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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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Porto Cathedral (Sé Catedral do Porto)
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196 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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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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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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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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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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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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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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Carmo Convent (Carmo Archaeological Museum)
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To see evidence of the damage inflicted upon Lisbon by the destructive earthquake of 1755, the restored medieval Carmo Convent stands next to the ruins of its great barn of a Gothic church. It was founded in 1389 for the Carmelite order by the great military leader Álvares Pereira, who played a large part in securing Portugal’s independence from Spain before joining the convent himself in 1423.

Thanks to its obliteration in the earthquake, the convent’s library of thousands of rare books and manuscripts was lost; while that was rebuilt and became the HQ of Lisbon’s Municipal Guard (Guarda Republicana), the church has never been fully rebuilt. It was used as a wood storage facility before being turned into a small archaeological museum (the Museu Arqueologico do Carmo) in 1864.

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More Things to Do in Portugal

Castelo de Sao Jorge (St. George's Castle)

Castelo de Sao Jorge (St. George's Castle)

287 Tours and Activities

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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Dom Luis Bridge (Ponte de Dom Luis I)

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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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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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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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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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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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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Praça Martim Moniz

Praça Martim Moniz

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Located in Lisbon’s city center, Praça Martim Moniz is a spacious plaza, lined with trees and filled with bars and restaurants with outdoor seating. Fantastic fountains and pools are set amid modern sculptures and are spread throughout the plaza. Some of the fountains are open for children to play in and are especially popular on hot days.

The plaza’s contemporary design contrasts against Lisbon’s centuries-old buildings that make up the majority of the city. The plaza is home to other works of modern art, including a recognizable chicken sculpture made largely of newspaper. The plaza and its fountains are well lit at night, making it an atmospheric place for dinner or a drink. Frequently on Saturdays and Sundays, the plaza is transformed into an open-air market known as Mercado Fusão. Street food stalls serve up cuisine from all over the world, and are representative of Lisbon’s multicultural side.

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