Portugal has a wealth of protected countryside from its mountainous National Park Peneda-Geres in the far north down to Castro Marim Nature Reserve on the Algarve. Below is a flavour of some of the more accessible. Check the links right for more information.
These areas are fabulous for birdwatching holidays, hiking, mountain biking or just simply enjoying the spectacular views. There are usually Information Offices associated with the parks so that you can get information on the wildlife and culture of the area as well as walking routes and viewpoints.
The Peneda-Geres National Park is a stunningly beautiful wilderness of rugged boulder strewn mountains interspersed with the bright purple and yellow of heathers and gorses. Lower down the mountains are conifer and broadleaved forests including some rarely occurring native broadleaved woodland that contain Pyrenean and English oaks - much like our oak woodlands but which are much rarer in Portugal's drier climate.
The National Park covers a massive 70,000 hectares crossing over into Spain where is links into the Baixa Limia-Serra do Xures Natural Park. The mountains reach 700-1500 metres in altitude and are striking with their rounded granite rocks that are littered all over the landscape.
Montesinho Natural Park occupies a 700 square kilometre area in the north east of Portugal along the Spanish border in the heart of Terra Fria (Cold Land) country. It is one of the least well-known areas in Portugal and is a wild and relatively untouched mountainous area clothed in ancient oak forests and heather clad mountains.
The area was designated a natural park to protect the wildlife of this mountainous region but also the traditional culture of its inhabitants that have meant this landscape has survived into the 21st century. The Park is split into a more remote western section that is typically lush and green and the more easily accessible eastern section that tends to be more rugged and open (although there are scenic routes throughout the Park). The highest points are the Coroa mountain range at 1,273 metres and Montesinho at 1,486 metres.
Douro Internacional Natural Park covers 852 square kilometres in the east of the Tras-os-Montes region, along the Portuguese/Spanish border - not to be confused with the Douro Valley that runs from east to west in the Douro region. This is the second largest natural park in Portugal and is where the river Douro passes through stunning mountainous territory. The area adjacent in Spain is also protected and together they encompass the impressive Douro Canyon.
The area was designated to protect the magnificent geological landscape of granite, quartz and schist of the upper stretches of the River Douro where it marks the Portuguese/Spanish border. Its assemblage of birds of prey is also one of the reasons for its protection - you're unlikely to see so many different species of raptor anywhere else in Portugal.
Parque Natural do Alvao is Portugal's smallest natural park at 7,220 hectares and reaches an altitude of 1,330 metres above sea level. The park is characterised by an extensive granite basin in the upper reaches of the park with schists along the narrow enclosed valleys. This geology gives rise to some spectacular drops and waterfalls such as the Fisgas do Ermelo.
Although pine forestation has clothed many areas in and around the park, the native woodland that still exists in the natural park is very important and includes a range of broadleaved trees including birch, English oak, black oak, holly, bay, chestnut, hazel, wild pear and strawberry tree. Heathers, bilberry, broom and gorses make up the heath communities. Several interesting mammals are found within the park including feral goats, a range of bat species, the Pyrenean desman, a peculiar looking semi-aquatic rodent and occasionally wolves. Bird species found are the short-toed eagle, peregrine falcon, chough, water pipit, rufous-tailed Rock thrush, pied flycatcher and bullfinch. The park is also a site for the rare ocellated lizard.
The Parque Arqueologico do Vale do Coa (PAVC) was designated to protect a series of Palaeolithic rock engravings.
There are over 30 sites where rock engravings have been found, most are Palaeolithic but there are some that date from the 18th century where someone must have decided to add their own art to the prehistoric collection. Visits to the sites are highly restricted and can only be undertaken in the company of guides from the Archaeological Park. Three sites are open to the public: Canada do Inferno, Penascosa and Ribeira de Piscos. All three sites have a series of different rock engravings. Site visits are organised by the Park Offices at these locations, the main one being at Vila Nova de Foz Coa. Check the weblink right for more information.
The far northwest coast around Esposende is protected within Parque Natural do Litoral Norte. Here the sand dunes and cliffs are able to support a range of wildlife with relatively little disturbance.
Walking through the dunes has been made easy by wooden boardwalks in specific areas which also protect the fragile dune wildlife.
The Natural Park of Serra da Estrela is the largest in Portugal and also has the highest mountain peaks in Portugal. Both the Rio Mondego and the boulder strewn Rio Zezere start here and cut through the Natural Park. These are the only two rivers that start and end within Portugal's boundaries.
The Park was designated in 1976 to protect the rural character of the serra villages and its landscape. It lies to the east of the Central region of Portugal and stretches 55 kilometres from Celorico de Beira in the north down to Vide in the south west, covering 1,000 square kilometres. It has some of the most stunning mountain scenery in Portugal and even has a small skiing resort.
Serra da Malcata is a Nature Reserve on the Spanish border on the extreme east of the central Portugal region. It is most famous for being one of the last places on the Iberian Peninsular where the native Iberian lynx still survives - just about. There are only a few animals reputed to be left and a reintroduction programme looks like it may be necessary to conserve the animal in the future.
The Malcata Nature Reserve is a rolling expanse of heather clad hills with a network of hiking trails throughout. You're unlikely to catch a glimpse of the timid lynx but there is a wealth of other wildlife in the reserve.
Along the Spanish border to the south of Castelo Branco is the Parque Natural do Tejo Internacional. This is a beautiful area noted for its birdwatching along the rivers of the region.
Steep sided valleys provide a spectacular natural setting next to the River Tagus and its tributaries (Ponsul, Erges and Aravil), where around 154 bird species breed. This is an excellent area for birdwatching. You can see colonies of black storks (the Park's symbol), eagles and eagle owls.
Mata Nacional do Bucaco is 24 kilometres northeast of Coimbra and is a huge attraction in the central Portugal area. The forest covers 105 hectares on the slopes of the Serra do Bucaco. It was traditionally a religious haven hidden away by its three mile long wall.
Today it is another of Portugal's UNESCO World Heritage sites - Forest Park of the Discalced Carmelites, Bucaco - and a popular place for picnickers and walkers and those who might want to have a go at identifying the 700 species of tree! Four hundred of which are reputed to be native species. The forest has a series of trails running through it interspersed with chapels, ponds and fountains. Popular trails include the beautiful Vale dos Fetos, the Valley of Ferns and the Via Sacra path that takes you up to the Cruz Alta viewpoint at 545 metres. Nearby is Serra do Bucaco, a wooded ridge about 15 km long running northwards from Penacova on the River Mondego.
Stretching north of Aveiro from Sao Jacinto to Ovar is the 6.7 square kilometre wooded nature reserve, Reserva Natural Sao Jacinto where there are trails and bird hides. Visits are restricted to a maximum two and a half hour visit with entry times into the reserve between 9-9.30 am or between 13.30-2 pm. A guide is often available for a free tour or interpretive materials will help you get the most out of your visit. It is best to book ahead. Interpretive Centre, Reserva Natural das Dunas de S. Jacinto, 3800 S. Jacinto, Tel: 234331282. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Peniche is the access point for Ilha Berlenga, an island 10 kilometres offshore from Cabo Carvoeiro. The island is only two and a half square kilometres but is the largest island in an archipelago with jagged coastline of stacks, caves and extraordinary rock formations.
The islands have been designated a nature reserve, Berlengas Nature Reserve, due to its marine wildlife, clifftop flora and the thousands of seabirds that have colonised the island including puffins, guillemots, gulls, and cormorants.
The Park stretches south from Porto de Mos covering about two thirds of the Estremenho Limestone Chain, a range of hills with typically sparse vegetation constituting olive trees and shrubs and bright white limestone rocks jutting out. It is one of the most important nesting places of the red billed jackdaw although numbers have fallen in recent years. Because the geology of the area lends itself to natural cave formations this is a very important area for bats and one of the country's largest colonies roost in the caves here. There are ten species of bat recorded in the Natural Park and is featured on the logo for the park.
Check our Estramadura Natural Park page for more information.
The Tejo Estuary is the largest estuary in Portugal and is an internationally important nature reserve and Ramsar site around the rivers Sorraia and Tejo. This is a great area for birdwatching where flocks of waterbirds come to roost and feed as well as other interesting species including greylag geese, flamingo, teal, white stork, little bittern, purple heron, marsh harrier, Montagu's harrier, booted eagle. The Reserve covers 14.560 ha and is important as part of the migration route for a wide range of bird species on their way to West Africa.
It's the mix of natural park landscape with dramatic architecture that appeals particularly here in Sintra. Elevated as the Serra de Sintra is, and slap bang in the middle of Sintra-Cascais Natural Park, historic architecture blends with exotic plants and dense vegetation. The Moors and Romans were here first, recognising the strategic position of Sintra as a gateway. Many a Romantic poet - Byron and Southey - have waxed lyrical on the place. Not surprising, as Sintra really was one of the first hotspots of European Romantic architecture. After the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, royalty took refuge here in Sintra. It's a pretty place indeed, but expect a top down historical focus - all palaces and Romanticism.
Setubal sits adjacent to the Arrabida Natural Park. Stunning beaches blend with estuary territory - you can expect to see dolphins, and estuary wildlife such as flamingos and storks.
The Arrabida Marine Reserve is a hotspot for dolphin watching, boat trips and watersports such as canoeing.
Near Faro are some beautiful remote Algarve beaches, easily reached via regular ferries from Faro's ferry pier. The ferry trip to the Blue Flag Ilha da Barreta beach takes around 20 minutes, and it's a great trip for Algarve birdwatching, as the boat crosses sand and mud banks. You'll spot flamingos for example here. Once at Ilha da Barreta you can expect to see sandwich terns, plovers, common terns, little terns and gull-billed terns.