The Ultimate Guide to Portugal: What to See, Eat and Do

by Miriam Cihodariu

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Wonderful Portugal, the land of seafarers and explorers, romantic music and exquisite food, is one of the best travel destinations in Europe. 

From lush beaches to majestic mountains, charming towns, and incredible food and wine, Portugal has it all. Whether you’re looking for a wonderful cultural trip or you’re passionate about exquisite seafood or simply on the lookout for a perfect honeymoon, head on to Portugal.

I’ve been to several high-profile destinations within Portugal and loved all of them. Every place you visit in this beautiful country has its own special energy and is worth exploring at a slow pace so you can enjoy everything it has to offer.

yellow tram in lisbon

Since you’re reading this, you probably like to spice things up while you travel and not just stick to crossing off the main touristy objectives from a list. That’s another reason why Portugal is a great place to travel to, because there are plenty of interesting things you can do while you’re there, for a perfectly immersive experience. Here’s what you shouldn’t miss while in Portugal!

Explore the streets of Lisbon and the fado music scene

narrow streets lisbon

The charming narrow streets of Lisbon are home to numerous pastry shops, restaurants and small bars with live fado music. The Alfama quarter of the city is especially studded with charming bars, and a walk-through town here is bound to be breathtaking since virtually all of the streets and buildings are remarkably well-preserved medieval landmarks. While in Lisbon, you should also try to visit the Sao Jorge Castle on one of the city’s hills, enjoy fresh seafood at one of the restaurants near the beach, and admire the timeless beauty of the Belem Tower (featured below).

belem tower in sunset lisbon portugal

Hungry for more? If you love tiles and decorative arts, make your way to the Museum of Azulejos downtown, and admire the beauty of traditional ceramics. Lisbon is also a great place to explore water sports or take up wings with windsurfing and kitesurfing.

mercado da ribeira lisbon portugal chefs corner

Make sure you don’t leave Lisbon without a visit to the Mercado da Ribeira, one of the most impressive marketplaces in town. Besides the abundance of fresh produce, cheeses, wines and fresh meat and seafood, you’ll also find local street food chefs ready to satisfy any palate.

Whip up the wonderfully complex Portuguese food

pasteis de nata portuguese custard tart

The iconic pasteis the nata, the Portuguese custard tart, makes for the ideal coffee break.

While we’re on the topic of tasty morsels, why not try your hand at cooking, too? Attending cooking classes in Portugal or simply indulging in a Portuguese food tour is one of the most delicious experiences you can ever have.

In terms of European cooking, this country’s food has no rival, in my opinion. The richness of the resources here (especially the access to such large ocean coastlines) and the sunny cliffs created all conditions for the cuisine to be Mediterranean-influenced: as full of freshness and salty, earthy flavors as the cuisines of Greece or Italy.

porto river restaurant

On the other hand, Portugal’s proximity to the highly elaborate food culture of medieval France and Spain meant that the cuisine also got pretty sophisticated. To this day, the richest collection of recipes from medieval times comes from Portugal. All this dense history translates into an incredibly complex food culture that incorporates modern and edgy elements with a tradition of working with layers of taste. Take a bite and you’ll want more!

Visit the castle complex of Sintra

fragment of moorish castle wall in sintra

A fragment of the wall of the Moorish Castle in Sintra

If you only manage to visit one other thing in Portugal besides your main major destination, let that thing be Sintra. A most charming little town hidden in the hills and mountains of inland Portugal, Sintra has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its spectacular castle complex on the mountains overlooking the town.

pena palace in sintra

Small fragment of the Pena Palace in Sintra

The old historical ruins of the Moorish Castle are connected to the newer Pena Palace, the residence of the Portuguese royal family in the 19th and 20th centuries. The two main castles are connected through a series of rock-carved stairs and pathways, tunnels, palace gardens (beautifully landscaped), parks and small museums. Everything is so fairytale-like that the complex is also one of the most popular wedding photography destinations in the area. You simply have to visit it, but dress warm; Sintra is so far up in the mountains that it can get chilly even in the middle of summer.

Ride the waves in Algarve

surfing in portugal

The coastline of Portugal is littered with tempting beaches, just perfect for watersports of all kinds, especially in the region of Algarve. Considered by pros to be one of the top surf destinations of Europe, Algarve is a paradise of beach spots with varied depths and wind intensities.

portugal coast

From the Faro beach in the South West to the stunning views of Arrifana in the South West, the Algarve stretch is littered with perfect surf spots for all levels of experience and all preferences.

Of course, there are also other surf hot spots all across the Portugal coastline, besides Algarve. Lagos, Ericeira, and Maiorca are just a few other surf locations worth exploring. Regardless of which one you pick, surf is up almost all year in Portugal.

Enjoy the wine in Porto

wine cellar in porto lit up at night photo by miriamcih

This is a picture of an old building with wine cellars underneath which I personally admired while visiting Porto. I was just going on a walk along the river Douro, that crosses the town and defines it, right up until meeting the ocean at the outskirts of town (where there’s a lot of surfing and kitesurfing activity, by the way). And, sometime after sundown, I came along this beautifully lit wine cellar and knew I just had to explore it more.

wine cellar in Porto

But the best part about Porto is that this particular wine cellar is by no means unique. The city is littered with similar buildings, some of them very old but still functional and very well-kept. Of course, what we understand by ‘Port wine’ is, in fact, a fortified wine, more akin to cherry liquor than regular wine, but there are plenty of other wines made in the Douro Valley region.

vineyards along douro river valley

The vineyards on the hills of the Douro River Valley

In fact, the wine-making tradition is so strong here and that you can learn fascinating things about the process, while also enjoying an amazing variety of wines. There are plenty of wine tasting tours focusing on the city of Porto so I strongly suggest not letting this opportunity pass you by while in Portugal.

Find inner peace on the Portuguese shores with yoga and meditation

portugal algarve yoga

The generous coastlines of Portugal are also the ideal setting for finding yourself, which is why meditation and yoga are so popular in beach resorts. Once you get to try a yoga resort in Portugal for yourself, you’ll understand why a peaceful yoga pose feels like the most natural thing to do on the shores here.

In many cases, the yoga retreats in Portugal are also offering mixed activities, with some surf and watersports being added to the retreat’s range of available activities. Considering how inviting the beach and the waves are, all over the Portuguese coast, it makes perfect sense. Also, stand-up paddleboard yoga is most definitely on the menu! But if you don’t fancy water sports at all, don’t worry: there are still plenty of meditation and yoga retreats on the beach or even inland, where you can just enjoy the gentle breeze in the middle of peaceful scenery.

Bike your way through the mountains of Portugal

madeira mountain trail

Last, but not least, if you prefer to travel on two wheels, then you shouldn’t miss the chance to explore Portugal by motorcycle as well. The country’s roads and trails are notorious for their spectacular views, especially in the mountain areas of the country, but also along the river valleys.

If you prefer the breathtaking views that you can get from a top of a mountain to the lower altitude ones, then the Sintra or the Costa Verde areas are perfect to go on a motorcycle tour. While spectacular, these two trails are also pretty safe, especially if you go with a group as part of a guided tour. Besides the views and the addictive fresh air in your face, you’ll also be able to enjoy the Portuguese food and cultural shows along the road as well. Depending on the route you take, there’s sure to be more than just scenery along the way!

If, on the other hand, you prefer the river valleys with their sunny vineyards, wineries and old forts, then the Douro river valley (around Porto) is the perfect place for taking a motorcycle tour. Head over to the lowlands of the Porto region and admire the UNESCO World Heritage terraced vineyards while riding away into a sunset like none you’ve ever seen before.

Wrapping it up

porto cityscape

For me and countless other visitors, Portugal is a land of magic and wonder, where you can almost feel the ancient call of the sea, the call of the wine and views of Porto or the coffee shops and music of Lisbon, or the majestic beauty of Sintra, all of which are out there and waiting to be explored.

If the Portuguese people of past ages were the best explorers in the world, you can totally understand why: it’s not that their country doesn’t have enough interesting things to see and enjoy. It’s because there are so many beautiful things around that exploration and wanderlust become a way of life. Try living life the Portuguese way and see for yourself! 

 


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