It only took one day to fall in love with Portugal. But, spending two months in this country really sealed the deal, and now it’s vying for the top spot as my absolute favorite country in Europe. Portugal may be on the smaller side, but you wouldn’t know it looking at the variety of the list below: charming towns, bustling cities, rugged mountains, rolling valleys, pristine coastline, and lush jungle islands. These are the nineteen best places to visit in Portugal.
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Porto is Portugal’s second largest city, famed for its export of fine port wine. With over six bridges connecting Porto to Vila Nova de Gaia on the other side, you really can’t mention one and not the other. Go to Porto and Gaia for an authentic Portuguese vibe, buildings covered in azulejos, a great food scene, beautiful beaches within a 10 minute ride, and amazing views from both sides of the river. The riverside Ribeira district is particularly lively, full of restaurants, shops, and plenty of people enjoying the atmosphere.
2 Douro Valley
While you may be tempted to stay in enchanting Porto your whole trip, an excursion up through the Douro Valley is a must. Cruising up the Douro River used to be the only convenient way to reach the Valley, but a new tunnel opened in 2016 through the Serra do Marao mountains. Now driving through the world’s first officially designated wine region and staying for an extended visit is a much easier option. The impressive granite mountains are terraced with picture perfect vineyards and spotted with large wine estates.
Braga’s role as the religious capital of Portugal is made clear by the number of churches, chapels and monasteries dotted throughout the town. In keeping with character, Braga decorates for Semana Santa (Holy Week) festivals with lights and flowers and hosts numerous processions. Don’t miss important religious sites including the Sé Cathedral, Antigo Paço Episcopal, and the hillside sanctuary Bom Jesus do Monte. As one of Portugal’s oldest cities, you can follow the architecture through the ages. Walk the charming narrow lanes for excellent examples of Roman, Gothic and Baroque styles. Despite its age, Braga’s old city center is filled with buzzing cafes and popular restaurants, and was even named the Europe Youth Capital in 2012.
4 Viana do Castelo
Viana do Castelo has been an important town since the Age of Discovery, when Portuguese explorers set sail down the Rio Lima estuary and off into the open ocean. Visit the medieval city center and stroll down leafy streets lined with Manueline palaces. It would be hard to miss the neo-Byzantine Santa Luzia Sanctuary, set high up on a hill behind the city. A picturesque wide sand dune beach, Praia do Cabedelo, is just a 10 minute drive away.
5 Peneda-Gerês National Park
Portugal is checkered with so many colorful cities and pristine beaches that visitors often forget about the natural beauty on land. The country’s only national park covers three mountain ranges with plenty of hiking, flora, fauna, and birdwatching. You may see wild Garrano ponies roaming freely, walk an ancient Roman road, or wander through castles from the Megalithic period.
You could call Guimarães the birthplace of Portugal: Alfonso Henriques, the first King of Portugal, was born in this medieval town. The old city center, with its narrow streets crammed with towers, cloisters, and stately mansions carefully preserved, is a UNESCO world heritage site.
To call Aveiro the “Venice of Portugal” might be a bit of an overstatement, but this small port and fishing town packs a lot of charm in small, colorful packages. There are three canals to meander through on gondola-type boats, called barcos moliceiros. Even with such beautiful beaches, the candy-colored striped beach houses lining the sand grab your eye. The best part, this is still a very local town that doesn’t see a lot of tourists, so everything you see here is as it really is, and not just for show. Historic sites not to miss include the Aveiro Cathedral, Convento de Jesus and the São Gonçalinho Chapel.
Coimbra may be a medieval city, but it’s buzzing with young life thanks to its large student population. Situated on the Mondego River, this beautiful city is home to the University of Coimbra, one of the oldest universities in the world. Visit the 12th-century Romanesque cathedral Sé Velha, the Café Santa Cruz for conventual cakes called crúzios, and the University’s richly decorated baroque library, Biblioteca Joanina. As you wander the ancient streets, you may hear Portugal’s second type of fado, often called student fado, drifting through an open window.
Nazaré is a tiny seaside town, surrounded by some of the best beaches in Portugal. The long and wide stretches of sand are packed with beachgoers in the summer, but winter weather transforms the ocean into a mecca for big wave surfers. And by big, I mean over 70 feet, with some rideable waves reaching over 100 feet. If you want to see what that looks like, check out the YouTube videos here.
Entrance to this walled city is through Porta da Vila, an elaborately decorated main gate covered in traditional azulejos depicting the Passion of Christ. Once inside, freely explore the car-free cobbled streets, white-washed houses, and stop in at the 12th century Santa Maria Church. To get a view over the town, take the hour walk along the wall which completely encircles the city.
As the capital, Lisbon is an obvious choice as one of the best places to visit in Portugal. Lisbon is The City of Seven Hills, the Queen of the Sea, and The City of Light. After traipsing up and down these hills for two months, I know Portugal’s capital is worthy of all of these titles. Lisbon is big, but each neighborhood feels like its own little city. Go to Alfama to get lost in a maze of tiny alleys and backstreets, Barrio Alto for nightlife, Príncipe Real for upscale shopping, and Belém to witness where the greatest explorers set sail. For more ideas on what to explore in each neighborhood, check out our ultimate Lisbon bucket list!
From each majestic miradouro, the city looks like a sea of red rooftops, tumbling down to the river Tagus. There’s something colorful to discover on each street, lined with azulejos covered facades. After a long day of discovery, tuck into to a meal of caldo verde and fish, or keep it simple with a bifana or prego. You’re never too far from a pastelaria, where you’ll find rows of sweet little egg tarts called pasteis de nata.
If you’re looking to minimize your walking, stay near the downtown area of Baixa-Chiado. The Alfama feels a bit filled with tourists to me, so I would stay on the other side of the hill in Mouraria to get the authentic old city vibe. One of my favorite neighborhoods in the city is Príncipe Real, where you’ll find plenty of great restaurants, bakeries, shopping, and lots of locals relaxing at the kiosks in Jardim do Príncipe Real.
The colorful hill town of Sintra boasts three palaces, an old Moorish Castle, a gothic mansion, and miles of forested hiking paths. A trip to Sintra is a chance to view man-made beauty in peaceful, garden settings. See here for our tips on making the most out of a visit to Sintra. While it’s a popular day trip from Lisbon, you need at least two days to visit all of the palaces and spend a bit of time in the town. If you’re limited to one day, our favorites are Pena Palace and Quinta da Regaleira.
Just 45 minutes outside of Lisbon by train, Cascais became our easy weekend beach escape this last summer. The two beaches in town get extremely busy in the hotter months. After exploring the small city center with trendy boutiques and nice restaurants, take a walk or a bike ride outside the town to Boca do Inferno, a rock formation that is supposed to feature fierce waters. Even further up the coast is Praia do Guincho, a large sand dune beach with great surfing. Read all about our tips for visiting Cascais here, including where to rent free bikes!
14 Parque Natural da Arrábida
If you think the Algarve is the only place to find golden beaches and bright blue waters, you probably haven’t seen Parque Natural da Arrábida, just an hour south of Lisbon. The Serra da Arrábida mountain ridge is lush and green with beautiful hiking trails, dropping off into chalk cliffs before the fine sand and the crystal clear sea. There’s a rich variety of Mediterranean plants, including pistachio, lavender and strawberry.
To prove Portugal really has it all, we had to include one of the country’s most beautifully preserved medieval towns, Évora. The partially walled city center is a UNESCO world heritage site. You can easily walk between a Roman Temple from around the 2nd century, a chapel of bones, and majestic churches like the Sé Cathedral. Spend some time in the Moorish quarter to sample the flavors of the Alentejo region, including olives, sheep’s cheese, black pork, salt cod, wild mushrooms and asparagus.
Portugal’s Algarve region features some of the finest beaches in Europe, and Lagos is a popular home base for holidaymakers and people looking for a party scene. Algarve beaches have the look and feel of the Mediterranean, but because it’s the Atlantic, there are spots for good surfing and watersports. The entire coastline is dotted with soft sand and stunning views, but don’t miss these picturesque spots:
- Praia da Marinha – One of the most popular photography spots in the Algarve (see above) for the limestone rock formations
- Meia Praia – One of the largest and longest beaches in the Algarve, the soft sand curves around the bay over 4 km, so you’re sure to find a spot even on the busy summer days.
- Praia da Dona Ana – Another beach surround by colorful cliffs, sparkling sand and blue waters. It’s within walking distance from Lagos, so this makes it a convenient if busy beach.
- Praia de Odeceixe – This beach is one of the more sheltered beaches, so it’s a great option for families looking for safe swimming spots.
If you’re not interested in the nightlife of Lagos, Tavira offers a more rustic and charming spot to enjoy the relaxed vibe of the eastern Algarve. There’s plenty to explore along the town’s cobbled streets, including over 20 Renaissance and Gothic churches, whitewashed mansions, and old Roman ruins. Nearby is the exceptional island beach of Ilha de Tavira.
Far out in the middle of the Atlantic, the Azores are an archipelago made up of 9 volcanic islands. Each island is different, but all offer an amazing setting for outdoor activities like hiking, swimming, snorkeling and diving, boating and biking. The largest island, São Miguel, is known as “The Green Island,” with unparalled views and natural beauty. On Graciosa, find a vaulted cave over an underground lake, the tallest mountain in Portugal on Pico, and the Ribeira Grande Waterfall in Flores.
Madeira is the main island of another small island group in the Atlantic. Madeira is all about the mountains, made of volcanic soil where just about anything grows. The island offers plenty of hiking through its verdant landscape, including Verada do Areeiro, a trek between Madeira’s two highest peeks. Another fun experience is a walk along the exterior of a mountain next the levada, or irrigation system. We first learned about Madeira as home of the malasada, a small yeast doughnut that is popular in Hawaii. We quickly discovered there is a lot more to the island’s impressive culinary scene. Head to a local market to find a huge variety of exotic produce, try the local bread bolo de caco, or an espetada, a grilled skewer of meat, bay leaves, and garlic.
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