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20 Cool Things to do in Portugal

20 Cool Things to do in Portugal

After decades out of the limelight, Portugal has stepped into the spotlight as one of Europe’s hottest destinations. I’ve chosen 20 of my favourite things to do in Portugal to inspire your next trip.

Short on time? Don’t miss my step by step guide for the perfect 7 days in Portugal.

Best Things to do in Portugal

Delve into History in Belém, Lisbon

Sitting on the outskirts of Lisbon, Belem is home to three of the city’s most famous historical sites: The Monument to the Discoveries, the Jeronimos Monastery and the Torre de Belem.

If you are spending some time in Lisbon, a day in Belem should be at the top of your list of things to do in Portugal – in fact, it’s worth a trip alone.

San Jeronimos Monastery Lisbon in Belem
(c) Julianna Barnaby

Take your time to explore the striking architecture of all three sights: from the unbelievable scale and detail of the monastery, to the intricately carved figures on the monument – a trip to Belem is like stepping back in time.

Go Wine and Port Tasting in the Douro Valley

The Douro Valley, Portugal
The Douro Valley, Portugal

Portugal is really good at making tasty tipples – hands up if you’ve heard of that well-known drink called… Port.

While the Portuguese are good at making all kinds of alcoholic treats, you need to go port and wine tasting in the Douro Valley during your time in the country.

The Douro’s beautifully terraced landscapes are one of the most famous sites in Portugal. Add to this a collection of world-famous Port houses (Graham’s, Taylors, Sandemans to name a few) and vineyards making world-class wines and you’ll start to understand why you really shouldn’t miss this on your trip.

Take the Thermal Waters at Vidago Palace

Vidago Palace
(c) Julianna Barnaby

Back in the day, taking the thermal waters at Vidago Palace used to be all the rage – anyone who was anyone in Portugal would spend some time each year “improving their constitution” with a long stay in the gorgeous belle-epoque style hotel.

Who can blame them? The gorgeous property (less than an hour from Porto) boasts several thermal springs, from which you can take a sip or (in our humble opinion, far more preferable) have a spa treatment in their indulgent spa.

Explore the Beautiful Benagil Sea Cave

Benagil Sea Cave
Benagil Sea Cave

Retired expats and locals have kept pretty schtum about how beautiful the Algarve actually is to date, but now it looks like the secret’s out of the bag.

Of all the natural attractions on the rugged coast of the Algarve, the Benagil sea cave gets our vote for being the most spectacular.

Swim or kayak round from the shore into one of the cave’s natural openings then look up at the huge domed ceiling leading up to an almost perfectly circular spot of blue sky.

What’s better? There’s a beach of perfectly soft fine sand for you to relax on before heading back to the real world.

Soak up the Sun on Praia da Coelha

Praia do Coelha
(c) Julianna Barnaby

Mainland Portugal has an impressive 586 miles of coastline, so isn’t short of a beach or two. It would be impossible to write a piece about the best things to do in Portugal without including at least one beach.

While the Atlantic coast is good for watersports and long beaches as far as the eye can see, the Algarve is home to calmer waters and some gorgeous places to catch a spot of sunshine.

Praia da Coelha is one such beach – accessed via a wooden staircase, the praia is tucked between the golden yellow cliffs for which the coastline is famed.

Get there early enough, or on a weekday and it can feel like your own private paradise – but with the added convenience of a cafe and some sun-loungers for hire.

Read Next: The Best Beaches in the Algarve

Hike Along the Fisherman’s Trail in the Alentejo

Azenha do Mar - Secret spots in the Alentejo, Portugal #portugal #travelphotography #traveldestinations

If Portugal’s southern coastline is all about small coves and hidden beaches, the Atlantic coast is a much wilder and more forceful affair.

Sparkling azure waters, fierce riptides and a dramatic coastline await those who choose to hike the Fisherman’s Trail along the Costa Vicentina.

The Alentejo is less well-known than some other regions in the country, meaning that the hike winds through small villages and untouched seashore – dipping into a few towns along its 120km stretch.

7. Walk the Historical Way from Santiago do Cacém

Santiago de Cacem, Alentejo, Portugal #portugal #travel #traveldestinations
Santiago de Cacem

If you’re looking for a completely different hike through Portugal, opt for the Rota Vicentina’s other long-distance route, the Historical Way. It’s the perfect route for seeing a less-explored part of the country.

Starting in the charming town of Santiago de Cacém, the path wends its way down to Cabo de San Vincente on Portugal’s southernmost tip.

As the name suggests, walking the Historical Way takes you back in time.

The route passes through rural hamlets, dusty cork groves, scented Eucalyptus forests and mountain valleys as it makes its way south.

The trail’s foundation has also created a range of immersive experiences, where you can learn about the unique history and culture of the region from the locals themselves

Take a Trip to the Ilha Deserta (and splash out on an amazing meal while you’re there)

Ilha Deserta, Portugal
(c) Julianna Barnaby

We’ve already established that Portugal has no shortage of beautiful beaches, but a trip to the Ilha Deserta in the Algarve is much more than a flop and drop affair.

So what makes it different?

Firstly, the Ilha Deserta sits in the middle of the Rio Formosa Nature Park – a 60km-long nature haven on the Portuguese coast.

The island can be reached via a short speedboat ride from Faro, but those in the know book onto one of the wildlife boat tours run by local experts Animaris.

Guides point out the bird and wildlife prevalent in the nature park, briefing you on the history and delicate ecosystem of the reserve before dropping you off on the deserted island for a day’s fun.

Once you’ve landed, there are two things to concern yourself on the island (which really is as deserted as the name says): the beach and the restaurant. 13 miles of golden sandy beach to be exact.

Swim, surf, sunbathe and work up an appetite before going to the island’s largely self-sufficient restaurant, Estamine, which serves up some of the best seafood you can find in the country – no kidding.

All that’s left for you to do is jump onto the speedboat back to the mainland… 

Wander Around the Cobbled Streets of Picture-Perfect Tavira

Tavira, Portugal

Whitewashed buildings, brightly-coloured doors, hidden gardens and a ridiculous number of beautiful churches – it’s almost like someone thought of the quintessential Portuguese town and then made Tavira to suit.

This small town might not have a lot of big-name attractions other than the medieval Castello but so much of its appeal is in walking around the narrow, cobbled streets – stopping off for a coffee here, a pasteis de nata there and soaking up its laid-back atmosphere.

See the Anchor Cemetery in Praia do Barril

Anchor Cemetery at Praia do Barril, Portugal
(c) Julianna Barnaby

Just around the corner from Tavira, Praia do Barril is best-known for the rather quirky anchor cemetery set back from the main beach.

The cemetery, a collection of large anchors set into the sand, dates back to the time when tuna fishing was one of the biggest industries in the Algarve.

When the stocks declined, the local fishermen left their anchors on the beach and they’re still there decades later.

Sure, it’s one of the more offbeat things to do in Portugal, but very much worth a visit.

Gobble up Pasteis de Nata

Eating Pasteis de Nata in Lisbon
(c) Julianna Barnaby

Delightfully tasty and unexplainably moreish, the Portuguese custard tart is a display of true culinary genius.

Layers of flaky pastry, filled with a nutmeg-scented egg-custard filling – it all sounds so simple?

The fact is, that you haven’t had a pasteis de nata unless you’ve had one in Portugal.

While locals disagree who actually makes the best in the country (the general consensus is Pasteis de Belem, whose long-guarded secret recipe was created by Hieronymite monks in medieval times), you are totally justified in trying as many as possible in order to make up your own mind on the matter.

Escape to Gorgeous Sintra

Sintra is one of the best things to do in Portugal

UNESCO-heritage Sintra is a fairy-tale amalgamation of colourful architecture, castles, convents and palaces all in a stunning location in the foothills of the Serra Mountains.

A short hop away from Lisbon, the town is a popular day trip from the capital and deservedly so.

Make like Portuguese aristocracy of days gone by and spend your days in the lush, shady gardens, occasionally dipping into a palace or two for variety’s sake.

While a day trip to Sintra is one of the best things to do in Portugal, it’s even better if you can stay the night – exploring the town once all the tour buses have gone is a much more peaceful experience.

Venture to Madeira

Madeira is one of the best places to see in Portugal. Here's why
Galyna_Andrushko/ Envato Elements

Madeira is more than just the namesake for a tasty, tawny tipple and a brightly-coloured cake – this cluster of volcanic islands in the Atlantic ocean will blow you away with its spectacular scenery and memorable (if difficult) Madeiran hikes.

The capital, Funchal is a quiet haven of charming architecture and friendly locals.

Elsewhere on the island you can hike the steep, volcanic terrain, take a dip in the natural seawater swimming pools, go paragliding and parasailing and go dolphin and whale watching. 

Don’t miss Sao Vincente off your list either – this hidden gem is one of Madeira’s most beguiling spots. 

Not bad for an island that’s only 800km squared.

Strike Out to The Azores

Lagoa do Fogo and green valley on San Miguel island
aragami12345/ Envato Elements

The Azores, an archipelago of nine main islands set in the mid-Atlantic, is Portugal’s answer to the Lost World.

Big on sustainability and preserving their natural environment, Azoreans are proud of the otherworldly setting that they call their home. Not surprising when you have a chance to explore the densely vegetated islands – dotted with all kinds of natural wonders – for yourself.

Climb Portugal’s highest peak, Pico for stellar views of the islands and hurl yourself into the seemingly endless number of outdoor activities on offer.

When you’re all worn out, chill in towns seemingly lost in time, and dial onto the on the relaxed pace of life typical of the islands.

See the Street Art and Party at LX Factory, Lisbon

LX Factory Lisbon is packed with cool restaurants, bars and shops, not to mention some of the best street art in Lisbon. Here's why you shouldn't miss it on your next trip.
(c) Julianna Barnaby

Lisbon is a city of stark contrasts – centuries of history rub comfortably alongside the city’s reputation as one of the most exciting and dynamic cities in Europe.

Of all of Lisbon’s contemporary hotspots, LX Factory is the jewel in the crown: a welcoming mishmash of cool street art, weekend markets, independent restaurants, bars, boutiques and parties that guarantees to entertain you pretty much any time and any day of the week.

Wind Your Way through Porto’s Historic Streets

Porto - Portugal

There’s a friendly rivalry between Lisbon and Porto for the title of the country’s most-loved city.

With its UNESCO World Heritage city centre and cavernous Port houses, there’s good argument for Porto to win the title.

Spend at least a few days taking in the city’s highlights: the Cathedral Se, Museu de Arte Contemporânea, Casa da Música and Jardim do Morro to name a few.

The city is also riding the wave of contemporary Portuguese cuisine, with some of the country’s most famous (and whizzy) chefs calling it their home.

Listen to Fado in Alfama

Fado in Alfama, Lisbon

Listening to the sorrowful, bittersweet tunes typical of Fado, Portugal’s long-loved music genre is one of the experiences you shouldn’t miss when visiting the country.

Where better to go and listen to some Fado than in Lisbon’s Alfama neighbourhood, from which it hails?

Sip on a Ginjinha (a Portuguese liqueur made using ginja berries steeped in alcohol) and soak up the melancholy sounds in a traditional Fado restaurant.

Sr. Fado de Alfama and Clube de Fado are two of the best spots.

Go on an Indulgent Weekend in the Algarve

Anantara Vilamoura, Portugal
(c) Julianna Barnaby

If you’re looking for a laid-back luxury getaway with plenty of spa and sunshine, the Algarve is the place to be.

There’s no shortage of high-end hideaways for you to escape to but The Anantara Vilamoura is a real gem.

This new hotel in plush Vilamoura is the perfect destination for a weekend escape – complete with an outstanding spa and an adults-only pool, surrounded by Veuve Clicquot cabanas for the ultimate treat.

Past Meets Present in Braga

Braga, Portugal - one of the best things to do in Portugal

Braga, one of Portugal’s oldest cities, sits in the northeast of the country, luring visitors in with the promise of remarkable architecture, delicious food and old-world charm.

Although it’s a small city, Braga boasts over thirty churches and Portugal’s oldest cathedral – a testament to its longstanding religious importance.

You could be forgiven for thinking it will be sleepy and staid – it’s not. Underground bars and clubs, small cafes and contemporary restaurants keeps the city firmly in the present.

Visit Monsanto – The Most Portuguese Town in Portugal

Monsanto, a gorgeous town in Portugal

Monsanto won the quaint title of being the “most Portuguese town in Portugal” in 1938, reason enough to pique your curiosity.

What does that even mean?

Well, in Monsanto’s case, a village that has barely changed for hundreds of years, a living museum of days gone by.

The town’s architects weren’t remotely fazed by the huge granite boulders occupying the space in which they wanted to build – they simply built around them.

The result? An unusual design where the boulders form part of the walls, roofs and floors or many of the village’s buildings.

Setting aside its charisma, Monsanto should go straight to the top of your list of things to do in Portugal for the picture opportunities alone.

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