Highlights of Portugal

highlights of Portugal Tavira castle

Portugal is one of my favourite countries to travel solo (it’s so safe and beautiful!) and it quickly became my second home. The great food, history, art, and architecture combined with pristine beaches and great customer service mean that millions (yes, millions!) of visitors descend on Portugal every year. And it’s not hard to understand why! Some of the best highlights of Portugal include Saint Jeronimos Monastery, Pena Palace and the Benagil caves. But first, when is the best time to go?

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When is the best time to travel around Portugal?

I would personally avoid winter, particularly the coldest months (December and January) as it starts to get a bit chilly. I would also avoid August as the summer heat gets too hot and beaches can be very crowded. The best time of year to go to Portugal is probably the shoulder season – May and June are perfect and quite often the warm weather hangs around into September and October.

Travelling around Portugal

If you don’t want to restrict yourself to drinking on the Algarve coast, why not consider getting on the train while you are there….it’s so easy to use the train system and you can book tickets online at cp.pt and then use the digital ticket on your phone.

The other good news is that Uber and Bolt (taxi apps) work well in most main Portuguese cities. I have successfully used Uber in Porto, Lisbon and Vila Real.

Highlights of Portugal

Of course, Lisbon and Porto are home to several of the main highlights of Portugal, but it’s a great idea to travel out of the main cities to places like Sintra, Guimaraes and Braga. It’s easy to travel to Portugal from the UK – direct flights go from several main UK airports to Porto, Lisbon and Faro.

#1 Castello Sao Jorge

Castello Sao Jorge is one of the main attractions of Lisbon, offering fantastic panoramic views of the city. Just be prepared for a strenuous uphill walk to the top! It was founded in the 10th and 11th centuries, when Lisbon was an important Moorish port. In 1147, the first king of Portugal, Dom Afonso Henriques, captured both the castle and the city from the Moors. The castle is dedicated to Saint George, the patron Saint of England.

highlights of Portugal Sao Jorge Castle Lisbon

#2 Jeronimos Monastery Lisbon

This impressive monastery is a must-see in Lisbon. If you only have time to see one thing in Lisbon, please let it be this! Building of the Monastery commenced in 1501 on a site that was originally intended to just be a Church. Jeronimos Monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most spectacular examples of Portuguese Gothic architecture in the world. It is located near the Tagus river in the parish of Belém, so you will need to jump on the tram or train at Cais do Sodre. Oh, and while you are there, you need to go the ‘Pasteis de Belem’. This is where you can purchase the famous Portuguese tarts, made using the secret recipe from the monks at the monastery! Only these ones are allowed to be called ‘Pasteis de Belem’. The others are just ‘Pasteis de Nata’!

Mosteiro do Jeronimos

#3 Alcobaca Monastery

The Alcobaca Monastery is a spectacular example of early Gothic Portuguese architecture, and takes about an hour and a half to get there by car from Lisbon. It was founded in 1187 and built on the order of the first Portuguese King (Afonso I). In 1989, Alcobaca Monastery was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Gothic Facade contains statues of São Bento and São Bernardo, located either side of the main entrance. The Baroque decoration and bell towers were added in the 18th Century. Inside the nave you can find tombs of the tombs of D. Pedro I (1357-67) and D. Inês, placed in front of one another in order for them to meet again on the day of Resurrection.

Alcobaça Monastery highlights of Portugal

Travel Tip – If you are based in Lisbon, it is possible to do a day trip to see Alcobaca Monastery, Batalha Monastery and the Convent of Christ (Tomar) all in one trip. However, there is enough to see in Tomar to warrant a full day there.

#4 Livraria Lello

Livraria Lello is possibly one of the most beautiful book shops in the world. Although J. K. Rowling denies it, it is popular knowledge in Porto that she frequented the book store and it gave her inspiration for the moving staircase in Harry Potter. You need to book a ticket to go into Livraria Lello, but a good tip is that if you pre-order a book from there, you get to go in and see it for free! There are also free tickets on Livraria Lello’s anniversary (13th January).

Livraria Lello Staircase Porto

#5 Ribeira Porto

Ribeira district in Porto is probably what you will recognise about Porto from all the postcards that you see. Ribeira is home to Porto’s tall colourful tiled houses and buildings, some of which date back to the 14th Century. It’s a popular place to sit and eat for tourists, because the restaurants there give you a fantastic view of the Duoro. If you want a good recommendation, try ‘Fish Fish!’ You can also walk across Luis I Bridge to the other side, where you can experience numerous port houses.

Highlights of Portugal Ribeira Porto

#6 Bolso Palace Portugal

If you’re in Porto, Bolso Palace is an absolute must-see – it’s one of my top things to do in Portugal. This neo-classical style stock exchange was built in the 19th Century. Grand tours of Bolsa Palace culminate with the opening of the gold Moorish Room which was inspired by the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain. The opening of the doors to this room usually result in a large ‘Wow!’ reaction from the group!

Bolsa Palace Arab Room Porto

#7 Benagil Caves

The Benagil caves on the Algarve coast are one of the best natural highlights of Portugal. This remarkable sea-side cave is accessible by boat, where you can see the beautifully formed hole in the roof – I’d recommend Kayaking! Benagil caves can be done as a boat trip from Lagos or Portimao.

Benagil Cave highlights of Portugal

#8 Pena Palace and Sintra

Let me be clear about Pena Palace – this is one of the most impressive man-made structures I have ever seen in my life! I’m going to stick my neck on the line and say something really contraversial – I liked Pena Palace even more than the Taj Mahal! This slight mis-match of colourful Moorish, Gothic and Manuelline architecture is what makes Pena Palace so unique.

Lisbon to Sintra Day trip
Pena Palace, Sintra, Portugal

While you are spending time in Sintra, you might also want to visit Palácio de Monserrate, Quinta da Regaleira and Castelo dos Mouros.

#9 Tavira Castle and Old Town

One of my favourite place to visit in the Algarve is Tavira. This authentically Portuguese coastal city is full of Churches, tavernas and a beautiful castle. It’s best visited in the spring, when the flowers start to bloom. Although the castle is not much more than a ruin, it’s a stunning natural setting.

highlights of Portugal Tavira castle

#10 Moliceiro boats of Aveiro

Aveiro is often referred to as the Venice of Portugal and it’s the most colourful Portuguese city! The canals of Aveiro boast these gorgeous decoratively painted boats called the ‘Moliceiros’. The houses are also painted beautiful colours and so its an extremely popular Instagram spot. While you are in Aveiro, have a drink with the students on the main market square, and don’t forget to try the Ovos Molhos (local Aveiro sweets).

Is Aveiro worth visiting

#11 Guimaraes Castle

One of the best castles to see in Portugal is Guimaraes, one of the oldest Portuguese castles that dates back to 11th Century. You can climb up to the seven towers on the hilltop and get a fantastic view of the city.

Guimaraes castle Portugal

#12 Braga Cathedral and Bom Jesus

The beautiful Northern city of Braga has two phenomenal Churches to boast about: The first is Braga Cathedral and the second is Bom Jesus (pictured below on a cloudy day!)

highlights of Portugal Bom Jesus Braga

#13 Santuário de Nossa Senhora dos Remédios, Lamego

Deep in the Duoro valley is the small city of Lamego. It’s worth visiting purely for this one thing: Santuário de Nossa Senhora dos Remédios. The monumental Baroque staircase has 686 steps in total (so prepare yourself for a lot of stairs!), many facades of the staircases are embellished with beautiful Azulejos – Portuguese tiles. In 1750, the construction of the present sanctuary began, and was only finished in 1905. When you get to the top you can go inside the Church for free, but remember to respect the rules regarding no phones or photography.

Santuário de Nossa Senhora dos Remédios Lamego

#14 Castelo Branco Gardens

Nestled inland in the Portuguese city of Castelo Branco, you will be surprised to find Jardim do Paço Episcopal, one of the most beautiful Baroque gardens in Portugal. These tranquil gardens were built by D. João de Mendonça during the first quarter of the 18th century and contain great Biblical and local symbolism. It’s worth spending at least an hour to an hour and a half here to explore the box garden. Don’t miss the Doctors of the Church Ladder, Lake of Crowns and the Kings Staircase.

Jardim do Paco Episcopal Castelo Branco Entrance

#15 Convent of Christ, Tomar

The Convent of Christ in Tomar is a former Catholic convent, which dates back to a 12th-century Templar stronghold. When the order was dissolved in the 14th century, the Portuguese branch was turned into the Knights of the Order of Christ, that later supported Portugal’s maritime discoveries of the 15th century. The castle and monastery are great examples of various architectural styles, including Roman Gothic, Manueline and Renaissance. Don’t miss the Manueline window of the chapter house – Janela do Capítulo – which is one of the best examples of this maritime architecture in Portugal.

Convent of Christ Tomar Portugal

Further Reading on Portugal

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