There is so much to love about Portugal: the food, the people, the history, the cute towns, and gentle landscapes. I was smitten from the moment I first set foot — so much so that I eventually moved to Portugal, which let me explore it in depth.
This guide will serve best as inspiration for a road trip in Portugal, though you can reach all of these places with public transportation as well.
While you’re here, don’t miss my other Portugal travel guides:
- Hiking In Portugal: 9 Incredible Nature Areas & Trails
- Renting A Car In Portugal: What You Need To Know
- Backpacking Portugal: Hostel Guide & Info For Backpackers
- The Azores: What Are The Best Islands To Visit?
Where: about 40 minutes from Lisbon
Over a hundred years ago lived a rich man, and this man said to himself, “You know what? I’m just gonna make an insane opulent palace with gardens filled with hidden tunnels and secret shit!”.
That man was Carvalho Monteiro, and to him we owe the Quinta da Regaleira.
These gorgeous gardens are located in Sintra and feature a variety of intriguing structures. Most famously, it has underground tower with a spiral staircase, the purpose of which is unknown—though some have speculated it may have been used for mysterious initiation rites. The gardens themselves were styled to represent ancient secret orders such as the Templar Knights and the Freemasons.
You can spend several hours just weaving through the gardens and exploring its enigmatic tunnels, but there are many more things to do in Sintra.
The town is also home to three different palaces, of which the Palácio da Pena is the most remarkable. Dating from the Middle Ages, it has distinctive yellow and red walls and domed towers that make it seem like a fantasy castle.
This contrasts against the Moorish castle on top of another nearby hill, with its fortified stone walls and massive battlements. It offers beautiful panoramic views of the surrounding landscape as well.
While many visit Sintra as a day-trip from Lisbon, you can easily spend two or three days in Sintra, especially if you enjoy hiking or exploring all the gardens, like those of the less-visited but oh-so-beautiful Monserrate palace.
Where: close to Peniche and 1 hour from Lisbon
If there was an award for the most Instagrammy place in Portugal, then Óbidos would be a strong contender.
This picturesque Medieval town is easy to love thanks to its cobbled streets, white cottages with colorful wallflowers, and a still-intact outer castle wall.
Sure, it’s touristy. But go just off the main street and you may find yourself transported to a different time, as you wander this perfect little capsule of old Medieval Europe.
It’s a popular day-trip from Lisbon, as it takes just about an hour to get there. The town warrants a few hours of wandering, then maybe a nice meal and some good wine at one of the many restaurants.
You might even wish to stay the night and enjoy the town after most visitors have left. While it’s a small town, it can be a romantic place to stay and it can be a good base for sightseeing if you have your own car.
Where: midway between Porto and Lisbon
Coimbra is home to one of the oldest universities in Europe, whose grounds are nowadays a UNESCO world heritage site. The old university campus has a palatial feel, encompassing a ceremonial hall, a chapel, and an absolutely stunning library.
Seriously, you have to go see that library!
If you’re lucky, you’ll see students from the adjacent campuses striding along in their traditional black-robed uniforms. It’s said that these inspired J.K. Rowling while she lived in Portugal, and I did get flashes of Hogsworth as I explored the Coimbra University campus.
The nearby botanical gardens (free) and the Science Museum (included in ticket price) are worth a gander as well. I also recommend going up the clock tower, which I appreciated for the views but loved even more for having the tiniest spiral staircase I have ever climbed.
Although Coimbra is Portugal’s third-biggest city, it’s still rather bite-sized, so you can see it in a day or two. Some opt to see it as a day trip, breaking up their journey from Porto to Lisbon.
Peniche & the Berlengas
Where: just over an hour from Lisbon, 40 minutes from Obidos
The small town of Peniche is one of my favorite places to go on Portugal’s silver coast. It has a small fortress and a few small sights in town, but the real reason to go here is for the nearby activities.
Firstly, Peniche is one of the top surfing spots in Portugal. Because it’s on a small peninsula, surfers can look for the best waves on either its north or south side. Due to the great surfing condition, Peniche and the nearby Baleal are filled with all sorts of boutique hostels, schools, and surfer camps.
Peniche is also where you can get a 30-minute boat ride to the Berlengas archipelago, which feel a bit like you’re on a pirate island. The rocky cliff scenery is perfect for SUP and kayaking trips, and the Berlengas are the best place to go scuba diving in mainland Portugal. Visitor numbers are now capped at 550 per day, making tourism on the islands sustainable.
There’s a gorgeous fortress on the island, the Fort of São João Baptista, which now serves as a basic pousada (hostel) where you can stay the night.
Serra da Estrela
If you seek not just beaches or cities but fresh mountain air, then make your way over to Serra da Estrela — the highest mountain range in mainland Portugal.
A few times a year the Serra can be seen on the Portuguese news TV with headlines like ‘SNOW IN PORTUGAL!’, as it’s the one place where snowfall is common in autumn and winter.
While not as grand in scale as other European mountain ranges, the region’s flowing landscapes and scenic roads make for a relaxing trip. The region has its share of cute villages and its own cultural quirks, such as a famous cheese and even its own dog breed (the dark and fluffy-haired Estrela Mountain Dog).
I enjoyed staying in the town of Manteigas, known as the ideal base for skiing and hikes into the mountains. After hiking the Serra you can relax at Manteigas’ thermal spas. At the INATEL Manteigas Hotel, you can get a great hydro massage and swimming pool access for just €15.
Throughout the Serra de Estrela are typical schist villages with old houses built out of stone. The nearby Serra da Lousã has a few of the cutest schist villages and some beautiful and well-signposted hiking trails.
Where: just east of the Serra da Estrela
This small cobble-stoned fortress village east of the Serra da Estrela has an interesting history. It’s home to a community of Crypto-Jews, descendants from Jews who had to hide their faith during the great inquisition.
They pretended to be Christian converts in public, but continued their traditions in private. Steeped in secrecy, the community slowly began to diverge from others in their practices. The Jewish Museum of Belmonte gives you an interesting look at this history.
Belmonte also a delightful place to visit for at least an afternoon thanks to its many quaint houses, gardens with orange trees, a small castle, and several other local museums.
My stay in Belmonte was made even more memorable by sleeping at the Convento de Belmonte, a hilltop convent converted into a gorgeous hotel with views of the Estrela mountains. Rooms cost around €120 in summer but are just half that in the low season, letting you enjoy some amazing luxury on a budget.
Where: 2 hours from Lisbon, near the border with Spain
This place is off the usual travel circuit, probably because it’s a bit out of the way. But, trust me, if you’ve got the time to go there, it’s worth it.
This small medieval settlement sits atop a granite mountain overlooking lush green valleys. But what makes Monsanto so special is that the streets are all squeezed in between the many granite boulders that poke out everywhere.
Some buildings were built wedged in between boulders, others built awkwardly around it. A few houses even used boulders as roofs, with little rooms excavated below them. I stayed in a B&B that has a granite boulder bursting right through the walls with a fireplace beneath it.
A brief hike leads to a beautiful Templar castle on the opposite side of the mountain, giving even more stunning views of the valleys below. The area around Monsanto is gorgeous as well, with olive trees and higgety-piggety farmlands with stone walls. There is only silence — apart from the birds and the gentle ringing of boat bells.
If you’re curious, you can read more about Monsanto. While you’re in the area, the cute nearby village of Penha Garcia is worth a look, too. It has its own Knights Templar castle ruins on top of a hill, a 3km walk through a canyon with a waterfall, and a fossil dig where trilobite imprints from millions of years ago were found.
Where: 90 minutes east of Lisbon
The small town of Evora is in the middle of Portugal’s hot and dry Alentejo region, which is filled with cork oaks and vineyards. Evora is mainly of historical interest, with sights including several churches and cathedrals, two museums displaying religious artifacts, and the crumbled pillars of a Roman temple.
It’s a wonderful town, essential for any Alentejo road trip, and even worth going in its own right. The town center, partly still demarcated by an old city wall, features traditional pale white houses with yellow contours painted on the edges and windowsills.
Be sure to visit the Chapel of Bones, once created by monks as a reminder of the transitory nature of the human condition. The entire chapel is decorated with bones, skulls, and even entire skeletons hanging from the wall.
In the last few years, Lisbon has seen a huge revival — some even say a complete transformation. The list of things to do in Lisbon is a long one, so I think it’s best to have at least 3 days to get the most out of this city, and more if you’ll explore its surroundings.
Then again, I live in Lisbon, so I might be a bit biased!
If you enjoy getting lost on purpose then this is truly the city for you, as it truly rewards random exploration. The centre is built around seven hills, giving you wonderful vistas around seemingly every corner. Instead of ticking only boxes, I encourage anyone to explore Lisbon on foot and not to make too many plans.
I should mention that Lisbon has seen a great tourism boom in recent years, which can make the months of July and August especially busy, and especially in the popular areas of Alfama and Baixa. My favorite times to be in Lisbon are from April to June, and in September-October, when the weather is great but it’s not so busy.
Despite its great popularity, Lisbon is still a laidback city that’s full of rewards beyond the usual tourist spots. I put together a detailed guide to Lisbon, as well as some hidden gems in Lisbon that aren’t usually mentioned.
Sesimbra and Arrábida
Where: 45 minutes south of Lisbon
Sesimbra is a small beach town that’s not so known among international tourists but popular with the locals. It makes for a great mini beach escape from Lisbon, or even a day-trip from the city.
The town has a few larger hotels and holiday apartments along its edges, making it feel ever so slightly like a resort, but its old centre is really cozy and has some great marisqueiras (seafood restaurants). In the summer, there are all sorts of water activities like kayaking, scuba diving, and stand-up-paddle boarding. A castle on top of one of the hills gives you some wonderful views of the coast.
But the best bit of Sesimbra is its hidden cove called Praia do Ribeiro do Cavalo. It’s a stunning place that even plenty of locals from Lisbon don’t know about. You’ll need either a car to reach it (and hike down to the beach), or you have to walk about 45 minutes from the centre of Sesimbra. The sheltered cove is simply gorgeous and looks a bit similar to the (larger) craggy coves you’ll find in the Algarve.
Another incredible beach near Sesimbra is Praia de Galapinhos, in the Arrábida national park. It might just be the prettiest beach near Lisbon. You’ll need a car to get there though, either from Sesimbra or Setubal.
Where: south coast of Portugal
The Algarve is the name of Portugal’s southern coast, famed for its rocky cliffs and warm waters, and a known surf spot with many surf schools around. There are just so many things to do in the Algarve that you can get stuck there a long time. Lagos is my favourite coastal town in the Algarve that can still be easily reached by public transportation.
Some parts of the Algarve have become quite artificial tourist zones (like Albufeira, which is mostly made for British tourists to enjoy a beach and some fish & chips). Fortunately, Lagos has totally kept its charms. The beaches at Lagos also feature some of the gnarliest cliffs around.
Do keep in mind I took the photos seen here in spring. If you go in summer (especially August) you can expect it to be packed, as is the case really anywhere in Europe. For a more chilled out time in Lagos, try going in May, June, or September.
Where: in the Algarve, close to Portimão
Carvoeiro is my favourite spot in the Algarve if you have your own transportation. (If you need to use public transportation, Lagos is my top pick.) It’s close to some of the most famous and impressive cliffs and beaches in the Algarve. The town itself is also very nice; even though it’s clearly a popular holiday haunt, it’s small-scale and with a lot of atmosphere and many cute restaurants.
If you want to have a nice time in the Algarve, simply get yourself a holiday home or B&B in Carvoeiro or the areas and towns around it — I bet you’ll love it! By the way, these bloggers did a wonderful visual story on the Algarve, including Carvoeiro, which can give you some additional impressions.
The beach in Carvoeiro is a bit small, so it can get a bit cramped in season. However, the beach is also conveniently the starting point for many beach cave tours. The whole coast is scattered with coves, caves, and other hidden places that you can see on a guided tour by boat. The ultimate highlight is the Benagil cave, probably the most famous of all the sea caves of Algarve.
Alternatively, you can go sea kayaking, letting you explore all the coast’s gnarly limestone features by yourself.
If you’d rather stay on land, there’s a walking trail following a long stretch of the coast, passing by several beaches with unique features, including the Elephant Rock (a double limestone arch with its pillars in the sea).
Where: the very southwest tip of Portugal
In the far west of the Algarve, you will find the sleepy surfer town of Sagres. Not much goes on here apart from surfing, and I know of some travellers who stepped off the bus here, scratched their heads wondering “is this it?”, and then departed again a few hours later. But poke around a bit and you might well enjoy Sagres for the laidback place that it is.
The cliffs around the Fortaleza de Sagres are a must-see at sunset, especially when the tide brings in heavy waves that crash onto the rocky shoreline. With so many surf schools around, you can even take your chance to ride a few of those waves.
Sagres is closely connected to Portugal’s Age of Discovery, as it is where Henry the Navigator built his first nautical school. Nearby at Cabo de Sao Vincente is also the most Westerly point of Europe.
If you’re into hostels, you shouldn’t miss the Funky Monkey in Sagres, which has a pool and basically feels like a summer house.
Where: in the middle of the Atlantic
One of the best places to visit in Portugal feels almost like it’s in the same country, as it’s located a whopping 1,500 km from the mainland. The Azores can nevertheless be reached easily using low-cost flights from Lisbon or Porto.
Located at the fault lines of three continental shelves, this volcanic archipelago a true paradise for adventure travelers, with countless caldeiras, volcanoes, reefs, steam vents, and lava tube caves to explore. While the land is loved by cavers, hikers, and rock climbers, the waters are perfect for surfing, scuba diving, snorkeling, and for going on whale- and dolphin-watching tours.
If you’re just looking for a beach holiday, then you might be better off at the islands of Madeira. On the Azores there are no sandy beaches and weather can be unpredictable. But if you’re looking for plenty of culture, nature, and great food, then you’re sure to love these islands.
The island of Sao Miguel is the biggest and the easiest to reach by plane. It’s where seemingly all people go — and Sao Miguel is amazing. But the real gems, in my opinion, are some of the further-laying islands like Pico, Terceira, Faial, and especially the much-overlooked Sao Jorge.
I’ve now been on two island hopping trips in the Azores and gone to most of the islands. The Azores are like a whole world onto themselves, so be sure to take a look at my Azores guide to learn more about this incredible destination in Portugal.
I haven’t yet traveled as much around here, so I’ll be updating this section in the future. But for now, I’m going to mention Porto.
Porto is rather different from Lisbon. This is, in fact, a point of pride for the local Tripeiros (tripe-eaters, the nickname for Porto residents). They’ll talk you an earful about how much nicer, more helpful, and harder-working they are than those snobbish and arrogant banker types down in Lisbon.
City rivalries aside, it’s well worth making your way up north to see Porto as well as the surrounding Douro wine lands. Porto has a lovely unpretentious vibe, showing its workmanlike past (as Portugal’s main port) while also claiming a buzzing cultural scene.
The riverfront quarter of Ribeira is a fascinating place, with its medieval streets ribboning out from the docks, and narrow colorfully tiled building facades popping up like a picture-book over the port’s former warehouse cellars.
Above it all looms the arched iron Dom Luis I bridge, connecting the hilltop on one side of the river to the hilltop on the other.
It’s an incredible location that I think cannot be compared with anywhere else in Europe.
Porto is a little grittier than Lisbon with quite a few more abandoned buildings, though its recent discovery as a city break destination has poured in a great deal of renewed investment. You can see the main sights in about two days, though you can spend much longer if you use it as a base to explore the region.
Is there anything I’ve missed in Portugal that I should really check out? Let me know in the comments!
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