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Braga's historic center ©  Anton_Ivanov / Shutterstock
Braga's historic center © Anton_Ivanov / Shutterstock
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Why the Very Best of Portugal Is Found Beyond Lisbon

Picture of Nina Santos
Updated: 11 October 2017
Over the last few years, Portugal has become a top travel destination, people from around the world falling in love with its architecture, cuisine, climate and coast. Still, many visitors fail to venture further than Lisbon, Porto and the coastal Algarve – a shame since there is so much more to see beyond these three popular zones. Here are Culture Trip’s choices for 11 cities, towns and regions that will help make your Portuguese experience unforgettable.

Sintra

Portugal is filled with unique views and magical towns, but few can compare with Sintra’s palace-covered mountainsides. Although the area’s history dates back before medieval times and the country’s wealthiest families and nobility have resided there for centuries, Sintra became Portugal’s Capital of Romanticism in the late 1800s. Situated less than an hour from Lisbon, it is one of the easiest destinations to reach by public transportation (just hop on the train from Rossio station and you will reach Sintra within 45 minutes).

The Pena Palace in Sintra
The Pena Palace in Sintra | © Sergey Pesterev / Wikimedia Commons

Óbidos

Perhaps the next most romantic town in Portugal is Óbidos, a cluster of brightly-hued and flower-covered buildings enclosed within castle walls. Even the town’s history is romantic, as it was the traditional gift that each king would present their queen upon their wedding day. In addition to enjoying the beautiful souvenir shops and walking around the medieval castle walls, visitors may appreciate the local Ginja de Óbidos, a cherry-flavored liquor that’s usually served in small chocolate cups.

The colorful village of Óbidos
The colorful village of Óbidos | © Botond Horvath / Shutterstock

Azores

This lush green and mountainous paradise in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean would be a shame to miss when visiting Portugal, especially since a flight from Lisbon is the easiest way to reach it. The Azores archipelago is made up of nine islands, ranging from the largest (São Miguel) to the smallest (Corvo). It’s home to unbelievable natural landscapes including natural geothermal pools, the country’s highest peak, plenty of waterfalls and some of the most beautiful beaches in Portugal. It is also a fantastic spot to eat delicious seafood, locally-grown pineapple and fantastic meat-based dishes.

Hydrangeas cover the Azores
Hydrangeas cover the Azores | © Francesco Bonino / Shutterstock

Madeira

The other group of islands belonging to Portugal is much smaller but just as beautiful as the Azores. Madeira is the main island with its own unique culture, including distinctive seafood recipes, locally-produced Madeira wine and many awesome hiking opportunities. Although beaches are hard to find in Madeira, the rocky coast provides a stunning backdrop for photographs and the nearby Porto Santo island boasts a beautiful sandy coast. Visit the house where Christopher Columbus once lived or cruise through Funchal on a toboggan ride steered by traditionally-clad locals.

Don’t miss Madeira’s beautiful villages
Don’t miss Madeira’s beautiful villages | © Alberto Loyo / Shutterstock

Évora

The capital of Alentejo is a wonderful starting point for discovering this rural and remote part of the country that’s often overlooked by tourists. Simply walking through the historic downtown, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, will offer a glimpse into the various periods that influenced the area’s past, with the architecture being a major focal point. Among the notable landmarks are the Roman Temple, the Chapel of Bones, the Cathedral of Évora and the Royal Palace. The latter buildings were built during the city’s ‘golden age‘ when it was another home of Portuguese royalty.

Aveiro

The centre of the country is filled with numerous charming towns, but there is only one ‘Venice of Portugal’. Sure enough, Aveiro is interspersed by a cluster of canals that are filled with colourful gondola-like boats called moliceiros. While there, don’t miss sampling some ovos moles, a sugary treat made with egg yolks, and be sure to take a walk through the Costa Nova, where rainbow-striped fisherman houses brighten up the streets.

Aveiro’s Costa Nova looks like it’s filled with dollhouses
Aveiro’s Costa Nova looks like it’s filled with dollhouses | © Pixabay

Viana do Castelo

North of Porto in the country’s ‘green coast’ is Viana do Castelo, another beautiful town filled with jaw-dropping architecture and lined on one side by beautiful beaches. Among the must-see Manueline, Renaissance and Baroque-style buildings is the Santa Luzia Church, sitting at the top of a mountain and offering panoramic views of the town and surrounding area. Viana do Castelo is also where some of the country’s most beautiful gold filigree jewellery can be found and it’s a short distance from the Peneda-Gerês National Park, one of the best natural parks in the country.

Viana do Castelo’s Santa Luzia Cathedral
Viana do Castelo’s Santa Luzia Cathedral | © CTHOE / Wikimedia Commons

Inland Algarve

Most people head to the Algarve for the beaches, and it’s hard to blame them, but there is so much more to see inland. From traditional villages to stunning architecture, the Algarve is full of its own unique culture and history. Among the many spots to visit is Silves, where the red castle and church steal the show, and Loulé where visitors will find one of the region’s best outdoor markets.

Silves, Portugal
Silves, Portugal | © Pawel Kazmierczak / Shutterstock

Monsanto

How can you leave Portugal without first visiting ‘the most Portuguese town’ in the country? Despite this superlative, Monsanto doesn’t really represent the rest of the country, but it’s still well worth seeing. Built in, below, on top and around huge boulders, this ancient area has remained unchanged through the centuries and it is certainly one of the most remarkable villages in the Iberian Peninsula.

Monsanto, Portugal
Monsanto, Portugal | © Duca696 / Wikimedia Commons

Castelo Branco

Close to Monsanto is another must-see city called Castelo Branco, meaning ‘white castle’. Little is known about the local history before the 18th century, but Castelo Branco is a feast for the eyes, decorated with elaborate gardens and interesting museums.

Castelo Branco is full of beautiful gardens
Castelo Branco is full of beautiful gardens | © Dinah Raphael / Wikimedia Commons

Braga

Finally, Braga is one of the oldest cities in the country but also one with a young spirit, mainly due to the local colleges. In fact, it was named the European Youth Capital in 2012. It is also one of the country’s religious centres and among the popular landmarks is the Bom Jesus do Monte sanctuary. Located in the beautiful Minho region, it is surrounded by green landscapes and it is the third-largest city in Portugal after Lisbon and Porto.

Braga’s historic center
Braga’s historic center | © Anton_Ivanov / Shutterstock