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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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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.
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.
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.
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.
Cabo da Roca is considered by some as one of the most, if not the best, scenic coastal walks in Europe. Located on the westernmost point of mainland Portugal, it therefore acts as continental Europe and the Eurasian landmass’ westernmost point as well. Because of its outstanding natural beauty and historical significance, Cabo da Roca is part of the Sintra-Cascais Natural Park, one of 13 natural parks in Portugal. Tourists flock to the area to see the rugged Atlantic coast and its dramatic cliffs overlooking sandy beaches a dizzying 100 meters below. But there is more than meets the eye at these rocky precipices; the white-washed lighthouse, possibly one of the most photographed landmarks in Portugal, was part of a defensive line built in the 16th century as part of a fort that guarded the approach to the Portuguese capital.
Belonging to Portugal and lying in the Atlantic more than 550 miles west off the coast of Morocco, the archipelago of Madeira is not exactly a place one stumbles upon while traveling. But visitors soon realize it is a destination worth planning for, and the town of Machico is its shining star.
Along with the island's largest city, Funchal, Machico quickly became a full-fledged town shortly after the discovery of the island in the early 15th century. In fact, it was the first place where explorers landed and as such, is the historical heart of the island. Sights include Franciscan chapels, defensive forts, and the original fire beacon to warn of intruders. There are also beautiful vistas, modern beach clubs, world-class diving spots, and the town itself, with its welcoming locals.
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.
Fátima, located 88 miles (142 kilometers) north of Lisbon is one of the most important shrines to the Virgin Mary in the world. Here, in 1917, she appeared several times to three shepherd children. The last time, on October 13th 1917, there were 70,000 witnesses to the miracle. A marble pillar with a statue of Our Lady marks the exact spot and four million pilgrims make the journey to see it each year, in the Chapel of Apparitions.
In addition there is a Basilica, the House of Our Lady Dolours, to receive the sick and for retreats. There's also accommodation for up to 250 pilgrims in the House of Our Lady of Carmel and a monument to the Sacred Heart of Jesus - a spring whose water brings graces to pilgrims.
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.
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.
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.
Along the winding Portuguese coast lies Sesimbra, a small fishing village with a 17th-century fort overlooking the sea. Its 12th-century Moorish stone castle is perched up on jagged cliffs that drop down into calm Setúbal Bay. There is a small historic monastery within the castle walls, and the best mountain and sea views can be seen from a climb to the top.
Sesimbra is famous for its deep sea fishing and fresh seafood. There are several waterfront restaurants serving fresh fish, and fisherman will often auction off their catches from the harbor. The clear, protected waters of the bay create ideal swimming and scuba diving conditions. In addition to active water sports, there are excellent hiking trails, beaches, and natural parks in and just outside of town. With local beaches and an old town to stroll through, it’s easy to enjoy a quieter pace.
For being so small, Madeira is mountainous, which means that for many a lot of the island is off limits, whether because of vertigo or poor health. But visitors who simply must get that bird's eye view, Pico do Arieiro is the place to go. It's the third-highest peak in Madeira and best of all, it's completely accessible by car.
The view Pico do Arieiro affords depends on the weather. On a clear day it's possible to see as far as 30 miles, and the views are tremendous. But even on a cloudy day – at least, when it's cloudy down below – visitors will be above the clouds and feel as though they're flying without wings. Add in a lunch at the nearby restaurant, and it's a fantastic day trip from Funchal that will provide lifelong memories.
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