Tucked away in the continent’s most southwestern corner, Portugal is a conveniently compact travel destination offering gorgeous historical cities, a charming and low-key vibe, and delicious seafood and wine—not to mention some excellent beaches.
Portugal also happens to be relatively inexpensive. If you’re looking to travel somewhere cheap in Europe that isn’t somewhere in the east, then Portugal is your best bet.
I’ve been living and traveling in Portugal for the past year, and these are some of the key highlights I recommend (so far!).
Portugal highlights map
Top places to visit
Long overlooked but recently undergoing a huge revival, the capital of Lisbon is easily its most buzzing place to visit in Portugal.
The standard Lisbon weekend trip itinerary has you spending a day in the traditional area of Alfama and then a day in the museum quarter of Belém, but I think two days isn’t nearly enough to sample all that Lisbon has to offer.
You’re better off spending at least three or four days, though many long-term travelers and nomads end up staying here for weeks or months.
Lisbon is ideally explored by foot. If you’re the sort of person who enjoys getting lost on purpose then this is the city for you, as there are little discoveries to make everywhere. The center is built around seven hills, giving you wonderful vistas around seemingly every corner.
As is sadly often the case, tourism brings good things and bad. You may wish to avoid the historical area of Alfama on days when there are many cruise ships docked at the adjacent terminal, as it will be just too busy (especially in August). On other days, it is still a lovely area to explore.
Despite its increased popularity Lisbon is a very relaxed city and it’s full of rewards beyond the usual tourist spots. I put together a detailed guide to Lisbon, which includes a couple of hidden places that don’t usually feature in Lisbon city guides.my in-depth guide to 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, just 40 minutes by train northwest of Lisbon. They feature a variety of intriguing structures including an underground tower with a spiral staircase, the purpose of which is unknown—although some have speculated that it may have been the site 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. Pay close attention and you may even find an Indiana Jones-esque revolving stone door. (I don’t know if everyone gets as excited about that as I do.)
Sintra is also home to three different palaces, of which the Palácio da Pena is probably the most known and photographed. It stands on the top of a hill next to the town, easily visible from afar. 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.
Hiking from the town of Sintra to these hilltop sights takes about 30 to 45 minutes and makes for a pleasant walk, so skip the bus and go by foot if you can.
Sintra has a lot to see and you need at least a full day to get a proper taste. Some even spend three full days there to explore all its sights as well as its surrounding forests.
Porto is very 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 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. The city has a lovely unpretentious vibe, showing its workmanlike past (as Portugal’s main port) while claiming a buzzing cultural scene.
The riverfront quarter of Ribeira is a crumbling but 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 good deal of renewed investment. Porto is a great city to visit on a weekend, but equally a great base for exploring northern Portugal.
You can see the main sights in about two days, though you can spend longer if you’re intending to take day-trips around the area.10 cool things to do in Porto »
Be warned: parts of the Algarve have a reputation for being the least Portuguese places in Portugal.
It’s why I still have not been to Albufeira, known as it is for drawing endless hordes of British lads on stag dos and boozy weekends. Nothing anyone has said about this place has made me want to go. (But, who knows, maybe it’s not that bad?)
Fortunately, I discovered that other parts of the Algarve are far more dignified and charming.
I much enjoyed the town of Lagos, for instance. This seaside town has plenty of entertainment for tourists, but not while losing its soul. The beaches at Lagos feature some of the gnarliest cliffs around and are highly worth visiting. (Locals told me the beaches do get too crowded in August, though.)
The waters around Lagos are said to be a bit colder than elsewhere, but this has also made it more of an alternative destination to the bigger holiday resorts further east.
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 unassuming place that it is.
The cliffs around the Fortaleza de Sagres or the Cabo de Sao Vincente 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.
If you’re into hostels, you shouldn’t miss the Funky Monkey in Sagres, which feels like a summer house and has a fantastic garden with a lovely pool.
The Azores Islands
In the middle of the Atlantic, somewhere between the Portuguese mainland and the United States, you’ll find the islands of the Azores. Its location at the fault lines of three continental shelves makes this volcanic archipelago a paradise for adventure travellers, with countless caldeiras, volcanoes, reefs, steam vents, and lava tube caves to explore.
I think it makes for an excellent addition to any itinerary, as it adds something that’s very different from the rest of Portugal.
The island of Sao Miguel is by far the easiest to travel to, thanks to regular budget flights from Lisbon and Porto. It also has plentiful accommodation and transportation options on the island itself. The other Azores islands are rather off-the-beaten-track with more challenging travel logistics, but they can be worth the extra planning involved (Pico Island, in particular, is a favorite of mine).
The Azores are rather rocky islands and its near-lack of beaches gives it a wonderful focus on rural, cultural, and adventure travel. With so many thermal baths to relax, volcanic mountains to summit, and various water-based activities such as whale watching, you could perhaps think of the Azores as the Iceland of the south (well, more or less…).
I spent some time island hopping around the Azores, so if these remote islands have you intrigued, be sure to check out my reports.guide to the Azores »
If there was an award for the most Instagram-y place in Portugal, then Óbidos would surely be the winner.
This picturesque Medieval town is easy to love with its cobbled streets, white cottages with colorful wall flowers, and a still-intact outer castle wall.
Sure, you may see large groups of pensioner tourists here taking pictures with their iPads. Use your imagination and pretend they’re not there (or simply walk off the main street). Now take a moment to transport yourself to a different time… because Óbidos can make you truly feel like you’re walking through a little slice of Old Europe.
Most visitors come to Óbidos on a day-trip from Lisbon, which seems like the right way to go (getting there from Lisbon takes about 1 hour 15 min).
The town warrants a few hours of wandering, then maybe a nice meal and some good wine at one of the many restaurants. I recommend Restaurante Pretensioso not just for its tongue-in-cheek name but also its cute garden patio away from the town’s main thoroughfare.
You might even wish to stay the night and enjoy the town after most tourists have left. While this small town maybe won’t keep you captivated forever, it’s quite a romantic place to stay.
The castle of Óbidos now functions as a pousada (traditional hotel), but be prepared to spend at least € 300 a night there. Fortunately, countless airbnbs and guesthouses within the town walls make for more reasonably priced alternatives.
Coimbra is home to one of the oldest universities in Europe, whose grounds are nowadays a UNESCO world heritage site that is open to tourists.
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.
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.
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 neighborhoods around the university are a bit dilapidated and covered in lazy graffiti, though the lower area of Baixa near the river has plenty of charm and is not to be missed.
Coimbra is a nice place to spend a day, and since it’s situated about midway between Lisbon and Porto, it can also be used to break up a longer journey.
Vila Nova de Milfontes
This quaint village at a river estuary along the Alejento coast is perfect if you’re looking for a beach escape without the crowds of the Algarve. It’s a favorite among the Portuguese but hasn’t yet been discovered by international visitors, apart from a few handfuls of travellers hitting up the local hostels and B&Bs.
Vila Nova de Milfontes isn’t a very historical town for the most part, nor is there much to do in terms of sightseeing. The only sight to speak of is the small fortress at the river mouth, once constructed to keep pirates at bay but nowadays a private property.
What you’ll find instead are some beautiful and calm beaches, good surf, some walking trails along the coast, and a picturesque resort town that has kept an easy-going vibe.
A ferry runs every half hour to the other side of the river (in the summer months), providing easy access to additional cliff-side beaches and a beach bar. A friendly woman runs the ferry with some help from her cool dog.
Vila Nova de Milfontes is served only by a single bus line between Lisbon and Lagos (bus company Rede Expresso), which makes it perfect for breaking up a journey from the Algarve to the capital.
Ericeira, Peniche & Baleal
I quite like these small surfer towns along the western coast, located within an hour or two from Lisbon. Each of them is home to a smattering of hostels and boutique guesthouses, a bunch of surf schools, and a few sandy beaches. They’re unpretentious little places without any high-rise hotels. If you’ve had your fill of city travel, go to these places to wind down.
Peniche is not just about the beach life as it’s well-located for some sightseeing as well. It’s just a 40 minute drive from Obidos, and boat tours regularly depart from Peniche to the Berlengas Islands, a rocky nature reserve filled with caverns and cliffs. These islands are also a popular scuba diving spot.
A great boutique hostel in peniche is the Peniche Hostel, with funky decoration a cozy communal breakfast table.
1 ½ hours east of Lisbon, the small town of Evora is mainly of historical interest. The town centre, some of which is still demarcated by an old city wall, features traditional pale white houses with yellow contours painted on the edges and windowsills.
I did find Evora a little bit too… earnest. The sights here include some churches and cathedrals, two museums displaying religious artefacts, and the crumbled pillars of a Roman temple. These are worth seeing, though besides these tick-box sights the town does seem to be lacking a bit of life.
Maybe it’s just that I visited on a very hot day. In the heart of Alejento region it can easily get 5 °C hotter than in Lisbon. I suppose I can’t blame people for staying inside when the mercury rises to up to 40 °C, but Evora nevertheless felt a tad stuffy despite having such charming little houses. Anyway, just my impression.
Oh! But… be sure to visit the chapel decorated with bones, skulls, and entire bodies hanging from the wall. This Chapel of Bones was once created by monks as a reminder of the transitory nature of the human condition, and is definitely something interesting to check out.
Well… I went to Aveiro so that you don’t have to.
I intended to only list here some of the top places to visit in Portugal, but I’m including Aveiro here just to let you know that it’s not that big of a deal.
It’s a nice town that has some canals. Some travel guides describe Aveiro as the Venice of Portugal, which is quite the overstatement. It makes as much sense as saying Wexford is like the Miami of Ireland.
Anyway, two modern canals run through Aveiro where traditional wooden boats, once used for fishing, now ferry tourists around. There are a couple of brightly colored houses that everyone comes to photograph. Besides this, there is not so much to mention.
While Aveiro isn’t totally terrible, most of the town is modern instead of historical, and unless you’re on a Portugal completionist I would recommend focusing on other places first. It’s included in many Portugal itineraries, but I’m not so sure why.
Best time to visit Portugal
Portugal can be enjoyed year-round, but the best season (in my opinion) is spring, followed by summer, autumn and then winter.
May and June are great for visiting Lisbon, as it’s not too busy, temperatures are already quite balmy, and the Jacaranda trees are in full blossom—turning the streets and the squares beautifully purple.
June is a great time to be in Lisbon or Porto as well because of the traditional street festivals that take place during this month, featuring plenty of folk music and vendors selling drinks and grilled sardines.
Beach days become a consistent possibility from about early May. This year I had my first full-on beach day in Portugal in mid-March (it reached about 26 degrees), though this was probably a bit lucky. In April, I was already getting my tan on at the beaches in the Algarve.
As anywhere in Europe, August is a month to avoid if you don’t like the crowds. It can get pretty rammed!
While winter is not the ideal time to visit, December or January aren’t so bad for a city trip, as the climate is still mild and there are plenty of indoor activities to do on a rainy day.
Cost of travel in Portugal
You can travel on a budget in Portugal starting at about 50 USD / 45 EUR a day per person. Here are some rough examples of costs:
|Room in airbnb, budget hotel, boutique hostel||€ 40 +|
|Dorm bed in hostel||€ 15 – 20|
|Meal, inexpensive restaurant||€ 8 – 10 (Lisbon, Algarve)
€ 5 – 7 (smaller cities & towns)
|Meal, mid-range restaurant||€ 20|
|0.33l beer in a bar||€ 1.50|
|Coffee||€ 0.60 (local place)
€ 2.00 (tourist place in Lisbon)
|Taxi – Alfama to Belem (20 min)||€ 12|
|High speed train Lisbon to Porto||€ 30|
As a rule of thumb, Lisbon is about 30% more expensive than elsewhere in Portugal. The Algarve can be more pricey as well. True bargains can be found in the smaller towns and secondary cities like Porto and Coimbra.
Unlike what some blogs incorrectly claim, tipping is not expected in Portugal, but it’s always nice to round up or to give a small tip.
- My Ultimate City Guide to Lisbon
- 10 Cool Things to See and Do in Porto
- The Azores: Europe’s Undiscovered Adventure Islands
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