Last Updated on June 22, 2022 by Jim Ferri
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 to these best places to visit in Portugal…
Estimated reading time: 12 minutes
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 new renaissance. It was a time when scores of upscale hotels and hip new restaurants took root in the city. Consequently, the capital that was once an afterthought became a star on the European tourist circuit.
Moreover, 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. 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. Also, stroll along 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.
The following are 10 of the best places to visit in Portugal you don’t want to miss.
Lisbon – the Top Place to See in Portugal
As you might imagine, the first of the best places to visit in Portugal is beautiful Lisbon, the country’s capital.
In this beautiful city, you’ll find the Baixa, Lisbon’s downtown area, which is still the traditional center of city life. Also, it’s where Lisbon’s oldest and most traditional shops still exist.
In this heart of the city is the famous pedestrian-only street Rua Augusta. The roads that run parallel to it identify the various merchants and artisans who have done business there for centuries. You’ll find jeweler’s stores in the Rua do Ouro (Gold Street) and the Rua da Prata (Silver Street).
Regrettably, the original Baixa no longer exists due to the great earthquake of 1755. Afterward, it was reconstructed by the king’s prime minister, the Marquês de Pombal. As a consequence, it’s still popularly known as the Baixa Pombalina.
It has a uniform and rectangular layout that makes no distinction between the various social strata in the area.
First and foremost, don’t miss visiting the Alfama, the old hilly area of Lisbon. Around the hill below St. George’s Fort, it 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 to it on Tram 28, an old wooden trolley that climbs the steep, narrow cobblestone streets. They seem to run off in every direction, but you can easily walk down.
The Algarve, Portugal’s Beautiful Beaches
Sea, sun, and sand mark Portugal’s famous Algarve, the second of the best places to visit in Portugal. 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 of the Algarve, date to Roman times. But in the 15th century, Sagres achieved importance with the frequent presence of Prince Henry the Navigator.
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.” Also, visit the 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, the Fairytale City
Sintra’s Palácio da Pena is one of Portugal’s best examples of 19th-century Romantic revivalism. Set at the top of the Monte da Pena, the palace stands on the site of an old monastery belonging to the Order of St. Jerome. It resulted from 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. His imagination resulted in a somewhat unusual mixture of architectural styles. Moreover, he also established an English-style woodland park with a wide variety of exotic trees.
The highlight of the palace’s interior is the chapel. Its alabaster altarpiece is attributed to Nicolau Chanterenne, one of the architects of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos in Lisbon. Also, there’s a restaurant in one of the palace’s wings. You’ll get a panoramic view of Serra de Sintra and the coast there.
Porto and Its Wine
The gateway to the north, Porto is the city that provided a nation with a name and a fortified wine known worldwide as Port. The country’s second-largest city, it’s located at the mouth of the Douro River. What solidifies it’s reputation as one of the best places to visit in Portugal is its historic center, which 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, home to a blend of 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.
Coimbra, One of the Top 10 Places in Portugal
Roughly halfway between Lisbon and Oporto in the north, Coimbra was once the capital of Portugal. However, it’s most famous for the University of Coimbra, founded in 1290, and one of the oldest universities in Europe.
Furthermore, it’s a city of medieval churches and a maze of medieval streets. Presumably, that’s the reason some consider it the most romantic city in Portugal.
Overlooking the city and the Mondego River, the University is a rambling building constructed around a central courtyard. Its entrance is through the Porta Férrea (Iron Gate), an impressive Mannerist work (1634). One can also see the status of the University’s patrons, the Kings Dom Dinis and Dom João III, there.
You’ll see students all around the city, identified by the black capes they still wear. The little colored ribbons on their briefcases denote the school they attend. On my visit I enjoyed watching a group of young female students in their cloaks on a downtown street singing acapella for passersby.
Madeira is a group of four Portuguese islands off the coast of North Africa. Although it’s far from the European continent, it remains one of the best places to visit in Portugal’s.
Funchal, its capital, is a walkable city with a lovely harbor and a cathedral over 500 years old. It’s perpetually sunny, but the tempo picks up in its nightclubs, restaurants, and casinos when the sun goes down.
Some associate the Monte area of Funchal with wicker “toboggan rides” that first appeared around 1850. Initially, this was a fast means of transportation to central Funchal for people living up the steep hillside in Monte.
Presently, the toboggans continue to attract tourists who want to sled down a narrow, winding street to the city below. The one-mile downhill journey takes about 10 minutes, sometimes reaching a speed of 30 miles an hour. Then, you can take a cable car back up.
Évora – One of the Beautiful Places to See in Portugal
A unique and historic city, 2,000-year-old Evora is a labyrinth of streets and city squares, Renaissance fountains, Moorish courtyards, 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.
Évora is a beautiful town at the foot of the mountain range of the same name. Consequently, its unique characteristics led UNESCO to classify it as a World Heritage site, making it another of the best places to visit in Portugal.
Incidentally, it was even necessary for UNESCO to create a new category of “cultural landscape.” Accordingly, this was to consider the natural riches of the mountains and the historic town.
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.
Ironically, Praça do Giraldo of Evora, where open-air cafes now serve coffee to tourists, was once the location of public executions.
Óbidos, Just Beautiful
With whitewashed houses covered with bougainvillea and honeysuckle, Óbidos is beautiful. Captured from the Moors, the town and the surrounding land was 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. You enter the town through the southern gate of Santa Maria, which is embellished with eighteenth-century azulejo tile.
At any rate, be sure to visit the Igreja Matriz de Santa Maria (Parish Church of Santa Maria) and the pretty Capela de São Martinho (Chapel of S. Martinho). Also, outside the town walls, stop by 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). Also, the Ancient Music Festival takes place 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, horseback riding, and cycling. The island’s largest town, Vila Franca do Campo, is surrounded by orange and pineapple plantations.
The islands are also a popular place for whale watching. Offshore, sperm whales, northern bottlenose, pilot, and Sowerby’s beaked whales are seen. Occasionally, orcas are also spotted.
First and foremost, Guimarães is a special place for the Portuguese. It’s also one of the top places to visit in Portugal, especially if you spend more than a week or so in the country.
In Guimarães, in a field close to its castle’s walls, Afonso Henriques, the first King of Portugal, fought the Battle of São Mamede in 1128. Ironically, he was fighting against the army of Teresa, his mother.
Nevertheless, 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. The latter is 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.
If You Go:
Portuguese National Tourist Office
866 2nd Avenue Floor 9
New York, NY, 10017
Tel: (646) 723-0200