Around 16 million holidaymakers each year can’t be wrong as they pour into Portugal from all over Europe; whether they are cruise passengers, avid sightseers here to check out the palaces and cathedrals, golfers or sun-worshippers both heading to the tawdry delights of the Algarve. And there are so many beautiful towns and regions it’s hard to pick ten most beautiful places in Portugal – here are my personal favorites.
You have to visit Lisbon. This gorgeous pint-sized city is simply one of the most beautiful and atmospheric capital cities in Europe. It is a charming and quaintly laid-back place of steep cobbled hills, tiled sidewalks and diverse districts such as the Bairro Alto for buzzing nightlife, ancient Alfama for a tangle of narrow streets and almost Arabic atmosphere and the burgeoning CBD of Baixa.
Despite the hills, Lisbon is easily small enough to navigate on foot, with plenty of museums and galleries to stop off in and just as many pastry shops and pavement cafés to relax in. One way to get your bearings in Lisbon is to take a tour on the famous Tram 28, which departs from Martim Moniz and trundles through cobbled streets and pretty piazzas past the Romanesque cathedral to the labyrinthine streets of Moorish Alfama. The route ends at Calhariz, with views across the Tagus River.
Lisbon wears its long history with pride and its best-loved monument is the ornate Belém Tower, which was built in 1519 and was once a military prison. It stands guard on the banks of the River Tagus and there’s nothing more romantic than an evening walk along the riverbank as the sun goes down. But Lisbon is not all about history. There are plenty of edgy contemporary buildings and museums, and the modern heart of the city beats east of Belém in the Parque das Nacoes, designed for the 100th World Expo in 1998. Now resembling a mini-Dubai, the rebuilding of the city’s waterfront was one of the biggest redevelopment projects ever undertaken in Europe and it includes a metro station, aquarium, marina and water-gardens. Cable cars run over the park and there are awesome views of the Vasco da Gama Bridge, spanning the Tagus River.
UNESCO World Heritage Site of Sintra
At 40 minutes by train from Lisbon, the exotic royal palaces of UNESCO World Heritage-listed Sintra make a great day trip from the Portuguese capital. With Disney-style castles and palaces perched on the hilltops, the fountain-strewn town is a glorious clash of architectural styles. Sintra’s red-roofed, white-washed National Palace stands in the town’s main square and is topped with two bulbous chimneys that look like mini oast houses. Dating from the 14th century, the interior is bedecked with one of the world’s most important collections of azulejos tiles in a series of increasingly over-the-top apartments ornamented with paneled walls and gilded ceilings.
Even more extraordinary is the Pena Palace, a colorful mock-medieval edifice dating from the 1840s and sitting high above the town. The palace is encrusted with drawbridges, turrets, ramparts and domes, and the interior crammed with priceless artwork and porcelain. The richly adorned salons are decorated in a variety of styles from Edwardian to Moorish.
Possibly the prettiest town in Portugal, medieval Óbidos is tucked inside fortified walls; a gleaming white-washed spider’s web of alleyways lined with squat houses, all adorned with flower-smothered balconies, vivid blue azulejo tiles and Gothic doorways. At its heart is the cobbled Praça de Santa Maria, home to a cluster of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque churches; this charming mishmash of architectural styles is best seen from the defense walls encircling the village. Above all this stands the austere, crenellated façade of the 12th-century castle; although it is now a pousada (state-owned hotel), the terraces and gardens are still open to the public for panoramic views across the town and surrounding hills.
Évora and the Plains of Alentejo
The fertile, undulating plains of Alentejo stretch in a swathe across southern Portugal and are fast acquiring fame for producing excellent full-bodied red wines. The beautifully preserved ‘museum-city’ of Évora lies at the heart of the region and, like Sintra, has been classed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. When you get there, you’ll understand why. At its center is some of the finest architecture in Portugal, starting with the 2,000-year-old colonnaded ruins of the Templo de Diana, a relic of Roman occupation. The massive flamboyant 13th-century Gothic cathedral offers up a particularly beautiful Baroque interior of striped marble and vies for attention with a cluster of medieval palaces. Numerous Gothic churches, Renaissance fountains, Baroque townhouses, liberal usage of azulejos tiles, and the vast arched spans of the aqueduct built in 1537 all represent Portugal at its most powerful between the 16th and 18th centuries. Most intriguing of all Évora’s attractions is the sinister crypt at Capela da Ossos in the church of St Francis, which is entirely decorated with bones from 5,000 skeletons.
Secrets of the Algarve
Down on the south coast, the Algarve is Portugal’s foremost holiday destination; it’s not easy to disregard the brash modern resorts and numerous golf courses for the pretty whitewashed hill villages and historic towns but if you know where to look there’s beauty aplenty in this region. The Algarve capital of Faro still has a fine medieval heart but the undoubted star of the show is lovely Tavira, a town on the eastern extremity of the Algarve. Straddled across the River Gilão, it glows with color – gleaming white houses; deep red pantile roofs; blue azulejos tiles; a castle surrounded by gardens ablaze with color and a melee of Gothic churches and Baroque palaces. The Algarve also offers some of the most beautiful beaches in Portugal; search out Praia da Marinha near Lagoa for its spectacular limestone caves, eroded arches and spikey rock pyramids as well as its soft, golden sand and limpid turquoise sea.
Further north of Lisbon and the main city in the wilds of the wine-growing Douro Valley region, vibrant Porto is yet another Portuguese UNESCO World Heritage Site. It sprawls in a photogenic heap along the Douro River and is connected to its twin town, Vila Nova de Gaia, by six elegant bridges. Multi-hued town houses adorned with lacy wrought-iron balconies line the riverside promenade Cais de Gaia and the ancient heart of the city straggles chaotically upwards to colorful, buzzing Ribeira, once run down and now a tangle of streets buzzing with life and crammed with castles, churches smothered in azulejos tiles, bars and restaurants. Porto also has its origins in Roman times, when it was a western outpost of the Empire; its long history is reflected in the happy jumble of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque architecture. It’s also the home of port wine, with several world-famous bodegas – Sandeman and Taylor’s to name but two – open for tastings over the River Douro in Vila Nova de Gaia. This city is at its most romantic and evocative after dark, when the river twinkles with millions of lights and the melancholic strains of Porto’s distinctive fado seep under doorways along every cobbled street.
From Porto head inland to explore the terraced vineyards and steep ravines of the Douro Valley in all its captivating and raw beauty. This is the oldest wine-producing region in the world, bisected by the meandering River Douro on its leisurely way from Spain to the Atlantic. Vines smother the hillsides in neat rows and there is a liberal sprinkling of quintas – wine estates – many of which offer tastings of world-class ports and fruity red wines. Another famous product of the region is the almond and the Douro is possibly at its most beautiful in mid February when the almond blossom appears; for almost a month the hillsides are coated with an explosion of soft pinks and white flowers.
Like Porto, the lovely city of Braga was founded as an outpost of the Roman Empire more than 2,00 years ago, and today most of its attractions are centered on the arcaded, fountain-filled Praça da Republica, which is crammed with ornate Baroque churches. The cathedral was built in the late 11th century and is Portugal’s oldest; built in a confusion of architectural styles from Romanesque through Gothic to Baroque. Inside the King’s Chapel contains the tomb of Henry of Burgundy, who fathered the first king of Portugal in the 12th century. Other Braga highlights include the 14th-century Archbishop’s Palace, Santa Barbara Gardens, and the Rococo Casa do Raio, which is covered in traditional blue Portuguese azulejos tiles.
Volcanic Porto Moniz, Madeira
Cute little Porto Moniz is a remote spot tucked away in the north-western corner of Madeira and included here for its beautiful series of natural rock pools. Reached from Madeira’s capital Funchal by a scenic road trip, Porto Moniz’s natural swimming pools are hidden among the black volcanic rocks at the base of the cliffs along the shoreline. They make safe bathing as they are protected from the strong currents of the Atlantic by a curved spit of land punctuated and the islet of Ilhéu Mole. The old village of Porto Moniz itself sits high on a hillside and tumbles down towards the seafront; in summer it is inundated with swimmers attracted by the natural pools among the stumps of lava rock. Boat trips to spot whales and dolphins in the coastal waters south of Porto Moniz run throughout the year; sperm whales are often sighted between March and September, pilot whales between November and March.
Lush Beauty of the Azores
Floating in the middle of the Atlantic, the Azores is an archipelago of nine islands blessed with a generous supply of natural beauty, from crater lakes to hot springs, lush waterfalls, volcanoes and virgin forest. Warmed by the Gulf Stream, the remote waters around the archipelago teem with fish and the Azores are a center of snorkeling and scuba diving as well as dolphin, turtle and sperm whale spotting between May and August. The sea close to the coast is also warmed by thermal springs; head to Ponta da Ferraria on São Miguel for the strange experience of swimming in seas heated to 28°C. There are also steaming hot springs at Furnas on São Miguel and at Carapacho on Graciosa. Hiking trails are plentiful throughout the islands, from easy strolls along undulating coastal paths to trekking the five-hour strenuous route up volcanic Mount Pico, which – at 7,713 ft (2,351 m) – is the highest mountain in Portugal.