Monday, 12 November 2012

Our top 10 places to visit in Portugal

Firstly I should probably mention that we mainly travelled along the coast of Portugal so we missed out on some of the great cities inland.  That said, after much deliberation here are our top ten favourite places to visit in beautiful Portugal.

1. Porto

Porto's UNESCO protected riverbank view from Vila Nova da Gaia.Choosing a winner was incredibly difficult, but Porto just pipped the competition to the post.  We parked up in Vila Nova de Gaia on the opposite side of the river, home to the famous port houses.  This meant every time we ventured into town we were able to enjoy the UNESCO protected view along the Porto riverbank, truly a sight to behold.  Porto rises up from the water in tiers, from colourful riverside houses up to the churches and cathedral high on the hill.

On the Porto side of the river you find lots of street sellers and waterside cafes with a real bohemian feel.  Whilst there are people selling boat tours and plenty of tourist info offices, Porto feels refreshingly un-touristy.  Even on the busiest days, there are plenty of winding side streets full of architectural treasures where you can escape any crowds.  It’s a city where you can spend hours just wandering around, being wowed by the buildings around you.  Even the high street plays home to some magnificent architecture especially the charming Art Nouveau styled Majestic Café.  Our highlights of this beautiful city include the huge cathedral, the stunning Ingreja do Carmen church and the lovely Jardim Palacio de Cristal park which offers phenomenal views of the city.  The jewel in Porto’s crown however has to be the riverside view so be sure to get yourself over the bridge and grab a seat to really appreciate it.  In fact do it twice as the view is very different but just as impressive at night time!

One last piece of advice?  Bring a strong set of legs and a comfy pair of shoes, Porto is STEEP!


A very close second comes the fairytale wonderland of Sintra.  High up in the mountains, the centre of Sintra is a charming maze of cobbled streets, full of cafes and shops.  Across the road you find the national palace, with its grand Moorish influenced rooms, extravagant furniture and flamboyant ceilings (PRO TIP – visit on a Sunday morning to avoid the 7 euro entry fee).

Palcacio da Pena in the Sintra mountains
The main reason why Sintra fell in second place is the difficulty of getting around to the different attractions and the costs involved.  There’s no doubt Sintra has some outstanding places to visit but you’ll need very deep pockets to see them all!

The costs meant we didn’t visit the Moorish castle or go inside the Palacio Nacional de Pena.  We did go into the gardens at the Pena Palace and spend a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon.  The ticket permits entry to the outer section of the palace where you can enjoy the quirky architecture and you can also climb up to the highest point of the park for superb views of the brightly coloured palace and all of Sintra. 

We also visited the wonderfully bizarre Quinta da Regaleira and its unique gardens.  I cannot recommend a visit enough!  Full of fountains, grottoes and castle turrets, the gardens make you feel like you could be in a fairytale storybook.  If it wasn’t for the fact we got incredibly thirsty and a coke cost 3 EUROS(!), they would’ve had to drag me out kicking and screaming at closing time!  Sintra on the whole, whilst a little too touristy, is an adorable city with magnificent views and an abundance of greenery.  It truly is a magnificent place to visit with lots of attractions, just make sure you take plenty of Euros with you!

3. Lisbon and Belem

A main square in Portugal's capital Lisbon
In third place we find Portugal’s capital and the suburb of Belem 6km out.  Thanks to the 1755 earthquake, the centre of Lisbon is lacking in very old buildings.  Nonetheless there are plenty of attractive sights, including the Elevador de Santa Justa lift, Rossio train station, the Moorish castle and the Basilica.  Keen to save money we didn’t bother with a visit to the zoo or aquarium, although I must say I’ve heard great things about both.  A major highlight for us was a trip on one of Lisbon’s famed old-fashioned trams.  It’s a fantastic way to see the city and avoid walking up the steep hills!  Don’t let the hills put you off though as some of the viewpoints, especially Largo da Graca offer spectacular panoramic vistas of the capital.    The main detraction however was the sheer number of unscrupulous types hanging around hoping to prey on tourists.  It’s hard to relax in an atmosphere when you feel the need to keep an eye on your valuables at all times, and consistently get hassled by people trying to sell you sunglasses and cannabis!

The saving grace of Lisbon however is its suburb of Belem where we parked up beside the river. This is where you find many of the sights you associate with Lisbon, including the famous Padrão dos Descobrimentos statue.  Belem is also the home of the ginormous Monastario do Jeronimos, an awe inspiring monastery with stunning cloisters.  High on the hill you will also find the Palacio de Ajuda.  Unassuming from the road, the interior is one of the most extravagant I’ve ever seen.  Visit both on a Sunday morning for free entry!  In addition, the UNESCO protected Tower of Belem on the riverbank is a must-see.  Belem lacks the seedier edge of Lisbon and is brimming with wonderful sights.  Be sure to take time to explore if you decide to visit the Portuguese capital.

4.  Aveiro

Painted boats on the river in Art Nouveau treasure-trove AveiroAs huge fans of Art Nouveau architecture, Aveiro was certainly one of our favourite cities.   We spent many an hour ambling around enjoying the beautiful buildings and I took a ridiculous amount of pictures!  There’s a really pleasant, relaxed atmosphere to the city.  It seems to run at a slower pace than most, perhaps everybody else is taking time to enjoy the scenery too!  The river running through the centre certainly adds to the appeal and on a still day reflects all the stunning buildings beautifully.  The lovely painted boats they use for river tours complete the look perfectly. 

The Art Nouveau style means Aveiro is a bright and colourful place, a real feast for the eyes.  Whilst there are no major attractions to visit, we’d certainly recommend a trip to the central park (once they’ve finished the renovations it’ll be superb).  The façade of the Art Noveau museum and the little café in the courtyard are also definitely worth visiting.  A relaxing walk along the river enjoying the views of the buildings, the different pretty old bridges and the unique looking new ones is another highlight of this lovely city.


Just one of Alcobaca's stunning views.Whilst we mainly travelled along the coast of Portugal we did make a detour inland to visit Leiria, Alcobaca and Batalha, all of which made our favourites list so were definitely worth the trip!  Alcobaca scored the highest due to its fabulous views and lovely laid-back atmosphere.  Nestled amongst sweeping pine covered hills and with numerous parks, Alcobaca is wonderfully verdant.  The main highlight of the city is of course its magnificent monastery which towers above the main square.  Inside you find impressively carved tombs and wonderful ceilings. 

Also well worth a visit are the castle ruins high on a hill.  It’s a steep walk and whilst the ruins themselves won’t blow you away, the views from the top certainly will.  From this vantage point you get panoramic views of this picturesque city with its huge monastery and traditional white-washed buildings, all set against gloriously green hillsides.  Alcobaca is very well maintained (more so than a lot of its neighbouring cities) and has a pleasant, welcoming feel.  Everything happens at a chilled out pace here and with such superb views it’s the perfect place to sit and watch the world go by.

6.  Batalha monastery

Gothic Batalha monastery, a must see!
Batalha monastery is a definite MUST SEE.  A UNESCO heritage site, this Gothic masterpiece is simply awe inspiring.  The exterior is incredibly ornate and stunning from every angle.  Inside the main hall is surprisingly stark, although on a sunny day light pours through the huge stained glass windows and lights up the floor in a host of bright colours.  The Founders Chapel can be entered for free and is quite probably the most impressive room I’ve ever seen.  The sheer scale of the room needs to be experienced to be believed.  It centres around a phenomenally ornate tomb once again decorated with light from the stained glass windows.  Around the edge are many more wonderfully detailed stonework tombs in differing yet equally beautiful styles.  The incredibly high ceiling is decorated with star shapes that look like pretty snowflakes.  It truly is an unforgettable room.

Given that Batalha was one of several large monasteries we were set to visit over the next few days, we didn’t pay the rather steep entry fee to look around the rest of the inside including the unfinished chapels.  I must say having visited the other less impressive monasteries afterwards and looking at Batalha pictures online, I really wish we had explored it further.  There isn’t a great deal else to visit in Batalha but it’s only a short drive for a day-trip from Leiria and Alcobaca, both of which merit a longer stay.

7.  Valenca do Minho

Views of Spanish Tui for Portuguese fortress town Valenca do Minho
Valenca do Minho is the first place we visited in Portugal as it lies right on the Northern border with Spain and is walkable from pretty Tui which offered a free aire with services.  Known as the ‘shopping fortress’ locally, Valenca is a sweet little town enveloped by huge fortress walls.  You are welcomed to climb up onto the walls and wander around high above the city, which itself is atop a big hill overlooking the Minho river.  We had great fun scampering around the walls, nipping in and out of turrets and looking down to the remains of the bastion.  The views from the greenery of Valenca, across the river to Tui and the hills behind are simply jaw-dropping.  I really cannot put into words just how gorgeous it is up there!

The buildings in town are very pretty, although aside from a couple of pretty churches there aren’t many sights to visit.  The only downside of Valenca for us was the over-touristification (yes it’s a word, I just invented it!) of the place.  There are an awful lot of very similar shops and restaurants so all the owners are vying for your custom.  They aren’t as pushy as many places I’ve visited but I still felt a little uncomfortable pottering along the main street.  That said, it’s easy to avoid the shops as the real draw of Valenca lies in exploring the old fortress walls and taking in the spectacular views.

8. Obidos

High up on the fortress walls of Obidos
Obidos is similar in many ways to Valenca as it too is an old fortress town high on a hill.  Valenca pipped it to the post with its stunning views over the river but that’s not to say Obidos is without its charms.  Obidos’ very high walls lead around to a large castle which looks impressive but rather sadly has mostly been turned into a hotel so you cannot look around inside.  Walking around on top of the walls is great fun but a pretty hair-raising experience!   The walls aren’t very wide and can be particularly slippery in places.  You are rewarded for your bravery though with gorgeous views over the traditional red tiled roofs in town and out across the surrounding green hills.  It’s definitely well worth it if you can conquer your nerves, just wear decent shoes!

The centre of town is a charming medieval labyrinth of cobbled streets filled with shops, hotels and cafes.  It’s all very well-maintained and there’s lots of vividly coloured flora which makes for a very pretty place indeed.  Whilst Obidos has embraced tourism, it has retained much of its traditional charm and remains an adorably pleasant town to walk around.

I should also mention for campers that there’s an aire nearby with services that’s free from 9am till 5pm.  Perfect for a day out!

9. Leiria

The hill top castle in floral LeiriaOur 9th spot goes to the pretty spot of Leiria, one of the most colourful towns we’ve visited thanks to an abundance of beautifully vivid flowers that seem to have sprung up everywhere!  The town is dominated by a huge castle high on a wooded hill in the centre of town.  The entry fee is a perfectly reasonable 2.10 euros each and well worth it.  There’s a lot to see and you’re welcome to scramble around the old ruins and explore the interior alone.  Visiting attractions in Portugal is much less controlled than in the UK.  You’re left to your own devices a lot more and its makes for a better experience in my opinion.  The high point of the visit was the long room with a wide balcony taking in stunning, panoramic views across the pretty town.  We also got to climb up onto the roof of the highest tower for more fantastic views over the rooftops of town and also down over the rest of the castle.

The rest of Leiria is well looked after with some very pretty buildings and lots of green areas to relax in.   The main square is very attractive and a relaxing walk through town along the river Liz makes for an enjoyable afternoon.  During our visit we also enjoyed a walk up to the hill on the other side of town where there is an impressive church with more great views.  Whilst Leiria on paper does not have the jaw dropping appeal of some of our other places, it’s an incredibly pleasant place to spend a couple of relaxing days and the castle offers a great value for money day out. 

10. Lagos

The last spot on the list, may come as a bit of a surprise as it goes to *drum roll* Lagos!
Lagos, the best coastline and beaches in the Portuguese Algarve.
We weren’t particularly reserved in our overall dislike of the Algarve and as one of its main destinations Lagos does suffer from a lot of the brash tourist nastiness that destroys the attraction of Portugal’s south coast.  That said it also has a lot more to offer than we initially gave it credit for.  There are some very pretty churches, lovely parks and impressive old fortress walls.  You can also escape the ex-pat bars and tacky t-shirt shops by visiting the attractive marina, a much quieter and very relaxing spot.

The main reason Lagos makes this list however is its outstanding coastline.  The beaches here are picture perfect, with golden sands and turquoise sea.  The imposing jagged rocky coastline breaks up the coast into lovely sheltered coves.  The view from Ponta da Piedade is what Lagos is all about.  High up on this hill you can see for miles along the craggy coast and is it nothing short of stunning.

So there’s our list!  Hope you enjoyed it.  Let us know what you thought, did we miss anywhere?!