By Joseph Francis
Complete with shimmering beaches, an eye-watering backcountry of countless sierras, ancient villages, rolling vineyards, student-led cities brimming with life and more UNESCO sites than you can shake a cheese-packed, meat-heavy francesinha sandwich at, this country on the tip of the Iberian peninsula is a bucket list topper if there ever was one. Check out our Portugal travel guide to discover the biggest pulls, activities and attractions that are bound to make any holiday here a memorable one!
Check off a whopping 15 UNESCO sites
Eager for some culture and history? Then be sure to ask your Portugal tour guide for a list of the country’s 17 UNESCO sites. Head for the subterranean curiosities of the Côa Valley, where pre-historic markings belie human habitation more than 20,000 years old; delve into the grand cloisters of Alcobaça Monastery, where some of Europe’s earliest Gothic masterpieces stand tall; walk the laurel forests of Madeira; wonder at the azulejos tiles and roman colonnades of Évora – the list goes on!
Sample Port in the Alta Duoro
The northern Portuguese city of Porto on the banks of the River Duoro is hailed as the home of fortified wine. That means there’s nowhere better on the planet to taste the famous export than amidst the ancient vineyards of its UNESCO-attested DOC region: the Alta Duoro. Here, 2,000 years of viniculture manifest on the vine-clad terraces of the river valley and countless cellar doors and tasting rooms dot the hillsides. Check out the rustic wineries and olive farms around Vila Nova de Foz Côa for some of the country’s finest eco homestays and don’t forget to take a bottle or two home!
Sunbathe in the Algarve
No trip to Portugal could possibly be complete without at least a quick jaunt to its coast, which runs for thousands of kilometers from north to south along the Atlantic. For many, the most beautiful section is the Algarve, an area of outstanding natural beauty that encompasses nearly 5,000 square kilometers between the Spanish border and Cape St Vincent. A land of chiselled cliff faces and rugged rocky outcrops that’s embellished with aquamarine waters and glowing yellow sands, the Algarve is a sunbather’s paradise. Check out beaches like Praia da Marinha and the cliff-backed Praia da Falésia for the best.
Devour francesinha in Porto
Immensely popular for its Pastel de Nata (custard tarts) and Cataplana, Portugal, or more specifically, Porto is also home to the legendary francesinha sandwich: a stacked medley of cured hams, fried eggs, chipolata sausages, steak and beer sauce that’s served with a colossal helping of fries. Today, there are oodles of hole-in-the-wall eateries that serve up the toppling bap amidst the tight-knit streets of the city’s famous Ribeira neighbourhood, while it might also be worth consulting your Porto tour guide for their favourite local recommendations!
Hike the epic Sintra Mountains
Poking their way out dramatically over the swells of the Atlantic Ocean, the Sintra Mountains are unquestionably one of the natural jewels of Portugal as a whole. They have been held in mythical esteem by the locals ever since the Iberian tribes marked them as the domain of the gods. The Romans followed with their own legends and then Romantics like Byron eulogised their beauties. Today, travellers can wax up the walking boots and hit the trails that weave their way through the national park, spotting great Moorish castles, the elegant baroque majesty of Sintra town and the glowing Pena National Palace along the way.
Tee off in Madeira
With its glorious year-round temperatures and glorious sunny days, the island of Madeira is the perfect natural environment for golf. Head out from the African-flavoured capital of Funchal and discover courses like Santo da Serra, the home of the Madeira Open that’s worthy of PGA tourers. Palheiro, meanwhile, spreads its 18 holes across the undulating hills of the Palheiro Estate on the south side of the island, offering magnificent views of the Atlantic coast and sweeping forests of centennial trees to boot.
Get lost in the Schist villages
Set deep between the hills and mountain ranges of Portugal’s Centro region, the Schist villages rise up from the ridges like rocky protrusions of the ground themselves. Originally constructed as defensive outposts on the Spanish border, many of these rustic, stone-clad towns date back more than 1,000 years and still boast a traditional way of life. In all, the rugged valleys that line the Serra de Estrella boast 26 of the hamlets and travellers can hike between them on the so-called Schist Village Pathway, seeing forests and crumbling Reconquista castles as they go.
Surf the Atlantic rollers
With its wild and windswept western coast buffeted by the might of the Atlantic swells, it’s hardly surprising that Portugal is now one of Europe’s surfing capitals. Lagos tour guides will be able to help board riders hitting the southern beaches of the Algarve, where surf hostels and schools make the most of warmer, calmer waters. On the west coast, the waves that hit the sands of Peniche and Nazaré are some of the most famous, offering everything from difficult left-righters for expert surfers to easy going beach breaks for learners.
Go spy hunting in Lisbon
Lisbon is a thriving, energetic capital that throws up wonders like the Belém Tower and São Jorge Castle between its seven hills. But history and culture aside, this great Iberian metropolis has another, more intriguing, film noir-style side. During World War II it became a hotpot for spies both Axis and Allied, and today this curious history is chronicled by Lisbon tour guides who run spy tours to uncover tales of the iconic Garbo and Jewish gold trafficking alike.
Dance to the Fado and see the Portuguese arts
Given the long history and cultural wealth of Portugal, it’s hardly surprising that the arts take center stage here for many travellers. In Lisbon, weave through the narrow lanes of the Barrio Alto after dark, where the sounds of traditional Fado music issues from the taverns. And once you’ve danced the night away, make for the city’s Museu Coleção Berardo, which comes complete with works by Eileen Agar and Carl Andre. Elsewhere and the Ágitagueda Art Festival is a must, erupting each year in a creative show of colour and public installations.
Joseph ‘Rich’ Francis is a freelance travel writer who has travelled extensively in Asia and Europe. He particularly enjoys the jazz bars of Poland, the ski slopes of Austria and the beaches and cities of India.
Image Details and Licenses: https://flic.kr/p/e5iDcw (Gabriel González, CC BY 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/aabcSk (Bert Kaufmann, CC BY-SA 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/spkyx9 (Turismo En Portugal, CC BY 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/opkmLC (Rodrigo Gómez Sanz, CC BY 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/9WzkUp (Ewan Munro, CC BY-SA 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/qeB13G (Oneterry Aka Terry Kearney, CC BY-NC 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/t4MYym (PortoBay Events, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/9Tx17i (Rui Silva, CC BY 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/5y9kUe (Alice, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/p1SXhj (Brad Hammonds, CC BY-NC 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/mEKWGr (José Carlos Babo, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)