Away from the busy coastal resorts, Portugal is a timeless and magical place. To the north and east, there are wild mountains and sparkling lakes; to the south and west, there are dusty olive groves, secret beaches and hidden caves; and everywhere you will find rustic villages, standing stones, magical woodland and hilltop castles. So head inland from the airports on one of these three weekend itineraries and discover a country where shepherds bake bread, villagers make wine, honey and olive oil, and the hospitality is perennial.
North-east from Porto
Serra da Peneda-Gerês/Soajo
In the mountains of Serra da Peneda-Gerês, eagles wheel over a wilderness inhabited by roe deer, Iberian wolves and wild ponies. This northernmost area of Portugal is peppered with hidden tors, hilltop settlements and prehistoric rock art, while tangled woods envelop ancient Roman roads, yet it’s easy to reach from Porto.
For breathtaking mountain views, begin at the small town of Soajo (an hour and 20 minutes’ drive from Porto airport), and climb up to the espigueiros (corn-houses) which stand like a granite army on the mighty rock above. Down below, in the town (a 20-minute walk), there’s a sparkling freshwater bathing pool and waterfall known as Poço Negro. Jump into the water from a rope-swing and dry off on the smooth rocks. Back in Soajo, head to Restaurante Espigueiro do Soajo (Avenida 25 Abril, +351 258 576 136, no website) and feast on goat or lamb baked in the wood oven.
Lindoso castle lies six miles to the east up the Lima river valley, a border castle in dramatic ruins, now guarded by over-friendly goats. Its strong 17th-century walls make a cosy wind-barrier for picnics. For more history, follow the Roman flagstones through deep woodland to Penedo Encanto, a mossy standing stone covered in prehistoric carvings which is said to contain enchanted Moorish treasure (a mile west of the tiny hamlet of Parada).
End the day listening to the lapping of the river Lima from a moonlit tipi or tree-house at Lima Escape, about three miles west again, a luxurious campsite in pine forest where two tributaries join the river (pitch from €3.50 a night, plus €4 per adult, €2.50 child; bungalows and chalets from €45).
Wake up to a pink dawn and start the day with a walk to nearby Mosteiro de Ermelo, a 12th-century Benedictine monastery on the riverbank. Its bells toll in the ancient dry-stone village and the wild oranges here are said to be the sweetest in Portugal. Or head off for a morning dip in mountain pools near the hamlet of Froufe, just a mile away. Waterfalls cascade down to fill a chain of quartzy blue bathing pools. For those feeling energetic, there’s a four-mile hike uphill from Froufe to Ermida, a beautiful town with views across the Serra Amarela hills. Just outside is a branda, a collection of old stone huts still used for livestock in the summer months.
For the last part of the weekend, pack a picnic for a wild lunch and drive an hour north to Castro Laboreiro, where a wind-torn mountain track leads from the town to a 9th-century Galician castle. Stand high on the battlements and absorb the stunning views across Portuguese wilderness. Eagles swoop above this castle and lizards scuttle underfoot. Try a glass of vinho verde at Miradouro do Castelo restaurant (+351 251 465 469, no website) as the last rays of sun turn the turrets deep orange.
There is camping at Montes de Laboreiro (pitch from €2.80 a night plus €3.20 adult, €2 child), which also has holiday homes to rent and a few cabins in the woodland (from €50). It runs canyoning trips in the nearby Laboreiro waterfall. Keep an eye out for red squirrels.
South from Lisbon
Costa Azul of Setúbal
The Setúbal coastline, just south of Lisbon across the Tejo river, is known as the Costa Azul. The turquoise and emerald sea certainly lives up to its name and there are sea caves, islands, clifftop monasteries and delicious wine produced in its many vineyards.
Head down to Portinho da Arrábida, just a 40-minute drive from the airport, and limestone peaks and pine forests fall quickly away, revealing searingly blue sea and sandy beaches. The whole stretch is dotted with caves and, with hundreds of colourful fish and crystal-clear water, this is a great spot for snorkelling or sea kayaking (rent from vertentenatural.com). Just 250 metres offshore is the island of Pedra da Anixa, where crabs, conger eels and bream hide in its cracks and cavities. It can be reached by swimming or by canoe.
The adventurous can hike west along the coast from Praia Portinho da Arrábida to discover Lapa de Santa Margarida (15 minutes away), an amazing sea-cavern with views of the ocean. Hidden within is a 17th-century altar, containing a fishermen’s shrine adorned with coins, shells, candles and flowers. Alternatively, follow one of the many hiking routes up into the Serra da Arrábida national park hills and beyond to Quinta do Anjo with its Neolithic burial caves, about an hour’s walk away.
This is all hungry work and, thankfully, this area is famous for its cheese and wine. Vineyards are everywhere. Try Doçaria de Azeitão (Rua Miguel Bombarda, Azeitão) or visit Adega de Filipe Palhoça, a family-run vineyard and winery, about 12 miles east of Quinta do Anjo in the village of Poceirão (+351 265 995 886), for fine mellow vintages.
In the wild wooded Arrábida hills, a great place to sleep close to nature is Parque Ambiental do Alambre. This campsite has eight wooden bungalows (from €44 for two), plus a few pitches, or try Casal do Frade, an eco-friendly but luxurious farmhouse (doubles from €98 B&B).
In the morning, make a pilgrimage to the dramatic coastal peninsula of Cabo Espichel (a 12-mile drive west). Here, explore the grand lighthouse and the 17th-century white church perched on the cliff-edge looking out across the sea. Stone dinosaur footprints, said to be 145m years old, run up the cliff-side and were once thought to be the footsteps of the Madonna. There are several coves around, though my favourite is Praia da Baleeira (a 2½ mile walk east), a scramble down through wild rosemary to a tiny secret beach, perfect for a skinny dip.
The local town is Setúbal, famous for its choco frito – fried cuttlefish – the Portuguese take on fish and chips. One of best places to try this lunchtime treat is Rei do Mar (Avenida Luísa Todi 50, +351 918 634 700, no website). Afterwards, take one of the regular car and passenger ferries which leave from the nearby pier and head for the Tróia peninsula. Look out for the bottlenose dolphins that might chase alongside the boat, as they come here to feed on the cuttlefish, too.
Tróia is known as the “Pompeii of Setúbal” – a phrase coined by Hans Christian Andersen on a visit here – and this giant sand bar, almost an island, was once the largest known industrial fishing port in the Roman world. Today, it’s still possible to see their fish-salting vats and an early Christian basilica. A short hop along the shore are several more lively and equally ancient fishing communities. The village harbour at Carrasqueira is built on wooden stilts and alive with fishermen returning with their catch. Try any number of deliciously fresh fish treats – local dish arroz de lingueirão (razor clam rice), is heavenly. One of the best places is Retiro do Pescador (Avenida dos Pescadores, +351 265 497 172, no website).
North from Faro
Almodôvar and south Alentejo
Once done with Faro’s busy coastal resorts and packed-out bars, escape north to the ancient hilltop villages and sparkling rivers of south Alentejo – a land of idyllic farmhouses, thatched huts and endless views across hills strewn with rock-roses.
Take the winding N2 towards Almodôvar (a 60-minute drive) and enjoy wonderful wild swimming deep within the rolling Serra do Caldeirão hills. About 12 miles south of Almodôvar, along the Ribeira do Vascao stream, Pego da Cascalheira is perfect for families, with a wide, shallow ford and a deep pool beneath a waterfall weir. Or a 20-minute drive further on, the Oeiras river at Morgadinho curves through thick meadows. With deep, springy grass and white flowers blossoming along the river, it’s a beautiful spot for a picnic. Nearby is Restaurante O Moinho (Rua do Arco 38B, +351 286 400 156) – try the grilled Alentejo pork medallions, known as abanicos or secretos, with one of the local wines.
Ancient sites litter the hills around Almodôvar. A 30-minute drive to the north-west is Castro da Cola, a bronze age necropolis crowning hills blanketed in thick pelts of wild thyme, lavender and roses. Guadiana natural park, where eagles and black storks build their nests, is about an hour’s drive north-west of Almodovar and home to the Anta das Pias, an enchanting – and some say haunted – ancient tomb. Strategically positioned with views across the Guadiana valley, this is a perfect place for wild campers to watch the sunset and the moonrise. Hiking further through the park, the Pulo do Lobo (wolf’s leap) is a brilliant spot for an early morning splash to wash away night spirits. Here, the giant Guadiana river gushes through a rocky gorge and the waterfall roars, swirls and beats the stone banks which, over the millennia, have formed strange twisted shapes. Swim in the more gentle downstream pools and watch for eagles soaring above this wild and rugged landscape.
For some rural luxury, try Monte Gois Country House, an exquisite retreat in a typical Alentejo house with hammocks in the gardens (doubles from €85 B&B).
Those who prefer camping will like Monte da Rocha (around €10-15 a pitch, parquedecampismomo.wixsite.com/parquedecampismo), where guests wake to misty views over a vast reservoir. Alqueva Rural Camping, 25 miles north from Pulo do Lobo along the Guadiana river (pitch for two plus car, €10) is part farm, part campsite, and has a menagerie including goats, llamas, ponies and young Miranda do Douro donkeys – a rare, indigenous breed with a thick, woolly coat. For a lazy morning, take a picnic to the hilltop 15th-century chapel of São Pedro das Cabeças near Castro Verde. Gaze out across fields which, in 1139, rang with the cries of the Battle of Ourique when Afonso Henriques defeated the Moorish kings. Some of the best bread in Portugal is to be found in this area, and delicious tosta mista, ham and melted cheese in crusty rolls, is ubiquitous. But the best place to eat great baskets of bread with regional dishes and great local wine is Restaurante O Bombeiro (Rua da Seara Nova 4, +351 286 327 168, no website).
• Edwina Pitcher is the author of Wild Guide Portugal: Hidden Places, Great Adventures and the Good Life (£16.99). To buy a copy for £14.44, inc UK p&p, go to bookshop.theguardian.com
This article was amended on 28 April 2017. We were wrong to refer to the Portuguese town of Ermida as “a medieval ruined summer town, now inhabited only by cattle.” The stone huts used for livestock are, in fact, just outside Ermida.
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Sat 15 Apr 2017 07.00 BST
Last modified on Wed 29 Nov 2017 16.40 GMT