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Its Roman and Moorish roots are highly visible, from the beautifully conserved Roman Temple of Diana, to its tangle of ancient alleys rising steeply towards the city centre. Its historical role as capital of Portugal's agricultural heartland continues today, with daily fruit and vegetable markets and a peaceful, rural atmosphere.
During term time, the pace quickens with the arrival of several thousand students, while summer attracts the inevitable busloads of tourists. Hiring a car is advisable for exploring the Alentejo, but the city itself is easily walkable and driving around the muddling one-way system within the city walls is best avoided.
TAP Portugal ; www. British Airways ; www. Easyjet ; www. Monarch , flymonarch. Set in a monastery founded in , the monks' cells have been converted into 36 comfortable guestrooms, centered on peaceful cloisters filled with orange trees. Even if you don't stay here, you can still have a snoop around the vaulted, frescoed corridors if you visit the bar or have a meal in the excellent restaurant. A good family alternative is the Hotel da Cartuxa 00 ; www. The rooms have a countryside feel, with terracotta floors and wooden furniture, and there's a decent restaurant overlooking the gardens.
The churches, palaces and museums can easily fill a weekend, but the real appeal here is getting lost in the bewildering maze of Moorish cobbled streets which radiate out towards the hefty city walls, broken up by wide squares, sun- dappled parks and sudden glimpses of the surrounding countryside. Its central role in the agricultural area of Alentejo means that regional food is a big draw, be it in the mounds of cheeses, sausages and fresh fruit and veg at the city markets, or in the local cuisine celebrated in the wide choice of restaurants.
Start at the city's centrepiece, the Templo Romano, Portugal's best-preserved Roman temple, in the heart of the old town. At one end is a small formal garden, the Jardim Diana, with pretty views over a Roman aqueduct and a muddle of white-washed houses.