Things to see and do in Portugal

Things to see and do in Portugal

Many European countries immediately conjure iconic associations, like France's Eiffel Tower and Germany's beer and brats. But Portugal, which sits on the edge of the ancient Iberian Peninsula, is so diverse and enchanting, no single image can capture its magic.

About the size of Indiana, Portugal is located on the southwestern tip of Europe, making it the access point to the Atlantic Ocean for explorers like Ferdinand Magellan and Christopher Columbus. Calm waters hug the southern beaches, while monstrous waves crash against the craggy cliffs that can be found on its western coast. Rivers nourishing vineyards and farms stream through the mountains in the north.

If tourists move inland toward the border with Spain, they'll find 17th-century monasteries and castles in medieval towns alongside cork and olive tree fields. The archipelagos of Madeira and the Azores* near the coast of Africa are where volcano-rich soil gives rise to black sand beaches, and the winding roads that cut into the cliffs are worthy of a James Bond car chase. The climate is as varied as the landscape, but the average day is mild with plenty of sunshine.

Old and new

The predominantly Catholic Portuguese insist on a simple life. Most people you'll meet will be friendly but not necessarily outgoing, and the sacred two-hour lunch punctuates the workday. Writer Datus C. Proper has called Portugal “the last old place,” but its culture hints at an intriguing contrast between old and new. While time-honored religious festivals celebrate the local bounty, cows still walk the streets, and fishermen continue to cast lobster traps into the ocean, the surprisingly modern country was the first in the world to decriminalize drug use, and more than 40 percent of its energy comes from renewable sources.

No one would've blamed the Portuguese explorers if they had stayed put; there's so much to discover within the country's borders. The cosmopolitan capital, Lisbon, is one of the oldest cities in the world, predating Paris, London, and even Rome. Unfortunately, many ancient structures were wiped away in 1755 after a powerful earthquake. However, Roman, Gothic, and Baroque architecture keeps tourists strolling through the city in awe, while the Tagus River offers a picturesque backdrop. At local cafes, musicians play fado music, which sometimes is compared to American country music because of its themes of unrequited love, loss, and longing. Contemporary Lisbon is known for its dazzling nightlife and fashion scene. Sports fans might want to catch a football (soccer) game - Lisbon hosts two top clubs.

From Lisbon, travelers can venture an hour southwest by train to the Portuguese Riviera. My husband and I went there in mid-May during “shoulder season” - the period between peak and off-peak seasons when the weather is warm and the sky is blue, but it's too cold to swim in the ocean without a wet suit. Although people meandered around the city, we never had to wait for a table. We stayed in the growing seaside town of Cascais, where we took a short downhill bike ride from the hotel to a winding path on majestic cliffs overlooking the ocean. A glance inland revealed mid-century modern apartment buildings. We rode to the famous Boca do Inferno, or Mouth of Hell, aptly named because over time, the ocean has smashed a gaping hole into the rocks. Just a few steps away, we enjoyed a lunch of gazpacho and grilled octopus while soaking in the view. The next day, we rode a little farther into the town center to see its marina dotted with small, rickety boats alongside impressive yachts. This charming town is representative of many found throughout Portugal.

A trip to Sintra, described by Lord Byron as “glorious Eden,” is a must for any flora and fauna lover. On the rather dizzying bus ride up the mountain, we saw flowers growing wild that in the U.S. would be found only in manicured gardens. In Sintra's nature park, tropical birds-of-paradise and palm trees thrive alongside cool-weather rhododendrons and pine trees. Sintra also is the site of many breathtaking castles, ranging from austere buildings to ornate royal retreats.

Inspired and affordable

With over 1,000 miles of coastline, fishermen can guarantee seafood on every farm table and restaurant menu. But Portugal's classic dishes might not be familiar to American palates. Dried cod, sardines, eel, and octopus are their staples, but shrimp, crab, oysters, and bass are available for the less adventurous. Pork dishes, often in a stew of tomatoes and onions, are alluring. Piri-piri sauce, a hot sauce made from chiles, citrus peel, and spices like oregano and tarragon, is drizzled on chicken, but fair warning: The piri pepper is very hot, so have plenty of vinho verde - a young, slightly bubbly wine the Portuguese drink like water - nearby.

Another popular libation is port, named after the northern seaside city of Porto. This sweet, typically red wine often is served with desserts such as pastel de nata, an egg custard tart with hints of cinnamon and lemon. The pastry has an interesting origin: 18th-century monks and nuns used large quantities of egg whites to starch their clothes and cleverly used the leftover yolks to create this culinary national treasure.

Surprisingly, a dinner of chorizo sausage, salad, shrimp pasta with saffron, piri-piri chicken, and a pitcher of sangria set us back less than $35 - despite the value-added tax, which adds 23 percent to just about everything.

When it's time to work off some of that exquisite food and drink, winter lovers can ski through the mountain range of Serra da Estrela. Horseback riding and hiking are popular year-round, and springtime ushers in meadows full of wild peonies and bluebells. Those who would rather stick to the beaches can take their surfboards to the central coast city of Nazaré, home to the biggest wave ever surfed - an estimated 100-foot wave, surfed in 2013.

Now that Portugal's on your bucket list, you'll want to know some of the more practical aspects of visiting. Flying from Philadelphia took only five hours (albeit longer on return). Trains, buses, and easy-to-hail taxis make sightseeing stress-free, and many hotels offer free shuttles to selected nearby destinations. With safety a rising concern for travelers, it's reassuring to know Portugal consistently ranks in the top five of the world's most peaceful countries.

*Lajes Field in the Azores is home of the U.S. Air Force's 65th Air Base Group and includes an air passenger terminal. Military space-available (Space-A) flights from the U.S. and Europe are available to eligible servicemembers and retirees and their families.

For more information on flying in and out of Lajes Field, visit

For information on Space-A travel, visit

For military history enthusiasts

Sure, Portugal has delicious food, sunny beaches, and picturesque vineyards, but military history buffs might be surprised by how many museums and historical sites the country offers.

Military Museums:

Museu Militar de Lisboa

Museu de Marinha de Lisboa

Museu Militar do Porto

Forts and castles:

Torre de Belém

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a 16th-century fort and one of Lisbon's most striking monuments.

Castelo de São Jorge

Built in the mid-11th century, this castle offers unparalleled views of Lisbon.

Castelo de Guimãraes

Originally constructed in A.D. 968 as a refuge from Vikings, this restored castle is said to be the birthplace of the first king of Portugal.

Cidadela de Cascais

This 15th-century fort once guarded the minor fishing harbor of Cascais and now serves as an upscale hotel.

Have you visited Portugal? Let us know below!

Sources & Further Reading