For such a small country, Portugal is struggling a lot. From cosmopolitan cities and sprawling towns and villages, to vibrant seaside resorts and spectacular national parks, this small city offers an incredibly diverse range of tourist attractions. It is located on a piece of Iberia and shares a border with Spain and a fantastic coastline with the Atlantic Ocean. Portugal’s location in this sun-drenched corner of Western Europe lends it a special appeal. The southern foothills remain an attractive holiday destination, known for its glorious sandy beaches and world-class golf courses. The interior of the country, meanwhile, offers a huge contrast: rolling plains; wide rivers; deep, green valleys; and remote mountain ranges.
Defining Portugal’s history is an astonishing collection of monuments and historic buildings, many of which are recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. And the personality of the country is its people – open, friendly and hospitable. Spend some time traveling around the country, and you’ll be charmed by the color, the flavor and the warmth of its character.
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Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, is one of Europe’s most attractive cities. This vibrant Atlantic port sits on the banks of the Tagus River and is spread over a series of hills that enhance its beautiful waterfront setting. Exploring the city’s historic core is a journey into its fascinating past – a legacy exemplified by famous visitor attractions such as the mighty Castelo de São Jorge and Alfama , the oldest part of Lisbon. A collection of world-class museums extends the cultural experience. To the east, away from the city center, you can marvel at the modernity of Parque das Nações and its crowd favorite sites such as the brilliant Oceanário. Over to the west in Belém , Portugal’s golden age of discovery is reflected in the beautiful Mosteiro dos Jerónimos and the quirky Torre de Belém , both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In between you can walk through beautiful tree-lined squares; stroll along wide esplanades along the river; or enjoy stunning panoramas from the various miradouros or viewpoints spread across the city.
Enchanting Sintra is one of the gems in Portugal’s glittering sightseeing temple. Recognized by UNESCO for its remarkable cultural landscape, this historic and captivating city is well worth setting aside a whole day to absorb. Clustered beneath the edge of the wooded hills of Serra da Sintra, the town is dominated by the Palácio Nacional monument , its distinctive twin chimneys looming over a pretty square peeled with houses painted in a palette of pale pink and ocher with splashes of yellow .
Peering down over this picture-postcard setting is the ancient Castelo dos Mouros , seemingly carved out of the granite escarpment it propels. The charm of the highest hill is the enchanting Palácio da Pena , used in the 19th century as a summer residence by the Portuguese royal family. Sintra offers many trails for the avid hiker, but you’ll need a sturdy pair of legs to conquer the demanding hills around the town. The highest points of the serra offer breathtaking views over the Atlantic coast and Cascais far away .
With its robust granite architecture and commercial disposition, Porto, Portugal’s second city, rewards visitors with a very different experience from that of the capital. Located at the mouth of the Douro River and blessed with a waterfront – the Ribeira – recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, Porto is a destination of Baroque churches and neoclassical buildings that are some of the best examples of their kind in the country. Of particular interest are the needle-like Torre dos Clérigos and the imposing Sé , the city’s cathedral. Another landmark structure is the iconic Ponte Dom Luís I , the spectacular double-decker iron bridge that spans the Douro and connects the city of Vila Nova de Gaia. A leisurely stroll along the Ribeira provides a tangible sense of history, where you can breathe in the salty atmosphere of the place. The river provides a scenic route to the Douro Valley , a green landscape of terraced hills dotted with villages and hamlets. A popular sightseeing option is to join one of the many cruises that traverse the winding waterway.
Deep in the heart of the Alentejo is Évora, one of the most enchanting destinations in Portugal. Known for its great ensemble of well-preserved monuments, Évora deserves a close and unhurried investigation. Its medieval walls enclose centuries of history, a timeline illustrated by the impressive Templo Romano , which dates from around the second century; the brooding but compelling 12th century Sé (cathedral); and the Igreja de São Francisco, with its lugubrious Capela dos Ossos, completed in the mid-1550s. Évora’s historical significance and the pristine state of its architectural treasures have earned it the coveted status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But you’ll also be taken in by the delightful market town atmosphere and down-to-earth personality of the city: it is a pleasure to wander and shop through its Moorish alleys; browse fascinating museums; and lunch in attractive squares, where you are considered a guest rather than a tourist.
What does a king give his queen as a wedding gift? For the lucky queens of Portugal it was the achingly beautiful city of Óbidos , a custom that prevailed for hundreds of years. Today it is gifted to the general public and it is well worth the hour’s drive north from Lisbon to reach it.
Óbidos is an artist’s dream. An assortment of whitewashed cottages, cafes and craft shops along a series of narrow, cobbled streets are completely enclosed within sturdy medieval walls. There is also the Igreja De Santa Maria , with a beautiful interior of blue and white 17th-century azulejos (tiles). A museum across the town’s attractive square contains rare works of art by the 17th-century painter Josefa de Óbidos. You can walk along the top of the battlements for beautiful views over the terracotta roofs and the lush plains beyond. The fortifications are part of the monument castle , whose lifeguard glows protectively in the charming surroundings below. The castle itself is now a pousada, an expensive hotel hotel.
Quoted by many a guidebook as the most captivating town in the Algarve, Tavira indeed ticks all the scenic boxes. The Rio Gilão cuts a smile through this pleasantly laid-back town, with a Roman pedestrian bridge connecting one side to the other.
The waterfront makes for a beautiful stroll, before or after you discover the rest of Tavira’s historic treasures. The castle walls offer beautiful views over the old town and the nearby coast. You can also visit the Igreja de Santa do Castelo , the grandiose church where warrior knights are buried. The city also has a fascinating museum, the Núcleo Islâmico . Highlights include a rare figurative vase from the 11th century. An attractive option, especially during the hot summer months, is to visit the offshore Ilha de Tavira , a huge beach that still has plenty of space to spare even in high season. It is accessible by passenger ferry from a jetty at Quatro Águas.
7 Ria Formosa Natural Park
Ria Formosa Natural Park
The Algarve is rightly famous for its unspoilt coastline, and one of its natural wonders is the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa. This protected marine habitat forms a 60 kilometer stretch of marshland, salt pans, shallow water lagoons and sand dunes stretching from Quinta do Lago east past Faro all the way to Cacela Velha .
The park is a haven for an abundance of flora and fauna and is crossed by a series of nature trails with close proximity to some of the animals native to this region of Portugal. From observation hides built on the lakes, birdwatchers can spy species such as the rare purple gallinule, while lying on the mudflats and admiring flocks of flamingos. On land, look out for the delicate sea daffodil and flowering goosefoot and, if you’re lucky, the Mediterranean chameleon. One of the walks passes the famous San Lorenzo golf course , itself a draw for all kinds of birdlife. The park’s headquarters are near Olhão, where visitors can pick up maps and information leaflets.
The historic hilltop university in Coimbra is just one reason to visit this revered Portuguese city. But the wealth of additional visitor attractions, many of them clustered around the Velha Universidade , classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, merits a day’s sightseeing.
The undisputed highlight of a tour of the old university campus is the stunning Biblioteca Joanina , a Baroque jewel of gilded and marbled wood and painted ceilings. You can also climb to the top of the 18th-century bell tower for a dazzling perspective of the entire area. Your exploration should include the imposing late 12th century Se Velha (Old Cathedral). Back in the old town below, there are more historic buildings to discover, including two former monasteries and the Igreja de Santa Cruz , consecrated in 1131, which houses the tomb of Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henriques. Elsewhere there are a number of interesting museums; a botanical garden; and the nice Portugal dos Pequenitos, a park with scale models of the country’s most prominent traditional buildings. And the river itself is a pleasant change, with a wide esplanade flanking both banks – great territory for long, lazy walks.
9 Serra da Estrela Natural Park
Serra da Estrela Natural Park
Not for nothing, the highest peaks in mainland Portugal, the Serra da Estrela , are called the “star mountains”. At its highest point, up to 1,993 meters above sea level, the range, or rather plateau, is a dramatic natural feature of central Portugal. It often gets snowy in winter, when opportunistic skiers take advantage of what is probably the shortest ski season in Europe. Otherwise, the granite escarpments and glacial-sawn valleys are classic hiking country, with a network of elongated trails and paths covering the terrain. Along the way, hikers can enjoy absolutely breathtaking scenery and the traditional character of the place, embodied in villages such as Linhares and Valezim. The mountains are home to the Serra da Estrela sheepdog, a breed unique to Portugal. You are sure to come across proud locals walking one of these powerful yet gentle dogs. The area is also known for its deliciously rich and creamy Serra cheese – perhaps the best cheese in Portugal. Find it out in the shops in the shops that serve many of a local village.
10 in Elva
The heavy, star-shaped walls that form part of the military fortifications surrounding Elvas are among the best preserved examples of military architecture in Europe. In fact, this border town, located on a hilltop in the Alentejo, 15 kilometers from the border with Spain, is so remarkable for its defenses in the mid-17th century that UNESCO has declared Elvas a World Heritage Site.
It’s a long drive east (and may need to be combined with a visit to the nearby Spanish town of Badajoz ), but those who make the effort to reach this fascinating destination will be rewarded with a truly imposing circuit of walls, deep canals and star-shaped bags. Within this impregnable ring lies a warren of steep, cobbled streets and a number of worthwhile visitor attractions, most notably the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Consolação , whose casual facade conceals a truly glittering interior. A castle, located on the north face, offers beautiful views over the area and has two smaller outlying fortresses and the Aqueduto da Amoreira , the city’s impressive 16th-century aqueduct.
It is fitting that the old town of Guimarães is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as this noble city was once the capital of Portugal. That was during the 12th century, when the country’s first king, Afonso Henriques, made this northern city the cradle of the nation.
Guimarães is a very evocative place that is home to a number of important historical monuments, not least the castle , where Afonso is said to have been baptized. The equally important Paço dos Duques , the royal palace, is home to a fascinating museum, although the Museu de Alberto Sampaio , located in the Romanesque monastery of Nossa Senhora da Oliveira, on Largo da Oliveira, has a no less striking collection of artefacts. Guimarães’ famous main square actually comes straight from the Middle Ages, with its elaborately carved granite facades; ornate sculptures; and the Padrão do Salado, a 14th-century shrine that stands in front of the monastery. After reliving all this history, explore the medieval quarter by exploring the maze of narrow cobbled streets on foot past several beautifully preserved old mansions.
Braga is one of the largest cities in Portugal. Located in the north of the country, the destination has a long history as a religious and commercial center. Strolling through Braga’s historic district takes you into a predominantly 18th-century world of handsome mansions, imposing churches and striking palaces. A number of spruce parks and gardens break up the austere granite veneer that characterizes much of the architecture.
Begun in the 11th century, Braga’s cathedral, the Sé , is an obvious visitor attraction and symbolizes the fact that the city remains the ecclesiastical capital of Portugal. The city’s central square is a wonderfully atmospheric place to linger, perhaps in one of the cafes beneath the arcades. The adjacent 14th-century Torre de Menagem is all that remains of Braga’s original fortifications. A worthwhile diversion is the Bom Jesus do Monte, the spectacular religious sanctuary 1.5 kilometers east of the city. Bring a picnic and expect big crowds on weekends.
13 Peneda-Gerês National Park
Portugal’s only national park, the beautiful Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês is one of the country’s greatest natural wonders. The rocky terrain covers more than 700 square kilometers in Portugal’s northern Minho region, near the border with Spain, and includes dramatic mountain scenery; lush, gaping valleys; tumbling waterfalls; and deep, crystal clear lakes. Traditional villages, granite hamlets and even an old spa town, Caldas do Gerês, add personality to this bleak yet beautiful landscape. Wolves and wild boars still roam the more remote regions of the park, while above, golden eagles spiral effortlessly on mighty thermals soaring over dramatic peaks. The park is a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts. Signposted trails offer plenty of hiking opportunities, from two-hour romps to day trips. Scattered rural guesthouses and some designated campsites provide basic accommodation, although there are hotels in larger towns. Spring is an ideal time to visit, with the countryside already in full bloom. But even in the middle of winter, this excellent destination remains a very special place.
The most remote city in Portugal is also one of the most tempting because you literally have to travel to the furthest corner of the country to get to Bragança . The old town is especially attractive because it is completely enclosed by a ribbon of imposing granite walls. By exploring this walled Cidadela , or ‘citadel’, which dates back to 1130, you can get a tangible sense of the Middle Ages. The old streets are lined with squat houses, whitewashed houses and the church of Santa Maria has a striking painted ceiling. But it is the brooding castle and its sturdy keep that really captures the imagination. Another highlight is the Domus Municipalis, a strange pentagonal council chamber dating from the 15th century. It is the only surviving example of Romanesque civil architecture in Portugal. Due to the distances involved, it’s worth planning an overnight stay in Bragança and while the Cidadela is the obvious attraction, Parque Natural de Montesinho , a 70,000 hectare reserve that lies between the city and the border with Spain, is an attractive alternative.
The Alentejo has quite a few hilltop places, but only a few are attractive in Mértola . Furthermore, this white-colored spot of a community sits above the Guadiana River, and the scene is quite idyllic. But what really sets this destination apart is the fact that the entire place is designated as a Vila Museu – a museum site. Mértola’s origins date back to the Phoenicians, who created a bustling river port, a facility later used by the Romans and then the Moors. This varied and colorful timeline is the basis for the cluster of excellent mini-museums dotted around and around the old town, with each dedicated to a different era. Helping to illustrate the Arab’s residence, the historic 13th century castle is strategically located on the top of a hill. The view from the keep offers a beautiful panorama of the surrounding countryside. Within the castle grounds there is an excavated site, where you will find evidence of Moorish, You can admire Roman and Christian habitation. It is not surprising that the church of Mértola, located just outside the castle walls, was a mosque.
One of the best seaside resorts in Portugal, Lagos basks in the warmth of the Algarve sun and is the holiday destination of choice for thousands of visitors, who flock to the country’s southern coast every year. Known for the fantastic beaches that flank the city on either side of its international marina, Lagos is also home to some truly magical rock formations, sandstone cliffs towering over a series of sea caves and oddly shaped grottoes. If you can lure yourself away from the sand, you can visit as part of a fun sightseeing cruise, and many other water sports options. Back on solid ground, Lagos’ cultural draws include the remarkable Museu Municipal and its adjacentIgreja de Santo António , whose interior is one of the most lavishly decorated in the entire region. And if you appreciate sunsets, you’ll love Ponta da Piedade : its lighthouse is a favorite spot to watch the sun dip below the Atlantic horizon.