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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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Belém Tower (Torre de Belém)
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459 Tours and Activities

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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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)
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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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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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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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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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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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Park of the Nations (Parque das Nações)
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On the northeastern riverfront lies the Parque das Nações. Built for Expo 98, the development includes a huge world-of-its-own aquarium, the Oceanário, plus the Pavilhão do Conhecimento, and a landscaped riverside park with restaurants and bars. There's some stunning modern architecture here: the ribbed Death Star structure of Gare do Oriente and the Pavilhão de Portugal by Portugal's leading architect, Álvaro Siza Vieira.

A riverside teleférico, more than 0.6 miles (1 kilometer) long and 66 ft (20 m) high, gives stunning views of the river and the Vasco da Gama bridge. The 1.2 mi (2 km) long park site sometimes feels as if you have wandered into an architectural model, but it's an entertaining place to visit, particularly for families. A mini-train trundles around hourly, and you can even rent bikes.

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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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More Things to Do in Portugal

Palace of the Stock Exchange (Palácio da Bolsa)

Palace of the Stock Exchange (Palácio da Bolsa)

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Porto’s former stock exchange building, the Palace of the Stock Exchange (Palácio da Bolsa), is a magnificent 19th-century mansion at the heart of the city’s UNESCO-listed historic center. A marvel of neoclassical architecture and steeped in history, its grand ballrooms have played host to royals like Queen Elizabeth II over the years.

Today, the Palacio da Bolsa is open to the public by guided tour only and visitors can explore a number of its opulent rooms. Highlights include the Nations’ Room, with its collection of international flags; the exquisite parquet floors and the monumental grand staircase with its glittering bronze chandeliers. The undisputed star attraction is the dazzling Arabian Room, where the arabesque décor and gilded pillars are inspired by the famous Alhambra Palace in Granada, and music concerts are held throughout the year.

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Church of São Francisco (Igreja de São Francisco)

Church of São Francisco (Igreja de São Francisco)

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Behind its comparatively stark Gothic façade, the Church of São Francisco harbors a trove of Baroque finery and its unabashed opulence makes it one of Porto’s most unmissable architectural wonders. The church itself was built between 1383 and 1410, but most of its lavish decorations date back to the 17th and 18th century Baroque period and no expense (or space) has been spared.

Pass beneath the striking rose window and you’ll be confronted with glistening marble columns, intricately carved arches and gilded interiors, coated with some 400kg worth of gold. It’s a feast for the eyes, with every inch of the church walls and ceilings adorned with ornamental frescoes, rich floral motifs and Mudéjar wood paneling. Highlights include the magnificent Tree of Jesse altarpiece, the 13th century statue of Saint Francis, and the eerily beautiful catacombs, adorned with sculptures by Nicolau Nasoni and António Teixeira Lopes.

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Casa da Música

Casa da Música

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The Casa da Música is as much of an architectural attraction as it is a musical attraction. The Casa da Música was completed in 2005, but is already considered an iconic structure of Porto. This 1,300-seat concert hall is home to three of Northern Portugal’s renowned classical musical groups — the National Orchestra of Porto, Orquestra Barroca and Remix Ensemble. The Casa da Música also hosts other musical performances like choir and visiting artists ranging in genre from jazz to solo piano to rock.

The ultra-modern, sleek building is a rare example of modern architecture in historic Porto and it attracts visitors just for the sake of its unique design. Sharp angles, geometric patterns, sweeping staircases and massive glass windows, including two entire walls of floor-to-ceiling windows, are among the visual highlights.

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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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Monument to the Discoveries (Padrão dos Descobrimentos)

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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Douro

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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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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National Museum of Ancient Art (NMAA)

National Museum of Ancient Art (NMAA)

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Housed within a late seventeenth century yellow-hued Palácio Alvor, the National Museum of Ancient Art was created in 1884 to protect and display a collection of European and Asian works of art. The current collection comprises more than 40,000 items — paintings, sculpture, furniture, ceramics and textiles, among others — most of it dating from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries.

Highlights of the permanent collection include the naturalistic Panels of St. Vincent, considered Nuno Gonçalves’ masterpiece, as well as a set of sixteenth century Japanese folding screens that depict the arrival of Portuguese ships in Nagasaki. The Monstrance of Belem, a stunning work of gold and enamel by Gil Vicente, was originally brought to Portugal by Vasco da Gama on return from his second voyage to India; this piece is also on display in the museum.

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Chiado

Chiado

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Squeezed between downtown Baixa and the nightlife party-central of the Bairro Alto, glossy Chiado is within shouting distance of the romantic ruins of Carmo Church (Igreja do Carmo) and the hidden treasures in the Church of St Rocco (Igreja de São Roque). It is also home to glorious Art Nouveau shops, old-world Lisboa cafés with window displays brimming with delicious pastries, and timeless antiquarian bookshops. Amid the fine 19th-century townhouses fronted with wrought-iron balconies and the piazzas with madly patterned mosaic sidewalks stand top-end fashion designers, jewelers, theaters, concert halls and posh boutique hotels. An eclectic mix of restaurants – from Michelin stars at Belcanto to basic snacks at neighborhood tapas bars – adds to the cultural soup of this sleek hillside enclave.

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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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Basilica da Estrela

Basilica da Estrela

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Estrela Basilica is a basilica and convent in Lisbon, Portugal that was built in the late 1700s to fulfill a vow by Queen Maria I after she gave birth to a son. The basilica has a huge white rococo dome and twin bell towers decorated with statues of saints and allegorical figures. It sits on top of a hill, so the basilica can be seen from quite a distance. One of the most impressive features inside the basilica is the Christmas manger created by sculptor Joaquim Machado de Castro, which is made of cork and terra cotta and contains more than 500 figures.

The elaborate Empire-style tomb of Queen Maria I is also located inside the basilica. The interior of the basilica is decorated with pink and black marble. Another important feature is the altarpiece, which was created in 1870 by the Italian painter Pompeo Batoni. Visitors can go up to the top of the dome for views of the city.

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Carmo Square (Largo do Carmo)

Carmo Square (Largo do Carmo)

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A shaded square surrounded by classic architecture, Carmo Square is the perfect place to stop for a break while exploring Lisbon’s Bairro Alto and Chiado neighborhoods. Park benches line the area as well as small tables and a few kiosks serving up drinks, beers, sangria, and snacks. In the center of the square there’s a trickling fountain, with a tall gazebo over it. During the spring and summer, the square comes alive with purple blooming jacaranda trees and is always filled with tourists and locals alike—an excellent place for people watching.

The square is also home to the Carmo Convent, a gothic-style convent built in the late 14th and 15th centuries. Parts of the convent were destroyed in an earthquake in 1755, leaving ruins to explore. In the rehabilitated parts of the convent, there is an Archeological Museum that displays artifacts and art from throughout Portuguese history.

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Ajuda National Palace (Palacio Nacional Ajuda)

Ajuda National Palace (Palacio Nacional Ajuda)

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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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