If you’re looking to enjoy an international holiday, there’s a good chance that Portugal may be on your list. Already a popular tourist destination, 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.
Plus, unlike much of Europe, Portugal remains relatively warm and sunny throughout November and December, which makes it an ideal destination for a winter getaway.
So, if you’re thinking about heading to Portugal, which of its gorgeous towns and cities should you visit? To help you out, we’ve compiled a list of eight of the best destinations to travel to.
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. 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 made for wandering, and hidden away in the maze-like cobbled streets are countless shady gardens and elegant squares. The waterfront is also an excellent spot for a stroll, as is the bustling fishing port and modern market.
If you want 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.
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 will leave you feeling as though you’ve wandered into a fairytale. Plus, because Hans Christian Andersen once lived in a house in the woods here, it’s fair to say that this city probably 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; 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 option than staying in the city itself.
In recent years, the Portuguese capital of 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 Torre de Belém. Or you might want to visit the impressive Castelo de São Jorge, which towers above the town, before wandering through the ancient Alfama district.
Losing yourself among Lisbon’s cobbled alleyways and traditional mosaic walkways is almost a rite of passage. You never know if you’ll come out in front of a white-domed cathedral, grand tree-lined square, or modern riverfront esplanade.
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 labyrinthine streets become more energetic – 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!
Porto is Portugal’s second-largest city after Lisbon, and although 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 incredibly 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. The needle-like Torre dos Clérigos and Sé Cathedral are especially impressive; as is the iconic double-decked iron bridge Ponte Dom Luís I that soars over the River Douro and joins the city with the port wine houses of Vila Nova de Gaia.
Even the stations are magnificent here – every inch of São Bento station’s walls, for example, are covered with beautiful ceramic tiles.
The cuisine in Porto is widely considered to be the best in the country, so foodies will be in their element. Famous dishes include aletria, a rice pudding-like dessert that’s made with angel hair pasta; francesinha, a ham and steak sandwich baked with cheese; and Queijo da Serra da Estrela, a rich, soft 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.
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 impressive 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.
Admirers of traditional Portuguese tiles should visit the Igreja De Santa Maria, which boasts a gorgeous interior of blue and white 17th-century azulejos (glazed tiles). 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 regions surrounding it are just as lovely. Why not 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.
As the capital and largest city 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 with much to offer.
With its international airport, modern shopping mall, and high-rise buildings, Faro can initially seem 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 which 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 which 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, 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. 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.
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 – so 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 – so if you’re a fan of dark tourism, 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.
Then, just outside the city are Neolithic stone circles, rustic wineries, and castle villages – so if you fancy a day trip, you’ll be spoilt for choice.
As you’ll have probably noticed, Portugal is steeped in history, and the country is packed with Roman, Moorish, and medieval ruins and architecture.
However, the most important place from a historical perspective is arguably 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. 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. It’s 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 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 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!
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.
Portugal has long been a popular tourist destination, and is a great place to enjoy a wonderful holiday in a 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 Portuguese experiences in the comments below!