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 the country in great detail.
Here, I will share with you some of my favorite spots in Portugal. I’ll cover some of the more popular places to visit in Portugal, but also a few that not that many people seem to know about yet.
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—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.
But there are so many more things to do in Sintra. It’s 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.
While many visit Sintra as a day-trip from Lisbon, you can easily spend 2 or 3 days in Sintra and still have plenty of places to explore. If you like to stay in hostels then I can highly recommend spending at least a night or two at Nice Way Hostel, which has a lovely garden and a real traveler-family feeling.
Many people (even Portuguese) don’t know about it, but the gardens and palace of Monserrate are almost as beautiful as the Quinta de Regaleira, but it gets like 10% of the visitors. It’s my secret favourite part of Sintra!
Where: close to Peniche and 1 hours from Lisbon
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 tour bus tourists here taking pictures with their iPads. But just walk off the main street and you may find yourself transported to a different time… because Óbidos can make you truly feel like you’re walking through a little slice of old Europe.
Óbidos is a popular day-trip from Lisbon, as it takes 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 very small town, it’s definitely a romantic place to stay and has some cool things to see in the surrounding area.
The castle of Óbidos now functions as a pousada (traditional hotel), but be prepared to spend at least € 300 a night there. Fortunately, countless B&Bs and guesthouses within the town walls make for much more reasonably priced alternatives.
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!
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 neighbourhoods around the university are a bit dilapidated and covered in graffiti, though the lower area of Baixa near the river have a ton of charm. Some travellers do Coimbra as a day-trip from Porto or Lisbon, or to break up the journey between these cities.
Peniche & the Berlengas
Where: just over an hour from Lisbon, 40 minutes from Obidos
The small town of Peniche is located within just over an hour from Lisbon, and it’s one of my favorite places to go on the Western coast. It has a small fortress and a couple of other minor sights in town, but the real reason to go here is for the activities you can do in the region.
Firstly, it’s considered one of the top surfing spots in Portugal. Because it’s on a small peninsula, there are always good waves on either the north or the south side. As a result, Peniche and the nearby town of Baleal are filled with boutique hostels, surfer schools, and camps. I loved staying in Peniche Hostel which is inside the historical town.
It’s also where you can get a 30-minute boat ride to the Berlengas archipelago, which can tons of amazing rock structures that make you feel like you’re on a pirate island. The scenery is perfect for SUP and kayaking trips, and the Berlengas are the best place to go scuba diving in mainland Portugal. While the islands became a bit of a victim of their own success in recent years, visitor numbers are now capped at 550 per day, making tourism on the islands sustainable again. 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 perhaps not quite as grand as other European mountain ranges, the region’s flowing landscapes and scenic roads lend themselves well to a relaxing trip. The area also has its share of cute villages (like Piodão) 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. A popular hike goes to the Poco de Inferno waterfall and it is well signposted, though I’ve been told other trails in Serra da Estrela Natural Park are quite poorly marked, so consider bringing an app like Wikiloc to guide you. When you’re done 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.
Where: just east of the Serra da Estrela
This small cobble-stoned fortress village near 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 converted to Christianity 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 cute 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 wonderful luxury on a budget.
Where: 2 hours from Lisbon, near the border with Spain
This place is well off the usual travel circuit, probably because it’s a bit out of the way. Even most expats and nomads in Portugal I speak to don’t seem to know about this amazing place. But, trust me, you just have to visit Monsanto. (And better yet, stay a night so you can catch the sunset and sunrise!)
This small medieval settlement sits atop a granite mountain overlooking lush green valleys. 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 super lovely as well, with olive trees and higgety-piggety farmlands with stone walls. All you’ll hear is silence apart from the birds and the gentle ringing of boat bells.
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 artefacts, 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 centre, 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. It’s easily the most buzzing place to visit in Portugal. While some tourists visit for just a weekend, I think you need at least 3 or 4 days to really get the most out of Lisbon and its surroundings, as there are just so many things to do in Lisbon. Then again, I live there so I might be a bit biased!
If you enjoy getting lost on purpose then this is truly the city for you, as there are little discoveries to make everywhere. The centre is built around seven hills, giving you wonderful vistas around seemingly every corner. Instead of trying to tick the standard boxes, I highly encourage anyone to explore Lisbon by foot and to not make too many plans — instead, just pick a direction, and let interesting things come to you.
I should mention that, as is sadly often the case, tourism brings good things and bad. During the summer months, especially July and August, Lisbon can get utterly packed — especially in the popular areas of Alfama and Baixa. I recommend other times of the year to come to Lisbon. 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 booming 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, which includes some cool places 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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