10 Must Do’s in Portugal
Hop on a flight or set up sail and venture off to the birthplace of Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan, where the colors are bedazzling, as surreal as a palette worked by Mário Cesariny.
Madeira with its roofs of red tiles, the Algarve and its emerald-green waters, Belem and its soothing whiteness, and the beautiful green of the Azores. All are at your beck and call. Add to that the tranquility of the sleepy little fishing villages in Alentejo, the narrowly ascending tram-ridden Lisbon street, and the intoxication to be enjoyed from supping one too many Vinho do Portos, and you’ll soon realize that Portugal is a land of plenty – a land not to be missed. Here’s my top 10, enjoy!
In 1809, Lord Byron wrote to his friend Francis Hodgson: “I must just observe that the village of Cintra in Estremadura is the most beautiful in the world.” Making the assumption that favorable things tend to get better with maturity, is it any wonder that UNESCO now lists Sintra as a World Heritage Site?
Nevertheless, you ought not to be misled by its tiny size. Sintra offers a conglomerate of attractions, many of which are the wonderful cuisines to be had, while others are only discovered when you venture forth off the well beaten track. Irrespective of your location, however, you’ll certainly note the Pena National Palace looking down upon Sintra from up on high. The palace is well worthy of the climb, as it really does outshine its surroundings, irrespective of the brilliance of Sintra itself.
- Lisbon: Belem
If the Age of Discovery tends to spur your imagination, stop off at Belem, where both da Gama and Magellan made preparations for their voyages to the New World. With its excellent cultural venues, striking historic monuments, and wonderfully exuberant waterfront vistas, Belem is among the capital’s most popular tourist areas.
With its center being the Monastery of the Hieronymites, Belem proffers a sense of 15th century exploration as travelers make their way between the Maritime Museum, the Belem Tower, and the Monument to the Discoveries.
- Lisbon: Fado Bars in Alfama
Arguably, there are no better places to experience fado (popular traditional Portuguese song) nostalgia than in Alfama, the oldest part of the capital, which lies between Lisbon’s Castle and Tejo River.
But do keep your bearings as it’s so easy to become lost among the Museum of Decorative Arts, Lisbon Cathedral, and a number of points along the way where the views are immaculate. Alfama serves to mesmerize with its tiled walls, winding cobbled streets, and of course the fado as it oozes in a melancholic fashion from the quintessential little bars.
The Azores, located some 930 miles (1497 km) from the capital, embellish the Atlantic as precious gems adorn a lady’s neckline. A flight of merely two hours from Lisbon International Airport will see you there, leaving plenty enough time in the day to enjoy the verdant valleys, fields of flowers, dreamy lagoons, sleepy villages, and inspired tales of folklore of an evening.
While St. Miguel’s landscape is something akin to a blend of Hawaii and Switzerland, Santa Maria vibrantly enjoys traditional festivals. Altogether, what with the more-than-pleasing scenery together with the natural personal warmth shown towards visitors to the islands, you’ll likely feel compelled to slow down for just a bit in order to reconsider your attitude towards life. All the same, you could on the other hand simply hide yourself away within the confines of an affluent resort, which makes for a thoroughly valid alternative here in the Azores.
- Costa Vicentina National Park
In need of a romantic evening? If so, make for Cape St. Vincent to view some of the most incredible sunsets ever. The cape is beautiful at any time, with its windswept rocky headland jutting almost 200 ft. (60 m) above the ocean, which serves to make you feel you’re right at the very edge of the continent.
The cape is where you’ll see stunning ocean views mixed with an exuberant array of marine life. And if you really do crave for that real romantic evening, venture forth to the solitary lighthouse that sits over the ruins of a Franciscan convent from the 16th century.
- Lagos: Ponta da Piedade
Lagos is a common port of call when holidaying in the Algarve. After all, it’s a lovely town with its bustling nightlife, fortifications from the 8th century, and the recently added marina area. And yet, if you head a little further south to Ponta da Piedade, this is where things truly begin to unfold.
The headlands of Ponta da Piedade are bathed by waters that are almost indescribable in terms of color, while the rocky headlands have been carved out by the ocean over the centuries to form startling vistas. Hop onto a little boat and venture along the coastline, and make a stop-off at Praia do Camilo or Praia de Dona Ana to enjoy the sandy coves that are hidden from view between the giant cliffs.
- Porto: Historic Center of Porto
The commercial hub located on the Douro River delta is more down-to-earth and industrious than the other large cities in Portugal, with its main industry being that of port wine. Nevertheless, tipsy or otherwise, should you travel into Porto’s Historic Center, you’ll quickly notice how well the urban development has inscribed itself so very neatly into the historical aspects.
There’s no end to the narrow, ascending streets that ramble from the neoclassical Stock Exchange to the beautiful cathedral, and onwards to the old-fashioned shops and countless little museums. And eventually, you’ll see those cozy restaurants, and that’s where the flagship product of Porto can be happily enjoyed to the fullest degree.
- Évora: Monsaraz
If you wish to revel in the delights of medieval Portugal, pay a visit to Monsaraz in Évora. This little Middle Age town is without doubt among the liveliest of locales in Altentejo. The huge castle maintains a keen eye over the Spaniards not so far away, while the low-rise housing and narrow cobbled lanes guarantee a perfectly laidback evening while supping at the local wine and nibbling at any number of local dishes.
In a leisurely fashion, pace along the almost deserted streets and thrive on the ambience of this particularly well-preserved piece of Portuguese history. And don’t miss out on Santa Maria Parish Church or the castle, or if your preference is for a spot of shopping, head for São Pedro do Corval, a small village which is famed for ceramics that are locally produced.
- Lisbon: Nightlife of Bairro Alto
As Lisbon’s bohemian and cultural heart, shopping mecca and nightlife are the words to epitomize Bairro Alto. There’s something of a Jekyll and Hyde scenario at play here, since while it’s calm and generally quiet during the daytime, it comes well and truly alive at night.
Explore the sleek bars, the alternative fashion shops, and cosmopolitan wine bars to discover a highly explosive side to Lisbon’s nature, whereby the city’s party animals and music-oriented subcultures all come together to make Bairro Alto the place to be.
- Alcobaça: Monastery of Alcobaça
Afonso Henríques when opposing the Moors at Santarém, vowed that he would build a dramatic monastery should God grant him victory. As it happens, he did gain achieve his goal and he maintained his promise thereby establishing the Monastery of Alcobaça. These days the monastery is a top tourist attraction and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It represents the first Gothic design in Portugal, and it’s not only huge, but also laden with medieval monastic treasures, and filled with accounts of royal lovers such as that of Dona Ines and Dom Pedro who now lie in tombs face-to-face so they may gaze lovingly upon one another on Judgment Day.