By all means, visit Lisbon, Porto, and Lagos, in addition to the other cities with must-see landmarks and natural gems that have been spotlighted in photos all over the Internet, but keep in mind that there are plenty of gems off the tourist paths, too. In 2018, why not experience some of Portugal that your peers are likely to miss? In fact, some of the best things to do and see in Portugal can be enjoyed without waiting in lines and peering around crowds. Here are our picks of the top places to visit this year, and even if being around crowds doesn’t bother you, these destinations are still must-sees.
Alcacer do Sal
Whether you like nature or history, Alcacer do Sal is an excellent destination and, other than in-the-know locals, this ancient town is easily overlooked by tourists. Benefiting from its location partially surrounding the Sado Estuary, top activities include dolphin watching and birding. The aged and winding roads through traditional neighborhoods date back to the Moorish occupation and the town’s 6th-century castle offers unparalleled views (both are perfect for taking stunning Instagram photos), plus the castle has a hotel inside!
Southwest Alentejo and Vicentine Coast Natural Park
Stretching from the Alentejo region to the Algarve, all along the coast, the natural park is a wildly rugged retreat dotted with traditional fishing villages, therefore a super place to get away. Most visitors head over for the surf, but the area is also perfect for birding, nature photography, enjoying a bit of botany, and devouring locally caught seafood.
Just because you want to avoid crowds doesn’t mean you should avoid the Algarve, and the far eastern corner is another “off-the-beaten-path” jewel perfect for families seeking beach time and more opportunities “lost” in natural parks. Visit the local castle and church if cultural heritage and architecture interest you, while walking through the winding medieval streets may make you think about times long gone.
Viana do Castelo
Close to Spain on the complete opposite side of the country, in northwest Portugal, Viana do Castelo is a visually stunning city that’s an easy day trip from Porto and Vigo, Spain. While the majority of tourists are heading to Sintra for a fairytale experience, go to this northern city and see its palaces, monasteries, churches, and hilltop views that take in the sea. The architecture includes Baroque, Manueline, Renaissance, and Art Nouveau styles and influences. Viana do Castelo is also an excellent spot to buy jewelry and home to many shops specializing in Portugal’s gold filigree.
Peneda-Gerês National Park
A skip and jump from Viana do Castelo is the Peneda-Gerês National Park, the only national park in the country and an area that doubles as a special source of pride for Portuguese locals. Visited for camping, hiking, and photography, it is also a spot sought out for its ancient Roman ruins and landmarks and access to traditional villages. Taking up an area of approximately 702.9 km², it’s a treasure trove of microhabitats, and many different fauna and flora, including wild Garrano ponies.
Without a doubt, visiting the Azores is a must, but why not skip São Miguel and Terceira and head to one of the furthest islands from mainland Portugal? Flores, named for the abundance of flowers on the island (mostly hydrangeas), is a green paradise sparkling with an incredible number of waterfalls, sandbanks, seaside cliffs, and caves. Like on the other islands, hiking, mountain biking, and water sports are among the top activities, plus thrill-seekers usually prefer Flores for canyoning. Flores is certainly one of Culture Trip’s picks for top Portuguese islands.
As previously mentioned, Porto is certainly a city not to miss but instead of staying around the Ribeira district (where most of the tourists are sure to be), why not stick closer to Matosinhos? Conveniently connected to Porto by metro, it’s easy to reach, plus it’s a top beach in the area. Mealtimes may be among the busiest hours in Matosinhos since the main streets are lined with seafood restaurants, but in this case, a crowd denotes a good thing. Matosinhos also borders Porto’s city park to one side, the largest urban park in the entire country, and it has no shortage of beautiful heritage to explore.
Remotely located and far from signs of modern city life, Bragança in the Tras-os-Montes region is one of the least likely destinations for travelers visiting Portugal to see but, perhaps, it should be one of the first. In this region, some of the country’s oldest traditions still hold strong, and it is home to ancient landmarks dating back to different time periods. The locals, who have great pride in their “terra” (a way of denoting their ancestral land), are friendly and like to stop and chat while about their routines. Bragança, the region’s capital, offers stunning historic landmarks, plenty of restaurants cooking traditional delicious yet rustic dishes, and an easy jumping point for exploring more of the area.