From its gently undulating cork tree landscapes to its dramatic karst coastlines, and with its great food, colorfully tiled buildings, and charming Medieval towns, there is just so much to love about Portugal.

In fact, I was smitten from the moment I first set foot — so much so that I moved to Portugal five years ago.

The following are often considered among the best places to visit in Portugal. To make this guide more helpful, I’ve added some labels distinguishing the top tourist destinations from the more specific places. The latter may be more of interest if you live in Portugal, are on a longer trip, or just enjoy going off the beaten path. It’s a bit subjective, but it’s just to give an idea.

This list focuses on continental Portugal. The islands of the Azores and Madeira are spectacular, both deserving of their own trips!

CENTRAL PORTUGAL

Many of the must-see places in Portugal are in and near the capital. If it’s your first time visiting Portugal, this is a great place to start!

Lisbon

ESSENTIAL

Being one of Europe’s most beautiful capitals, Lisbon is worth spending at least several days — especially if it’s your first time traveling to Portugal. Many visitors become instantly enchanted by Lisbon, in part thanks to its pastel-colored and delightfully tiled buildings, its vintage trams, and narrow cobblestone streets.

If you enjoy getting lost on purpose then this is the city for you, as Lisbon truly rewards random exploration. Its centre is built around seven hills, giving you wonderful vistas around seemingly every corner. The city is filled with interesting sights and museums, though experiencing it is just as much about stumbling upon a cute cafe or finding some amazing street art while wandering without a specific goal.

If you can, do try to avoid the busy month of August as it can be overflowing with tourists during this time.

There is so much to say about Lisbon that I recommend reading my 28 top things to do in Lisbon or my guide to the hidden gems in Lisbon.

 

Óbidos

ESSENTIAL

This picturesque Medieval hilltop village is utterly beguiling love thanks to its cobbled streets, white cottages covered in colorful wallflowers, and a still-intact outer castle wall.

This might even be Portugal’s prettiest village — and exploring its labyrinth of narrow streets is sure to keep you entertained for at least an afternoon.

It’s definitely a touristy place, but if you simply go off the busy main street and you may find yourself transported to a different time while you wander this perfect little capsule of old Medieval Europe. Located about an hour’s drive from Lisbon, it makes for a great day trip.

Be sure to try a shot of the local ginjinha, a cherry liquor that originates in Óbidos and is sold in many cafes along the narrow streets.

 

Sintra

ESSENTIAL

Over a hundred years ago lived a rich man who said to himself, “You know what? I’m just gonna make an insane opulent palace with gardens filled with hidden tunnels and cool secret stuff!”.

That man was Carvalho Monteiro, a 19th-century coffee and gemstone magnate, and to him we owe the Quinta da Regaleira.

These gorgeous gardens in Sintra feature a variety of intriguing structures. Most famously, it has an 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.

There are many more amazing things to do in Sintra. It’s home to a Moorish castle, numerous botanical gardens, and three different palaces, of which the Palácio da Pena is the most eye-catching. Sintra is easily one of the most magical places to visit in Portugal.

There is enough to see in Sintra for several days, but consider doing at least a day trip from Lisbon to see the absolute highlights. If you’re locally based, Sintra can keep you coming back for more. Some hidden gems (not often mentioned in Portugal travel guides) include the gorgeous Monseratte Palace and the old tram line that runs all the way to the Praia das Maçãs on the coast.

 

Peniche & Berlengas Islands

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The small seaside town of Peniche is a lovely place to visit on Portugal’s silver coast. Besides having a small fortress and a few small sights in town, Peniche is a major surfing hotspot, including for beginners.

Thanks to being on a small peninsula, there are often good waves on at least one or the other side. There are numerous surfer camps, schools, and boutique hostels in Peniche and the nearby Baleal.

A 30-minute boat ride will get you to the Berlengas archipelago, which feel a bit like arriving on a pirate island. The rocky cliff scenery is perfect for SUP and kayaking trips, and the Berlengas are known as the best place in mainland Portugal for scuba diving (just expect the water to be icy cold!).

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.

 

Ericeira

WORTH A TRIP

Ericeira is an odd combination of being both a traditional Portuguese fishing village and an international surfing spot. Its whitewashed buildings with blue windowsills and fisherman’s port below the seawall make it a highly scenic place, while the local surfing scene has brought many surf schools, hostels, yoga studios, and restaurants with international cuisine.

It’s a popular stop with surfers and backpackers and is recommended for anyone looking to stay in an authentic coastal town. It’s within day-trip distance of Lisbon and combines well with the nearby Mafra.

 

Mafra

WORTH A TRIP

Despite being within day trip range of Lisbon, Mafra seems not quite as visited as many other places in Portugal. But the impressive 18th century Mafra National Palace, with its long hallways and beautiful grand library, is definitely worth a visit. It’s striking how this huge UNESCO World Heritage site utterly dominates the small town that surrounds it.

You can turn your visit to Mafra into a longer trip by going for a walk in the nearby Tapada Nacional de Mafra, formerly the royal hunting grounds and now a natural park filled with wild boar and deer. Mafra is also a 15-minute drive from the lovely fisherman’s town and surfing hotspot of Ericeira, mentioned earlier.

 

Sado Estuary

WORTH A TRIP

About a 40-minute drive south of Lisbon, the estuary of the river Sado has several attractions worth checking out, particularly if you’re based in Lisbon for a while and looking for somewhere off the beaten track.

The small city of Setúbal is worth a visit, especially to sample its famed fried cuttlefish. On Sunday in particular the restaurants will be packed with Portuguese gorging on this “choco frito” (which, as I quickly surmised, is not some kind of fried chocolate at all!). The castle ruins of Forte de São Filipe also make for a nice hike.

From Setúbal you can hop onto a catamaran for a dolphin-watching tour. A group of bottlenose dolphins lives up the Sado river so you are almost certain to spot them.

South of the estuary, Comporta is a remote fisherman’s village that, somewhat bizarrely, turned into a hippie chic destination that is well known among wealthy celebrities. You wouldn’t be able to tell from this unassuming town, but there are some luxury eco-resorts spread around it that have made it an international destination. You don’t need to be a jet-setter to enjoy the tranquil surroundings though. The nearby beach is entirely undeveloped and stretches for kilometers on end.

 

Nazaré

WORTH A TRIP

This typical coastal town slash beach resort turns into a truly sensational place in winter when the waves crashing into its bay reach truly dizzying heights.

It’s Nazaré that recorded the world’s biggest wave ever surfed — you can see some unbelievable videos of this 24.38m tall wave.

Nazaré has a nice beach backed by some dramatic cliffs that make it an nice summer destination on the western coast. But it’s especially worth catching the dramatic surfing competitions that take place between October and March, depending on the waves and weather conditions.

 

Coimbra

ESSENTIAL

Halfway between Lisbon and Porto, Coimbra is Portugal’s main student city. It’s home to one of the oldest universities in the world, whose old campus is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.

The university is still in use while its oldest buildings are now a museum. Don’t miss seeing the impressive colleges as well as the stunning gold-decorated Johannine Library filled with over 200,000 old books.

You may see students walking along in their traditional black-robed uniforms. It’s said that J.K. Rowling drew inspiration here for Harry Potter while she lived in Portugal and it’s easy to see this may well have been in the case.

Coimbra can be seen in about a day, so it can be a day trip if you’re traveling between Lisbon and Porto (it’s about midway on the train line between these cities). For a more leisurely visit, it can also be worth staying a night.

 

Serra Da Lousã

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Little-known among international tourists, this small mountain range near Coimbra is a great place to go if you love to hike or simply enjoy staying in a rustic stone house in the countryside.

The region is home to villages with old houses made of schist stones, looking quite different from the white-washed and tiled houses elsewhere in Portugal. Since the Serra Da Lousã receives a lot more rainfall than regions further south, the hiking trails are also blessed with lush vegetation and many of the paths are bordered by moss-covered stone walls.

You can read a lot more in my guide to this hidden gem.

 

Serra Da Estrela (and around)

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With an elevation of 1,993m, the Estrela mountain is the highest point in mainland Portugal. A road up the Serra to the highest point at the plateau at Torre makes for a nice drive, though I think it’s the surrounding region that is especially of interest.

A dozen of villages, branded the Aldeias Históricas de Portugal, make for wonderful waypoints for a road trip through central Portugal. I especially liked the Medieval town of Sortelha, the mountain village of Piódão (pictured) that’s squished between terraced fields, and the cobble-stoned fortress village of Belmonte.

In Belmonte, you can learn the fascinating history of a community of jews that practiced their faith in secret during the great inquisition. 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.

The small city of Covilha offers some other low-key attractions, such as an ethnographic museum and another giving insight into the region’s traditional wool industry. Covilha has a direct train connection to Lisbon, so this makes it a good trampoline into the region, though from there you’ll need to rent a car as there is little public transportation.

 

Monsanto

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The small Medieval settlement of Monsanto is located along the border with Spain. It’s quite far from other popular destinations in Portugal, but it’s worth making the trip there if you have the time, as it’s an absolutely unique village.

Its scenic location atop a granite mountain overlooking lush green valleys already makes it worth seeing, but what makes Monsanto truly special is that the streets are all squeezed in between the many granite boulders that poke out from everywhere.

Some buildings were built wedged in between boulders and others built awkwardly around it. A few houses even used the granite boulders as roofs, with little rooms excavated below them. I even stayed in a B&B with a granite boulder bursting right through the walls, creating a space for a fireplace beneath it.

A brief hike leads to a beautiful Templar castle, giving even more stunning views of the valleys below. The area around Monsanto is gorgeous as well, with olive trees and higgledy-piggledy farmlands with stone walls. Consider combining Monsanto with a road trip to the nearby Serra da Estrela.

 

More Portugal travel guides

 

Sesimbra and Arrábida

WORTH A TRIP

45 minutes south of Lisbon, the small beach town of Sesimbra makes for a fun day trip. The town has a few larger hotels and holiday apartments along its edges, making it feel slightly like a resort, but its old centre is very 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 paddleboarding. 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 few people seem to know about. You’ll need either a car to reach it (and hike down to the beach), or you’ll need to walk about 45 minutes from the centre of Sesimbra. The sheltered cove is simply gorgeous and looks a bit similar to the craggy coves you’ll find in the Algarve.

Another incredible beach near Sesimbra is Praia de Galapinhos, in the Arrábida national park, which might well be the prettiest beach within easy driving distance of Lisbon.

 

NORTH PORTUGAL

The north has some of the best destinations in Portugal. Since it can be a bit colder and wetter, it can be a bit less touristy than the sun-soaked Algarve. There are great areas for hiking and road trips, such as the gorgeous Gerês.

Porto

ESSENTIAL

Portugal’s second-biggest city 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 the capital.

City rivalries aside, you can’t deny Porto’s wonderful unpretentious vibe. The northern capital shows its no-nonsense character 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 spectacular arched Dom Luis I bridge, built in the same period and style as Eiffel.

It’s an incredible location that really can’t be compared with anywhere else in Europe. You can see the main sights in Porto in about two days as this city is more compact than Lisbon, though it can be worth staying longer if using it as a base for trips into the region.

 

Guimaraes & Braga

WORTH A TRIP

These two northern cities are just a 20-minute drive apart, making them easy to combine.

Braga is known mainly for its many churches and cathedrals. (There is a local saying: “Porto works, Lisbon shows off, and Braga prays.”) Don’t miss the Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte, a huge staircase leading to a hilltop sanctuary that’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. There is a funicular if you prefer not to walk up all the steps.

The small city of Guimarães is known as the “cradle of Portugal”, as it’s from here the country grew during the Middle Ages. I was delighted by Guimarães’s cozy town square area, particularly at night when the adjoining houses and their windowsills are contoured by countless fairy lights. Even though I visited in summer, I felt like I had arrived at some kind of Christmas market.

Thanks to its stone archways, half-timbered houses, and a Gothic temple at the center of the square, Guimarães’s historical core feels a lot like a Medieval fairytale place. It has at most a day’s worth of sights, but Guimarães is a highly romantic and underrated little place with lots of authentic atmosphere.

 

Gerês National Park

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Hugging the northern border with Spain, Gerês is Portugal’s most protected natural area. Relatively unknown among international tourists, it’s an amazing region for hiking as well as to explore on a road trip.

Among the flowing hills dotted with granite boulders you can find many traditional stone villages. On your way to the many lookout points, waterfalls, castle ruins, and the impressive Sanctuary of Peneda, you’ll drive along rural roads through areas where wild horses and Cachenas, an ancestral cow breed with enormous horns, roam free.

This is a delightful little slice of Portugal, especially if you like places that are a bit off the beaten track. Small towns like Soajo and Lindoso, typified by their historic stone grain silos built on a central mound, are lovely to visit or to stay overnight. I especially love the wonderfully remote Pitões das Junias, close to the border with Spain, which is utterly authentic and has some great local hiking trails.

Gerês Town (Vila do Gerês) is the region’s jumping-off point. This old spa town is rather pleasant and the adjacent artificial lake is a popular Portuguese holiday spot complete with a water park and kid-friendly beaches. A Selina hostel brings digital nomads to this area too. But it’s the inner parts of Gerês that I think are most special and make for a perfect road trip (it’s best to have your own vehicle as there isn’t really any public transit). Along the way, you can stay in a wide range of rural and eco-friendly accommodations.

 

Douro Valley

The Douro river runs from Porto in the west all the way to the border with Spain in the east. It’s one of Portugal’s most fertile areas and blanketed in vineyards. There are several ways to explore it: as a road trip (such as along the N222), by all-inclusive river cruise from Porto (these are usually quite pricey), or by taking the spectacular train journey of the Linha do Douro, which features 20 tunnels and 30 bridges and hugs the river for most of the way.

Rural quintas (traditional farms) turned into B&Bs or boutique hotels allow you to stay in charming accommodation along the way. One of the best things to do in the Douro is to visit some of the terraced vineyards for a wine tasting.

Apart from the wonderful landscapes with vineyards and groves of orange and olive trees, you’ll find numerous villages, castle ruins, and chapels and religious sanctuaries throughout this region. In Côa Valley, you can also see one of the largest examples of paleolithic cave art in Europe, estimated to have been created around 23,000 years ago.

 

Viseu

WORTH A TRIP

This small hilltop city is often overlooked, but I much enjoyed strolling through its historic quarter with the Romanesque and Gothic Sé (Cathedral) as its centerpiece.

There are some small museums and the local tourist office has plenty of information on nearby walking trails, though the main joy is just to be in a pretty Portuguese city unspoiled by tourism. (And it has all the cute squares, tiled buildings, and beautiful street art you may come to expect from a Portuguese city!)

It may not have enough sights for a trip on its own, but Viseu makes for a lovely stop on a trip through Central Portugal. Consider a visit on your way to the Douro Valley or the Serra da Estrela.

 

Aveiro

WORTH A TRIP

Aveiro pitches itself (quite overenthusiastically) as the ‘Venice of Portugal’. Why? Because it has a single canal running through it where a number of colorful boats, known as “moliceiros”, can take you out and around (these rides take about 45 min).

Okay, so keep your expectations in check. But Aveiro is definitely a nice place for a leisurely day out. It may not have quite the epic wow-factor of the biggest tourist destinations in Portugal, but it makes for a nice day trip for sure. Stay for lunch, a stroll through the old town, and for a boat ride on the canal.

The nearby Costa Nova is a lovely stretch of beach, known for its colorfully striped houses. Praia de Mira further south is nice to check out as well.

 

Arouca

The area of Arouca south of Porto has drawn much attention lately for having established the world’s longest pedestrian footbridge. With a length of 516 meters, it is suspended 175 meters above the Paiva River, connecting to several hiking trails through the Arouca Geopark.

Besides the bridge, there are various rural places and small sights to check out, most of which are very nicely represented in this illustrated map. One interesting attraction is the 8km stretch of wooden walkways that run through a part of the Paiva river valley.

Much like Gerês further north, Arouca is a great destination in Portugal if you love to be in nature, check out smaller sights, and have a true Portuguese experience.

 

SOUTH PORTUGAL

The south is mainly known for its beaches and epic rock formations along the coast. The Algarve is a popular resort area, while the Vicentine coast is less developed and wilder.

Vicentine Coast

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The Costa Vicentina is one of Portugal’s real treasures. Referred to as one of the last strongholds of the wild European coast, this protected and scarcely developed region offers some of the best opportunities for hiking, surfing, and campervanning. Running all along the west coast above the Algarve, the Vicentine Coast is dotted with charming villages and various forms of eco- and rural accommodation.

Many travellers end up here for the Rota Vicentina, a pair of hiking trails of increasing renown. Its Fisherman’s Trail follows the coast with its many gnarly limestone cliffs, while the less-hiked and underrated Historical Way snakes its way through the interior. With over 750km of trails to choose from, it’s definitely one of Portugal’s best areas for hiking. Don’t miss my guide to the Rota Vicentina if you are curious.

Spring is the best time to hike the Fisherman’s Trail, in part as numerous storks flock to the area, building nests on the rocky cliffs. It’s possible to do single-day hikes, but it’s best experienced as a multi-day through-hike, giving you the opportunity to add relaxing beach days all along the way.

If you enjoy unspoiled places with only local and small-scale accommodation, then you will definitely love the Vicentine Coast.

 

Sagres

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High up on the cliffs on the very southwest tip of Portugal, you’ll find the sleepy surfer town of Sagres. 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. Read more about the Algarve for surfers here.

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 notable for being the most Westerly point of mainland Europe. Sagres is on the Rota Vicentina hiking trail, and its end-of-the-world makes it a perfect endpoint to a long trek (I found it a bit reminiscent of Fisterra at the end of El Camino del Santiago in Spain).

 

Lagos

ESSENTIAL

The small city of Lagos (pronounced laa-goosh) is one of the nicest bits of the Algarve. It’s the place I usually recommend visiting if it’s your first time in the south of Portugal. Lagos has an attractive old town, it’s near some of the coast’s most spectacular cliffs, and it can be easily reached by bus or train if you don’t have a car. It’s a great base from which to enjoy the many things to do in the Algarve.

Its southern beaches are really fun as they are all amid tall limestone cliffs, with several sea caves and other passageways connecting them. These beaches are best visited outside the July-August high season as during this time they do get very cramped. Luckily there is also the Praia de São Roque to the east, a wide sandy beach that offers more space.

 

Évora

WORTH A TRIP

The small town of Évora is in the middle of Portugal’s hot and dry Alentejo, a region filled with cork oaks and vineyards. Évora 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.

Enjoy its lovely whitewashed houses with yellow windowsills and don’t miss the Chapel of Bones, which is literally decorated with bones, skulls, and even entire skeletons hanging from the walls — a display once created by monks as a rather on-the-nose reminder of our temporary existence.

 

Carvoeiro

The small town of Carvoeiro is a wonderful spot in the Algarve — but do go outside of August if you can, as its small beach does get packed during this busy month. But if you’re looking for a lovely small-scale place to stay in the Algarve, it’s especially worth booking a nice B&B or hotel in Carvoeiro in spring or autumn.

Carvoeiro is near some of the Algarve’s most impressive cliffs and coves. The whole coast is in fact scattered with coves, caves, and other hidden places, mostly best seen on a boat tour. The ultimate highlight is the Benagil cave, an absolutely stunning sea cave. Boats regularly depart from Carvoeiro’s small beach.

Alternatively, you can go sea kayaking, letting you explore all the coast’s gorgeous limestone features by yourself, such as the Elephant Rock (a double limestone arch with its pillars in the sea). You can also follow the walking trails that run all along the coast.

 

Faro

For many foreign tourists, Faro is simply where they arrive by air as it has the Algarve’s only international airport. Many skip the small city as it is not directly on the beach. Yet Faro makes for a wonderful base, having a lovely cobblestoned old town. Ferry services can take you via a coastal lagoon (home to flamingos and other birds) to a very long sandy beach, which doesn’t get too busy even in the high season.

Faro may lack the dramatic limestone cliffs of Lagos and elsewhere in the Algarve, but it’s a wonderful destination for sun-seekers without any of the overdevelopment of places like Albufeira. It’s conveniently reached from Lisbon, Seville in Spain, or from its small airport.

 


Still not sure where to travel in Portugal? Then have a look at my guides to Portugal for further inspiration. Don’t miss the Portuguese islands of the Azores and Madeira, both stunning destinations for on a trip of their own.


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