The best independent guide to Portugal
The best independent guide to Portugal
If you tire of the cold and gloomy climate of Northern Europe, a trip to Portugal in January could be just the thing you need.
Portugal certainly won’t have outstanding weather, but it will be significantly warmer and more pleasant than in your home country.
In January any trip to Portugal should either be focused on the Algarve coastline (which sits along the south of the country and always has the best weather), or the big cities (which offer the most activities in case of poor weather).
Northern Portugal is surprisingly wet in the winter, especially the northwestern coastline, and is best avoided. When visiting Portugal in January, it is best to have flexible plans in case the weather turns for the worse.
The Algarve is the best location in Portugal to find some winter sun, and the region’s weather is considerably drier and warmer than the rest of the country. In January the weather of the Algarve is pleasant, but as only reaching an average of 16C this is not beach or sunbathing weather.
A typical day in the Algarve in January; bright pleasant weather and near deserted resort towns and beaches – the image is of Praia da Rocha
January may be the low season, but there are many good points to visiting Portugal at this time of the year. The main tourist sights will be almost deserted, there are outstanding deals to be found on accommodation, flights will be inexpensive, and the resort towns have a more relaxed atmosphere.
There is nothing better than being the only tourist at the Pena Palace (in Sintra) on a bright winter day, or exploring the village of Obidos when it is completely empty.
January is a great season for surfing, there are powerful swells on the western Algarve (around Sagres) or the colossal waves at Nazaré. These waves at Nazaré reach up to 30m and are the worlds highest surfing waves.
An enjoyable touring holiday is to visit the far eastern side of Portugal and the region along the Spanish border, dotted with castles and fortified towns. This eastern side of Portugal is cool (max 12C) but is much drier than the coastal western side.
The island of Madeira is also another option to visit in January. This is regarded as the wet season, but the Gulf Stream keeps it mild (max 20C), and the majority of the rain falls on the northwestern side of the island, away from Funchal and the main tourist area.
The winter is the ideal season to explore the traditional villages of the Algarve coastline
As with all of Europe, January in Portugal is firmly in the winter season. Although January is the coldest month of the year in Portugal, winters are mild compared to the rest of Europe due to its southern location.
Portugal has three distinct weather areas during January; the mild and pleasant Algarve region, the wet and chilly north, and the variable central region, which includes Lisbon.
Suggested Itineraries for January in Portugal:
1) Tour of The Algarve. One night in Faro, two in Tavira, two nights in Albufeira and three in Lagos.
2) Lisbon and the Algarve. Three days Lisbon, then four days relaxing at Albufeira or Lagos.
3) 1 week in Lisbon. Three days exploring Lisbon and day trips to Sintra, Setubal, Cascais, Evora and Obidos.
4) Lisbon to Porto. Two days in Lisbon, Sintra day trip, the central region for two days (Nazare, Obidos, Tomar and Coimbra) and two days in Porto
5) Castles and forts of Eastern Portugal. Evora, Elvas, Marvão, Castelo Branco, Monsanto, Almeida, Trancoso (this route needs a car)
6) Madeira – one week based in Funchal with day trips around the island when the weather is dry. (Madeira guide)
Advice: If you are considering the tours that include Lisbon and Porto, make sure that your plans are flexible in case there is poor weather.
Below is an interactive map the showing the suggested tours and best locations in Portugal for January. The red line is the tour of the Algarve (1), the green line is the 1 week in Lisbon (3), the yellow line is the Lisbon to Porto tour (4), and the blue line is the route visiting the east of Portugal (5).
Insight: Portugal has an excellent express train network and is a relatively small country. It takes only 2.5 hours to travel from Lisbon to the Algarve if the weather becomes poor, or is 3 hours from Lisbon to Porto if the weather is dry and sunny. Flexible plans are the best way to get the most from a holiday to Portugal during January.
During January it is best to avoid the north of the country where it will be very wet and surprisingly chilly. A lot of rain falls around the Douro Valley while the northern resort towns close down for winter and can appear rather gloomy and bleak in January.
During the cold winter months, the Serra da Estrela mountains are cover in snow, and there is even a small ski resort at the Torre peak. The slopes are minor in comparison to the Alps, but if you have a longer stay in Portugal, this can be a fun seasonal activity. At Torre, all ski equipment can be hired.
The Algarve is the best destination to visit during January. An enjoyable holiday can be had here, so long as that you accept that the resort towns will be very quiet, and the weather is not warm enough for sunbathing.
This is a great season for a touring holiday or holiday filled with activities. There are empty roads for cycling, challenging coastal hiking trails, kayak trips, beaches for surfing, dolphin watching boat tours, deep-sea fishing trips and world-class golf courses. It may be winter and the closed season but there is a lot to do.
Insight: Over the last couple of years the Algarve regional government has been trying to market and push the Algarve as a year-round destination, and there has been an active drive to ensure the best activities and sights are open year-round.
When visiting the Algarve in January, we advise be based in the larger resort towns, such as Albufeira, Lagos, or Vilamoura, which have large permanent populations and will have a decent selection of restaurant and bars open.
January is also the season to find a bargain hotel; search the hotel comparison websites to find last minute 5-star luxury for the price of 3-star mediocre.
For you holiday we would strongly advise hiring a car so that you can explore the region, and are not just tied to your hotel or local town (which may be very quiet!).
The golden cliffs of the western Algarve (the Praia da Marinha beach)
Lisbon is a good option for a European city break during January, and this is due to the huge variety that this vibrant city has to offer. For inclement days, there are numerous museums and indoor activities to visit, along with hundreds of trendy bars and stylish restaurants to choose from.
If the sun does show itself, hop on the train to the magical town of Sintra with the whimsical Pena Palace and the ruins of the Moors castle. If the weather is good head to the characterful resort town of Cascais or the traditional beach town of Sesimbra.
If the sun shines head to the Pena Palace, which is magical with few tourists about
If it does rain, there is the wonderful oceanarium, the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos and the Calouste Gulbenkian art museum. If it stays wet, head to the artisan area of LX Factory, sample Portugal's finest foods in the Timeout Market and end the day in the trendy bars of the Bairro Alto district.
In the low season, there will be no queues for the major tourist attractions and hotel prices will be at rock bottom
Related articles: Our Lisbon guide
Porto in January could be very wet, but there is equally a chance it could be dry and pleasant. The city does have a range of indoor tourist attractions (not as many as Lisbon) and main unique in-door experience is Port tasting in the vast cellars that line the banks of Douro River.
If it is dry head to pretty Guimarães, which is regarded as the birthplace of Portugal, or hire a car and venture up the Douro valley.
Our advice: If you are thinking about visiting Porto in January, leave the planning to the last minute, and base your decision on the long-term weather forecast. If it seems wet, head to Lisbon or the Algarve, if its dry book Porto and get yourself a bargain trip!
Related articles: Porto guide