Introduction – Top 10 Portugal – 1 Week Ideas – Weekend in Portugal – Airports – Lisbon to Porto Tours - Best Beaches
Top 10 Portugal; The best towns and cities of Portugal
Portugal is a fascinating and varied country, with breath-taking scenery, compelling history and a glorious climate. Geographically, Portugal may only be a small country, but it boasts a compelling diversity between it’s regions and towns.
Portugal is a country dominated by the sea, and this varied coastline is where the major cities tend to be situated. Along the coast, traditional fishing villages overlook pristine beaches, while in the cities, historic districts coexist with ultra-modern.
The interior of Portugal is as equally varied, from the abundant wine growing regions of the Douro through to the arid hills of the Alentejo. Here are found traditional villages, stunning scenery and a proud heritage and history.
Not only is there a lot to see, Portugal has progressive attitudes with liberal thinking, but still holds dear its heritage and history. Portugal is a wonderful holiday destination and this guide will detail our favourite top 10 places to visit.
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Our top ten place to visit in Portugal
10) Viana do Castelo
This top 10 list begins with one of the most overlooked regions of Portugal, the far north. Viana do Castelo is the largest city of this region, and is a distinctive hard-working city, which built its fortunes with shipbuilding.
The instantly recognisable tourist attraction is the Santuário de Santa Luzia chapel, standing high above the city, and from this vantage point, the dramatic Costa Verde coastline can be seen extending both north and south. This is a wild and rugged coastline, of beautiful beaches and jagged cliffs.
Moored within the docks is the fascination Gil Eannes hospital ship and behind the docks is a delightful historic centre, barely known by tourism. During a holiday, day trips could include pretty Ponte de Lima and the northern border town of Valença.
Our opinion: If you wish to escape the summertime masses head to the far north of Portugal.
Related articles: Viana do Castelo
Nazare is famed for its colossal wintertime (Nov-Jan) waves, which can reach as high as 30m (98ft) and attracts daredevil surfers. Nazare has much more to offer than extreme surfing, and is one of Portugal’s best resort (beach) towns.
Nazare boasts a vast sand beach, a characterful town and a rich fishing heritage. Above Nazare is the Sitio headland, with its delightful historic centre and lighthouse at the tip of the headland. This location is where the currents and waves coalesce to create the world’s highest surfing waves, which break/crash onto the Praia do Norte beach.
During the summer, Nazare has a lively and social atmosphere, but it always maintains its Portuguese and welcoming atmosphere. During a holiday to Nazare you could take day trips to the Gothic monastery in Alcobaça or the historically important town of Batalha.
Our Opinion: Why head to the Algarve when there are such beautiful beaches along the Costa de Prata (Silver Coast)?
Related articles: Nazare introduction – Batalha introduction
No 8) Guimarães
Guimarães is regarded as the historic birthplace of Portugal, being the birthplace of the first king of Portugal (Afonso I) and was where the fledgling country was established in 1128.
This extensive history is captured in the delightful cobbled streets and plazas of central Guimarães, which is a joy to explore. There is an ancient castle, a medieval palace, and some of the prettiest plazas in Portugal. To the south of the city is Penha hill, and a cable car travels to the summit, where there are scenic hiking trails and the wonderful viewpoints.
Guimarães is a charming and small city that can be easily visited as a day trip from Porto.
Related articles: Guimarães introduction
No 7) Sintra
Sintra is set amidst the pine-covered hills of the Serra de Sintra and this slightly cooler climate convinced the Portuguese nobility to create their summer retreat within the town. The nobility constructed lavish palaces, while the elite of Portugal who followed them constructed equal opulent residences.
Today these palaces and stately homes are open to the public and Sintra is considered as the best day trip from Lisbon. Most tourists to Sintra go for a set route and visit the gothic National Palace, the ruins of the Moors castle and the beautiful Pena Palace but there are sufficient sights for a second full day of sightseeing. Sintra is connected to Lisbon by a direct railway and is easily accessible for all tourists.
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
No 6) Vila Nova de Milfontes
When you say “Vila Nova de Milfontes” to the Portuguese they generally responded with “wow/beautiful”, and this is from a people who are used to their magnificent coastlines.
Vila Nova de Milfontes is at the centre (heart) of the wild and rugged Alentejo coastline, a coastline of powerful seas, windswept landscapes and vast beaches. This is a destination if you love the raw beauty of nature and are an outdoors person, enjoying activities such as, hiking, cycling or surfing.
The Portuguese adore Vila Nova de Milfontes, and during their short summer holidays (mid-July and August), it is transformed into bustling and lively resort. Outside of this season, it is a peaceful and calm destination.
Our opinion: If you have a car and the time, go and explore the Alentejo coastline.
Related articles: Vila Nova de Milfontes introduction
No 5) Lagos
Lagos is the finest resort of the Algarve coastline, as it blends a lively and social city around a historic centre, which has not compromised to mass tourism. Lagos provides a selection of wonderful beaches, with the Dona Ana beach considered the most picturesque in all Portugal. Further along the coast are the Ponte da Piedade cliffs, a series of highly weathered sandstone cliffs that are best explored by boat.
The centre of Lagos reflects the varied history of the city, with large sections of the ancient city walls and the small fort guards the estuary to the harbour. Lagos is a great destination from which to explore the western edge of the Algarve and day trips include Sagres, Portimão and Silves.
Lagos has a more sophisticated and family-friendly atmosphere than its resort neighbour of Praia de Rocha, which is the destination to head to for nightlife and parties.
Related articles: Lagos introduction – 1 week in Lagos – Lagos’ beaches
No 4) Porto
Porto is the charming and fascinating capital of the north, which is famed for the sweet alcoholic drink of Port. This drink is intertwined in the fortunes and history of Porto and is still stored in the vast cellars which line the banks of the Douro River. The port tasting tours are an enjoyable way to become connoisseurs of the drink, which can be savoured in the numerous bars that extend along the scenic riverfront.
Porto offers beautiful churches, historic buildings and leisurely cruises along the river. For longer holidays to Porto, there are pretty beaches and interesting day trips, all easily reached by train.
Related articles: Porto introduction – 1 week in Porto
No 3) Evora
Found at the centre of the arid Alentejo region is one of the most historic cities in Portugal. It Evora was once an important trading town and religious centre, and this extensive history is reflected by the varied sights of the city.
The city is famed for its beautiful preserved Roman Temple and creepy bone chapel. Evora operates at a slow pace, brought about by the intensely hot summers but has a young university population and is no sleepy relic. For visitors with a rental car Evora makes for a good base from which to explore the entire of the Alentejo region.
Related articles: Evora introduction
No 2) Tavira
Tavira expertly combines history, heritage, and glorious beaches to create one of the best holiday destinations in Portugal. While many towns of southern Portugal have succumbed to mass tourism, Tavira has barely altered, retaining its distinctive character and abundance of Portuguese charm.
Tavira lies on the quieter eastern Algarve and was an import Moorish (9th century) trading town and major port during the 14th century. This varied history is all played out along the cobbled streets and small plazas, where ancient town defensives stand next to traditional tiled villas.
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 is reflected in 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
No 1) Lisbon
Lisbon is one of the greatest capital cities in the world, 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 is fun. Lisbon is a vibrant and diverse city, which is forward thinking and liberal, but has not forgotten its heritage 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 – 3 days in Lisbon – 1-week Lisbon