The Alentejo region in Portugal offers breathtaking scenery with its rolling countryside full of cork oaks, olive trees, vineyards, and impressive castles that dominate the hilltops. Yet, notwithstanding its alluring charm, the region remains off-beaten and has not yet been discovered by mass tourism.
You will find numerous historical towns like Evora, Marvão, and Monsaraz. Besides, the region offers a unique ecosystem called Montado, characterized by wild cork and holm oaks, pasture, and agricultural activities. Here, sheep, cows, and black pigs roam freely and feed themselves with grains and acorns from the oak trees.
In this article, we will guide you through The Alentejo; its history, heritage and tradition, unspoiled nature, and local food. As well, we’ll share our favorite places where to experience authentic Alentejo!
Alentejo’s Rich History
For hundreds of years, the Alentejo was a battlefield, first against the Moors and then against a succession of Spanish invaders. The Alentejo created many defensive structures like castles and fortified towns. The narrow cobbled streets and white-washed houses that characterize many of Alentejo's small towns were constructed during Moorish times and mark its historical past. Here are our 5 favorite historical villages from across the region.
Évora is soaked in history, with ruins dating to the Roman Empire, remnants of Arabian rulers, medieval walls, and Moorish alleys. Be sure to visit the Praça do Giraldo, the medieval Aqueduto do Água Prata and the "Capela dos Ossos" chapel, whose interior walls are decorated with human skulls and bones...
Stroll through the old town and have a closer look at its sumptuous Manueline architectural style. You will notice that many buildings are decorated - as a homage to Portugal's maritime history - with stone ropes, anchors, and other nautical symbols.
This fabulous UNESCO World Heritage town, strategically set on top of a hill, was
once one of the country's most important border cities. It is home to many forts, and its historical center features some of the best-preserved monuments in Europe. Wander through the sloping streets, enjoy a moment on the central square, and visit the Fort Nossa Senhora da Graça. However, the historical eye-catcher in the city is probably the Amoreira Aqueduct. This 16th-century aqueduct served to supply water from the spring at Amoeira into Elvas over a distance of about 8 km. An architectural masterpiece!
Estremoz - the walled marble city - was another important border city. The streets and squares in its historic town are lined with crystalline rock (delved from local quarries). A walk to the white castle in the upper city must be on your list as well as a visit to Estremoz Market, one of the best in the country.
The medieval village of Monsaraz has retained its charm! With its small streets, bright white houses, its old walls and magnificent castle (that is perched on the highest point of town), it seems you step here back in time.
Marvão - still protected by an impressive 13th-century wall - is characterized by charming narrow streets flanked by typical Alentejo houses with sloping red roofs and fascinating buildings of Gothic and medieval architecture. Located at the top of a winding road, Marvão offers fantastic views that will attract any traveler!
Alentejo's Heritage & Traditions
The Alentejo has a rich heritage of traditional arts and crafts. The skills and traditions of the artisans are handed down from generation to generation. During the Moorish occupation, artisan activities were booming, such as pottery and decorating ceramic tiles (azulejos), jewelry making, wickerworks, and weaving. Another important craft was leather work for making saddles, bags, shoes, and boots. Even with new innovations and mechanization, there are still tanneries that maintained their medieval atmosphere and working method. Being home to more than 30% of the world's natural cork production, you will also find in the Alentejo all kinds of everyday objects and decorations with cork.
Individual villages have become famous overtime for their specific crafts. In many of them you can visit stores, handicraft fairs, or even try to make your own crafts. Here are six towns you cannot miss for their unique artisan handicrafts:
1. Arraiolos for its needlework carpets
2. Nisa for its (red-clay) pottery and embroidery
3. Monsaraz for its hand-woven blankets
4. Evora for its cork products
5. Sao Pedro do Corval for its decorative pottery
6. Terrugem and Nossa Senhora de Machede for its leather processing factories
Alentejo's Nature Activities
The Alentejo boasts the most stunning natural surroundings: landscapes of vines, cork oaks and olive trees, wild mountains, stunning beaches, vast lakes, and a quiet countryside. You will find breathtaking nature parks and protected natural areas in this varied scenery that invite travelers to soak up its beauty in a responsible way.
The attractive coastline of the South-West coast of Portugall combines phenomenal beaches and unspoiled nature. It's an ideal destination for families and adventure seekers alike who can stay in authentic fisherman or farmers' houses. Discover some little-frequented beaches such as Vale dos Homens, Carriagem, Amoreira, and Monte Clérigo. Explore tidal pools with mussels, starfish, and sea anemones, while a visit to the Museum of Sea and Earth explains you all why this area is so unique!
Another way to explore the natural beauty of the Alentejo is biking (parts of) the Rota Vicentina. It stretches for nearly 400 km along the coast of The Algarve and Alentejo. It consists of two main trails and eight loop routes that will amaze you! Fans of awe-inspiring coastal views will love following the incredible Atlantic coastline from Sines to Cabo São Vicente. Those who love gently rolling hills and rural scenery may prefer the Rota Vicentina Historical Way, running through farmland, endless fields of wildflowers, and small villages. The Rota Vicentina also brings together more than 100 small family companies in a network that puts this area on the map as a destination for ecotourism, guaranteeing its cultural and environmental sustainability.
Dark Sky Alqueva Reservoir
The Alqueva Reservoir is the largest artificial lake in Europe, surrounded by incredible natural landscapes. The reason for building the dam was to create a water source for an irrigation system for the whole Alentejo region and attract nature lovers to enjoy many plant and animal species and water sports.
Besides, the sparsely populated plains around the Alqueva Reservoir are known for their clear night skies, and were officially certified as ‘Dark Sky Destination’. Here you have the privilege to admire fantastic night skies. And what about doing that from your kayak on the Alqueva Reservoir? Here you can find out more about this magnificent experience under the stars.
Alentejo’s Local Gastronomy
The Alentejo cuisine is known for its honest cooking, seasonal and local produce, traditional recipes, and influences from Roman and Moorish heritage. It offers a whole palette of flavors, with olive oil, cheese, bread with home-grown herbs, stews, meats (lamb, beef, black pork), fish, and, last but not least, pastries and sweets.
Also, The Alentejo is Portugal's wine region! Its soils are very diverse, its climate ideal!
World-class wines are produced combining the latest technologies with century-old traditions, such as clay pots for fermenting grapes and storing wines. The region's vineyards - that pre-date the Romans - are home to more than 250 producers.
In recent years, official wine routes like the Rota dos Vinhos do Alentejo, have been established for tourists who navigate this wine area. The roads crisscross the Alentejo, and let travelers experience the rich diversity of the region. In addition, many wineries and farms offer harvesting experiences during the grape harvest, including grape stomping, tastings, and tours to see the winemaking process firsthand.
If visiting the Alentejo is on your bucket list, be ready to try these local dishes!
1. Cozido. The Alentejo version of this famous Portuguese dish comes with boiled Portuguese sausages and vegetables.
2. Açorda. An herb-flavored broth with a soaked country bread, olive oil, and (sometimes) topped with an egg.
3. Carne de Porco Alentejano. This dish is made of marinated and pan-fried pork, fried potatoes and clams all soaked in a spiced garlic-wine sauce. Who dares?
4. Bacalhau com Broa. Cod baked with cornbread is a real local favorite.
5. Sopa de Tomate Alentejana. A local style gazpacho that's not puréed.
6. Local sweets. Sericaia is a dish that comes from Elvas (actually invented by nuns). This soft and creamy dessert is made with eggs and flavored with cinnamon and plums. Queijada is another traditional delicacy. This mildly sweet cheese pastry is the perfect accompaniment to a morning coffee or afternoon tea.