The Most Beautiful Historic Cities and Towns in Portugal

The riverside city of Coimbra is home to the oldest university in Portugal
The riverside city of Coimbra is home to the oldest university in Portugal | © Martin Lehmann / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Nina Santos
4 September 2021

One of the oldest countries in Europe, Portugal (which became a kingdom in the mid-12th century) doesn’t suffer from a lack of beautiful historic towns. Do you want to see the best historic destinations in Portugal? Keep reading for a few ideas.

Tomar, Portugal

Cathedral, Church, Ruins, Synagogue
Map View
View of the old town of Tomar, Tomar, Portugal
© Fabrizio Troiani / Alamy Stock Photo

If you have a penchant for following the history of the Knights Templar, make a trip to Tomar, a town that was once a sort of headquarters for this mysterious Catholic group. Visit the 12th-century Convento de Cristo (Convent of Christ), a medieval fortress and church where the local branch of the Templars met for religious mass and gatherings. Tomar is also the location of one of the best-preserved synagogues in Portugal in addition to many other Catholic churches dating between the 12th and 15th centuries, the 17th-century Pegões aqueduct, and the stunning park and gardens called National Forest of Seven Hills (a perfect spot for a stroll).

Coimbra

University, Library
Map View
Coimbra Portugal as seen from across the Mondego River
© Allard Schager / Alamy Stock Photo
Coimbra is one of the oldest cities in Portugal. It also happens to be the home of the oldest university in the country, the University of Coimbra, also one of the oldest universities in Europe. Then there is the Biblioteca Joanina, a major attraction that has been listed among the most beautiful libraries in the world. Coimbra, intersected with medieval, cobbled streets and filled with souvenir shops, is a lovely spot to walk through and it’s near many lesser-known sightseeing opportunities such as Conimbriga, excavated Roman ruins that date to 139BCE. You can visit with Culture Trip by joining our nine-day small-group Portugal adventure, led by our local insider.

Angra do Heroísmo

Church, Museum
Map View
Angra do Heroismo early in the morning
© Roman Sulla / Shutterstock
The centre of Angra do Heroísmo is listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site for the role it played as a port of call and trading centre during and after the Age of Discoveries. It is also the oldest continuously settled town in the Azores, located on the third largest island, Terceira (after São Miguel and Pico). Be sure to visit the 18th-century Praça Velha, the central town square surrounded by lovely churches, museums, hotels and restaurants. And don’t forget to snap photos of the 16th-century town cathedral, which is rimmed in peach-coloured borders, and the baby blue and white Igreja da Misericórdia (Misericordia Church).

Évora

Cathedral, Church, Ruins
Map View
© Mikehoward 2 / Alamy Stock Photo
The Évora portfolio is an expansive one. It is the regional capital of Alentejo – the large, sleepy wine region and farmland of Portugal where locals tend to move to the beat of their own drum. In the 15th century, Évora was the residence of many of Portuguese royals; now it is a town that doubles as a Unesco World Heritage Site and triples as an open-air museum. Major landmarks include the Roman Temple of Diana, the medieval 16th-century Chapel of Bones, the 13th-century cathedral, and the ancient Royal Palace of Évora, the latter reflecting the Portuguese Manueline architectural style.

Guimarães

Church, Museum, Natural Feature, Historical Landmark
Map View
Toural Square in the center of Guimaraes
© Saiko3p/Shutterstock
The town square in the centre of Guimarães is so historic, you may feel as if you’ve been transported through time just standing there. Its 11th-century castle is where the first king of Portugal, Afonso Henriques, was born and for this reason, Guimarães has adopted a reputation as “the birthplace of Portugal”. In 2012, Guimarães was named the European Capital of Culture and is on the Unesco World Heritage list. Medieval streets and palaces, religious museums and gothic monuments are just a few of the visual treats here.

Sintra, Portugal

Botanical Garden, Building, Ruins, Natural Feature
Map View
Sintra Palace, Sintra, Portugal.
© Rick Strange / Alamy Stock Photo

Anyone who has heard of Sintra knows that it’s a lovely town filled with amazing buildings such as the romantic, 19th-century Pena Palace. What they may not know is that it was once where many Portuguese royal family members and aristocrats lived or vacationed, attracted by the forested landscape and mild climate (hence the abundance of fascinating architecture and gardens). Most of the attractions are house-museums inside romantic and eclectic mansions, chalets and palaces. Of course, there is also the medieval fortress, the Castelo dos Mouros, built in the 10th century by the Moors.

Chaves, Portugal

Building, Church, Ruins
Map View
Chaves city view of historic buildings and church at sunset, Portugal
© Cavan Images / Alamy Stock Photo

In the first century, Roman settlers lived in what is now Chaves, a town close to the border with Spain in the Tras-os-Montes region. Left behind is a well-preserved Roman bridge, connecting the two sides of town across the Tâmega River and which is still used. Early settlers are believed to have been attracted to Chaves for the local springs, which provide hot, natural mineral water. Today, it is a town oozing in tradition and local culture – landmarks include the medieval town square and castle and a 14th-century fortification that has been converted into a hotel.

Braga

Building, Church, Monastery, Ruins, Natural Feature
Map View
Portugal: Staircase and church of sanctuary Bom Jesus do Monte in Braga
© Cro Magnon / Alamy Stock Photo
Braga is home to the third largest metropolitan area after Lisbon and Porto and the oldest archdiocese in Portugal (originating in the third century). Though one of the oldest cities in the country, it has one of the youngest spirits and is home to two universities and multiple other educational centres. Visit Braga to tour the Sé Cathedral, dating back as early as the 11th century, making it the oldest cathedral in the country and one that showcases Renaissance, baroque, Moorish, Manueline, and gothic architecture. Then there is the Bom Jesus do Monte, a hilltop sanctuary that attracts many visitors every year with its views and religious significance. Downtown, you’ll find no shortage of cafes, shops, restaurants and bars, so there is plenty of socialising to enjoy in between sightseeing.

Cascais

Building, Architectural Landmark
Map View
Fishing boats at anchor Lisbon Cascais historical harbour
© PJCC / Alamy Stock Photo
Cascais is a beautiful resort town just an hour from Lisbon along the coast. It is also a town with a heritage that blends the maritime history of the country with its role as a vacation destination for many European wealthy families. Visit Cascais for the beach but also tour the local museums that showcase the wealth acquired by Portuguese aristocrats, such as the seaside Museu dos Condes de Castro Guimarães. Then walk along the coast and enjoy fresh seafood from one of the many seaside restaurants.

Ponte de Lima, Portugal

Bridge, Building
Map View
Bridge. Ponte de Lima, Portugal. View from Lima River
© AGORA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Ponte de Lima, named after the bridge that crosses the Lima River, is a charming village in the Minho region of Portugal, located north of Porto in northwest Portugal. Downtown is decorated with eye-catching manor homes, ancient yet well-preserved buildings, and stunning gardens. The oldest settlement in Portugal, it is also a town steeped in superstition. The Romans believed the river would cause amnesia in anyone who touched it, leading to the bridge that still stands today. Ponte de Lima is also in the centre of the Vinho Verde wine region, and visiting the local vineyards is a popular activity for visitors.

These recommendations were updated on September 4, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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