Travel to Portugal

Travel to Portugal

Journey to Portugal, where rickety yellow street cars are as quintessential as the sun-drenched golden beaches and the wine.

You’ll love the cultural and natural attractions of Portugal, that balmy and beautiful westernmost outpost of the Iberian Peninsula. Its deep-rooted historical canvas includes Roman settlements, Moorish legacies, and hundreds of years as a far-reaching world power. Portugal claims some of Europe’s liveliest and most attractive modern cities, including Lisbon, the influential capital; Sintra, renowned for its many historical monuments; and Porto, which lends its name to the country's celebrated port wine. Some of the country’s most amazing attractions include Belém, the beautiful port that launched many a New World foray, and the Monastery of Alcobaca. The Azores—a subtropical archipelago—marks another dazzlingly unique corner of Portuguese territory. Meanwhile, no visit to Portugal would be complete without sampling the incredible flavors of Portuguese cuisine—including that delectable port wine in its homeland of the Douro Valley—and the achingly beautiful melodies of homegrown Fado music.

While Portugal has undoubtedly made tremendous contributions to art, architecture and literature, one of our favorite aspects of Portuguese culture is its outstanding music. While the Portuguese certainly listen to all kinds of music, their traditional folk music – fado in particular – is truly special. We probably won't do it justice, but to give you a very rough idea, fado is the flamenco of Portugal. Soulful, expressive and moving, fado is a Portuguese genre of music that has two principal styles: one from Lisbon and the other from the historic university town of Coimbra. Traditionally a performance includes one singer, a classical guitar and a Portuguese guitar (12 strings), and the melancholic songs often revolve around disappointment, longing and nostalgia. Interestingly, nautical tales of sailors away at sea often feature in fado music. The most famous fadista was the charismatic Amalia Rodrigues, a Lisbon native who was known to her fans as the "Queen of Fado." Visitors traveling to Lisbon will find great fado bars in the historic Alfama neighborhood.

Another wonderful sphere of Portuguese culture is its architecture. A distinctly Portuguese style called Manueline developed in the 16th century during Portugal's widely successful period of exploration, trade and colonialism (known as the Age of Discovery). The ornate, Late-Gothic style often incorporated nautical elements (shells, ropes, anchors, etc.) and tales of the explorers into the design. Several great examples of Manueline architecture include the Belem Tower and the Jeronimos Monastery. Both of these UNESCO World Heritage Sites are located in Lisbon's Belem neighborhood, and the latter is the burial site of Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama. If you travel outside of Lisbon, the city of Tomar also houses a wonderful example of Manueline architecture: the Convent of the Order of Christ. Originally built by the Knights Templar, it too is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As with many cultures located around the Mediterranean Basin, when dining in Portugal you're also bound to see fresh seafood, cured meats, fresh cheeses, citrus fruits, olive oil and dishes seasoned with garlic, cilantro and parsley. That being said, you will also see a delicious jumble of other spices and flavors that were introduced during the country's colonial days.

In Portugal, cod is king. Locals are happy to have cod for lunch, cod for dinner and cod for Christmas. When dining out in Portugal you'll be astounded at how many different ways the Portuguese can cook this fish (rumored to be in the hundreds!). The Portuguese also have their own version of surf 'n' turf: a dish called carne de porco a alentejana. Made with fried pork and clams, cooked in white wine and seasoned with parsley, bay leaves, garlic and paprika – this oh so tasty Portuguese dish is usually served with potatoes.

Another treat to be on the lookout for while on vacation in Portugal is its famous egg tart dessert. Sometimes it's called a pastel de nata, but Lisbon's locals like to call it a pastel de Belem because of its origins. The pastry was created centuries ago by monks working in the Jeronimos Monastery, which is located in the Belem neighborhood of Lisbon. Nowadays visitors and locals alike arrive in droves to the Pasteis de Belem bakery to taste the iconic Portuguese dessert.

Portugal has a thriving wine industry. While its wines from the North probably have more international recognition, there are vineyards scattered throughout the country, a legacy from the wine-loving Romans. Portugal's most famous export is arguably its sweet (usually dessert) port wine, which is produced in the Douro Valley wine region east of the city of "Porto."

Located at the western fringes of Southern Europe, Portugal is all too often overshadowed by its Iberian big brother: Spain. And while it's convenient and fun to combine a vacation to Portugal with Spain, Gibraltar or Morocco, we're here to tell you that this small coastal country (approximately the same size as Indiana) merits a large chunk of your precious vacation time – all on its own!

Rather isolated, the land that makes up Portugal is a long, slender strip that sits just under Spain's northwestern province of Galicia and runs south along the Iberian Peninsula's Atlantic coastline. The contrast between Portugal's northern half and its southern half is unmistakable. Northern Portugal is home to striking, mountainous landscapes and beautiful river valleys; this is where many of Portugal's best wine regions are located. On the other hand, the southern half of the country is defined by its plains, gentle hills, limestone caves and magnificent beaches.

Despite being small, there is so much to see in Portugal that it's almost impossible to include it all on one trip. Most visitors tend to focus on Lisbon, the Costa del Sol beaches, and the many historic towns that lie between Lisbon and Coimbra like Sintra, Obidos, Nazare, Alcobaca, Batalha, Tomar and Fatima. If you want to venture further north, you'll need to add a few more days to visit Porto and Portugal's scenic wine country. Visitors wanting to explore the southern, picturesque Algarve region often hire a car from Lisbon and spend their entire vacation exploring the Algarve's Roman ruins, fishing towns, historic Moorish fortresses and postcard-perfect,
turquoise beaches.

If however, you are looking for a Portugal-Spain vacation combo, consider pairing Portugal's northern city of Porto and the nearby Alto Douro wine region (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) with either the beautiful Spanish region of Galicia or with the historic Castilian cities of Salamanca and Valladolid. The Portuguese capital city of Lisbon is well connected to Barcelona and Madrid by plane. However, to combine Lisbon or the Algarve region with the Spanish region of Andalusia (to cities like Cadiz or Seville), bus travel or a rental car might prove most convenient.

Largest cities: Lisbon, Porto

Beyond being beautiful, Portugal is also an absolute playground for history fans. Having been inhabited continually for over 3000 years, its capital city of Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in Europe. The land belonging to Portugal was first settled by Celtic tribes. North African Carthaginians and Phoenician traders soon visited and established coastal colonies. The Romans then conquered the territory, carving out another piece for its massive empire. Rome's ruin coincided with the arrival of the invading, Germanic "barbarian" tribes into Iberia, and only two centuries later, the Muslim Moors invaded and eventually conquered most of the peninsula. It took almost seven centuries for the Christian rulers of Iberia to reclaim their lands. During this lengthy period (12th century) an independent (of Spain), Christian Kingdom of Portugal was born.

With a history as fascinating and colorful as this, when traveling in Portugal it is not unusual to see magnificent castles, Moorish fortresses, well-preserved medieval towns, ancient ruins and other historic sites at every turn. For a country its size, Portugal has an astonishing 15 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Important historical attractions to consider visiting include the fairytale-like town of Sintra – a popular day trip from Lisbon – and the remarkably intact medieval architecture in the towns of Guimaraes, Obidos, Tomar, Evora and Coimbra. And right in Lisbon, another must-see is the Castelo de Sao Jorge, located just above the capital's historic Alfama neighborhood.

We must also make mention of the important role Portugal played in world history. Portugal produced some of the best navigators and explorers during the Age of Discovery including Vasco de Gama, Bartolomeu Dias, Henry the Navigator and Ferdinand Magellan. Its colonial and trading presence extended across much of the globe. If you want to learn more about this era, check out the superb Maritime Museum (Museu de Marinha), the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, and the Torre de Belem monument; all three are located in Lisbon.

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