10 top places to visit in Portugal, from city thrills to surf breaks

10 top places to visit in Portugal, from city thrills to surf breaks

From the captivating culture of Lisbon to the medieval streets of Évora, here are the best places to go in Portugal © Westend61 / Getty Images

Cultured, culinary, creative and bubbling with energy, Portugal is one of those destinations that ticks all the boxes. Families and surfers flock to the beaches strung out along 830km (515 miles) of coastline. Fans of history, culture and food amble around Portugal's storied cities. Nightlife junkies hop from bar to bar in Lisbon and Porto and along the Algarve, and hikers wander from hilltop village to hilltop village in Portugal's Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês.

With Portugal's human-friendly scale, it's easy to fit in a little bit of everything on one trip: city thrills, coastal chills, and a dose of natural serenity under the Mediterranean sunshine. If you have time to spare (and some versatile footwear), check out these essential spots to visit in Portugal.

Introducing Portugal

Lisbon is the place to go for a lively night out

Seven iconic hills overlook Lisbon's postcard-perfect panorama of cobbled alleyways, white-domed cathedrals and grand civic squares – a captivating scene crafted over centuries. The Portuguese capital is packed with galleries to browse (including the awesome Museu Coleção Berardo, with works by Hockney, Warhol and Pollock amongst others), castles to explore (hilltop Castelo de São Jorge chief among them) and enough pastel de nata (custard tart) spots to satisfy even the most sweet-toothed visitor. But Lisbon’s trump card is its nightlife, with a mix of old-school drinking dens, brassy jazz clubs and open-all-night clubs that burst into life once the sun goes down.

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10 top places to visit in Portugal, from city thrills to surf breaks

The handsome Palácio Nacional da Pena towers over Sintra © Taiga / Shutterstock

Sintra is like something from a fairy tale

Less than an hour by train from the capital, Sintra feels like another world, and it's a great option for a day trip away from the city hubbub. Like a setting from a fairy tale, this historic hillside township is sprinkled with stone-walled taverns and lorded over by a multicolored palace. Forested hillsides form the backdrop to this storybook setting, with imposing castles, mystical gardens, strange mansions, and centuries-old monasteries hidden among the trees. The fog that sweeps in by night adds another layer of mystery; cool evenings are best spent by the fire in one of Sintra’s many charming B&Bs.

10 top places to visit in Portugal, from city thrills to surf breaks

Beautiful Porto is Portugal's second-largest city © Adrienne Pitts / Lonely Planet

Romantic Porto will capture your heart

It would be hard to dream up a more romantic city than Porto. The nation's second-largest settlement is laced with narrow pedestrian lanes, baroque churches and sprawling plazas, leading the eye downwards towards the Duoro River and its landmark bridges. Needless to say, there's no shortage of things to see and do. Start in the Ribeira district – a Unesco World Heritage Site – then cross the bridge to explore centuries-old port wineries in Vila Nova de Gaia, where you can sip the world’s best port. Though Porto is defined by its air of dignified history, modern architecture, cosmopolitan dining, vibrant nightlife and artistic activity are injecting new life into the city.

10 top places to visit in Portugal, from city thrills to surf breaks

The historic center of Évora is a Unesco World Heritage Site © Takashi Images / Shutterstock

Évora combines medieval appeal with youthful energy

The heart of the Alentejo region, and one of Portugal’s most beautifully preserved medieval towns, Évora is an enchanting place to spend a couple of days. Inside the 14th-century walls, narrow, winding lanes lead to striking monuments, including an elaborate medieval cathedral and cloisters, Roman ruins and a picturesque town square. But this isn't a musty museum piece – Évora is also a lively university town, and its many restaurants serve up some excellent, hearty Alentejan cuisine.

10 top places to visit in Portugal, from city thrills to surf breaks

Praia da Falésia is one of many popular stretches of sand lining the Algarve © Eloy Rodriguez / Getty Images

Celebrate Portugal's varied coastline in the Algarve

Sunseekers have much to celebrate when it comes to beaches in Portugal. Along the south coast, the Algarve is famed for its gorgeous and varied coastline. You can join the crowds on the people-packed sands at major resorts or find seaside peace on dramatic wild beaches backed by rugged cliffs. Days are spent playing in the waves, taking long oceanfront strolls, or surfing some of Europe's most memorable breaks. The summer offers endless days of sunshine and inviting ocean temperatures but you'll have to share the Algarve with a crowd; for a quieter experience, plan a low-season visit, when prices dive and crowds disperse.

10 top places to visit in Portugal, from city thrills to surf breaks

Coimbra University is one of the oldest universities in Europe © Tupungato / Shutterstock

Coimbra is one of Europe's oldest seats of learning

Portugal’s most atmospheric college town, Coimbra rises steeply from the Rio Mondego, and its handsome medieval quarter houses one of Europe’s oldest universities. Students roam the narrow streets clad in black capes, while the sound of fado music drifts through the Moorish town gates towards the stained-glass windows of the historic Café Santa Cruz. Grown-ups will appreciate the town’s student-driven nightlife and the medieval lanes of the steeply stacked historic center; kids can keep busy at Portugal dos Pequenitos, a theme park with miniature versions of Portuguese monuments.

10 top places to visit in Portugal, from city thrills to surf breaks

Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela is home to the country's only ski area © AnnaTamila / Getty Images

Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela is home to Portugal's only ski slope 

The Serra da Estrela – Portugal’s highest mountain range– is the place to come for rugged scenery, outdoor adventures, and a vanishing traditional way of life. Hikers can choose from a network of high-country trails with stupendous vistas, and fascinating mountain villages make perfect bases for outdoor adventures. At the country’s highest point – the summit of Torre, artificially pushed up to 2000m/6561ft by the addition of a not-so-subtle stone monument – you can slalom down Portugal’s only ski slope. Oh, and did we mention the furry sheepdog puppies that frolic by the roadside? You’ll long to take one home!

10 top places to visit in Portugal, from city thrills to surf breaks

The main streets of Óbidos are very busy at weekends and during festivals © StockPhotosArt / Shutterstock

Óbidos is a busy hub for festivals throughout the year

Wandering the tangle of ancient streets in the historic town of Óbidos is enchanting at any time of year, but come during one of its festivals and you’ll be in for a special treat. Whether you fancy the idea of a mock-up jousting match at a medieval fair, searching for the next Pavarotti at the Festival de Ópera or delving into the written world at Folio – Portugal's newest international literature festival – you couldn’t ask for a better backdrop.

10 top places to visit in Portugal, from city thrills to surf breaks

The ancient granaries of Soajo are one of the most striking sights in Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês © VR2000 / Shutterstock

Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês is Portugal's only national park

The vast, rugged wilderness of Portugal’s only national park is marked by dramatic peaks, meandering streams and rolling hillsides covered with wildflowers. The stone villages dotted around the reserve seem lost in time, with time-worn churches and traditional raised stone granaries, and in more remote areas, wolves still roam. As always, the best way to feel nature’s power is on foot, following more than a dozen hiking trails. Some routes scale peaks, some follow old Roman roads and others lead to castle ruins or waterfalls. After a long hike, you can recharge in refreshing swimming holes or steamy thermal springs.

10 top places to visit in Portugal, from city thrills to surf breaks

Escadaria do Bom Jesus do Monte is a highlight of Braga © Lev Levin / Shutterstock

Braga is famed for its remarkable historic sites 

Portugal’s third-largest city is known for terrific restaurants, its vibrant university vibe and some raucous festivals, as well as one of the finest collections of historic monuments in the country. Take your pick from a remarkable 12th-century cathedral, a 14th-century church, two sets of Roman ruins, countless 17th-century plazas, and an 18th-century palace reinvented as a museum. Almost everyone pauses to snap some photos on the city's splendid baroque staircase, Escadaria do Bom Jesus do Monte, where penitent pilgrims come to make offerings at altars on the way to the mountaintop throughout the year.

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