Portugal is one of those one-size-fits-all destinations. Packed your dancing shoes? Nightlife is legendary in the country’s major cities. Hiking boots more your style? You can ramble between sleepy villages in the country’s national park. Hoping to exclusively wear beach sandals for your entire trip? No problem: there’s 830km of coastline to wander along.
But what about the traveller who wants a little bit of everything: city thrills, coastal chills and their nature fill? If you have the luxury of time to spare (and some versatile footwear), check out these 10 essential spots to visit in Portugal.
Lisbon is an ideal city for night owls © rfranca / Shutterstock
Seven cinematic hillsides overlooking the Rio Tejo cradle Lisbon’s postcard-perfect panorama of cobbled alleyways, ancient ruins and white-domed cathedrals – a captivating scene crafted over centuries. The Portuguese capital boasts galleries to browse (including the awesome Museu Coleção Berardo, home to Hockney, Lichtenstein, Warhol and Pollock originals), castles to explore (hilltop Castelo de São Jorge chief among them) and more pastel de nata (custard tart) spots than even the sweetest-toothed visitor could wish to sample in a single trip. But Lisbon’s trump card is its nightlife, with a mix of old-school drinking dens, brassy jazz clubs and open-all-night clubs that come to life once the sun goes down.
Palácio Nacional da Pena looms over the town of Sintra © Sean Pavone / Shutterstock
Less than an hour by train from the capital, Sintra feels like another world. Resembling an illustration from a fairy tale, it is sprinkled with stone-walled taverns and has a whitewashed palace looming over it. Forested hillsides form the backdrop to the village’s storybook setting, with imposing castles, mystical gardens, strange mansions and centuries-old monasteries hidden among the woodlands. The fog that sweeps in by night adds another layer of mystery, and cool evenings are best spent fireside in one of Sintra’s many charming B&Bs.
Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela
Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela encompass Portugal’s highest mountains www.fredconcha.com / Getty Images
Portugal’s highest mountains blend rugged scenery, outdoor adventure and vanishing traditional ways. At Torre, the country’s highest point (artificially pushed up to 2000m by the addition of a not-so-subtle stone monument!), you can slalom down Portugal’s only ski slope. Hikers can choose from a network of high-country trails with stupendous vistas. Oh, and did we mention the furry sheepdog puppies that frolic by the roadside? You’ll long to take one home. The region is also home to fascinating mountain villages that make good bases for outdoor adventures.
It would be hard to dream up a more romantic city than Portugal’s second largest. Laced with narrow pedestrian laneways, Porto is blessed with baroque churches, epic theatres and sprawling plazas. Its Ribeira district – a Unesco World Heritage Site – is a short walk across a landmark bridge from centuries-old port wineries in Vila Nova de Gaia, where you can sip the world’s best port. Though some walls are crumbling, a sense of renewal – in the form of modern architecture, cosmopolitan restaurants, burgeoning nightlife and a vibrant arts scene – is palpable.
The historic centre of Évora is a Unesco World Heritage Site © Takashi Images / Shutterstock
The Queen of the Alentejo and one of Portugal’s most beautifully preserved medieval towns, Évora is an enchanting place to spend several days delving into the past. Inside the 14th-century walls, Évora’s narrow, winding lanes lead to striking architectural works including an elaborate medieval cathedral and cloisters, Roman ruins and a picturesque town square. Its historic and aesthetic virtues aside, Évora is also a lively university town, and its many attractive restaurants serve up some excellent, hearty Alentejan cuisine.
Praia da Falésia is one of the many popular stretches of sand lining the Algarve © Eloy Rodriguez / Getty Images
Sunseekers have much to celebrate when it comes to beaches. Along Portugal’s south coast, the Algarve is home to a wildly varied coastline. There are sandy islands reachable only by boat, dramatic cliff-backed shores, rugged rarely visited beaches and people-packed sands near buzzing nightlife. Days are spent playing in the waves, taking long oceanfront strolls and surfing memorable breaks. For endless days of sun and refreshing ocean temperatures, come in summer; but to escape the crowds, plan a low-season visit, when prices dive and crowds disperse.
Coimbra University is one of the oldest universities in Europe © Tupungato / Shutterstock
Portugal’s atmospheric college town, Coimbra rises steeply from the Rio Mondego to a medieval quarter housing one of Europe’s oldest universities. Students roam the narrow streets clad in black capes, while strolling fado musicians give free concerts beneath the Moorish town gate or under the stained-glass windows of Café Santa Cruz. Kids can keep busy at Portugal dos Pequenitos, a theme park with miniature versions of Portuguese monuments; grown-ups will appreciate the upper town’s student-driven nightlife and the medieval lanes of the steeply stacked historic centre.
The town of Óbidos is extra lively during one of its many festivals © StockPhotosArt / Shutterstock
Wandering through the tangle of ancient streets and whitewashed houses of Óbidos is enchanting at any time of year, but come during one of its festivals and you’ll be in for a special treat. Whether attending a jousting match or climbing the castle walls at the medieval fair, searching for the next Pavarotti at the Festival de Ópera or delving into the written world at Folio – Portugal’s newest international literature festival – you couldn’t ask for a better backdrop.
Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês
Dramatic peaks, meandering streams and rolling hillsides await in Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês © Jorisvo / Getty Images
The vast, rugged wilderness of Portugal’s northernmost park is home to dramatic peaks, meandering streams and rolling hillsides covered with wildflowers. Its age-old stone villages seem lost in time and, in remote areas, wolves still roam. As always, the best way to feel nature’s power is on foot along one of more than a dozen hiking trails. Some scale peaks, a few link to old Roman roads, others lead to castle ruins or waterfalls. After a long hike, you can recharge in refreshing swimming holes or steamy thermal springs.
Escadaria do Bom Jesus do Monte is a highlight of Braga © Lev Levin / Shutterstock
Portugal’s third-largest city enjoys terrific restaurants, a vibrant university and raucous festivals, but when it comes to historic sites it is unparalleled in Portugal. Here’s the remarkable 12th-century cathedral, there’s a 14th-century church. Braga has not one but two sets of Roman ruins, countless 17th-century plazas and an 18th-century palace turned museum. Then there’s that splendid baroque staircase: Escadaria do Bom Jesus do Monte, the target of penitent pilgrims who come to make offerings at altars on the way to the mountaintop throughout the year.