Far from the sun-baked flats of the Algarve, Portugal's little-known northern reaches are an unexpectedly green domain of meandering rivers, tree-furred hills and lush landscapes. Great rivers - the Douro, the Lima - roll languidly through the scenery, starting in the country's only national park and emptying out into the rolling Atlantic. The coastline here is known as the Costa Verde, but really the entirety of Portugal's northern top is green. It's a different world from the dry heat of Lisbon and the country's southern realms.
Case in point? Paço da Glória, an 18th-century manor house tucked beneath the shadows of cork oak trees and eucalyptus in the leafy Minho province. Transformed into a tranquil rental for summer travellers seeking a slower-paced reset, this elegant, aristocratic property (with cool, calm interiors) is the work of owner Rebecca Illing, a young Londoner who spent her childhood in northern Portugal. Now based in Kensal Green, where she works as a death doula, Illing has reimagined the traditional Portuguese guesthouse during recent renovations of Paço da Glória, bringing contemporary art into the baroque buildings, and adding a little London edge to the experience.
Paço da Glória
Seven rooms in the old stable block have been refashioned as warm, inviting bedrooms, complete with original, 18th-century headboards, rainfall showers and raw granite walls that juxtapose blushing pink plaster. A communal kitchen - and vegetable garden - is open to guests. Alongside more traditional stays (spent soaking up the sun by the saltwater pool and heading out to wine tastings at nearby vineyards), retreats, workshops and festivities are in the pipeline, with Illing's aim being to create an active, inviting community hub in this quiet corner of Portugal. It's a revelation - and one that won't be so secret for long.
We caught up with Illing to get her tips on spending a week in Portugal's north, from Porto to Ponte de Lima, and discover how best to explore this wild, rugged region.
Where to eat, stay and play in northern Portugal
Paço da Glória
What's the 101 on this verdant region?
Even though Portugal is a small country, we have a very mixed landscape. In the north, it is extremely lush and green. It's known as the "blue and green" region because of its blue skies and oceans, combined with green vegetation. As a mountainous region, it's completely different from the south of Portugal. The country changes drastically the further north you go.
Weather forecast, please…
It's more seasonal in the north of the country than in the south, so you get to experience a defined autumn, winter and spring. The summers in the north also tend to be cooler and shorter, although it still gets to around 35ºC. Overall, it's a more comfortable and bearable experience than in the south.
Any suggestions for exploring both town and country?
Paço da Glória is located between Porto and the north. It's about an hour from the airport. This location offers the flexibility to explore the countryside either at the beginning or the end of a trip. I would set aside a week to visit the region and allow for around three days of that week to be spent in Porto. There's a vast range of places to explore in Minho: places to hike and beaches and rivers to explore. It's important to allow time for that.
What about under-the-radar neighbourhoods to check out?
Right next to Porto, on the coast, is Matosinhos. It's a great area for surfing and you can buy fresh fish, grilled, from roadside stalls. Each local has their own personal favourite fish place. Mine is São Valentim.
For experienced surfers, Praia de Leça is a great beach, with a typical Portuguese restaurant, A Margarida, nearby. It does the best fillets of fish for dinner. Further along the coast, there's a town called Angeiras, where you'll find delicious grilled fish at a place called Tony de Angeiras.
Bonfim is an up-and-coming creative area, with various art galleries and bars. It's a very cool place to explore for a different cultural scene.
Where should we stay?
Paço da Glória would be my first suggestion, obviously. It's an hour outside the city, with access to national parks, beaches and more. When you're in Porta, try Rosa Et Al. It's located in the heart of the city, in one of the art districts, Miguel Bombarda. It's a luxury guesthouse offering affordable, beautiful rooms. Mo.Ou.Co is a new project space in the Bonfim area offering music, concerts and accommodation, and is drawing a lot of attention from industry creatives.
Any breakfast recommendations?
Any pastry shop in Portugal! My personal favourite is Paparoca da Foz, on Rua do Passeio Alegre, in an old part of Foz do Douro where the Douro meets the ocean. It's a nice place to sit and experience the environment while enjoying the most incredible pastries. My favourite place to have breakfast, though, is Época - and it also does a great light lunch. If you want more of a sourdough bakery vibe, try Hakko. All three are conveniently on the same street.
Paço da Glória
Talking of lunches…
I love A Marisqueira de Matosinhos, which always brings back fond childhood memories. It's a seafood restaurant in Matosinhos, where they grill the fish to perfection. If you're looking for a restaurant that has a variety of seafood, and a "real" Portuguese experience, this is the place. Order the clams and percebes [goose barnacles], which translates to "witch's fingers". They can look a little scary but they're a traditional thing to order. The grilled sea bass is also incredible. Anthony Bourdain once ate there, and said that it is one of the two best places in the world to eat fish, the other being in Japan.
And for dinner?
There's a place called O Marmorista. It's a cool new restaurant run by a good friend, with music until around 1am. He knows how to throw a good party with good food. I also like Mito for dinner, and Okra, in Miguel Bombarda, which serves up authentic sourdough pizza. Finally, Lapa Lapa, which is on the beach in Foz, and where you can eat and watch the sunset.
Tell us something we didn't know about Portugal…
One fact that I quite like, especially for anyone English, is that the word "tea" comes from the Portuguese wording once marked on crates of loose-leaf tea, "Transporte de Ervas Aromaticas", meaning "Transport of Aromatic Herbs", later abbreviated to T.E.A.
Where do you go to relax?
The vegetable garden at Paço da Glória. There's something about being among the vegetation that feels so fresh and invigorating. Elsewhere in the region, I'll go to the Lima for a swim.
Any must-visit independent shops you love?
In Porto, Coração Alecrim is a great independent store, run by two women. They offer lots of vintage pieces and also make their own clothing. I also love La Paz, for unisex clothing made in Portugal. Materia Prima is a cool record store. Call in to buy magazines and vinyl and find out about gigs, parties and under-the-radar events happening in Porto.
And gallery recommendations?
The Galeria Nuno Centeno is a must-see. Featuring Portuguese and international artists, it's one of the most beautiful galleries I've ever been to. My friend runs a project space called A Leste, which is more of a grassroots space. You can meet local artists there, and attend art residencies, exhibitions and gigs.
What about wellness ideas?
Atelier Equilibrium is the best place for a facial or massage. People from abroad keep coming back for more, as a facial there costs half as much as it would in the UK, and is so much better. Otherwise, just go for a run on the Porto riverfront, or a swim in the ocean. You could also try a surf lesson at Onda Pura, or a yoga class with Cássia Rodrigues - a fantastic yoga teacher who hosts groups and one-to-one retreats at Paço da Glória.
You're a wild swimmer. Best spots for a dip?
If you're in Porto and are feeling brave, go to the Douro. My brother used to jump off the bridge into the water. There's a little entrance to the river by the Paparoca, which is a great place to go swimming.
If you're staying at Paço da Glória, try going for a swim in the Lima. It's a beautiful river that runs through the Minho region, and only a two-minute drive from us. We're also only a 20-minute drive from the national park, Peneda-Gerês, which has waterfalls and lakes.
Where would you recommend for a day trip?
If you're in Porto, I'd suggest coming to Minho, either to visit us at Paço da Glória or to visit Ponte da Barca. I like going to the river there and swimming with my kids, followed by a meal at O Moinho, where I always order the hake fillets and bean rice.
Tell us about someone doing something amazing in the region right now…
Barbara Moreira runs Projeto Lar, an initiative that sees her going to near-derelict villages to help renovate them as housing for refugees. It gives the town a new life, and refugees a new opportunity.
Any local businesses that you love supporting?
We work with many local, women-led businesses such as Lost & Found, a mother-and-daughter interiors and furniture restoration company. We also love supporting local Combi Coffee Roasters. Casa da Senra is a great place for wine tastings, and right around the corner from us.
What's a good souvenir to take home?
Local ceramics and linen or, for wine lovers, a bottle of typical vinho verde from Casa da Senra. Head over to Churchill's to pick up some port wine or Sogrape, and to Van Zeller's for all other wines!
Up next for Paço da Glória?
The thing that's most exciting for us right now, other than opening for guests, is that we're in the process of booking our first bereavement family retreat in October 2024.