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The best of Portugal: 10 places you have to visit

Portugal - the perfect blend of city, countryside and coast

Portugal has dramatic coastlines, medieval castles, cosmopolitan cities, charming villages and bucketloads of interesting history. Its cuisine tempts with the freshest of seafood, the cataplanas of the Algarve, Lisbon's delicate custard tarts and Porto's port. While Portugal's cities buzz with life, away from them is a landscape that switches between dense forest and rich arable land or from expanses of vineyards to desert-like landscapes. There's plenty of culture as well. Find it in the fado of Lisbon or Albufeira or the music festivals of Porto. Visit these 10 places to discover the best of Portugal.

  1. Albufeira  
  2. Lisbon
  3. Cascais
  4. Porto
  5. Lagos
  6. Portimao
  7. Carvoeiro
  8. Vilamoura
  9. Madeira
  10. Les Açores

1. Albufeira

Albufeira is the Algarve's top spot for sunny days on sandy beaches, traditional cuisine and lively nightlife. Spend time in the charming old quarter with its cobblestoned streets before lunching in a quaint old restaurant such as Atrium with its fado theatre and classic Portuguese dishes. From the town, a short tunnel leads to a pretty beach flanked by a historic promenade. When the kids want a little more entertainment, take them to Parque Aventura for fun on its walkways, rope bridges and zip wires.

A dish to try: Cataplana is the region's signature seafood stew (as well as the name of the pan it's cooked in).

2. Lisbon

Around every corner in Portugal's capital is something different to see and do. Cobbled streets and stairs take you through a landscape of monasteries, castles and cathedrals. Linger over coffee in upmarket Bairro Alto or dive into the Fado bars that bring late-night life to the Alfama district. Browse contemporary art at the Museu Coleção Berardo or climb up the ornate Belém Tower. It's guarded the Tejo Estuary since the 16th-century. Then, do as the royals did and escape the summer heat on a day trip to Sintra with its colourful palaces and baroque churches.

Take a tram ride: Several trams rattle through the city streets. Jump on the number 28, a famously photogenic one.

3. Cascais

While the royal family spent their summers in Sintra, the well-heeled headed to Cascais. It's just half an hour from Lisbon on a scenic train route along the coastline. Cascais has family-friendly beaches, a saltwater swimming pool, the Paula Rego Gallery and the huge Fortaleza da Senhora da Luz. Wander tiled streets lined with shops and cafes before taking a walk to Boca do Inferno or Hell's Mouth. Here waves surge dramatically through a hole in the cliffs. Along the coast in the other direction is Casino Estoril. Ian Fleming sets a scene here in On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

A trip to make: West of Cascais is Cabo da Roca. Stand on mainland Europe's most westerly point with nothing between you and America.

4. Porto

Porto is far more compact than Lisbon and definitely a destination made for walking. The River Douro winds its way through the centre, separating the port cellars on one side from the cobbled lanes and terracotta roofs of Ribeira on the other. Spanning the river is the magnificent double-decker Dom Luís I Bridge. Stop off at Ribeira for its bustling day and night cafe life or step into the elegant 19th-century 
Palácio da Bolsa for a glimpse of how the city's rich once lived. Don't leave without enjoying a port cellar tour. Among the finest are Caves Cálem and Kopke.

Don't miss: The grand staircase and huge wooden bookcases in Livraria Lello were the inspiration for J K Rowling's Hogwarts in the Harry Potter book series.

5. Lagos

Lagos played a vital role in the Age of Discovery when explorers such as Henry the Navigator set sail from the town. Ships sailed past the huge Fortaleza da Ponta da Bandeira which still stands guard over the harbour entrance. Near Lagos are the breathtaking rocks, caves and arches of Ponta da Piedade. On one side, steps descend to sandy beaches perfect for kayaking and paddleboarding. On the other side, the rolling waves at Praia Porto de Mós create perfect surfing conditions – some of the best in Europe.

Take a day out: Walk on the wild side with the Seven Hanging Valleys Trail. Allow six hours, longer if you stop to take photos.

Villas and apartments in the Algarve at unbeatable prices

6. Portimao

With a long history of sardine fishing and canning, Portimão is still very much a typical Portuguese town, part of the reason why it's so charming. Visit the town's museum housed in the old Feu Hermanos Cannery before celebrating the fishing heritage with a lunch of bacalhoada or Portuguese-style fried cod. Portimão has some of southern Portugal's most beautiful beaches such as Praia da Rocha and its quieter neighbour, Praia do Vau. Both have long stretches of golden sand and safe shallow water shielded from the wind by amber-coloured cliffs.

Have a go: Take a turbo-charged sports car for a spin on the Formula 1 track at the Autódromo Internacional do Algarve.

7. Carvoeiro

While Portimao has the charming bustle of a market town, nearby Carvoeiro is all about relaxation. Take a hike along the Carvoeiro boardwalk that goes over cliffs where wild seabirds nest in their thousands. Or, enjoy the peace and serenity of the sea with a SUP (stand-up paddleboard) tour of coastal places boats can't reach such as the Benagil caves. If your kids crave some excitement, the aquatic delights of nearby Slide and Splash are perfect. Kids have 17 water slides and wave machines to choose from, while parents chill out in the mini spa.

Not to be missed: A dolphin-watching trip is a real treat, especially when combined with a barbecue lunch on a small island.

8. Vilamoura

If you want more holiday action than lazing around the pool, you'll find it in Vilamoura. Sail from its marina or spend a day on the beach brushing up your parasailing, wakeboarding, water skiing and snorkelling skills. Too energetic? Then, simply play around on huge bananas and other inflatables. If you've never played golf before, now's the time to learn. Pick up the basics at the Golf Integrated Academy. With those under your belt, enjoy a round (or two) on Vilamoura's six golf courses. In the evening, get dressed up to hit Vilamoura's restaurants, nightclubs and casinos.

A thrill to enjoy: A high-speed jet boat ride is like a roller coaster on water. You'll definitely get wet!

9. Madeira

Madeira may be over 600 miles from Portugal but it still retains a Portuguese flavour. Use the historic capital Funchal as a base for island explorations. Spend your days swimming in clear warm waters, on whale-spotting expeditions or hiking Madeira's network of ancient irrigation channels or "levadas". Levada dos 25 Fontes leads to the Risco Waterfall with its impressive drop of over 300 feet while Levada do Caldeirão Verde cuts through the beautiful São Jorge Valley. Wherever you go, however, the landscape is breathtaking.

A walk for the brave: 2,000 feet above Madeira's south coast is Cabo Girao or the "Madeira Skywalk". Its glass floor gives a dizzying view of the ocean below.

10. The Azores

The Azores and nature are inseparable. As well as being the site of two UNESCO World Heritage Sites – the Pico Island Vineyard and the ancient town of Angra do Heroismo – the Azores also has three UNESCO biospheres (Flores, Corvo and Graciosa islands). Wherever you go, there is evidence of how the island landscape was shaped by volcanic eruptions. At Furnas on the island of São Miguel, chefs even use the heat of geothermal waters to cook their dishes. Ponta Delgada is the archipelago's main city. With its churches, manor houses, museums, harbours and restaurants, it definitely brings a cosmopolitan edge to São Miguel.

A daring descent: Algar do Carvão is a lava tube from an extinct volcano. Descend 300 feet to its clear lake and vivid green magma chamber.

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