This is the country you should be visiting in Europe now

Panoramic view of Pena palace, Sintra, Portugal.
123RF

Panoramic view of Pena palace, Sintra, Portugal.

Joao is my Airbnb host. He does the job of checking me in as you would normally expect. He lets me into his apartment, shows me around, tells me how a few of the appliances work, points out the bottle of wine he's left in the fridge, and describes a few sights in the local area. Then, at the time you'd usually expect him to leave, he pauses.

"So," he says. "Do you want to go for a beer?"

Welcome to Portugal. Welcome to a normal interaction with a typical Portuguese guy who wants to do the natural thing and take a stranger who's new to his home city out for a beer. Welcome to one of the best countries in Europe; maybe the world. (And yes, I do want to go for a beer.)

Albufeira is a coastal city in the southern Algarve region of Portugal.
RICK HUNT

Albufeira is a coastal city in the southern Algarve region of Portugal.

As a traveller, you need to get to Portugal. If you've been to Spain and loved it; if you've toured Italy and had an amazing time; if you've hung out in the south of France and had a ball – you need to get to Portugal. Get there before everyone else does. Because it's going to be big.

READ MORE:
Travel tips: A city guide to Lisbon, Portugal
Hotspot of the week: Braga, Portugal
Cruising the spectacular Douro River in Portugal

 
The medieval town of Obidos in Portugal.
123RF

The medieval town of Obidos in Portugal.

There's so much to love about this small country hung out on the edge of the Iberian Peninsula, so much that deserves to be as well known as its neighbours in the rest of Western Europe. You may not have heard too much about Portugal though, because the locals don't really like to talk themselves up too much. They wouldn't put their country up there with Spain or Italy or France. They wouldn't rate themselves as a destination next to Germany or the UK. But they should.

To begin with: the people. You're unlikely to meet friendlier Europeans than the Portuguese. It's not just the fact that most people speak excellent English, thanks in part to their TV shows being subtitled rather than dubbed into Portuguese – though that certainly helps.

What's great about the Portuguese is that there's an easy warmth to most of the people you encounter. There's a sense of worldliness there, definitely, something that's probably a result of many young people having been forced to move elsewhere to find work during the country's financial crisis, but it's combined with a natural hospitality, something that manifests itself in the urge for total strangers to ask you if you want to go for a beer a few minutes after you've arrived in Lisbon.

There's something of the underdog about Portugal. It's not the sort of country that makes any most-visited-destinations lists – Portugal isn't even in Europe's top 10 in terms of visitor numbers – and if you haven't been there you probably can't name a single famous building or monument in the country. In fact I have been there and I still struggle to do that.

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But that's part of what makes Portugal so great. There are no boxes to be ticked. There's no Colosseum, no Eiffel Tower. You don't have to worry about making it to big-ticket attractions and fighting the crowds when you're there. Instead you can just soak up the lifestyle, and have fun.

You can eat the food – the glorious food that no one ever talks about. It's not exactly fancy, either: there are a grand total of zero Portuguese restaurants in the World's 50 Best list. Belgium has one. Austria has one. Spain has five. Portugal: none.

Largo das Portas do Sol, Lisbon.
MANFRED GOTTSCHALK

Largo das Portas do Sol, Lisbon.

Most of the cuisine in Portugal is rustic and unpretentious: it's whole fried baby mackerels in a "taberna" in Lisbon; it's the ridiculously carb-heavy Francesinha sandwiches in Porto; it's sardines grilled fresh on the streets in Peniche; it's "bifanas", or pork sandwiches, from an Algarve takeaway stand; it's "presunto", the Portuguese-style cured ham that's as good as Spain's jamon iberico, sliced and served in a bar in Evora.

And it's so cheap. You're looking at €15, maybe €20 (NZ$25-33) to feed yourself extremely well in Lisbon. And you could do it far cheaper if you wanted. Plus if you pay more than a few euros for a glass of high-quality wine, you're probably being ripped off (though, of course, you won't be, because that doesn't seem to happen in Portugal).

This is an eminently affordable destination, the sort of place you can eat well and drink frequently and see and do all of the things while staying in comfortable accommodation, and never break the bank.

There's variety in Portugal, too, even if there aren't any world-famous sites. There are charming, bustling cities like Lisbon and Porto, with all of their small bars and cheap restaurants. There are backpacker-friendly beachside party towns such as Lagos and Albufeira in the south. There's Tuscan-style countryside, rolling hills and wineries, in the Alentejo region in the centre, and the Douro Valley in the north.

And everywhere you go you meet those friendly, easygoing people, the underdogs, the locals who are happy that you're visiting, pleased to show you around.

In a world where the popular tourist sites are being overrun, where places like Barcelona and Venice and Berlin are at breaking point, maybe it's time for travellers to look elsewhere on their next holiday. Maybe it's time to check out somewhere different. I'd head to Portugal.

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