Portugal might not strike most travelers as an urban destination at first, but there is more to explore in this pocket-size Western European country beyond the luscious green of the Douro valley and the golden sand beaches of Algarve.
With its two top cities constantly listed as the best destinations in Europe, offbeat urban explorers are yearning for an authenticity that is not a product of the tourism industry but the centuries-old personality that has become its trademark.
These are the five cities you must visit in Portugal, mixing spectacular architecture, mouth-watering divine cuisine, and historical highlights to get the country under your skin.
(Photo credit: Filipe Fortes)
This city in the North, around 31 miles from Porto, carries the historical weight of being the birthplace of the nation with charm. Don’t be fooled by the medieval-looking cobblestoned streets of its UNESCO World Heritage historic center – Guimarães is as cosmopolitan and vibrant as the next city.
Former European Capital Culture in 2012, Guimarães exhales culture and hasn’t ceased to mark its territory as one of the most cultural cities in Portugal ever since. In the year before that, 2011, New York Times had already unveiled this atmosphere predicting that the city was on the rise to become Portugal’s cultural center.
What not to miss in Guimarães:
• A stroll through the historic center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
• A visit to the castle where the first King of Portugal, Afonso Henriques, was born
• The local cuisine, prolific in egg-yolk-rich, sugary desserts, and meat-based dishes, preferably washed down with the region’s hallmark wine “vinho Verde” (“green wine”)
(Photo credit: François Philipp)
In a city known for its canals and its gondola-lookalike boats, it’s hard not to compare it to the other canal-filled city of Italy. But Aveiro’s brightness and colorful hue, from the typical boats (“moliceiros”) to the houses by the river, are enough to give it a personality of its own and outshine the tendency for easy comparisons.
Located 44 miles from Porto, Aveiro is a short 40-minute train ride away, close enough to be considered one of the must-take day trips. The bright colors around the city might label it as picturesque, but it is the abundance of Art Nouveau buildings that pins it on the map as the museum city of this architectural style in Portugal.
What not to miss in Aveiro:
• A cruise on a “Moliceiro” is the perfect first introduction to the city
• Art Nouveau’s presence is strong here, so choose a walking tour or head over to the Museum dedicated to this architectural style
• The undeniable trademark sweet treat of Aveiro are the “ovos moles” (it roughly translates to soft eggs) – thin wafer pastries with a decadent, sweet yolk-based cream filling
(Photo credit: Sandra Henriques Gajjar)
Coimbra mixes the melancholic melody of Fado, Portugal’s urban song, with the vitality of youth like no other city in the country. Gently unfolding over the Mondego river, with a stunning mountainous backdrop, the “student city” is home to one of the greatest and oldest Universities in Portugal, founded in 1290.
Perfectly nestled in the center, 2 hours from Lisbon and 1 hour from Porto, Coimbra has grown to become an important business and cultural hub, partly due to its strategic position and the creative energy that stems from the local student mass. It’s the unique combination of the heart and soul of a small town wrapped in urban vibes of a bigger city.
What not to miss in Coimbra:
• The Fado serenades on the steps of the old Cathedral, sentimental and traditionally sung by black-robed university male students
• The UNESCO World Heritage University campus, in particular, the stunning Baroque Library in all its golden glory
• In the lack of a known must-eat local dish, Coimbra has plenty of small, family-owned tavern-like restaurants (“tabernas” or “tascas”) with plenty of delicious options from the region’s cuisine
(Photo credit: Sergei Gussev)
Tomar may be old news for the Portuguese when it comes to tourist attractions, but the center-located city has been garnering attention from foreign visitors in recent years. Once an important industrial hub in the country, the city is beginning to shift its focus to embrace cultural tourism.
Known as the city of Templars for its historic connection to the Christian Crusade Knights in the 12th century, the most famous cultural event in Tomar is, surprisingly, one that is rooted in the pagan celebration of harvest in honor of Roman goddess Ceres, and that was later Christianized by Queen Isabel.
What not to miss in Tomar:
• The Convento de Cristo is a must-visit landmark, for being a UNESCO World Heritage Site and for its historical connection to the country’s foundation
• The Festa dos Tabuleiros every 4 years (the next one is in 2019), a semi-religious communal celebration of prosperity and the calling-card cultural event of the city
• “Fatias de Tomar”, the local sweet, is so particular to make that it has a special pot designed exclusively for its creation – a slow cooked delicacy made purely from egg yolks and sugar
(Photo credit: Sandra Henriques Gajjar)
If one had to encapsulate Évora in one word, historic wouldn’t quite do justice to this city less than 2 hours away from Lisbon. For sure, the Roman temple of Diana, the mix-and-match style of the Cathedral, and the chilling Bone Chapel are quintessential points of interest, but this walled city in the middle of Alentejo is more than just a bundle of landmarks, carefully preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The people of Évora are as warm and welcoming as the weather, and will proudly brag about their hometown, its hearty and meaty cuisine, and its full-bodied wines. Quite rightly so, since the famous dishes and renown wineries of the region will appeal to a variety of people, from amateur foodies to die-hard connoisseurs.
What not to miss in Évora:
• Although not as grand as other European counterparts, the Roman Temple is one of the best preserved in Portugal
• The historic center, with its whitewashed walls and turmeric-yellow trimming, is perfect for strolling down cobblestoned, winding streets
• Whether you opt for a tour through one of the surrounding wineries or a simpler tasting session in the city center, getting a grip on the local wines is fundamental while exploring the city