The north-west corner of Portugal packs a lot into a small area. It has a sandy Atlantic coast, a national park, slowly meandering rivers and medieval cities with grand old universities. But where should you buy property in North West Portugal?
Drive north from Porto Airport and within a few minutes you’re cruising on beautifully built roads and bridges across wide, lush, river valleys. The hills are covered in endless forests of eucalyptus and oak. The region is criss-crossed with rivers, draining the mountain streams and lakes of the Peneda-Gerês National Park (Portugal’s only national park, its 2,000m peaks clearly visible), to the Atlantic.
You’re in the Minho. It stretches for around 100 kilometres from Porto to the River Minho, forming the border with Spain.
Driving along, or taking the excellent train service, and in the more developed areas the homes are large, modern and attractive, but unshowy. They’re well spaced-out too, nicely mixed in with fields of maize, potatoes, cherries and, most of all, vines.
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If you go off the motorway to one of the towns, you can stop in the cobbled town square, with easy, cheap parking. Quite a pleasant change for those of us in England! You’re in a part of the world that’s not overcrowded, with 1.1 million in an area roughly 80 kilometres north to south and the same west to east.
Although you’re in a largely rural area, you’re not in a rural backwater. Cities like Braga and Guimarães have wonderful restaurants and great shops, as well as plenty of culture. They are university towns too, with excellent nightlife. They have top class football teams too; indeed Braga are hosting Wolverhampton Wanderers in the Europa League on the day we publish this article.
Funnily enough, there are actual wolves living not so far away, in the Peneda-Gerês National Park, just a 30 minute drive away.
The geography of North-west Portugal
You’re rarely too far from the sea, and the white sandy beaches of seaside towns like Viana do Castelo. The beaches continue all the way north to Spain, with small holiday villages along the way. The best of these is Vila Praia de Ancora. Even in the height of the tourist season, when you won’t find space for your towel on most Mediterranean beaches, these are virtually empty. True, the Atlantic water is colder and the winds can be strong, but they can be sensational for any kind of active sport such as surfing or kite-surfing, or just for swimming. For the more adventurous, the Spanish “coast of death” in Galicia is just a short hop over the border for more surfing options.
The lower parts are green and lush, with large lakes around which are restaurants with astounding views; easily a match for the Italian Lakes.
The north-west of the Minho region is Portugal’s only national park. Officially it’s the Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês, but more usually referred to as simple Gerês. The lower parts are green and lush, with large lakes around which are restaurants with astounding views; easily a match for the Italian Lakes.
There are remote villages here, but also the country homes of people from Porto, up for the weekend with their jet skis, mountain bike, hiking boots or even their horses. One of the great pleasures here is hiking into the mountains on a hot day and cooling off in a mountain lake under a waterfall. Yes. It’s as beautiful as it sounds!
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North-west Portugal in winter allows you the pleasure of being outside in a teeshirt at midday, but curling up in front of a roaring fire in the evening. It’s a little less hot and sunny than the Algarve and Lisbon, but not by much. Braga has around 2,500 sunshine hours per year. To compare, the west coast of Wales has around 1,500. You won’t see much frost in the lowlands, but should you wish to enjoy a bit of snow you can drive into the national park, although there isn’t enough for skiing. In summer the region is hot and humid towards the coasts, but drier and more comfortable in the highlands.
Vila Nova de Famalicão
Viana do Castelo
Parque Nacional de Peneda-Gerês
Where to buy
The Minho is not a crowded part of the world but the largest population centres are in the south-west of the region within 40 kilometres or so of Porto. For more urban homes and apartments you have a choice of historic older cities such as Braga or Guimarães, or newer conurbations such as Famalicão. There are also wild and windswept beaches – like western Ireland but distinctly warmer and sunnier.
The biggest city in the Minho has a population of just under 200,000 and 35 churches. But although it might be a serious religious centre, it’s not strait-laced or boring. Braga has excellent restaurants and nightlife. It has a thriving university, and is becoming something of a tech hub these days. It was also European Youth Capital just a few years ago.
Two-bedroom apartments start at well under €100,000 and offer buy-to-let options for students and tourists. There is also a good choice of highly attractive modern villas from €300,000. You can see some Braga properties here.
It’s known as the birthplace of Portugal after the country’s first king was born here in 1110 and it became Portugal’s first capital. Guimarães has a very impressive castle at the top of the hill, then a beautiful old town below that and an increasingly modern city spreading out below with a population of around 150,000. You don’t see many overseas tourists in the Minho but if you see any they’ll probably be queuing for an ice cream in Guimarães.
The pretty, cobbled squares of Guimarães may be tempting but there are some uber-stylish villas here too.
For property buyers, the pretty town squares of Guimarães may be tempting, with their wooden balconies offering a birds-eye view of the many fiestas, weddings and events going on. On my last visit there was a chess tournament and grand society wedding vying for onlookers’ attention. But equally, there are some uber-stylish villas here too. Townhouses start at around €150,000, and the well-positioned modern villas from €500,000.
Strictly speaking Vila Nova de Familicão, this town of 130,000 is very easy to reach in around 40 minutes from Porto by train or car. It’s a more modern town, but serves as a base for dozens of attractive villages. Famalicão is quite a popular area for international property buyers, with large villas at €400,000 or even ancient country estates with land for €1,000,000. The perfect home from home within easy reach of Porto Airport!
The Minho has bucolic charms in abundance, but it’s not backward in any way. So don’t expect to see farmers going to work on donkeys or people washing their clothes in rivers any more. (Although, in truth, those days are not so far off in more rural areas). Cheap country property prices are rather a thing of the past too.
You’re likely to have a winery, eucalyptus plantation or field of sweetcorn growing next to your house.
But this area offers a wonderful mix of countryside and villages. Even in the more built-up areas towards Porto you’re likely to have a winery, eucalyptus plantation or field of sweetcorn growing next to your house. You will also have a choice of designer villas or old granite farmhouses.
The Minho is one of those places where you can get away from it all but just a two-hour flight and 40 minute drive from a UK airport.
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The Guardian newspaper recently named the beach outside Viana do Castelo as one of Portugal’s ‘Top 10 hidden beaches‘. But unlike Mediterranean or Algarve beaches you won’t find many of them backed by row upon row of apartment building. Even fishing villages are few and far between for long stretches of the 65 kilometre coast.
There are several options for holiday-type apartments, however. One good option is Esposende, where seaside and holiday apartments go from around €150,000 and detached villas with pools from double that. It’s a small town of around 35,000 people, but with a ‘parque natural’ on the doorstep and some epic beaches.
Apulia marks the southern end of the Minho, but further south towards Porto are seaside resorts such as Vila do Conde and Povoa de Varzim which do have a little more of a holiday apartment feel and prices from a little over €60,000.
Getting to north-west Portugal
The easiest option is, of course, flying into Porto. The flight takes around two hours from the UK. There are budget flights to Porto all year from all over the UK and other European cities.
The train option takes you from London St Pancras in the morning to Paris and then the Spanish border by evening. Day two (no-one said this would be quick) takes you along the Spanish coast to Vigo. You can then hop on a quick train down to Porto which takes two hours, or jump off at one of the stations along the way.
Once here you can avoid getting a car each time as the train service is pretty good. And if you don’t immediately fall in love with Porto’s São Bento railway station’s interior decoration, you may want to rethink your future in this stunningly beautiful country!