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A Guide to Northern Portugal

Northern Portugal is tucked between Galicia in Spain and Central Portugal cities, including Guarda, Aveiro, and Coimbra, covering an area of approximately 8,108 square miles. It feels like a nation of its own with everything from stunning coastal destinations with idyllic beaches to mountainous terrain and beautiful cities. Travel here to uncover rich cultural heritage, a tranquil ambiance where locals enjoy midday siestas, and mouthwatering gastronomic traditions. A wealth of outdoor adventure among breathtaking landscapes awaits too. It’s centered around picture-perfect Porto while home to notable cities like medieval Guimaraes and Braga, the Iberian Peninsula’s spiritual hub, and plenty of hidden treasures. You can make the most of it all with a little help from our travel guide to Northern Portugal.

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When to visit Northern Portugal

Northern Portugal enjoys a mild Mediterranean climate with something to do year-round, but certain times can be better for your visit depending on your interests and other factors. The most important consideration is arguably crowd levels but the weather plays a part too. Summer is the warmest with temperatures averaging in the upper 70s while the sea peaks to about the mid-60s in August/September for a cool respite from the heat. August is the region’s busiest month of the year as many Europeans enjoy their getaways then. Avoid the crowds and enjoy pleasant weather by visiting in April/May or mid-September through mid-October. November through March is the off-season which can be ideal for sightseeing and discounted accommodation rates.

Where to go in Northern Portugal

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Porto: The Heart of Northern Portugal

Porto is Portugal’s second-largest city, world-famous for its port wine production. But there are many other reasons to visit, including the historic center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The atmospheric labyrinth of streets is lined with buildings that are true works of art, including the Gothic-style Church of Sao Francisco, while the hilltop Porto Cathedral overlooks it all with a mix of Gothic, Baroque, and Romanesque styles. Those historic streets open up to a picturesque riverfront crossed by a bridge that provides the perfect vantage point for marveling at the glorious sunsets. The Riberia sits at the heart of it all, a riverside pedestrianized zone with street vendors, live music venues, cafes, and restaurants that make it fun to stroll.

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Douro Valley: Portugal’s Famous Wine Region

A short drive from Porto, the UNESCO-listed Douro Valley is one of the world’s oldest wine regions, producing wine since 1756. It’s also one of the most spectacularly beautiful with terraced vineyards carved into the mountains, 18th-century wine cellars, and quintas (whitewashed estates). Visitors come from across the globe to sample port and other wines, indulge in mouthwatering cuisine, and explore charming villages. Many of the quintas host intimate tours for an in-depth look at the wine-making process and some have their own eateries serving lunch that can be enjoyed with local wine. You’ll also encounter talented locals who’ve been creating handcrafted goods for generations, and rich history with everything from Iron Age settlements to Roman roads and bridges, monasteries, and palaces.

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Guimarães boasts an impressive medieval center and a 10th-century castle. It’s a small city that’s big on history, known as “Portugal’s birthplace” as it’s where the country was founded in 1128 AD. Its interesting past can be seen in iconic landmarks like Guimarães Castle which towers over the city as one of Portugal’s most well-preserved. It’s also believed to have been the site of King Afonso Henriques’ birth in 1110. The king was baptized in the chapel of Sao Miguel, located in the castle’s western quarter. Visitors can walk the walls and climb to the top of the tower for an incredible view of the town and Penha Mountain. The 15th-century Palace of the Dukes of Braganza is also a must-visit.

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Braga: City of Churches and Culture

Braga is often referred to as Portugal’s spiritual heart and the “city of churches.” For centuries the archbishops held temporal and spiritual power, and today it’s renowned for its spectacular Baroque-style churches like the 11th-century Cathedral of Braga, which also has  Gothic and Renaissance elements, and the 17th-century Igreja de Santa Cruz with its intricate stone façade impresses. Braga has significant links to the Roman Empire, as the former Roman city of Bracara Augusta was founded in 16 BC by Rome’s first emperor, Augustus. You’ll see many ancient Roman monuments and ruins spread throughout. The city’s most visited attraction is the hilltop Bom Jesus do Monte, a pilgrimage site providing awe-inspiring views while drawing religious devotees since at least the 14th century.

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Natural Wonders: From Mountains to Coast

This region of Portugal is jam-packed with natural wonders, including the Douro River Valley, the lush and winding, terraced region that produces the country’s beloved port wine. Here majestic mountains give way to the dramatic valley with the tranquil river flowing through. The UNESCO-listed area offers nearly endless captivating vistas along with ancient traditions to explore.  Peneda-Gerês National Park near the border of Spain is wild and rugged, with granite peaks that are millions of years old, oak forests, green valleys, and scenic hiking trails. Discover waterfalls hidden in the forest, pretty lagoons, and wildlife, including the native, wild Garrano ponies, deer, and ibex. The Costa Verde (Green Coast) beaches along the Atlantic offer pristine sands, dunes, and great surf.

The Cuisine of Northern Portugal

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Wine isn’t the only thing to savor in Northern Portugal. There’s lots of rich and flavorful cuisine. With fruit, olive, and almond trees bordering wine terraces in the Douro Valley, these ingredients are heavily featured. Cheese, cured meats, sausages, stews, soups, fresh fish and seafood, are all common. In this typically working-class region, there’s a waste-not-want-not focus while keeping diners powered all day. Tripe stew, tripas à moda do Porto, is what gave the Porto locals the proud nickname tripeiros. One of the most representative foods of Northern Portugal, particularly Porto, is Francesinha, made with steak, ham, sausage, and chourico layered between bread, wrapped in a cheese blanket, topped with an egg, and drowned in tomato sauce and beer.

What to do in Northern Portugal

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Visit Port Wine Cellars

One of the top things to do on your Northern Portugal vacation is to visit the Port Wine Cellars, referred to as “caves” in Portuguese. They’re located just across the river from Porto in the enchanting city of Vila Nova de Gaia, the hub of the port wine industry. To reach them, simply traverse the Dom Luis I Bridge from Ribeira. The port houses, strewn along the waterfront, date back to the early 13th century. The House of Croft, established over three centuries ago, is owned and operated by the descendants of two prominent Port wine families. Tours explore the barrel-lined cellars and include tastings, sometimes with chocolate pairings. There are also rooftop terraces for dining with a view of Porto.

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Go Hiking & Mountain Biking

Whether you’re looking for something short and relatively easy or long and challenging, there are many trails for hiking and mountain biking, two of the most popular outdoor activities in Northern Portugal. Peneda-Geres National Park in the extreme north near the Spanish border is home to wild terrain with rivers, waterfalls, and forests crisscrossed by paved granite trails. They link villages to upland summer pastures, providing outstanding opportunities for exploring on foot or two wheels. The granite hills are especially ideal for mountain biking. One could easily spend an entire day and not meet another soul, other than the occasional shepherd with his flock. There are also magnificent trails for pedaling and hiking along the Atlantic coast and the Douro Valley.

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Try Watersports

A wide range of watersports can be enjoyed in Northern Portugal. While the Algarve is world-famous for surfing, here it can be enjoyed without the big crowds. There are natural and urban beaches, point breaks, beach breaks, and surfing spots for all levels of surfers, including Arda Beach, a popular surfing and windsurfing destination. It’s also possible to take part in coasteering which is all about shore scrambling, rock hopping, cave exploring, swell riding, and cliff jumping. A relatively new sport you can try by joining a tour offered by multiple outfitters, it allows you to marvel at hidden spots that you’d never see otherwise. Paddleboarding rentals and tours are available too, including excursions on the Douro River that explore scenic beaches.

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Explore Historic Cities & Towns

There’s lots to explore in the historic cities and towns, including Porto’s colorful cobbled streets featuring building facades that glisten with brightly painted tiles. Many landmarks here are true works of art like the Church of Sao Francisco, a UNESCO-listed site built in the 14th century with Gothic arches, rosettes, and windows.  Palacio da Bolsa, Porto’s former stock exchange, and the Fort of Sao Francisco de Queijo, or the Castle of Cheese, are just a few of the other highlights. Guimarães is known for its well-preserved medieval buildings like its hilltop 10th-century Guimarães Castle and the French chateau-like Dukes of Bragança Palace. Braga is home to many impressive Baroque-style churches, including the 17th-century Igreja de Santa Cruz with its intricate stone façade.

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Cruise the Douro River

The Douro River, or “River of Gold,” has become a popular destination for a cruise. Starting in Porto, you can explore the historic center before enjoying tranquil spells on the water, including the narrow stretches of the upper portion of the river flowing between steep, terraced vineyards. There are a variety of lengths available, including hour-long cruises for those short on time who want to relax while immersed in the picturesque scenery. Highlights include landmarks such as the Arrabida Bridge, the Dom Luis I Bridge, the famous port wine cellars, and Ribeira’s Old Town. If you embark on a multi-day cruise, you’ll visit multiple ports of call, learn about the wine-making traditions, and even attend a folk music or flamenco show.

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Try Authentic Portuguese Cuisine

Wherever you go you won’t want to miss the chance to sample authentic Portuguese cuisine. The fish is fresh, the bread comes warm right out of the oven and there’s always a glass of chilled wine to pair with it. Seafood rules here but there’s plenty of pork, including slow-cooked porco preto, or Iberian black pig.  Many classics have Mediterranean foundations with influences of Brazilian, African, and the Spice Route. One of the most popular “sandwiches” can be found in Porto. The francesinha is more of a meal with two slices of bread, sausage, ham, and roasted meat, smothered in melted cheese, beer, and tomato sauce. Bacalhau is everywhere, in casseroles, grilled, baked, with scrambled egg, and swimming in rice.

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Relax on the Beach

When most people picture Portugal’s beaches the Algarve or Lisbon Coast usually comes to mind, but up north there are beautiful, powdery stretches with sweeping dunes and wave-thrashed cliffs, including some of the country’s most spectacular sands. The city of Porto has beaches just minutes from the city center, including Homem do Leme which lies just west and offers seaside bars. Praia dos Ingleses in the district of Foz is ideal for nature lovers with a small stretch of sand and unique granite rocks. Around Gaia, Senhor da Pedra is one of Europe’s most picturesque while being a great spot for bodyboarding and surfing. Madalena is also near Gaia, a sandy beach with a wooden walkway ideal for long walks.

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