Twenty-seven million people couldn't be wrong. That's the number of visitors in Portugal in 2019. Tourist arrivals have gone up to 12% as more people discover the beauty of the place.
I could count my family as part of that statistic. Portugal, on our third visit, was as engaging as our first. In fact, more attractive as we came to spend a few days in one of its most photogenic cities, Porto. Just like many of the places in Portugal, the old-world charm is still there to enjoy.
Travel is very personal, and the places you like will differ even from the ones your husband likes. So, I will not be surprised if you have your list of the top holiday destinations in Portugal. You may share it in the Comments section. Meanwhile, here's mine:
Map of Portugal
It seems Portugal has the oldest city in the Western world, Lisbon. Portugal's capital city was once the center of exploration. Explorers came from here to discover distant lands, the price for the early Portuguese's courage and navigation skills. Under monarchs with a sense of adventure, the research on navigation was fundamental to the Portuguese's great success, matched only by the Dutch in Asia.
Lisbon was devastated on All Saints Day in 1755 by an earthquake with an intensity which reached 11. The damage was extreme, but the fury of rebuilding afterward changed the city's landscape as in other disasters.
Today, several neighborhoods claim the attention of tourists for the unique things they can offer. So, the choices are endless, and public transport is easy to use.
We enjoyed most in our exploration of the place is Alfama, where traces live on of Portugal's Muslim heritage. Belem is another favorite, primarily because of the maritime museum in the area. You will see there the power Portugal had in the seas at that period of history.
From Lisbon, you can easily make a day trip to Sintra. It is not far, and there are enough places to visit in a day. You can use public transportation as there are buses in Sintra that go to various attractions.
Set on the pine-studded hills of the Serra de Sintra, this place has cooler temperatures, and that attracted many royals to build palaces here with beautiful gardens that are now the major attractions in the area. As the riches from the indies poured in, Sintra and other cities on the list enjoyed the benefits.
The most alluring of the Palaces are the Quinta da Regaleira and the Pena Palace. I enjoyed walking in the Quinta gardens and visiting the Pena Palace. Perched on the top of a mountain in such a setting and with its multi-colored towers, one can't help but be in awe.
Don't miss a visit to Cabo da Roca, the most western point of mainland Europe and take a picture of the coastline and Cabo's charming lighthouse.
Obidos is the gift to the Queens by succeeding Kings so, it must be the most beautiful place in the kingdom, and Obidos was such. From Lisbon, you can make a day trip, and you will have enough time to visit the Palace and wander through the winding streets of this medieval walled city.
There are many restaurants to satisfy your food desire and stores to delight any shopping enthusiast. But, I suggest you go up to the Palace and eat in the restaurant there as the view is worth it. If you are staying the night, this is the place to be. You can try out the tower and imagine yourself as King at that time. The sampling of mosaics, many with a memory of the Moorish past, can make exquisite take-homes.
Porto has become one of the most favored destinations in Portugal, and after my visit, I am convinced that it must be on the bucket list of everyone going to Portugal. There is so much history to enjoy here, and it is within an easy walk of each other. But have good walking shoes as cobbled stones are some of the hardest to walk in.
Across Porto is Villa Nova de Gaia. Hop on one of those boats and cross over or walk through the Don Lluis bridge. On that side is one of the best views of Porto. But there is more than just the picture. There is another top-rated attraction in this part that brings people to cross over from Porto.
Along the shores of Vila Nova de Gaia are the port houses, and you can stop at some of these and enjoy a guided tour or a taste of some of the port offerings from Sandeman, Taylor Fladgate, and other famous Port houses.
The primary attraction in Aveiro is its canals. This city used to be a strategic port, but it lost that advantage because of the silts and the drying sea.
Along the canals are colorful boats called Moliceiros, which fishers used to gather seaweed to fertilize the area's sandy soil. With cheap fertilizers available nowadays, the ships found a more profitable use. They now ferry tourists in the canal, enjoying the pastel-colored houses that line many of the waterways.
To enjoy Aveiro, you don't have to take a boat tour. You can take a stroll on the walkways and visit some of the landmarks of the city. There's a Forum, a Museum, and the convent, Monastery of Jesus, where the canonized saint, Princess Joanna of Portugal, spent most of her years.
You can explore Rossio, where many Portuguese who emigrated to Brazil came back with much money and built beautiful houses. Some interesting ones are the Casa do Major Pessoa, the Art Nouveau Museum, and the Casa dos Ovos Moles.
Talking about Ovos Moles, this is a delicacy formerly made by the nuns in the convent from yolks of eggs offered by those who wish to get married. The egg yolks, cooked, are encased in the form of shells. When you're in Aveiro, you must try this and make sure you order the extraordinary range of fresh seafood, the catch of the day.
After spending a week in Lisbon, we visited Coimbra, Portugal's former capital, to understand why Portugal moved its capital. My husband wanted to stay in Hotel Quinta de las Lagrimas where his hero, the Duke of Wellington, stayed. It wasn't a long drive from Lisbon, and this hotel was not at all a disappointment. The upgrade to a room with a sitting area and a door to the garden was enjoyable.
It's a well-preserved medieval old town centered on the 12th-century Romanesque Cathedral of Se Velha. Of course, the University of Coimbra is a must-visit. Built on the foundation of an old Palace, it has a very famous library, the Biblioteca Joanina.
We used Coimbra as the base to visit other exciting places in Portugal's central region, such as Fatima's pilgrimage place, the beautiful Cathedral in Batalha, Conimbriga, and its Roman ruins; and even Aveiro and Porto. Being used to long drives in North America, these places were not far at all.
The Roman ruins in Conimbriga were impressive. We were surprised by the size of the area and what they have excavated. It made us understand the significance of Portugal in the vast Roman Empire.
Founded by the Knights Templars, Tomar was their headquarters for many years. Riches poured from the crusades to Tomar with the most advanced fortifications at that time. There you can see as you tour the Castle of the Templars, later confiscated from the Order and renamed Church of Christ. Its magnificent Charola, said to be the oldest part of the Castle, is dazzling.
Tomar still has its oldest medieval urban area, and a stroll here gives one the feel of a medieval village. Tiled houses lined the streets, each expressing its personality in color and design.
As the Templars city, rumors claim that Tomar hides the world's greatest Templar treasure, so keep your eyes open and dig a bit with your toe.
Evora, in Portuguese, is a woman's name that means yew tree. It is the capital of the Alentejo region, an area of vast plains in the south of Portugal. It is full of charm, with the Evora Cathedral sitting at the center of traditionally painted houses.
As one walks through its cobbled streets, atop is the Temple of Diana. When we visited the place, hundreds of drivers of Fiat old cars gathered around the Temple, ready to join the car rally. Excitement was in the air.
This city's center was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its unique whitewashed houses decorated with "azulejos" and wrought-iron balconies dating from the 16th-18th centuries. In the 15th century, the city became the kings' residence, which ushered in palaces, churches, and convents.
One of the most intriguing places in this city is the Capela dos Ossos, a tiny chapel inside the Church of St. Francis. The Franciscan monks built it out of 5,000 exhumed corpses from medieval cemeteries arranging the skulls and bones into exciting patterns.
More to Portugal than just the cities already mentioned and one of the lesser lights, Elvas is worth a visit. Portugal's garrison town occupied a significant role in its continuous defense from its far eastern corner.
As a frontier town, its walls and fortifications are its major attractions. Unlike other fortifications, this one is fascinating and complex. There is also an old palace built in the 700s by the Moors and a colossal aqueduct.
We found Elvas to be a good base for touring the Alentejo region and Spanish Extremadura. We had fun exploring the many restaurants in this area, which is famous for its cuisine.
We went to Bussaco because my husband wanted to see where his hero, the Duke of Wellington, waged his famous battle in Portugal and continued his succession of victories over Napolean and his usually unsupported generals.
It was a charming drive to the old Castle and the Convent, where the Battle of 1810 of the Peninsular War took place. The Castle used to be the last Portuguese kings' hunting palace but is now a 5-star hotel. The many tile mosaics that decorate the halls of the hotel tell stories of Portugal's history.
So while the mobs go to the Algarve, the choice to visit these beautiful jewel box cities will create one of the most memorable travel experiences in your repertoire.
Before moving on to the other popular Portugal cities, watch this video of Portugal. It will have its recommendations for the best places to visit.
Know more about some of these Portuguese cities: