Portugal Travel Guide 2017-09-29T19:31:51+00:00

Portugal Travel

The façade of the magnificent Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon, Portugal

The façade of the magnificent Mosteiro dos Jerónimos.

Portugal Travel Main Attractions

***Lisbon (Lisboa)

Looking up to the Castelo de Sao Jorge from the centre of Lisbon, Portugal

Looking up to the Castelo de Sao Jorge from the centre of Lisbon.

Not as big or extravagant as neighbouring capitals, Lisbon has, nevertheless, a faded elegance and a good number of unique attractions to keep a tourist busy, with a bonus of some superb beaches less than an hour away.
Food variety and value is excellent, local wine and beer is acceptable, coffee is fantastic and there are plenty of interesting walks to aid the digestion or clubs to wail away the night.

Portugal’s unique art forms, azulejos and Manueline (Gothic) decorationare at their best in this city and there’s no shortage of striking buildings and monuments, particularly churches and monasteries.
The streets are safer than in many European cities, the taxis are decent value and the museums magnificent.

Within very easy hire-car distance on spanking new motorways are surfing beaches, climbing castles, medieval walled towns, national parks, a zillion churches/monasteries and even the Algarve in three hours. See more information in our Lisbon Pictures pages.

A cheerful welcome from Triton at the entrance to the Palacio de Pena in Sintra, Portugal

A cheerful welcome from Triton at the entrance to the Palacio de Pena in Sintra. Photo by Husond.

Sintra is a must-see not so much for the old town, but for various parks, gardens and four spectacular buildings in and around it: the 14thC twisted Palacio Nacional; the fantastical Quinta da Regaleira; up a cool forested hill the superbly atmospheric Moorish Castle; and the totally Disney Palacio de Pena with fascinating royal family life museum.
Sintra is 45 minutes by train from Lisbon.

*** Obidos

Obidos walled town view, Portugal

Obidos walled town. Photo by Waugsberg.

The most striking of Portugal’s hilltop walled towns, Obidos is perfection, within easy distance of Lisbon and well worth an overnight stay in a cute little pensao to enjoy the ramparts and streets without the company of packaged people. Book ahead!

The must-do after an initial stroll in the cobbled streets to admire the co-ordinated colour schemes and pot flowers, followed by a glass of port, is a walk along at least part of the town’s high and mighty ramparts.

A typical street in Obidos, Portugal

A typical street in Obidos.

Try to stay overnight as the town is besieged by armies of militant shutter snappers during the middle of the day. When they have retreated and silence descends, that’s the time to absorb the true beauty of it all.

Various delightful little old pensao are available if you book ahead. Marvao, in the Alto Alentejo is a lot less busy and nearly as impressive.

Obidos is not far from Mafra, Sintra, Alcobaca monastery and Batalha abbey.

Jardim de Diana, a Roman temple, Evora, Portugal

Probably the most interesting town after Lisbon; World Heritage Evora is stuffed with a variety of sights and a mere hour from Lisbon. This is Jardim de Diana, a Roman temple.

Nearby is the largest group of prehistoric stones in Europe, the 95 monoliths (Almendres) of Cromeleque. Accessed through a gorgeous cork forest, these are smaller stones than Stonehenge, but totally devoid of commerce, restrictions or even other people most of the time.

***The Algarve

Sea Cliffs near Lagos on the western Algarve, Portugal

Cliffs near Lagos on the western Algarve.

Culturally the Algrave coastline is a near desert and far too many loud and inebriated north Europeans roam the streets but it’s cheap, sunny in summer and the scenery is occasionally very attractive – there are some pretty fishing villages in the far west (e. g. Olahao, Fuzeta, Sagres) and around the Guadiana River in the far east (e. g. Alcoutim). The beaches are generally huge, clean and characterful, though the water is cool and may be choppy too, especially as you head west towards the Atlantic Ocean.

*** Marvao

Marvao castle, Portugal

Marvao castle. Photo by Elemaki.

Another gorgeous walled hilltop town, in a prettier landscape than Obidos and with fewer tourists, but a little distant.
Only 10kms (5 miles) from the Spanish border and with superb natural defences Marvao has been fought over for over a thousand years; the Moors were responsible for the village’s first wall upgrade in 715 AD.

Since Christians arrived in 1160 and extended fortifications Marvao was mainly of use against Portugal’s old enemies, the Spanish, but oddly, the only time that the village was captured was in a civil war, when the Liberals used a secret entrance to take Marvao from the Royalists in 1833.

There is a lovely, quaint little pousada and restaurants on the hill that offer excellent hospitality in a more than tranquil context; views and photos are all the better in the late afternoon or early morning, so stay overnight if you can, but book in advance in high season.

** Scenic Countryside

Alto Alentejo rolling, flowery landscape in summertime, with storks nesting on sticks, Portugal

Alto Alentejo rolling, flowery landscape in summertime, with storks nesting on sticks traditionally provided by locals for good luck.

Not much around, but the rolling hillocks and cork trees of Alto Alentejo are lovely, especially carpeted with yellow and purple flowers in May.

The poor and sparsely populated Alentejo province occupies nearly a third of Portugal and is scenically the most striking area, an empty rural land of low rolling hills, fields of wheat, random Neolithic stone formations, olive trees, cork trees and the occasional fortified hilltop town.

Baixo Alentejo occupies a large chunk of land in the south, from the Algarve almost as far north as Lisbon and including the coast. This is perhaps the least interesting portion, but also the least touristed and most naturally Portuguese.

Alto Alentejo, the northern section, is the more interesting part (pictured above, on the road between Évora and Marvao), including the grand, varied and colourful city of Évora, the 95 Neolithic standing stones nearby, and the walled hilltop towns of Elvas and Marvao.

The terraced valley and gorge of Douro, popularly seen via a rickety railway, is stunning, and could be combined with a trip to Porto and Stone Age art at Vale do Coa, where thousands of Palaeolithic drawings can be seen on 17km of rocks.

Minho, in the far north is wet, green and mountainously rural, with good beaches and featuring Portugal’s religious capital Braga. Braga’s 35 churches include a popular pilgrim’s target – Bom Jesus do Monte.

*** Porto

Carmo Church and its massive tiled wall in Porto, Portugal

18th century Carmo Church in Porto, next to Carmelitas Church (not in photo), separated by a house 1m wide (yes, 3ft! ) that was inhabited until recently, built due to a law forbidding two churches to share a wall.

Portugal’s second city of Porto sports some arresting buildings, a World Heritage district of tiled terraced houses beside the river and a barrel load of wine tasting lodges.

This is the place to relax beside the waters with a chilled glass of white port before hitting the hills in search of azulejos (Igreja do Carmo – above – and Sao Bento train station especially), baroque churches, and a clutch of good museums before a high altitude walk across the Ponte de Dom Luis I to Vila Nova de Gaia, pictured above.

Vila Nova de Gaia is the place to visit port wine lodges – there are more than twenty – and do some serious taste tests, otherwise known as getting blitzed at someone else’s expense. Lodges do not have tours on Sundays.

The ‘old’ barcos rabelos boats do short cruises up the river that are hardly worthwhile, better to take a day for a ride on the spectacular old Douro railway and really see some views.

And by the way, it’s hell to find the city centre by car and Porto has more than it’s fair share of wacked-out winos (or should they be known as portos? ) – no surprise there then – so take care at night.

* Coimbra

Coimbra river and town view, Portugal

Coimbra. We don’t see the draw.

A pretty riverside university town and Portugal’s capital in the 1145 AD, but Coimbra hardly deserves the hordes it gets.

With a university founded in 1290, Coimbra is popularly known as the ‘Oxford of Portugal’. Well hardly, though it is indubitably ancient, does have some fine buildings and suffers under the same curse of traffic experienced by England’s Oxford.

The most dramatic of the university’s ancient treasures is the Joao V library with superb frescoes and tables of rosewood and ebony etched with Chinese designs in gold. Unfortunately access is restricted to small groups at limited times from March – September.

Otherwise tourists will be looking at the usual suspects: churches (especially the elaborate interior of Igreja de Santa Cruz), museums (especially the Casa Museu Bissay Barreto, a shrine to the good taste of a 19thC collector) and no less than three convents on the other side of the river – where you may be since you will almost certainly have to park there if you go by car.

Needless to say, with the huge student population nightlife is lively and varied and goes quite bonkers for a couple of weeks in May as they celebrate the end of the academic year.

Starting on the first Thursday in May these festivities are known as Queima das Fitas (Burning the Ribbons), and consist of a wild parade, free fado concerts and much overconsumption of beverages.

* Braga

Bom Jesus do Monte church tableau in Braga, Portugal

Bom Jesus do Monte church tableau in Braga, one of Portugal’s major pilgrimage destinations.

Braga has been the religious centre of Portugal since the 6th century and it shows – 35 churches at the last count and Bom Jesus, just to the east, is a popular target for pilgrims, with its baroque approach stairs featuring stations of the cross.
Fervent christians often climb the stairs on their knees, but tourists have a more comfortable option – an ancient water powered funicular (tram) that’s been ferrying visitors since 1882.

Braga is hardly a must-see for travellers save for festival time, particularly around Easter when things get very colourful. The Thursday before Easter, for example, a torch lit procession of barefoot penitents in Inquisition-style hoods tour the town.

*** Churches/Monasteries

the Convent of Christ altar, Tomar, Portugal

Another outrageously ornate church, the Convent of Christ at Tomar, homebase for the Knights Templar, with an altar (above) designed to be ridden around on horseback (if you were in a hurry to get back to Jerusalem). Photo by Alvesgaspar.

Even atheists will enjoy many of the madly magnificent religious structures scattered around the country.

Some notable ones are the Convent of Christ at Tomar where the Knights Templar were based, Batalha Abbey, Alcobaca monastery, Evora’s Misercordia and the bone chapel of Sao Fransisco, Mafra’s Palace/Monastery, Lisbon’s Jeronimos monastery for the ultimate Manueline decorand Sao Vicente de Fora Monastery (NOT a church as some guide books say! ) for the best in story telling azulejos.

The unfinished cloister of Batalha Abbey, aka Mosteiro de Santa Maria da Vitoria, Portugal

The unfinished cloister of Batalha Abbey, aka Mosteiro de Santa Maria da Vitoria. Love the place, incredible stonework, a spacious tranquil setting, catastrophically and permanently incomplete. Sic transit gloria.

Self Driving

Motorways

With superb EU funded motorways and excellent signposting fast intercity travel in Portugal is easy, though few drivers observe the 120kph (75mph) limit, many moving well in excess of 160kph (100mph).
So DON’T force your little rental car to slowly overtake another vehicle unless you fancy a lunatic 4×4 or BMW sitting on your bumper at high speed; DO keep your eyes on the mirror and give those nutters plenty of space, they cause a lot of accidents.

Towns

Old town driving is another matter entirely! Streets are often medieval, extraordinarily narrow, complicatedly one way, and traffic jammed.
Suddenly six straight, empty lanes becomes one wiggly little one, well stuffed, and you find yourself lost, sitting for precious hours gasping fossil fuel and unable to park.

So. . . if you plan to stay the night in high season in any of the country’s old towns, in other words just about all of them, either book a hotel in advance that includes a parking space or leave the infernal machine outside the city walls where there will usually be a large, free car park, and get the legs into action. And don’t forget to conceal any kind of valuables.

Activities

Hiking

Not a Portuguese pastime and mostly lacking in spectacular views, determined walkers can nevertheless find good trails. The most scenic are in the north e. g. Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela, Parque Nacional da Peneda-Geres and Parque Natural de Montesinho. The Algarve has many walks, but lacks natural beauty unless you hike along the coast.
August-February, a couple of days a week is hunting season, so check locally if you might be walking into a shooting arena.

Biking

Mountain biking is fashionable and bikes can be rented in many tourist areas. Some locations even offer guided bike tours e. g. the Algarve, Sintra and National Parks.

One of Europe’s best surfing destinations due to a high level of sunshine and consistent (though not necessarily huge) waves along the whole west coastline as well as the west end of the Algarve coast at Sagres.

Wind/kite surfing

Commonplace and often sharing space with board surfers at beaches like Guincho and Rocha.
Pros especially enjoy regular high winds on Portugal’s SW tip, near Sagres.

Swimming

Buckets of great beaches with soft sand and lots of character, see Algarve, right.

Snorkelling/Scuba: cold and fairly dull.

Golf: The south of the country is where most of the great courses are, with the Algarve leading at 26 championship courses.

Main Festivals

Feb/March, Carnival. Various colourful festivities during the last days before Lent.
March/April: Easter Week Festival in Braga, with bizarre processions.
From 1st Thursday of May for 2 (? ) weeks, Coimbra, Queima das Fitas, wild end of year celebrations at ‘Portugal’s Oxford’.
12-13 May, Fatima Romarias (in Fatima). Severely religious mass pilgrimage event.
12-13 June, Festa de Santo Antonio, a night long street fair, esp. in Alfama and Mouraria districts.
20-24 June, Festa de Sao Joao, nationwide (23-24) but longer in Porto.
Around 20 August, Festa da Nossa Senhora da Agonia, Viana do Castelo, a very lively celebration with parades, fireworks and art shows.
12-13 October, Fatima Romarias (in Fatima). Severely religious mass pilgrimage event (again! ).

For some precise dates see: European Festivals or Arts Festivals.

Electricity:
Electric sockets are 230v and take 2 round pin plugs.

Safety:
Crime is uncommon, though as usual, pickpockets are active in areas frequented by tourists. Be especially careful on Lisbon’s famous Tram 28!

There have been rare attacks/robberies by gangs in Lisbon, Porto, Estoril and Cascais, so be sensible about flashing valuables and where you walk late at night.

Food

Portuguese cuisine tends towards the solid and not particularly cheap in tourist areas, but pick the right place in one of Portugal’s more sophisticated areas, such as Lisbon’s Bairro Alto or the Algarve’s Lagos, and you can have an excellent, interesting meal for a reasonable price.

Seafood is particularly impressive and sardines are the best value. Bacalhau – salted cod – is the national dish and is served in a thousand different ways, many of them edible.

Away from Lisbon and the Algarve food is much better value; good value snacks are commonly available, including filling soups for lunch – though soup is not normally served alone.

One of the Portugal’s most unique customs is the almost obligatory cover charge for bread, butter, olives and some kind of paste.

Coffees are wonderful and house wines are drinkable by all but connoisseurs. Try a glass of cold white port too. Local beers are OK, and the black/stout beers are better than OK.

Portugal’s unique approach to a cover charge usually includes bread, butter, olives, paste (sardine/tuna etc. ). You can try to send it back, though you may be met by some resistance, so the best option is to factor it into your menu or appetite decision, enjoy the olives and paste and be happy to fork out a couple of € for the pleasure.

If you don’t touch it you will probably still be charged for it so if you really don’t want it and don’t mind about your relationship with the waiter, send it back.

Grilled sardines are the cheapest fish available. This meal, from a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, including two glasses of wine, cost about €8 in 2004.

Breakfast is the most disappointing meal of the day, usually consisting of unnatural orange juice, bread roll, jam and coffee or tea.

Language

Portuguese is similar to Spanish in many ways, though they are not over-fond of their Spanish neighbours so English is in some ways better to use than good Spanish. Or start with English and switch to Spanish if necessary?
Whatever, at least learn Bom Dia, Boa Tarde, Desculpe, Por Favor, Obrigado and Adeus/Chao.

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