15 Best Places To Visit In Portugal – Real Reasons People are Visiting (with Photos and Tips)
Despite being relatively small by European standards, Portugal offers visitors a whole host of activities, architecture and, of course the Azores to keep every kind of traveller entertained.
Portugal is blessed with an agreeable climate year-round, with winters on the Algarve rarely dropping below 12 degrees and summer enjoying scorching days of pure sunshine. This means whether you are popping over for a spring city break, relaxing on the beach in summer or catching some winter sun, Portugal can be the destination for you!
The variety is one of the things that brings visitors back to Portugal time and time again. Travellers can choose to discover the intricate history of the country or instead simply marvel at the stunning scenery that changes dramatically from centre to coast.
Thanks to its affordable accommodation, friendly locals, divine cuisine and epic landscapes, Portugal has become more and more popular with tourists, especially over the last 10 years. This of course means that the cities and beach hotspots have become notably busier during the peak season, but luckily there is still much of the country that has been left untouched and is just begging to be explored.
Concerned about the cost? Read, Is Portugal Expensive?
Read on to discover 15 of my favourite Portuguese destinations so you can plan your next adventure on the Iberian Peninsula:
Lisbon – The Portuguese Capital
There is good reason that Lisbon graces the top of most ‘must visit’ lists about Portugal and it would be amiss for me not to mention it despite it already being popular and well-known. Portugal’s capital features narrow winding streets, decorative azulejos (stunning mosaics on the interior and exterior of building facades) and a sea of red roofs that can be witnessed from above from a number of amazing vistas across the city. Head to Miradouro das Portos do Sol for incredible views of the city.
There are a few other must dos when visiting Lisbon, including witnessing the Santa Justa Elevator, visiting the beautiful Monastery of St Jerome and taking a ride on the iconic Tram 28 which teeters its way through the city on its rickety old lines.
Starting your night off with a Ginjinha (a sour cherry liqueur) and eating a Pastel de Nata (a smouldered sweet custard tart) from Pastéis de Belém are also absolutely obligatory!
More on Lisbon –Is Lisbon Worth Visiting?
Porto – Add this City to Your Bucket List
The northern city of Porto (Portugal’s second city) is a must for those with a love of art and culture. Slightly quieter in terms of tourism than Lisbon, Porto still features a wealth of attractions to keep you entertained. Climb the Torre dos Clérigos to gain a fantastic vantage point over the terracotta-roofed city, visit one of the world’s most beautiful book stores, Livraria Lello (said to have inspired JK Rowling when writing Harry Potter), and discover the alluring historic district of Ribiera. This part of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in itself, with a collection of picturesque buildings tumbling down the hillside towards Duoro.
Walking across the Dom Luis I iron bridge is a wonderful way to get a sense of scale of the city as well as connecting the nature of the Duoro River with the hustle and bustle of the city.
Last and by no means least, do what the name suggests and enjoy a tipple of Port while exploring the city if Porto! This rich fortified wine originates in the vineyards surrounding Porto and you can choose whether you want to enjoy a tasting in one of the city cellars or head out to the vineyards to gain a greater understanding of the Port-making process.
Coimbra – The Amazing University Town
For history buffs it doesn’t come much better than Coimbra, with preserved medieval architecture throughout and one of the world’s oldest universities. Founded in the 13th Century, the University of Coimbra is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site with spectacular squares, the stunning Joanine Library and a bell tower that hosts great views over the campus. If you’re lucky enough to visit in May, you may be able to witness the Burning of the Ribbons graduation celebration (Queima das Fitas), a colourful party filled with glee and pride.
Other sites of interest in Coimbra include the Monastery of Santa Cruz which houses the tomb of the first King of Portugal, the Machado de Castro National Museum which offers a great insight into the history of the city and the Sé Velha Cathedral.
Coimbra is now a wonderful place to experience the combination of archaic architecture and modern life goings on.
Monsanto – Away from the Tourists
The small village of Monsanto is located on the border with Spain and is a relatively unknown destination for tourists. The unique town was built around a handful (not literally!) of giant boulders which now seem randomly dotted throughout the village. Buildings are perched in and around these boulders with greenery flowing out of the rocks in a lovely verdant display of nature. The uniqueness of Monsanto truly has to be seen to be believed and admired.
There are merely 1,000 residents that live here year-round so the village has a quaint, rural atmosphere. In season, the locals cook up some traditional village dishes in small tavernas which (I think) is the best way to get a real feel for a place!
To end your visit to Monsanto, head up to the castle above the village for excellent views of both the village and the surrounding plains.
Óbidos – One of the Most Romantic Cities in Portugal
The walled village of Óbidos has a charming ambiance which is enhanced by the 12th Century castle situated in its heart. Often regarded as one of the most romantic places in the country, Óbidos is utterly picturesque with meandering cobblestone streets, blooming bougainvillea and stunning white houses outlined with primary colours and topped with terracotta roofs. Simply wandering around this quaint village is a great way to spend a few days.
The castle was founded by the Moors in the 700s and has become the home of a succession of queens since Afonso II gifted the village of Óbidos to his wife Urraca of León in the 1200s. Today you can stay in the castle which has now been transformed into a pousada so you can have a truly regal experience.
If you visit the village in July you may have the opportunity to enjoy the Medieval Fair that features joyful medieval music, armoured knights and insightful theatre performances that portray historic tales.
Monsaraz – Winding Village Streets
Monsaraz is another charming village with whitewashed buildings encircled by a medieval stone wall. The small village is situated on the Portugal/Spain border and is surrounded by spectacular landscapes; from olive groves and rolling hills to the River Guadiana which separates the two countries.
The fortifications around this quaint village are impressive and tell the tales of history including the architecture created by the Knights Templar and the influence of the Moorish domination.
Spend your days wandering around the winding village streets, photographing the picturesque houses, pillars, gardens and churches that make Monsaraz a peaceful place to explore.
If you get the chance, head out to the olive groves where you may be able to taste the olives and oil that is produced on site.
Beaches & Islands
Madeira – An Island Getaway
Although it’s not located on Portugal’s mainland, Madeira is still a popular Portuguese beach destination. Comprising of four islands situated in the Atlantic Ocean off the north-west coast of Africa, Madeira boasts year-round sunshine, rugged landscapes and delicious cuisine that keep visitors coming back time and time again.
The island is renowned for its namesake fortified wine which can be tasted at vineyards and restaurants around the island. Whether you prefer the dry version or opt for a sweet tipple along with dessert, you’re sure to fall in love with the taste.
Madeira is also famous for its New Year’s Eve celebrations which host an array of colourful fireworks in an epic display of light and sound. The island’s new year festivities are supposed to be one of the best in the world and have even topped the Guinness World Records for the largest firework display.
Algarve – Has a Relaxed Vibe
A favourite beach destination for families, the Algarve spreads both east and west of Faro and features small fishing villages and sandy beaches that wind their way along the low, white cliffs. The Algarve is famous for its spectacular golf resorts which comprise of hotel and apartment accommodation, stunning golf courses, swimming pools, spas, restaurants and more. You can therefore find something for all the family in one place.
If you venture out of the resorts you can stumble across beautiful beaches with craggy outcrops, quaint tavernas with plenty of fresh sardines and sea bass, exceptional nature parks and even Michelin-starred restaurants!
Although the resorts fill up throughout July and August, the Algarve still has a relaxed vibe. If you’d prefer an even more tranquil experience, visit in the shoulder seasons which still remain warm (April-October).
São Miguel – A Volcanic Island
Still relatively unknown is another of Portugal’s islands, São Miguel in the Azores. São Miguel is located further west than Madeira in the Atlantic and features volcanic scenery which is great for hikers. The twin crater lakes of Sete Cidades are absolutely beautiful, with one blue lake and one green creating a spectacular contrast. Thanks to the location of the island on three tectonic plates (Eurasian, African and North American) the island has many geological formations including cones and craters which pepper the landscape.
The island is also a good spot for whale watching. Between April and June each year a variety of whales and dolphins make their way to the Azorean waters including sperm whales, blues, pilots and fin whales. Sperm whales and some dolphin species may be seen year-round.
Although São Miguel’s beaches aren’t always the best for swimming and sunbathing (due to strong tides) it can be nice to visit the volcanic black-sand beaches of the island for an afternoon of relaxation.
Sintra – A Must Visit
One of the must-see sights of Portugal is the historic town of Sintra. Packed with stunning palaces and castles, Sintra is a magical, fairytale town that despite being popular among tourists, manages to retain its charm.
Sintra is perched on the hillside of the Sintra Mountains above the Atlantic Ocean and is just 30 minutes from Lisbon making it accessible for a day trip.
The main castle in Sintra plays host to an array of colours that enhance the beauty of the building and make it an exquisite focal point for the village. From there, explore the Moorish fortification walls, the breath-taking ‘initiation well’ and the ethereal forest which looks even more epic when the low-lying mist floats through the trees.
You can also visit the Praia da Ursa beach with craggy cliffs and rock formations which make it unbelievably photogenic!
Carmo Convent Ruins – A Reminder of the Lisbon’s Traumatic Past
One of the most awe-inspiring pieces of architecture in Lisbon is the Carmo Convent Ruins which stand in the heart of the capital. These ruins hark back to the pre-earthquake convent days of the 1700s when the building was home to a peaceful community and a library holding over 5000 books!
The convent was built in 1389 and was a focal point of the city of Lisbon, one of Europe’s leading cities and seaports.
In 1755, Lisbon was hit by a devastating earthquake and numerous aftershocks, tsunamis and fires which killed thousands and destroyed practically everything in its wake. The earthquake has a magnitude of 9 and Lisbon as it was once known was ripped to shreds. This was a terrifying and deadly day and the remaining convent ruins serve as a reminder of this catastrophic event.
Chapel of Bones – An Amazing Place
The Chapel of Bones in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Évora is another must-see despite being somewhat macabre and morbid. Set in the Igreja de Sao Francisco church complex, the 16th century Chapel of Bones features skulls and bones from floor to ceiling which were said to have been moved to the chapel when the 40+ cemeteries around Évora were taking up valuable land.
In order to remind the wealthy locals of the value of life and the transience of material things, the monks at the time decided it would be best to keep the bones on show. They also put the following thought-provoking message above the chapel door as yet another reminder: “Nós ossos que aqui estamos, pelos vossos esperamos,” or: “We bones, are here, waiting for yours.”!!
Although it may not seem like a cheery holiday destination, the Chapel of Bones is well worth a visit.
Surfing in Ericeira – A Must Visit if You Like Surfing
Situated on the west coast of Portugal, Ericeira is one of the country’s best spots for surfing. The traditional fishing community has expanded to host surf-lovers who come from all over the world to enjoy Portugal’s waves. Ericeira has even become a World Surfing Reserve, making it the first in Europe and the second in the world to receive this title.
Surf camps run here throughout the summer season and the Sumol Summer Fest in June is an awesome place to celebrate with other surfers. This surf spot is also a regular stop of the ASP World Tour which proves its high rating as one of the world’s best surfing locations!
Ericeira can easily be reached from Lisbon by bus making it both affordable and accessible.
Skiing in Serra da Estrela
As Portugal is usually portrayed as a beach destination, many are unaware that the country even has mountains let alone a ski resort. Serra de Estrela, located in the north of Portugal, is a popular ski destination among locals but it still relatively unknown by international skiers who mostly tend to stick to the Alps and the Pyrenees. However, if you fancy a winter break to Portugal the Serra de Estrela Mountains may be a good choice.
With nine pistes and six lifts, the Serra de Estrela is a decent size and offers a good range of runs, particularly for beginner and intermediate skiers. The resort is home to bars, restaurants, hotels and ski hire so you’ll have everything you need for a great ski vacation.
The best month in terms of weather and snowfall tends to be February, although the season runs from December to April.
Golfing in Portugal
Another of Portugal’s famous activities is golfing. The country is home to a number of spectacular golf courses which are renowned around the world. Not only is the weather pleasant enough for golfing for much of the year, but the courses are also very well kept (some to championship level) making them desirable for golfers from all over the globe.
Portugal is also relatively a relatively cheap place to enjoy golfing so you can take in a variety of courses on one trip.
It is not only the Algarve that is home to great golf courses either. Portugal boasts wonderful courses in and around Lisbon as well as in the north of the country. Many of these courses have epic coastal views and naturally undulating grounds making them beautiful and challenging at the same time.
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