10 Best Cities for a Great Visit in Portugal
12.8 million people couldn't be wrong. That's the number of visitors in Portugal in 2018. 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, 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 own 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 centre of exploration. Explorers came from here to discover distant lands, the price for the courage and navigation skills of the early Portuguese. Under monarchs with a sense of adventure, the research on navigation was fundamental to the great success of the Portuguese, 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 as in other disasters, the fury of rebuilding afterwards changed the landscape of the city.
Today, several neighbourhoods claim the attention of tourists for the unique things it can offer. So, the choices are endless and public transport is easy to use.
What we enjoyed most in our exploration of the place is Alfama where traces of Portugal's Muslim heritage lives on. Belem is another favourite especially because of the maritime museum in the area. You will see there the power Portugal has in the seas at that period of history.
From Lisbon, you can easily do 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 the 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 place. As the riches from the indies poured in, Sintra and other cities on list really enjoyed the benefits.
The most alluring of the Palaces are the Quinta da Regaleira and the Pena Palace. I enjoyed walking in the gardens of the Quinta and visiting the Pena Palace which is perched on the top of a mountain. With its multi-coloured towers and such a setting, 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 do 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 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 now become one of the most favoured 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 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 just walk through the Don Lluis bridge. On that side is one of the best views of Porto. But there is more than just the view. There is another very popular 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 the likes of Sandeman, Taylor Fladgate, and other famous Port houses.
The major attraction in Aveiro are its canals. This city used to be a strategic port but because of the silts and the drying sea, of the access to the, it lost that advantage.
Along the canals are colourful boats called Moliceiros which were used to gather seaweed in the past to fertilize the sandy soil of the area. With cheap fertilizers available nowadays, the boats found a more profitable use. They now ferry tourists in the canal enjoying the pastel coloured houses that line many of the waterways.
To enjoy Aveiro, you don't have to take the 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 of the interesting ones are the Casa do Major Pessoa which is now 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. You must try this when you're in Aveiro and make sure you order the wonderful range of fresh seafood caught close by.
We visited Coimbra, this former capital of Portugal after spending a week in Lisbon to understand why Portugal moved its capital. My husband really 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. We got an upgrade to a room with a sitting area and door to the garden, one of the benefits of going in the off season.
It's a well preserved medieval old town with a focus 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 interesting places in the central region of Portugal such as the pilgrimage place of Fatima, 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. These 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 has still its oldest medieval urban area and a stroll here gives one the feel of a medieval village. Added to this charm, are the tiled houses in the streets each one expressing its own personality in the color and design.
As the Templars city, it is rumoured that Tomar hides the world’s greatest Templar treasure so keep your eyes open and dig a bit with your toe.
This capital of Portugal's Alentejo region, the country's gastronomic and wine region, is a fun place to visit. When we visited, there was a rally of old fiat cars and it was fascinating to watch how well they have kept these miniature steeds and how proud they are of them. A strutting Portugese is an amazing sight!
Right in the centre of the city is the Parador, the Pousada Convento de Evora, and we found ourselves having tea there and a very animated conversation with the server. Next time I visit Evora, I'll stay in this place. They are so friendly and welcoming to us who were not guests there at all.
Before moving on to the other popular Portugal cities, watch this video of Portugal. It will have its own recommendations of the best places to visit.
There is more to Portugal than just the cities already mentioned and one of the lesser lights but worth a visit is Elvas. This garrison town of Portugal occupied a significant role when the country was constantly attacked from its far eastern corner.
As a frontier town, its walls and fortifications are its major attractions. Unlike other fortifications, this one is very interesting and complex. There is also an old palace built in 700s by the Moors and a huge aqueduct.
We found Elvas to be a good base for touring the Alentejo region and the 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 really 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 hunting palace of the last Portuguese kings but is now a 5-star hotel. The huge 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 exquisite...even jewel box cities will create one of the most memorable travel experiences in your repertoire.