Although Iceland made the number one spot on my 2020 travel bucket list, Portugal made a close second. The country is filled with historic sites, wonders of architecture, and stunning natural attractions. Oh, and let’s not forget the food and wine. Yum!
Surely there are so many reasons to visit Portugal, but I’ve prepared a list of the top 13 attractions I want to see in Portugal. Organized by city, here they are:
Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, is a stunning, cosmopolitan city with an extraordinary amount of history. Aside from its colorful architecture and cute trams, Lisbon is known for its role in the Age of Discovery. After all, it was from here explorers embarked during the 15th and 16th century.
Castelo de São Jorge
St. George’s Castle is perhaps the most famous of Lisbon’s attractions. Situated near Alfama, Lisbon’s oldest quarter, the castle is soaked in history. The first fortifications were built in the 1st Century BC, and the castle served as a stronghold ever since. It was defended by the Moors and overrun by Christian forces in 1147. King Afonso Henriques then created the Aláçova Palace. History lesson aside, St. George’s castle offers a stunning view of the city while also stunning people itself with great, stone walls and towers.
Mosteiro dos Jerónimos
Another landmark of Lisbon is this 16th-century Jerónimos monastery. One look and it’s no surprise why it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The monastery was commissioned in 1501 by King Manuel I. It was created in honor of Vasco de Gama’s 1498 journey to India (the first European voyage to India by sea) and funded by the spice trade. More importantly, it is a gorgeous sight to behold with its elegant portals, cloisters, and gardens.
Oceanário de Lisboa
Yes, I know what you’re thinking. An aquarium? You want to travel across the ocean to see an aquarium. But hey! It’s one of the largest aquariums in the world. We spend so much time on land. It’s a good opportunity to see the myriad creatures hidden beneath the sea.
Torre de Belém
The Belém Tower is another UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a breathtaking example of Maneulian architecture and another symbol of the country’s Age of Discovery. Originally, the tower was a fortress built in the middle of the River Tagus. However, the waters have since shifted. In any case, if you climb the steep, spiral staircase to the top, you will get a wonderful view of the river. Anyone traveling to Lisbon should definitely see the Belém Tower.
Not far from Lisbon is the romantic town of Sintra. It makes for a great day trip. Even the old Portuguese kings came here to escape from the hustle and bustle of city life.
Quinta da Regaleira
This estate was designed by theatrical set designer Luigi Manini, whose eccentricity shows in the architecture and landscape. Aside from the spooky facade, the estate has religious and occult references scattered throughout. It also has several grottoes and secret tunnels. A real interesting feature of Quinta da Regaleira is the Initiation Well. It is not an actual well, but a spiral staircase that descends downward towards a grotto and exits by the stepping stones of a waterfall. Apparently, the Initiation Well is supposed to reflect the process of gestation through the dark birth canal towards the light of the grotto. Gross. But cool!
Palácio da Pena
On the highest point of the Serra de Sintra is the Palace of Pena. Due to its location and its crazy pink and yellow colors, the palace can be seen from Lisbon. There is plenty to admire about the palace, including its quirky towers, domes, and turrets. Just walking around will you feel like you’re part of an entirely different century. And the view from atop the Serra de Sintra must be astonishing.
Castelo dos Mouros
Yes, there is another castle! But this one wraps around the Serra de Sintra. Aside from being a sight in its own right, it’s also a great place to hike. You can take a bus up to the castle if you’d like, but if you’re brave enough and have quads of steel, then you can hike your way up the hillside.
Porto is Portugal’s second largest city. It is also home to port wine, which you can be certain is something I will be drinking in Porto. In Portuguese, the city is called “o Porto.” As you might be able to guess, it means “the Port.” So, yes, it’s another beautiful city on the coast.
Igreja do Carmo
Porto has no shortage of beautiful churches. However, this one takes the cake. The most significant feature of the church is its tiled blue and white facade. I myself have seen it on my Instagram feed countless times. But another interesting feature of the church is that it is built almost directly next to another church, Igreja das Carmelitas. I say almost because ancient law stated no two churches could share a wall. In between the two churches is a one meter wide home. Unsurprisingly, the home has been unoccupied for decades.
Torre dos Clérigos
The Clérigos Tower is the tallest in the city. You can see it just about anywhere in Porto. So, for tourists with a terrible sense of direction (like myself), it’s a helpful way to navigate. However, it’s also a great place to see up close. It’s attached to another beautiful Porto church, Igreja dos Clérigos. Not to mention, you can climb to the top to get a panoramic view of the city and the Douro Valley beyond.
As a caffeine-addicted writer, I have an affinity for cafes. Café Majestic is one of the best cafes in the country. Not only are its coffees and pastries delicious, it also has a recognizable Art Nouveau style. Oh, and did I mention this is where J.K. Rowling worked on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone? Because she did.
Like all of Portugal, Lagos has history. But there’s a better reason it is one of Portugal’s favorite vacation spots. It is a stunning beach town on the southern coast with a picturesque marina and several charming cafes and restaurants. Lagos is the perfect, relaxing end to a Portuguese trip.
What can I say? The beaches in Lagos exceed comprehension. Long and sandy, these beaches are perfect for walking along the shore or simply relaxing in the sun.
Ponta da Piedade
The so-called “Point of Pity” is a gorgeous, golden formation of sandstone cliffs that stand above the crystal clear water. I have no idea why it’s called the Point of Pity because it is a sight to be adored. Nearby are several hidden grottoes and caves sculpted by the ocean’s waves. It is a good idea to go kayaking to get a better view of them. You can also take a romantic walk up to the lighthouse.
Igreja de Santa Maria-Praça do Infante D. Henrique
Once more, there is a church on the list. This Church of Saint Mary sits on a square dedicated to Prince Henry the Navigator. With several water features and a bronze statue of the maritime explorer, the square is a wonderful place to relax.
Portugal is clearly an amazing country to visit. I can’t wait to check it off my travel bucket list! But there are so many amazing places. See some of the other great countries I’ve been to like Italy or Spain or Greece.