Portugal is best known for its countryside, featuring wild coastlines, sandy beaches, and beautiful mountain villages. This is the place to come for guaranteed summer sun, excellent surfing and plenty of opportunities for hiking and cycling.
However, an increasing number of travellers are realizing that this fascinating country also offers a whole host of urban attractions. This small country is home to some impressive cities, many of which are among the best things to do in Portugal.
Portugal’s cities are rich in historical sites, packed with fabulous restaurants, and have charm and character in abundance. You’ll find Moorish castles alongside Baroque churches, state-of-the-art museums and hole-in-the-wall bars, colorful houses and winding, atmospheric streets.
While Lisbon and Porto remain the most popular cities to visit in Portugal, this fascinating country also has a number of smaller cities that are well worth exploring.
Each town and city has its own distinct character and local traditions and a visit to some of these lesser-known places can be a brilliant way to experience authentic Portuguese culture. To help you decide where to go, we’ve put together a useful guide to some of the best cities to visit in Portugal.
A tram in Lisbon. Photo: Unsplash.
The capital city of Lisbon is the most popular urban destination in Portugal, and once you arrive, you’ll soon understand why. Lisbon is packed with things to see and do, oozes historic character and charm, and is officially the sunniest capital city in Europe.
Built over seven steep hills that rise up from the waterfront, Lisbon is relatively compact and easy to explore, although be warned – no part of this city is flat! To save your legs, take the iconic E28 yellow tram, for a tour of the prettiest parts of the city for just €3. In particular, the winding streets of the historic Alfama district are a delight to explore, and the nearby Bairro Alto offers excellent nightlife and restaurants.
You can eat incredibly well in Lisbon. Canva/jackmalipan.
Lisbon’s gastronomic scene has exploded in recent years, and foodies will find plenty to enjoy in this dynamic, vibrant city. There’s also an impressive range of museums and galleries. While you’re here, don’t miss the opportunity to enjoy some traditional fado music in one of Lisbon’s legendary bars.
See also: Lisbon: Live Fado Show With Dinner
See also: Things to Do in Lisbon
Roman ruins in Evora. Canva/PierreOliverClementMantion.
The city of Evora has been standing for over 2000 years, and a visit here is a fascinating lesson in Portuguese history. From the Romans, to the Moors, and the Portuguese explorers that once called this beautiful city home, each era has left its own distinctive mark.
The old town of Evora. Canva/RossHelen.
You can walk in the footsteps of ancient Romans in the ancient Temple of Diana, get lost in the twisting cobbled streets of the medieval town and gaze in wonder at some fine examples of Gothic and Renaissance architecture. However, the crowning glory of this historic city is the infamous Chapel of Bones.
In the 16th century, as the dead began to slowly outnumber the living residents of the town, a group of Franciscan monks decided to line the walls of their chapel with human remains. The result still stands today, creating an eerie spectacle that should not be missed!
Porto. Photo: Unsplash.
Porto, Portugal’s second biggest city, is known for the fortified wine that bears its name. Port is the country’s national drink, and the city of Porto is traditionally where the wine was brought from the neighboring Douro Valley to be processed and aged to perfection.
Opportunities for port tasting are to be found around every corner in Porto, and the city has an exciting gastronomic scene to match its impressive port and wine production.
Sunset in Porto. Canva/Xantana.
However, Porto has much to offer besides port, and visitors are often surprised at the range of excellent museums and galleries, the delightful old quarter of Ribeiro and the many green parks and gardens. Whatever you do, don’t miss out on one of the incredible sunsets from one of the city’s many miradouros (viewpoints).
Colourful houses in Costa Nova, Aveiro. Canva/DaLiu.
Known affectionately as ‘the Venice of Portugal’, this charming little city is bursting with authentic Portuguese character. Located on the edge of a beautiful lagoon, Aveiro is characterized by its network of canals, filled with brightly painted canal boats, or moliceiros. These distinctive boats aren’t quite gondolas, but were instead originally developed to harvest seaweed.
Moliceiros on a canal. Canva/Acnakelsy.
Aveiro is conveniently located for several beautiful beaches. Canva/David Pereias.
Now they have become a major tourist attraction and a symbol of the city, and a ride in a molicero is a wonderful way to see colorful Aveiro from the water. In addition to the charming city center, Aveiro is conveniently located for several beautiful beaches and the nearby nature reserve of São Jacinto, one of Portugal’s hidden gems. Here you can wander through the sand dunes and woodland and see a whole host of glorious birdlife.
A solemn beach in Faro. Canva/Julen Arabaolaza.
Sun worshippers and surf hunters flock to Faro, the gateway to the Algarve, which operates as a base from which to explore Portugal’s glorious coastline. With golden sands, crystal-clear waters and plenty of spectacular rock formations, the coastline around Faro is a destination in its own right.
The charming streets of Faro. Canva/info79577.
However, in their eagerness to get to the beach, many visitors overlook the delightful town of Faro itself. Linger a while here and you’ll find a charming historic old town, encircled by medieval walls, with plenty of attractions that may tempt you to prolong your stay.
Faro also includes a striking Gothic cathedral and an eerie ‘bone chapel’, similar to its counterpart in Evora. At night, the city comes alive with local color and you’ll find some excellent restaurants and lively bars.
Coimbra. Canva/Luis Fonseca.
Coimbra was once Portugal’s capital city, and this stately town certainly hasn’t forgotten its illustrious past. Home to one of the country’s finest universities, Coimbra is famous for libraries, museums, and churches, and is reputed as a historic seat of learning and culture. Visitors here will find an animated, dynamic city, packed with students and authentic local color.
The historic Moorish quarter is a pleasure to explore, and the city has plenty of peaceful gardens and quiet streets in case you need a moment of relaxation. Coimbra is also particularly noted for its music, as one of the places where fado first developed. There’s no shortage of atmospheric bars in the old city where you can listen to talented singers perform the nostalgic, beautiful songs of Portugal.
The Palácio Nacional da Pena. Wonderguide/Arni.
Perched on a rocky outcrop in the foothills of a low mountain range, Sintra is one of the dreamiest destinations in Portugal. Visit early in the morning and you might be treated to a glimpse of the city’s most famous monument, the Palácio Nacional da Pena, emerging like a fairytale from the misty pine forests.
Sintra has an exceptional range of attractions for such a small city, including an impressive Moorish castle offering fantastic views and photo opportunities, and a number of beautiful palaces and castles, some with hidden secrets and mysterious histories.
See also: Wine And Food Tour Of Sintra From Lisbon
Aside from these fabulous sights, the medieval old town is a charming destination in its own right. For the best experience, stay overnight in the old town to experience this unique city in peace once all the day-trippers have departed.
Pro tip: If you like pastries, you should pay a visit to a terrific bakery in Sintra called Casa Piriquita.
In Braga. Canva/Andrey Khrobostov.
There is an old Portuguese saying that goes like this: ‘Porto works while Lisbon plays, Coimbra studies and Braga prays’. Braga, home to the oldest cathedral in the country, does have a reputation for religious devotion, which echoes in the constant chiming of bells from the many Baroque churches scattered across the city.
The church of Bom Jesus do Monte. Canva/Andrey Khrobostov.
One of the city’s most famous and impressive sights is the sanctuary and church of Bom Jesus do Monte, located on a beautiful hillside just outside the city. What’s more, Braga is an excellent place to come for the religious festivities during Semana Santa (Holy Week), when the streets are filled with processions and singing.
See also: Top things to do in Braga
Although the old saying does ring true, Braga has much more to offer than religious devotion and prayer. Visitors will find excellent opportunities for shopping, lively bars and restaurants and some fabulous local markets.