10 charming towns of Portugal
Tourists heading straight to Lisbon or the Algarve are missing out an enchantingly diverse country filled with gorgeous Mediterranean beaches, rolling hills, dramatic mountain scenery and a myriad of charming towns. Portugal brims over with beauty, both in its natural and urban spaces. Here we list 10 of the most unmissable towns to visit in Portugal, each unique and beautiful in its own way.
Nicknamed the Venice of Portugal (picture above) for its beautiful network of canals that wind their way through the city, Aveiro is at once unique and typically charming. Every street is lined with wonderful examples of Portuguese architecture, from idyllic white-washed Mediterranean houses to traditional azulejo façades made of glazed ceramic tiles painted in an astonishing variety of colours and patterns. The town is a perfect walker’s paradise, with small bridges, quaint courtyards and inviting beaches around every corner, waiting to be discovered. Central to the town is the Cathedral of Aveiro, a masterpiece of Portuguese Baroque architecture, and well worth a visit.
Home to one of Europe’s oldest universities, Coimbra has been one of Portugal’s key centres for arts and culture for over 500 years. Located on the picturesque banks of the Mondego River, the city cascades down the hillside towards the water, with each level revealing a new architectural treasure, from Renaissance and Baroque cathedrals to the Moorish-inspired palaces. The university is a key part of the fabric of the town: and comprises of richly decorated courtyards, college buildings dating back to the 16th century, and the Joanine library, an extraordinary blend of elegance and decadence, and a true bibliophile’s paradise.
The historical city of Guimarães was awarded Unesco World Heritage status in 2001, both for its extraordinarily well-preserved architecture and history, and for the key role it has played throughout Portuguese history and in the formation of the Portuguese nation. Guimarães is striking for its numerous examples of buildings typifying architectural developments from the Middle Ages to the modern day: crumbling medieval archways intermingle with traditional 16th-century half-timbered houses and small Gothic chapels. Overlooking the town is the monumental Guimarães castle, a unique marriage of Romanesque and Gothic styles, and one of Portugal’s most impressive castles.
When you travel to Central Portugal don’t miss some of the beautiful Historical Villages of this region such as Trancoso, Viseu and Marialva. The historical village of Marialva received the charter of the first king of Portugal, D. Afonso Henriques, and was once upon a time a busy military stronghold. Thanks to its strategic location high on a mountain, Marialva was well known for its military moorish castle. When you enter the gates of the castle and the castle yard it feels like transforming back in time, as you can clearly see the remains of what used to be an old city. Marialva is an oasis of calmness and tranquility, surrounded by wall nut trees and vineyards and here you can stay at Casas do Côro, a magical hotel in harmony with nature, which is also sophisticated and irreverent. Located between the Douro frontier and the cosiness of the Beira region, Casas do Côro is where the soul that they give to each detail does indeed make the difference.
Located next to the Portuguese-Spanish border, Monsaraz is a charming hilltop village surrounded by its original medieval walls and miles of beautiful Portuguese countryside. The area has been settled since prehistoric times, evidenced by the unusual Megalithic monuments carved from rock, and today bears marks of the successive periods of history it has been through, from the fortifications built by the Knights Templar to the Moorish influence throughout the town’s architecture. The surrounding landscape is as picturesque as the town itself, with typical Mediterranean scenes of rolling hillsides, olive groves, and the sparkling river Guadiana which runs past the Spanish border.
A quaint hilltop town on the west coast of Portugal, Óbidos has developed over the years from a small Roman settlement into a beautiful, thriving town. The town is surrounded by its original medieval walls, and most visitors enter the town through the unique city gate, decorated with intricate tile work and painting. The town has largely retained an unspoilt, historic ambiance: cobbled streets wind past white-washed houses covered with sweet honeysuckle and colourful flowers, and lead up to the impressive Moorish castle which crowns the town.
The second-largest city in Portugal, Porto has nevertheless retained its unique charm and fascinating culture despite its growing size. Colourful buildings jostle for space among baroque mansions and crumbling medieval churches, while underneath parts of the town lie the cellars which store the city’s most famous export: port wine. The historic city centre was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its beautiful period buildings and winding narrow streets overlooking the picturesque river front, adding a touch of romance to the ancient city.
It is a small and very charming village lying within the Douro demarcated wine region, in the county of Sabrosa (northern Portugal). Sabrosa incidently is the birthplace (1480) of the famous Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, who was the first person to circumnavigate the world. Provesende’s history dates back to Moorish times when Zaide, brother of King Jahia of Toledo, lived in the castle of São Domingos in the vicinity of Provesende. It is said that one day the castle was attacked by Christian forces and the moors perished but Zaide escaped only later to be captured, tortured and eventually murdered. Provesende is said to have derived its name from the fact that during Zaide’s last moments of suffering, it was exclaimed “Prove Zaide, Prove Zaide” (meaning taste Zaide) hence the resulting homonym “Provesende”. Exploring the village on foot is the best solution as it is very quiet and almost untouched, boasting numerous historical sites such as its pillory (1573), Baroque church (1720), fountain (1755), as well as an array of very beautiful XVIII stately manor houses which attested to the economic strength of the region’s fertile land at the time.
Nestled on the foothills of the Sintra mountains, on the edge of steep cliffs dropping down to the Atlantic Ocean, Sintra is a picturesque Portuguese town taken straight from a fairytale. Despite its relatively small size, Sintra is home to numerous castles and palaces, lending the town a magical feel. The Castle of the Moors is grand and imposing, situated on the summit of the hill and composed of various turrets and battlements, while the Pena National Palace is emblematic of the Romanticist revival that took place in Portugal in the 19th century, and is iconic for its colourful architecture and blend of Neo-Gothic, Neo-Renaissance and Neo-Islamic styles.
Located on Portugal’s famed Algarve coast, Tavira sets itself apart from the other seaside resorts thanks to its unspoilt architecture and deep historic roots which reveal themselves throughout the town. In particular, the town’s Moorish influence is abundant, from the traditional white-washed houses, iconic roofs and archways of the period, to the seven-arched Moorish bridge which links the two parts of the town. Tavira is also known for the stunning natural beauty which surrounds it, with soft, white sand beaches sloping gently down to the warm, clear waters of the Atlantic Ocean.