Planning the itinerary through the best places to visit in Portugal is a challenge. That’s because Portugal has an unbelievable richness of beauty, history and art even in tiny villages. You will be amazed and enchanted with how much this country has to offer.
We propose an itinerary that we made during our trip, that will take you through the most iconic, historically most relevant and simply most stunning natural and cultural wonders of Portugal, including most of the country’s UNESCO monuments.
The Starting Point
As there are only 3 airports in the country, in the North in Porto, in the centre in Lisbon, and in the South in Faro, your starting point will likely be one of those, unless you come by car from Spain. Our journey starts in the North, in one of the most iconic Portuguese cities – Porto – and leads all the way downwards to Faro in Algarve.
1. Porto and its 6 Bridges
Porto is world-famous for its precious port wine, and the character of the city is strongly connected to its wine commerce. The most typical “postcard view” of Porto is the lovely historical district Ribeira (UNESCO) with its colourful houses, dominated by the engineering masterpiece – an impressive Luis I bridge designed by a disciple of Gustave Eiffel. The lively shore of Ribeira is full of bars and restaurants which all serve port wine, and traditional rabelo boats for wine transportation are always moored nearby. On the opposite side of the Douro River you can visit 260 years old wine cellars.
The city is famous also for its exquisite churches with façades covered with azulejos – characteristic white-and-blue Portuguese tiles (that I’m crazy about, so I’ll come back to this topic many more times).
But Porto is much more than that. It has a long and impressive cultural heritage and plenty of interesting landmarks to visit. It is by far one of the best places to visit in Portugal and you simply can’t miss it.
2. The Douro Valley and its Port Wine Vineyards
Unmissable experience. Port wine is produced exclusively in the approx. 70-km long area along the Douro River Valley, enlisted by UNESCO. It’s a beautiful valley with a unique landscape of hilly slopes striped with terraced vineyards and elegant historical estates dating even from as much as 1750s!
There is a the Port Wine Route, which lets you discover the secrets of the production of this excellent wine. And then, there is the Romanesque Route with 14 medieval churches and other historical buildings.
3. Guimarães and its Medieval Spirit
Guimarães has a very important place in the history of the nation – it is considered “the birthplace of Portugal”. That’s because the first king of Portugal – Afonso Henriques – was born here. Moreover, nearby was held the Battle of São Mamede which led to the establishment of the Kingdom of Portugal in 1139.
This lovely town has a lot of character and an atmosphere of the time gone by. It is a beautiful place rich in history and very interesting monuments, enlisted by UNESCO. The highlights include the medieval castle, the impressive Palace of the Dukes of Braganza, and a series of wonderful churches filled with masterpieces: stunning azulejo walls, sculptures and paintings.
One more thing that makes Guimarães one of the best places to visit in Portugal are its cookies, famous nationwide. The local specialities include delicious sticky cookies made of pumpkin, almonds and walnuts – they are truly remarkable.
4. Braga and the epicentre of Portuguese Christianity
Braga is the Christian soul of Portugal – which means a lot in this very religious country. Here, the oldest Portuguese seat of the archbishop was established – the city served as the main centre of Christianity in the Iberian Peninsula till the times of the Reconquista. And even before that, in the 12th century, it was the seat of the Portuguese court.
It is the third biggest city of Portugal, visibly rich and elegant. Its highlights, obviously, are churches – especially the stunning cathedral and maybe the most photogenic church on Earth – Bom Jesus do Monte, with its incredibly long and ornate staircase (both enlisted by UNESCO).
5. Coimbra and its impressive historical university
We found it very interesting that the townscape of Coimbra, unlike most other cities and towns, is not dominated by a castle or a cathedral, but by its huge university. It is the town’s highest, biggest and most visible monument – and its claim to fame. That’s because it is the nations’s oldest university (actually founded in Lisbon in 1290, but moved to Coimbra in 1537), and one of the oldest in the world.
The university complex (enlisted by UNESCO) is very interesting; the highlight is its spectacular Baroque Johannine Library and the sublime university chapel with azulejos, but also the museums with old-fashioned scientific tools are great. And omnipresent students proudly wear traditional black woollen coats, adding up to the atmosphere.
The town is lovely, with winding narrow cobbled lanes, medieval buildings and a stunning cathedral. You respire culture here – there is something sophisticated about Coimbra which puts it definitely among the best places to visit in Portugal.
6. Óbidos and its fairytale streets
With all its houses kept in the palette of white lined with vivid yellow and blue, with charming tiled roofs and azulejo decorations on every corner, Óbidos is an iconic traditional Portuguese town.
Irresistible romantic charm makes Óbidos definitely one of the best places to visit in Portugal. Its narrow winding cobbled streets are filled with flowers in multitude of colours, and the dominant silhouette of the medieval castle is visible from most places. The fortified walls are walkable, although they don’t have any railing, which makes visiting them quite a thrilling experience!
7. Tomar and its Templar Castle
The imposing Templar Castle and the enormous Convent of Christ are what the small town of Tomar is known for. Mighty Templar fortress was build here in the 12th century. Then, the turbulent history of the Templar order led to it being dissolved and banished everywhere in Europe, however in Portugal it was in luck: it simply changed the name and slightly modified its symbol – the characteristic cross. It has become the Order of Christ and stayed here under its name. The Convent of Christ (enlisted by UNESCO) is a very huge structure with an infinite sequence of cloisters, each different architectonically.
Tomar is a typical small Portuguese town with whitewashed houses with yellow lining, cobbled streets and azulejos on many buildings.
For us, however, the biggest highlight of this visit was an incredible palace in which we stayed for the night… The out-of-time noblemen residence, belonging to the Count de Ferreira family for 8 generations. Absolutely amazing and unique experience! You can book your room in this castle-like place here.
8. Lisbon and its poetic atmosphere
Lisbon doesn’t need an introduction. Its fame as one of the world’s most beautiful capital cities has been known already for centuries. There is something very subtle about this city, poetic, melancholic like fado music. It might be because of the traces of its glorious past well visible in its historical buildings. Or it might be the warm pinkish light falling upon the city around the dusk. It could be due to the crumbling azulejos covering most of its buildings. And the splendid view at its wonderful 25th April Bridge. Or maybe it’s about the city’s calm and tranquil atmosphere, so unique in a big city, in the scenic boulevards along the Tejo River in beautiful Belem and modern Oriente districts.
The Portuguese capital has an extensive cultural offer, with many great museums (Azulejo Museum is a must!) and impressive monuments. And it has an irrestible charm, with its steep winding streets on its seven hills, and the breathtaking views from its miradouros – viewpoints towards the castle, the bridge and numerous churches everywhere.
9. Cascais and its luxury coast
Cascais is a historical – and upscale – sea resort close to Lisbon. It is the final and most famous part of the Lisbonese riviera (read more the riviera here).
This bustling little town is very pretty, but even better are its immediate surroundings. In particular, the most scenic part is the walk to the lighthouse Farol de Santa Marta (on the photo above) and Museum Condes de Castro Guimarães in a charming building and a park with peacocks, with lovely historical residences along the way.
And then the pathway leads further, along the ocean coast, towards Boca da Inferno (“Hell’s Mouth”), a rock opening struck by angry waves. Still further, there are many bars and restaurants with the ocean view, leading to the next lighthouse – Farol da Guia. Continuing north, you arrive at the westernmost point of Europe – Cabo da Roca with its lovely lighthouse.
10. Sintra and its magical palaces and secret gardens
Sintra is a place that you have to see to believe it. No words can describe how magical, mysterious and fairytale-like is its atmosphere, its wonderful royal and aristocratic palaces, and its huge luxurious gardens and parks full of surprising and playful buildings, faux caves and lakes and secret passages through wells, grottos and towers… It’s absolutely wonderful.
For me, Sintra is the most beautiful town of entire Portugal and one of the most spectacular wordlwide – there is nothing like it, anywhere. It’s a fantasy land, build for the pleasure of the rich and mighty in the past centuries. Its extremely beautiful palaces scattered on several hills are full of symbolism, mystery and romantic references.
The town centre is pretty, its narrow walled streets enchanting, and the Moorish castle on one of the hilltops is one of the most panoramic castles on Earth. All this magical town is extremely photogenic.
11. Algarve and its breathtaking beaches
The region of Algarve, encompassing the southern part of Portugal, is world-famous for its cliffs and amazing beaches. They are even better than what you imagine. One after another, they are amazing, spacious, natural and incredibly varied.
Some are enormous fields of sand long for kilometres, other have spectacular dunes, other a series of small coves flanked by high cliffs. The colours of rocks differ from the Algarve’s most famous golden sandstone, to vividly orange, striped golden-and-red, to completely black and rugged rocks, or mildly shaped grey or brownish long promontories.
Many Portuguese beaches have extremely photogenic wooden passages or staircases leading to the beaches or viewpoints. There is one thing all these beaches have in common: they are so beautiful they will leave you speechless.
12. Sagres and its end-of-the-world lighthouses
Sagres is known as the furthest southern point of Portugal. It also gave the name to the nation’s most popular beer that you’ll see everywhere :)
Here, the Atlantic Ocean meets the Mediterranean Sea, which is visible in the much stronger waves and wind in the west, compared to much calmer sea in the south. There are two beautiful lighthouses to admire here, close enough to see one from another: the Cape St. Vincent and Sagres Point, the latter located in the vast area or the Fortress of Sagres occupying entire promontory. Both these capes are a great spot for a perfect sunset sinking in the ocean – a memorable spectacle.
13. Lagos and its beautiful cliffs
Lagos is lucky to have as many as 8 wonderful beaches at a walking distance from the town centre! They are far better than we expected, especially Praia do Camilo (on the photo above) and Praia da Dona Ana, with their lovely golden rocks and hidden passages in the holes and grottos leading to further beaches and coves. Spectacular!
On top of that, Lagos offers also a breathtakingly beautiful walking routes over wooden passages that lead through cliffs to the Punta de Piedade lighthouse, the cave with the same name seen high from above, and several viewpoints. The town itself is a typical touristy sea resort with lively nightlife, a fortress and several monuments.
14. Faro and its fascinating lagoon islands
The unique natural landscape surrounding Faro makes it definitely one of the best places to visit in Portugal. Faro is flanked by a vast lagoon of the beautiful Rio Formosa river, forming four natural islands lined with idyllic beaches. The lagoon is a natural reserve with an impressive number of wild birds and crustaceans living in the area, which you can observe on tours along the lagoon.
The beaches are endlessly long and wide, giving you a sense of freedom and silence in which you hear only the sea waves. And… occassional airplanes, as Faro has the airport probably closest to the city centre than any other airport, so you see the planes landing and taking off right above you!
Faro is a refined town with a pleasant old centre, with cobbled streets decorated with patterns of fish, waves and emblems. Its best part, however, is the amazing cathedral. It gives you an overview of the Portuguese classic art: the church walls are tiled with traditional azulejos of various patterns, and the chapels are filled with masterfully carved Baroque wooden figures. It’s one of the most impressive churches we have seen in Portugal. The cathedral tower offers a surprising view on the surrounding wetlands and the lagoon.
Other best places to visit in Portugal
There are many other best places to visit in Portugal; in this amazing country there is abudance of beauty and cultural heritage. We will propose more towns and villages in the more detailed guides to the north, centre and south of Portugal.
Have you been to Portugal? What would you add here? Do you have any comments? Write them below!