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Drive Alentejo and Alqueva Lake for A Memorable Road Trip in Portugal

Discover enchanting Alentejo on a road trip on Alqueva Lake. From cute villages to ancient wines and dark skies, explore the best of Portugal by car.

Alentejo is the largest wine producing region in Portugal. Tucked away in the far eastern corner of Alentejo near the border with Spain; nearly due east from Lisbon, you'll find Alqueva Lake. 

Alqueva Lake is a hub of recreation and relaxation that is scorching hot in the summer. Plan your visit to Alqueva in the winter for an ideal vacation. 

Come along as we embark on an Alentejo road trip to discover the best of Alqueva Portugal.

We'll go stargazing and drink ancient Roman wines while surrounded by spectacular views (especially at sunrise and sunset) in this Portuguese hidden gem.

Ruins of Mourão Castle in the Eastern Alentejo Region of Portugal with the waters of Lake Alqueva behind it.

What is Alqueva Lake Famous For?

You may be wondering: what is Alqueva Lake famous for and why would you want to visit? Alqueva is a man-made lake that holds the distinction of being the largest artificial lake in Western Europe. 

The lake was created by Alqueva Dam which was built at the turn of the 21st century. Alqueva Lake reservoir was filled with water in 2010 and covers an impressive 250 square kilometers (nearly 100 square miles).  Alqueva Lake is really a brand-new attraction for holiday-goers in Portugal to explore.

Dirt path and grass alongside Lake Alqueva in Alentejo Portugal on a sunny day.

The area around Alqueva Lake in the Alentejo region is quite rural. Did you know that Alqueva is the first site in the world to be certified by the Starlight Foundation as a “Starlight Tourism Destination”? This means that there is no light pollution which makes this dark skies region of Portugal perfect for stargazing. 

Getting to Alqueva Lake

How do you get to Alqueva Lake? You'll have the most flexibility if you rent a car. Alqueva Lake is approximately 2 hours from Lisbon Airport by car. You can drive from the Algarve (e.g., Tavira, Portimão, or Faro) in less than 3 hours.

There is also a bus from Lisbon Sete Rios to Mourão which takes about 3 hours. Getting around once you arrive in the region could prove to be more difficult though, so I highly recommend renting a car and driving yourself to Alqueva Lake.

Gnarled tree on the edge of Alqueva Lake in Alentejo Portugal.

We spent part of December in the Algarve and drove to Alqueva Lake from Carvoeiro and then drove home from Mourão on Christmas Day so that we could spend Christmas in Lisbon.

Where to Stay on Alqueva Lake

We stayed at Herdade dos Delgados near Mourão. You approach the property on a gravel road where sheep wearing tinkling bells may may cross your path. The hotel rooms at Herdade dos Delgados are situated one floor below reception and many have a patio overlooking Alqueva Lake.

Close-up portrait of a lamb laying in the grass near Lake Alqueva Portugal
 
We ordered a gin and tonic from the bar to relax and unwind after our drive to Mourão from the Algarve. Herdade dos Delgados was incredibly tranquil and we could see Monsaraz on a hill on the other side of the lake. We couldn't have asked for more picturesque surroundings. Monsaraz is lit up and almost twinkles after dark.

Monsaraz Castle lit up at night reflected in Lake Alqueva

Even if it's too cold for a dip in the unheated outdoor pool, make sure to come up to pool level to experience the 360 degree views of Alentejo's spectacular sunrises and sunsets.

Sunset over the pool at Herdade dos Delgados on Lake Alqueva in Alentejo Portugal
We paid 560 EUR for 3 nights (about 185 EUR per night) at Herdade dos Delgados. A hearty breakfast was included in our room rate. Breakfast included a basket of fresh Portuguese breads and a plate of cakes and pastries. 

Meats and local cheeses added a savory flair. There were a number of additional options that you could order including eggs and exotic fruits. I recommend filling up on breakfast and then skipping lunch altogether or just snacking. 

Collage of 6 pictures against a backdrop that looks like confetti. Clockwise from top left: (a) sheep running alongside a car. (b) facade of Herdade dos Delgados facing the lake. (c) view of Alqueva Lake through the window of a room at Herdade dos Delgados (d) sunset over the pool (e) bread and meats for breakfast overlooking Alqueva Lake (f) gin and tonics on Alqueva Lake

We booked in for Christmas Eve dinner at Herdade dos Delgados. We discovered that the portions in Alentejo are huge almost to the point of being legendary. 

Our meal included a platter of meats, cheeses, and olives, soup and full-size plates of pork belly and bacalhau. There was also a dessert buffet laid out across three long tables and unlimited house wine.  

Collage of Christmas Eve dinner dishes and the dessert buffet at Herdade dos Delgados on Lake Alqueva

I don't know how anyone could eat this much! I think one portion of each dish would have been more than enough for two people.

Places to Visit Near Alqueva Lake

Now that we've talked about how to get to Alqueva Lake and where to stay, let's take a look at some of the cool places to visit on this Alentejo road trip.

Beja

If you drive to Alqueva Lake from the Algarve, Beja is an ideal stop to stretch your legs. This small Alentejo city is home to about 35,000 people. Beja has a rich history that dates back to pre-Roman times. Keep an eye out for Torre do Relógio (the local clock tower) associated Santa Maria Church to help you get your bearings as you wander around Beja. 

Clock tower in Beja viewed from below in Alentejo Portugal

We parked our car in the parking lot next to Beja Castle and spent a couple of hours walking around the town. If you are a door lover like I am, keep your eyes sharp in Beja. I found lots of Instagram-worthy doors here.

Sky blue door in Beja PortugalPurple door surrounded by boldly patterned azulejos in Beja Portugal

O Cafe Luiz da Rocha

Wandering around Beja, we encountered O Cafe Luiz da Rocha and were drawn inside the historic revolving door. We sat down and ordered coffee and a sweet, moist cake in what the plaque inside the cafe describes as a "place of meeting, conviviality and leisure of generations"

I learned that the cafe was established in 1893 and the cake recipes at O Cafe Luiz da Rocha are derived from the convents of Beja. 

According to Joaquim Figueira Mestre who wrote the plaque describing this cafe: 

"There is a symbolic and emotional charge that makes it a unique space, full of memories and affection. It is one of the few cafes where you can be alone in the middle of a lot of people or accompanied despite the empty cafe. It may seem like a contradiction, but those marble tables predate those wooden chairs, the space, its memory and its smells; sometimes they make us feel at home, sometimes they are witnesses of our dreams, confidants of our secrets, silent companions of our solitude."

Collage of pictures at historic O Cafe Luiz da Rocha in Beja Portugal

Luiz da Rocha came to Beja as a teenager and was trained in the house of the confectioner Baltazar, who made cakes and almonds and handed down this tradition.

"As long as no one remembers to transform the Luiz da Rocha café into a bank branch or ready-to-wear, let us let our gaze rest on the past and remember the most delicious moments it has provided us."

What a charming historic cafe to people watch and enjoy a snack.

Natal em Beja

If you visit Beja in December like we did, look for homemade Christmas trees outside different stores. Many of the trees are made with found objects and are extremely creative and delightful.

Collage of Christmas trees made from found objects in Beja Portugal

Use the hunt for Christmas trees as motivation to explore the various nooks and crannies of the Beja historic district.

Castelo de Beja

Did you know that Beja Castle is classified as a Portuguese national monument? 

Castelo de Beja is a Gothic fortress that dates back to the 13th century. Construction continued into the 14th century. The most impressive part of Beja Castle is the towering keep which stands about 40 meters high. It is pointed to by historians as an example of a masterpiece of European Gothic military architecture.

Collage of 6 pictures from Castelo de Beja including views of the castle wall and tower, the spiral staircase, and a tomb

Castelo de Beja is absolutely the highlight of a visit to this Alentejo town. You can explore the ruins and walk the castle walls for free. For just 2 EUR, you can climb the tower for panoramic views over Beja and to learn a little more about the history of the castle through exhibits situated at various rest points as you climb the winding stairs.

Look out from the viewpoint at the top of the tower and spot the Medieval city wall. Twenty-eight towers and the associated walls are still standing today.

Beja Hospital

Across the street from Beja Castle, turn into the courtyard of Beja Hospital. The hospital dates back to the second half of the 15th century when Prince Fernando, Duke of Beja, decreed that a house should be built for pilgrims and the sick in Beja. The mantle of construction was carried on into the 16th century by Prince Fernando's son, King Manuel.

Gilded altar inside the chapel adjacent to Beja HospitalColorful wooden animals carrying the Three Kings. Part of a display of nativity scenes in Beja Portugal

There was an exhibit of artistic nativity scenes on display in the courtyard when we visited. I noticed a door to a small chapel was open and wandered in. The church was part of the hospital and dedicated to Our Lady of Mercy. Step inside to marvel at the gilded interior before making your way back to the car.

Mourão

Mourão is an Alentejo village of just 1500 people located on the border with Spain. Mourão is simply lovely with residential streets lined with orange trees sitting in the shadow of castle ruins. Lake Alqueva and Herdade dos Delgados are just outside of Mourão.

Orange tree in front of a white house with yellow trim in Mourão Portugal

Castelo de Mourão

Castelo de Mourão is just ruins today but is free to visit. Park on the street in Mourão village and walk to the castle from there. 

Mourão Castle has a rich history. The fortification was built initially in the 13th century and renovated during the 17th century. Castelo de Mourão was declared a Portuguese property of public interest in 1957. 

Collage of 3 photos of the ruins of Mourão Castle with views of Alqueva Lake beyond

The castle saw clashes between Muslims and Christians during the 15th century reconquest of the Iberian peninsula. Also of note, Castelo de Mourão could have gone either way in the secession from Spain in 1580. When Portuguese independence was restored, the flag of Portugal was raised over Mourão.

Climb a section of the castle wall overlooking Mourão and marvel at the spectacular views over the village and Alqueva Lake. Be careful! Some parts of the ruins and protective castle walls are downright treacherous.

Dinner at Adega Velha

While in Mourão, drop in for dinner at Adega Velha. The restaurant is situated in an old wine cellar decorated with copious items of flair. 

The most prominent tchotchkes are the wall of old radios that look as if they are about to tumble onto the folks dining adjacent to it. That's where we were seated 😅

Collage of Alentejano dishes served at Adeja Velha in Mourão Portugal Collage of pictures of the eclectic decor inside Adeja Velha in Mourão Portugal including the famous wall of old radios

Be careful! Alentejo meals are very heavy and it's easy for your eyes to be bigger than your stomach. It may be tempting to order greasy meats and cheeses as a couvert in addition to mains and wine. Resist!

We made that mistake and the combination of heavy starters and a huge cozido (stew of boiled meats) left me uncomfortably full. I could barely move the next day.

Drive to Monsaraz

When planning your road trip to Alqueva Lake, make sure to budget time for a drive to Monsaraz. This hilltop settlement has been occupied since pre-history. 

Although the population of the hilltop village is less than 1000 people today, Monsaraz was an important place to many civilizations including the Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, Jews, and Christians. 

Cobbled street lined with white-washed buildings in Monsaraz Portugal

Park just outside of Monsaraz to save yourself stress. There are parking lots along the defensive wall. Inside you'll find very narrow streets, many of which are pedestrianized.

After you drop off the car, take a leisurely walk around the town exploring shops, wine tasting rooms, and relaxing cafes and restaurant.

Castelo de Monsaraz

Castelo de Monsaraz is a key highlight of of a visit to this hilltop town in Alentejo. Did you know that Monsaraz Castle is a Portuguese national monument? 

Castelo de Monsaraz dates back to the 8th century Christian reconquest of Portugal and continued for generations of kings.

In the interest of improving defense of the area, King Dom Afonso III commissioned the construction of the new alcazar, its five square towers and the south Barbican. 

Ruins of Monsaraz Castle with views of Alqueva Lake beyond

Subsequently, under King Dom Dinis, the Torre de Menagem and most of the outer Barbican was built. Finally, Dom Fernando built the inner dividing curtain of the alcazar and village hours. 

In the 19th century, the buildings of the Parade Ground of the Castle of Monsaraz had begun to fall into disrepair because the military building has been abandoned. 

The residents of Monsaraz used the opportunity to start building a bullring by repurposing the materials of these old buildings and sections of the wall that has also fallen into ruin. 

The bullfight held here has become a tradition of the festivities in honor of Our Lord Jesus of the Steps.

Take a Hike on Alqueva Lake From Herdade dos Delgados

Another great thing to do on this trip to the eastern Alentejo is to take a hike from your hotel room door along the shores of Alqueva Lake. Just steps from Herdade dos Delgados, you'll find plenty of livestock grazing. 

It's quite spectacular to see the local farmer driving the cows and sheep home at night; shouting "ya" while driving alongside the herd in a pick-up truck.

Curious cow looking through a fence on Alqueva Lake in Portugal

Walk for 30 minutes or an hour out and back basking in the tranquility of this idyllic spot in rural Portugal. 

A hike along Alqueva Lake is perfect for photography along with a bit of fresh air.

Stargaze Dark Skies Alqueva

Alqueva Lake is known as a dark skies region of Portugal and is perfect for stargazing.  We booked a one hour and 15 minute stargazing tour at Observatório Oficial Dark Sky Alqueva for 25 EUR at the time of writing. The Observatory is located about 30 minutes from Mourão.

We got to peer through two high end telescopes and take advantage of the lack of light pollution to see Venus, Mars, Jupiter and various constellations. 

The guides for this astronomy tour are avid students and professional astronomers who will talk your ear off about the things you can see in the sky. 

Entrance to a historic primary school shrouded in darkness that is now home to Dark Sky Alqueva

There is a risk that if the sky is cloudy, you may not be able to see anything through the telescope. If that's the case, Plan B is to do simulated stargazing indoors using software. We got extremely lucky and the winter clouds cleared just enough for us to go outside and use the real telescopes. We were given the option to cancel our tour and save our money if the clouds had been an issue.

If you time your visit for the new moon, you'll see even more against the backdrop of an even darker sky. Our visit was serendipitously timed for an extra-special occasion...a super new moon. 

What is a supermoon? This is what happens when the moon's orbit is closest to Earth at the same time it is full. In it's new moon phase, this means that the sky is even darker than normal.

Taste Talha (Roman Clay Pot) Wines at Jose de Sousa

Talha wines are aged using giant clay pots in a technique that dates back to the Romans. The area around Alqueva Lake in Eastern Alentejo is one of the few areas in Portugal where you can find Talha wines. 

Jose de Sousa winery is open on Christmas Eve in the morning. Book in for a tour and wine tasting. You'll pay 15 EUR per person for Prova Monte da Ribeira (tastes of 3 everyday wines), 20 EUR for Prova José de Sousa (includes three reserve wines), and 45 EUR per person for Prova Vinhos de Talha
(a wine tasting comprised exclusively of 3 clay pot wines).

The obligatory wine tour was even more interesting that other wine tastings and vineyards that we'd been to in places like Bordeaux, Luxembourg, Melbourne, and New Zealand namely because of the unique methods used to produce the talha wines. 

Collage of pictures from Adega José de Sousa in Alentejo Portugal including clay pots for making talha wines

We were super-impressed to find a stele on display near the start of the tour. This menhir was discovered in the vineyard of Adega José de Sousa. It is believed to be 6-8 thousand years old. 

You can still see markings on the side that was buried in the dirt and protected from erosion. The circles of different sizes and thought to be a celestial map or a census of local populations at the time.

Talha wine production has a tradition spanning over 2000 years. The art of making giant clay amphorae is no longer practiced, so current winemakers are very protective of their stock. 

Adega José de Sousa has about 100 clay pots left and I have to say that our visit to the clay pot room was the highlight of our tour. In addition to clay pots filled with wine, we also saw many cracked or sharded amphorae. The clay pots are cemented to the floor and cannot be moved even when they break. 

Room filled with giant clay pots at  Adega José de Sousa in Alentejo Portugal

We learned that pushing down the solids that rise to the top of the clay pots is a critical step every day during fermentation. If this step is forgotten, pressure can build up and the clay pots can explode. 

This actually happened one night after hours at José de Sousa winery and apparently the sound of the explosion could be heard for miles.

Thankfully, the explosion happened when no one was around and so no one was hurt. The only casualties were the wine and the rare clay pots.

SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: Looking for other memorable wine experiences in Portugal? Why not take a Setúbal wine tour or take the ferry to Almada from Lisbon in October or take a private tour of the Douro Valley, one of the most iconic day trips from Porto. Interested in something a little more quirky? Head to Vila Nova de Gaia for an ode to Rosé at the Pink Palace.

We also learned that cleaning the clay pots is challenging. Someone (preferably someone who is not claustrophobic) must climb into the clay pot, shovel out the sediment, and then scrub the walls of the clay pot by hand.

Making talha wine is a labor of love. It's no wonder they are so expensive to taste and to buy.

Given the uniqueness of the talha wines, we opted for the expensive tasting which included two 100% talha wines. More often, the talha wines are blended in smaller percentages into other reserve wines.

Reguengos de Monsaraz

Finish off your road trip near Alqueva Lake by spending an hour or two exploring Reguengos de Monsaraz. Reguengos de Monsaraz has a population of about 11,000 people. You'll find a striking church tower, local craft shops, and some fabulous Art Nouveau doors. 

Church tower in Reguengos de Monsaraz viewed from the streetOrnate wooden door in Art Nouveau style on a white facade with bright blue accents

Drop into a local wine shop and pick up a few bottles of local Alentejo wines to take home.

Summing Up A Memorable Road Trip Near Alqueva Lake

Alqueva Lake, one of Portugal's newest places for recreation is ideal for a Portuguese winter road trip. Explore charming Alentejo villages, taste historic wines, take a hike along the lake, or just relax with a glass of wine on the patio. Located just a couple of hours from Lisbon, you have no excuse not to check out this charming area of Eastern Alentejo near the border with Spain.

Map of Points of Interest Around Alqueva Lake

Click on the image of the map below to open up an interactive version in Google Maps to help you plan your Alqueva Lake road trip.
Google Map screenshot of things to do in Alqueva Lake Portugal

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Collage of Pictures with Text Overlay: Destination Alentejo: Discover Portugal's Lake Alqueva by Car
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Sidewalk Safari | Part-time Travel Blog: Drive Alentejo and Alqueva Lake for A Memorable Road Trip in Portugal
Drive Alentejo and Alqueva Lake for A Memorable Road Trip in Portugal
Discover enchanting Alentejo on a road trip on Alqueva Lake. From cute villages to ancient wines and dark skies, explore the best of Portugal by car.
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