Why Portugal is Travel + Leisure’s 2016 Destination of the Year

Anna McKerrow

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Why Portugal is Travel + Leisure’s 2016 Destination of the Year

Just a few years ago, Portugal’s future was looking dim. At the peak of Europe’s debt crisis, the country teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, its economy more crippled than it had been in almost 40 years. State funding for the arts was slashed; the Portuguese ministry of culture was so hard-hit by budget cuts it all but disappeared. In one painfully symptomatic moment, the government was inches away from auctioning off a collection of works by the Catalan artist Joan Miró to pay off state debts.

But in the wake of the crash, Portugal has managed to flourish anew. Austerity measures dried up government funding for cultural initiatives, so artists and entrepreneurs turned to their communities to drum up support. As buildings and factories closed, art collectives and locally run businesses opened up in their place, and the world slowly started to take note. In some small way, the crash may even have helped the nation’s tourism industry: The country remained markedly less expensive for travelers than most of its European neighbors, a contrast that’s particularly evident in Portugal’s resort towns and cultural capitals, which have seen a growing number of visitors in recent years.

When it’s time to choose our Destination of the Year, we here at Travel + Leisure look to the places that feel exciting, that warrant rediscovery, that have come into their own and stepped onto the international stage in some new way. In 2016, Portugal was a natural fit. As our editor, Nathan Lump, writes in the December issue, Portugal is “exhibiting a dynamism that feels fresh and distinctive.” The nation’s bounceback has long been underway, but the past couple of years seem to have been a turning point, and the data proves it. According to the Portugal News, foreign tourism to Portugal grew by a record-breaking 10 percent in 2015, and 2016 is expected to improve even further. U.S. travel to the country grew 22 percent in 2016, outpacing even the overall growth in international tourism. Flights have increased—you can now travel nonstop from eight U.S. cities—and this October, a 119 percent growth in North American bookings helped Portuguese airline TAP to achieve the best October in its 60-year history. More than 40 new hotels opened in 2016, most of them catering to high-end travelers—a staggering amount of growth for a country the size of Maine. Economically and politically, Portugal finally feels back on solid ground.

Related: The Country T+L Readers Voted as Destination of the Year

For visitors just discovering the nation, the allure is clear. It’s easy to access—a mere seven hour flight from much of the Eastern seaboard—and unlike its northern neighbors, Portugal has year-round temperate weather, so there’s no such thing as a bad time to visit.The country remains relatively affordable, making it a magnet for those who want luxury without the sticker shock of Europe’s more well-trod capitals. There are one-of-a-kind hotels popping up everywhere, as well as a growing eco-tourism scene.

In this package celebrating Portugal’s abundant natural resources and rich heritage, we’ve pulled together everything you need to plan a trip there. For those that may have visited the country previously, we dug through the Time/Life photo archives for a look at how much the nation has changed in just the past few decades. And since nothing stokes wanderlust like a good photograph, we’ve also pulled together some visual inspiration: check out our collection of stunning images to help figure out where you want to start your travels. And whether you prefer to hit the road in search of food, wine, or adventure, we’ve got a checklist of can’t-miss experiences and attractions.

Regardless of your reason for traveling, no trip to Portugal is complete without a stop in Lisbon—most international flights go into the capital—so we’ve updated our Lisbon travel guide with the best places to eat, shops to visit, attractions to see, and bars to hang out in. And of course, you’ll need a great place to stay. There are five-star hotels like the Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon and the family-friendly Martinhal Lisbon Chiado Family Suites, but soccer fans will want to check out Cristiano Ronaldo’s new hotel, the Pestana CR7, which unsurprisingly has a subtle soccer theme throughout (though Ronaldo superfans should instead visit the outpost in the futbol giant’s island hometown of Funchal, Madeira). We’ve also highlighted Belem, a neighborhood just outside Lisbon—perfect for a day trip and home to the famous pasteis de Belem, also known as Portuguese egg tarts.

For those who prefer a more bucolic vacation experience, there’s plenty to see and do beyond the city limits of Lisbon. For beachcombers, the seaside town of Comporta, just a couple hours south of the capital on the Troia Peninsula. Once a sleepy fishing port, the area is now a magnet for Lisbon’s fashion crowd, but still has the uncrowded beaches and laid-back vibe that places like Ibiza and St. Tropez haven’t seen for decades. Stop for fresh seafood at one of the many roadside restaurants, or stay in style at one of the area’s pared-down luxury beach huts.

In the country’s northwest corner, the Douro Valley’s terraced vineyards draw in-the-know wine lovers, and are now even more approachable for travelers seeking a high-end getaway. Last year, the Douro Valley saw the opening of the first Six Senses in Europe (the wellness-focused brand is known for its incredibly designed properties, mostly in Asia and the Middle East, and its spa program). The property here leans in to the oenophile appeal, offering vinotherapy with wine-inspired treatments and an extensive library of bottles to choose from.

Follow the Douro River downstream and you’ll eventually wind up at another place made famous by wine: the oceanfront city of Porto, the namesake of port wine and a must-visit destination for design lovers. Portugal’s second largest city is only a three-hour drive (or an even shorter flight) from Lisbon, with an ambiance that’s more laid-back than the capital city but with no shortage of cosmopolitan attractions. There, you’ll find stunning Art Deco architecture, wonderful museums, and memorable design boutiques.

Even adrenaline junkies can find their dream vacation in Portugal. About 800 miles off the country’s Atlantic Coast, the nine tiny islands that make up the Azores archipelago are a bucket-list-worthy destination for adventure travelers. In addition to sailing, hiking, rock-climbing, surfing, and wildlife-spotting, the islands have a surprisingly stellar culinary tradition to help fuel your high-energy pursuits. Most Americans don’t realize the Azores are a mere four-hour flight from Boston, with daily direct flights from TAP that make this an ideal place to stop over on your way home—or just a long weekend.

There’s something for everyone in this little country—and there’s never been a better time to go.

Graphs by Mara Sofferin and Louie Mansour

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