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Things to do in Portugal

Portugal’s top attractions

In Portugal, you’re rarely far from a remarkable beach. But an epic coast is only part of the story.

  1. Visit Coimbra
  2. Wander around Sintra
  3. Eat custard tarts at Belém
  4. Touch on tradition in Trás-os-Montes
  5. Get lost in Lisbon’s alleyways
  6. Marvel at the Bom Jesus do Monte
  7. Loll beachside in the Algarve
  8. Cruise the Douro Valley
  9. Hike in the Serra da Estrela
  10. Explore Évora

Yes, there are miles of powder-soft dunes, cliff-backed coves and stellar surfing waves. But that’s only half of Portugal’s story. There’s also a green interior, hilltop castles and ancient walled villages just waiting to be explored. And that’s before you’ve discovered one of Europe’s most captivating capitals, the port wine route from Porto and the national passion for custard tarts. You’ll never be lost for things to do in Portugal: the only trouble will be deciding where to start.

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1. Visit Coimbra

As a base for exploring the region of Beira Litoral, Coimbra can’t be beat. It’s a wonderfully moody place of ancient alleys and lanes, twisting and climbing around the country’s oldest university (est. 1290). Oxford and Cambridge, eat your hearts out.

Best for: Atmospheric ambles

While you’re there: Hit the town. The large student population means a raft of cafés, bars and restaurants

2. Wander around Sintra

If you’re vying for views, it’s Sintra you want. This hilltop retreat near Lisbon is one of the most scenic in the country, surrounded by opulent palaces and country estates. The cooler air of the sky-high town made it the preferred summer retreat for Portugal’s royalty - over the years it has also attracted the rich and famous, including one Lord Byron.

Best for: Sumptuous history

While you’re there: Be sure to visit the wonderful Palácio Nacional with its tapering chimneys.

3. Eat custard tarts at Belém

Anyone with a sweet tooth will want to gorge on the delicious flaky custard tartlets for which Portugal is famed. Belém’s versions have been made and served warm with cinnamon and icing sugar sprinkled over them for more than a century at the Pastéis de Belém . Don’t miss out on them.

Best for: A trip to foodie heaven

While you’re there: If you thought Belém was just about the tarts, think again. It’s a place with a captivating history, home to a vast monastery and a slew of excellent museums.

4. Touch on tradition in Trás-os-Montes

Trás-os-Montes literally means “Behind the Mountains” - and was once indeed Portugal at its most remote. You can still witness Portuguese tradition in action in these beautiful and isolated farmlands. Highlights include spectacular views from Vila Real, a boat trip from Miranda do Douro and the ancient citadel at Bragança.

Best for: A taste of traditional Portugal

While you’re there: Visit the lovely spa town of Chaves to soak your feet - built by the Romans.

5. Get lost in Lisbon’s alleyways

Alfama in Lisbon was made for getting lost in. It’s like a village in the heart of the capital, with streets so narrow and precipitous that few cars can enter. It’s the street life that’s of interest here, continuing in the same way it has for centuries - children playing in the squares and alleys, and families cooking fish on tiny grills outside their houses. There are plenty of jaw-dropping places to stay in the capital. Or, for something kinder on the purse strings, check out cheap holidays to Portugal.

Best for: Following your nose

While you’re there: The area is home to many fado clubs, and there is also a museum dedicated to this classic Portuguese musical genre.

6. Marvel at the Bom Jesus do Monte

If you're looking for a place of pilgrimage with a stairway to heaven to boot, look no further than the Bom Jesus do Monte in Braga. Rising from the mountains of the Minho, this is the ultimate spot for a picnic - bring your own food and drink in the views.

Best for: Fans of religious architecture

While you’re there: Look out for the symbolism at work - the fountains, for instance, represent the Five Senses and the Three Virtues.

7. Loll beachside in the Algarve

If you’re after the Portugal of the popular imagination, make for the Algarve without delay, where the Mediterranean climate and golden beaches have turned the area into the country’s top destination for sunseekers. Pop the picnic, slather on the suncream and focus on soaking up those rays. Pure. Beach. Bliss.

Best for: Bucket-and-spade beach fun.

While you’re there: There are plenty of crashing breakers around, so those after adrenaline-pumping action should be sure to hit the surf.

8. Cruise the Douro Valley

Float like a barrel of port down the Douro Valley to enjoy one of Portugal’s prettiest regions. The Douro river route is one of the great European journeys: you can visit wineries along the way and stay in rural quintas, hanging around at the majestic dams to watch the boats come through the locks.

Best for: Spiffing scenery

While you’re there: If you haven’t sea - well, river - legs, take the train instead.

9. Hike in the Serra da Estrela

A head for heights? Boots made for walking? You’ll find hikes aplenty and fantastic scenery in Portugal’s highest mountains. The range is a high alpine plateau cut by valleys, from within which emanate two of the country’s greatest rivers, the Mondego and Zêzere - the only rivers to begin and end in Portugal rather than crossing the border into Spain.

Best for: Roving ramblers

While you’re there: If you’re here in winter, why not try a spot of skiing between 1993m Torre and Covilhã. It’ll be a head turner back home, too: your friends will never believe you went skiing in Portugal.

10. Explore Évora

If you’re still wondering what to do in Portugal, do as the Romans did and make for Évora. You won’t be surprised that the city’s earned itself UNESCO status: there’s a Roman temple, Moorish alleys, a circuit of medieval walls, an ensemble of 16th-century mansions and ochre-trimmed, whitewashed houses.

Best for: A wander back in time

While you’re there: Try to come on the second Tuesday of the month, when there’s a huge open-air market held in the Rossio.

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