The region has had a real cocktail of influences: the Romans, Phoenicians, Spanish, Knights Templar, and Moors all left their mark – even Neolithic man left countless mysterious menhirs here. And the cultural heritage is as rich as anywhere in Europe, but with fewer visitors.
Those who visit are stunned by the epic, almost biblical landscape of rolling hills, vast open plains, cork oak and olive trees. In spring, it's a carpet of wildflowers. The coastline is dramatic, too, with craggy cliffs and fine sandy beaches stretching to the horizon. The Alentejo wine is fast becoming a favourite on the world stage, and the gastronomy is sublime: simple, regional cuisine at incredibly affordable prices – this is the epicurean soul of Portugal.
It may be time to avoid the crowded hotspots of Mediterranean Europe and seek out an alternative that offers far more for far less.
Capela dos Ossos, Evora
Just 130 km from Lisbon, Evora is a treasure trove of history. There's so much to see with palaces, elegant squares, beautiful convents, and more – it's no surprise that the entire town has been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Since the 17th century, the Chapel of Bones has represented the fleeting nature of life with its interior decorated with thousands of bones and skulls of long-departed monks which cover the walls, ceilings and pillars. An inscription reads, "We, the bones of the departed that lie here, await yours". Perhaps not the kind of chilling sentiment you expect to read on your holidays but a powerful statement nonetheless. This may seem macabre to us today, but it was born of necessity: overcrowding of graveyards meant that new solutions had to be found, and this was a way to respectfully deal with the problem while aligning with religious beliefs that the dead would be closer to God.
This astonishing structure was built around 400 years ago and still dominates the landscape as it snakes majestically towards the ancient fortified town of Elvas, not far from the Spanish border. The project to channel water from afar was begun in the mid-16th century and took almost a century to complete. The structure is epic, dominating the landscape and standing thirty metres high, with four tiers of beautifully constructed arches running for over eight kilometres. It's not possible to 'visit' the aqueduct, but be sure to pull over and admire its elegant proportions, graceful arches and remarkable condition.
Breathtakingly ambitious in its scale, this is one of Europe's largest aqueducts, and in its day, it solved the region's water supply problem. Today it is one of the most renowned symbols of the Alentejo and is one of the region's many UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Lying at the entrance to the Sado River estuary, the Troia Peninsula is a magnificent 13-mile-long sand bank studded with fragrant pine forests and some of Europe's finest beaches. At its foot, the small village of Comporta is one of the country's most chic and exclusive destinations. Its shimmering sands, pastel-striped beach cabanas and turquoise waters offer sophisticated beach life and is a magnet for celebrities. Madonna, José Mourinho, Harrison Ford, Carla Bruni and many more are no strangers to its crystal-clear waters and the upmarket villas and hotels that fringe the sheltered lagoon-like waters.
From Setúbal and Lisbon, a ferry crossing or a roundabout road runs through the nature reserves, home to storks, flamingos and herons. The Sado estuary is home to one of Europe's last communities of river dolphins – take a boat trip and see these friendly creatures up close as they follow the boat.
With its white houses scattered across the hillside, Estremoz is known as one of Alentejo's 'white cities'. Many buildings are whitewashed, but there are also vast deposits of white marble here which explains why so many commonplace buildings feature this material. In fact, Estremoz accounts for about 90% of Portuguese marble exports.
Once a vital border bastion, Estremoz is clustered around a fortified 14th-century hilltop palace that rises above the old town. Visit the imposing castle, and admire the vast city walls and ancient convent. Stop by the famous artisan market and buy a traditional clay figurine - Bonecos de Estremoz - recognised by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Today the marble palace is a pousada hotel surrounded by quiet cobbled lanes and alleys with incredible panoramic views across the surrounding countryside.
This is Europe's largest artificial lake, formed by the damming of the River Guadiana in 2002 and covering a vast expanse of 250 square kilometres. Aside from providing water for the central Alentejo region, the lake offers a fantastic setting for watersports: sailing, water skiing, kayaking, and paddle boarding are all popular here. The marina offers a range of craft for hire: why not take a houseboat for a few days or explore the countless creeks and tributaries and sleep under the stars of the Dark Sky Reserve?
Tour the olive groves and vineyards that border the lake and explore the picturesque villages that look down on it, notably Monsaraz and Mourao, complete with ancient castles and plenty of Alentejo charm. The sandy beach (praia fluvial) near Monsaraz is popular, with free parking, a restaurant and a kid's playground, as well as floating pontoons for swimmers.
From the top of a rocky escarpment, over 800 metres above sea level, the medieval walled village of Marvão dominates the wild and rugged landscape of the Serra do Sapoio like an ancient eagle's nest. On the doorstep of Spain, it has long been a strategic watch tower, and today is simply a tranquil vantage point.
This is the highest point of the dramatic Serra de São Mamede Natural Park, where undulating moors and craggy ridges meet mysterious dolmens, ancient cork trees and tumbling streams. Take in the epic views, the clear air and the sweep of history, which dates back to 3,000 BC: numerous dolmens, rock tombs and megaliths blend into their surroundings and are part of the landscape.
The frontier town of Elvas was stoutly defended against the Spanish and is beautifully preserved. Perched on a lofty hilltop is the castle, a massive structure of Moorish origin and once the scene of peace treaties and royal wedding banquets. In 1906, it became the first Portuguese national monument and, in 2012, was classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Stroll the mighty walls and gaze over the rolling countryside to get a sense of Elvas' strategic importance.
Just outside the town lie two great local landmarks classified as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO: the distinctive star-shaped Forte da Graça and the Forte de Santa Luzia. The former is an example of 18th-century military architecture and is one of the greatest fortresses in the world. The latter is a 17th-century masterpiece, a survivor of many battles and a solid defence over the centuries - the Museu Militar is a hugely informative military museum.
Cromeleque dos Almendres
The Cromlech of Almendres is located just outside Évora. Composed of 95 stone monoliths arranged in a circle, it is the largest formation of menhirs in the Iberian Peninsula and one of the most important in the world, not only for its size but also for its conservation status.
Over 5,000 years old, the stones are set on a slight ridge and pre-date Stonehenge by 1,000 years. Incredibly, though used by generations of shepherds for grazing, it was only 'discovered' by a broader audience in the 1960s. Today it is still off the beaten track, down a dusty road ending at a small car park. Stroll among the mysterious stones (some up to 3.5m high), ponder the faint etchings that have long since lost their meaning and soak up the peaceful atmosphere. There are rarely crowds here, and there's no gift shop or tourist coaches, so this is an incredible spot to watch the sunset.
One of the jewels of the Alentejo and a definite 'must see', the fortified hilltop village of Monsaraz is a pocket-sized, delightful place to stroll, crammed with history and offering enormous charm and photo opportunities. Monsaraz has witnessed an eventful history, courtesy of the Moors and Knights Templar and its narrow, cobbled streets, artisan shops, and whitewashed houses lead to a castle with commanding wraparound views across the Alentejan plains.
This is one of the oldest (and most beautiful) villages in Alentejo, set within a pastoral landscape and immersed in a deep, rich culture that stretches back thousands of years. Enter through one of the four historic gates set into the walls, visit the magnificent 16th-century church and taste the local wines. Follow one of the themed walking trails from the village through olive groves and past various menhirs that pepper the surrounding countryside and which still sit barely noticed as the centuries pass slowly.
Alqueva Dark Sky Reserve
It's easy to see why conditions are so perfect for star gazing during the stunning night skies: the population is meagre, there are no major towns or conurbations and no real industry. With no light pollution, the Alqueva district was the first destination in the world to be awarded the Starlight Tourism Destination Certificate by UNESCO. The Alqueva Dark Sky Reserve is still one of the few worldwide.
The reserve covers over 3,000 square kilometres, encompassing the picturesque villages of Alandroal, Monsaraz, Mourao, Portel, Moura and Barrancos. With an average of 286 cloudless nights annually, visitors can enjoy unparalleled night sky views throughout the year. The reserve has two observatories, well away from light pollution and from where budding astronomers can marvel at the celestial carpet of stars that unfolds above them. Dark Sky Alqueva has created quite a stir, competing for the World Travel Awards and coming up against the Eiffel Tower, the Acropolis and the Colosseum, amongst others.
The town of Sines juts out into the Atlantic, south of Comporta, forming part of the immense sweep of dramatic coast and golden sands that runs to the southern edge of the Alentejo, where it meets the Algarve. The castle is fascinating, dating from the 15th-century and once home to a young Vasco da Gama who later sailed the globe. Sines has a multi-layered maritime heritage, with the legacy of the Romans, the clifftop trails, natural havens and wild beaches offering interest for everyone. Enjoy the natural surroundings, outdoor activities, fantastic seafood and refreshing sea breeze.
São Torpes is a Blue Flag beach popular for surfing, bodyboarding and windsurfing. The more experienced exponents prize the strong swells here, while novices come for the surf schools, which are open all year round. The picturesque little fishing village of Porto Covo, all whitewashed houses with terracotta roofs and traditional blue stripe decoration, is a pleasant spot, with lots of restaurants, a dainty little 18th-century church and is well worth visiting.
The Roman Temple of Évora
Evora's historic and charming town is packed with architectural treasures and monuments (since 1986, the whole town has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site). The oldest building here dates from the 1st century AD, a temple built in honour of the Roman emperor Augustus and once clad in the finest Estremoz marble.
The temple is set in the centre of the old town, not far from the 13th-century cathedral, reached via a network of narrow alleys and cobbled streets. Today its 14 Corinthian columns stand proudly on the raised stone base, dominating the old square and a striking emblem of the town. Restored in the 19th century, it is today one of the best-preserved Roman structures in the Iberian Peninsula and is a powerful symbol of the Roman presence at the western edge of the empire.
Map of Attractions
Russell has worked in the camping industry for over 28 years and was a director at Alan Rogers for many of them.
He now works for various tourism organisations as a marketing consultant but continues to write top-quality content for us. His content often covers European and worldwide travel, arts and culture, and history.
Europe is home to over 450 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and Southern Europe alone has over 130. We'll be journeying through Greece, Vatican City, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Malta this week, so hold on tight!