History is writ large in Portugal. From its maritime past which fuelled the wealth of Lisbon and Porto, to the walled towns situated on dramatic hills guarding its borders, to its traditional values living strong in a country that has also embraced the future.
Visitors are struck by the friendliness of its people and the affordable food and wine but above all by the sheer diversity of this small nation. Sublime sandy beaches, lush river valleys, rugged mountains and steeply terraced vineyards, pretty stone-built mountain-top villages, cobble-stoned streets, palaces and castles; you find it all in Portugal. Then there are myriad activities, from visiting wine estates to hiking the hills and Camino, or cycling the backroads.
best time to travel
The best time to travel to mainland Portugal is February to May and September to October. Spring sees spectacular displays of wild flowers and almond blossom, summers (July & August) are hot and busy, while winters are cool and damp. The Azores and Madeira can be visited year-round but are cool in winter.
places to go
Climb to one of the city's viewpoints and a picture-perfect panorama of ancient ruins, domed churches, homes and mansions opens up before you. Take a tram to the historic centre with its cobbled alleyways, bars, restaurants and vibrant nightlife and experience all this city on the Tejo with its wonderful waterfront location has to offer.
Covering a third of Portugal's land mass but with just 4% of its population, the Alentejo is an area of wild beauty, where tourists rarely visit despite endless beaches and authentic fishing villages. Inland you will find golden plains and rolling hillsides with a sprinkling of traditional whitewashed villages, Roman ruins, Visigoth churches and Moorish castles.
Spectacular cliffs, sun-drenched beaches, sandy islands make up Portugal's premier fun-in-the-sun holiday destination. Turn inland and find hiking trails, fine castles lording it over historic villages and beautiful cork oak and flower-covered hills.
Sintra’s "glorious Eden" is considered one of the most scenic places in the country. Opulent palaces, lush gardens and country estates hide in hills that roll in to the blue Atlantic. This is fairy-tale Portugal.
UNESCO protected Évora is one of Portugal’s most historic and best-preserved towns - think Roman temple, narrow, winding lanes and Moorish alleys, ancient walls, 16th-century mansions, a medieval cathedral and cloisters and ochre-trimmed, whitewashed houses.
Monsaraz is a little fortified hilltop village where many of the medieval homes have been converted into atmospheric guesthouses.
Villages of the Beiras
Portugal's most diverse region sits halfway down the Spanish border. Stone villages are scattered between the border and Portugal's highest mountains, overlooking beautiful olive and cork oak forests.
Óbidos is a small town with a gorgeous historic centre completely enclosed by medieval walls. It has lots of cobbled alleys and whitewashed houses.
Tomar, midway between Lisbon and Coimbra, is one of Portugal's most appealing small towns, home to the 12th century Convento de Cristo. This one-time headquarters of the mysterious Order of the Knights Templar displays a riot of different architectural styles, including a 16-sided Templar church, two cloisters decorated in ceramic Azulejo tilework.
Coimbra, a former capital of Portugal, is a relatively small town with plenty of historical monuments, including ancient convents and two cathedrals. It is home to the country's oldest university and an atmospheric town centre. Coimbra is a great place to experience fado.
The terraced vineyards of the Douro Valley invite you to visit wineries, stay in rural quintas (country estates) and taste the sweet, fortified wine, Port, or the intense red Barca Velha. Throughout it all runs the Douro Line, a rail line which hugs the river and takes you on a spectacular ride through more than 20 tunnels and 30 bridges.
A commercial city, with a pretty medieval centre, graceful bell towers, baroque churches and stately buildings, the attraction of Porto lies in just ambling and delving into the Porto way of life. Walk through the hilly backstreets, explore beautiful gardens, enjoy a thriving foodie scene, enjoy spectacular views from its many lookouts or duck in to the waterfront cafés and restaurants in the barrio of Ribeira.
Portugal's third largest city is considered by many to be one of Portugal’s most stunning. It has long been a religious centre, and overflows with baroque churches, monasteries, and chapels. Its narrow lanes and elegant plazas are closed to vehicles, letting you wander past handsome cafés, pretty boutiques and restaurants.
In Guimarães Portugal was born. The country's first capital is host to medieval monuments, labyrinthine lanes, picturesque café-filled plazas, wonderful restaurants and honey-coloured houses.
Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês
Portugal's only national park, tucked against its remote northern border, features boulder-strewn peaks and fragrant forests. Shepherds and farmers inhabit remote granite villages, tending their flocks while their ancient customs and traditions are being preserved.
Closer to North Africa than it is to Europe, the volcanic island of Madeira offers breathtaking views of the Atlantic, wonderfully fresh seafood, a chic nightlife, dolphin and whale watching and a 2000 kilometre network of levadas (irrigation channels) which hikers can follow deep into the interior of this beautiful volcanic island.
The remote archipelago of the Azores, situated in the middle of the Atlantic, is a wonderful playground of volcanic origin. Crater lakes, caverns and thermal springs dot the islands, while the craggy coastline hides picturesque fishing villages. Adventure activities such as hiking and canyoning are the order of the day. Whales are numerous in the many marine reserves while on land a network of natural parks and biospheres protects the unspoiled environment
Hike the hills
A network of hiking trails covers the peaks and valleys of the Serra da Estrela, while remote Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês offers well signposted trails for every ability. Then there is the Rota Vicentina, a fantastic long-distance footpath encompassing picturesque villages, wild beaches and steep cliffs.
Walk the levadas or Madeira
Unique to the island of Madeira is a 2000 kilometre network of levadas (irrigation channels) which hikers can follow deep into the interior of this beautiful volcanic island.
Walk the Camino
The Camino Portugues, from Lisbon to St. James' final resting place in Santiago de Compostella, is the most spiritually connected of the pilgrim trails that make up the Camino network. St James first preached here and his bones travelled through Portugal on their way from Jerusalem to Santiago. Follow in his wake walking through olive groves, wineries, forests and ancient towns.
Cycle through paradise
Ride through small villages and extensive vineyards, enjoy rolling river scenes, historic towns and dramatic coastal landscape with sun-kissed beaches and colourful vibrant fishing villages.
Shop at a market
The Minho region north of Porto is famous for its sprawling outdoor markets and Portugal's largest, oldest and most celebrated Feira is the one at Barcelos, taking place each Thursday.
Watch whales and dolphins
The Azores form one of the world’s largest whale sanctuaries. A third of the world's species of whales and dolphins have been sighted around the islands, including Sperm whale, Bottlenose dolphin, Short-finned pilot whale, Atlantic spotted dolphin and Blue whale.
Cruise the Douro
Explore the Douro Valley, with its steeply terraced vineyards, by river boat. Sit back, relax and watch the scenery glide by.
Stay at a great hotel
From comfortable historic monasteries and castles known as pousadas to wonderful farm estate houses called quintas, Portugal has a range of well-priced atmospheric accommodations.
Visit a monastery
In a country teeming with monasteries, two UNESCO World Heritage sites, the Convento de Cristo in Tomar, former headquarters of the Knights Templar and the Mosteiro de Santa Maria da Vitória in Batalha, a hybrid Gothic and Manueline masterpiece, are definitely worth visiting. Nearby Alcobaça is a gem of a small medieval town, dominated by the Mosteiro de Santa Maria, one of Iberia's greatest monasteries.
Visit Europe's most westerly point
Close to the resort town of Caicais, west of Lisbon, is mainland Europe's most westerly point, Cabo da Roca. The drive here is as pleasant as seeing the Atlantic breakers slam into the cliffs below.
Hit the beach
Spectacular cliffs, sun-drenched beaches and sandy islands make up Portugal's premier fun-in-the-sun holiday destination, the Algarve. Praia de Tavira on the island of Tavira is one of the best, Praia da Bordeira and Praia do Amado the most spectacular, while Praia da Marinha and Benagil have escaped most modern development. Meanwhile halfway between Lisbon and Porto the vast white beach of Figueira da Foz it thought to be Europe’s widest beach.
Food, glorious food
A typical meal begins with appetizers of bread, cheese, and olives or hors d'oeuvres of swordfish or tuna. A big bowl of soup followed by fish or meat, accompanied by potatoes and rice. Bacalhau (salted cod), served many different ways, is a common fish dish, as is sardine. The classic national dish is caldeirada, the Portuguese version of bouillabaisse. The best meat in Portugal is pork, usually tender and juicy. For dessert, try Pastéis de nata a truly delicious custard tart, or arroz doce, cinnamon-flavored rice pudding.
Port is made of some 40 varieties of grape and ranges from whites to full-bodied tawnies and reds.
Vinhos Verdes are light and often served with fish. Velvety Dão is matured in oak casks for nearly 2 years before being bottled and pairs well with roasts. Madeira, from the volcanic island by the same name, is a sweet, heavy wine usually served at the end of a meal.
Fado is traditional Portuguese music usually with a melancholy theme and accompanied by mandolins or guitars.
Cafés and Pastelarias
You’re never far from a café or pastry shop in Portugal. Take frequent breaks to linger over coffee and delicious pastries.
Soccer is a national obsession. Benfica, Sporting and FC Porto are considered the main contenders for the Primeira Liga title.
Ride the rails
The Douro Line is a 160 kms long rail line which hugs the riverbank and takes you on a spectacular ride through the Douro Gorge via more than 20 tunnels and 30 bridges.