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Things to Do in Portugal

Long overlooked in favor of its larger neighbor, Spain, Portugal is holding its own on the European travel circuit today, as growing numbers of visitors discover its old-world charms. Outstanding food, award-winning wines, and distinctive Manueline architecture are just the beginning. Portugal's diverse landscapes range from granite peaks and forested hills in the north, to the sunny beaches of the southern Algarve—all bordered by nearly 500 miles of stunning Atlantic coastline. Start in Lisbon, taking in the capital's many historical sights and famous hills by foot or electric bike. The country's faded glory as a maritime empire in the 15th and 16th centuries is most evident here, but humans have lived in this region since prehistoric times. After a city tour, take a day trip to wander through Roman ruins in Evora; tour a royal castle and a Moorish palace in Sintra; or visit one of the well-preserved medieval villages, like Obidos, that are sprinkled all over the countryside. In Northern Portugal, foodies flock to the UNESCO-listed Douro Valley for wine- and food-tasting tours. Porto's striking harbor is the starting point for scenic Douro River cruises. Thrill-seekers can get their adrenaline fix by surfing, skydiving, or parasailing in the Algarve. And for those who prefer a more relaxed pace, the fishing villages of Nazare, Sagres, and Tavira can feel like a trip back in time. Portugal's delights are many, and with easy access to Western Spain, your Iberian itinerary could extend to Seville, Cordoba, or Granada.
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University of Coimbra (Universidade de Coimbra)
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Portugal’s oldest university, the University of Coimbra (Universidade de Coimbra) was founded in 1290, and is located in the former capital city. Now a popular tourist destination, the university was granted UNESCO World Heritage Status in 2013, and boasts notable architecture, a botanical garden, a science museum, and more.

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Barreta Island (Ilha Deserta)
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A sandy, uninhabited island off Portugal’s Algarve coast, Barreta Island (Ilha Deserta) is a popular beach destination and wildlife refuge inside Ria Formosa National Park. With freshwater lagoons, salt flats, sand dunes, and more, the park has a diverse range of habitats—each with its own resident population of birds and other species, including chameleons.

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Arrábida Natural Park (Parque Natural da Arrábida)
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With coves of golden sand and bright blue water hidden among pine-covered hills and vineyards, Arrábida Natural Park (Parque Natural da Arrábida) in Portugal is a hidden gem for nature lovers. The beaches are the main draw, but the park also attracts hikers and photographers, who come to explore the landscape and enjoy the panoramic views.

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Porto Cathedral (Sé Catedral do Porto)
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Watching over the city from its hilltop spot, the imposing fort-like Porto Cathedral (Sé Catedral do Porto)is a reminder of Porto’s diverse history. Featuring Romanesque, Gothic, and baroque architecture, this is Porto’s oldest and largest church, a must-visit for architecture and history aficionados.

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Braga Cathedral (Sé de Braga)
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Located in city of Braga in northern Portugal, the Braga Cathedral (Sé de Braga) is the oldest surviving church in Portugal and one of the most important monuments in the country. Built in a Burgundian Romanesque style between the 11th and 13th centuries, the cathedral provided architectural inspiration for many other churches and monasteries built in Portugal around the same time. Due to numerous modifications over the centuries, the cathedral today features a mix of styles, including Romanesque, Gothic, Manueline and Baroque.

The cathedral consists of several chapels built at different times. The parents of the first Portuguese were buried in the Chapel of the Kings in 1374 and the Chapel of the Glory was built in the mid-14th century as the final resting place of Archbishop Goncalo Pereira. Looks for the tomb guarded by siz life size stone lions and the painted Moorish geometrical designs. Also of note for visitors is the choir with sculptured gilt wood stalls built in the late 1730s and two gilt wood organs carved around the same time.

Don’t miss the Cathedral Museum, which includes elaborately carved 18th century choir stalls, the 10th century chalice of Saint Gerald, a 14th century statue of the Virgin Mary and an 11th century Arab ivory box.

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Sé Cathedral of Funchal
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One of only a handful of late fifteenth century structures to survive the test of time, this Gothic-style cathedral is evidence of an impressive history and rich architectural past. Its impressive exterior gives way to an understated, spiritual gathering space and altar that make Sé Cathedral Funchal a perfect spot for quiet reflection or contemplative prayer. Visitors can marvel at the detailed ceiling and beautiful side altars while attending morning mass at 8 a.m. The church’s unique bell can be heard throughout the town just before services start.

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Lagos Zoo (Parque Zoologico de Lagos)
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Home to more than 140 different species from across the world, Lagos Zoo offers a family-friendly alternative to the crowded Algarve coast. Opened in 2000, the zoo has become a world-class conservation facility, and its close proximity to central Lagos makes it a top choice for a day away from the city.

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Sete Cidades
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Nature lovers will find plenty to marvel at in the Azores, but the otherworldly volcanic landscape of São Miguel Island’s Sete Cidades is one of the archipelago’s most magnificent natural wonders. The massive caldera has two lakes: one blue and one green.

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Madeira Botanical Gardens
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One of Madeira’s loveliest green spaces, the island’s Botanical Gardens (Jardins Botânicos da Madeira) debuted in 1960. Stretching across 20 acres (9 hectares) and home to more than 2,000 species of exotic plants, the oasis is best known for its colorful geometric flower beds and carefully groomed topiary gardens.

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Belém Tower (Torre de Belém)
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A mighty medieval fortress perched on the banks of the Tagus River, Belem Tower is one of Lisbon’s most visited landmarks. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with the nearby Jeronimos Monastery (Mosteiro dos Jeronimos), it’s a lasting symbol of Portugal’s maritime heritage, dating back to the early 16th century.

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More Things to Do in Portugal

Sintra

Sintra

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Once a hot spot destination for Portuguese royalty—Lord Byron called it a “glorious Eden”—Sintra is widely acclaimed as one of Portugal's most beautiful destinations, full of gardens, tiled villas, colorful palaces, and neo-Gothic structures, all surrounded by verdant hills rolling toward the Atlantic Ocean.

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Clérigos Church and Tower (Torre & Igreja dos Clérigos)

Clérigos Church and Tower (Torre & Igreja dos Clérigos)

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Standing atop a hill overlooking Porto, Portugal, are the Igreja dos Clérigos, an 18th-century church and one of the city’s architectural symbols, and the Toree dos Clérigos, its bell tower. Intricately carved baroque shells and garlands on the church reflect Porto’s seaside location, and the bell tower offers panoramic views of the city.

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Ria Formosa Natural Park

Ria Formosa Natural Park

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Located at the southernmost tip of Portugal’s Algarve, Ria Formosa Natural Park (Parque Natural da Ria Formosa) is a scenic swirl of freshwater lagoons, sandy islands, and lush salt marshlands. The park hugs the coast between Manta Rota and Vale do Lobo, and is best known for its varied topography and diverse bird life.

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Douro River (Rio Douro)

Douro River (Rio Douro)

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A major river on the Iberian Peninsula, the Douro River (Rio Douro) flows from Duruelo de la Sierra in northern Spain all the way to Porto in Portugal, where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean. More than just the region’s lifeline, it’s also the centerpiece of the Douro Valley, Portugal’s most famous wine region and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Dom Luis Bridge (Ponte de Dom Luis I)

Dom Luis Bridge (Ponte de Dom Luis I)

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The imperious, double-decker metal spans of Dom Luis Bridge (Ponte de Dom Luís I) stretch across the Douro River from Porto to Villa Nova de Gaia, and were designed by Téophile Seyrig, the student of Gustave Eiffel who also drew up the plans for the nearby Donna Maria Pia Bridge. WhenDom Luis Bridge (Ponte de Dom Luís I) was finished in 1886, it was the longest single-span bridge in the world at 564 feet, and it supported 3,045 tons of steel in weight.

The bridge marked a significant step forward in Porto’s economic growth, as before it existed, the only passages across the river were boats lashed together. Today the lower deck of the bridge carries cars while the upper level is utilized by metro Line D and has a pedestrian walkway offering views across the river. Since the late 19th century, four other bridges have joined the bridge of Dom Luís I and Donna Maria Pia in reaching across the Douro; they are all best seen by river cruise in a traditional wooden rabelo.

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Ribeira dos Caldeirões Natural Park (Parque Natural dos Caldeirões)

Ribeira dos Caldeirões Natural Park (Parque Natural dos Caldeirões)

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With its gurgling streams, cascading waterfalls and bursts of colorful Hydrangeas, the Ribeira dos Caldeirões Natural Park (Parque Natural dos Caldeirões) shows off the natural beauty of the Nordeste region to its best. It’s also idyllic spot for adventurous hikers, with rock-cut paths winding through the mountains, rainforest trails to explore and endless photo opportunities along the way.

The park’s main draw is its beautiful series of waterfalls, framed by the looming cliffs and lush rainforest, and offering the ideal terrain for canyoning and rappelling activities. The waterfront is also dotted with historic water mills, many of which have been restored and repurposed. Look out for the fascinating Ethnographic Museum housed in one of the mills and the old miller’s house that now serves as a handicrafts shop.

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Praia Gale

Praia Gale

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A favorite among locals due to its golden sands and calm, swimming-friendly waters, Praia Gale should be at the top of any beach-lover’s Albufeira itinerary. Steps away from the resort town of Gale, Praia Gale offers more than just sunbathing opportunities: you can spot marine life in natural pools between the rocks or explore the sandstone caves on either side of the sand.

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Commerce Square (Praça do Comércio)

Commerce Square (Praça do Comércio)

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Commerce Square (Praça do Comércio) was home to Lisbon’s Royal Palace until a 1755 earthquake brought it to the ground. The palace now stands elsewhere, and the square has been restored with ornate arches, grandiose civic buildings, and an equestrian statue of King Jose I. Marble steps lead from Praça do Comércio down to the River Tagus.

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Santana

Santana

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Located on the north coast of Madeira, Santana is a small town famous for its traditional-style whitewashed A-Frame houses with thatched roofs, painted blue window frames, and red shutters. The town is also home to the Madeira Theme Park, a popular family-friendly attraction.

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Church of Our Lady of Monte (Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Monte)

Church of Our Lady of Monte (Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Monte)

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Church of Our Lady of Monte (Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Monte) is the most important pilgrimage site on the Portuguese island of Madeira. The original church was built in 1741 on top of the foundations of an old chapel that was said to be built by the son of the settler of the island, but it was soon destroyed by an earthquake. The church that stands today dates to 1818. The interior features elegant chandeliers, a statue of Our Lady of the Mountain and the tomb of Charles I of Habsburg, the last emperor of Austria who lived in exile on Madeira until his death in 1922. Also inside the church is a silver Pieta that was the only relic saved from the earthquake. Every year in mid-August the surrounding village of Monte is home to a large festival that includes a procession to the church in honor of Nossa Senhora do Monte (Our Lady of Monte).

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Furnas

Furnas

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An ancient volcanic zone that has been active for more than 100,000 years, Furnas is a hotbed of thermal activity. The lush area has been attracting spa visitors seeking the water’s healing properties since the 19th century. Close to three active volcanos, citizens of the Portuguese parish use the hot springs, geysers, and other hotspots for a variety of activities—including the cooking of a traditional meal of vegetables and stew underground, called cozido. Heated by the volcanic steam, the dish can take up to seven hours to prepare.

Towns sit scenically in and beside large calderas or volcanic craters. There are more than 30 different hot springs, each with their own varying temperature and level of volcanic activity. The heated thermal mineral waters and mud baths are thought to still have therapeutic properties. Furnas makes up one of several small towns on the largest and most populated island of the Azores. There is also a beautiful lake in Furnas that is worth seeing.

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Alcobaça

Alcobaça

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Alcobaça is a pleasant town with a jumble of medieval and modern architecture and a largely pedestrianized center, but its main attraction is undoubtedly Portugal’s first monastery, founded here by the country’s first king, Alfonso Henriques, in 1153. Today the magical Cistercian monastery of Santa Maria is UNESCO World Heritage-listed thanks to its peerless Gothic architecture – it was the first public building in Portugal to adopt the Gothic style.

Just to the left of the church doorway, the Hall of Kings is elaborately decorated with azulejo tiles depicting the history of the monastery up until the 18th century plus a cluster of royal statues in various states of repair. The massive Gothic church at the heart of the complex is an ocher-stone fantasia of flying buttresses, ornate roundels, lacy stone carving and statuary topped with two intricate bell towers.

The long wings that flank the church are much simpler in design, as is its barn-like interior, with unadorned pillars, a plain vaulted roof and bare walls. Simple it may be, but the nave is Portugal’s longest, at 330 feet (100 m). The pair of ornate tombs in the transept belong to King Pedro I and his murdered mistress Ines de Castro; other Portuguese monarchs buried here include kings Alfonso II and III, who are laid to rest in the Chapel of St Bernard, dedicated to the patron saint of the Cistercian order.

Access to the monastery from the church is through the vast three-tiered Cloister of Silence, which is planted with orange trees and contains an ancient fountain that once saw duty as washroom to the monks. It is one of three cloisters surrounded by the monks’ sparse refectory, dormitories and kitchens, which are decorated with traditional blue-and-white tiles.

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Batalha Monastery (Mosteiro da Batalha)

Batalha Monastery (Mosteiro da Batalha)

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Located in the High Estremadura region of central Portugal, Batalha is an attractive town with plenty of excellent shops and restaurants surrounding one of Portugal’s most sacred sites. The Monastery of Santa Maria da Vitória was commissioned by Portugal’s King João I to commemorate the country’s independence from Spain after the Battle of Aljubarrota in 1385.

Some 200 years in its evolution, the Dominican monastery is UNESCO World Heritage-listed as it represents the very pinnacle of Portuguese Gothic and Manueline architecture; its chapter house in particular is an elaborate interweaving of pinnacles, gargoyles and rounded spires over two levels. The fine, lacy façade is studded with intricate stonework that resembles Indian temple carvings, and leads on to a surprisingly unembellished interior, with high Gothic vaulted roof over the nave and stained-glass windows through which sunlight dances on summer days. Around the main body of the church lie several chapels, the stark Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and two tranquil cloisters accessed from a doorway in the north wall in front of the choir.

Batalha monastery became the burial church of the Aviz dynasty Portuguese kings. The Capelo do Fundador to the right of the main entrance is the final resting place of King João I, his wife Queen Philippa of Lancaster and their third son, Prince Henry the Navigator, who expanded Portuguese trade routes into north Africa and died in 1460. A massive equestrian statue of military leader Nuno Álvares Pereira stands guard on the paved piazza outside the monastery; it was he who led his 6,500 troops to victory at Aljubarrota and ended medieval Spanish domination of Portugal.

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Falésia Beach

Falésia Beach

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Stretching for 6km between the villages of Vilamoura and Olhos do Agua, Falésia Beach is one of Portugal’s longest beaches and it’s a serene spot, with miles of pristine golden sands hemmed in by towering red sea cliffs and crops of pine forests.

A firm favorite among both locals and tourists, Falésia is ideal for swimming and water sports, while the cliff top resort is well served with restaurants, hotels, playgrounds and golf courses. Falésia and neighboring Quarteira beach also offer a magnificent backdrop for walking, cycling or Segway tours, with the palm-lined promenades and coastal lanes offering breath-taking views.

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