Though it is but a fifth of the size of neighboring country Spain, Portugal holds its own against its bigger neighbor when it comes to tourism, due to its beautiful weather, fantastic food, culture and history, and perhaps most important of all, its affordability – a rare trait in a Western European country. Portugal’s treasures extend beyond the mainland, as its reach encompasses both the Azores archipelago and the island of Madeira, both popular vacation destinations, particularly for those who live in colder climes and are looking to escape winter. Planning a trip to Portugal and haven’t been here before? Check out our list of the best cities and regions to visit in Portugal:
For residents of the United States and Canada that live on the east coast this archipelago is just a quick four to five hour jaunt across the Atlantic Ocean. The westernmost point in Europe the Archipelago of the Azores is comprised of nine islands, with Sao Miguel being the largest. The Azores is the perfect spot for outdoor adventure. Whether you are into horseback riding, cycling or diving you will find plenty of opportunity to get your thrills on these beautiful islands. The Azores is also renowned as one of the best spots in the world for whale watching, with numerous species to be found in the region including sowerby’s beaked whales, northern bottlenose, pilot whales, sperm whales and even orcas.
Once the capital city of Portugal, Coimbra is located roughly 120 km south of Porto and less than an hour’s drive from the coast. Its centerpiece is the University of Coimbra, which was founded in 1290 (in Lisbon), and finally permanently established in Coimbra in 1537. It is the oldest place of learning to be found anywhere in the Portuguese-speaking world. Medieval architecture abounds throughout the city and history buffs could spend daze exploring the maze of narrow streets and ancient churches.
A truly ancient city Evora’s roots go back more than two millennia. The Romans conquered the town back in 57 BC and fortified it into a walled town, ruins of which still exist to this day. Its unique combination of ancient architecture and natural beauty landed Evora a lauded distinction as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located 140 km from Lisbon and just 80 km from the border with Spain, Evora is an easy destination to reach. You might want to save your visit for late spring or even winter though. Evora gets scorching hot in the summer, often reaching well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit between the months of June and September.
With a nickname like The Floating Garden of the Atlantic it is little wonder that Madeira draws travelers in droves coming to indulge in its natural lush green bounty. It is one of two autonomous regions of Portugal – the other being The Archipelago of the Azores – and is located roughly 400 km north of Spain’s Canary Islands. It is broken up into 11 different municipalities with the largest being the city of Funchal, home to more than 100,000 full time residents.
Seafood lovers certainly won’t go hungry on Madeira, particularly those who like to dine on marlin and tuna, with numerous species of both fish caught locally. Don’t forget to try a little Madeira with your fish. Yes, this locally made fortified wine shares a name with the island of its origin and boasts varieties ranging from sweet to dry.
Speaking of fortified wines, perhaps no place in the world is as synonymous with that particular beverage class as the northern city of Porto. Porto is, of course, the home of Port, the beverage that gave both the city and the nation its name. Those looking for a quiet escape would do well to find another port of call. Porto, though not quite as bustling as Lisbon, is a large city with almost two million residents in its urban area. Still, those looking for romance can find it, particularly in the Ribeira district which hugs the Douro river and features open air cafes, live music and street vendors hawking their wares.
If you have a full itinerary you may be considering giving Sintra a miss, but even if you can’t budget a few days to visit this magical city (though you really should) Sintra is a doable day trip from Lisbon, and you should do everything possible to squeeze in a visit, however brief. Pena Palace, Castelo Dos Mouros, and the famous toy museum, Museu do Brinquedo are just a few of the highlights Sintra has to offer. If you do plan to spend a few days (or longer) in Sintra and you have a car at your disposal, then a trip to Adraga Beach is a must. It is a true natural jewel in Portugal, boasting sparkling azure waters and amazing rock formations.
If you are all about fun in the sun then make sure to make the Algarve region a priority as you make your way through Portugal. Its dry, temperate climate attracts thousands of sun-worshippers every year, and with over 3,000 hours of sunshine annually it is a close to a “guaranteed good weather destination” as you are likely to find anywhere in Europe.
For those who can drag themselves away from the beach the Algarve region offers up many other treats as well. Towns like Lagos and Sagres feature ancient Roman architecture, and the capital city of Faro seems almost frozen in time and visitors there can easily imagine themselves in 18th century Portugal as they wander its quaint neighborhoods.
As great as the other cities, towns and islands of Portugal are none can come close to the majesty of the capital city of Portugal. A globally significant city, Lisbon is a hub of finance, commerce, international trade, arts and entertainment. It features a unique blend of the modern and the ancient, with marvels of technology such as the Lisbon Oceanarium blending seamlessly with ancient structures like Castelo de São Jorge and Jeronimo’s Monastery.
Lisbon is definitely a city that offers something for everyone. Even if you are not a “big city person” you will enjoy Lisbon, so be sure to give yourself plenty of time to see and enjoy Portugal’s most valuable gem.