While long popular with European travellers, among Asians, Portugal is often one of the continent’s least known destinations. The country boasts pristine sandy beaches, a rugged coastline and architecturally significant cities, all combined with great food, wine, a rich history and traditional culture that includes everything from Roman ruins to Renaissance palaces, medieval castles and cobblestone villages.
Mountains make up much of Portugal’s northern border with Spain, and are typically dotted with historic hilltop towns, making the region ideal for trekking, mountain biking and kayaking (in season). Further south, the land changes to rolling hills and vast plains in Alentejo, with ancient stone villages spread across the region. While on the coast, Portugal’s great seafaring history is on display in the antique grandeur of its key cities, Lisbon and Porto.
Portugal’s capital city, Lisbon, is mainland Europe’s westernmost metropolis. Spread over a range of hills north of the Tagus River, Lisbon has an impressive mix of old, and often surprisingly modern architecture. The oldest neighbourhoods boast stepped alleys that date back to Moorish times, lined with pastel-coloured houses. Simply wander around, and you’ll find stunning vantage points everywhere, with incredible views of the city and river.
The city centre, which dates back to the 18th century, has black and white cobblestone sidewalks that border wide boulevards. Century-old trams rattle along busy streets and up steep hills, past ancient churches, quaint restaurants and fountains, giving you a sense of having stepped back in time. While certain parts of the city have given way to modernity, most of the city retains its old-world charm, like the Baixa district, a place where age-old herbalists, haberdashers and tailors still ply their trade in the streets of the city centre.
Art is on display everywhere in the old city, in the form of azulejos, Portugal’s signature painted blue tiles. Adorning the outsides of buildings and walls, they form an artistic street art legacy all their own, in areas like Baixa and Praça dos Restauradores.
Set atop Lisbon’s highest hill, the Moorish-era Alfama neighbourhood, with its amber walls and dusty lanes circling the medieval Castelo de São Jorge, towers over the town below. The city’s best-preserved ancient neighbourhood, it escaped the great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 that leveled much of the city. Today Alfama is the spiritual home of fado – Portugal’s unique, melancholic style of folk singing.
The city is also a haven for nightlife; head down to the bar-filled, cobbled lanes of Bairro Alto, where live music filters out of the bars.
Located 130km east of Lisbon is the historic walled city of Evora, one of the country’s most beautifully preserved towns. Rising out of the plains of the Alto Alentejo region, this is the ideal place to experience a rich mix of ancient cultures. The ancient city had already been settled by the Celts, Romans, Visigoths and Moors, before the Portuguese gained control, with Roman ruins, standing right next to churches, convents and the grand palaces of Portuguese kings.
The Temple of Diana, an ancient Roman temple dating back to the 2nd century, is perhaps one of the city’s most famous landmarks. One of the best preserved monuments in the region, it is raised on a 3m-high stone platform, with 14 of the original columns still standing.
While Evora’s main square, Praça do Giraldo, was an execution ground during the Inquisition, it is now filled with cafes serving local specialties including Alentejo’s renowned local wines, all with views of historic sites, including a 1571 fountain at the Renaissance Santo Antão Church, and the old Jesuit University, founded in 1559.
A particular highlight is the famous Igreja de São Francisco. Completed in 1510, this imposing Gothic church is said to house the remains of famed playwright, Gil Vicente. However, it is most famous for the bodies that aren’t buried. The bones and skulls of over 5,000 people cover the walls in the church’s Chapel of Bones, making for an impressive, if macabre experience, accentuated by a sign which reads ‘We bones that are here, await yours’.
Picnics can be had at the public gardens near the church, which are home to the 16th century Dom Manuel Palace. This ancient structure was built in the Gothic, Manueline, neo-Moorish, and Renaissance styles, and was where Vasco de Gama received his commission, before going on to pioneer the sea route to India.
Just outside the city walls are the towering ruins of the Agua de Prata Acqueduct, along with Ermita de São Brás shrine. Resembling a medieval castle with its battlements and gargoyles, it’s actually a fortified church built by King João II following an outbreak of plague.
Another interesting site is the Portuguese Stonehenge – the Almendres Cromlech. Regarded as the most important megalithic site in Iberia, it’s a huge oval of almost 100 granite monoliths, engraved with ancient markings, which belong to Portugal’s early, pre-Christian past.
A great way to see Evora and also get some exercise is on a bicycle tour. Various companies offer historical bike tours that take you through the picturesque oak forests, across quiet trails and past many of Evora’s most famous sites.