I’m here today to share the best things you can do in Portugal, that little rectangle in the southwest corner of Europe. I’m a local, so you’ll get the inside scoop, not just generic tour advice. This post will be a bit of a love letter to an extraordinary place that once was a vast empire that ruled the world.
It’s easy to think of Portugal as a seaside country, stretching from Lisbon and Porto in the north to the stunning beaches of the Algarve down south. But there’s so much more to it — pristine national parks, bustling cities, rolling countrysides, and many world heritage sites.
This post features highlights and activities from every Portuguese district for all types of travelers, from those looking for a relaxing fortnight to those craving an immersive experience.
So let me guide you from the mountain ranges to the quaint little villages, with a few extra hops to explore the archipelagos. There’s so much to see in Portugal that you might just rethink your three days in Lisbon and consider expanding them into an entire month here.
Visit Gerês, Portugal’s Only National Park
“This corner of the Earth, the great serene lake, smooth as a polished mirror, the high hills containing the huge body of water give the traveler an impression of peace such as he had not yet experienced.” -Nobel prize winner José Saramago, describing Gerês.
These highlands remain pristine in the highlands that mark the border between Portugal and Galicia. Its distinctive fauna and flora flourish here, and the wolves and bears that once roamed the land centuries ago are making a slow comeback.
Gerês has something for everyone: For pure relaxation, stay at one of the many hot spring villages. Adrenaline junkies can kayak down rivers, bike, climb mountains, or bungee jump. And for quiet communion with nature, hike through stunningly beautiful landscapes.
Experience Winter Traditions, from Podence to Penamacor
Portugal’s winter traditions may surprise you because the country is better known for its warm summers. But unique and charming ancient winter traditions live on throughout the country. If you’re traveling nearby in winter, don’t miss these off-season delights.
One of my favorites is the Podence Carnival, in the northeast corner of Portugal. Every year, the local boys dress up in colorful handmade costumes and intimidating masks — the Caretos> — and take to the streets in mock courtship rituals for the local women.
For Christmas, head to Penamacor, where teams of young men cut and haul logs from the forests. These are collected at a local churchyard and ignited in a bonfire the night of December 23rd and will be replenished and kept burning for days.
Time-Travel in Historic Minho
UNESCO, the U.N.’s agency for peace and security, designates significant historical sites worldwide. The city of Braga is one such site, founded in 16 B.C. and home to the oldest Archdiocesis in Portugal. Roman ruins linger on, a testament to a bygone era.
Next is Guimarães, another world heritage site and one of the most well-preserved in Portugal. And in a neighboring town, you’ll find souvenirs everywhere featuring the Rooster of Barcelos to honor the town’s past as a pilgrimage outpost.
But my favorite places in the Minho region are two small towns: Ponte de Lima and Ponte da Barca, both known for their handsome bridges over the de Lima River. These are places where the atmosphere is heavy with history and the spirit of nature.
Feast in Oporto, Where Food & Wine Reign Supreme
If you visit both Oporto and Lisbon, you’ll quickly discover how different the north and south are. The people from Oporto often say that they work while the Southerners rest. And they do have a point, given how dynamic and bustling the bigger city is.
Avoid the Lello Bookstore. It’s an alluring tourist trap, but a trap nonetheless. Save your money and instead stick close to the Douro River and take in the scenic views of Oporto while overlooking the beautiful Dom Luís bridge.
And be sure to savor francesinha, a non-traditional sandwich made with ham, sausage, cheese, and steak. It’s a delightful cholesterol bomb, so sneak one on your cheat day. Wash it all down with the local Port wine and wander over the bridge to explore the wine cellars of Gaia.
Stroll Far from the Crowds on the Paiva Walkway
This is a recent entry on my list of unique experiences in Portugal. The Paiva Walkways opened in 2015 and quickly became a smashing success. A stroll here shines a much-deserved spotlight on the local culture and the many sights of the entire Arouca region.
The wooden walkways stretch five miles along the Paiva River. And if you’re there on a hot summer day — like those we’re experiencing now, in 2023 — climb down to the river beaches and join others in diving into the cool, soothing waters.
Also, be sure to visit the memorable neighboring cities of Lamego and Viseu. According to legend, Lamego is where the first Portuguese Cortes took place. Every August, Viseu hosts the São Mateus fair, a uniquely Portuguese event and the oldest fair in the country.
Visit Aveiro, the Portuguese Venice
No one would blame you if you initially mistake Aveiro for Italy — it has the canals, bridges, colorful houses, historic buildings, and, of course, the gondolas (known locally as moliceiros). But even though Aveiro isn’t Venice, it’s well worth a visit.
Start by visiting the Costa Nova, a beachside stretch of the city and perhaps the most Instagramable place in Portugal, including its Wes Anderson-esque striped houses. And for another fantasy landscape in Aveiro, visit the local salt flats that mirror the sky.
Last, don’t miss the opportunity to roam around the art nouveau buildings of the city center while eating Ovos Moles, a local delicacy made of egg yolks and sugar. They combine a wafer-like crunch with a tasty stringy sweetness.
Visit Serra da Estrela — The Land of Snow & Cheese
“Estrela” means “star,” and “Serra” means “mountain range.” Here’s the legend — A solitary shepherd yearned to explore beyond his snowy mountains. One night, a childlike star descended, granting his wish. Guided by this celestial companion, he embarked on a long journey.
After years of exploration, the shepherd and the star merged and became this snowy mountain range that now delights aficionados of winter sports. Après ski, enjoy the area’s delicious, creamy cheeses, and browse the finely crafted local wool products.
That was a time when everything felt vast and mysterious. Today’s world has lost that sense of wonder and can feel small. Alas, technology, convenience, and instant gratification have taken their toll, and legends like Serra da Estrela are fading memories of a far simpler time.
Follow in the Footsteps of Portuguese Exemplars
If your eyesight is sharp, you can spot a few peculiar villages south of the Serra da Estrela. They seem to disappear into the landscape as if camouflaged. These are the Aldeias de Xisto — literally the Schist Villages.
Close by is the Aldeias Históricas, where the village of Monsanto makes its bid to be the most Portuguese enclave in the country, a national exemplar. Nestled atop a rocky peak, this well-preserved spot feels like an open-air museum.
Piódão might be my favorite of all these. It’s a gem so well hidden that you’ll need GPS to find it. Once you do, you’ll fall in love with its stone houses and colorful doors, both of which are dazzling, even at night.
Visit Monasteries and go Apple Picking in the Oeste Region
Alcobaça is known for two things: its delicious apples and its world heritage monastery. The monastery was the first completely gothic building in Portugal, and its sheer scale and beauty will make your jaw drop.
Then there’s Batalha, home to another world heritage monastery. Officially, it’s the Monastery of Saint Mary of the Victory, built to celebrate the Battle of Aljubarrota in 1385 A.D., where 7,000 Portuguese men defeated 30,000 invading Spanish soldiers from Castile.
Wrap up your visit at the Convent of Christ in Tomar. It was once a Templar stronghold, and walking its corridors will leave you in awe at this exquisite example of the Manueline style that marked the era of Portuguese maritime exploration.
Surf (or Don’t Surf) the Big Waves at Nazaré
By “big,” I mean it’s the home of “one of the three tallest waves ever surfed.” Once a small fishing village, Nazaré has catapulted into worldwide surfing fame thanks to the unique conditions created by its geography and climate. It’s heaven for big-wave enthusiasts.
The town’s lighthouse sits atop a cliff, serving as a backdrop to this legendary place. Once, a Portuguese nobleman almost fell off the cliff to his death while chasing deer — but a vision of Saint Mary appeared and froze his horse at the cliff’s edge just in the nick of time.
For relaxation, Nazaré also has you covered. The village’s beach has smaller waves for tamer and safer surfing. And the town’s fishing heritage means you’ll be able to order some of the freshest fish and seafood at low prices that you can brag about back home.
Hop Aboard a Ferry to Berlengas, the Offshore Gem
As a kid, I was fascinated by the Berlengas islands after reading it was a place of foggy mystery and wonder. A few years later, when my family celebrated a cousin’s birthday there, I felt that magic hanging in the air, which remains vivid in my mind.
To get there, you’ll need to catch the ferry at Peniche, another city well worth a visit. The ferry takes about 30 minutes to reach the main island. As its shape emerges on the hazy horizon, you’ll realize why it’s so often described as “a wonder.”
If you’re staying overnight, camp either at a designated campsite or in the nearby 16th-century fortress. Be sure to get up early and hike when it’s cool and foggy. While the other humans slumber on, you’ll catch glimpses of the elusive local wildlife.
Marvel at Sintra, the Fairytale Town
UNESCO praised Sintra’s “micro-landscapes of exotic and luxuriant beauty” and its enchanting mix of castles, palaces, villas, and monasteries. It’s a rocky landscape filled with exotic vegetation, and the overall effect would have captured Walt Disney’s imagination.
The village of Sintra is in a mountain range with a unique microclimate where exotic fauna thrive in a quasi-permanent fog. Sintra is nestled in this mysterious, fairytale-like mist and makes a big impression.
Sintra has many villas, but none more grand than the Quinta da Regaleira with its signature masonry well. Other highlights include the Pena National Palace (often misidentified as a castle) and the Castle of the Moors (an actual castle), all located within a natural park.
Walk Lisbon’s Streets for Breathtaking Views
Lisbon is on many lists of the world’s most scenic cities and has earned numerous tourism awards. That’s triggered a flood of visitors and worries about saturation. But the traditional places still outnumber the tourists and outshine fickle ‘must-see’ travel fads.
For one, Lisbon is the birthplace of Fado, Portugal’s national music genre. Walking down the narrow streets of Madragoa and Alfama on your way to Saint George Castle, you’ll hear impromptu street concerts that never appear in any tourist guide itinerary.
The extended Tagus neighborhoods are flat-out beautiful. Be sure to visit the Tower of Belém and the Monastery of the Hieronymites, the country’s most famous landmarks. Other essential stops include the Baixa and Chiado, with their incredible grid architecture.
Soak in the Unique Flora of the Southwestern Coast
Although technically part of the Alentejo, this region has an identity and charm all its own — not as slow-paced as the Alentejo, but not as touristy as the Algarve. Spend relaxing days at the beach and dine nightly in quaint countryside villages.
The Sudoeste starts just beyond the port town of Sines. Ten minutes down the road, you’ll find the picturesque village of Porto Covo and Pessegueiro Island. The long, uncrowded stretch of beaches makes this area perfect for those wanting an invigorating swim in cooler Atlantic waters.
Milfontes and Zambujeira do Mar are classic fishing villages, but the region’s highlight is Odeceixe. It has two parts: the village itself and the beach. Divers can choose their preferred temperature because the warm river waters mix offshore with the cooler Atlantic.
Road Trip Portugal’s Lighthouses
I love lighthouses. They remind me of pirates and explorers from a bygone era. To me, the concept is a mix of safety and discovery. There’s nothing else like a rhythmically choreographed ray of light flashing across an infinite ocean to guide distant ships.
Portugal has 15 lighthouses you can visit. And it’s a delightful coincidence that a road trip down the coast to visit them also takes you close to many of the other must-sees mentioned in this post… so explore Portugal by using lighthouses as your trail markers!
My favorite lighthouses include the Cape Carvoeiro (built in 1758) in Peniche; the Cape Roca (1772) at the westernmost point of continental Europe; the Espichel Cape (1790) with its church and sanctuary; and the Cape Saint Vincent (1846), in Sagres.
Visit the Alqueva Dam for Wonderful Views
For fishing and watersports, it’s hard to beat the Alqueva Dam. It looks out of place in the hot, remote Alentejo countryside, but it’s an oasis that has completely changed the region’s fortunes. Travelers are drawn here, which is the whole point of an oasis.
Close to the dam is the Dark Sky Observatory, a science shrine for stargazing. The observatory’s cutting-edge telescopes and expert astronomers can show & teach you the beauty of our universe, all while you sip a delicious glass of the local Alentejo wine.
Down the road is Moura, the birthplace of your humble narrator. Climb to the top of the medieval castle for a panoramic view of the rolling hills, visit Portugal’s first Carmelite Monastery, and discover why “as fine as Moura’s olive oil” is a typical Portuguese saying.
Wander the White Streets of Southern Portugal
Moura is also an excellent town for experiencing the narrow streets of its Mouraria — the old Moorish quarters. Layers and layers of bright white paint make these houses a perfect backdrop for the pots of colorful flowers that residents hang outside their doors and windows.
The Alentejo and Algarve regions of southern Portugal are known for this style of architecture, a legacy of Moorish occupation. Towns like Marvão and Monsaraz are built atop huge mountains, making them impenetrable fortresses while adding to their historic charm.
Visit in the summer and enjoy the numerous festivals celebrating local patron saints. These perfectly represent Portugal’s national character, hospitality, and rich cultural heritage. Évora, another world heritage site, has a noteworthy annual fair.
Sunbathe on the Beaches of the Algarve
For northern Europeans, the Algarve needs no introduction. It’s been a favorite vacation and retirement destination for decades. During the summer, the area’s population more than doubles, but the winter off-season is temperate, quiet, and offers an overlooked respite.
Western Algarve is the windiest and coolest part of the region, but Sagres is the sweet spot. The town was an icon of 15th-century Portuguese maritime exploration when the country became one of the world’s most powerful empires.
I recommend visiting Lagos, Portimão, and Albufeira to the west of Faro, the capital city. To the east, Olhão and Tavira are also memorable, especially if you crave fresh fish and seafood. The restaurants and meals there are to die for! Don’t miss it.
Cruise Around the Subtropical Forests of Madeira
As your plane approaches Funchal, you’ll likely be terrified when glimpsing the short runway. But the pilots are skilled and familiar with the approach, and soon, you’ll be safe on the tarmac, ready to explore this bustling city, a favorite among expats.
One of the best things to do in Funchal is to catch the gondola up the Monte and then ride down in a toboggan. The city center is an excellent example of Portuguese architecture, and if you’re into boats, you can catch a ferry to the neighboring island of Porto Santo.
Funchal’s New Year’s fireworks are world-renowned, but the natural world’s highlight of the archipelago is the Laurisilva forest. Any of its trail hikes will take you past beautiful lagoons, waterfalls, and lush, green hills of unique vegetation exclusive to the island.
Visit Atlantis, er, I mean the Azores
The Azores consist of nine islands, and the legendary submerged city of Atlantis may lurk nearby. Visit the cosmopolitan city of Angra do Heroísmo, on the island of Terceira, and the remote island of Corvo. Then there’s Faial, home to Portugal’s highest peak.
If you visit multiple islands, you’ll travel mostly by boat, so having proven sea legs is good. And don’t miss a chance to watch the whales and dolphins cavort in the white-capped waves. It’s an exhilarating and joyful experience.
These volcanic islands have numerous hot springs, so consider a long soak after your hike around the Sete Cidades lagoon on São Miguel island. Or, if you prefer cool baths, slip into one of the many natural cool water pools scattered throughout the archipelago.
Final Thoughts: Things to Do in Portugal
I could easily write another article about the best things to do in Portugal and not repeat any of the above. There’s much more to see than just the big cities, so here’s advice from someone born and raised here — go beyond the city limits and into the countryside.
Portugal is exceptionally diverse, so I hope this list has been a good introduction for your needs. Whether you’re looking for relaxation, energetic activities, or cultural immersion, Portugal could be your perfect destination.
Set your own itinerary — visit Berlengas Island, the fairytale town of Sintra, or knock out this entire list. Or go freestyling to places I didn’t mention. You’ll still have a great time. And call on us, the locals, because we want you to enjoy our beloved country.
Now it’s your turn to share. Have you ever been to Portugal? How was it? Have we helped you plan an upcoming trip? Share your feedback and ask questions in the Comments section below. We’ll all learn something.
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Last Updated on October 13, 2023