Most years, Portugal is one of the UK’s top summer destinations in Europe, but since the UK Government moved it from its green list to amber, visiting the country that stretches along the Atlantic coast of the Iberian peninsula just got a lot harder. But we can still dream! Whether you want to dive into culture, explore natural beauty or simply find a great beach and are looking for inspiration, here’s our guide to three of Portugal’s best towns.
Northern Portugal is often ignored in favour of the more popular destinations in the south, but Porto is reason enough to break the trend. As the name suggests, this is a port city, and a very important one, because this is where the Douro River meets the Atlantic. One of the best things to do is to wander through the districts, sampling the unique atmosphere each area offers. Reading our guide to the most charming neighbourhoods in Porto is a good place to start. This is also the home of port wine, perhaps the most famous Portuguese export – other than Cristiano Ronaldo, of course. So sample the local tipple, or even head out of the city to find a nearby vineyard.
Lisbon and Sintra
Lisbon is one of the coolest cities in Europe. It has all the excitement of a major capital but there’s something about the sea air, red-tiled cityscapes and cultural spots that gives the City of Seven Hills a laid-back vibe. And yet there is a lot to do here, from towering architectural landmarks to natural adventures on the city outskirts, and not to mention the outstanding nightlife, which rivals any capital on the continent.
Meanwhile just 30 minutes away by car – or up to an hour on public transport – is the enchanting town of Sintra. Set amid the Sintra Mountains and the Sintra-Cascais Natural Park, this resort town is full of extraordinary buildings, dramatic forest scenery and pristine beaches – which are far quieter than the popular sands in the south. Sintra makes a superb day trip from Lisbon but, if you like what you see, there are plenty of excellent hotels ready to make Sintra your home from home.
Perhaps the crowning glory of Portuguese holiday destinations is the famous southern coast, the Algarve. The whole region is lined with some of the best beaches in Europe, as well as many fantastic hotels, a vibrant food scene, and some of the most stunning natural landmarks in the country. There are many lovely spots to choose from along the Algarve. There’s the charming capital, Faro, and the tourist-heavy town of Albufeira, but we recommend digging a little deeper and finding a quieter spot to make your own. Our guide to the must-visit towns in the Algarve is a good place to start.
Covid travel rules and guidelines
When the UK Government first released its initial set of green-listed countries on May 17, Portugal stood out as the pick of the bunch, but it was downgraded from green to amber status on June 3 with effect from June 8, which means you have to self-isolate when you come home. Check the Government website as to the latest requirements.
The country has been in a strict lockdown since the start of 2021 and at the beginning of May entered the final stage of its lockdown easing plan. All arrivals in Portugal must fill in a passenger locator form and provide a negative test result from within the past 72 hours or proof of a full vaccine dosage.
Things to do in Portugal
Portugal caters for travellers of all kinds. The richness of the coastal beauty and expansive natural parks are matched by the history, culture, food and nightlife that lies within the cities. We have extensive guides on the best things to do in Lisbon, Porto, Sintra and the Algarve, and you can also search for bookable experiences and activities across Portugal, but for now we’ve picked out three of the best attractions this country has to offer. Meanwhile, if you’re interested in discovering where Portugal’s most stunning beaches lie – there are a lot to choose from – then be sure to check out our hand-picked selection.
See the ‘azulejos’ of São Lourenço Church
It’s no secret that the Algarve is full of charming seaside towns and pristine beaches, but this part of Portugal also has great history, which is best explored through the architectural landmarks. Perhaps the most special is São Lourenço church, a 17th-century baroque building in the town of Almancil. The outside looks like many other churches in the area, but step inside and you’ll see what makes this place so special. The interior is decorated with beautiful blue ceramic tiles known as azulejos, a staple of Portuguese culture, and this might just be the best spot in the country to see this glorious decorative style.
Explore the architectural landmarks of Sintra
Sintra looks like it’s been plucked from a fairytale. And the most enchanting element of the town is the multicoloured Pena Palace, sat dramatically atop a forested mountain peak. But there are many other stunning examples of architecture scattered across Sintra. Once you’ve scaled the heights of Pena Palace, head to Quinta da Regaleira, a 20th-century gothic masterpiece, before making time for the striking Monserrate Palace. And don’t forget to visit the medieval Castle of the Moors, a Unesco World Heritage site dating back to the eighth century.
Tour the magical bookshop Livraria Lello
Portugal is a haven for lovers of libraries and bookstores. Lisbon is home to the Bertrand Bookshop, the oldest bookstore in the world, but our favourite is Livraria Lello in Porto. This place is more than 100 years old, and the magical interiors are said to have inspired JK Rowling, who lived in Porto in the early 1990s and frequently visited the store. One look at the wooden beams, ladders and staircases, stained-glass ceiling and wood carvings, and you’ll be left without doubt that Hogwarts itself, as well as Flourish and Blotts bookshop, was ever-so-slightly painted in the image of Livraria Lello.
Where to stay in Portugal
Wherever you choose to visit in Portugal, there is no shortage of excellent places to stay. We have a range of in-depth guides to help you find and book your dream hotel. Take a look at the best hotels in Lisbon, and the best boutique hotels in nearby Sintra. If you’re looking further north then try one of these great hotels in Porto. Or, if you want a glamorous retreat along the coast, have a look at these stunning luxury hotels in the Algarve. You can even handpick your own favourite by searching through all of our places to stay in Portugal. In the meantime, we’ve picked out three of the country’s best to give you a taste of what Portugal has to offer.
Bela Vista Hotel & Spa, Portimao, Algarve
This stunning hotel in Portimao, one of the bigger Algarve towns, stands on the cliffs overlooking Praia da Rocha beach. Rooms are boldly designed with chic décor that pop with vibrant colours, while many also offer ocean views. There is a top-of-the-range spa on site, which offers a range of relaxing treatments as well as access to a sauna, hammam and plunge pool. Alternatively you can chill out in the outdoor pool, with a bartender in sight, or use the hotel’s private beach access for sand and salty water.
The Yeatman Hotel, Porto
You’ll find some of the best views of Porto within the grounds of the Yeatman thanks to its hillside position on the south bank of the River Douro. You’ll be able to do so with a satisfied stomach, too, since the on-site restaurant, led by top chef Ricardo Costa, has two Michelin stars. Meanwhile, as you might expect from the home of port, wine is a big theme across the hotel. Your meal will be accompanied by some of the best wine in the country, while you can even explore the hotel cellars with a range of tastings and seminars. Even the spa is influenced by wine, using natural ingredients from vineyards in their products and treatments.
The Vintage Hotel & Spa, Lisbon
Looking to book in the capital? You’ll struggle to find anywhere as stylish, or comfortable, as the Vintage. The hotel is a celebration of Lisbon as a city, using local artists, craftspeople and businesses to bring the soothing design of the hotel to life. Authenticity is the most important word here, and you can feel at home in the Hangout – a communal space for hotel guests – as well as the restaurant, spa and gym. Most notable, however, is the beautiful rooftop bar, where you can take in gorgeous vistas of the city while sipping on a classic Portuguese cocktail.
Where to eat and drink in Portugal
Food is a big part of Portuguese life. So any visit here would be wasted if you don’t dive into the local cuisine. You’ll find a café on every corner with something delicious to eat, as well an awful lot of Michelin stars for a country this small. Below are three of the finest restaurants in Portugal, and you can read our beginner’s guide to drinking Portuguese wine to learn the best way to wash down that incredible food.
The Yeatman Gastronomic Restaurant, Porto
It speaks volumes about the quality of the Yeatman that one of our favourite restaurants in Portugal happens to be inside one of our favourite hotels. Ricardo Costa has been head chef here since the hotel opened in 2010, and his unique blend of traditional Portuguese flavours and contemporary cuisine has brought two Michelin stars to the hotel door. Paired with some of the best wine on the planet, the tasting menu is as full of flair as it is flavour.
Gourmet Natural, Algarve
The Algarve is the Michelin star capital of Portugal but there are plenty of slightly less pricey options to be found. This Uruguayan-inspired steakhouse in Almancil, around halfway between Faro and Albufeira, is one such example. Their South American style could easily be mistaken for classic Portuguese fare, focusing on high-quality meat and fish. Their beef comes from grass-fed cows that are never given antibiotics, hormones or growth promoters; that means you get a tastier cut as well as a healthier one. Set in a charming outdoor courtyard, with attentive staff and a great atmosphere, this place is magical on a warm summer night.
Midori, Penha Longa, Sintra
Japanese cooking with a Portuguese soul. That’s how the people at Midori describe chef Pedro Almeida’s unique cuisine, which takes Portuguese food and introduces it to cutting-edge Asian cooking techniques. The décor here reflects the cuisine. For example, you’ll be greeted by an impressive hand-painted mural symbolising the arrival of Portuguese sailors in Japan in 1543. Midori is the Japanese word for green and, when you look out the windows to see the Sintra Mountains that surround the restaurant, you’ll agree it’s a rather apt name.