Monument of Discoveries

What to do in Portugal: Top 10 from North to South

With these tips and treasures you’re sure to make the most of your Portuguese adventure!

We assume Portugal is on your to-do list (because it should be), so we’re here to help you prep for your dream vacation plans. With these tips, you’re sure to tick all the Portuguese-tiled boxes on your adventure across rolling vineyard-clad hills, magical architecture, and long pristine beaches. So here’s your Top Ten – Vamos la!

1. Northern Portugal

Traditional wine cellar with barrels of Port wine | © ​​bondart photography/Shutterstock

The top part of Portugal is home to the breathtakingly beautiful Douro Valley, where vineyards line the hills and boats and ships go up and down the river. Cruising the Douro is becoming increasingly popular as you can take in magical views of land and water while sipping your finest port wine on the deck.

2. Sister cities of the North

Braga and Guimaraes are each home to one of Portugal’s 17 (!) cultural UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In Braga, the fantastical Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte offers a world of its own and amazing views over the city. When there, try their local specialty Pudim à Abade de Priscos.

On the other hand, Guimaraes’ historical center is a time-warp in itself, with fairytale architecture from the Middle Ages all the way to the late 19th century. Easily combined, these cities are sure to enchant you. Here you can find events throughout the year where the city celebrates its heritage, keeping traditions and gastronomy from centuries ago alive!

3. A hidden Celtic gem

Portugal has a very rich history, including Celtic heritage, and 20 minutes from either Braga or Guimaraes lies the ruins (and some reconstructions) of a walled village with roots as far back as the Bronze Age. Citania de Briteiros is a rare sight with well-preserved house foundations, and you can really imagine what it once looked like and walk the alleyways of many centuries ago.

4. Porto – the unconquered city

A major landmark in Porto – the Dom Luís I Bridge | © ​​Daniel Seßler/Unsplash

Next on our Top Ten list is the second city in the country, captivating Porto! Once a Roman outpost named Portus Cale, the city has, in fact, given its name to the country Portugal as well as the aforementioned port wine. Dotted with picturesque churches in distinctly Portuguese Baroque style and bars and restaurants tiled with hand-painted ‘azulejo’- tiles, Porto has been at the top of the website European Best Destination’s yearly list in 2012, 2014, and 2017! This vibrant city is also known as ‘invicta’, which means unconquered in Latin, as it never surrendered during a civil war in the 19th century, even after a year-long siege!

Imagine having dinner in buildings that are hundreds of years old; for example, parts of the restaurants at Ribeira are remnants of the city’s medieval walls. In short, this colorful and lively city is a shapeshifter of delights! Make it your ‘spa and wine’ get-away destination or art and design adventure, and most definitely your starting point to discover the wonderful northern region.

Start planning your own adventure to Porto, and get ready to let your senses lead the way to discovery.

5. Coimbra – the historic capital

The historic University of Coimbra | © ​​Carlos Machado/Pexels

As we move south on our Top Ten list, our next highlight is the captivating city of Coimbra, famous for its long and important history, reflecting the different eras of Portugal as a nation. From the Roman days with a well-preserved aqueduct to show for it, the city went through a decline but rose to importance and prominence again in the Middle Ages when it became the capital of Portugal from 1131 to 1255.

History has left many important landmarks, and even after the capital was moved to Lisbon, Coimbra remained an important cultural hub, with the University of Coimbra being the oldest in the country, still in function after 700+ years, and another of the country’s UNESCO heritage sites, because of its architecture and historical importance. You do not want to miss its library, ornate and gilded, fit for a chapel!

After a history lesson and some amazing photos, you probably want to have something to drink and eat. You can, of course, go for the everpresent bacalhau, but if you want to give your plate a local flair and you’re ready to indulge, order ‘leitão’ – suckling pig roasted and basted until almost creamy soft. For the sweet-toothed, there are several local pastries to try, such as Pastel de Tentúgal or Barrigas de Freira.

6. The Portuguese Riviera

The whimsical Palácio Nacional da Pena, Sintra | © ​​Yasonya/Shutterstock

Now, we’ve mentioned Portugal’s fairytale architecture earlier in this article, and the prime example of that is the Palácio Nacional da Pena, picturesquely perched on top of a hill in the Sintra mountains. It was once the location for a monastery, but the devastating 1755 Great Earthquake shook the ground even at this distance of 30 km from Lisbon, with only the chapel escaping unscathed.

The ruins and surrounding lands remained without any attempts for reconstruction or redevelopment until King consort Ferdinand II, married to Queen Maria II, decided to build a castle as a summer residence where the royal family could escape the heat of Lisbon. Little did he know that years later, the site would become open to the public! A perfect shooting location for music videos, wedding photos, and, of course, an idyllic getaway for Portuguese and foreign tourists alike, rather than just royals.

With its individually colored wings and towers and eclectic mix of historical influences from Gothic, Moorish, and Renaissance, the site today is a UNESCO-listed museum and a beloved landmark of Portugal. It does indeed offer a cooler climate than Lisbon, with the occasional fog adding to the site’s fairytale flare, so a sweater may come in handy.

Cascais

After a visit to the cooler air in Sintra, we don’t blame you if you feel like catching up with the sun.  If that is the case, you’ll be in luck because nearby Cascais is a top spot both for sailing and surfing as well as sipping on a drink and savoring some magnificent seafood. At just 30 min drive by car or bus from Sintra, the Cascais bay is waiting to welcome you to its waterfront old town with grilled octopus, locally produced ‘saloio’ sheep’s cheese, and local wines like white Arinto and red Ramisco.

7. Lisbon – city of lights

Iconic yellow trams of Lisbon | © ​​amjo13

And so we’ve reached the capital and largest city in the country and also the most visited – with good reason! Known as the ‘City of lights’ because of the way the city is mirrored in the water, Lisbon has a long and astounding history, harkening as far back as the Iron Age, with trade with the Phoenicians proven through coins and pottery.

There are plenty of historical gems taking you through the eras of the city, with the Saint George’s Castle being a prime example from the Middle Ages. Built by the moors in the 10th century, the walls make an impressive silhouette and reminder of the city’s time before the big earthquake in 1755. The catastrophe became a catalyst not only for new developments in the city with a homogenous Baroque architecture but also sent ripples through intellectual spheres. As the church didn’t have enough answers to why and how the earthquake happened, many started to ask scientific questions to explain the event, and it has been cited as a starting point for the Enlightenment movement.

Trams and treasures

To experience the Lisbon of today – hop on the emblematic yellow tram and let this dynamic city unfold in front of your eyes. It’s one of the few European capitals that faces the ocean and was the gateway to the Atlantic and the world for Portuguese explorers and traders reaching as far as Brazil, India, Mozambique in East Africa, and Macau on the South China Sea. After centuries as a global city, today Lisbon is maintaining its dynamic, multicultural identity with a reputation as a safe, liberal, and very welcoming place to both visit and settle down.

No matter how long your stay is, an absolute must is trying one of the 7 culinary wonders of Portugal, the ‘pastel de nata‘! It’s a custardy, golden-brown treasure you will find hard to forget. Originally invented in the Jerónimos Monastery in the 19th century as they used egg whites to starch their robes and habits and subsequently always had a steady supply of egg yolks which they put to the most scrumptious use imaginable. The original recipe has been kept secret since 1837, and the original shop sells around 20,000 of them a day! The ‘pasteis de nata’ (in plural) have become eponymous with Lisbon and is probably the best possible item to bring with you home if you can resist eating another one for long enough!

Pasteis de Nata | © nataliamylova

If your tastebuds are calling for a pastel de nata already – head over to TourRadar and start planning your Portugal adventure today!

8. The Algarve 

Cabo São Vicente, Sagres, Algarve | © loligiraldez

Celebrated for its dramatic yet welcoming beaches, don’t leave the Algarve region out of your itinerary! In summer, the coast invites you to spend whole days in the sun and in the water! Instead of the colorful facades of Porto and Lisbon, here in the south, you are welcomed by white-washed houses with beautifully contrasting cobalt and teal frames around doors and windows. Picturesque as it may be, the color white reflects the heat of the summer sun and keeps the houses cool, combining practicality with purposeful beauty.

The Algarve region has a coast of 127 miles / 205 kilometers, so there is plenty to explore both along the beaches and in the rolling hills of the hinterland. Most focus on the southern coast where the three pearls Lagos, Albufeira, and Faro are both fantastic towns to visit in themselves, as well as your ideal starting point to explore the surroundings. A top spot to visit is the lighthouse of Cabo de São Vicente, overlooking the crucial southwestern tip not only of Portugal but of all of continental Europe! While the current lighthouse, in crispy white with red roofs, has been standing since 1846, there have been lighthouses here since way back in the 15-hundreds, so it’s a place rich in history as well as breathtaking views.

9. Madeira

Located a whole 668,59 miles or 1,076 kilometers from the Portuguese mainland, Madeira is an Atlantic gem at once a crucial part of the nation’s history and with its own identity and treasures to enchant you. Portugal was the country that kick-started the Age of Discovery in the 15-hundreds, and the discovery of Madeira is where it all started, eventually leading to the discovery of the Americas and the world as we know it today.

While the island shares many of its treasures, such as wine and absolutely astounding views, with the mainland, Madeira is a volcanic island giving the landscape its own dramatic character and atmosphere. Packed with endemic flora and fauna, Madeira Natural Park is a kaleidoscope of natural wonders and astonishing views, and hike trails like no other place on earth! The park contains several smaller designated areas dedicated to smaller bioclimates within the park, each with its own character and protected species.

10. The Azores

São Miguel Island, the Azores | © ​​Hunyadi Marton/Shutterstock

Last but absolutely not least, on our Top Ten, we’ve reached the outermost point of this wonderful nation! With its dramatic, volcanic landscape shaped by the Atlantic and its fascinating history, this just may be one of your favorites!

A must-visit is, of course, Lagoa do Fogo, a lake picturesquely located within a volcanic crater located on the island of São Miguel. Not to worry, the volcano has not erupted since 1563, so it’s quite safe! The area is protected, and no construction is allowed, so it’s a true departure into the volcanic wild. Let yourself wander the world of discoveries and uncover a landscape formed 5000 years ago!

Because of its location, this remarkable archipelago may be cooler than the mainland the weather changes quickly, so checking the forecast and dressing for the weather is key to enjoying this island paradise. To warm up, try a local ‘cozido,’ a meat and vegetable stew cooked not on a stove but on the volcanic geysers, blowing steam into the air and serving as a long-cook kitchen right out of the ground!

Already keen on the Azores? Get going to this Atlantic wonder with the top trips here.

É Tudo! We hope this has got you thirsty for local dishes, active daytime discoveries in the sun, and relaxing evenings with a glass of Port while watching the orange and pink sunset on the Atlantic horizon. What a dream!

Writing has been a passion since childhood, from short stories to film reviews and, of course, travel articles. Having lived in 7 countries, I always aim for dynamic writing with cross-cultural insights and a pun or two because why not?

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