What are the best things to do in Portugal? Take a look at 25 Portugal attractions, we think they're the best of all.
The Algarve’s west coast faces the full brunt of the Atlantic, whose crashing breakers and cooler waters have largely deterred the developers. Nevertheless, the rocky coastline is punctuated by fantastic broad beaches accessible from the small villages of Carrapateira, Odeceixe or, a little further inland, Aljezur. If you are in search of a beach holiday - visiting the Algarve coast is the best thing to do in Portugal for you.
This is popular territory for surfers, campervanners and hardy nudists who appreciate the remote beaches, but be warned: the sea can be dangerous and swimmers should take great care.
The designation in 1995 of the stretch of coast from Burgau to Cabo de São Vicente and up through the Alentejo as a nature reserve – the Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina – has afforded the rugged scenery a certain amount of protection, though it also means that accommodation is scarce and it certainly helps to have your own transport.
The Algarve has some of Europe’s finest beaches. But few are more impressive than Praia da Bordeira. Discover Algarve as an all-year travel destination. Then see our roundup of best beaches in Portugal.
Also take a look at our tailor-made trip to the best of Portugal in which you will explore the capital city of Lisbon, historic Porto, lush Douro Valley and the stunning beaches of the Algarve.
Monsaraz – known locally as Ninho das Águias (Eagles’ Nest) – is perched high above the border plains, a tiny village nestled into fortified walls close to the Spanish border. With a permanent population of only a few hundred, Monsaraz has just two main streets that run parallel to each other, Rua Direita and Rua de Santiago.
The Igreja Matriz lies at the heart of the village, just off the main square that’s home to a curious eighteenth-century pillory. The village does its best to attract visitors with a series of little galleries, craft shops and restaurants, but it’s really the castle, the higgledypiggledy streets and magnificent views from the walls that keep people coming.
To the north and west, you survey a typically flat Alentejan plain of vineyards and olive groves, while to the south and east a watery expanse glitters far below the village, part of Europe’s largest artificial reservoir behind the dam at Alqueva.
The substantial inland town of Aveiro lies south of Porto on the edge of a system of coastal lagoons which stretch for around 40km both north and south. Until the mid-1500s, it was a vibrant coastal port but the local economy was devastated when the river mouth silted up and the hinterland turned to swamp.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, canals were dug to open up the town and drain the marshes, creating saltpans and facilitating the harvesting of seaweed, and the town began to flourish once more. Today, Aveiro’s economy depends increasingly on tourists, with visitors attracted to the “Venice of Portugal” by boat rides on the canals, Art Nouveau buildings and the nearby Vista Alegre factory.
Évora is one of Portugal’s most historic and unspoilt cities: indeed its Roman temple, Moorish alleys, the circuit of medieval walls, an ensemble of sixteenth-century mansions and ochre-trimmed, whitewashed houses have resulted in its being awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. You will find lots of historical attractions here and that's what makes visiting Évora the best thing to do in Portugal for architectural enthusiasts.
A vibrant university helps support a modern town that spreads beyond the old walls, though its current population of around 56,000 inhabitants is fewer than in medieval times, and its compact centre is easily explored within a day or two.
Évora’s agricultural roots are recalled on the second Tuesday of each month, with a huge open-air market held in the Rossio, south of the city walls, and in the lively Mercado Municipal on Praça 1 de Maio, where you can sample local produce – beneath the fish section is a wine cellar that offers tastings; it also hosts farmers’ markets most weekends.
The town’s big annual event, the Feira de São João, takes over the city during the last ten days of June, with handicraft, gastronomic and musical festivals.
If you prefer cycling through the countryside then you certainly don't want to miss out on this thing to do in Portugal. There are some great cycling opportunities along the entire Algarve coast:
Óbidos is thoroughly charming – a very small town, completely enclosed by medieval walls – and although much was rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake, it retains a captivating feel with its cobbled alleys and whitewashed houses. To the Portuguese, it’s known as the “Wedding City”, after a custom whereby the ancient kings gave the village to their queens as a wedding present.
Perhaps more curiously still, five hundred years ago the sea reached the foot of the ridge on which Óbidos stands and boats were once moored below its walls. As the sea later retreated, it left a fertile green plain and the distant Lagoa de Óbidos, with the town now marooned inland. In 2015, it was designated a UNESCO City of Literature because of its literary heritage and contemporary creative scene.
Not surprisingly, Óbidos hosts some good festivals: a March Chocolate Festival; a summer festival (July to September), which includes a ten-day medieval fair, opera at the castle and other concerts and events; a Classical Music Festival (October) and a big Christmas Fair.
An engineering marvel when it opened in 1887, the Linha do Douro (Douro Line) still thrills passengers today. In its heyday, it crossed the border to Spain (for a through service to Salamanca and Madrid) and sprouted some stunning valley branch lines, but even though the branch lines are no more, it’s still some ride – 160km of river-hugging track from Porto to Pocinho, via more than 20 tunnels, 30 bridges and 34 stations.
Peso da Régua (usually just Régua) was declared the first capital of the demarcated port-producing region in the eighteenth century. While it’s Pinhão, further east, that’s the more interesting place these days, Régua is still a popular stop – not least because it’s the hub of the Douro river-cruise trade, with the boats disgorging hundreds of passengers for lunch, train-trips and wine-lodge visits.
Although it’s not a particularly pretty place and is dominated by a motorway bridge, for most of the year there’s an agreeable hubbub along the waterside promenade, where ornamental barcos rabelos lie anchored on the river. What’s more, wine-trade patronage has resulted in some excellent local restaurants and enticing quinta accommodation in the vicinity.
This unforgettable tailor-made trip will take you to Portugal's finest wine-producing regions, including the Douro Valley. Sample the finest local labels, and explore the exciting and stunningly beautiful cities of Lisbon and Porto, complemented by guided tours of their historic old towns.
The imposing modern structures that make up the main university – mostly built in the 1940s and 50s – give little hint of the riches hidden away behind the white facades of the broad Paço das Escolas square. Accessed via the seventeenth-century Porta Férrea (the “iron gate” that once stood here), the Velha Universidade is housed in the former royal palaces.
You’ll need to buy a ticket to look round it, though you’re free to enjoy the city views from the terrace to one side of the square.
The highlight of the Velha Universidade – and indeed all Coimbra – is the Biblioteca Joanina, a Baroque confection of cleverly-marbled wood, gold leaf, imposing frescoed ceilings and elaborate trompe-l’oeil decorations.
Eleven kilometres south of Leiria stands the Mosteiro de Santa Maria da Vitória, widely known as the Mosteiro da Batalha (Battle Abbey). Built to commemorate a great national victory – the defeat of Castilian forces at the decisive Battle of Aljubarrota in 1385 – the abbey in turn became a great national monument and has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1983.
Successive monarchs lavished funds upon its construction, and over two centuries Batalha became one of Portugal’s most celebrated buildings – a hybrid Gothic and Manueline masterpiece that’s both a royal pantheon and an expression of national pride.
Most visitors see the abbey and leave – to be honest, there isn’t anything attractive about the village itself, though it’s peaceful once the tour buses have left. To complete the trip – and learn more about the history behind the founding of the abbey – it’s also worth driving out to São Jorge, 4km south of present-day Batalha and the site of the actual battle in question, where there’s a useful interpretation centre.
The Mondego is one of the only rivers in Portugal in which it’s possible to kayak comfortably all year round, and the 18km, 3–4 hour kayaking trips are a real highlight of any visit to the region. Penacova-based O Pioneiro do Mondego was the first company to offer kayaking tours and can arrange pick-ups or meeting points at various spots along the river between Penacova and Coimbra.
Once on the river, you’ll be guided downstream with a gentle current – and the odd set of gentle rapids – taking you down pine- and eucalyptus-lined valleys, where black kites fish in summer and grape vines dangle over the river in autumn. You end up on a river beach where you can swim before being taken back to your starting point.
The Alfama is Lisbon’s oldest and most atmospheric quarter, a labyrinthine maze of narrow streets, steps and alleys wrapped around the steep lower slopes of the Moorish castle. Walking around the area is a must for any Lisbon visit.
It’s the street life that’s the interest here, much of it continuing in the same way as it has for centuries, with children playing in the squares and alleys, and families cooking fish on tiny grills outside their houses.
Appropriately in an area which is home to many fado clubs, there is also a museum dedicated to this classic Portuguese genre, while around the Alfama are further distractions in the form of the city’s cathedral, two historic churches containing national pantheons, a fantastic market, and museums dedicated to a Roman theatre, decorative arts and – further east – Portuguese tiles.
The attractive, verdant town of Sintra warrants at least a day of anyone’s itinerary, though two or three days would allow you to make the most of its fabulous surroundings.
The cooler air of the hilltop town made it the preferred summer retreat for Portugal’s royalty; over the years it has also attracted the rich and famous and inspired countless writers, including Lord Byron (who begins his epic poem Childe Harold in “Cintra’s glorious Eden”) and Gothic-novel writer William Beckford.
It was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1995 because “the cultural landscape of the Serra and the town of Sintra represents a pioneering approach to Romantic landscaping that had an outstanding influence on developments elsewhere in Europe”.
The town’s historic centre spreads across the slopes of several steep hills. Dominating the centre of Sintra-Vila are the tapering chimneys of the Palácio Nacional, surrounded by an array of tall houses painted in pale pink, ochre or mellow yellow, many with ornate turrets and decorative balconies peering out to the plains of Lisbon far below.
Portugal’s first and only national park, the magnificent Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês, was established in 1971, and its 700 square kilometres help protect a natural world and a way of life that’s all but disappeared from the rest of the country’s mountain regions.
In the lush valleys oak and laurel line the riverbanks, replaced by holly, birch, pine and juniper at higher elevations; a total of eighteen plant species – including the Serra do Gerês iris – are found nowhere else on earth.
Shepherds and farmers inhabit remote granite-built villages, tending primitive domestic animals – cachena and barrosa cattle, bravia goats, garrano ponies and the powerful Castro Laboreiro sheepdog – that are long extinct elsewhere. In distant forested corners, remnants of the wildlife that once roamed all of Europe still survive too, from wild boar to wolves.
Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês is Portugal's only national park. Expect alluring trails, gushing streams and alpine scenery.
In most restaurants, the dessert menu rarely goes further than fruit salad, ice cream or things like chocolate mousse and rice pudding. Anything described as a doce de casa (house dessert) is invariably a heart-stopping wedge of sugar, cream and egg (our favourite Portuguese recipe begins with “Take sixty egg yolks…”).
In cake shops, cafés and tea rooms you can seriously indulge yourself in pastries (pastéis), buns (bolinhos), rolls (tortas), tarts (tartes) and cakes (bolos). There are hundreds of local specialities, starting with the classic Lisbon pastéis de nata (custard tarts) and then continuing in glorious profusion by way of queijadas de Sintra (Sintra “cheesecakes”, not that they contain any cheese).
Pastéis de nata are irresistible. And one of Portugal's traditional delicacies. They're flaky custard tartlets. Best served warm, dusted with cinnamon and icing sugar. Try them at Lisbon's Antiga Confeitaria de Belém. They've been baked here for over a century.
Construction of the Mosteiro Palácio Nacional de Mafra started in 1717, and it was originally planned to be a modest Franciscan monastery, built to honour the birth of the king’s first child. But Dom João V’s reign coincided with Portuguese holdings in Brazil producing vast mineral wealth, and this bonanza changed everything.
The simple monastery became a lavish palace, with hundreds of monks in residence to care for the royal souls. The resulting building was a magnificent, over-the-top Baroque statement of intent, completed in just thirteen years by the gruelling labour of thousands (of whom hundreds died).
The oft-quoted figures tell a tale of grandiose excess – a 200-metre-long facade, 1200 rooms, over five thousand doorways and windows, 156 staircases, and two soaring bell towers over the basilica containing 98 bells, the largest carillons in the world.
Guimaraes never misses an opportunity to remind you of its place in Portuguese history. Indeed, it was here that the country’s first monarch, Dom Afonso Henriques, was born in 1110, and the city became the first capital and court of the fledgling kingdom of “Portucale”.
Although Guimarães subsequently lost its pre-eminent status to Coimbra (elevated to Portuguese capital in 1143), it has never relinquished its sense of self-importance, something that’s evident from the omnipresent reminder that Portugal nasceu aqui (Portugal was born here), which is the town’s motto.
With a carefully preserved kernel of medieval monuments, cobbled streets, delightful squares and honey-coloured houses, the old centre retains both a grandeur and a tangible sense of history that’s helped earn it UNESCO World Heritage status.
But it’s far from a museum piece – its contemporary attractions were showcased during its stint as the 2012 European Capital of Culture, while the local university lends it a youthful exuberance and lively nightlife, which is at its best during the end of May student week festivities.
From Alcácer do Sal, the minor EN253 follows the banks of the Sado estuary to the nearest stretch of coast at Comporta, 26km west. It’s a lovely drive and worth it, as the beach – signed just to the north of the village off the EN253-1 – is simply magnificent, a giant stretch of soft sands served by a couple of seasonal beach café-restaurants, popular hangouts for wealthy Lisboetas.
You can continue up the EN253-1 onto the Tróia peninsula for the ferry to Setúbal. Setúbal is a bustling and fairly industrial port, though its historic, pedestrianized centre is both lively and highly attractive, set round a series of squares and narrow alleys filled with decent shops and restaurants.
It’s a pleasant place to spend some time – take a dolphin trip or look around the remarkable Igreja de Jesus – while its ferry link over the wide Sado estuary gives easy access to miles of long sandy beaches.
Lisbon’s nightlife is legendary, though don’t expect to see any action much before midnight. There are some great bars where you can get a drink at any time of the day, but clubs may not open much before 11 pm.
Bairro Alto has an intriguing blend of student bars, designer clubs, fado houses and restaurants. The Cais do Sodré district is currently the “in” place, while neighbouring Santos also has a trendy reputation. Bars and clubs in Alcântara and the docks tend to attract a slightly older, wealthier crowd than those in the centre. Our Lisbon travel guide highlights five of the best bars – for awesome views, top tipples, and the greatest atmosphere.
The Rota Vicentina is a 340km long-distance footpath which runs from Santiago do Cacém in the Alentejo to Cabo de São Vicente in the Algarve. The northern, Alentejan half has two alternative routes: Porto Côvo is the beginning of the 115km-long Trilho dos Pescadores (Fisherman’s Trail), which follows coastal tracks long used by the local fishermen. Walking here is the best thing to do in Portugal for hikers.
It’s relatively well marked with coloured arrows and tracks the coast via Milfontes (a taxing first section, 20km), Almograve (15km further), Zambujeira (another 22km) and into the Algarve at Odeceixe (18km on). It’s tough going, much of it along towering cliffs, but no section is longer than 25km which means – in theory – you always have accommodation and a place to eat at the end of your day’s walk.
The inland alternative is the Caminho Histórico (Historic Way), which follows ancient pilgrimage routes from Santiago do Cacém, mostly inland, to Cabo de São Vicente. Be aware that, as with all Portuguese trails, way-marking can be sporadic and poorly maintained, so if you tackle the path, take a good map or GPS system – but it is worth the effort, as the routes embrace some of the loveliest scenery in the country.
The dramatic Convento de Cristo is one of Portugal’s most important historical buildings – serving, unusually, as both a military nerve-centre and religious foundation. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, it was built by Gualdim Pais, a knight who had served under Afonso Henriques in battles against the Moors in Portugal.
In 1157 he was appointed Grand Master of the Order of the Knights Templar and moved their base from Soure in central Portugal, south to strategically important land overlooking the Rio Nabão at what became Tomar.
When the powerful Templar order was later suppressed – it was seen as a challenge both to European rulers and the Papacy – it was simply re-established in Portugal in 1319 as the Order of Christ, with the castle at Tomar again its headquarters.
The Order was later at the centre of Portugal’s emerging maritime empire, and under Prince Henry, the Navigator – an illustrious Grand Master indeed – the castle also became both a lavish palace and monastic centre.
It’s an enormous complex, and though you could whip around the main highlights in an hour, a longer tour could easily take two or three hours. You’re given a comprehensive English-language guide and floorplan on entry, and there’s a café inside with terrace seating.
In the fishing town of Peniche, determined touts hawk rooms and a glut of harbourside seafood restaurants vie for tourists.
But although the balance of life is changing here, Peniche has yet to be seduced entirely from its roots. Gangs of fishermen still repair nets at the harbourside, while the first weekend in August sees the boisterous festival of Nossa Senhora da Boa Viagem, during which there’s a blessing of the fleet, plus fireworks, bands and dancing in the street.
The town was an island up until the fifteenth century when the surrounding area silted up and now a narrow isthmus, with gently sloping beaches on either side, connects it to the mainland. Unsightly development stretches along the coast, and though it’s not the most handsome of towns, inside the walled town there is a small grid of attractive narrow streets dominated by a fortress, near the busy harbour and marina.
Boats from here run out to the Ilha da Berlenga (see page 140), while many visitors use Peniche as a base to explore the fabulous beaches on either side of town – rated some of the best surf beaches in the country – or to visit the church at Atouguia da Baleia.
There’s little on first view to suggest that the small town of Barcelos is in any way special – it has a few historical sights, a small medieval centre and an attractive riverside location, and in the normal run of things you might be persuaded to give it half a day.
But the truly enormous square in the centre, the Campo da Feira, provides pause for thought, and all becomes clear if you turn up on a Thursday when you’ll coincide with the Feira de Barcelos, a gigantic open-air market that has few equals in Europe, let 6 alone Portugal.
The vast Campo da Feira houses Barcelos’ market every Thursday from dawn until late afternoon (around 4ish, or whenever the last stallholder closes) – it’s been held here since at least the early fifteenth century and, save a few modern refinements, there’s still much that a medieval market-trader might recognize.
Today the Feira may have its own Facebook page, but the close-set rows of modest smallholders offering up their surplus produce have surely changed little over the centuries.
The peaks of the Serra da Estrela are the highest mountains in Portugal, rising dramatically to the southwest of Guarda. The range is basically a high alpine plateau cut by valleys, from within which emanate two of the country’s greatest rivers, the Mondego and Zêzere – the only rivers to begin and end in Portugal rather than crossing the border from Spain.
The mountains – snowcapped into late spring – soon impose themselves upon any approach, while the lower flanks on either side of the range reveal a patchwork of small villages that retain much charm. The odd Portuguese visitor comes to the serra to ski in winter; many more clog the narrow roads in summer looking for picnic space.
A network of hiking trails covers the peaks and valleys, though relatively few people take to the paths to explore the region.
Serra da Estrela is Portugal's highest mountain range. It conceals windswept uplands and remote communities. Plus the hiking trails are plenty challenging. Take a mountain village tour with local guides.
Porto’s waterfront – known as the Ribeira – has changed dramatically in recent years, from a rough dockside cargo zone to one of the city’s major tourist attractions. The arcaded quayside, the Cais da Ribeira, is one long run of restaurants and cafés looking across the river to the port wine lodges on the other side.
However, come down in the morning – before the parasols and blackboard menus have been put out – and the Ribeira still ticks along in local fashion. Between the postcards and touristy ceramics, you’ll find dusty grocery stores and a warehouse or two, piled high with bags of potatoes.
Meanwhile, behind the arcades and heading up towards the cathedral is a warren of stepped alleys that thumb their noses at the riverside gentrification.
Explore the two big Portuguese cities, Porto and Lisbon with our tailor-made trip to the cities of Portugal.
Reached via a narrow walkway and jutting into the river, the impressive Torre de Belém (Tower of Belém) has become an iconic symbol of Lisbon. It typifies the Manueline style that was prominent during the reign of Manuel, its windows and stairways embellished with arches and decorative symbols representing Portugal’s explorations into the New World.
Built as a fortress to defend the mouth of the River Tejo, it took five years to complete, though when it opened in 1520 it would have been near the centre of the river – the earthquake of 1755 shifted the river’s course. Today, visitors are free to explore the tower’s various levels, which include a terrace facing the river from where artillery would have been fired.
You can then climb a very steep spiral staircase up four levels – each with a slightly different framed view of the river – to a top terrace where you get a blowy panorama of Belém. It’s also possible to duck into the dungeon, a low-ceilinged room used to store gunpowder and lock up prisoners.
Ready for a trip to Portugal? Check out the snapshot of The Rough Guide to Portugal. If you travel further in Portugal, read more about the best time to go, the best places to visit and the best things to do in Portugal. For inspiration use the Portuguese itineraries and our local travel experts. A bit more hands-on, learn about getting there, getting around the country and where to stay once you are there.
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