Visiting Portugal is to discover a remarkably diverse destination. Inextricably linked with the sea, the country has more than 800 kilometers of enticing Atlantic Ocean coastline. Lisbon, the capital city, enjoys a stunning location near the mouth of the River Tagus. From here, trailblazing mariners set sail in the 15th and 16th centuries on epic voyages of discovery, and Portugal has nurtured a proud seafaring tradition ever since.
Portugal's interior melds dramatic northern mountain ranges with the vast rolling plains of the country's sun baked central regions. In the south, some of the best beaches in Europe flank picturesque coves and warm, shallow waters. Dotted throughout are stone-built villages, enchanting towns, and cosmopolitan cities where historic palaces and castles, museums and monasteries are waiting to be explored. And traveling to Portugal can also mean a visit to the verdant, subtropical island of Madeira - the ‘Garden Isle’ - or the isolated, but tranquil Azores archipelago.
Spread over a string of seven hills north of the Tagus River estuary, Lisbon presents an intriguing variety of faces to those who negotiate its switchback streets. In the oldest neighborhoods, stepped alleys whose street pattern dates back to Moorish times are lined with pastel-color houses decked with laundry; here and there vantage points afford spectacular river or city views. In the grand 18th-century center, black-and-white mosaic cobblestone sidewalks border wide boulevards. Trams clank through the streets, and blue-and-white painted and glazed ceramic tiles adorn churches, restaurants, and fountains.
Castelo de Guimarães:
The birthplace of the nation and Portugal's first monarch, Dom Afonso Henriques, Guimarães was once the capital of the kingdom of ‘Portucale.’ Recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for its collection of historic monuments grouped in and around the old town center, it is the Castelo de Guimarães that best symbolizes the role played by the town in defining the nation's culture and tradition - it even appears on the Portuguese coat of arms.
Castelo de São Jorge:
Its commanding position crowning a hill and overlooking Lisbon's bustling Baixa district defines Castelo de São Jorge as the city's most visible historic monument. Hugely popular with locals and tourists alike, the foundations of this castle dates from the late 12th century when King Afonso Henriques recaptured the city from the Moors and built a palace over the ruins of their hilltop citadel. Visitors here can walk the ramparts and the castellated towers, one of which, Torre de Ulisses, has a camera obscura that projects views of the city onto the inside walls.
Palácio Nacional de Sintra:
The star of Sintra-Vila is this palace, with its iconic twin conical chimneys and lavish interior. The interior is a mix of Moorish and Manueline styles, with arabesque courtyards, barley-twist columns and 15th and 16th century geometric hand-painted tiles that figure among Portugal’s oldest. Highlights include the octagonal Sala dos Cisnes (Swan Room), adorned with frescoes of 27 gold-collared swans; and the Sala das Pegas (Magpie Room), with its ceiling emblazoned with magpies.
Mosteiro dos Jerónimos:
This building is one of the country’s most cherished and revered buildings. The church and monastery embody the spirit of the age, and feature some of the finest examples of Manueline architecture found anywhere in Portugal. Inside, the beautiful cloister is equally exuberant. Appropriately, the church houses the tomb of the famous mariner, Vasco da Gama and many other national figureheads, including Luís de Camões, Portugal's greatest poet and chronicler of the discoveries.
Torre de Clérigos:
Standing 75 meters above the streets and overlooking the old town of Oporto, this slender tower, built in the 18th century exudes a bold sense of the Baroque. To reach the top, visitors need to climb upwards of 200 steps.
Igreja de Santo António and the Museu Municipal:
The Municipal Museum in Lagos holds the quirkiest collection of archeology and ethnography in the Algarve. The wonderfully eclectic display of local handicrafts, curios, and artifacts perfectly illustrates the region's diverse culture and heritage and includes items like an altarpiece handcrafted from cork and a realistic homemade scale model of an imaginary Algarve village.
Museu Calouste Gulbenkian:
One of Portugal’s finest museum, Museu Calouste Gulbenkian’s collection numbers some 6,000 pieces, all of which belonged to just one man - Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian, a wealthy Armenian oil magnate who bequeathed his priceless hoard to the Portuguese nation upon his death in 1955. The exhibits span more than 4,000 years from classical and oriental Antiquity to European art of the early 20th century. The treasures include: 11 Roman medallions found in Egypt; 16th-century illustrated manuscripts; Art Nouveau jewelry made by Rene Lalique and more.
Oceanário de Lisboa:
Arguably Portugal's most popular and family-friendly visitor attraction, Lisbon's oceanarium is conceived to highlight the world's diverse ocean habitats. This is one of Europe's best and largest oceanariums, containing a vast array of fish and marine animals. Four separate sea - and landscapes recreate the ecosystems of the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, and Antarctic oceans. A huge central tank, visible from different levels, teems with shark, ray, and many other finned wonders and denizens of the deep. The transparent plexiglass design is such that smaller tropical species housed in separate aquaria set around the main tank appear to be swimming with their larger cousins. Complementing this amazing spectacle are the open-air landscapes where penguins, sea otters, and birds and mammals co-exist in carefree harmony.
Universidade de Coimbra:
Portugal's oldest seat of learning, this university was founded in 1290 by King Dinis. Acknowledged by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, the historic buildings of the Velha Universidade, or old Coimbra University surround a beautiful colonnaded central square, the Paço das Escolas. The Alta and Sofia wings of the university - a former royal residence - reward visitors with a number of star features, including the Biblioteca Joanina, a library installed in 1717 by King João V.
Portuguese cuisine has many Mediterranean influences and is famous for its seafood. Bacalhau (a Portugese word for cod) dishes are the most famous in Portugal. The country is said to have more than a 1000 recipes of this fish and is often cooked on special occasions and festivals.