How to Plan a Trip to Portugal
Small in size but rich in history, culture, and natural beauty, Portugal features contrasting landscapes that include long beaches, lush vineyards, verdant valleys, and rolling hills dotted with tiny settlements where old traditions still prevail. The country's serene interior, often overlooked by foreigners, remains largely unspoiled by mass tourism and offers visitors a chance to discover this less-trodden part of Europe at their own pace. Ripe for leisurely yet adventurous Portugal tours on foot or by bicycle, the fertile countryside boasts well-preserved medieval castles and outstanding wineries, producing some of the world's finest ports. The country's cities offer a lively culinary scene known for its many award-winning restaurants, topping the itineraries of foodies from around the globe.
Places to Visit in Portugal
Regions of PortugalAlgarve
: With nearly 200 km (125 mi) of developed coastline, Algarve, Portugal's southernmost region, is a paradise of beaches, coves, and lagoons. Central Portugal
: The most prosperous and densely populated region in the country, Central Portugal features a tranquil countryside filled with castles and fortified villages. Northern Portugal
: Mixing a lively coastline with a rolling countryside and lush vineyards, Northern Portugal remains one of Europe's top destinations, with the cosmopolitan city of Porto as its star attraction. Madeira Islands
: An Atlantic island archipelago southwest of the mainland, the Madeira Islands and their verdant volcanic mountains holding extensive hiking trails make a fine addition to any Portugal itinerary. Azores
: Packed with lavish natural beauty, tall volcanic mountains, and renowned vineyards, the Azores islands feel isolated while still distinctly Portuguese. Alentejo
: Rural and unspoiled by mass tourism, Alentejo's agricultural tradition provides the region with an unhurried sense of calm far from any big cities or tourist crowds.
Estremadura: Estremadura borders the Atlantic, offering popular holiday resorts with sandy beaches and charming towns further inland.
Top Cities in Portugal
- Lisbon: Likely to be the historical, cultural, and economic star of your Portugal holiday, Lisbon is a world-class travel destination with fantastic museums and monuments as well as countless hilly backstreets to wander and get lost in.
- Porto: The birthplace of port wine and Portugal's second-largest city, Porto's entire old historical center is classified as a World Heritage Site, while striking architecture and impressive bridges over the Douro River command attention.
- Funchal: Funchal has served as the capital city of Madeira for over half a millennium, and continues to draw crowds to its warm Atlantic climate and historical sites.
- Albufeira: One of the highlights of Portugal's Algarve region, Albufeira boasts 20 beaches alongside a lively old town.
- Sintra: Travelers to Lisbon are likely to include Sintra on their Portugal itinerary in order to see its elaborate centuries-old buildings surrounded by rolling hills.
- Cascais: Easily accessed from Lisbon, the small coastal town of Cascais combines the charm of a small fishing village with the modern amenities of a luxury retreat destination.
- Lagos: The departure point for several explorer ships during Portugal's Age of Discovery, today Lagos attracts visitors to its stunning beaches and historical center.
- Coimbra: Portugal's medieval capital, Coimbra remains an intellectual and lively town with a nightlife-loving university scene and bohemian atmosphere.
- Portimao: Perfectly located for leisurely or competitive sailing, Portimao also boasts a pirate ship cruise, a favorite for those on a family vacation in Portugal.
- Evora: A World Heritage Site, Evora was an active part of the Roman Empire and later flourished as a residence for Portuguese royalty in the 15th century.
- Vilamoura: A hot spot for luxury Portugal tourism, this resort ranks among Europe's largest, complete with a casino, a riding school, golf courses, plus the ubiquitous natural and historical allure of Portugal's Algarve.
- Ponta Delgada: The island of Sao Miguel's busy capital, Ponta Delgada is appreciated for its natural seaside beauty and inviting pedestrian streets.
- Guia: Guia may be tiny, but it is home to one of the country's most famous beaches, serving as a paradise to fans of marine life and water sports.
- Vila Nova de Gaia: Porto's "new" counterpart, Vila Nova de Gaia is where the majority of port wine is stored and aged, with various warehouses and cellars offering tours and tastings throughout the week.
- Alvor: Nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and a lagoon, the former fishing village of Alvor offers natural beauty in the form of rocky cliffs and sandy beaches.
- Guimaraes: Portugal's first capital, Guimaraes is a World Heritage-listed town with architecture from the 15th to 19th centuries.
- Faro: The capital city of the Algarve region, Faro offers a plenitude of beaches and bars to keep both locals and tourists happy around the clock.
- Braga: Portugal's third-largest city, Braga is sometimes called the Portuguese Rome due to its large number of cathedrals.
- Obidos: Once a gift to Queen Isabel in the 13th century, the town of Obidos is sprinkled with bright white houses inside a fortified wall.
- Tavira: Travelers looking for less touristy Portugal vacation ideas will appreciate the coastal town of Tavira, whose riverside location makes it a quieter Algarve destination while still full of attractions in the old town.
- Fatima: Fatima is renowned for the Cova da Iria pasture, a famous religious site where three children allegedly saw a vision of the Virgin Mary in 1917.
- Sagres: The isolated, rugged resort town of Sagres offers sea cliff views alongside a medieval fortress.
- Camara De Lobos: Once the summer retreat destination of Sir Winston Churchill, Camara de Lobos continues to draw visitors to its colorful boats and fishermen's cottages.
- Praia da Rocha: A popular Portugal vacation destination since the 1800s, Praia da Rocha offers developed resorts alongside 19th-century mansions.
- Olhos de Agua: Olhos de Agua is a tiny fishing village in the Algarve's Faro district; its name, meaning "eyes of water," comes from the nearby freshwater springs.
- Olhao: Olhao is the largest fishing port in the south of Portugal, but the town's pleasant center impresses on its own.
- Tomar: Tomar draws visitors from around the world to see the 13th-century Convento de Cristo, a World Heritage Site and one of the biggest tourist attractions in Portugal.
- Machico: Madeira's second city, Machico is easy to visit on foot and features an 18th-century fort that once defended the town from pirates.
Things to Do in Portugal
Popular Portugal Tourist AttractionsLisbon Oceanarium
: Europe's largest indoor aquarium boasts more than 450 marine species and was designed by renowned architect Peter Chermayeff. Belém Tower
: One of Lisbon's enduring symbols, the fortified Torre de Belem was built in the 15th century to defend the city and house prisoners.Castelo de S. Jorge
: Built atop a hill overlooking Lisbon's historical city center, St. George's Castle can be explored on foot to take in views of the city's seven hills. Bairro Alto
: This artsy and bohemian neighborhood is Lisbon's cultural and entertainment center, whose cobblestone streets feature bars and restaurants at every turn. Alfama
: The hilly streets of Alfama make up Lisbon's oldest neighborhood, where Fado restaurants and historical attractions abound. Tram 28
: Lisbon's historical tram service is best enjoyed by taking Tram 28, making stops at many popular historical and cultural sights along the way.Cascais Historic Center
: Cascais' historical center draws Lisbon visitors to its tiny streets, just steps away from lively beaches. Park and National Palace of Pena
: Neo-Gothic, Neo-Manueline, Neo-Islamic, and Neo-Renaissance architectural styles combine to make the National Palace of Pena one of the most unique places to visit in Portugal.Monte Cable Car
: Climb 3.2 km (2 mi) by cable car from Funchal to the town of Monte while enjoying scenic views of Madeira's largest city and beyond. Ponte de Dom Luis I
: Porto's iconic bridge was once the the longest of its kind in the world; cross its pedestrian pathway high above the Douro River for beautiful views of Porto.
Planning a Portugal Vacation with Kids
Places to Visit in Portugal with Kids
Portugal offers an abundance of history, culture, and natural beauty, making it a great place to visit with kids. Depending on your family's preferences, you may choose to concentrate your time in the museum- and attraction-packed cities in Central Portugal
and Northern Portugal
, or relax along world-famous beaches in the south's Algarve
. Whatever your inclination, Lisbon
is undoubtedly a great place to start. Packed with monuments such as the Belém Tower
and Castelo de S. Jorge
, Lisbon is the perfect starting point on any family's Portugal holiday. After visiting the famed monuments, consider a day trip to the small beach town of Cascais
or the mountain palace in Sintra
. Alternatively, spend more time in Lisbon at the enormous Lisbon Oceanarium
or simply wandering the streets of Bairro Alto
From Lisbon, continue your tour of Portugal by taking a train north, east, or south--or hop onto a ferry to visit one of the country's two island regions.
Things to Do in Portugal with Kids
Lovers of history and culture will find plenty to learn about in Lisbon District's top museums. Kids may appreciate the vibrant colors at Lisbon's National Tile Museum
, which traces the development of this specialty craft dating back to the 15th century. The National Coach Museum
in Belem recalls scenes from "Cinderella" with its extravagant collection of centuries-old coaches and carriages.
Away from the cities, the Algarve offers plenty of fun things to do with kids, from beach activities to amusement parks. Make your way to Lagos to spend afternoons soaking up the sun at the popular Praia da Rocha
, and spend another day at the dolphin water park Zoomarine Algarve
. For kids of all ages who want to go straight for the high-adrenaline activities, Slide & Splash - Water Slide Park
will keep your body cool and your heart pumping.
Tips for a Family Vacation in Portugal
Plan a family vacation in Portugal according to your family's preferences, keeping in mind that peak travel occurs during summers, which is also when the country is at its hottest. If you go then, be prepared for high temperatures, and carry lots of sunscreen and water everywhere you go. Lisbon
make excellent places to use as a base during your Portugal trip since they all enjoy proximity to beaches and provide easy transportation options for short trips to other places on your itinerary.
Dining and Shopping on Holiday in Portugal
Cuisine of Portugal
Portuguese cuisine has evolved over the centuries, influenced by both the land and sea, as well as the country's various former colonies. No Portugal trip is complete without sampling some of the distinctive national dishes.
Despite being sourced far from Portugal's mainland, salted codfish ("bacalhau") is undeniably the country's most prominent dish. The Portuguese prepare this fish in so many different ways, you'll be hard-pressed to eat it in the same style twice. Aside from cod, other fish ("peixe") and fresh seafood abounds, and can be found in nearly any restaurant served alongside rice, potatoes, and salad.
Another famed and endlessly popular Portuguese dish is smoke-charred grilled chicken, or "frango assado." Marinated in chili, garlic, and oil, this dish can be heavenly when prepared properly.
Note that most restaurants in Portugal will bring a small plate of assorted breads, meats, and cheeses when you sit. There is almost invariably a charge for this. Don't be afraid to ask what it will cost, or to politely refuse it.
Shopping in Portugal
Portugal remains a fairly affordable vacation destination, and it is easy to find various indigenous specialty items at fair prices. Some of the more popular handicraft items include Nazare dolls, porcelain figures of the emblematic "Galo de Barcelos," and handmade leather purses. Designer clothing lines, such as Fatima Lopes or Maria Gambina, can be found throughout Lisbon.
Port wine is arguably the country's most famous gastronomic export and makes an excellent souvenir or gift. Port can be found in souvenir shops near almost every Portugal tourist attraction, but the best stuff is available directly from the cellars in Porto or Lisbon.
Know Before You Go on a Trip to Portugal
History of Portugal
The history of Portugal begins around the year 1385, when Joao Mestre de Avis and his army defeated the Castilians in the Aljubarrota battle. The following centuries saw the rise of the Portuguese empire during the Age of Discovery, with colonies established in South America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania. Portugal was quickly outpaced by the English, French, and Dutch in terms of wealth and status over the following centuries.
One of the biggest tragedies in Portugal's history was the Great Lisbon Earthquake in 1755, which almost totally destroyed the capital city. Ruins from this disastrous event can be found across Lisbon today, especially at the Carmo Convent
After the 19th-century Napoleonic invasion and the loss of Brazil, its greatest colony, Portugal was ripe for a revolution. In 1911 the monarchy was deposed, only to be replaced by a repressive dictatorship that stifled Portugal's development and modernization. Another coup in 1974 introduced democracy to the country, which remains in place today. Still, economic woes continue to haunt the struggling country, despite its membership in the European Union and generally progressive social politics.
Customs of Portugal
The Portuguese are proud and polite, and are generally very accepting of foreigners. Greet strangers during your Portugal vacation with a handshake, and well-known friends with a kiss on both cheeks. Despite its proximity to Spain, Portugal is independent and culturally distinct from its eastern neighbor, so do not make the mistake of conflating the two. In a similar vein, avoid speaking to locals in Spanish--even though they may understand you, conversation in Portuguese (or even English) is preferred.
Holidays & Festivals in Portugal
Portugal is predominantly Catholic and celebrates various large holidays (Christmas, Easter) along with local patron saint days, which mostly take place in June. One of the largest yearly local holidays is St. Anthony's Day (Dia de Santo Antonio) on June 13 in Lisbon. Large parades take place along Avenida da Liberdade
, with concerts across various neighborhoods. Eleven days later in Porto is the St. John's Day (Dia de Sao Joao) festival, celebrated with bonfires, fireworks, and small rubber hammers to tap lightly on one another's heads. On the June 29, many smaller towns such as Evora
celebrate St. Peter's Day (Dia de Sao Pedro), a midsummer bonfire notable for its "queimar a alcachofra" (burn the artichoke), which is believed to bring good luck.
Portugal Travel Tips
Climate of Portugal
Portugal has a warm Mediterranean climate, with temperatures averaging around 15 C (59 F) in the north and 18 C (64 F) in the south. Summers can be very hot, with temperatures rising up to 40 C (104 F) in much of the country. Madeira Islands
and the Azores
are more temperate year-round, with a smaller temperature range than the mainland.
Transportation in Portugal
It's easy to visit most of Portugal's tourist destinations thanks to the country's small size and well-developed transportation infrastructure. Trains are common and fast, but consider taking buses as an alternative--they are often more affordable, and sometimes the only option when traveling to smaller destinations. Car rentals are also a decent option and available in all major cities and airports.
Language of Portugal
Portugal's official language is Portuguese. Although it is approximately 89-percent similar to Spanish in vocabulary and grammar, the two languages should not be confused. Locals always appreciate when visitors learn how to pronounce a few words in Portuguese. In major tourist areas, English is widely understood and spoken, especially by the younger generations.
Tipping in Portugal
Tipping in restaurants is optional, and is usually rounded up to the next euro. It is not customary to tip in taxis or hotels.