Portugal Tours and Travel Guide
Portugal Attractions & Landmarks Guide
Portugal, which shares the Iberian Peninsula with Spain, is the closest country in continental Europe to America, yet has long been overshadowed by its much larger neighbor. That's changing fast, as savvy travelers are discovering that Portugal is a beautiful country in its own right, and a bargain at that.
Hilly Lisbon, the capital and largest city, is crowned by a fort with magnificent views, and pretty Douro, in the north, is the heart of Port wine country and the embarkation point for Douro River cruises. The southern Algarve region is replete with beaches, and Portuguese cuisine is gaining fame. You won't regret putting Portugal on your tour list.
Portugal’s western border is the Atlantic ocean, with Spain as the eastern border. Among Europe’s smaller countries, Portugal exhibits a strong, vibrant culture, coupled with incredible natural beauty. Travelers to the westernmost mainland country of Europe are still discovering its many secrets.
A History of Exploration
In modern history, Portugal has emerged relatively unscathed from two world wars, and remains fairly autonomous from its more entrenched European neighbors. But there was a time when Portugal was very much at the center of the world stage.
The contributions made by Portugal in science and exploration during the Age of Discovery are many and significant. Both by virtue of location, and the many “enlightened” thinkers who passed through. They were leaders in maritime travel and technology.
This fascinating history comes alive as you walk the streets. Enjoy this vibrant culture which has grown from the many discoveries of explorers through the ages.
Top Cities in Portugal
1. Oporto (Porto)
Charming as all get out, Porto is, of course, known for its port wine industry. This up-and-coming city in country’s north is a must-see during your Portugal tour, not only for the wine, but for its vibrant nightlife, postcard-perfect rabelo sailboats, ancient Ribeira district and a great art scene.
Take a trip on one of the picturesque boats, perhaps with a glass of port in hand (or try the Porto Flip, a concoction of red port, brandy and egg yolk).
Small group tours to Porto can unveil the labyrinthine cobblestone streets of the Ribeira district and its centuries-old homes, arrange for port wine tastings and set up private boat cruises along the Douro River. In fact, from Porto, it’s easy to add on a full Douro River cruise through Spain and Portugal (read about our favorite Douro River cruises here).
Visit the capital of Portugal and slip back in time, to an era when brave souls like Vasco da Gama set off to see what the world had in store. We can’t quite believe they left this stunning city, though! Today, Lisbon is quickly becoming one of Europe favorite cities for its welcoming, liberal attitude, affordability, modernism, traditional heritage and abundant beauty.
History buffs flock to Baixa, Alfama, Chiado and the Avenida da Liberdade on tours that delve into Portugal’s past - each of these areas is very walkable and within easy distance of the city’s major sightseeing attractions.
For a view from the water, take a ferry ride or river cruise on the Rio Tejo. And for a view from higher up, head to the top of one of the city’s seven renowned hills. Travelers interested in photography will adore these Portuguese miradouros (viewpoints) over the cathedral-dotted cityscape and winding river. No filter is necessary for the technicolor photos you’ll take from Portas do Sol, Santa Luzia, Castelo de São Jorge and other top vantage points.
Beyond the allure of the city itself, a Portugal vacation boasts beach time, too. To the west, explore the Cascais-Estoril coastline; to the south, wiggle your toes in the sand of the Costa de Caparica.
Away from the hustle and bustle of Lisbon and Porto, Sintra - once a center of European Romantic architecture - is home to ornate palaces and ancient castle ruins, all tucked in the hillsides of the Serra de Sintra. If you’re interested in architecture, Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a must-see on any Portugal tour.
Don’t miss the Royal Palace in the center of town, dating back to the early 15th and 16th centuries - the front-facing tiles are known to be one of the best examples of the Mudéjar technique (a blend of European and Moorish styles) on the Iberian Peninsula.
Sintra is just as well known for its green spaces - in fact, much of the region sits within the protected area of Sintra-Cascais Natural Park. This includes Pena Park, where you’ll find the romantic, mountaintop Pena Palace - active travelers might enjoy the challenge of cycling to the palace.
If hiking is more your style, ask about Portugal tours that offer guided hiking at Pedra Amarela and Penedo da Amizade - offering the very best views of Sintra. Tired? Return to town and refuel with a famous queijada (cheesecake) or travesseiros (almond pastry).
The sandstone buildings of Salamanca appear to glow giving this UNESCO World Heritage Site its nickname of La Dorada, or The Golden One. Visit Salamanca on your Portugal tour if you love that contagious university town feel, where scholars frequenting the lively bars, cafes and restaurants. The University of Salamanca is a world-class school, popular with both Spanish and international students.
History buffs love Salamanca for its rich, 2,000-year-old history, during which time the village was frequented by Vacceans, Vettones, Romans, Visigoths and Moors. As a result, there’s a stunning diversity of culture and architecture here, making it a top historic site in Portugal. Wander the same streets walked by Cervantes and San Juan de la Cruz during the Spanish Golden Age.
If local Portuguese cuisine is important on your group tour, make your way here - again, the many cultural influences over the centuries have led to a variety of must-try dishes. Tuck in to a hornazo pastry stuffed with pork and hard-boiled eggs or a cochinillo al fuego (roasted suckling pig).
Not to be outdone in the wine department, Salamanca offers a chance to tour the historic Hacienda Zorita Winery. Sweet tooths must stop at Convento de las Deunas for sweets and baked goods made by the resident nuns.
From here, it’s easy to tour nearby Portugal highlights, including Madrid (two hours away), the endearing small town of La Alberca (about 40 miles away) and Zamora, Toledo and Valladolid, all great choices for in-depth Portugal vacation.
Another youthful university city is Coimbra, the medieval capital of Portugal for over a century. Sightsee and dine where six Portuguese kings were born. This is a prime spot for catching local music and dance during your tour - you’ll hear guitarra (Portuguese guitar) and fado singers throughout lingering summer evenings. Don’t miss the incredible 12th-century Romanesque cathedral in the old town.
Looking for European culture? Private and small-group Portugal tours are a sure way to experience the country’s three official European Capitals of Culture: Lisbon, Porto and Guimarães. These cities and the rest of the country have been heavily influenced by many cultures over the centuries - Phoenician, Sephardic Jewish, Moorish, Germaic and Celtic to name a few.
There’s a renaissance of the arts on the rise here. Today’s Portugal art tours open travelers’ eyes to tucked-away local art exhibitions in smaller cities, trendy art galleries like the Arte AFK in Lisbon and university museums in Coimbra.
Bookworms are in for a delight on a Portugal tour - celebrated Portugeuse literary figures include Luís Vaz de Camões of the 16th century, Fernando Pessoa and the more recent José Saramago. Ask your Portugal tour guide to include a visit to Porto’s Lello bookstore just to view its incredible staircase - or time your trip to Portugal with the Lisbon Book Fair each June.
You won’t leave Portugal without a taste for fado and folk music. Fado means “destiny” or “fate” and you’ll quickly see why - the lyrics and tunes you’ll hear are most often associated with longing and homesickness. When you see a performance of this most important form of music during your Portugal vacation, it is polite to applaud (if in Lisbon), or quietly clear your throat (if in Coimbra). Fado is so interwoven into Portuguese life that it is on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.
Sports fans, worry not. Your Portugal tour guide can lead you straight to the arena or a pub that is showing the latest futebol (or soccer) match - another standby of Portuguese culture. Undoubtedly the most popular sport in Portugal, futebol has been here since 1903 when the oldest club, Boavista, was founded. The country’s national team ranks quite highly by FIFA - and if you’re not already familiar, Cristiano Ronaldo will become a household name after your trip to Portugal.
Before the sightseeing begins each morning of your escorted Portugal tour, take a moment to savor the cafe culture of the country. Local residents flock to their favorite haunts to catch up, read the paper or watch the news and prepare for the day ahead. It’s the perfect, and easiest, way to feel like a local in Portugal.
Portuguese culture emanates from its year-round holidays and celebrations, most of which revolve around food. No matter what time of year you visit Portugal on a private tour, you’ll have the chance to party with the locals, celebrating everything from wine to cheese to garlic.
Carnaval is a big deal here, and runs for several days leading up to Lent (not just on Fat Tuesday), with parades, singing and dancing taking over the streets. Summer Portugal tours may coincide with several saint days (for Saints Anthony, John and Peter) in June - look for weddings, fireworks and don’t be surprised if someone uses a toy plastic hammer to “hammer good luck into you”!
Portugal is a predominantly Roman-Catholic country and as such, the Christmas holidays are celebrated with much pomp and circumstance. Holiday tours to Portugal may include the chance to attend Midnight Mass, try a treat of fried pumpkin dough or, later, on the Feast of the Epiphany in early January, tuck into a Bolo Rei, or King Cake, inside of which small treats are placed to be found.
Food and Wine
Portuguese cuisine has many influences, namely from their Spanish neighbors. But as a relatively small ocean-bordered country, over the centuries Portugal has seen visitors from all over the world. You’ll see extremely fresh seafood, all over Portugal, so be sure to enjoy it! Specialties include dry cod and sardines, which feature in many local dishes.
A long standing, wine industry will also be found here. Portuguese wines are less popular in the United States, so you’ll probably enjoy tasting from local producers who don’t export as much. The Porto region produces world class Port and Madeira wine. Definitely don’t pass up a chance to taste wine on your visit to Portugal!
5 Top Foods to Try in Portugal
1. Bacalhau (Codfish) - A dish traditionally enjoyed by Portuguese people on Christmas Eve, this flaky and delicious whitefish is best enjoyed when it’s made simply. A classic recipe involves olive oil, lemon, and onions. Bacalhau is also commonly dried and salted, which makes for a great pick me up snack during your Portugal tour!
2. Alheira (Portuguese sausage) - Something as simple as sausage couldn’t possibly be historically interesting could it? Think again. Alheira represents a food that helped thousands of people practice their religion in secret in the late 1400s. When the Jewish population of Portugal was expelled, many groups escaped to refuge in the Trás-os-Montes region, where this sausage hails from.
The Jewish people made it (without using pork) as a way to be convincing in their conversion to Catholicism. Today Alheira is still traditionally made smoked with chicken, turkey, partridge, veal, or rabbit. Some pork variations can be found, but if you want authentic Alheira opt for another meat.
3. Francesinha - There is no English translation for francesinha; if there were it might be “don’t order unless you’re really hungry”. This is definitely a dish that foodies will want to sample, but you may want to split it with someone else. Francesinha originates from Porto and consists of bread stuffed with several different meats, covered with melted cheese, and a fried egg. If that wasn’t enough, it’s then served with a tomato and beer sauce! Be sure ask around to find out where the locals like to grab one of these hunger quenching sandwiches.
4. Polvo à Lagareiro (Whole Octopus) - Seafood is second nature in Portugal, and you’ll find no end to delicious options. If you’re feeling adventurous, you should definitely not pass up the opportunity to try Polvo a Lagareiro. A whole octopus is boiled then baked, traditionally with potatoes and garlic.
If you’ve never had octopus before, try coaxing someone in your tour group to share with you - the flavor and texture is sometimes an acquired taste. But if there was ever somewhere in the world to expand your seafood reproitroiure, it’s Portugal!
5. Sardinhas grelhadas (Grilled Sardines) - Another famous seafood treat to try in Portugal is grilled sardines. Many Portuguese make use of the grill, and it really brings out the smokey flavor in these morsels. Very commonly served in restaurants, grilled sardines can also be found as street food, served simply with a piece of bread.
Outdoor travel in Portugal
Besides food and wine, Portugal is also a hidden secret for outdoor travelers. Hiking and cycling are two of the most popular activities for active and adventure tours visiting Portugal. The Azores islands and Madeira archipelago off the coast are great spots for getting away from it all. And the mainland isn’t too shabby either with Portugal’s coastline offering spectacular views.
Bear in mind that most hiking or cycling tours that visit Portugal are fairly strenuous given the hilly terrain. If you’d rather not spend your entire vacation on the trails, consider choosing a Portugal tour that includes a few optional hiking activities on the itinerary.
Portugal’s Best Hiking & Cycling Areas
1. Penada-Geres - Oddly, Portugal only has one official national park, the Penada-Geres. Situated in the northern part of the country and crossing the Spanish border, Penada- Geres is stunningly beautiful, and a great area for wildlife viewing, camping, walking, and hiking. There are several trails throughout the park, suitable for all different physical levels.
2. Rota Vicentina - All you long distance hikers out there should not miss a chance to enjoy the challenging yet rewarding Rota Vicentina trail. There are two main trails, a coastal route, the “Fisherman’s Trail” and a route that goes inland called “The Historical Way”. The Rota Vicentina covers 450 km (280 miles), and its southernmost point is actually the southernmost tip of Europe, Cabo de São Vicente.
3. Madeira - Off the North African coast, Madeira is the perfect getaway for outdoorsy travelers seeking a truly off the beaten path experience. The paths are not for the faint of heat, so be sure you’re prepared for some steep and challenging hiking, but the work is well worth the reward as you take in amazing views from the summits around the islands.
Portugal’s serpentine Douro River lends itself beautifully to Europe river cruising. And, for those looking for off-the-beaten-path cruising, this emerging destination can be a fun one to check off your list before the rest of the world discovers it.
Typically, Douro River cruises sail roundtrip from Porto, set in western Portugal near the Atlantic Ocean. Cruises head east to Vega de Terron, Spain, about 125 miles down the Douro River. Along the way, your small river cruise unveils a world food, wine, history and music, past ripe vineyards and quiet villages.
Small river cruises on the Douro introduce travelers to this UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is as culturally significant as it is beautiful. Known for its miles upon miles of vineyards, the Douro River Valley is home to some of Europe’s friendliest and most welcoming people, a hefty amount of excellent Port wine and Portuguese pingo, similar to espresso (and paella as you cruise into Spain).
As your Douro River cruise continues upstream, you’ll enter the Alto Douro (Upper Douro) wine region and most likely stop at Pêso da Régua (or simply Régua) - if you’ve bought wine from this region of Portugal in the past, this is probably the river port through which it was shipped.
Appreciate the vastness and beauty of the terraced vineyards on both sides of the river - these are the grapes grown for the wine that ultimately becomes port, after the addition of Portuguese brandy (aguardente) - and you’ll sample it right at the source!
Look for signs of the Alto Douro’s long history (in fact, this is the world’s oldest formally demarcated wine region) at area wineries, where you may glimpse original stone foundations or dine in a centuries-old estate.
Throughout your Douro cruise, get your fill of the port wine that defines the area’s industry, but also the red and white table wines that are garnering interest worldwide. If it’s harvest time when you cruise the Douro River, ask about picking grapes or stomping them with the local residents and winemakers.
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