What to do in Portugal
What to do in Portugal
Our Guide to What to Do in Portugal
Located along the western coast of the Iberian Peninsula, Portugal is one of the best travel destinations in all of Europe providing a little something for everyone.
It has a long, rich history as a proud seafaring nation, with many iconic landmarks to discover. In the capital city of Lisbon, you can visit the palace ruins at Sao Jorge Castle and explore the hilltop Moorish Castle, while Porto offers charms that go beyond its famous port wine, including Baroque and Romanesque churches, museums, and concert halls.
You’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to impressive landscapes, in fact, it has a nearly 500-mile-long coast along the Atlantic with picturesque coves and gorgeous beaches, for swimming and sunbathing, some are even ideal for surfing.
The area around Lagos with its stunning seaside cliffs in the south is especially impressive. In the north, Peneda-Geres National Park provides abundant flora and fauna, waterfalls and lagoons, along with opportunities for outdoor adventurers like hiking and swimming. It’s a birdwatchers’ haven too, with golden eagles, red kites, goshawks and more found here. You might even spot a wild pony or a roe deer.
No matter where you go, you’ll find opportunities to sample delicious eats. The Portuguese are passionate about good food, something that permeates all aspects of life. Regional dishes can be enjoyed across the country, emphasizing meat, fish, bread, olive oil, tomatoes, herbs, and spices.
After the sun goes down in Lisbon, the nightlife is buzzing, with many bars and clubs, and a long list of entertainment options.
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Explore Lisbon’s Oldest District
Alfama is the oldest district in Lisbon, settled by the Romans and the Visigoths. As a Muslim City from 711 to 1147, it was occupied by the wealthy thanks to its local waters that were considered beneficial for health, which is why you’ll see so many fountains, called chafarizes, in this neighborhood. It was the Moors who gave the district its name Alfama, meaning bath or springs, and who created the maze of cobblestone streets that lead from Tejo estuary to the castle on the hill. While there are some derelict buildings left to ruin, it provides authentic character and an authentic look at daily life, with tiny churches, squares, and women selling fresh fish right from their doorways. Some of the most historically important buildings in the city can be found in Alfama, like Saint Anthony’s Church, the National Pantheon, and Sao Jorge Castle, one of the most popular attractions in Lisbon.
Visit Sao Jorge Castle
Speaking of Sao Jorge Castle, it’s located in Alfama atop the highest hill in Lisbon, revealing nearly a thousand years of the city’s history. Occupation of the castle hill dates back to at least the 8th century BC, with the first fortifications dating to the 1st century BC. It was used as a fortification for the Romans, Visigoths, and the Moors with its turbulent history reflected throughout. A tour reveals medieval royal quarters, underground chambers, heavily fortified battlements, and 18 towers. The solid defenses of the castle’s keep and the impenetrable walls are all open to the public. Tranquil gardens can be found in the courtyards and there is also a restaurant on-site ideal for taking a break while enjoying a glass of wine. In the basement you’ll find a small museum that displays artefacts, including jewelry, tools, weapons and ceramics, that were uncovered during excavations.
Taste Michelin-Star Cuisine at the Time Out Market
Set within the Mercado da Ribeira where locals buy their fish and meat, the Time Out Market is a hotspot for foodies, a place where some of the country’s most famous chefs from Miguel Laffan to Marlene Vieira present their cuisine. It’s one of the best places in Lisbon to spend the day eating and drink with over 50 different concepts with everything from budget-friendly casual bites to a multicourse affair. No matter which you choose, high quality can be counted on. You might start with charcuterie at Manteigaria Silva, a more than 100-year-old brand followed by steak sandwiches at O Prego da Peixaria or shrimp from Marisqueira. One of the best places to end your feast is Santini’s Italian-style ice cream enjoyed in a wafer-biscuit cone. If you arrive early, you might want to check out the original farmer and fish market which also sells souvenirs and flowers.
Listen to Fado
Fado is Portugal’s traditional folk music and a must-hear with its melancholic tunes that include guitars and mandolins. Poetic lyrics sung by a Fadista complement the instruments that often feature the dark elements of sadness, death, and love, with an occasional dash of humor. It’s even been listed on UNESCO’S Intangible Cultural Heritage list with roots that go back to the early 19th-century. There are two different types of fado, one enjoyed in Lisbon where it’s extremely popular, and the other in Coimbra. Some of the best performances are offered at Clube do Fado in the Alfama district of Lisbon although you can often enjoy it while dining on a delicious meal as it’s often performed in restaurants too. If you’d like to learn more about the origins of fado, Museo do Fado (Fado Museum) is the place to go with exhibits on traditional fado, archives, audiovisual displays, and a café that hosts concerts.
Wander Through Pena Park and Pena Palace
Pena Palace is a fantastical sight, exemplifying the 19th-century Romanticism style of architecture with decorative battlements, brightly painted terraces, and mythological creatures. There are two wings, ringed by a third structure, and walls that visitors can walk around to see an entrance tunnel, watchtowers, the battlements, and a drawbridge. The interior is just as fascinating, the Pena Park that surrounds it is remarkable too, containing tree species from every continent, black swans, ponds, and fountains. The castle sits atop a rocky peak and was designed so that it can be seen from every vantage point in the park. It’s all the result of King Ferdinand II, an Austrian lord who married into Portuguese nobility, ruling Portugal with his wife Queen Maria II from 1837 to 1853. He was a champion of the arts, often referred to as the ‘Artist King,’ with the palace his lasting legacy.
Walk Porto’s Colorful Cobbled Streets
The colorful cobbled streets of Porto were made for wandering with many historical attractions to discover. Like Lisbon, the facades of the buildings glisten with brightly colored tiles, but Porto has the charms of a smaller town with its beauty found in the historic center. As you stroll through, you’ll be awed by its churches and other structures which are true works of art, like the UNESCO-listed Church of Sao Francisco, the most prominent Gothic monument in Porto. Built in the 14th-century, you’ll first notice its stately south wall with Gothic arches, windows and rosettes. Its particularly notable for its elaborately decorated Baroque interior that’s said to contain over 300 kilos of gold dust, which cover altars and other decorative surfaces. Other highlights include Palacio da Bolsa, Porto’s former stock exchange, and the Fort of Sao Francisco de Queijo, known as the Castle of Cheese, believed to have been built in the 15th-century.
Take a River Cruise on the Douro
Known as “Portugal’s River of Gold,” a cruise on the Douro begins in Porto, bringing the opportunity to explore its enticing historic center and capture photos of the graceful bridges. It’s becoming one of the top spots for a European river cruise, with long spells on the water that are enjoyed in tranquility, particularly while traveling through the narrow stretches of the upper portion between steep, terraced vineyards. While there are a variety of trip options, a longer river cruise usually includes many ports of call, including the chance to sample the local wine and learn about winemaking traditions. For those without as much time, hour-long cruises are provided too, the perfect way to relax while surrounded by picturesque scenery that includes the lush valley and rolling hills along the banks. You’ll also witness iconic landmarks like the Arrabida Bridge, the Dom Luis I Bridge, the famous port wine cellars, and the old town of Ribeira.
Taste Port at Vila Nova de Gaia
You really can’t leave Portugal without having tasted port at Vila Nova de Gaia, the hub of the port wine industry which sits just across the river from Porto. The port houses are the lodges of the historic port wine producers which are strewn along the waterfront with tasting rooms, aging tanks, and caves. They date back to the early 13th-century when King Alfonso gave the town status before passing it off to the aristocracy, as Oporto’s bishops had tacked unreasonable shipping charges onto the wine. The House of Croft was established more than three centuries ago, owned and operated by descendants of two prominent Port wine families, the Yeatmans and Fladgates. Visitors can enjoy tasting and touring barrel-lined cellars here year-round, with tastings that include heavenly chocolate pairings. Dinner on one of the rooftop terraces brings sparkling views of Porto’s historic center opposite.
Hike Peneda-Geres National Park
One of the most spectacular national parks in Europe, Peneda-Geres is spread across four magnificent granite massifs in the northernmost reach of Portugal where wild garrano ponies run free. It offers striking natural beauty and history, with fascinating remains of human occupation. A Roman road runs through and is marked by 2,000-year-old milestones. There are also over 100 granite villages that have changed very little over the past thousand years. Visitors can arrange a ride on domesticated ponies, traversing the valleys, pine and oak forests, along with boulder-strewn peaks. There are cascading falls and stunning lagoons for a refreshing summer dip along with abundant flora and fauna. If you’re here on a Friday the 13th, the village of Montalegre just beyond the park’s eastern border hosts a famous street party, Noite das Bruxas that’s fueled by a local liqueur called queimada, and enjoyed with honey.
Discover Roman Ruins and More in Evora
The small rural town of Evora has a history that dates back more than 2,000 years, something that can be glimpsed in its impeccably preserved Old Town with its over 4,000 historic structures. There are Roman temples, walls, towers, and gates with origins that go back to the 3rd century too. One of the important Gothic structures, the 13th-century Cathedral of Evora, is a must-visit. The pink granite cathedral with conical spires has a mix-mash of architecture with not only a huge Gothic nave, but Baroque chapels and a Manueline choir. From the roof terrace look down over the town and then enter the Gothic cloisters with orange trees in the garden. The 16th-century aqueduct is well-worth a look, following the same course as the original Roman aqueduct, incorporating some of its stonework. Just west of town is Almendres Cromlech, a Neolithic site with 95 standing stones that form two huge circles.
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