From Coast to Castle: Exploring Portugal’s Best Places to Visit

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Lisbon is one of the best places to visit in Portugal.
Panoramic views of Lisbon. Photo credit: Adina Keeling

I knew Portugal would become one of my favorite countries even before I visited this summer. It did not disappoint. Portugal sits on the Iberian Peninsula at the southwest point of Europe, just beside Spain. The country bears a stunning coast and a deep history. It is known for its wine regions, ornate blue tiles (called azulejos), dramatic cliffs, picturesque beaches and year-round sun. Just as impressive as the mainland, a series of Portuguese islands scatter the shoreline.

I traveled to Portugal in June, one of the best times to visit, starting in the south and making my way up north. I spent two weeks traveling in this amazing country, and it didn’t feel like nearly enough. From the jaw-dropping castles sprinkled throughout Sintra to the breathtaking cliffs of Madeira, these are the best places to visit in Portugal.

Pena Palace overlooking Sintra is one of the best places to visit in Portugal.
Pena Palace overlooking Sintra. Photo credit: Adina Keeling

1. Sintra

Sintra is a splendid day trip from Lisbon. Prepare to be blown away like me by the sheer number of castles packed into this historic city. During the six hours I spent in Sintra I decided to visit Pena Palace, an amazing romanticist castle perched at the top of a hill overlooking Sintra. I rode a tuk tuk up the mountain, and my driver kept stopping along the way to point out all the other amazing castles I could have visited. Needless to say, I did not budget enough time in Sintra.

But you should.

Pena Palace is a must-see. This fairytale castle is a blend of different styles, including gothic, romantic and moorish. The exterior is red and yellow, accented by stretches of blue tile. Quinta da Regaleira is another must-visit castle. This designated UNESCO World Heritage Site is full of hidden passageways and spiral staircases, surrounded by whimsical gardens. A network of caves runs beneath the castle.

The Moorish Castle is another attraction to add to the list. This medieval castle dates back to the 8th or 9th century and served as a watchtower, protecting Lisbon and the surrounding area. Other popular Sintra attractions include the Sintra National Palace and the Palace of Monserrate. Make sure you also budget some time to explore Sintra’s old town.

2. Madeira

Unfortunately, I did not make it out to Madeira on my trip, but I’m dying to go back. This island sits in the Atlantic Ocean and is closer to Africa than it is to Europe, but visitors can fly from Lisbon in under two hours. Madeira features a rugged coastline, majestic waterfalls, lush forests and breathtaking beaches. The volcanic island has recently gained popularity, and now is a great time to visit, before it becomes too overrun by tourists.

Madeira is full of amazing hiking trails. Some of the most popular trails include the “Pico to Pico” trail, which takes hikers down steep staircases and dark tunnels, eventually leading them to Pico Ruivo, the highest point on the island. The Levada das 25 Fontes hike is a slightly easier alternative, where hikers will get to see Risco Waterfall, a famous Madeira waterfall.

Many other attractions are located in the island’s capital, Funchal. Visitors can ride a cable car up to a palace museum and tropical garden, witnessing beautiful panoramic views along the way. The Madeira Botanical Garden is another chance to see exotic plants from all over the world. The city is also famous for its toboggans, which resemble wicker sleds that take visitors down steep hills.

Lisbon during sunset is one of the best places to visit in Portugal.
Sunset over Lisbon. Photo credit: Adina Keeling

3. Lisbon

“I could live here,” I told my friend after only an hour of exploring Lisbon for the first time. After a week of exploring I still felt the exact same. Lisbon is the capital and the largest Portuguese city. The city seems to go on forever, with beautiful pastel-colored buildings, ornate castles, cobblestone streets and buzzing plazas. Lisbon is the place to go sightseeing, have a beach day, try Portuguese food, go surfing or experience the vibrant nightlife.

During my visit, I stayed in an Airbnb in a neighborhood called Bairro Alto. This quarter dates back to the 1500s and was once inhabited by artists and writers. The streets are lined with shops, bars and restaurants, and at night, crowds Bairro Alto is a great place to listen to Fado, traditional Portuguese music. If you’re a sensitive sleeper, this area may not be the best place to stay, as it gets loud at night.

With beautiful blue-tiled buildings, Lisbon is one of the best places to visit in Portugal.
Beautiful blue-tiled buildings in Lisbon. Photo credit: Adina Keeling

The Alfama district is another popular area, full of tight winding streets and traditional houses. It is the oldest neighborhood in Lisbon and is home to many of the city’s most iconic historical attractions, including the Se Cathedral and the Castelo de São Jorge.

Lisbon is full of hills, and it can get really hot in the summer, so sightseeing can be exhausting. My recent trip was in the dead of summer, and after about an hour of walking, I was dripping in sweat. I finally decided to take advantage of the many tuk tuks, advertising private tours of the city. It was definitively a good choice, as I got to see much of the city while getting a chance to rest my feet.

Rooftop views of Lagos is one of the best places to visit in Portugal.
Rooftop views of Lagos. Photo credit: Adina Keeling

4. Lagos

The Algarve region in Southern Portugal is home to some of the country’s most beautiful places. If you’ve never been to the Algarve, Lagos is the best place to start. Once a fishing village, the city bears a rich history, having been occupied by the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Visigoths, the Byzantines and the Moors. There is a vibrant old town, beautiful azulejos, old churches and restaurants serving local cuisine.

A rocky shoreline borders Lagos. Many of the country’s most iconic caves and grottos are only a short boat ride from Lagos, making it a great base to view these popular Portuguese attractions. The most famous cave in all of Portugal, the Benagil Cave, is on all of these boat tours, so it’s impossible to miss. Praia da Marinha, one of the most beautiful beaches in Portugal and the world, is also only a 40-minute drive from Lagos.

Lagos old town is one of the best places to visit in Portugal.
Lagos old town. Photo credit: Adina Keeling

I spent two days in Lagos and much preferred it to Albufeira, another town in the Algarve, less than an hour away. While Albufeira felt like a touristy, resort town, Lagos had a more authentic culture, while still boasting beautiful beaches and a lively atmosphere.

5. São Miguel

I didn’t make it to the Azores on my trip, but I’m already dreaming about my next trip there. The Azores are a collection of nine islands in the heart of the Atlantic. They are known for their unspoiled nature, whale-watching opportunities and many hiking opportunities. If you’ve never been to Azores, São Miguel is the best place to start. It is the largest island and has earned the nickname, “the green island,” due to its lush flora and fauna.

Many popular attractions are scattered throughout the island, so it may be best to rent a car and stay in more than one area of the island. However, if you’re not renting a car, the island’s capital, Ponta Delgada, is the best place to be based, as there are tours that can provide transportation.

The Sete Ciades Lakes are the island’s most popular attraction. This is a pair of crater lakes, one green and one blue, on the western part of the island. The best place to see the lakes is from popular viewpoints, such as Boca de Inferno. Visitors can also go on a hike in the area or visit the towns bordering the lakes.

São Miguel is also home to thermal hot springs, perfect for relaxing and recovering from a long hike. To get close to the area’s rich marine life, go on a whale-watching tour and get the chance to see sperm whales, blue whales and dolphins.

6. Douro Valley

The Douro Valley is the most famous wine region in Portugal. This stunning valley is known for producing port wine, which can be sampled at the many vineyards that span the area. Sandeman is one of the most famous port wine producers and the brand offers several organized wine tours. Visitors can also take a wine tour and boat tour while traveling down the Douro River.

The valley is also home to lots of beautiful viewpoints, perfect for taking in the area’s natural beauty. Soak up stunning views on a train ride through the valley or visit the lovely traditional villages that sprinkle the valley. Spend a day exploring Pinhão or travel to Lamego and see the city’s beautiful cathedral.

Porto is one of the best places to visit in Portugal.
Looking over Porto. Photo credit: Adina Keeling

7. Porto

I also spent a couple of days in Porto this summer. Located in Northern Portugal, Porto is the country’s second-largest city. It is less touristy than Lisbon, but still full of must-visit attractions and neighborhoods.

The city is best known for being the birthplace of port wine. The city is full of tasting rooms, where visitors can sample different types of still and port wines. On my trip, I tried three different port wines and two still wines at Sogevinus Wine Shop for 22 euros. Wine connoisseurs can also tour a wine cellar or go on a walking and wine tasting tour.

During my visit, I stayed in Ribeira, a medieval district full of shops, churches, cafes, bars and hotels. Most of Porto’s attractions are either within the district, or a short walk away, so it was the perfect place to stay.

Book lovers will adore Livraria Lello, a famous bookstore and big inspiration for J.K. Rowling while she wrote the Harry Potter series. Tickets are 5 euros and there is quite a long queue, even for those who buy tickets in advance, so plan ahead and be prepared to wait. For beautiful views of the city, climb the Clerigos Tower, built in the 18th century.

The Palácio da Bolsa is a beautiful monument with stained-glass panels, and the Igreja do Carmo is a baroque church with a frequently photographed exterior. I visited all these attractions in an afternoon, as they are all located close to each other.

I never had the chance to take a boat trip, but that’s another popular activity in Porto. The Douro River cuts through the city, and many tours are hosted here. Before you leave Porto, be sure to see the incredible light show hosted in the Clerigos Church. I have no words for this experience other than that I was left utterly breathless.

8. Aveiro

Aveiro is one-of-a-kind. Sitting on the west coast of Portugal, just south of Porto, Aveiro is known for its canals and colorful boats. Many visitors have called Aveiro the “Venice of Portugal,” but this former trade city has a personality of its own. Stroll along the canals or ride in a moliceiro, a boat similar to a gondola, traditionally used to collect seaweed.

The city has a charming old town, full of romantic art nouveau buildings and azulejos. The blue tile work outside the train station is particularly impressive. To dive deeper into the area’s art scene, visit the Aveiro Museum. To learn specifically about art nouveau in Aveira, visit the Museu Arte Nova. The Cathedral of Aveiro is also worth a visit. This Roman cathedral was founded in 1423 and features beautiful azulejos tiles in the interior. Aveiro can easily be a day trip or weekend trip from Porto.

9. Coimbra

Coimbra is an extremely historic city. It’s a beautiful riverside city in Central Portugal, known for housing one of the oldest universities in Europe. The university was once a royal palace and many of the original buildings still remain. Now, the university is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a must-see attraction in Coimbra.

Take a guided tour of the campus and visit historic buildings, such as the St. Michael’s Chapel, the Sao Miguel Chapel and the Ceremonial Hall. While you’re on campus, be sure to visit Biblioteca Joanina, a stunning baroque library that spans three floors.

Coimbra is also full of beautiful churches, cathedrals and museums. Visit the Monastery of Santa Cruz, which dates back to the 12th century, or the Old Cathedral of Coimbra, with its unmistakable Roman architecture. The Machado de Castro National Museum is a must-visit art museum located on top of a site that used to be a Roman forum.

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