Portugal is Western Europe’s best kept secret. Although, as the secret slowly seeps, visitors enjoy the benefits of easier and more affordable travel throughout the country’s most iconic historic, cultural and natural sites. This guide to seeing Portugal’s famed architecture, pristine beaches, ancient castles, renowned wineries, resort towns and bustling cities will leave you feeling like you received a true taste of Portugal on your adventure throughout the country.
Measuring just 92,090 square kilometres in size, Portugal is a small country, but it doesn’t feel pint-sized when you’re trying to pack a long list of must-see destinations into a single visit. Explore these seven locales, and you won’t miss out on the country’s most sought-after sites and scenery.
Douro Valley: Portugal’s northern region is known for its lush natural beauty, portrayed by the photogenic terraced farms of the Douro Valley. Known as the birthplace of port wine, there’s no better place in the country to sip a glass while overlooking the sprawling vineyards, valley slopes, charming villages, and winding Douro River.
Porto: Portugal’s second largest city, Porto, is a stark but pleasing contrast to the petite villages to the north. Overlooking the Rio Douro, Porto’s old town is ideal for exploring the city’s history on foot, while new-age restaurants, modern museums and street art remind you of the perks of 21st-century travel.
Coimbra: Portugal’s most prestigious university is located in Coimbra, but it’s the multi-colored buildings, hillside historic core, and medieval roots that make this former capital city a must-see.
Nazaré: Once a quiet Portuguese fishing village, Nazaré is now one of the country’s most popular seaside resorts. Although, it hasn’t lost its charm and is home to some of the best seafood in Portugal. Use Nazaré, in the country’s Centro region, as a jumping point for seeing Portugal’s largest church and the nearby towns of Óbidos and Fátima.
Sintra: A visit to Sintra is an easy 30-minute drive from Lisbon, but it feels light years away from the bustling capital city. This is where you’ll find some of Portugal’s most legendary castles and meticulously maintained gardens.
Lisbon: You may fly into Lisbon on your visit to Portugal, and you definitely shouldn’t hop on a train or bus out of town immediately. The bustling capital city offers everything from castles, gothic architecture and world-renowned museums to booming clubs and fine art. Just getting from one point to another on a historic yellow trolley can be an unforgettable experience in the city.
Algarve: Portugal’s Algarve region, famous for its charming fishing villages, abundant sunshine, rolling waves and jagged seaside cliffs, is a travel destination in itself. Whether you’re seeking sandy beaches that stretch as far as the eye can see, a luxury cliff-side resort or the happening party town of Lagos, there’s something for every type of beach bum in the Algarve.
Portugal is roughly the same size as the U.S. state of Indiana. The country’s small size and convenient network of trains, buses, and short-distance flights make it easy for even the most inexperienced travelers to traverse.
Train: Traveling Portugal by train is one of the best ways to see the country’s picturesque scenery without having to get behind the wheel. Regional and interregional trains are ideal for short-distance travel between major cities and towns, while the Alfa Pendular (AP) line runs from Braga to Faro, stopping at major destinations (including Porto, Coimbra and Lisbon) along the way. The AP line is the fastest, but fares are higher and reservations are required.
Bus: Portugal is equipped with a large network of reasonably priced buses that travel routes similar to the trains. However, buses access more villages and small towns. First-time visitors should check the Rede Expressos line, Rodovaria de Norte and RENEX bus line options first, as they tend to provide the most reliable, affordable and frequent services.
Plane: It’s not necessary to fly from one destination to another across mainland Portugal, but flights do travel from Lisbon to Porto and Faro on a daily basis. Flights also travel to Portugal’s outlying islands for travelers venturing to the scenic Madeira and Azores archipelagos.
Rental Car: Travelers not as concerned about their budgets may prefer to explore Portugal by rental car. Driving in Portugal is generally safe and easy, as the major roads are carefully maintained. Renting a vehicle is always a preferred option for travelers who don’t want to be bothered with bus, train and flight schedules.
Once you’ve made your list of must-see destinations and know how to get from Point A to Point B, it’s important to understand some of the ins and outs of traveling throughout Portugal.
Your visa: Visas are not typically required for those visiting Portugal for 90 days or less. However, visitors from some countries will need to apply for a simple Schengen visa.
Currency: The currency in Portugal is the euro, and 10 Canadian dollars is equivalent to 6.86 euros.
Tipping: A 10- to 15-percent tip is average at most restaurants in Portugal. Bartenders and taxi drivers do not expect tips, but tip one euro per bag at your hotel and leave a gratuity for the cleaning staff if you please.
When to visit: Portugal is a bucket-list-worthy destination in all seasons, but you can expect large crowds in the high season (July and August), average crowds in the shoulder seasons (April to June and September to November) and few crowds from December through March.