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Beachgoers walk along the shore in Sagres, on Portugal's southern coast. Head north to Alentejo for quieter alternatives to the Algarve region. (Photograph by Westend61, Getty Images)

Insider Guide to Portugal’s Southern Coast

Portugal is made for wanderers. From the top of the Moorish remnants of Castelo de São Jorge, Lisbon cascades downhill in all directions, new paths beckoning at every turn. Surf camps dot the 215-mile stretch south of the storied capital city. Part of the region known as the Alentejo, this shore is far quieter than the Algarve beaches at the country’s southern edge.

Visitors would be wise to allot at least three days to leisurely explore the southwestern  coast. Here are a few recommendations to get you started.

> How to Get Around: 

Most rental car agencies in Europe offer manual transmission cars at lower prices than those with automatic transmissions.

If GPS isn’t available (even companies that promise navigational systems don’t always deliver), head to the Rent-a-Stuff centerRent-a-Stuff center at the Lisbon airport to rent a unit (around $17 a day). Tip: Ask about toll payment policies.

Atlantic Ferries takes passengers from Setúbal to the Tróia Peninsula. The ferries leave on the half hour and take about 30 minutes to cross (just under $20 a car).

> Where to Stay:

On the tip of the Tróia Peninsula sits the modish new Design Hotel, its building undulating like the waves breaking on the shore.

The Casas Brancas association partners with independent lodges and inns throughout the Alentejo and also provides a full list of surf schools, donkey treks, and mountain biking outfitters.

At the 21-room Herdade da Matinha, the owners prepare gourmet meals and also offer yoga classes, surf lessons, and horseback riding.

All but abandoned by its original occupants, Aldeia da Pedralva (a village near Vila do Bispo) has rebounded and restored its cottages for rental with terraces, barbecues, and courtyards.

> Where to Eat:

Several seafood restaurants perch on stilts in the harbor of Portinho da Arrábida, the small cove in the heart of Arrábida Natural Park. All are good, but Restaurante Beira Mar has the largest patio.

Claim a red pouf at Comporta’s beachside Ilha do Arroz, or visit Museu do Arroz, in an old rice-husking mill. Both serve salt-cod fish cakes, stews brimming with clam and shrimp, and blueberry-cachaça caipiroskas.

In Vila Nova de Milfontes, Restaurante A Choupana offers ocean views among Portugal’s best; order the clams. Down in Zambujeira do Mar, traditional fishermen’s tavern O Sacas serves spider crab, barnacles, and fried moray eel.

> The Ultimate Authentic Experience: Lisbon’s Sweet Spot

No visit to the capital’s Belém district is complete without sampling its famous custard tarts, pastéis de nata, said to have been first whipped up by 17th-century nuns at the Jerónimos Monastery.

Join the line snaking out the door at historic Antiga Confeitaria de Belém (aka Pastéis de Belém). Dusted with cinnamon and sugar, each egg-and-cream treat can be devoured in three bites—so order accordingly.

> What to Read:

In The Fourth Part of the World (2009), Toby Lester recounts the raucous tales of explorations, many of which set out from Portuguese shores, that led to the creation of the first map to name America.

> Travel Trivia:

  • Portuguese missionaries in the 16th and 17th centuries introduced Japan to batter-fried Lenten fish—the original tempura.
  • Portugal harvests over half of the world’s cork.
  • Fado, a mournful musical style, stems from the essential Portuguese trait of fatalism and was recognized by UNESCO in 2011 as an “intangible cultural heritage.”

This insider guide was reported by Janelle Nanos, a former editor at Traveler, to accompany a feature she wrote entitled “Explorers Club,” both of which appeared in the magazine’s August/September 2014 issue.

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