The best independent guide to Portugal
The best independent guide to Portugal
Portugal is a fascinating and varied country, with vibrant cities, glorious beaches and wonderful climate. Geographically, Portugal may only be small but there is much diversity between it’s landscapes, cultures and peoples
This is a country dominated by the sea both historically and culturally. There are the magnificent seafaring cities of Lisbon and Porto, the lively beach resorts of the Algarve and the traditional fishing towns of the Atlantic coastline.
The interior of Portugal is as equally varied, from the abundant wine-growing region of the Douro through to the arid hills of the Alentejo. Here ancient fortified towns are set within stunning natural scenery, and there are whole regions virtually undiscovered by modern tourism.
Portugal is a wonderful destination for your holiday and this guide will detail our top 10 favourite places to visit.
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Viana do Castelo is barely known by tourists, but there is a lot to discover, with a delightful historic centre, a busy working port and a hospitable people. During your visit you can take enjoyable day trips to pretty Ponte de Lima and the northern border town of Valença.
Our opinion: If you wish to escape the summertime tourist masses then head to the far north of Portugal.
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Nazaré is famed for its colossal wintertime (Nov-Jan) waves, which can reach as high as 30m, and attract daredevil surfers.
In the summer, Nazaré has a lively holiday atmosphere, but still retains its Portuguese character. While on holiday to Nazaré you could take day trips to the Gothic monastery at Alcobaça, the historical town of Batalha or the fishing town of Peniche.
Our Opinion: There is no need to head to the Algarve when there are such beautiful beaches near Nazaré and along the Costa de Prata.
Related articles: Nazaré introduction – Batalha introduction – Peniche guide
Guimarães is regarded as the historic birthplace of Portugal, being where the first king of Portugal (Afonso I) was born and where the fledgling country was established in 1128.
This extensive history is reflected in the varied monuments and sights contained within the delightful cobbled streets of central Guimarães. There is an ancient castle, a medieval palace, a Gothic monastery and pretty streets filled with traditional houses - Guimarães is a joy to explore. To the south of the city is Penha hill, where there are scenic hiking trails and wonderful viewpoints.
Guimarães is a charming, small city which can be easily visited as a day trip from Porto.
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Sintra is set amidst the pine-covered hills of the Serra de Sintra, and hidden within the region are wondrous palaces and extravagant mansions. The Sintra hills tend to have a slightly cooler climate than Lisbon and historically the town was the summer retreat for the Portuguese nobility.
Found within Sintra is a medieval palace, the ruins of a Moorish castle, numerous grand villas and the Pena Palace, one of the most beautiful buildings in Portugal. Sintra is regarded as the best day trip from Lisbon, and is connected to Lisbon by a direct railway.
Our opinion: We adore Sintra, but the town has succumbed to over-tourism; it’s not fun to wait for an hour for the tourist bus or standing in the endless ticket queues. If there were fewer tourists, it would be at number two in our list.
Related articles: Sintra introduction – Day trip to Sintra
When you mention “Vila Nova de Milfontes” to the Portuguese they generally responded with “wow” or “beautiful”, and this is from a people who are accustomed to their stunning coastlines.
Vila Nova de Milfontes is at the heart of the wild and rugged Alentejo coastline, a region of powerful seas, windswept landscapes and vast beaches. This is a destination if you love the raw beauty of nature or are an outdoors person, enjoying activities such as hiking, cycling or surfing.
The Portuguese love Vila Nova de Milfontes, and during their summer holidays (mid-July and August), it is transformed from a peaceful village into a bustling and lively resort. Outside of the summer season, it is relaxing and calm.
Our opinion: : If you have a car and the time, go and explore the Alentejo coastline.
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Lagos is one of the finest holiday destinations on the Algarve coastline, and combines a vibrant city and glorious beaches.
Lagos is on the picturesque western Algarve, a coastline formed of towering sandstone cliffs, vast expanses of golden sands and hidden cove beaches. These beaches near Lagos, such as the Praia Dona Ana, are considered as some of the best in the country, while south of Lagos is the beautiful Ponte da Piedade headland.
Lagos is a bustling city with a large selection of restaurants, bars and numerous interesting tourist attractions. The city is a great destination from which to explore the western Algarve and popular day trips include Sagres, Portimão and Silves.
Related articles: Lagos introduction – 1 week in Lagos – Lagos’ beaches
Porto is the unassuming second city of Portugal, which through its varied wealth of sights and activities has recently been discovered by main-stream tourism.
For a longer stay, there are enjoyable day trips to Guimarães (see number 8), Braga or Lamego, and in the summer there are beaches at Matosinhos, Vila do Conde or Povoa de Varzim.
Our opinion: Porto is a great destination for a city break in the summertime. While many of southern Europe’s cities struggle with summertime over-tourism, Porto is calm, offers empty beaches and queues for tourist attractions are unheard of.
Related articles: Porto introduction – 1 week in Porto
Evora is at the heart of the arid Alentejo region and is one of the most culturally rich cities of Portugal. Evora was once an important trading town and religious centre, and this extensive history is reflected by the varied sights of the city.
Evora is famed for its beautifully preserved Roman Temple, gothic cathedral and creepy Bone Chapel, all set within a characterful historic centre. Evora operates at a slow pace, brought about by the intensely hot summers, but it is a young city with a large university and student population.
Evora is the ideal base from which to explore the Alentejo region, with day trips to Elvas, Estremoz and Evoramonte.
Advice: A car is needed to get the most from the Alentejo region
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The beaches of Tavira lie within the protected coastline of the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa, and are some of the finest pristine beaches in the entire Algarve. Tavira has a rich fishing heritage and this can be savoured by the delicious fish-based regional cuisines, served up in the numerous family restaurants within the historic centre.
Our opinion: For a relaxed and authentic Portuguese holiday destination, there is no better choice than Tavira.
Related articles: Tavira introduction – Tavira’s beaches – 1 week in Tavira
Lisbon is one of the world’s greatest capital cities, and has to be the first place you visit in Portugal.
It is a city which has it all for tourists: history, nightlife, culture and most importantly, fun. Lisbon is a vibrant and diverse city, which is forward-thinking and liberal, but has not forgotten its history and past.
The city is a joy to explore with grand plazas leading to narrow cobbled streets that are dissected by the quaint tram network. Lisbon has so many varied districts, each one proud of its own unique history and architectural styles. There is the ancient Alfama district, the grand plazas of Baixa or the seafaring history of Belem.
To top Lisbon as a destination, there are glorious beaches only a short train ride away, meaning that a holiday to Lisbon can both be a beach holiday and city break. Lisbon is a destination for all tourist types be that from families, young couples through to the more mature traveller.
Our opinion: Lisbon is simply an outstanding holiday destination, which all visitors fall in love with.
Related articles: Lisbon introduction – top 10 sights and activities in Lisbon - 3 days in Lisbon