Lisbon has always been the most popular destination in Portugal, even more so in the past few years. But given its size, the country is amazingly diverse. So do yourself a favor – spend a few days in the capital and then head further afield…
By Jim Ferri
For too many years Portugal was given short shrift by Iberian-bound travelers who focused almost entirely on neighboring Spain.
That began to change dramatically several years ago during Lisbon’s renaissance, a time when scores of upscale hotels and hip new restaurants took root in the city. The capital that was once an afterthought became a star on the European tourist circuit.
Lisbon’s popularity continues to grow today as record numbers of travelers flock to the city. But if you’re part of that flock you’ll do yourself a favor if you continue beyond the capital. You’ll find there’s plenty to see beyond Lisbon – both on and beyond the peninsula.
From the massive, dramatic cliffs that buffer the Atlantic in the south, to the soft rolling hills and vineyards of the Duoro in the north, Portugal is an amazingly diverse country. Visit the beaches of the Algarve but don’t miss historic Sagres or the historic university city of Coimbra. Stroll the cobbled alleyways of Porto, and be sure to visit fairytale-like Sintra, Lord Byron’s favorite.
Get off the beaten track and roam about remote Estremadura or through the cork forests and olive groves of Alentejo. And for a real adventure head to the Portuguese islands of Madeira or the Azores.
Here are 10 of the best places you don’t want to miss in Portugal.
The Baixa, Lisbon’s downtown area, is still the traditional center of city life and is where Lisbon’s oldest and traditional shops still exist. In this heart of the city, the streets that run parallel to the famous pedestrian-only street Rua Augusta identify the various tradesmen and craftsmen, who have continued to do business there since the time of the Maritime Discoveries. You’ll find jeweler’s stores in the Rua do Ouro (Gold Street) and the Rua da Prata (Silver Street).
The Baixa was destroyed by the earthquake of 1755 but was later reconstructed by the king’s prime minister, the Marquês de Pombal, which is why it is more popularly known as the Baixa Pombalina. It has a uniform and rectangular layout that makes no distinction between the various social strata that live in the area.
Don’t miss visiting the Alfama, the old hilly area of Lisbon that escaped the destruction of the earthquake (and the ensuing tidal wave). It was once the most upscale residential area of the city back in Moorish times.
Go up it on Tram 28, an old wooden trolley that climbs the steep, cobblestone narrow streets that seem to run off in every direction and then walk down. The Alfama is wrapped around the hill below St. George’s Fort.
Sea, sun, and sand mark Portugal’s famous Algarve. While the region’s beaches and picturesque villages have made it world renown, the region also has some world-renowned golf courses. The area’s capital, Faro, remains nearly the same as it was in the 18th century, with some of its charming neighborhoods intact.
Lagos and Sagres on the east end of the Algarve date back to Roman times. But it was in the 15th century that Sagres achieved importance with the frequent presence of Prince Henry the Navigator during the first days of Atlantic exploration of the African coast as far as the Gulf of Guinea.
Visit the Fortaleza de Sagres (a fortress built in the 15th century) and thought to be the site of Prince Henry’s “School of Navigation”, and Cape of São Vicente, one of the most westerly points of the European continent after Cabo da Roca. It was also a sacred place to the Romans who called it Promontorium Sacrum.
Sintra’s Palácio da Pena is one of the best examples of 19th-century Romantic revivalism in Portugal. Set at the top of the Monte da Pena, the palace was built on the site of an old monastery belonging to the Order of St. Jerome. It was the result of the imagination of Dom Fernando of Saxe Coburg-Gotha, who married Queen Dona Maria II in 1836.
After falling in love with Sintra, he decided to buy the convent and the surrounding land to build a summer palace for the royal family, the result a somewhat unusual mixture of architectural styles. He also established an English-style woodland park with a wide variety of exotic trees.
The highlight of the interior of the palace is the chapel, with an alabaster altarpiece attributed to Nicolau Chanterenne, one of the architects of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, in Lisbon. There’s a restaurant in one of the wings of the palace, where you’ll get a panoramic view of Serra de Sintra and the coast.
Capital and gateway to the north of Portugal, Porto is both the city that provided a nation with a name and a fortified wine known worldwide as Port. The second largest city in the country, it’s located at the mouth of the Douro River. Its historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The city’s Cais da Ribeira riverfront is its center and its most picturesque part. The area has a mix of ancient narrow streets and alleyways with centuries-old buildings. Old homes of granite and tile loom over the waterfront, and the harbor is filled with Rabelo boats and river excursion ships.
The riverfront area comes alive in the evening when numerous cafés, bars, and restaurants open. Couples stroll along the Douro, as a hint of music drifts from the bars and cafes, and the smell of coffee and grilled fish fills the air.
Roughly halfway between Lisbon and Oporto in the north, Coimbra was once the capital of the Portugal. But it is most famous for the University of Coimbra, founded in 1290 and one of the oldest universities in Europe. It’s a city of medieval churches and a maze of medieval streets, probably the reason some consider it the most romantic city in Portugal.
Located in a commanding position overlooking the city and the Mondego River, the University is a rambling building, constructed around a central courtyard. The entrance to the University is through the Porta Férrea (Iron Gate), an impressive Mannerist work (1634), where one can see the statues of the University´s patrons, the Kings Dom Dinis and Dom João III.
You’ll see students all around the city, identified by the black capes they still wear, with little-colored ribbons on their briefcases denoting the school they attend. I came across a group of young female students in their capes on a downtown street singing acapella for passersby.
Madeira is a group of four Portuguese islands off the coast of North Africa. Funchal, its capital, is a walkable city with a nice harbor and a cathedral more than 500 years old. It’s perpetually sunny, but when the sun goes down, the tempo picks up in its nightclubs, restaurants, and casinos.
Some associate the Monte area of Funchal with “toboggan rides” since originally this was a fast way of transport down to central Funchal for people living up the steep hillside in Monte. Wicker toboggans first appeared around 1850 and today they attract thousands of tourists who want to make an exciting experience of sledding on a narrow, winding street down to the city below. The one-mile downhill journey to Funchal takes about 10 minutes, sometimes reaching a speed of 30 miles an hour. You can take a cable car back up.
A unique and historic city, 2,000-yeara old Evora is labyrinthine of streets and city squares, Renaissance fountains, Moorish courtyards and Gothic doorways and turrets. The Romans created its elegant temple, battlements, and baths, and the Moorish “Yeborah” influenced the urban network of the Mouraria district.
King João II chose it for the wedding of his successor to the daughter of the Catholic Monarchs, and King Manuel I established his court in Évora as did King João III. The Praça do Giraldo of Evora, the main central square where open-air cafes now serve coffee to tourists, was once the location of many public executions.
A beautiful town at the foot of the mountain range of the same name, its unique characteristics have led UNESCO to classify it as a World Heritage site. It was even necessary to create a special category, that of “cultural landscape” – taking into account the natural riches of the mountains as well as the historic buildings in the town.
Óbidos, with its whitewashed houses covered with bougainvillea and honeysuckle, was captured from the Moors and until 1883, the town and the surrounding land was always the property of the queens of Portugal until 1883.
Encircled by a ring of medieval walls and crowned by a rebuilt Moorish castle, it is now a Pousada. The town is entered through the southern gate of Santa Maria, embellished with eighteenth-century azulejo tile.
Be sure to visit the Igreja Matriz de Santa Maria (Parish Church of Santa Maria), the pretty Capela de São Martinho (Chapel of S. Martinho) and, outside the town walls, the Igreja do Senhor da Pedra (Church of the Senhor da Pedra).
The most important annual events in Óbidos are the Holy Week Festivities (recreating the steps on the Way of the Cross), the Ancient Music Festival in October and, for chocoholics, the International Chocolate Festival in March.
Vila Franca do Campo, Azores
The Azores is a group of nine islands scattered over several hundred nautical miles roughly midway between Boston and mainland Portugal. It’s the closest point to Europe from the United States.
The islands are popular places for yachting and diving, as well as horseback riding, and cycling. The largest town on the islands, Vila Franca do Campo, is surrounded by orange and pineapple plantations.
The Azores are also a popular place for whale watching. Offshore, sperm whales, northern bottle nose, pilot, Sowerby’s beaked whales, and, occasionally, orcas, are regularly spotted.
For the Portuguese, Guimarães is a special place. It was there, in a field close to the walls of its castle, that Afonso Henriques, the first King of Portugal, fought the Battle of São Mamede in 1128 against the army of Teresa, his mother. His victory marked the beginning of the process that would lead to the foundation of the kingdom of Portugal.
In addition to a medieval castle, the city also encompasses the 15th century Ducal Palace, now both a palace and a museum. In the center of the town is Rua de Santa Maria, a narrow medieval street, considered by art historians to be the most beautiful in the city.