Visiting Portugal is discovering a remarkably diverse destination. The country is inextricably linked to the sea and has over 800 kilometers of alluring Atlantic coastline. Lisbon, the capital, has a beautiful location near the mouth of the Tagus River. From here, pioneering sailors in the 15th and 16th centuries set out on epic voyages of discovery, and Portugal has nurtured a proud seafaring tradition ever since.
Portugal’s interior melds dramatic northern mountain ranges with the vast rolling plains of the country’s sun-drenched central regions. To the south, some of Europe’s best beaches flank picturesque coves and warm, shallow waters. Everywhere are stone villages, enchanting towns and cosmopolitan towns where historic palaces and castles, museums and monasteries are waiting to be discovered.
And traveling to Portugal can also mean a visit to the verdant, subtropical island of Madeira – the “Garden Isle” – or the isolated, yet tranquil Azores archipelago. For more ideas on the best places to visit, check out our list of the top tourist attractions in Portugal.
1. Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon
Belém is synonymous with the golden age of discoveries in Portugal. From the shores of this Lisbon suburb, intrepid navigators in the 15th and 16th centuries set out on long and perilous voyages to chart uncharted waters and chart new territories.
One such sailor, Vasco da Gama, discovered the sea route to India in 1498 and to honor his achievement, King Manuel I had a monument built that became an enduring symbol of the country’s amazing era of conquest and expansion. Today, the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos is one of the most cherished and respected buildings in the country, and a must-see on any tourist’s agenda.
The church and monastery epitomize the zeitgeist and contain some of the finest examples of Manueline architecture to be found anywhere in Portugal; the beautifully embellished decoration on the South Portal is breathtaking.
Inside, the beautiful monastery is just as exuberant. Fittingly, the church houses the tomb of Vasco da Gama and other national figureheads, including Luís de Camões, Portugal’s greatest poet and chronicler of the discoveries.
2. Lisbon Oceanarium, Lisbon
The Lisbon Oceanarium, arguably Portugal’s most popular and family-friendly visitor attraction, is brilliantly designed to highlight the world’s diverse ocean habitats. This is one of Europe’s best and largest oceanariums, with a wide variety of fish and sea creatures.
Four separate seascapes and landscapes recreate the ecosystems of the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian and Antarctic oceans. A huge central tank, visible from several levels, teems with sharks, rays and many other stinging wonders and denizens of the deep. The transparent Plexiglas design is such that smaller tropical species housed in separate aquariums around the main tank appear to be swimming with their larger cousins.
Complementing this amazing spectacle are the open-air landscapes, where penguins, sea otters and other cute and cuddly birds and mammals coexist in carefree harmony.
3. Sintra National Palace, Lisbon Coast
Sintra’s stunning location, nestled in the lap of a forested mountain range, is reason enough to visit this charming, leafy town. Indeed, UNESCO recognizes the destination as a World Cultural Heritage Site, due to the beauty and importance of the collection of historical visitor attractions in and around the old town, Sintra Velha.
A favorite summer retreat for the kings and queens of Portugal and an attractive destination for numerous writers and poets, including Lord Byron and William Beckford, Sintra exudes romance. The old town is a maze of cobbled streets lined with handsome mansions painted in pastel shades of pink, mustard and lilac. The narrow streets surround a pretty central square dominated by the beautiful Palácio Nacional de Sintra.
Easily identified by its huge conical chimneys, the Sintra National Palace dates back to the late 14th century and is the oldest surviving palrequirement in Portugal. The building is royally decorated and spread over several floors, many of which are uniquely themed and decorated accordingly. A highlight is the magnificent Sala dos Brasões, a glittering domed hall decorated with the coats of arms of 72 noble Portuguese families.
4. Kayaking along the coast of Lisbon
Going out to sea by kayak to explore the Lisbon coast is a rewarding maritime excursion. As well as adding an extra dimension to the sightseeing experience, paddling along the coastline provides an excellent excuse to exercise in a salty, pristine environment.
Lisbon’s proximity to the ocean allows for a wide variety of exciting water sports, and discovering the beaches, coves and coves in the region between the Portuguese capital and the seaside town of Cascais is a fun way to enjoy a day out.
Outside the area, the crystal-clear waters of the Serra da Arrábida Natural Park, which includes places like Setubal and Sesimbra, form a unique landscape of beautiful, ancient sea cliffs teeming with birdlife.
Most of the coastline here is in a protected marine reserve – a sanctuary that includes within its confines the wonderfully picturesque beach of Ribeira do Cavalo.
5. Belem Tower, Lisbon
One of Portugal’s most beloved historical monuments and an icon of Lisbon, the Torre de Belém stands as a symbol of the Age of Discovery and the voyages of discovery undertaken in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Completed in 1521 as a fortress to defend the entrances to the Tagus River, the tower is considered a masterpiece of military architecture. Designed in the Manueline style by Francisco de Arruda, the façade is a confection of beautifully carved stone, characterized by maritime motifs, such as twisted rope and the armillary sphere. An impressive Renaissance loggia enhances the decoration.
The cultural significance of the tower is such that UNESCO has placed it on the World Heritage List.
6. Monastery of Christ, Tomar
The charming riverside town of Tomar dominates a mighty castle that shields the Convento do Cristo, one of Portugal’s notable historic attractions.
Founded in 1160 as the headquarters of the Order of the Templars, the Convent of Christ is as awe-inspiring as it is mysterious, its Masonic heritage tangible and seductive. At its center is the medieval Charola, the original Templar Church, richly decorated and exuding all the strange symbolism associated with the Order of Christ.
The 16th-century monasteries enchant with Manueline blooms and tease visitors with their hidden spiral staircases. And the monastery’s magnificent Manueline window, designed by master sculptor Diogo de Arruda, remains one of the most architecturally attractive aspects of any building in Portugal.
7. Bom Jesus do Monte, Braga
Bom Jesus do Monte, Portugal’s largest religious sanctuary, sits on a wooded slope six kilometers east of Braga and is one of the country’s most important pilgrimage sites.
This spectacular complex, consisting of a monumental Baroque Escadaria (staircase) and the Church of Bom Jesus, also features several chapels decorated with carved scenes from the Passion of Christ; fountains at various points on the long climb; and images of biblical, mythological and symbolic figures.
As you climb the lower part of the 116-meter-long ornamental granite staircase, you have to zigzag slowly along a steep sacred road, with chapels depicting the 14 Stations of the Cross.
Halfway through, the white, interleaved Escadório dos Cinco Sentidos depicts the five senses through finely carved sculptures.
The last part is the Staircase of the Three Virtues, representing Faith, Hope and Charity, leading to the church. Your efforts will be rewarded with an inspiring panorama of the surrounding countryside. For the less active, a vintage 1882 funicular takes visitors to the top in just three minutes.
8. Hiking in the Gerês Mountains
The Serra do Gerês is a mountain range of breathtaking beauty in the remote Minho region of northern Portugal. Located in the glorious Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês. One of the best places to visit in Portugal, the granite peaks that define the character of this vast national park. Among the highest and most spectacular in the country.
As one of Portugal’s greatest natural attractions, the Gerês Mountains draw hikers, hikers and outdoor enthusiasts to one of Europe’s last great wildernesses. A stark and rugged landscape known for its lush valleys dotted with shimmering lakes, a scattering of traditional villages. Rare flora and fauna, and a way of life that has all but disappeared from the rest of the country’s mountainous regions.
The area is criss-crossed by ancient granite trails. Which are signposted to walkers as either a short walk or a challenging day trip. Most tracks are 10 to 16 kilometers long and have varying degrees.
9. University of Coimbra
The Universidade de Coimbra is the oldest chair in Portugal, founded in 1290 by King Dinis. The historic buildings of the Velha Universidade, or the Old University of Coimbra, recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, surround a beautiful colonnaded central square, the Paço das Escolas.
The Alta and Sofia wings of the university – a former royal residence – reward visitors with a number of star features, including the amazing Biblioteca Joanina, an ornate library installed in 1717 by King João V.
A tour also includes the dazzlingly decorated 16th-century Capela de São Miguel. Those with a fear of heights can climb the monumental 18th-century bell tower for sweeping views over Coimbra, one of the country’s most attractive cities.
10. Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon
Lisbon is blessed with a number of world-class museums, and one of the finest is the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian. The museum’s collection numbers some 6,000 pieces, all of which belonged to just one man: Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian, a wealthy Armenian oil magnate who left his precious treasure to the Portuguese nation after his death in 1955.
This is simply one of the finest art collections in Europe. The exhibits span more than 4,000 years, from classical and oriental antiquity to early 20th-century European art. No other museum has such varied artwork from so many places in the world, and visitors can spend hours mulling over treasures such as the 11 Roman medallions found in Egypt; 16th-century illustrated manuscripts; masterpieces by Rubens, Rembrandt and Turner; Louis XV and Louis XVI furniture; and Art Nouveau jewelry made by Rene Lalique.
The museum is set in beautiful lush gardens that are perfect for picnics, especially during the summer months.
11. Guimarães Castle
The birthplace of the nation and where Portugal’s first monarch. Dom Afonso Henriques, was born in 1110, Guimarães was once the capital of the Kingdom of ‘Portucale’.
Recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for its collection of historical monuments grouped in. And around the old city center, the Castelo de Guimarães best symbolizes the role the city plays in defining the culture and tradition of the country. It even appears on Portuguese weapon.
Originally built in the 10th century, but significantly expanded two centuries later by Henry of Burgundy. The stronghold, on a raised granite spur, consists of a central keep. The Torre de Menagem – surrounded by massive battlements and fortified towers.
Dom Afonso was baptized in the small Romanesque chapel of São Miguel, just outside the castle walls. And visitors can peek into the small space to see the font. A walk along the ramparts is inspiring, but for the best views, climb the keep.
12. Clerigos Tower, Porto
The spindly, needle-like Torre de Clérigos is one of Porto’s main attractions. This slender tower, 75 meters above the streets and overlooking the old town, was built in the 18th century by Nicolau Nasoni and exudes a bold sense of Baroque. Designed as part of the Igreja dos Clérigos, the tower was completed in 1763 and was the tallest building in Porto at the time.
To get to the topoaks, visitors have to climb 200 steps, but the gasping and puffing will all be forgotten when you truly embrace stunning views over the city and the river Douro.
13. São Jorge Castle, Lisbon
Its commanding hilltop location overlooking Lisbon’s bustling Baixa (center) district defines Castelo de São Jorge as the city’s most visible historic landmark. Extremely popular with locals and tourists alike, the foundations of this impressive castle date back to the late 12th century when King Afonso Henriques recaptured the city from the Moors and built a palace over the ruins of their hilltop citadel.
In 1511, the royal residence was expanded and fortified with solid battlements. The great earthquake of 1755 razed much of the structure to the ground, and what remains today is largely the result of major renovation.
Exploring the castle is a lot of fun. Visitors can walk the ramparts and the jagged towers, one of which, Torre de Ulisses, has a camera obscura that projects views of the city onto the interior walls. The walls enclose an archaeological site containing the remains of the original Alcáçova palace and ancient Moorish foundations.
The observation deck at the entrance offers the most spectacular view over Lisbon and the river.
14. Sé (Cathedral) and Roman Temple, Évora
Deep in the sun-drenched province of Alentejo in southern Portugal lies Évora, one of the country’s most enchanting cities. The Romans settled here in 57 BC, but it was under Moorish rule that the city began to take shape, the maze of narrow streets and alleys typical of Islamic urban design. The Christian Reconquest saw the construction of the Sé, Évora’s impressive cathedral and one of the many beautiful visitor attractions in the old town.
Consecrated in 1204, this celebrated religious building combines the Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque, and after admiring the interior, visitors can go up to the roof, which offers fantastic views of the surrounding area.
Nearby is Évora’s most iconic landmark, the Roman Temple. Built in the 2nd or 3rd century AD, this is the most impressive Roman building in the country. In fact, Évora’s historical legacy is such that UNESCO has declared the destination a World Heritage Site.
15. Alentejo on horseback
Whether you’re following a narrow, rippling stream; traversing a flower-strewn meadow; or plod along a soft sandy track, one of the great things to do in the Alentejo is to explore the region on horseback.
The province is known for its love of horses – the beautiful and gentle Lusitano breed is synonymous with this part of Portugal, especially in towns like Alter do Chão, home to the Coudelaria de Alter stud.
You can relax in the countryside or ride along the coast, led by expert guides who were practically born in the saddle. Comporta is a favorite seaside destination; inland, head to places like Alcácer do Sal, on the Sado River, and Ourique, deep in the wooded hinterland.
16. National Palace Monastery of Mafra
The majestic National Palace and Monastery of Mafra looms over the pleasant country town of Mafra and is a prime example of grandiose opulence.
In 1717, work began on what was originally supposed to be a simple monastery and basilica. Commissioned by Dom João V in honor of the birth of the king’s first child. But when Brazil’s wealth grew the royal treasury, the project took on a new dimension and eventually a huge Baroque palace was built, lavishly decorated with exotic furniture and countless works of art.
A guided tour gives access to the monastery, palace, church and basilica. One of the undisputed highlights of the National Palace and Monastery of Mafra is its lavish marble-floored library. Home to over 40,000 rare and precious books in Rococo-style wooden bookcases. One of the most important collections of manuscripts and literature in Europe.
17. Santo António Church and Municipal Museum, Lagos
The Municipal Museum in Lagos has the most idiosyncratic collection of archeology and ethnography in the Algarve. The beautifully eclectic display of local handicrafts, curiosa and artifacts perfectly illustrates the diverse culture. And heritage of the region and includes items such as an altarpiece handcrafted from cork and a realistic homemade scale model of an imaginary Algarve village.
A highlight is the impressive Roman mosaic of Opus Vermiculatum, which was excavated in 1933 by the museum’s founder, Dr. José Formosinho. Tours conclude with a visit to the Igreja de Santo António and a dazzling interior of ornate gilded carvings and decorative azulejos panels.
18. Silves Castle
As Xelb, Silves was once the capital of the Moorish Algarve, and the Arabs called the region al-Gharb.
During the early 12th century, the city was known as a center of learning, a place where Islamic writers, philosophers and geographers gathered. To protect the inhabitants, the Moors built a mighty castle on an elevated position overlooking the city.
Later conquered by crusaders, the fortress stands today as a permanent reminder of the Moorish rule and the Christian reconquest. It is the most impressive historical monument in the Algarve and one of the top castles in Portugal . The huge walls of red sandstone color the pleasant riverside town of Silves with an inviting ocher glow.
Visit in early August and enjoy the annual medieval festival that takes place outside the sturdy battlements.
19. Cross Border Zipline, Alcoutim
This is one of the most daring and radical tourist attractions in the country. Stretching across Spain and Portugal and currently being the world’s only cross-border zipline. The line connects Sanlúcar de Guadiana in the Spanish province of Huelva with Alcoutim in the extreme north of the Algarve. Measuring 720 meters and connecting the two countries over the wide and meandering river Guadiana.
Competitors, fully equipped with safety harnesses and helmets. Begin their flight from a departure platform high above the river overlooking the sleepy hamlet of Sanlúcar. They cross the river at speeds between 70 and 80 kilometers per hour. Literally fly through time and gain an hour due to the time difference between the two countries.
Exciting and wholly original, the ride offers a totally different Algarve visitor experience. And it’s not every day that you can boast of traveling from one country to another in less than a minute!
20. Palacio da Bolsa, Porto
Porto’s tantalizing mishmash of visitor attractions includes the city’s former stock exchange, the beautiful Palácio da Bolsa. Built by merchants in the mid-19th century on a site that once housed the Convent of São Francisco. The palace is within the old city limits and as such enjoys UNESCO World Heritage status.
The dazzling interior reflects the wealth that poured into the city at the time. And a tour of the ornate rooms and galleries reveals a grandeur and opulence as extravagant as any royal palace. The epitome of this opulence is the incredible Salão Árabe, the Arab Chamber. Inspired by the Alhambra in Granada, the beautifully gilded drawing room is shrouded in Moorish-style blue. And gold decoration that shimmers like Aladdin’s cave.
21. Paiva trails (Paiva trails), Arouca
Translated as the Paiva Walkways, this award-winning facility ticks all the green boxes. Located outside the town of Arouca, 70 kilometers drive north of Aveiro in central Portugal. The Paiva Walkways offer a challenging but very rewarding five-mile walk over an elevated boardwalk that descends. Climbs and winds through the Arouca Geopark – an unspoilt landscape of exceptional beauty and a biodiversity hotspot.
The walk starts at Areinho and follows the pristine Paiva River halfway downstream. Soon you’ll be walking through a rugged, rarely seen environment of peaceful, verdant forests and deep, gaping gorges.
Along the way, you’ll pass tumbling waterfalls and serene, mirror-like pools. Very often, the tour involves taking long flights of zigzagging stairs over steep slopes. The route really puts stamina and physical fitness to the test.
The walk takes about 2.5 hours and ends in Espiunca. Don’t forget to bring sunscreen, energy snacks and plenty of water.
22. Côa Valley Archaeological Park, Vila Nova de Foz Côa
In the early 1990s, a team of engineers surveying a valley of the River Côa in northeastern Portugal. While planning the construction of a dam. Discovered thousands of prehistoric rock carvings encased in giant granite slabs. etched. It was a rare and remarkable find.
The dam project was subsequently canceled and the carvings – depicting horses, cattle, weapons and human and abstract figures. The earliest of which date back to 22,000 BC. – were eventually designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Today, visitors can admire this ancient rock art preserved in situ. The Archaeological Park of the Côa Valley by joining a guided tour in all-terrain vehicles. They can also learn about the history behind the artwork’s origins and explore the valley through multimedia. Photography and depictions of the carvings in the fantastic Côa Museum, located at the gate of the park.
Other must-see highlights of Portugal
Portugal’s beautiful beaches offer pleasant distractions all year round. And, especially in the Algarve, are close to some fantastic holiday resorts. In fact, southern Portugal is also known for its standout destinations. Such as the regional capital Faro, plus Tavira and Portimão. Also keep in mind that the Portuguese islands offer a completely different travel experience. Learn about Funchal in Madeira and Ponta Delgada in the Azores.
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