Why all your friends are going to Portugal right now

Everyone and their mother seems to be traveling to Portugal these days. Though it's been a budding tourist destination for quite some time, in the last two years, it's topped list after list as one of the best travel destinations—and it's easy to see why. This coastal nation is home to some of Europe's finest beaches, medieval castles, wine country and port towns. Even better, it's relatively affordable.

If you're looking for a last-minute fall getaway or somewhere to take advantage of Europe's shoulder season, look no further than this trendier-than-thou destination.

But don't worry: Though travelers are flocking there in droves, there are plenty of hidden gems to discover and off-the-beaten-path journeys to take, even in the major tourist hubs. If you find yourself in the Algarve, Lisbon or Porto (which you should—there's a good reason everyone goes to these three hubs), here's how to carve out your own experience, away from the crowds. You'll be one-upping your friends' by-the-book itineraries in no time.

The Algarve: Go for the beaches; stay for the picturesque towns.

Portugal's southernmost region shines with stunning beaches sandwiched between enormous, jagged cliffs and turquoise water. Don't miss the world-famous Praia de Benagil and Praia da Marinha outside Lagoa, where secret caves and arched rock formations jutting out of the sea draw sun worshipers from all over. But when you're ready to escape the masses, head to some of the picturesque and less-trodden cities and villages for a taste of what the Algarve was like before the entire UK starting going there on holiday.

East of Farol, one of the Algarve's biggest cities, is Tavira, a coastal town that hasn't fallen prey to the glitzy resorts and swarms of tourists that have taken over much of the region. The nearby beaches—some of which lie on barrier islands accessible only by boat—are quieter, too, so it's worth spending a few days in the area, island-hopping by day and wandering the town at night. Follow the locals to Alagoa beach or the natural park of Ria Formosa, where you can take a ferry out to tranquil beaches on Farol or Armona Island. Cap off the day back in Tavira over excellent tapas served in hefty portions at D'Gusta or refreshing Mediterranean fare at Aquasul.

Lisbon: Go for the food and sights; stay for the shopping.

The famous pastel de nata, an egg tart cupped in puff pastry (see the recipe); a hilltop Moorish castle; and beautiful churches would be enough to attract any tourist to Portugal's capital city. Or you could spend all day getting lost in the mazelike Alfama neighborhood and drink the night away in the Bairro Alto.

But beyond the food, drink and sights, there's shopping to be done. It might not be Paris or Milan, but Lisbon is home to a host of fashion boutiques, home goods and handicraft stores, and provisions marketplaces that would put any city to shame.

The guidebooks will send you to TimeOut Market, which is definitely worth a visit. But take time to explore smaller, locally driven boutiques like Atelier 1200, a studio and shop featuring handmade textiles, shoes and accessories made with traditional methods and sustainable resources. Or check out Typographia, a T-shirt shop that works with local artists and designers, and has now expanded outside Portugal to Barcelona and Madrid. For home goods, try YOYO Objects, which sells furniture and lighting from mostly Portuguese designers; Retroshop for fun, vintage finds; or Prego sem Estopa for contemporary pieces that range from dining tables to pillows. Dig around for a little bit of everything at A Vida Portuguesa, and when you need another book to read over glasses of port or the local cherry liqueur, marvel at the impressive Ler Devagar bookstore or catch the mobile, book-selling van, Tell a Story.

Porto & the Douro Valley: Go for the wine; stay for the nature.

Whether it's the narrow alleyways of Ribeira, a UNESCO World Heritage neighborhood; the Dom Luís I Bridge over the Douro river; or the array of cool bars, the appeal of Portugal's second-biggest city is clear. But after a few days of exploring the streets and sampling the region's famous ports, escape to the Douro Valley not just to visit the vineyards (and drink more wine), but also to rest and relax at some of Europe's best and most underrated retreats and natural parks.

Check out riverside Vintage House Hotel, where you can set up wine tastings and picnics in a nearby vineyard; unwind at Quinta de Pindela, an old family estate where you can get your hands dirty on the farm and explore the countryside; or treat yourself to a spa day at wellness retreat Six Senses. It's not all about the hotels either. Peneda-Gerês National Park, about an hour north of Porto, is home to untouched valleys, waterfalls and thermal springs; and Douro International Natural Park, which lies along the Spanish border, is ideal for river views and activities, wildlife spotting and hikes.

This month, we've decided to Turn Up the Heat, and nothing's off-limits—not even dessert. We're bringing you all the fiery recipes, spicy dishes and hot new trends you can handle.