5 Lesser-Known Destinations to Visit in Portugal

by  Amanda Black | Jul 31, 2013
Monte Palace Tropical Gardens in Madeira, Portugal
Monte Palace Tropical Gardens in Madeira, Portugal / pkazmierczak/iStock

Rich with history, it seems Portugal itself should be a UNESCO World Heritage Site – we've lost count of how many of its cities and towns have been given the esteemed title. While Lisbon, Porto, and Sintra are all worthy of their own itineraries, if you're looking for something a little bit off the beaten path (or just want to take a day trip from one of it's major cities), here's where you should go to get a unique look at the rest of Portugal.

1. The Algarve When you think of great beaches in the Iberian Peninsula, the Costa del Sol in Spain probably comes to mind well before Portugal does. Enter, the Algarve in the south of Portugal. While there are sleepy parts of this region, consider checking out the popular Praia da Rocha, a beach in the shore town of Portimão. At the end of the beach, explore the 17th century castle, Fortaleza da Santa Caterina; watch the sunset from the fort or simply visit it to get the best view of the beach. Other cool spots to hit in the southern region are Lagos and Faro, two of the larger cities in the Algarve. Sagres Point, the most south-westerly point of Portugal, is also famous because explorers like Ferdinand Magellan and Columbus are rumored to have studied at the Sagres Henry the Navigator School of Navigation (though the exact location of the school is unknown to this day). Visit the Fortaleza de Sagres, built in the 1400s, the fortress that was commissioned by the same man, Infante D. Henrique.

2. Madeira Recently featured on ABC's The Bachelorette, Madeira is over 500 miles southwest of Lisbon and is actually closer to Africa than Portugal. Characterized by mountainous terrain, volcanos, waterfalls, and striking architecture, there's plenty to do on the island if you're making the trip out there (flights from Lisbon are a little over 90 minutes on many carriers including TAP Portugal and easyJet). Explore the Camara de Lobos port, stroll through Funchal, the capital. For thrill-seekers, take a wicker Monte Toboggan down the big hills into downtown Funchal – two men push and steer the carts down the hills at speeds of up to 30 mph! Or, just take a drive along the coast through the clouds on route ER101 for some breathtaking views on top of the mountains. Be sure to take the old part of the road (one of the oldest on the island) so you don't miss out on any sights – the newer sections cut through the mountains for more efficient travel between towns. Madeira is also home to one of Europe's coolest public pools!

3. Coimbra For those looking to supplement their beach time in Portugal with some history and incredible architecture, Coimbra is a great place to start. Roman architecture, impressive churches, and a lively city center all characterize this central Portuguese town. Once the capital of the country – way back in the Middle Ages – get a dose of education at one of the oldest universities in Europe (founded in 1290) – the library is spectacular. Or, check out Se Velha – the old cathedral dates back to the 12th century and features Gothic and Renaissance architectural influences, the Museu Nacional Machado de Castro, which holds archaeological remains from the city, or just explore the city on a GO Walk – a walking tour with former Coimbra university students (a bonus: they provide discount vouchers to popular spots like museums, monuments, local shops, bakeries, restaurants, and more).

4. Óbidos Feel like you're stepping back in time when you come to the medieval walls of Óbidos. Once a medieval fortress, the town is home to some spectacular churches – like the Igreja Matriz de Santa Maria dating back to the 16th century and outside of the walls, the Igreja de Senhor da Pedra, a hexagonal sanctuary that built in the 1700s, but remains unfinished – picturesque white-washed buildings that'll remind you of Spain's Pueblos Blancos (White Towns), narrow streets, and stone-paved streets. One of the main draws to the town is Pousada de Óbidos, the Moorish castle; splurge and spend the night there. Or, if you're in the mood and around from July 11 to August 4, attend the Medieval Market – the castle and town residents get in the spirit of medieval Europe with jousting, wizards, jugglers, and more.

5. Évora For a real taste of luxury, head to one of the many UNESCO World Heritage Site cities in Portugal, Évora; the once-royal city is over 2,000 years old. Not only did multiple Kings of Portugal hold court here – King Joao II chose it for a royal wedding. Noble families caught onto the trend and built palaces. In town, be sure to check out the main square, Praca do Giraldo, which is surrounded by historic buildings (some dating back to 2,000 years). Relax over a drink in the square or move on to the Temple of Diana, which dates back to when Évora was an important Roman military outpost. Not far from the Temple is Évora's Cathedral with both Roman and Gothic architectural influences like frescoes and cloisters.

Dying to go, now? We don't blame you! You'll want to check out this six-night Spain and Portugal deal – your home base in Portugal would be Lisbon, which means you can easily take day trips to all of these towns (except for Madeira).

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