Portugal has been established as a civilisation for thousands of years, and it was once even rumoured to be a stopping place for the Ancient Greek hero Odysseus as he travelled the world. As one of the oldest countries in Europe, it’s seen its fair share of battles, tribes and explorers, and plenty of relics from this rich cultural history still exist for you to enjoy today.
Modern-day Portugal offers the perfect blend of history and culture, combined with a range of climates and landscapes. The north of the country offers cool temperatures and a rocky terrain, whereas the Algarve to the south is world-renowned for its beautiful beaches and warm temperatures. Portugal suits every type of traveller, and is well-used to tourists without being overrun.
With so much to explore, you could easily spend a month in Portugal, but most of us are a little more stuck for time, so it’s important to decide on your ‘must see’ list before you go. We take a look at four places that are sure to capture your attention.
Pena National Palace at Sintra
Sitting on the west coast of Portugal, Sintra is one of the most well-known spots in Portugal as a result of the Pena National Palace. Sintra itself is one of the best places to visit near Lisbon in winter or summer, and it hosts several extravagant villas and a castle as well as three palaces, making it a history-lovers paradise. Together, these buildings make up the UNESCO World Heritage site known as the cultural landscape of Sintra.
Pena National Palace has become a tourist attraction known for its beautiful coloured towers, set high up on the hilltop above the town. The Romantic-style architecture and decoration makes for a fairytale-esque castle, and the gardens are perfect for exploring, with winding paths, grottoes and water features. You can go into the castle, as it has been carefully restored, or simply buy a garden ticket and enjoy the view for a slightly cheaper price.
Pena Palace can get very busy, so it’s best to pre-plan your trip and try to avoid the middle of the day when the coach tours arrive if you’re visiting in peak season. You can either walk up from the station, which takes about 50 minutes, or take the 434 bus. The walk is quite steep, so be prepared. And if you plan to stay longer in Sintra, you will definitely want to read more about the best things to do in Sintra.
Dating from the 12th century, built during the Catholic conquest of Portugal from the Moors, Lisbon Cathedral is a commanding building that is an icon of the Lisbon skyline. It’s had a hard history, surviving several natural disasters, but still stands today due to renovation and repair projects over the years. Its thick stone walls and towers can make it look more like a fortress, so it’s easy to see why people have historically flocked here to worship, gazing up in awe of the vaulted ceilings.
Today, visitors are welcome to visit the Cathedral for free from 7am until evening Mass at 7pm. For a small fee, you can also visit the cloisters, which were built on top of the ruins of a mosque, dating from the Catholic invasion. The cloisters have been partially excavated in order to show the foundations of the mosque, and give an insight into Portugal’s tumultuous past. Why not read about the roles that both religions have played in shaping the country’s past to get a vivid picture of what went on here?
This towering building was created to commemorate the return of the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, and sits on top of the chapel where da Gama and his crew prayed before setting off to India. It took almost 100 years to build, and is decorated in the Portuguese late Gothic style, with the nave held up by six sculpted columns.
Aside from the main church, the Jerónimos Monastery shows off a two-storey cloister, set around a square of green courtyard and simple paths. You can also head to the Archeology Museum, which holds the largest archeological collection in Portugal, including precious stones, Egyptian mummies and Moorish artefacts. Make sure to buy a combined ticket that gets you into the Monastery as well as the museum, and spend the day diving into history.
If you love to combine historical visits with stunning landscapes, visit the Belém Tower, which is well-known for offering a fabulous view over the Tagus River estuary. The estuary is actually a vast nature reserve with plenty of walks for you to explore.
Originally, the tower sat on a small island in the river, and was surrounded by water, but due to geographical changes the main shoreline has almost reached the bottom of the tower on one side. The tower itself was originally built to defend Lisbon, but was later used as a lighthouse. As a result, the architecture contains lots of defensive features, with 16 windows for cannons around the edge, as well as several pits for keeping prisoners in. It has five floors, complete with a roof terrace, which is accessed by a narrow, winding staircase – not one for those who are afraid of heights!