8 towns and cities to visit in Portugal

If you want to enjoy an international holiday this summer, then you might be thinking of Portugal. 

Portugal is a beautiful and varied country that has so much to offer – whether you’re looking for a laidback beach holiday or a cultural city break.

So, if you’re thinking about heading to Portugal, then which of its many gorgeous towns and cities should you visit? To help you out, we’ve compiled a list of eight of the best destinations to visit.

1. Tavira

While many towns in the Algarve suffer from mass tourism, Tavira is one of the exceptions, and is arguably the region’s most captivating town. Situated on either side of the Rio Gilão, Tavira is a pleasantly laid-back town that’s managed to hold onto its distinctive character and charm, and it’s a great spot for a relaxed, authentic Portuguese holiday.

Tavira is packed with history, boasting the ruins of a hilltop castle, an old Roman footbridge that connects one side of the town to the other, and dozens of Gothic and Renaissance churches. The Igreja de Santa do Castelo, where warrior knights are entombed, is particularly fascinating. There’s also an excellent museum, the Núcleo Islâmico, where you can admire a unique 11th-century vase.

Tavira is a town that’s made for wandering, and hidden away in the maze-like cobbled streets are countless shady gardens and elegant squares to relax in. The waterfront is also a great spot for a stroll, as is the bustling fishing port and modern market. If you’re looking to kick back on a beach, you’re in luck, as Tavira is only 3km from the coast. The beautiful and unspoilt beaches of Ilha de Tavira are a short-boat ride away, and offer peace and quiet during the busy summer months.

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2. Sintra

Set among the pine-covered foothills of the Serra de Sintra, the city of Sintra is almost cartoonishly beautiful. Its Disney-eque colourful castles, vivid green gardens, and pink and yellow houses can have you feeling as though you’ve wandered into a fairytale – and because Hans Christian Andersen once lived in a house in the woods here, it’s fair to say that this city probably at least partly inspired him.

History buffs and architecture enthusiasts will be equally happy here, as you can spend days exploring Sintra’s remarkable historic buildings. Must-visit landmarks are the Palácio Nacional, which is the best-preserved medieval royal palace in Portugal, the flamboyant and bewitching Palácio da Pena, and the ancient Castle of the Moors that sprawls dramatically across a hillside.

If you want to do some hiking on your holiday, the Serra de Sintra mountains offer plenty of walking routes – but the steep trails surrounding the city can be a challenge! For your efforts, you’ll be rewarded with jaw-dropping views of the Atlantic and in the distance, the pretty town of Cascais. Sintra can be visited as a day-trip from Lisbon, and if you don’t like crowds, this might be a better bet than staying in the city itself – as Sintra’s remarkable cultural landscape is definitely no secret!

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3. Lisbon

In recent years, Portugal’s capital Lisbon has become one of the most popular travel destinations in Europe – and for good reason. Set on the banks of the River Tagus and overlooked by seven cinematic hillsides, Lisbon is about as picture-perfect as it gets – but beneath its dramatic beauty is an alluring city that merges fascinating history and spectacular architecture with a laidback lifestyle and wonderfully balmy weather.

If you’re interested in history there’s so much to see and do here: you can explore the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Mosteiro dos Jerónimos and the quirky Torre de Belém. Or, you might want to visit the impressive Castelo de São Jorge that towers above the town, and wander through the ancient Alfama district. Losing yourself among Lisbon’s cobbled alleyways and traditional mosaic walkways is almost a rite of passage, and you never know if you’ll come out in front of a white-domed cathedral, grand tree-lined square, or modern riverfront esplanades.

For foodies, the city is famous for pasteis de nata – custard pies – and bacalhau – dried, salted cod – and there are countless cafes and excellent restaurants you can relax and refuel in… and maybe enjoy a few Sagres beers. In the evenings, the labyrinth-like streets become more energetic as the night goes on, with delicious aromas and traditional Fado music drifting out from packed restaurants and bars. If you’re into interior design, then you can’t leave without buying a traditional Portuguese tile to take home!

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4. Porto

Porto is Portugal’s second-largest city after Lisbon, and though it’s situated at the mouth of a major river and has a colourful and dramatic cityscape, it offers a very different experience. Much smaller than the capital, Porto is extremely accessible, and a long-weekend is enough time to get a feel for the city and discover its most popular sites and attractions. Plus, it doesn’t suffer from overcrowding in the busy summer months – so if you’re looking for a chilled and relaxing break, it’s a wise choice.

Packed with baroque churches and neoclassical buildings, Porto is a must-visit for architecture enthusiasts, and the needle-like Torre dos Clérigos and Sé cathedral are especially impressive – as its the iconic double-decked iron bridge Ponte Dom Luís I that soars over the River Douro, joining the city with Vila Nova de Gaia. Even the stations are magnificent here, particularly São Bento station, where every inch of the walls is covered with beautiful and gleaming ceramic tiles.

The cuisine in Porto is widely considered to be the best in the country, so foodies will be in their element here: famous dishes include aletria, a rice pudding-like that’s made with angel hair pasta, francesinha, a ham and steak sandwich baked with cheese, and Queijo da Serra da Estrela, a runny mountain cheese. And then of course, there’s the port, which is a reason in itself to visit – though if you’re more of a wine-drinker, the celebrated vineyards of the Douro Valley are just a drive away.

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5. Óbidos

Colourful, historic, and romantic, Óbidos is a photographer’s dream – and if you visit this walled town, even just for a day, you’re sure to go home with hundreds of photos. Many years ago, it was the custom for Portuguese kings to give their queens a special wedding gift: the city of Óbidos. Though this custom has died out, the romance of the city prevails, and its whitewashed, flower-fringed cottages, terracotta roofs, narrow streets, and imposing medieval walls are timelessly beautiful.

Aside from aesthetics, Óbidos has much to offer. You can browse its many souvenir shops and handicraft stores – and perhaps pick up a bottle of the town’s famous cherry liquor, Ginja de Óbidos, to take home. Admirers of traditional Portuguese tiles should visit the Igreja De Santa Maria, which boasts a gorgeous interior of blue and white 17th-century azulejos – and art enthusiasts may want to visit the Museu Municipal de Óbidos in the town square, which showcases art by the 17th-century painter, Josefa de Óbidos.

Because it’s only an hour’s drive north of Lisbon, Óbidos is a great choice for a day trip – and the region surrounding it is are just as lovely: and you can visit the charming fishing port of Peniche, or kick back on the beaches of Lagoa de Óbidos. Though it’s small, Óbidos is known as one of the most romantic places in Portugal – and if you’re looking for a laid-back destination with lots of character and history, you won’t be disappointed.

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6. Faro

As the largest city (and capital) of South Portugal’s Algarve region, many visitors only catch a glimpse of Faro as they pass through to other places – but this is a destination that has so much to offer. With its international airport, modern shopping mall, and high-rise buildings, Faro can initially seem a bit too urban to be a great holiday destination. However, scratch beneath the surface and you’ll discover that this is a historic and charming city that remains steadfastly Portuguese.

Ringed by 16th-century walls built upon Roman foundations, the Cidade Velha (Old Town) is the beating heart of the city, and its medieval cobbled streets are a joy to explore. Jam-packed with ancient buildings, its highlights include the 13th-century cathedral, where the mighty walls hide a spectacular baroque interior gleaming with azulejo tiles and lacquered wood carvings. Be sure to climb to the top of the bell tower, from where you can enjoy panoramic views of the city.

If you like visiting museums, the Museu Municipal de Farois is also a must-visit, as is the church of Igreja do Carmo, which is famous for its eerie Capela dos Ossos (Bone Chapel), where the skulls and bones of over 1,250 monks decorate the walls. If that wasn’t enough, there are several excellent beaches close to the town – and if you want to get away from it all, you can take a ferry to Ilha do Farol, where you’ll be able to find a quiet spot on this vast and pristine beach.

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7. Évora

The capital city of Portugal’s red-hot Alentejo region is Évora, which is known to be one of the most historic places in the country. Enclosed within its medieval walls are centuries of fascinating history and unspoiled architecture – it’s no wonder this city enjoys UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Boasting Roman temples from the second century, Moorish alleyways, and an elaborate medieval cathedral, Évora is truly a magical place to delve into the past.

Just like Faro, Évora also has its own bone chapel – although this one is significantly more grisly. Évora’s Capela dos Ossos is a 16th-century chapel that’s decorated with bones, skulls, and whole bodies hanging from the walls – but if you’re a fan of sinister history, it can’t be missed. Due to the brutal methods of the Spanish Inquisition, the pretty town square also has a rather gruesome history – although today it’s a lovely, lively place where you can enjoy a meal or drinks in the open-air cafes.

Aside from its history and beauty, Évora has plenty more to offer. You can spend hours strolling through the old Moorish alleyways and browsing shops, and there are dozens of excellent restaurants that serve up traditional Alentejan cuisine. Just outside the city are Neolithic stone circles, rustic wineries, and castle villages, so if you fancy a day trip you’ll be spoiled for choice.

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8. Coimbra

As you’ll have probably noticed, Portugal is pervaded with history, and the country is packed with Roman, Moorish, and medieval ruins and architecture. However, arguably the most important place from a historical perspective is Coimbra, right in the heart of the country. Known as the University city of Portugal, Coimbra was also the medieval capital of the country for 100 years, and today, it’s the place where ancient history and progressive values meet.

The old hilltop university is one of the most popular tourist attractions, in particular the spectacular Baroque library Biblioteca Joanina, which boasts towering frescoed ceilings and gilded, marbled wood, and is regularly listed as one of the world’s most beautiful libraries. The campus is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and well worth a day’s exploration: head to the top of the clock tower to enjoy some seriously impressive views, and be sure to pay a visit to the 12th-century Sé Velha cathedral.

Elsewhere, there are numerous other Roman, Moorish and medieval ruins in Coimbra, as well as two former convents and the ancient Igreja de Santa Cruz, which is home to the tomb of Portugal’s very first king. Coimbra has several other interesting museums and a pretty botanical garden, but it also has vibrant nightlife, authentic culture, and great food – so if you’re looking to enjoy a delicious meal and some drinks while listening to some Fado music, you’re also in luck!

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Final thoughts...

With its rich history, cosmopolitan cities, beautiful beaches, and absorbing culture, Portugal has it all – and that’s without taking into account its fabulous weather and stunning scenery. Though it’s long been a popular tourist destination, Portugal is set to have its busiest summer yet – but as long as you follow government advice and take the necessary precautions, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to enjoy a wonderful holiday in this sun-kissed corner of the continent.

Whether your idea of fun is wandering through museums, exploring ancient towns, relaxing on the beach, or simply enjoying a tasty meal in the sun, this small yet spectacular country ticks all the boxes.

Are you planning on visiting Portugal this year? Or have you been before and have any of your own suggestions to share with our readers? We’d love to hear about your Portugese experiences! Leave us a comment below or join the conversation over on the Rest Less community forum.

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