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Things to Do in Portugal

Long overlooked in favor of its larger neighbor, Spain, Portugal is holding its own on the European travel circuit today, as growing numbers of visitors discover its old-world charms. Outstanding food, award-winning wines, and distinctive Manueline architecture are just the beginning. Portugal's diverse landscapes range from granite peaks and forested hills in the north, to the sunny beaches of the southern Algarve—all bordered by nearly 500 miles of stunning Atlantic coastline. Start in Lisbon, taking in the capital's many historical sights and famous hills by foot or electric bike. The country's faded glory as a maritime empire in the 15th and 16th centuries is most evident here, but humans have lived in this region since prehistoric times. After a city tour, take a day trip to wander through Roman ruins in Evora; tour a royal castle and a Moorish palace in Sintra; or visit one of the well-preserved medieval villages, like Obidos, that are sprinkled all over the countryside. In Northern Portugal, foodies flock to the UNESCO-listed Douro Valley for wine- and food-tasting tours. Porto's striking harbor is the starting point for scenic Douro River cruises. Thrill-seekers can get their adrenaline fix by surfing, skydiving, or parasailing in the Algarve. And for those who prefer a more relaxed pace, the fishing villages of Nazare, Sagres, and Tavira can feel like a trip back in time. Portugal's delights are many, and with easy access to Western Spain, your Iberian itinerary could extend to Seville, Cordoba, or Granada.
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Douro
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The Douro region in Northeast Portugal is near the border with Spain. Even with the advent of modern civilization, this area is characterized by a sort of frontier spirit that tenaciously preserves a traditional way of life handed down through many, many years.

Thinly populated and remote, the Douro is not unlike Galicia in Spain in that its people speak a dialect that is markedly different than the rest of the country; in the Douro, it is closer to Latin vulgate than Portuguese. Along with speaking a traditional language, pottery and weaving are still important cottage industries. Long-held folk practices include a dance with wooden staves called the Dance of the Pauliteiros, which takes place on the third Sunday of August, during the Feast of Saint Barbara. Curiously, this dance is less related to Saint Barbara than it is to Roman martial pomp – the Dance of the Pauliteiros is an outgrowth of the old Roman sword dances.

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Belém Tower (Torre de Belém)
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Portugal's caravels sailed off to conquer the great unknown from Belém, and today this leafy riverside precinct is a giant monument to the nation's Age of Discoveries. Belém Tower, or Torre de Belém, the much-photographed symbol of Portugal's maritime glory, is a stone fortress on the bank of the river Tagus dating from 1514 - 19. You can climb the tower, and look into the dungeons from when it was a military prison. UNESCO have listed it as a World Heritage Site.

The imposing limestone Monument to the Discoveries, also facing the river nearby, is shaped like a caravel and features key players from the era. If you have time, look around the Centro Cultural de Belém, one of Lisbon's main cultural venues, which houses the Museu do Design, a collection of 20th century mind-bogglers.

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Dom Luis Bridge (Ponte de Dom Luis I)
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The imperious, double-decker metal spans of Ponte de Dom Luís I stretch across the Douro River from Porto to Villa Nova de Gaia, and were designed by Téophile Seyrig, the student of Gustave Eiffel who also drew up the plans for the nearby Donna Maria Pia Bridge. When the Dom Luís I was finished in 1886, it was the longest single-span bridge in the world at 564 feet, and it supported 3,045 tons of steel in weight.

The bridge marked a significant step forward in Porto’s economic growth, as before it existed, the only passages across the river were boats lashed together. Today the lower deck of the bridge carries cars while the upper level is utilized by metro Line D and has a pedestrian walkway offering views across the river. Since the late 19th century, four other bridges have joined the bridge of Dom Luís I and Donna Maria Pia in reaching across the Douro; they are all best seen by river cruise in a traditional wooden rabelo.

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25th of April Bridge (Ponte 25 de Abril)
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This massive suspension bridge is an icon of Lisbon, connecting the city to the Almada area over the narrowest section of the River Tagus. Its color, size and structure draw close comparison to the Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco, California, but the bridge was actually more structurally modeled to the Bay Bridge, also in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The 25th of April Bridge was completed in 1966 and was at the time named for the dictator Salazar. It was renamed following his displacement, with its new name given by the revolution that began on April 25. There are levels for both cars and trains, but unlike the Golden Gate Bridge, there is no passage for pedestrians. The bridge has the longest main span in Continental Europe and the world’s deepest bridge foundation. Riding across presents one of the best aerial views of Lisbon.

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Monument to the Discoveries (Padrão dos Descobrimentos)
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Along the northern bank of the Tagus River lies this large stone monument celebrating Portugal’s Age of Discovery and sitting on the location that ships bound for Asia used to depart from in the 15th and 16th centuries. It was constructed for the Portuguese World Fair in 1940, inaugurated in 1960 upon the anniversary of Henry the Navigator’s death, and has been a Cultural Center of Discovery since 1985. The monument depicts 33 sculpted historical figures including explorers, monarchs, artists and missionaries, all led by Henry the Navigator at the front. The figures are spread along both sides of a ship, intentionally looking forward and facing the sea.

Outside of viewing the monument itself, there is a large marble wind rose embedded in the pavement containing a world map that illustrates the locations of Portugal’s various explorations. There is also a museum with exhibition rooms in the monument, with panoramic views of Lisbon and the Tagus River from its rooftop.

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Commerce Square (Praça do Comércio)
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Still known locally as Terreiro do Paço (Palace Square) thanks to its being the former location of Lisbon’s Royal Palace until its destruction in the great earthquake of 1755, Praça do Comércio was completely rebuilt in the late 18th century and is today an elegant square hugging the banks of the River Tagus.

Thanks to the vision of Portuguese architect Eugénio dos Santos, this vast square was built in a sweeping ‘U’ shape and is full of ornate arches and overblown civic buildings. It is dominated by a massive equestrian statue of King Jose I, while sights around the square include Lisbon’s historic Café Martinho da Arcada, dating right back to 1782 and famous for its coffees, pastries and ports. Lisbon’s main tourist information office is on the north side of the arcaded square, which is largely lined with outdoor restaurants. Along the riverbanks great marble steps lead down to the Tagus and historically formed the main entry to the city.

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Castelo de Sao Jorge (St. George's Castle)
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The ocher-colored, imposing St George’s Castle is an iconic landmark standing high in Alfama with views over Lisbon and the Tagus waterfront from its turreted, fortified walls. With only a few Moorish wall fragments dating from the sixth century still remaining, the castle we see now was redeveloped over the centuries following King Afonso Henriques’ re-conquest of Lisbon in 1147.

There’s enough to see at the castle to keep everyone happy for several hours. Walks around the ramparts provide far-reaching views of the city below. As much of the medieval castle was given over to housing troops and resisting siege, the fortified ramparts were dotted with defense towers. Now only 11 of the original 18 are still standing and most interesting among these is the Torre de Ulísses (Tower of Ulysses) as it contains a gigantic periscope offering visitors a 360° view of Lisbon.

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Alfama
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Wander down (to save your legs) through Alfama's steep, narrow, cobble stoned streets and catch a glimpse of the more traditional side of Lisbon before it too is gentrified. Linger in a backstreet cafe along the way and experience some local bonhomie without the tourist gloss. Early morning is the best time to catch a more traditional scene, when women sell fresh fish from their doorways. For a real rough-and-tumble atmosphere, visit during the Festas dos Santos Populares in June.

As far back as the 5th century, the Alfama was inhabited by the Visigoths, and remnants of a Visigothic town wall remain. But it was the Moors who gave the district its shape and atmosphere. In Moorish times this was an upper-class residential area. After earthquakes brought down many of its mansions (and post-Moorish churches) it reverted to a working-class, fisher folk quarter. It was one of the few districts to ride out the 1755 earthquake.

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Arrábida Natural Park (Parque Natural da Arrábida)
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Golden beaches, steep cliff sides, tall pine trees, and hillsides of Mediterranean greenery characterize Arrabida National Park, a stretch of land along the Portuguese coast between the seaside towns of Setúmbal and Sesimbra. From the summit of Serra da Arrabida, the highest point of the park, to the beaches of Portinho da Arrábida, this area is full of natural beauty. Praia do Figueirinha and the Praia do Creiro are two notable beaches. Small coastal villages with centuries old monasteries and stone forts are present throughout.

Hiking trails are a great way to explore the park; many have sweeping views of the sea and are surrounded by the area’s indigenous plants and animals. The Rota Moinho (Windmills Track) has several traditional windmills to see en route. The town of Pamela is a great place to begin many of the available hikes. On a clear day, it is possible to see all the way to Lisbon.

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More Things to Do in Portugal

Clérigos Church and Tower (Torre & Igreja dos Clérigos)

Clérigos Church and Tower (Torre & Igreja dos Clérigos)

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One of the symbols of Porto is the Torre dos Clerigos, the bell tower adjoining the Clerigos Church, a baroque church built between 1732 and 1750. The church was one of the first Baroque churches in Portugal. Its Baroque adornments reflect the city’s seaside way of life, as its façade is carved with shells and garlands.

More iconic than the church however, is its bell tower. Standing at 75 m (245 ft) high, the tower offers an amazing, panoramic view of the city, the Duoro River and the Atlantic coast. Completed in 1763, this granite tower is based upon a Roman Baroque design scheme coupled with an unmistakably Tuscan bell tower design; visitors familiar with Italian architecture will be delighted to see a decidedly Roman Baroque masterpiece towering over a Portuguese port. Once you’ve ascended the 225 steps and reached the top of the sixth floor, the Torre dos Clerigos, you’ll be able to see the whole city.

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Monastery of St. Jerome (Mosteiro dos Jeronimos)

Monastery of St. Jerome (Mosteiro dos Jeronimos)

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Vasco da Gama's discovery of a sea route to India inspired the glorious Monastery of St. Jerome or Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, a UNESCO World Heritage site with an architectural exuberance that trumpets 'navigational triumph.' Work began around 1501, following a Gothic design by architect Diogo de Boitaca, considered a Manueline originator. After his death in 1517, building resumed with a Renaissance flavor under Spaniard João de Castilho and, later, with classical overtones under Diogo de Torralva and Jérome de Rouen (Jerónimo de Ruão). The monastery was completed in 1541, a riverside masterpiece - the waters have since receded.

The monastery was populated with monks of the Order of St. Jerome, whose spiritual job for about four centuries was to give comfort and guidance to sailors - and to pray for the king's soul. When the order was dissolved in 1833 the monastery was used as a school and orphanage until about 1940.

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Porto Cathedral (Sé Catedral do Porto)

Porto Cathedral (Sé Catedral do Porto)

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Originally a Romanesque church from the 12th century, the Porto Se Cathedral was rebuilt with a Gothic style about 600 years later. Like other major churches in northern Portugal, this twin-towered cathedral boasts remodeling design by the famed Italian architect and painter Nicolau Nasoni. Perhaps this is why the western façade and interior are undeniably Romanesque. Visitors should take note of its gilded main altar and its silver Altar of the Sacrament.

On the left hand aisle is the statue of Oporto’s patron saint, Nossa Senhora de Vendoma. The interior is decorated by azulejos (blue ceramic tiles), installed in the 18th century. Apart from the church’s architectural treasures, it is also famed for its view – the terraces on the north and the west sides of the church provide stunning photo opportunities for capturing Oporto’s labyrinthine streets and dwellings.

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Lisbon Cathedral (Sé de Lisboa)

Lisbon Cathedral (Sé de Lisboa)

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An austere Romanesque building from the outside, the Lisbon Cathedral (Sé de Lisboa) has some lovely treasures inside. It dates from 1150 and was built this solidly to repel attacks from the Moors. It didn't do much to ward off earthquake damage in 1344 and 1755 and the cathedral we see today has been much repaired.

Inside you'll find the font where Saint Anthony of Padua is said to have been baptized in 1195 and a 14th century chapel by Bartholomeu Joanes. But its in the sacristy that the real treasures are found: relics, icons and 15th and 16th century religious art. The medieval cloister is also worth a look.

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Ribeira

Ribeira

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Many of Europe’s great cities have an "old quarter," the original part of town from which centuries of cosmopolitan evolution spread outward. In Porto, the old town is known as The Ribeira, as it looks out onto the River Douro. In days past, it was once the major entrepot for international shipments, but its modern waterfront is now lined with restaurants, bars and cafes, making it a popular leisure hub and nightlife destination. The main drag, Cais da Ribeira, leads to Praca da Ribeira, a square dominated by two large fountains (one is bronze cubist monument and popular with pigeons) and populated with revelers going between its myriad bars and restaurants.

If you are able to, visit Porto and the Ribeira on June 23 for the annual Festa de Sao Joao (Festival of St. John). While this festival is in memory of St. John, its celebration includes a peculiar tradition - hitting people in the head with plastic hammers.

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National Pantheon of Santa Engracia (Santa Egracia Panteao Nacional Lisbon)

National Pantheon of Santa Engracia (Santa Egracia Panteao Nacional Lisbon)

129 Tours and Activities

The burial place of the great and good of Portugal, the gleaming white National Pantheon has its roots in the 17th century but was only finally completed in 1966. Constructed to a design by Lisbon’s Baroque master-craftsman João Antunes, it is a mini-me of St Peters in Rome, with a highly intricate, colonnaded exterior topped with a central dome. Climb six flights of steps up to the top for matchless views over the city to the River Tagus.

Inside the church is a riot of highly patterned mosaic flooring, gleaming white marble adorned with gilt, and memorial cenotaphs to Vasco da Gama and Henry the Navigator. The vast, 18th-century Baroque organ was moved here from Sé Cathedral in the 1940s, and famous names interred in the nave include a string of Portuguese statesmen and the revered fado singer Amalia Rodrigues.

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Miradouro da Senhora do Monte (Miradouro de Nossa Senhora do Monte)

Miradouro da Senhora do Monte (Miradouro de Nossa Senhora do Monte)

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A sweeping viewpoint atop a hill in Lisbon’s Graça neighborhood, Miradouro da Senhora do Monte offers panoramic views across Lisbon, including stellar views of the castle atop a neighboring hill. As the highest lookout point in the city, it’s a fantastic spot for photographing - or simply appreciating - the surrounding landscape. It’s particularly popular come sunset.

The name of the lookout translates to Our Lady of the Hill, and visitors will find a small chapel and statue of the Virgin Mary on the grounds of the miradouro. Dedicated to Saint Gens, Nossa Senhora do Monte Chapel attracts expectant mothers seeking divine protection during childbirth.

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University of Coimbra (Universidade de Coimbra)

University of Coimbra (Universidade de Coimbra)

108 Tours and Activities

Portugal’s most famous and prestigious university, the University of Coimbra is one of Europe’s oldest colleges and has become a popular tourist attraction in its own right. First established in Lisbon in 1290, the university moved to its current location in 1537 and today stands proudly at the highest point of the town.

Touring the vast hilltop campus unveils an array of historic architecture, most notably the imposing 18th-century University Tower, an important landmark of the Old Town, and the renowned 18th-century Biblioteca Joanina (João V Library), an elaborately decorated National Monument. Around 300,000 ancient books grace the shelves of the famed library and the richly decorated interiors are a show-stopping display of Portuguese art and architectural design, featuring two-tiers of exotic wood shelves, gilded pillars and intricate ceiling paintings by Lisbon artists Simões Ribeiro and Vicente Nunes.

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Rossio Square (Praça de Dom Pedro IV)

Rossio Square (Praça de Dom Pedro IV)

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Also known as Praça Dom Pedro IV, Rossio Square sits at the heart of Lisbon and has been a popular meeting spot since the Middle Ages. The square bustles with life as cars, buses, and pedestrians speed around it, intermixed with those leisurely sitting on benches or in cafes. Cobblestone walkways are arranged in wave patterns, a style that has since spread throughout Portugal and parts of Brazil.

It is surrounded by two identical Baroque fountains, with a column monument of Pedro IV, king of Portugal and the first emperor of Brazil, standing tall in the center. Allegorical figures of Justice, Wisdom, Restraint and Courage can be found at the monument’s base. Both the fountains and the monument are spectacularly lit up by night. The Dona Maria II National Theater sits at the northern end of the square with Ionic columns of the Church of St. Francis, which was destroyed in the earthquake of 1755.

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Praça da Figueira

Praça da Figueira

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Praça da Figueira, which means Square of the Fig Tree in English, is located in the Baixa neighborhood of Lisbon. In 1755 there was a strong earthquake that greatly damaged a hospital located where the square is today. The square was built a few decades after the earthquake, once the hospital was torn down. The square is surrounded by guesthouses, shops, and cafes, including the well known Confeitaria Nacional and Pastelaria Suica.

Along with huge flocks of pigeons, a bronze statue of King João I sitting on a horse can also be found in the square. Though the statue looks old, it only dates back to 1971. From here visitors can see the historic Castle of St. George which looks down on the square from a nearby hill. Tourists and locals alike often pass through Praça da Figueira since it is a big transport hub, and many sightseeing tours of the city start at this square.

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Bairro Alto

Bairro Alto

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Home of Portugal’s mournful fado singing, Lisbon’s 500-hundred-year-old Bairro Alto (this translates as ‘upper district’) sits at the working-class heart of the city, a district of steep, narrow lanes lined with cramped townhouses and jumping with a quirky mix of stores, barbers’ shops, bars, restaurants and late-night clubs.

By day Bairro Alto’s attractions include the Port Wine Institute – the best place to taste and buy port in Lisbon – and it is accessible from the circular route taken by Lisbon’s famous touristy Tram 28. Don’t dismiss a visit to the Jesuit church of São Roque on Largo Trindade Coelho; built at the height of Jesuit power in Portugal in the 16th century, its bland, whitewashed exterior conceals an interior of breath-taking Baroque indulgence. The riot of ceiling paintings, gilded ornamentation and John the Baptist’s chapel, which is studded with mosaics of ivory, gold and silver, has earned it a reputation as the world’s most expensive church.

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Ajuda National Palace (Palacio Nacional Ajuda)

Ajuda National Palace (Palacio Nacional Ajuda)

36 Tours and Activities

The Ajuda National Palace is a neoclassical monument, collection of decorative arts, and an unfinished palace in the Belem district of Lisbon. The interior is richly furnished with tapestries, statues, chandeliers, artwork and extravagant furniture. Historically, the palace served as the official residence of the Portuguese royal family from the reign of King Louis I in the early 19th century until 1910, when Portugal became a republic.

Today visitors can tour the impressive estate, complete with ornate ballroom, dining room, throne room, and winter garden. Open to the public as a museum since 1968, the rooms and hallways maintain their historic feel despite undergoing renovations. There are dozens of luxurious formal rooms to wander through, with the splendor of the 18th- and 19th-century decor apparent throughout. Visitors can get a sense of how Portuguese royalty lived at that time. In fact, the Portuguese government holds official functions in the palace to this day.

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Restauradores Square (Praca dos Restauradores)

Restauradores Square (Praca dos Restauradores)

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Restauradores Square in Lisbon commemorates Portugal's liberation from Spanish rule. The Spaniards controlled Portugal for 60 years until Portuguese nobility started a revolt on Dec. 1, 1640, which began the 28-year Restoration War. In the center of the square is an obelisk that stands more than 98 feet tall and has two bronze figures on the pedestal representing Victory and Freedom. The monument was designed by artist and architect António Tomás da Fonseca and built in 1886. The bronze statues were created by sculptors Simões de Almeida and Alberto Nunes.

Several important buildings are located on Restauradores Square. The most prominent one is Foz Palace which was once the residence of the Marquis of Foz and now houses the national tourism office. The former Eden Theater, one of Lisbon's most beautiful art deco buildings, is also located here. The theater closed down in 1989 and became a hotel in 2001.

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