Roughly rectangular in shape and with a population of around ten million people, Portugal has much to offer the modern visitor – young and old alike.
It’s a land of fine wine, fairy-tale castles and palaces and long sandy beaches found in abundance, plus a history stretching back thousands of years.
There are many more jewels in Portugal’s tourism crown, but it’s the Portuguese themselves with their warm and welcoming nature who have helped establish their country as one of Europe’s most appealing, easygoing and multi-faceted destinations.
The following section highlights where to go in Portugal, ranging from the mountainous northern regions to the drier, sunnier south where some of the best beach resorts can be found, not forgetting the beautiful Atlantic islands of Madeira and the Azores.
Located between the Spanish province of Galicia and the enchanting Douro Valley, Portugal’s northern tourist regions arguably constitute the most picturesque parts of the country.
The green and pleasant Minho region occupies the country’s extreme north-western corner and takes its name from the river that has always marked the country’s northern frontier. Its capital, Braga, is an ancient Celtic city dotted with more than 300 churches and the striking baroque pilgrimage shrine of Bom Jesus do Monte.
Further south lies Guimarães, the undisputed birthplace of the country. Boasting an ancient castle and medieval town centre, Afonso Henriques made it his capital after proclaiming himself the first king of Portugal in 1139.
Trás-os-Montes in the north-east is a remote wilderness of rugged moorland and sleepy stone villages. Its principal city, Bragança, features an impressive walled citadel standing on an isolated hilltop.
Accessible by car, boat or train, the Douro Valley to the south is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the true home of Port wine.
Porto has many unique attractions, including a 12th century cathedral and the splendid São Francisco Church with its gold-encrusted interior. Characterised by narrow streets and shadowy arches, the ancient Ribeira district was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996.
Successfully blending commercial efficiency with an atmosphere of unpretentious charm, this gracious capital of the north is Portugal’s second-largest city. Magnificently situated on the great gorge of the River Douro, the ‘granite city’ is famous for its striking bridges and much-celebrated Port wine. Rich from centuries of trade, it is both a cosmopolitan centre and a city steeped in the historical events of the past.
Conveniently set on the south bank of the River Douro, Vila Nova da Gaia is famous for its Port wine lodges such as Taylor’s, Cockburns, Croft and Sandeman, where visitors can drop in for guided tours and tastings.
Stretching from the Spanish border to the Atlantic, the picturesque Beiras region provides a natural link between the cool, green pastures of the north and the hot, dry plains of the south. The provincial capital, Coimbra, is the birthplace of six kings and home to Portugal’s oldest university. Built to celebrate victory over the Moors in 1064, its ancient fortress-style cathedral is one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in Europe.
South of Coimbra, the excavated site of Conímbriga shows evidence of Roman occupation as early as the 2nd century BC and is a must-see attraction for visitors to the area.
Further inland, the peak of Serra da Estrela mountain rises to 1,993 metres, making it the highest point in mainland Portugal, while Monsanto to the south-east is considered to be Portugal’s most typical village. Built atop a steep rocky mass in the centre of a broad valley, its ancient castle commands spectacular views across the Spanish frontier.
Rich in history and culture, the Tagus Valley is one of the most varied and appealing travel destinations in southern Europe. With its long sandy coastline and diversity of attractions, visitors have all the right ingredients for an extended stay within quick and easy reach of the capital, Lisbon.
The area features many fascinating places with elegant buildings and striking hilltop castles, most notably the preserved medieval town of Óbidos, a classic settlement of whitewashed houses and charming cobblestone streets. Of equal note are the imposing churches of Alcobaça and Batalha, both legacies of the country’s rich and prosperous past.
Nearby, the important Catholic shrine of Fátima attracts millions of devoted pilgrims each year. The town has grown into one of Christendom’s most important places of worship ever since three young shepherds saw a vision of the Virgin over one hundred years ago.
South of Lisbon, the lesser-known Costa Azul is an enchanting haven of hidden sandy coves and peaceful fishing villages. This is in stark contrast to the great fertile plains of the Ribatejo region north-east of the capital, where the magnificent Lusitano horse is bred.
Spread along the north bank of the Tagus estuary to the west of Lisbon, the Cascais Coast and Sintra region boasts an abundance of tourist attractions and safe, sandy beaches. A preferred spot for exiled kings in the past, Estoril is a sophisticated seaside resort famous for its motor racing track and ritzy casino. Nearby, the picturesque fishing town of Cascais is popular for its many restaurants, bars and fashionable boutiques.
Enriched by a dense concentration of castles and palaces, the fairy-tale setting of Sintra is one of the oldest places in Portugal. In 1995, a UNESCO World Heritage classification brought it deserved recognition as one of Europe’s most extraordinary landscapes. Sintra also caught the eye of Romantic poets such as Byron and Keats, who were inspired by its peaks, gorges and lush forests. Nearby, the Cabo da Roca lighthouse marks mainland Europe’s most westerly point.
Appreciated for its immense charm and exquisite architecture, Lisbon exudes an inviting warmth and geniality that most European capitals have long-since outgrown. Bustling with life and animation, the capital offers a rich mix of modern culture, ancient history and traditional values.
The narrow streets of Lisbon’s centuries-old Alfama quarter lead up to the city’s most famous landmark, the Castle of São Jorge. From there, visitors can enjoy spectacular views of Lisbon and the River Tagus.
Equally fascinating is the Bairro Alto, one of Lisbon’s oldest residential districts and popular for its many bars, restaurants, discotheques and fado houses. More pulsating nightlife can be found in the capital’s restored Docas waterfront area and the former Expo ’98 site now known as the Parque das Nações.
West of Lisbon, at the historic centre of Belém, visitors can contemplate the enormous achievements of the great maritime adventurers of the 15th and 16th centuries, most notably Vasco da Gama whose epic pioneering voyage to India in 1498 opened up the first sea route to the east.
With its vividly colourful landscape and dazzling whitewashed villages, the great expanse of the Alentejo is one of the most picturesque parts of Portugal. For hundreds of years the region was a battlefield, first against the Moors and then against Spanish invaders. Today it is a fertile province that produces more than two thirds of the world’s total cork supply.
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Conveniently located in the centre of the Alentejo is the walled city of Évora, an ideal base from which to explore the many outlying towns and villages. Standing proud as the region’s largest city, it boasts a Roman temple and an impressive Gothic cathedral.
Situated close to the Spanish frontier, Elvas features many must-see attractions such as a Manueline cathedral and a 7-kilometre-long aqueduct. The inhabitants of nearby Estremoz have managed to preserve the quaint old upper part of their town, where an imposing turret looms over the castle. The lower district is surrounded by fortifications, including the Gothic church of the São Francisco Convent.
With 200 kilometres of sandy coastline and a temperate year-round climate, the Algarve is one of Europe’s top holiday hotspots. Bordered on two sides by the Atlantic, and with the River Guadiana forming a scenic border with neighbouring Spain, Portugal’s southernmost sunshine region has been attracting visitors since the time of the Phoenicians.
The Algarve’s provincial capital, Faro, is built around a charming harbour at the edge of a wide lagoon. Its key features include a maritime museum and an impressive 13th century cathedral.
The region is also famous for its many upmarket beach resorts dotted along the coastline, most notably Vilamoura with its modern marina, quality hotels and five championship golf courses, while the lesser-known western Algarve begins at Lagos, an attractive seaside town well-known for its ancient churches and long, sandy beach.
Rising like a green miracle from the Atlantic, some 1,000 km south-west of Lisbon, Madeira has been an upmarket holiday destination since the 19th century. Famous for its rich, fruity wine of the same name, the island is blessed with a spectacular volcanic landscape and lush subtropical climate and boasts more repeat visitors than any other part of Portugal.
Madeira’s capital, Funchal, is an enchanting city set on a glittering bay against a backdrop of soaring green mountains. Besides the harbour and surrounding historic quarter, must-see attractions include the wine cellars and nearby botanical gardens.
West of the city and climbing to a height of 589 metres is Cabo Girão, the second-highest sea cliff in the world. Inland, the deep-valley location of Curral das Freiras is where panic-stricken nuns sought refuge from invading pirates in the mid-16th century.
Travellers to the neighbouring island of Porto Santo can relax on a 9 km stretch of sandy beach and visit the house of Christopher Columbus, who resided their prior to setting sail for America.
The volcanic archipelago of the Azores is one of Portugal’s best-kept secrets. Like a fragment of Europe adrift in the Atlantic, its nine islands are spread across 645 kilometres midway between Portugal and the USA.
Besides having the regional capital, the largest island in the Azores, São Miguel, is most notable for its crater lakes and Furnas, a popular spa resort famous for its steam vents, hot springs, boiling mud and other types of geothermal activity.
With a spectacular landscape and temperate year-round climate, Santa Maria was the first island to be discovered by Portuguese explorers in 1427, while the UNESCO World Heritage site of Angra do Heroísmo on Terceira Island is another of the region’s highlights.
Long, thin and mountainous, the island of São Jorge is best-known for its delicious cheeses and other rich dairy products. Rising to 2,350 metres, Pico Island boasts Portugal’s highest peak and is the region’s main whale-watching centre, while Faial Island is an international meeting point for yachts and other mid-Atlantic seafaring vessels.
Way out west and at the very edge of Europe, Flores (which in Portuguese means flowers) and Corvo are two remote Atlantic outposts in close proximity to each other that few people have yet had the pleasure of visiting.