Top 15 Places to Visit in Portugal
Once the capital of Portugal, this quaint and charming town is a treasure chest of stunning gardens, historical sites, fado music, and dynamic culture. Located near the Mondego River in the centre of Portugal, Coimbra is a city of medieval churches and an intricate maze of cobbled streets that are so stunning; you’ll think you’ve slipped back in time. In fact, many people consider Coimbra to be the most romantic city in the country. The town gets its energy and influence from the University of Coimbra. Founded in 1209, and one of the oldest universities in Europe, you can see the entire city from its courtyard.
Roughly halfway between Massachusetts and mainland Portugal, you’ll find the Azores. This archipelago is made of nine volcanic islands scattered over several hundred nautical miles and best known for the hot mineral springs, first-class whale watching (named one of the top ten spots on the planet), and lovely seaside towns. Each island has its own distinct identity, but they’re all rich with beautiful beaches and green landscapes. Sao Miguel, “The Green Island,” is the largest of the nine while Pico is home to the tallest mountain in all of Portugal. If you’re an adventurer, this is where you want to be. All water sports can be found here as well as cycling and horseback riding; primarily in Vila Franca do Campo, the largest town in The Azores.
This beautiful town, that sits at the foot of a mountain range bearing the same name, is so marvellous that UNESCO has named the entire place a world heritage site. The designation is for “cultural landscape,” specially created for Évora and which includes the natural beauty of the mountains as well the historic characteristics of the town. Évora is 2,000 years old and overflowing with Moorish courtyards, Renaissance fountains, Gothic turrets, medieval squares and a labyrinthine of tiny streets. Visit the Praça do Giraldo, one of the main squares where open-air cafes serve delicious coffees to tourists but which was once the site of public executions. Don’t forget the Roman baths and the Moorish “Yeborah.”
Set alongside the Ria de Aveiro lagoon, Aveiro (uh-vey-roo) is a lively city whose nickname is “the Venice of Portugal” because of its picturesque humpbacked bridges, high-prow boats, and the charming network of cannels. In fact, the town is best explored by moliceiro, a traditional boat once used primarily for harvesting seaweed and now converted for tourists. Have your fill of relaxing beaches and fabulous cuisine and feel like royalty here. You’ll want to be sure to make time for the Sao Goncalinho Chapel, the Averio Cathedral, the Convento de Jesus and the many art nouveau buildings scattered around the town’s old centre.
Just off the Lisbon coast, in the foothills of the Sintra Mountains, and a day trip away from Portugal’s capital, Sintra is simply breathtaking. Pretty villas, royal retreats, luscious green hills, and fairy tale castles define this beautiful town. The highlight is Sintra’s Palácio da Pena with its German influence and mix of architectural styles. Once the summer home of the Portuguese royal family, the surrounding lands are a nature lovers dream come true – filled with exotic flowers, plants, and trees. You must also make time for the ancient ruins at the Castle of the Moors with its unbelievable view from Sintra’s highest hill, as well as the subtropical gardens of Monserrate Palace.
Porto is the city that gave Portugal its name. But locals will tell you it’s most known for a hearty fortified wine known as port. This busy city spreads itself across the hills that overlook the Douro River in north Portugal. The historic centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site where you’ll find the Ribeira, a wonderful pedestrian zone with cafes, live music, street vendors, and mouth-waters cuisine. Porto is the second largest city and balances its commercial interests with its romantic history. Take a sunset stroll along the Douro as the sounds of music drift from the cafes and see if you don’t want to stay forever.
Encircled by several rings of medieval walls with a Moorish castle at its centre, Óbidos sits on top of a hill with astonishing views. The town’s main attractions are the historic centre and its medieval castle which is now a Pousada (hotel owned by the government). The medieval ambiance of the place makes for a remarkable walk as you wind your way through the crooked cobblestone streets. You’ll pass many small squares full of lively activity, small cafes and shops, and whitewashed private homes decorated with colourful flowers. Don’t miss out on the Capela de São Martinho, Igreja Matriz de Santa Maria, or the Igreja do Senhor da Pedra. Enjoy the Ancient Music Festival in October and the International Chocolate Festival each March.
8. Funchal, Maderia
With a nickname like “Floating Garden of the Atlantic,” you know you’re in for a fun and relaxing time. Maderia is an archipelago in the Atlantic located between Portual and North Africa. It’s one of two autonomous regions in the country (along with The Azores) and is popular for its wines, the must-see Orchid Garden and the Laurissilva Forest. Funchal is its capital and largest city which manages to balance modern growth and tradition. This is evident when you look at the well-preserved churches and museums through town. Funchal is a very walk-able sunny city perfect for nature lovers. When the sun goes down, those that love a fun-filled nightlife will appreciate the nightclubs, casinos, and restaurants.
9. The Algarve
If you’re looking for sun, sand, and sea, you’ll want to put Algarve at the top of your life. Here’s the rundown for this amazing south Portuguese town: fantastic beaches, Mediterranean climate, 3000 hours of sunlight a year, almost no rain, delicious cuisine, affordable cost of living, world-renown golf courses, picturesque towns, and rich history. What’s not to love? The capital city of Faro is almost untouched from its 18th century roots and Sagres and Lagos can trace their roots to the Roman period. You must visit The Fortaleza de Sagre was built in the 15th century and is believed to be the home of Prince Henry’s School of Navigation, and the Cape of São Vicente, a sacred site for the Roman’s who called it Promontorium Sacrum.
Portugal’s capital and largest city stretches along the banks of the Tagus River. Covering seven hills that form an unbelievable destination vacation, Lisbon is full of Gothic cathedrals, distinct neighbourhoods, fantastic weather, crooked alleyways, and fun shopping all with traditional fado music serving as your soundtrack everywhere you go. The Baixa, Lisbon’s downtown, is the traditional centre of life here. The Baixa is where you’ll find the old traditional shops – some of the craftsmen have been there for generations. Alfama, an old Moorish quarter is the oldest district in the city known for its rustic architecture as well as St. George’s Castle. Take a tour on one of the vintage trams (famously Tram 28) which will take you through all the main attractions, gardens, and historic quarters.
This city is overflowing with astounding characteristics. The historic centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the city itself was 2012’s European Capital of Culture. Guimarães has special value for the Portuguese for it was here that the country’s roots began, during the Battle of São Mamede in 1128. Afonso Henriques, the first King of Portugal was the victor and set in motion the founding of this small but marvellous country. You must visit not only the 10th century medieval castle, but Ducal Palace as well – built in the 15th century, it’s now a palace and a museum. And for a relaxing afternoon, take a stroll down the city’s most beautiful street, Rua de Santa Maria.
This former fishing village is now a major holiday destination among domestic and international tourists. It’s no wonder when you consider the white sand beaches, parasailing, jet-skiing, anddolphin watching. Three great beaches to consider are Praia da Oura, Praia dos Pescadores (Fishermans Beach), and Praia do Peneco. If crowds aren’t for you but you still want your time on the beach, there are smaller and more secluded beaches full of character and great for families. When you need a break, head inland to visit the appealing villages and high-quality restaurants on offer. Oh, and don’t forget the incredible nightlife.
Vilamoura, considered the heart of the Algarve, has always been known for its absorbing natural beauty and sun and sand holidays. But these days tourism is booming and it’s becoming more known for luxurious spas, fine golfing, and a paradise for true foodies. Vilamoura is the place to come to put your feet up and relax. You’re a quick trip away from the fast-paced night life of Faro as well as the Algarve’s best beaches. In fact, some of Portugal’s best wind-surfing happens on the beaches closest to town. This is a must-stop for seafood lovers and wine lovers. It’s a perfect way to wind down your time in Portugal.
Home to the Sanctuary of Fátima, a sacred pilgrimage site for Catholics, this central Portuguese town is heavily influenced by its patron saint, the Virgin Mary. You can visit the Capelinha das Apariçoes, where she allegedly appeared in 1917, as well as other sacred sites like Igreja da Santíssima Trindade and the golden angels of Basílica de Nossa Senhora do Rosário. Over six million people a year come to visit this holy place that now houses two huge churches on a stunning esplanade in the heart of town. No matter your beliefs, Fátima is an impressive site to see; it’s an interesting look into some of the religious culture of Portugal.
The entire Algarve region is famous in Portugal, and the Algarve’s most famous destination is Faro. This capital city feels more Portuguese than most resort towns which is too bad because most people just pass through. There’s a lot to discover here, including a delightful marine, plazas and parks, the historic old down with outdoor cafes and wonderful pedestrian lanes, the archaeological museum and a Renaissance cathedral known as Bishops Palace. There’s a student population that keeps the nightlife interesting as well. The medieval quarters are fabulously maintained and hidden within you’ll find unique little museums, churches, and even a bone chapel. The Parque Natural da Ria Formasa lagoons are also nearby and make a great spot for exploration.
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