Best known for its preserved medieval towns and wild coastline, Portugal has been making a cultural resurgence in recent years. Suddenly, the country once stuck in hundreds of years of history is hip again!
Lisbon has built a reputation as a modern art capital. One-of-a-kind boutique hotels are popping up in unlikely places. And the country’s most famous product has turned into a hot eco-chic export.
Click through our slideshow to see some of the newest and coolest experiences you can have in historic Portugal, from graffiti tours to sleeping in a chocolate factory. Then review our recommendations for places to stay and how to get around.
See Megaliths Under the Stars
For nearly 290 nights a year, the skies around Lake Alqueva in the Alentejo region are an astronomer’s dream: clear, dark and with little light pollution to interfere with stargazing. That’s why the area was declared the world’s first “Starlight Tourism Destination” by UNESCO.
Visitors to the region can take astronomy workshops or borrow telescopes and binoculars to view on their own. Ten hotels in the nearby towns of Monsaraz, Telheiro, Portel and Mourao — all listed on the official website DarkSkyAlqueva.com — offer stargazing activities. Don’t miss the astronomically significant megaliths surrounding the lake; they were placed by ancient peoples who also had an appreciation for the night sky.
Go Palace Hopping in Sintra
When you visit the mountain town of Sintra outside of Lisbon, you can understand why royals chose it as their retreat of choice. The locale is lush and breezy, with sweeping views of the countryside.
In addition to the remnants of the Castle of the Moors, several palaces pepper the landscape. Your first stop must be the whimsical and pastel-painted Pena National Palace, which was the summer residence of the monarchs during the 18th and 19th centuries. The Queluz National Palace was the retreat of a playboy duke who married his niece. The Monserrate Palace has Moghul-inspired design, whereas the Quinta da Regaleira feels like a Disney fairy tale.
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Sample Pastries Both Bizarre and Sweet
The Portuguese have a sweet tooth — a really big one. The country is known for more than 200 pastries, many of them rich, custardy and flaky. The most famous are the pasteis de Belem — two-bite custard tarts topped with cinnamon that originated at a centuries-old monastery in the city of the same name. The Lisbon bakery Antiga Confeitaria de Belem (also known simply as Pasteis de Belem) is reputed to be the sole vendor of the original recipe, selling upwards of 50,000 of them on a Sunday alone. It’s not to be confused with the pastel de nata, a delicious imitator.
Are you an experimental eater? If so, travel to the hilltop town of Montemor-o-Velho near Coimbra to sample its famous pastries, called papas de moado. They are made with sugar, spices and … pig’s blood(!).
To go cafe hopping through Portugal and sample others among the country’s prolific pastries, follow the Historic Cafes Association’s Rota dos Cafes com Historia.
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Take a Graffiti Tour
Urban art critics have recently taken notice of Lisbon, recognizing it as one of the best cities in the world to view street art. From massive commissioned murals with political themes to highly detailed illegal graffiti on abandoned buildings, Lisbon’s street art has become so popular that guided tours are available. Street Art Graffiti Tour promotes two-hour guided walks in central Lisbon on its Facebook page (or email email@example.com).
If you prefer to explore on your own, head to the Bairro Alto. Start at the Galeria de Arte Urbana and then wander among the back alleys and surrounding streets around Rossio Square.
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Dive with Blue Sharks
The Azores are an archipelago consisting of nine islands a few hours off the coast of mainland Europe. The sea here is bathed by warm currents from the Gulf Stream, which attract a variety of marine life to feed in its nutrient-rich waters, including several species of sharks.
The islands are one of the few places in the world where you can dive with blue sharks. Cages aren’t necessary because blue sharks aren’t interested in humans — just small prey like fish and squid. Cetacean Watching and Original Diving are two companies that take you to dive with sharks at the most popular spot, called Condor Seamount; this locale is equally accessible from the islands of Faial and Pico. If you want to swim with the biggest fish in the sea, the whale shark, head to the island of Santa Maria with an operator like Haliotis Santa Maria.
Sleep in a Chocolate Factory
The conversion of a century-old chocolate factory into a themed boutique hotel has turned a port town in the northernmost corner of Portugal into the county’s newest and coolest destination. Viana do Castelo is home to the four-star Hotel Fabrica do Chocolate, which opened in summer 2014.
With brickwork shaped like chocolate bars, cocoa-scented air in the lobby and 18 themed guestrooms — including a Willy Wonka room — the former Avianense chocolate factory also includes an interactive museum and a restaurant that infuses cocoa into nearly every dish. Bath products smell like truffles, and there’s even a chocolate fountain at breakfast.
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Buy Cool Cork Souvenirs
Portugal’s premier expert — cork — has burgeoned in trendiness in recent years, thanks to its environmental sustainability. (The cork oak is the only tree that can regenerate its bark.) Once used for just wine bottles, it’s now harvested for furniture, shoes, belts, hats, handbags, even umbrellas! The Lisbon shops CORK & CO (in Bairro Alto) and Pelcor Lisboa (in the Baixa neighborhood) specialize in all things cork.
To fully appreciate cork, visit the famed “Whistler Tree” in Alentejo. The tree is more than 230 years old, according to the Cork Quality Council, and is on track to produce more than one million wine bottle corks over its lifetime.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Alentejo: Portugal’s Cork Country by Jayme H.
“During the summer the green stands of cork oaks turn the flowing plains of the Alentejo into a romantic and enchanting place of sun and shadows. These ancient forests, which have produced cork for millennia, are occasionally interrupted by wine estates, olive groves, or a white and blue house on a hill. After the bark is harvested, the trees light up the day with their red hues, a sign of the only tree that has a renewable bark.” Read more!
Swim in Lava Pools
Madeira isn’t your typical beach island. The water’s edge is lined with twisting and turning lava rocks carved by the sea, and the volcanic sand is black, not beige. There are several such beaches, including Seixal’s Laje Beach and Ribeira da Janela Beach.
Porto Moniz, meanwhile, is famous for its natural pools carved by the surf. You have to pay a nominal fee to enjoy them, and they can get crowded in the summer, but they’re pleasurable and relaxing ways to enjoy the ocean without the crash of waves. There are two groups of pools: the western group is more “artificial” with plenty of facilities like restaurants and shops; the eastern group is more “natural.” Access the pools on an easy-to-walk promenade from the harbor.
Go on a Dinosaur Walking Tour
Long before surfers and beachgoers descended upon the pristine shores of the town of Lourinha, dinosaurs sunbathed here. Well, perhaps not sunbathed, but the region was a favored haunt for Upper Jurassic dinos some 150 million years ago. In fact, one of the largest nests of dinosaur eggs ever discovered — some containing petrified embryos — was found here in 1993.
The town has embraced its dinoriffic past — so much that nearly every shop’s name begins with the word “dino.” The town has a dinosaur museum and a 6.2-mile walking trail, along which you can see brontosaurus tracks in a quarry and excavation sites where archaeologists unearthed important finds. (Keep your eye out for fossils.) Even the local bakery displays a fossilized leg bone! Lourinha is an hour’s drive from Lisbon.
Create Your Own Wine
Don’t own enough land to fulfill your dream of being a vintner? At the Quinta de Catralvos vineyard in the region of Azeitao, you can impersonate one for the afternoon. As a guest, you’ll not only learn about winemaking and grape varietals, but you’ll also get the opportunity to create your own blend. You can bottle, cork and label your unique creation and take it home with you. But first, spend time exploring the pretty, 61-acre eco-farm.
The cost for a group of up to eight people is less than 300 euros. To make a reservation for the workshop or to stay at the farm’s small inn, email firstname.lastname@example.org. (The vineyard’s website, QuintadeCatralvos.com, is currently only in Portuguese.)
Best Time to Go to Portugal
The peak tourist season for Portugal is the summer, when both sunshine and crowds are plentiful. This is the best time of year to visit if you’re planning to swim and sunbathe, but if you want to see the sights without being shoulder to shoulder with other tourists, consider visiting during the temperate spring or fall shoulder seasons. For the lowest rates, travel in the winter; temperatures are mild across most of the country, but be warned that rain is more likely between November and March.
Portugal on a Budget
Compared to other countries in Western Europe, Portugal is a bargain. Many museums are free on Sundays, and you can avoid peak hotel rates by traveling outside the summer high season. If you’re looking for basic budget lodging, consider a stay in a pensao or residencia, which range from spare rooms in a family’s home to a small lodge with shared bathrooms. Avoid restaurants near major tourist attractions; instead, consider putting together a picnic lunch from a grocery store.