|CAPITAL LISBON - POPULATION 11.6 MILLION - AREA 92,391 SQ KM - OFFICIAL LANGUAGE PORTUGUESE|
It's not all about the Algarve's beaches. While half of Portugal's annual 12 million tourists head south, the unspoilt rural interior once partly responsible for branding the country 'Spain's backward sibling' is now a desirable asset. The Xisto villages of central Portugal, with their olive groves and chestnut talasnico cakes, are the place to taste real Portugal. Likewise the vast Alentjo, where specialist groups are exploring its archaeology and cycling to its wine cellars. Improved air links are doing wonders for Portugal's offshore interests too, with tiddly Porto Santo and the remote, whale-frequented Azores now better served than ever.
Its a cultural feast
Ever thought about going to Guimaraes? If the answer is 'no', you'll hardly be alone. This northern Portugal city is breathtakingly beautiful, as recognized by its place on the Unesco World Heritage List, yet mysteriously it doesn't figure on the radars of many foreign visitors. It certainly has historical clout: settled since the 9th century, it was central to the formation of the Portuguese state, and became the country's first capital city. It's also packed full of architectural riches; in fact, nothing much has changed architecturally within the city walls since the 15th century. The old city is a beguiling tangle of medieval, red-roofed, colonnaded buildings, punctuated by awe-inspiring mansions and palaces, and centered on a spicily crenellated castle. Yet Guimaraes consistently gets overlooked in the rush to explore Lisbon, Coimbra, Porto and nearby Braga.
But now is the moment to visit, as the city celebrates its status as a cultural powerhouse, because it's been anointed the European Capital of Culture in 2012. Building on an already impressive cultural scene and fired up by its significantly youthful population, the city will be a hot spot of artistic endeavor throughout the year, with creative artists gathering from across Portugal and Europe to Showcase their work in the areas of cinema, photography, fine arts, architecture, literature, philosophy, theatre, dance and street art. The calendar is crammed with cultural events, concerts, performances and festivals. In June the renovated neighborhood of Nossa Senhora da Conceicao will be launched with a celebratory performance featuring song and dance. The year of culture will culminate on 20 December with Krisis - a show created by the community and curated by cutting-edge Portuguese rock group Mao Morta.
The town that put the 'Port' in Portugal (as well as the port in your wine glass) is a seriously good deal. Connected with much of Europe via budget airlines, Porto is a lovely town of atmospheric narrow lanes, village-like plazas and buildings decked in azuelo tile. You can stay in antique-filled inns with river views from just 25 (US$37.75), take a ride on an historical tram (1;US$1.40) or head to the beach near Afurada village by ferry (1 euro). A few hours east is the traditional wine district of Alto Douro, where you cruise in a flat-bottomed boat (20; US$28.50) and sleep in 200-year-old homes (60; US$86). And did we mention the port?
A series of seven hills make a pretty perch for the Portuguese capital - and a lung-testing prospect for anyone walking in it. Luckily Lisbon has a glorious solution: its tram network is extensive, cheap as a trademark custard tart and effortlessly atmospheric, still utilizing vintage, wood-paneled streetcars to squeeze down the narrow alleyways. Line 28 is best: rattle from the lofty eyrie of white-domed Basilica de Estrela, skimming the higgle-piggle of Barrio Alto and the rooftops of Alfama (serenaded by the melancholy melodies of fado), to reach Graca, the place where locals go to watch the sun set on their scenic city.