If you're planning a western European vacation and want to add a unique destination, consider a stop in Portugal. With beautiful beaches, delicious cuisine, and citizens who welcome tourists with open arms, it's little wonder that Portugal is rapidly becoming a popular vacation destination. Located on the Iberian peninsula right next to Spain, Portugal is easy to access for American or European travelers and has a reputation for being a family-friendly destination. However, it still feels exotic and exciting, thanks to miles of sun-kissed coasts, cobblestone streets, and fairytale castles.
Lisbon, Portugal's capital, is one of the most popular destinations in the country thanks to its beautiful location on the water, sunny climate, and a charming combination of old and new attractions that provide an excellent introduction to Portugal's culture. Cobblestoned streets and colorful tile abound in the oldest part of the city, the Alfama, but not far away in the Bairro Alto, there's no shortage of modern restaurants and exciting nightlife. Enjoy the city's best views at São Jorge Castle, a Moorish stronghold dating from the 8th century, and don't miss the Gulbenkian Museum, which features an expansive art collection with pieces from both ancient cultures like the Egyptian dynasties and contemporary Art Nouveau works.
Just fifteen miles from Lisbon lies the beautiful town of Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1995 thanks to its "cultural landscape," which "represents a pioneering approach to Romantic landscaping" that greatly influenced other parts of Europe. Based on that description, it's no surprise that Sintra is a gorgeously landscaped hilltop down favored by Portuguese royalty and other luminaries over the years. Here, tourists can enjoy fantasy castles like the Castelo dos Mouros and the Palácio da Pena and lush tropical gardens that provide a pleasant change of pace from the bigger cities.
Located in the north of Portugal, Porto is like Lisbon's cooler younger sibling, with a little more edge and a little less polish. Known for its fun music festivals like Primavera Sound, held each June, Porto attracts music lovers from all over the world who come for their favorite acts but stay for Porto's romantic wine bars and its breathtaking riverfront. Harry Potter fans must visit the famous Livaria Lello bookshop, said to have inspired former Porto resident J.K. Rowling when she was dreaming up the Ollivander Wand Emporium.
On your trip across the Atlantic, make a stop in the Azores Islands. This amazing archipelago is part of Portugal, but just a short flight from the Eastern U.S. and only two hours from Lisbon. The Azores are a tropical paradise, with gorgeous flowers, tea plantations, and fields of sweet pineapple to greet visitors. Though the Azores are small, there's no shortage of activities. Popular pastimes include boating, kayaking, golfing, diving, and swimming, especially in the natural swimming pools formed by collapsed volcanic craters.
If you're into surfing, a visit to the small fishing village of Nazaréis, a Portuguese destination you won't want to miss. Thanks to its location on the Atlantic coast of Portugal, Nazaré boasts huge waves caused by an underwater trench. In 2016, Nazaré began hosting a Big Wave Championship each November. If you're an experienced surfer, join in the action or simply enjoy watching the daring seaside feats while enjoying ultra-fresh seafood and Nazaré's charming local culture.
Visit the Alentejo, a large region in southern Portugal, for the chance to become more intimate with the country's culture. Situated between the Rio Tejo and the northern mountains of the Algarve, the Alentejo comes alive with endless wheat fields, cork plantations, and the famous vineyards that make Portuguese wines some of the best in the world. Take a break from the crowds and tour the Alentejo at your own pace, stopping to explore Roman ruins or quiet beaches away from some of Portugal's busier attractions.
Travel about an hour and a half from Porto to reach Portugal's only natural park, Peneda-Gerês National Park, a hidden gem in the country's northwestern part. The park is often referred to as Gerês; the park is full of botanical surprises, including Portugal's only holly species and the violet Gerês lily, which blooms plentifully here. Observe ancient traditions which are preserved in small villages like Pitões das Júnias and Tourém. You may even encounter exciting wildlife like the roebuck, the Iberian wolf, and wild ponies. All of whom make their homes in this lush preserve.
The Algarve is one of the most popular spots for tourists from all over the world. With many of Portugal's most beautiful beaches and a comfortable climate all year long, it's easy to see why. Warm, dry weather provides endless sunny days for frolicking in the sand and exploring the rocky coastline. Unfortunately, these ideal temperatures can lead to some overcrowding during the busiest months of the year. However, it's still possible to find some peaceful spots in some of the smaller villages in the region. In addition to the beaches, the Algarve also offers many culinary delights thanks to eight Michelin-starred restaurants, including Vila Joya in Albufeira and São Gabriel in Almancil.
Travel back in time with a visit to Guimarães in northern Portugal. It features a wealth of well-preserved buildings dating from the Middle Ages. These structures helped to earn it a place on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2001. Examples include the 10th-century Guimarães Castle, which provides amazing views of the city from its hilltop location. Don't forget the Dukes of Bragança Palace, which was built in the early 1400s by the illegitimate son of a Portuguese king. There are also many medieval churches, including the granite-walled São Miguel do Castelo Church, which was built in the 13th century or possibly earlier.
Another UNESCO World Heritage site in Portugal is Évora. This town in central Portugal can trace its roots back more than 5,000 years. Start your day at the Évora museum to learn more about the town's past before exploring the sights in person. You can hike alongside medieval city walls and visit a Roman temple dating from the 1st century AD. Be ready to get the shivers in the Capela dos Ossos, a creepy chapel from the 16th century whose walls are studded with skulls and bones.
Lagos is a town in the wider Faro district. Like many other places in this remarkable country, Lagos is steeped in Portuguese history, including a dark period when it was a key slave trade destination. But the town's natural points of interest, such as the Ponta da Piedade coastal rock formations, are unique too. Amble along the riverside at Avenida dos Descobrimentos, and you'll find arts and crafts, a pedestrian bridge that takes you to the marina, and the Wax Museum of the Discoveries.
Faro is a municipality and a district in southern Portugal's Algarve region. The city's aesthetic is distinctly Portuguese, and its old town will charm you with a resilient history, cobblestone streets, and bursts of bright bougainvillea. Make a point to see the Capela dos Ossos made from the bones of hundreds of monks. And check out the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa if you're keen on cycling, kayaking, boating, or birdwatching in a beautiful lagoon system.
Portugal's best island and, arguably, the world's favorite island, Madeira, makes a big impression considering its small size. Although the shoreline laden with volcanic sand is pretty spectacular, this jewel of the Atlantic offers more than a sun-soaked beach holiday. Hiking enthusiasts flock here to walk the Levadas, a series of irrigation channels dating back to the 15th century. Madeira's laurel forests are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the wine region is famous too. Finally, the island is home to artisans, including wicker weavers and embroidery experts.
Ericeira is super popular with Lisboners for a good reason. The coastal town's name pays homage to sea urchins, and rightly so because Ericeira is a seafood paradise. Be sure to pack your swimwear and a healthy appetite. Ericeira is also an all-year surfer's hub for all skill levels and was designated a Save the Waves Coalition World Surfing Reserve in 2011. Check out the surfers and the incredible views from Miradouro Ribeira d'Ilhas.
If crenelated walls are your thing, you should definitely head to Óbidos for a short trip. The Moorish wall is smack dab in the middle of such picturesque surroundings that even amateur photographers can bless their camera reels. The town can feel quite touristy, but don't let that put you off. Immerse yourself in a slice of the past, especially at the annual Medieval Market. Follow it up with a round of golf or a spa session near the luxury castle Pousada.
This architectural masterpiece is another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Just a 20-minute trip from Lisbon, it's well worth a visit. The entire monastery is a masterpiece of Manueline architecture. Pay special attention to the lavishly decorated South Portal and the ornate cloisters. Beat the lines by booking a walking tour or visiting early in the morning while the crowds are still sparse.
Every year, more than half a million tourists visit the Balém tower. Once built as a defense against invaders, this iconic attraction is now a reminder of Portugal's golden age of discovery. The beautiful architecture and the marine backdrop make for a spectacular addition to any photo album or Instagram feed. If you have an hour or two to spare, take a walk inside the tower. Savor the opportunity to admire the breathtaking views from the Terrance and the King's Chamber.
Quinta da Regaleira is a bit different from other tourist hotspots in the country — it's got a bit of an air of mystery. It's the location of the infamous Initiation Well. To get in, you need to go through the deep spiral staircase whose entrance is disguised as a pile of rocks — eerie! One theory is that it was originally built to serve as a location for knights' initiations into the Templar Order. Others claim that it was used for secret ceremonies and rites of passage. Whether any of these mysterious theories seem to hold any ground, well, you'll have to decide for yourself. Don't worry about being spooked, however, as this location is quite popular, so you'll always be surrounded by other tourists. Phew!
This beautiful monument is located in close proximity to other key attractions in the city, the Jerónimos Monastery, and the Belém Tower. Because of that, most tourists only stop by to take a quick picture before moving on to their key stops for the day. Few take the time to climb up to the rooftop, however, which is a real shame as it presents one of the most spectacular views in Lisbon.
While Mafra National Palace boasts some absolutely stunning architecture, it's still one of the less touristy attractions in Portugal. Take advantage of its relatively low-key status and explore the ornate rooms without being overwhelmed by crowds. Pay special attention to the library, which is by far among the most beautiful in the world.