in most of the larger resort towns.
When visiting the Algarve in winter, it is recommended that you head to these larger resorts rather than the smaller ones, unless you are specifically looking for an incredibly quiet place to take your vacation. Lagos, Albufeira, Tavira, and Vilamoura are all popular options, particularly Lagos as it is a major town. Albufeira is a wonderful choice if you will be spending New Year in the Algarve; the town celebrates with an open-air concert and party, culminating in a spectacular fireworks display.
Hike the Costa da Vincentina Trails
While it may come as a surprise, winter is a great time to do some hiking in Portugal. The summer temperatures are just too high to make the activity comfortable and the trails tend to get fairly busy in the shoulder seasons of spring and autumn. Winter is also the time when the scenery has gone back to lush green after the arid summer months. Some of the best trails to hike on a winter holiday here are the Costa da Vincentina trails, located on the west coast of the Algarve. Running from Odeceixe in the north to Burgau in the south, the entire area is a protected natural park, meaning you will get to see some of the most splendid unspoiled natural landscapes the country has to offer and, if you are lucky, you may even get all the trails to yourself.
As well as the amazing landscapes here, which include rolling hills that stretch for miles, rocky coves, beautiful beaches, clear sea, and rugged cliffs, there is also a myriad of flora and fauna species to keep an eye out for. The park is home to at least 750 flora species, 12 of which are completely native to the area, in addition to over 200 bird species, so it is a wonderful place to come if you are into birdwatching as well as hiking. The Costa da Vincentina also has a rich history; due to its location on the coast, many of Portugal’s first voyages of discovery set sail from the area. A point of interest well worth a visit is the Fortaleza near Sagres. This fortress is believed to have been the site of Prince Henry the Navigator’s – a central figure in the early days of the Portuguese Empire – school of navigation. Whether this is true or not hardly matters; its picturesque location with coastline either side and its medieval chapel and wind compass are definitely worth making the climb.
Skiing on the Serra da Estrela
While Portugal may be famous for its surfing during winter, did you know that it is possible to also go skiing and snowboarding too? One of the few places in the country which receives snow in the colder months is the Serra da Estrela, the highest mountain range in Central Portugal. The only ski resort here is the Estancia de Ski in Seia and although it is small, especially in comparison with the vast majority of ski resorts across Europe, there are ski slopes here suitable for all levels, from beginner right up to expert. Ski season opens in either November or December and runs right through until April; this year, the season is said to start on December 7th and finishes on April 26th. Other winter activities you can take part in here include snowmobiling and sledding.
Penamacor Christmas Fire
Portugal, of course, has lots of Christmas traditions, some of them similar to other European countries, others completely unique. One of these unique traditions is the Madeiros, Christmas Fires in English. This incredibly old tradition of collecting wood and lighting massive bonfires is usually celebrated on Christmas Eve and has strong links with the country’s pagan past; these huge bonfires are a way of celebrating and worshipping the sun in honor of the Winter Solstice. Madeiros are common in the north and center of Portugal and the place which is considered to have the largest bonfire is Penamacor. Penamacor’s fire is slightly different from others in that it is traditionally lit on December 23rd. It is an absolute marvel to witness, with the celebrations beginning with the procession of tractors which bring the huge amounts of wood to the bonfire site, often reaching ten meters in height once it is all piled up ready to be lit.
Torres Vedras Winter Carnaval
Many European countries – and indeed countries around the world – celebrate Carnaval in some form, and Portugal is one of them. Taking place in February, while many destinations in Portugal have some sort of celebration, the Carnaval in Torres Vedras is considered to be the most typical and traditional of them all. One of the highlights of the Carnaval here is the parade of floats that make their way through the city center, featuring men in drag, decorative masks, and giant puppets. There is also a whole heap of interaction between the parade participants and spectators in the form of throwing ‘cocotes’, small objects made from paper, sawdust and rubber leftovers. To keep with tradition, local music and dancing are performed. It is a great way of getting involved in a Portuguese tradition and seeing the locals have fun.
As you can see, Portugal has plenty of things to see and do in the winter months that vacation during this time makes perfect sense. You get everything this wonderful country has to offer as well as getting to see what could be described as the ‘real’ Portugal – it is a time when the country slows down after the peak tourist season, so in many places, you will more likely run into locals rather than other travelers. So if you decide to book that dream trip to Portugal in Winter, you can be guaranteed to have a fantastic time.