Portugal is hardly an undiscovered destination – but for several decades the only destination really on offer was the Algarve, with its sunny beaches and manicured golf courses. A combination of cheap flights and delectable Instagram-worthy streets has changed that; now towns and cities across the country have exploded in popularity with visitors over the past 4 years. Despite the increase in visitors, if you have the flexibility to visit out of season you'll find there's a whole lot to love about Portugal, from Braga in the north to Lagos in the south. Here we take you on a visual tour of 9 great places to visit in the country.
Fifteen years ago, visiting Porto meant taking the ferry across to Calais and driving down the west coast of France and across northern Spain. Now, with flights from Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, London, Edinburgh, Dublin and more, plus connections to Canada, the US and Brazil, the small port-producing town on the river Douro has exploded in popularity. The airport welcomed 10 million visitors for the first time in 2017, making Porto one of the most popular places to visit in Portugal. In late May, the annual Primavera Sound festival sees music fans descending on the city to watch the likes of Tame Impala and Arcade Fire. To enjoy the city at it's best, head here in Spring, when you'll find exploring the winding medieval alleys and marvelling at the spectacular tiled Baroque buildings a delight. Don't leave without trying a Francesinha – a white-bread sandwich filled with some combination of pork sausage, steak, and ham, topped with a fried egg and melted cheese, and doused in thick tomato and beer sauce.
2. The Douro Valley
Head inland from Porto following the river Douro and you'll find yourself in a land of softly rolling hills covered with terraced vineyards. This is the Douro Valley, Portugal's top wine-producing region and definitely worth exploring. Hop on one of the river cruises and drive or cycle along the winding routes at your own pace, stopping at whichever towns or quintas (wine-growing estates) take your fancy. For the most scenic route, jump on the Linha do Douro railway and let the soothing sound of train carriages chugging over the rails form the soundtrack to your adventure. The tracks hug the river for much of the distance between Porto and Pocinho close to the Spanish border, offering wonderful views – and as you're not driving you can enjoy as much wine and port as you desire! Rough Guides has partnered with an experienced local company to organise fully customisable trips in the Douro Valley – find out more here.
Treat yourself to a wine-tasting railway journey in the Douro Valley © Kite-Rin/Shutterstock
3. Praia do Camilo, Algarve
The town of Lagos in the Algarve is blessed with a series of beautiful sandy coves connected by natural rock archways. A popular holiday destination, the beaches are packed from June to September, but in this corner of Portugal, daytime temperatures of 20°C are not unheard of in January, so put a pin in Praia do Camilo as the perfect out-of-season sunshine getaway. What could be better than spending a few hours reading a book on a completely deserted beach? Washed by the Atlantic, the seawater here is always freezing, even in high summer – if you've ever swum in the waters around Wales or Ireland you'll be well prepared!
The beaches around Lagos in the Algarve are famously picturesque © Red Radu/Shutterstock
Now a small university town – and possibly a place you've never even heard of – Braga was once one of the most important cities on the Iberian Peninsula. Founded by the Celts, expanded by the Romans as the capital of Gallaecia province, and sacked by the Visigoths (which self-respecting European city wasn't?) and captured by the Moors, Braga had been through a lot of different resident populations by the time it was made the top archbishopric of all Spain and Portugal in the 11th century. Connect to Braga's religious history with a visit to the fanciful Bom Jesus do Monte church with its dizzying tiered staircases – pilgrims were encouraged to climb up on their knees, but we don't recommend it!
The baroque staircases at Bom Jesus do Monte in Braga © Whitelook/Shutterstock
Relatively unknown in the heady years pre-Instagram travel influencers, the town of Sintra's colourful palaces have exploded in popularity over the past 4 years, resulting in TukTuk tours and coaches clogging up the steep roads that lead to the spectacular Peña Palace for most of the summer. You can still enjoy the beauty of Sintra if you get here early in the day out of season, plus the fresh misty mornings you get in late September and early October seem to imbue the place with an extra splash of magic.
Sintra's spectacular Pena Palace, with views all the way out to the Atlantic © Malachit/Shutterstock
If you haven't heard that Lisbon is cool these days, you must have been living under a rock. Trendy new restaurants are emerging by the day – there's even one dedicated solely to avocados – yet a lot of the city's charm remains, in the old-fashioned haberdashery shops in Baixa, and the eternally beautiful sunset views. Set yourself up with a cold beer from a cafe kiosk at one of the many miradouros (viewpoints) as the golden hour approaches and you'll soon see why for many visitors, it's not a question of if they will return, but when.
Lisbon's answer to the Golden-Gate bridge than spans the Tagus River © Peek Creative Collective/Shutterstock
Another small town with a whole lot of white-washed walled charm, Évora is located in the wine-growing Alentejo region around 1 hour's drive inland from Lisbon. Though it might fly under the radar today, the town is home to a Roman temple, an enormous 16th-century aqueduct and the deliciously creepy Capella de Ossos, or Bone Chapel. Built in the 16th century by local Franciscan monks – who wanted to remind their fellow Évorans that death was just around the corner. The skulls and bones you see – carefully arranged for decorative effect – were taken from the many nearby cemeteries that had grown full over the preceding centuries. The motto above the entrance Nós ossos que aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos roughly translates to "We bones that are here wait for yours". Restore your nerves after this rather macabre experience with a glass of local wine in the charming Praça do Giraldo square.
A rocky granite outcrop on the Spanish border, Marvao is a tiny village that punches well above its weight. First identified as a great place for a strategic fortress by Celts and Romans, the name Marvão comes from an 8th-century Moorish duke Muladi. It was expanded and improved in the 13th century as part of a drive to sure up Portugals' land border with Spain. The village is encircled by fortified defensive walls, and the castle with its manicured gardens conjures up images of knights on horseback. In recent years a film festival and classical music festival have helped draw more visitors to the region, but the star of the show is still the incredible panoramic views from the castle keep.
Marvão at sunset © AroxoPt/Shutterstock
9. Porto Covo
So far you've seen historic castles, charming towns, golden beaches and more... but one thing is still missing from your Portugal itinerary – the classic Portuguese fishing village. The picturesque Porto Covo is one of the most charming fishing villages you can find anywhere along the coast, with all the ingredients needed for a refreshing getaway – sandy coves, whitewashed homes with wine-red doors, cobbled streets and incredibly fresh seafood. There are still working fishing boats here, but as with many places along the Portuguese coast, the main industry here is now tourism. Like Lagos further south, the village can get very busy – when the population swells to up to 10 times its normal size – but once summer passes the tranquil pace of life resumes. Keen hikers should take to the nearby fishermen's trail, or trilho dos pescadores – part of a walking path that travels down the coast all the way to Sagres at Portugal's southwest tip.
One of the picturesque whitewashed houses in Porto Covo © Inacio Pires/Shutterstock