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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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University of Coimbra (Universidade de Coimbra)
106 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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Arrábida Natural Park (Parque Natural da Arrábida)
198 Tours and Activities

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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Porto Cathedral (Sé Catedral do Porto)
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191 Tours and Activities

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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Braga Cathedral (Sé de Braga)
50 Tours and Activities

Located in city of Braga in northern Portugal, the Braga Cathedral is the oldest surviving church in Portugal and one of the most important monuments in the country. Built in a Burgundian Romanesque style between the 11th and 13th centuries, the cathedral provided architectural inspiration for many other churches and monasteries built in Portugal around the same time. Due to numerous modifications over the centuries, the cathedral today features a mix of styles, including Romanesque, Gothic, Manueline and Baroque.

The cathedral consists of several chapels built at different times. The parents of the first Portuguese were buried in the Chapel of the Kings in 1374 and the Chapel of the Glory was built in the mid-14th century as the final resting place of Archbishop Goncalo Pereira. Looks for the tomb guarded by siz life size stone lions and the painted Moorish geometrical designs.

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Barreta Island (Ilha Deserta)
16 Tours and Activities
A sandy, uninhabited island off Portugal’s Algarve coast, Barreta Island (Ilha Deserta) is a popular beach destination and wildlife refuge inside Ria Formosa National Park. With freshwater lagoons, salt flats, sand dunes, and more, the park has a diverse range of habitats—each with its own resident population of birds and other species, including chameleons.
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Sé Cathedral of Funchal
10 Tours and Activities
One of only a handful of late fifteenth century structures to survive the test of time, this Gothic-style cathedral is evidence of an impressive history and rich architectural past. Its impressive exterior gives way to an understated, spiritual gathering space and altar that make Sé Cathedral Funchal a perfect spot for quiet reflection or contemplative prayer. Visitors can marvel at the detailed ceiling and beautiful side altars while attending morning mass at 8 a.m. The church’s unique bell can be heard throughout the town just before services start.
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Lagos Zoo (Parque Zoologico de Lagos)
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Home to more than 140 different species from across the world, Lagos Zoo offers a family-friendly alternative to the crowded Algarve coast. Opened in 2000, the zoo has become a world-class conservation facility, and its close proximity to central Lagos makes it a top choice for a day away from the city.
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Madeira Botanical Gardens
15 Tours and Activities
One of Madeira’s loveliest green spaces, the island’s Botanical Gardens (Jardins Botânicos da Madeira) debuted in 1960. Stretching across 20 acres (9 hectares) and home to more than 2,000 species of exotic plants, the oasis is best known for its colorful geometric flower beds and carefully groomed topiary gardens.
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Douro River (Rio Douro)
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127 Tours and Activities

The Douro is one of the Iberian Peninsula’s major rivers, flowing from Duruelo de la Sierra in northern Spain and emptying itself into the Atlantic at Porto. It has been shaping the harsh landscape of the Douro region since time immemorial, sculpting and irrigating its riverbanks to sustain the tradition of viniculture that has produced fine port wines for centuries.

On its 557-mile run through northern Spain and Portugal, the Douro meanders through steep-sided valleys laden with regimentally straight stripes of vines; the wine-growing region has been appointed a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its natural beauty. The hillsides, arid and barren further inland from the river, are scattered with low-lying quintas (wineries) where wines can be sampled and bought.

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More Things to Do in Portugal

Sintra

Sintra

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Once a hotspot destination for Portuguese royalty, Sintra is offers beautiful greenery, gorgeous mountains and amazing neo-Gothic structures.

In Sintra there are a number of places to experience the culture from the Museum of Modern Art, to the exotic villa and the Palacio de Monderrate. Then at Quinta da Regaleira and its Palace you can see the best architecture of the Gothic era with gargoyles, towers and amazing stone facades.

Also be sure to make your way up to the 10th-century Castle of the Moors, where you can walk along the castle walls and take in the great scenery and the castle's impressive history.

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Dom Luis Bridge (Ponte de Dom Luis I)

Dom Luis Bridge (Ponte de Dom Luis I)

148 Tours and Activities

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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Belém Tower (Torre de Belém)

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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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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Praia Gale

Praia Gale

16 Tours and Activities

Just steps away from the resort town of Gale, and a handful of kilometers west of Albufeira, stretches one of the region’s favorite beaches, Praia Gale. It’s a favorite because of its eastern rocky and cave- and cove-filled coastline, and probably even more so for its western stretch of soft sands and calm waters especially loved by families. This expansive stretch of shoreline is ideal for relaxing walks, watersports, and grabbing a bite to eat at one of the waterside restaurants and bars. Families relish in enjoying the calm beach but also the many tide pools. Meanwhile, those looking to explore further can take advantage of watersports, or go on a healthy walk westward toward other regional beaches such as Praia dos Salgados, Praia Grande, and even Armacao de Pera.

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Santana

Santana

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Most visitors come to winsome farming village of Santana for famed Madeira Theme Park, seven sprawling hectares of family fun. Most activities and exhibits, appealingly presented in rolling country gardens, showcase traditional Madeira culture, from rowboats in a gentle lake and traditional hedge mazes, to pirate-themed rides and live shows.

The winsome farming village of Santana, however, is also worth exploring. Most famously, the rolling wheat and rye fields are studded with traditional triangular bungalows, topped with distinctive straw-thatch roofs. Santana is also a good base for hikers, with trails through laurel forests, along the rugged coast, and through Navio Nature Reserve.

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Paul da Serra Plateau

Paul da Serra Plateau

30 Tours and Activities

To the south of the Laurel Forest lies the Paúl da Serra Plateau, a favorite destination for hikers, nature lovers, and those wishing to seek out the famous levadas of Madeira, several of which are located in nearby Rabaçal, at the western tip of the plateau.

Levadas are a network of manmade waterways that bring water across and down from the mountains; alongside them run narrow but sturdy walkways that hikers have come to call their own. But the plateau itself is also a worthy destination that is easy enough to navigate while providing thrilling views and plenty of fresh air.

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Furnas

Furnas

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An ancient volcanic zone that has been active for more than 100,000 years, Furnas is a hotbed of thermal activity. The lush area has been attracting spa visitors seeking the water’s healing properties since the 19th century. Close to three active volcanos, citizens of the Portuguese parish use the hot springs, geysers, and other hotspots for a variety of activities—including the cooking of a traditional meal of vegetables and stew underground, called cozido. Heated by the volcanic steam, the dish can take up to seven hours to prepare. Towns sit scenically in and beside large calderas or volcanic craters. There are more than 30 different hot springs, each with their own varying temperature and level of volcanic activity. The heated thermal mineral waters and mud baths are thought to still have therapeutic properties. Furnas makes up one of several small towns on the largest and most populated island of the Azores. There is also a beautiful lake in Furnas that is worth seeing.

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Commerce Square (Praça do Comércio)

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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Batalha Monastery (Mosteiro da Batalha)

Batalha Monastery (Mosteiro da Batalha)

181 Tours and Activities

Located in the High Estremadura region of central Portugal, Batalha is an attractive town with plenty of excellent shops and restaurants surrounding one of Portugal’s most sacred sites. The Monastery of Santa Maria da Vitória was commissioned by Portugal’s King João I to commemorate the country’s independence from Spain after the Battle of Aljubarrota in 1385.

Some 200 years in its evolution, the Dominican monastery is UNESCO World Heritage-listed as it represents the very pinnacle of Portuguese Gothic and Manueline architecture; its chapter house in particular is an elaborate interweaving of pinnacles, gargoyles and rounded spires over two levels. The fine, lacy façade is studded with intricate stonework that resembles Indian temple carvings, and leads on to a surprisingly unembellished interior, with high Gothic vaulted roof over the nave and stained-glass windows through which sunlight dances on summer days.

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Ria Formosa Natural Park

Ria Formosa Natural Park

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Located at the southernmost tip of Portugal’s Algarve, Ria Formosa Natural Park (Parque Natural da Ria Formosa) is a scenic swirl of freshwater lagoons, sandy islands, and lush salt marshlands. The park hugs the coast between Manta Rota and Vale do Lobo, and is best known for its varied topography and diverse bird life.
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Vila Franca do Campo

Vila Franca do Campo

20 Tours and Activities
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Cabo Girão

Cabo Girão

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In 2012 a glass-floored viewing platform was installed in this already-popular lofty sea cliff on the southern coast of Madeira, making it an even more popular destination for visitors to this scenic island. While the glass observation ledge can be unnerving for those afraid of heights, visitors who don’t fear vertigo will experience unobstructed views of crystal clear water, rolling hills and emerald green farm land. Bring a picnic and admire the coastline away from the crowds, then climb the 289 steps that lead to Chapel of Nossa Senhora da Fatima before heading back into town.

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