Safest Top Vacation Spots for Jews: Peaceful Portugal

The world seems a more dangerous place to travel for everyone, but maybe especially for Jews.  Fig Tree & Vine is launching an occasional series of the top destinations where Jewish travelers can feel completely comfortable snapping selfies and visiting major sites. To determine these, we’ve relied on a number of sources to determine the safety factor of any given place, including the Anti-Defamation League’s most recent Global 100 Anti-Semitism Survey Index.  So far we’ve visited Tokyo, London’s Historic East End, and the Caribbean destination, Curacao

By Danielle Crittenden Frum

You could construct an entire vacation in Portugal exploring Jewish sites and history – one that would take you along the coastal areas as well as into the heart of the old Jewish Quarters in cities like Lisbon.

Jews have lived in Portugal for more than two centuries. During the Inquisition period, Jews were expelled or forced to convert to Christianity. Some Jews went undercover as “Marannos,” who practiced their religion in private (and stayed undercover well into the 20th century). More recently, Portugal – in happy contrast to other European countries — is actively welcoming back descendants of Sephardic Jews, who ancestors were banished under the inquisition: In 2015, the Portuguese government ratified a bill that encourages qualified Jews to apply for citizenship.

Portugal, a cradle of Sephardic heritage, offers a rich history of Jewish life combined with a rich history of Jewish sights to see and explore.  There are plenty of online resources to help you design a trip depending upon how many places you plan to visit. An excellent guide to the Jewish sites of the Porto and Douro region can be found here. A guide to Lisbon’s old Jewish Quarter can be found here. You can also book group and private walking tours of Jewish sites in Lisbon through companies such as the recommended Lisbon Explorer. A nice summary of Portugal’s Jewish history can be found here.

Here are some highlights to whet your appetite for a Portuguese vacation:

The Lisbon Synagogue.

The Old Jewish Quarter of Lisbon and Lisbon Synagogue/Shaare Tikva: The Sephardic synagogue in Lisbon, built in 1904, the first synagogue to be built in Portugal since the late 1500s. It’s a stunning piece of architecture mixing three styles, Neo-Byzantine, Neo-Romanesque, and Moorish Revival, hidden behind walls off the city’s streets in the heart of Lisbon. It displays artifacts dating back to the 1300s. Pack in a walking tour of surrounding streets, including Rossio Square, the site of the Inquisition.

Synagogue of Tomar.

Costa de Prata Region: The endless beaches of this coastal area 100k north of Lisbon also has some fascinating Jewish sites. In Obidos, you can find an old Jewish quarter and a 12th-century synagogue. In Tomar, there is a medeaevil synagogue and mikveh. The synagogue is now museum for the history of Jews in the Middle Ages, with early artifacts.

Welcome to Belmonte.

Belmonte: In this historic town is where the last Marranos held out — until their discovery in 1917 by a Polish engineer. For centuries they had practiced their Judaism in secret. When discovered, they did not believe other Jews still existed until the engineer — a man named Samuel Schwartz — recited the shema. A synagogue was built there in 1996, after the Marranos could be convinced of their safety and returned to the fold in the 1970s.

Inside the Kadoorie synagogue, courtesy of Times of Israel.

Porto: The history of Jews dates in this coastal town between the 5th and 15th century. The site of what was Portugal’s first synagogue in the Rua de Santana. There are many ancient Jewish quarters layered like geological strata, continuing to the Kadoorie Synagogue built between 1927 and 1939.

Where to Stay:

There are all kinds of places for all kinds of budgets. The Conde Nast guide to Lisbon hotels can be found here. Of special interest to Jewish travelers to Porto, however, is the Hotel de Musaica, is a cool modern hotel that offers a full Kosher kitchen and menu, and is a 10-minute walk from the Kadoorie shul.