For a pretty small country, Portugal certainly packs a lot in and it is the unique mix of stunning landscapes, history, climate and the warmest and richest of cultures that makes it so popular with so many!
Portugal is most famously known for the beautiful beach resorts of the Algarve and for it's cosmopolitan capital, Lisbon, but there's simply so much more to discover! So from the city which gave the country it's name, to the places which put it on the map, here's a little taste of Portugal Uncovered!
Continental Portugal is the most westerly country in Europe and covers a relatively small area on the western Atlantic coast of the Iberian peninsula bounded by Spain to the north and east and the Atlantic ocean to the west and south. It is approximately 200 kms wide and 560 kms long with a population of ~10.5 million (Portugal Wiki). Portugal is on the same time zone as the UK and Ireland (WET) and the currency is the Euro.
The Portuguese Republic (as Portugal is officially known) also includes the stunning volcanic islands of the Azores and the Madeira islands in the Atlantic Ocean.
Visit Portugal - Portugal Tourist Board
The beautiful south coast of Portugal, the Algarve, is a favourite with holidaymakers with its beautiful beaches, historic towns and some of the best golf courses in Europe. There are activities galore from water sports to sky diving, from walking to mountain biking and the Algarve, as the rest of Portugal, has a great programme of cultural events and festivities throughout the year. With its mild winters and long, hot summers it is a perfect all year round destination.
Visit Algarve - Algarve Tourist Board
Just over the hills of the Serra de Monchique and the Serra de Caldeirão lie the rolling plains of the Alentejo and virtually deserted Atlantic beaches. It's a sparsely populated area with a landscape of cork oaks and olive trees, castles and tranquil lakes, the largest of which has been created by the Alqueva dam on the Guadiana River. The Alentejo offers relaxation by the bucket load and begs to be explored at a leisurely pace.
Farming, cork, olive oil and vineyards are the mainstays of Alentejo life and the main cities are Portalegre, Beja, Sines and the historic city of Evora, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The north of the Alentejo is bounded by the river Tagus (Tejo).
Visit Alentejo - Alentejo Tourist Board
The beautiful city of Lisbon (Lisboa) is the capital of Portugal and sits at the mouth of the Tagus (Tejo) River on the north bank. It is one of the oldest cities in the world, predating cities like Rome and Paris by hundreds of years. Lisbon is a fascinating blend of history, culture, old and new, beautiful parks, waterfront restaurants, designer shops and chic cafes. In Lisbon you can shop until you drop in the downtown districts of Baixo and Chiado, party the night away in Bairro Alto, or stroll along the riverfront in Belém and discover the majestic Manueline Jeronimos Monastery and the Torre de Belém which are both listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites. Travel by tram up the narrow steep streets to the castle, Castelo de São Jorge and visit the Fado houses in the oldest district of Lisbon - the Moorish Alfama - for a real taste of Portuguese culture.
Parque das Nações, also on the riverfront, is the modern addition to the city - created for Expo98 - and includes a wealth of restaurants, casino, Oceanarium, marina, the MEO Arena (formerly the Atlantic Pavilion) which hosts a variety of events including pop and rock concerts by top international stars, as well as the large Vasco da Gama Shopping Centre.
Central Portugal has a wonderfully varied landscape with the Serra da Estrela mountains, flowing rivers, forests of chestnuts and pines, vineyards, protected nature reserves and the stunning "Silver Coast" Atlantic beaches. The region is also dotted with hilltop villages of granite houses, historic cities and remains of castles and fortresses dating back to 11th and 12th centuries.
Visit Centro de Portugal - Central Portugal Tourist Board
The city of Coimbra, once capital of Portugal, sits on the banks of the Mondego River. It is a thriving university town (Coimbra University is one of the oldest in Europe) and well known for the Fado of Coimbra, a different style of traditional music from that performed in the Fado houses of Lisbon and Porto and sung only by men. The older part of the town around the Sé Velha (12th century Cathedral) is a myriad of narrow, cobbled streets and terraces on the hillside leading down to the river and the modern heart of the city.
Aveiro was originally a fishing port at the estuary of the river Vouga but after a huge storm in the 16th century the river mouth silted up and left Aveiro cut off from the sea. All was not lost and over time a network of canals was built and finally a new connection to the sea. Today Aveiro is often referred to as the "Little Venice of Portugal" with its colourful "Moliceiros" ferrying passengers along the canals. It is also renowned for the Art Nouveau buildings in and around Largo do Rossio and the gaily striped wooden houses on the Costa Nova. The large nature reserve along the dunes "Reserva Natural das Dunas de São Jacinto" is perfect for bird watching and the Ria de Aveiro offers ideal conditions for many water sports and plays host to many international regattas.
For golf enthusiasts Curia Golf is situated around 20kms from both Coimbra and Aveiro in Buçaco Luso Curia and Montebelo Golfe is a 27 hole course between the Estrela and Caramulo mountains near Viseu.
Viseu is one of the oldest cities in Portugal and the winding, narrow streets of the historic centre are virtually unchanged since medieval times. The Romanesque / Gothic Cathedral (actually built on granite boulders) and 18th century Misericórdia Church can't be missed as they sit overlooking the city in Adro de Sé. Nearby is the former Bishop's Palace which is now the Grão Vasco Museum and displays paintings by Portuguese Renaissance artist, Vasco Fernandes. Viseu has two large shopping centres - Forum Viseu bordering the River Pavia that runs through the town and the Palácio do Gelo Shopping centre on the outskirts of the city complete with ice rink and cinemas.
Figueira da Foz
Figueira da Foz is a lively, cosmopolitan city on the Atlantic coast where the Mondego River meets the Atlantic Ocean some two hours from Lisbon. It was here that English troops landed when they came to help the Portuguese in their battle against Napoleon's troops in 1808. It's easy to see why it's so popular these days with holidaymakers - with a beautiful, long sandy beach that runs all the way to Buarcos around 2kms away, a sea front avenue lined with apartments and hotels and cafés and bars to match.
Castelo Branco, to the east of central Portugal, is known for its beautiful silk embroidered linen bedspreads, the remains of the Castle of the Templars on a hill overlooking the city and the formal gardens of the elegant Bishop's Palace (now a museum). A pleasant stroll from Largo de Sé (Cathedral square), along Rua dos Olarias takes you past the Bishop's Palace and gardens and municipal park and gardens opposite to the Convent of Graça, part of which is now a Sacred Art Museum. The well-tended gardens and open spaces are a vivid contrast to the narrow, cobbled streets of the older part of town which centre around the small square, Praça Velha.
Guarda is the highest city in Portugal at just over 1000m and was founded in 12th century by Sancho I, Portugal's second king. Because of its lofty location it has seen more than a few battles over the centuries but today it enjoys a rather more tranquil atmosphere. The imposing gothic Cathedral is the main feature of Guarda.
Serra da Estrela
The Serra da Estrela is Portugal's highest mountain range with the "Torre" plateau being the highest point at around 2000m above sea level. It is part of the Serra da Estrela National Park which covers some 100,000 hectares and its dramatic granite peaks and glacial valleys offer ever changing scenery throughout the seasons. Walking, paragliding and of course skiing and snowboarding in the winter attract visitors year round. Remote hilltop villages, castles and lakes all form part of the beautiful scenery.
There are so many historic and beautiful cities to explore in the north of Portugal, many with historic centres unchanged for centuries. Castles and manor houses, churches of all architectural styles, the stunning Douro River valley with tiers of vines neatly planted on the steep sides of the gorge and the glistening Atlantic beaches of the "Green Coast" are amongst just some of the sights. With four UNESCO World Heritage Sites to its credit, Porto and the north should be on everyone's travel itinerary!
Porto and the North - Porto and Northern Portugal Tourist Board (excellent resource!)
Porto is famous for being the city that named Portugal from its Latin name "Portus Cale". It is the second largest city in Portugal and is bounded by the Douro River to the south and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. The beautiful historic centre is registered as a World Heritage Site with buildings spanning the centuries from Roman and Gothic through Renaissance and Baroque to the modern. Porto is of course famous for Port wines produced from the vineyards of the Douro valley and no visit would be complete without a tour of some of the Port Wine Cellars across the river in Vila Nova de Gaia. (The Alto Douro region is also one of the regions UNESCO World Heritage Sites)
Braga is about 60kms north of Porto and is one of the main religious centres of Portugal. It's known for baroque churches, magnificent 18th century houses and elaborate parks and gardens.
Amongst the many churches and sanctuaries in and around Braga, the 18th century Bom Jesus do Monte in Tenões (less than 5kms from Braga) is one of the most popular tourist attractions. Sitting on a hilltop with a huge baroque stairway climbing more than 100 metres it really is quite magnificent. There is also an easy way to the top on the Bom Jesus funicular - a water balance cable railway built in 1882 and the oldest water balance funicular in the world!
Guimarães is considered the "birthplace of Portugal" and is probably the most historic city in Portugal. The 10th century castle built to protect against the Moors and Normans was lived in by the first King of Portugal, Afonso, in the 12th century. Nearby is the 15th century Palace of the Dukes of Bragança and a short stroll along narrow, cobbled streets is the incredibly well preserved medieval historic centre, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Guimarães is steeped in so much history that it would be no surprise to be sitting at a café in Largo do Oliveira and seeing knights on horseback ride through the square!
Viana do Castelo
Viana do Castelo, like Porto and Lisbon is bounded by a river (Rio Lima) to the south and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. It's a city rich in historical buildings particularly around the Praça da República where the old city hall, Igreja de Miserícordia and a rather elegant fountain date from early 16th century. It is also a city of contemporary modern architecture including the Praça da Liberdade, the Library and Cultural Centre. Monte de Santa Luzia - the hill overlooking Viana - offers a stunning panoramic view of the city, the river estuary and the sea coast. The Santa Luzia funicular makes light work of the climb!