Tourism in Portugal has been cruising on a wave of success and despite its popularity it continues to be one of the best value destinations. It has it all—a rich history, innovative art, stunning views and super friendly, laid-back locals. Visiting has also become easier since TAP Portugal, the country’s main airline, has increased their stopover program to five days. Here’s Culture Trip’s list of the top destinations to visit in Portugal during 2018.
Start the year off right by waking up in Madeira. This subtropical island system has become one of the trendiest destinations in Portugal for hiking, spending warm days by the seaside as a winter sun retreat, and eating exotic food, plus, the capital Funchal offers one of the best New Year’s Eve parties in the world. You’ll get the festive feel, without the cold weather of home. If you can’t head over for New Year’s, no problem; visiting the main island and smaller, adjacent islands is always a good plan and Porto Santo is where beach enthusiasts will find one of the most beautiful stretches of sand in Portugal. Other landmarks in Madeira and the smaller islands include the house that once belonged to Christopher Columbus, the Cristiano Ronaldo Museum, called Museu CR7, and the Madeira Wine Museum. Visit our article for more on escaping to Madeira in the Autumn.
Don’t miss Portugal’s second largest city. It may seem a lot like the capital since both are characterized by old, colorful buildings sprawled across hilly streets and they sit beside major rivers, but Porto is the yin to Lisbon’s yang. Where Lisbon is literally bright and sunny, Porto shines with culture. Anyone who loves Portugal’s azulejos tiles shouldn’t miss the São Bento railway station, which offers a stunning mosaic of tiles, transforming the walls into memorable works of art. There is no shortage of gardens, medieval palaces, and cathedrals, and the cuisine is often referred to as the best in the country. Known for it’s famous Port wine, Porto’s stretches of vineyards make up most of the nearby Douro Valley.
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The capital continues to sit at the top of travel itineraries, and visitors usually can’t wait to sink their teeth into authentic pasteis de nata, try one of the many bacalhau dishes, and explore the Portuguese calçadas (traditional mosaic walkways). Despite the boom in tourism, this continues to be a city that can be explored on a budget and is still one of the most tranquil and affordable capitals in Europe. Visitors can anticipate winding, narrow roads, and phenomenal lookout points; walking around at night is also a treat. In Alfama, mouthwatering aromas and wistful melodies (known as fado) drift from cozy restaurants that line the narrow, cobblestone labyrinth of streets. Don’t miss Chiado, the trendy district with the oldest bookstore in the world, or boho-chic Bairro Alto, which comes alive at night. Great weather and plenty of sunlight means there’s never a bad time to visit Lisbon.
Surfing is one of the main attractions in Portugal, and Ericeira is a small fishing village with a big reputation for catching waves. It’s also easy to get to from Lisbon, and while it’s not the closest beach town to the capital, it is one of the busiest. However, sitting along the cliffs that fringe the coast and watching surfers (or surfing yourself) isn’t the only thing to do here; Ericeira’s restaurants are among the top spots for indulging in fresh, delicious Portugese seafood.
Algarve is one of the best places to go to mix warm weather, hiking expeditions, trendy beaches, and even trendier social scenes. Each of the major cities is worth visiting—including Albufeira, Lagos, Vilamoura and Portimão—and a weekend away may convince anyone that heaven exists here on Earth. Tiny treasure troves of jewel-bright waters and mesmerizing cliffs—like Camilo Beach in Lagos—are sprinkled across the region, and don’t worry about not speaking Portuguese if you need directions. Many neighborhoods in the Algarve (if not most), are more English-speaking than Portuguese these days, especially around Albufeira and Vilamoura. Anyone wanting to break away from the Portugese tourist crowds, however, still has plenty of places to visit—a few of the most tranquil towns are Sagres, Tavira, and Aljezur.
Break away from the crowds by visiting the Alentejo region. The area’s capital city, Évora, is another lovely spot with a rich history and a mysterious nature that makes it a perfect Halloween destination, especially when taking into consideration the Capela dos Ossos, or Chapel of Bones. Inside (and on) the walls of this 16th-century church are approximately 5,000 human skeletons. Of course, tourists shouldn’t miss the other historical sites, like the Roman Temple or Cathedral of Évora, nor overlook visiting one of Alentjo’s most unique hotels. Évora and the nearby villages are ideal retreats into nature where it is possible to hide away, enjoy true comfort food, and indulge in phenomenal wine.
Hans Christian Andersen, the most famous author of children’s fairy tales, once lived in a house in Sintra’s woods, and pleasantly-surprised visitors still stumble across the house while trekking downhill from the city’s many palaces and fortresses. A living fairy tale itself, there’s no shortage of inspiration for imaginations like Andersen’s. Located approximately 30 kilometers from Lisbon, getting to Sintra is easy and makes a great day trip, though you may prefer two or three days to see everything in detail. From the romantic 19th-century Pena Palace to the exquisite Monserrate Palace and medieval Castle of the Moors, the city will overwhelm the senses and transport minds to fictional destinations like Camelot or Westeros.
Speaking of castles, how about visiting a city located within castle walls? Charming, picturesque, and romantic, Óbidos is a great place to bring a camera or smartphone and make your Instagram account more colorful. Expect clusters of white houses framed in bright flowers and souvenir shops ready for tourists. Don’t miss a taste of the Ginja de Óbidos, a cherry liqueur sometimes served in tiny chocolate cups. Once offered as the wedding gift from Portuguese kings to their queens, the city has developed a reputation as one of the most romantic destinations in Portugal. Óbidos has also been labeled a city for book lovers in large part due to the stunning Literary Man Hotel.
Serra da Estrela
This destination is a little harder to get to, but still well worth the effort. Portugal isn’t all beaches, and Serra da Estrela is home to the highest mountain peak in continental Portugal (the highest in all of Portugal being in Pico Island, Azores). Nature-lovers should take note because the remote mountain range of Serra da Estrela has plenty to see and do, and is the only place to go skiing in winter. Sparsely speckled with tiny villages, including one of the Seven Wonders in Portugal for 2017, the mountain feels rather remote and nature is the main attraction, but foodies may enjoy tasting the homemade honey and the creamy, pungent cheese that are made there.
In the country’s center is a city that attracts more visitors than most others in Portugal. Coimbra is home to a high number of Roman and medieval ruins and is another historical center, having once served as the capital of the country. Among the most visited tourist attractions is the University of Coimbra, which is one of the oldest continually-operating, degree-seeking institutions in the world. But its greatest claim to fame is the library; the Baroque-styled Biblioteca Joanina has been listed numerous times as one of the most beautiful libraries in the world.
Nearly halfway between the American and Portuguese coasts is the Azorean archipelago, and each island is worth a visit. The largest, São Miguel, is the easiest to reach by air, and there’s plenty to see in this rolling green oasis for a thoroughly Azorean experience. Hiking trails, waterfalls, and the beautiful twin lakes called Lagoa das Sete Cidades are only the beginning. But one recommendation not to miss is Furnas. This small village is where visitors can experience the bright side to volcanic power, as the ground is both a place to relax and cook food due to the natural, mineral-rich hot springs and cooking holes called caldeiras.
Want to travel back in time? For travelers after a real feel for old Portugal, it doesn’t get better than visiting the most Portuguese village in the country, which has barely changed over hundreds of years. This hidden gem remains widely unknown, and its most special characteristic is obvious upon arrival. The village is built around, in and under huge boulders.
Peneda-Gerês National Park
Portugal only has one national park and this is it. Located in Minho, a region known for its beauty, Peneda-Gerês National Park offers oak forests, a winding Roman road with ancient markers, bridges and waterfalls. Camping is allowed in specific parts of the park and some natural pools allow swimming during the warmer months. This is another excellent location to get in a good hike and also for bird-watching.
If you have extra time, use it to visit the country’s first capital. In the 12th century, Portugal’s first king, Afonso I, ruled from his birthplace, Guimarães. Since then the city has adopted the reputation and nickname of “The Birthplace of Portugal” and tourists can visit the castle where the king and many other historical figures once resided. Guimarães is easily accessible by car and bus and is only 50 kilometers from Porto.
Tying together old and new is Portugal’s fourth largest city, one of the oldest in the country with a strong, youthful following. In fact, it was labeled the European Youth Capital in 2012 and attracts students from the nearby University of Minho. Brimming with cafés, shops, restaurants and bars, the city is truly vibrant, but it’s also known for its religious side. In addition to the local cathedral being the oldest in the country, the stunning Bom Jesus do Monte is a religious retreat and the cathedral is quite unlike most others. Located on a hill in the woods and surrounded by gardens, visitors can climb the 116 meters of stairs and enjoy a breathtaking view at the top.
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