Oh, Portugal. You steal my heart every time. My first Portuguese experience was actually a trip to the Azores. Followed by a trip to mainland Portugal. Followed by another trip to Madeira. And—can you believe?—I’ve still barely scratched the surface of this incredible country. So I brought some friends in to advise on the best cities in Portugal to get off the beaten path. I hope you enjoy!
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Ogle the Atlantic in Aljezur
The Algarve is mostly known for its stunning southern coastline, dotted with lively towns and plenty of entertainment options. However, the region’s Atlantic coastline, the Costa Vicentina, couldn’t be more different. This pristine natural area is part of the Southwest Alentejo and Vicentine Coast Natural Park.
Some of Portugal’s most enchanting towns are hidden amidst a spectacular decor of sand dunes, copper-colored cliffs, wildflowers, valleys, wind-swept beaches, and cork-oak valleys. And Aljezur—founded by The Moors in the 10th century—is one of the best cities in Portugal to get off the beaten path.
This picturesque town is located at the foot of the Monchique mountains. You can still visit the hilltop Aljezur fortress that they built on the grounds of an even older foundation. The Municipal Museum is where you can learn about the town’s interesting history. The white-washed Igreja Matriz Nossa Senhora da Alva is another highlight. This New Church was built after the original one got badly damaged in the 1755 earthquake.
You can join a mountain bike or horseback riding tour to explore the wider area. Or you could head to cliff-flanked Amoreira beach, just a 10-minute drive from Aljezur town. When the evening falls, it’s time to indulge in a regional sweet potato dish.
Contribution by: Sarah Vanheel from CosmopoliClan
Barcelos, One of the Best Cities in Portugal to Get Off the Beaten Path
Barcelos is around 60 km north of Porto and easily reached by car or train, although the more adventurous can get there by walking the Central Route of the Camino Portugues. In the Minho province of Portugal, Barcelos sits on the bank of the Rio Cavado, separated from Barcelinhos by a medieval bridge.
Start your visit at the ruins of Paco dos Condes de Barcelos (Counts of Barcelos Palace) overlooking the river. Dating from the 15th century, the ruins house some interesting stonework and azulejos (tiles found throughout Portugal).
Barcelos is a walkable city easily explored on foot, so spend some time wandering through its narrow streets and pretty squares before heading to Jardim das Barrocas. Here, as well as at the beautiful gardens, you’ll find the Igreja do Bom Jesus da Cruz and Torre do Cimo da Vila. From the top of the medieval tower, you’ll be rewarded with views across Barcelos and beyond.
Something you won’t be able to miss as you stroll around Barcelos is the giant rooster sculptures. The emblem of Portugal originates here, and, as Barcelos is also famous for its pottery, a ceramic rooster would make an excellent souvenir.
Contribution by: Alison Nicholson from Alison On Foot
Come On Down to Carvoeiro
Carvoeiro is a charming coastal town in the Algarve province of Portugal. It’s a great holiday alternative to the popular towns of Lagos and Albufeira. Despite the town’s relatively small size, there are many things to do in and around Carvoeiro.
The town boasts a picturesque sandy beach surrounded by rugged limestone cliffs. The beach is perfect for swimming and tanning. From Carvoeiro Beach, you can do a boat tour to the famous Benagil Cave, one of the highlights of the Algarve. It’s possible to rent kayaks and SUPs on the beach.
Walking is the best way to explore the town and its surroundings. Carvoeiro boardwalk is a 600-meters wooden walkway along the cliffs that offers breathtaking coast views. The boardwalk ends at Algar Seco, a series of caves, sinkholes, and arches in the yellow limestone cliffs; it’s a not-to-miss place in Carvoeiro.
A Boneca (the Doll) Cave at Algar Seco is a great photo spot with stunning views. Two spectacular hiking coastal routes start/end in Carvoeiro. The Seven Hanging Valleys Trail goes east along the coast towards Marinha Beach. The Trail of the Headlands is a coastal route west toward Portimão. Both trails are linear 6-kilometer routes along the rugged cliffs, past small bays and beautiful beaches.
To get from the nearest airport (Faro Airport) to Carvoeiro by public transport, you must take a bus to Portimão first and another bus to Carvoeiro.
Contribution by: Alya of the Algarve Family
Cascais, One of the Best Cities in Portugal to Get Off the Beaten Path
Located between Sintra and Lisbon, Cascais is a coastal town within the Lisbon District and a wonderful getaway after a Sintra day trip. The best way to explore Cascais is by driving.
Start the day trip by taking a leisure walk on one of the many hiking trails starting from Cascais, admire the deep valleys, visit an intimate farm, and appreciate its unique flora and fauna. The Natural Park in Cascais is a beautiful natural reserve with abundant greeneries, historic forests, ancient ruins, and dramatic coastlines. For beach lovers, head to Praia da Rainha or Paria da Conceição for a relaxing time on the beach or for thrilling water sports.
After the outdoor activities, have a cup of coffee or enjoy an afternoon tea in one of the cafes in Cascais Old Town. Check out the old monuments, museums, and boutiques nearby, or take pictures of the grand 19-century villas. Don’t forget to take a walk in the Cidadela Art District, as the villas are filled with various murals and sculptures; it is up to visitors to explore these artworks through the streets around the plaza. In the evening, the Cascais 15-century fort is located at the town’s harbor, and it is a wonderful spot to view the sunset.
Contribution by: Kenny from Knycx Journeying
Enjoy You Some Ericeira
If you want a more off-beat location, Ericeira is one of the best cities in Portugal to visit. This quaint city is popular among people who love to surf. In fact, during the warmer months, people flock here hoping to catch some sand, sun, and waves. Despite its popularity among the surfing crowd, the city remains pretty quiet.
Besides surfing, you will find many things to do in Ericeira for non-surfers, especially if you have a rented vehicle. The city is very scenic, and the paved roads make it easy to walk and explore. Plus, you will find loads of opportunities for photography!
The food in the city lives up to the name, and I highly recommend sitting at the market square and enjoying all the local delicacies you can lay your hands on.
If you want to head out of the city, Ericeira forms a good base to visit Lisbon, Sintra, and Mafra. Driving along the coastal belt is a definite must-do! The views are scenic, giving you a glimpse of the Portuguese countryside.
Contribution by: Penny Fernandes from Globe Trove
Evora, One of the Best Cities in Portugal to Get Off the Beaten Path
Evora is a great destination for travelers seeking to venture outside Portugal’s beaten path. Even though it has a small city center, Evora is important in Portuguese history and has been considered a World Heritage Site by UNESCO since 1986. Walking through Evora is like visiting an open-sky museum as the city center is incredibly well preserved. Two of the most interesting places to visit are the Bone Chapel and the Cathedral of Evora.
Besides its historical side, Evora is also the capital of Alentejo, one of the regions producing the best wines in Portugal. There are multiple wineries and cellars located around the city that are open for tastings. If you wish to explore the wineries, save at least two days for visiting Evora.
Evora is located only 140 km away from Lisbon. The best way to explore the city center is by foot as it is quite small and can be easily visited within a day. By car, the trip takes around one and a half hours and two hours by train. For a day trip, traveling by train is the optimal choice as driving in the city center’s narrow streets can be hectic.
Contribution by: Fernanda Spolaor from Mauka Travels
Get To Guimaraes
Guimaraes is a municipality and a city located in the district of Braga, the northernmost Portuguese region of Minho. Guimaraes is one of the oldest cities in Portugal, with its origins dating back to the 9th century. The city is also known as the cradle of the Portuguese nation, as it is believed that Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henriques, was born there.
The city has a long and rich history and is a must-add for any culture lover. Guimaraes was once the capital of the Kingdom of Portugal and served as a key battleground during the country’s struggles for independence from Spain. Guimaraes was also the birthplace of Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henriques.
Today, the city is known for its well-preserved medieval architecture and stunning scenery. Many visitors visit Guimaraes on a day trip from Porto. And of course, that is a good option. Guimaraes is approximately 30 kilometers from the city of Porto. It is home to several historical and cultural attractions.
The Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It features a number of well-preserved medieval buildings, including the 12th-century Palace of the Dukes of Braganza, which are all must-sees and perfect for learning about the city’s and the country’s past. Other notable sights include the Guimarães Castle, the Churches of São Victor and Nossa Senhora da Oliveira, and the Mateus Palace.
Guimaraes is also a renowned gastronomic center, with many excellent restaurants serving traditional Portuguese cuisine. An ideal destination for those interested in history, culture, and good food. The city offers a wide range of attractions and activities for visitors.
Whether strolling through the Old Town, exploring the castle, or sampling the local wines, you will surely have a memorable experience in Guimaraes, one of the best cities in Portugal to get off the beaten path.
Contribution by: Mayuri from ToSomePlaceNew
Horta, One of the Best Cities in Portugal to Get Off the Beaten Path
Horta is the main city on the island of Faial in the Azores. But, with only just over 15,000 inhabitants, a compact city center, and picturesque cobblestone streets, it feels more like a beautiful town than a city. If you want to off-beat Portugal, Horta is a perfect destination.
The city is a popular destination for people sailing in the Azores. On their way from the Caribbean to Europe, many sailors who cross the Atlantic stop in Horta. Because of that, one of the main attractions in Horta is its beautiful marina, decorated with paintings from hundreds of sailors who have stopped here over the years.
Another popular place in Horta is Peter’s Café Sport and its adjacent scrimshaw museum. The adjacent museum shows a collection of artifacts carved from whale teeth and jawbone. The café is the go-to bar for all arriving yachtsmen, and if you’ve ever wanted to learn more about what it’s like to live on a boat or listen to great sailing stories, this is the place to be. Whaling used to be a big industry in the Azores, but this has long ended. These days whale watching tours are a must-do while visiting Horta.
Horta is easily explored on foot in a couple of days. But, do rent a car or a scooter to experience the island’s stunning natural beauty. It’s surprisingly different from mainland Portugal and might remind you of Ireland.
There are direct flights from Lisbon to Horta. Or, fly to Ponta Delgada first, the capital of the Azores, located on the island of Sao Miguel, and take a flight to Horta from there. This way, you could easily combine visiting two of the islands in the Azores, exploring even more of these unique volcanic islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Contribution by: Sanne Wesselman from Spend Life Traveling
Get Medieval In Monsanto
Exploring the small village of Monsanto is an underrated—but awesome—thing to do in Portugal. Nestled on the sloping hills of the Beira Baixa countryside, it sits 25 km from the Spanish border and is home to less than a thousand residents.
Widely regarded as the country’s “most Portuguese village,” it offers a quintessential glance into Portugal’s long-standing history and culture. This medieval village has winding paths, old fortresses, cottages built on massive rocks, and houses made of boulders and stones. It is a charming place that will transport you back in time.
A walking trail takes you 4.5 kilometers away from the village, where you can behold incredible views of the valley — even as far as Spain on a clear day. Throughout the journey, you will find unique boulders too.
It’s a 3-hour drive from Lisbon or 4 hours by train. Because it’s remote, there is usually only one trip into the village daily, so driving there can give you more flexibility. Those planning to stay overnight here might want to try sleeping in a rock hotel or apartment, which is the perfect way to experience what Monsanto offers fully.
Contribution by: Orlaigh from Dream Big Travel Far
Peniche, One of the Best Cities in Portugal to Get Off the Beaten Path
One of the most underrated seaside towns in Portugal is Peniche. Located over an hour north of Lisbon, the best way to get to Peniche, Portugal, is by taking the Rede Expressos bus from Lisboa Sete Rios to Rodoviária do Tejo—Peniche bus station. For those looking to escape to a peaceful beach location that isn’t too far from Lisbon, look no further than Peniche! It is the best place to go surfing, savor delicious Portuguese seafood and sightsee!
A trip to Peniche, Portugal, is not complete without spending time at Gambôa Beach. You can take a surfing lesson from Good Surf Good Love at this stunning beach! In addition, watching a gorgeous sunset at Papôa is also special. This spot boasts gorgeous cliffs and a hiking area to admire ocean views during golden hour. (You may even spot dolphins at Papôa!)
Other great things to do in Peniche, Portugal are to visit Fort Peniche, which is a former political prison; stroll through the charming town and shop for souvenirs; check out the views from Cave Furninha and Cabo Carvoeiro; eat at authentic Portuguese restaurants like A Sardinha and also make a day trip to Berlenga Island.
If you plan to visit Berlenga Island from Peniche, you can do your tour through Berlenga Live! It takes around a half hour to get from the city to the island, and once you’re there, you will be amazed by Berlenga Island’s beauty. Some of the most memorable things to do at Berlenga Island are to visit the Fortress São Joã Baptista, hike to the top of the island and see the lighthouse; explore the caves, and enjoy one of the many beaches!
Contribution by: Taylor Deer from Brown Eyed Flower Child
Be Sustainable in Portugal at Porto Covo
If you want to experience traditional Portugal on the last wild coast of the Atlantic, you need to go to white-washed Porto Covo. This fishing village is full of happy white houses and shops with bright blue trim lining pristine cobblestone streets that lead directly into the sunset over the Atlantic ocean.
The best way to explore this location is on a sustainable adventure by foot on the Fisherman’s Trail section of the Rota Vicentina walking network. Instead of allowing high-rise development, the Portuguese government designated a 75-mile section of the Atlantic coast for eco-tourism encouraging people to walk from village to village and stay at local accommodations. There’s even a luggage transfer, so you can walk only with your backpack along dramatic cliffs and fossilized dunes. Porto Covo is the natural starting point for this adventure.
Porto Covo is easily accessed by the Rede Expressos bus from Lisbon’s main bus terminal and takes only 2 hours to reach for less than 20 euros. From here, you can stay in the village in accommodations ranging from a beachfront hostel to an upscale farm bed and breakfast. Get a taste of elevated Portuguese cuisine at one of its owner-operated restaurants, like the female-owned Lamella, serving octopus confit, pork, and clams.
Less busy than some of its more famous Algarve counterparts, this area in the Alentejo is for those who want to experience traditional Portugal and have options to hike, surf, bird watch, and breathe in the sea breeze without being overcrowded with tourists.
Contribution by: Morgan Fielder from Crave the Planet
Porto da Cruz, One of the Best Cities in Portugal to Get Off the Beaten Path
Porto da Cruz is a small charming fishing village surrounded by mountains and agricultural fields on the northeast coast of Madeira. It is a perfect place to go off the beaten path in Madeira as tourists don’t overrun it. You can easily go around on foot in the village, but the only way to get there is with a rental car.
Porto da Cruz is popular for surfing, hiking, sunbathing, and paragliding. Surrounded by the highest peaks of Madeira, Porto da Cruz offers some of the best hikes in Madeira with breathtaking views.
Besides these active things to do, you can also visit the only steam-powered rum distillery on the island, called’ Engenhos do Norte.’ Here you can see the industrial architecture and authentic machines to produce sugarcane rum. During a free tour, you can learn more about this process, but only during the harvest months between March and May can you see the actual production process of sugarcane rum with which they make the typical Madeiran drink’ Poncha.’
Other things to do in Porto da Cruz include hiking Levada do Castelejo, Vereda do Larano and/or Penha D’Aguia, and surfing or paragliding.
Contribution by: Ilse from Digital Travel Couple
Seek Some Sun (And Wind) In Sagres
If you’re looking for one of the best cities in Portugal to get off the beaten path, you might want to consider the cute town at “the end of the world,” Sagres. This is the most southwestern point of Europe, and you’ll be blown away when you get here! Literally. It’s an extremely windy town nearly year-round.
This quaint and quiet spot has a small town center where you’ll find restaurants, shops, and a few cafes. But the highlight of visiting Sagres is its rarely populated beaches, even in high peak season! The best beaches in Sagres are:
- Mareta: This one is right in town.
- Tonel: Walkable from town, rocky, and expansive.
- Beliche: Just a few minutes driving and some steep stairs down, and you’ll be at this gorgeous cliffside beach.
- Martinhal: Massive and perhaps the least visited of them all! You can rent a kayak to get to the mysterious rock you see from the shore.
Aside from beach bumming, some other things to do in Sagres are surfing at Tonel or Beliche. If you are a beginner, take the drive up to Amado beach and rent some boards or take some classes with Algarve Surf School. The waves are a bit calmer here, plus this is another stunning beach to visit. You can also visit the impressive fortress and Cabo de Sao Vicente just a bit north for epic vistas of the rugged coastline and a lighthouse.
If you’re wondering where to stay in the Algarve and want to make Sagres your base, note that Sagres is best when you have your own car. It’s a bit removed from the other more popular towns in the Algarve and doesn’t have much in terms of public transport. Buses come here from Faro and Lisbon, but you’ll likely have to make a pit stop in Lagos to change buses.
Contribution by: Nina from Where in the World is Nina
Tavira, One of the Best Cities in Portugal to Get Off the Beaten Path
Tavira is a must-visit when traveling to the Algarve. It’s about 30 kilometers east of Faro, making it a great location for a day trip from the largest city in the Algarve. From Faro, it’s easy to travel to Tavira by either (rental) car or train.
Tavira has a historic city center with very interesting sights. It’s not very big, so you can easily explore the town by just walking around.
Make sure to climb the walls of Castelo de Tavira (free!) for a beautiful view of the city. Go for a stroll along the Gilão River and admire the beautiful Ponte Romana de Tavira from the seventeenth century. Tavira is also home to some beautiful parks like Jardim Público de Tavira. And, of course, you’ll see plenty of colorful houses with typical Portuguese tiles when you explore the town.
Do you need some time to relax? Make your way to Tavira Island, which is a short boat ride from the city center. Here you’ll find endless sandy beaches that are not too crowded.
Contribution by: Jacoba from Traveling With Co
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