Portugal’s most popular destinations, such as Lisbon, Porto, the Algarve beaches and Douro wine region have a tendency to hog the limelight and the covers of glossy magazines. However, you don’t have to venture far off the beaten track to discover some wonderful smaller towns and cities. These underrated places to visit in Portugal are rich in history and culture and relatively free from hoards of tourists.
Here’s a map so you can see where these delightful towns are located. In the descriptions that follow, I’ve started in the north and worked my way south.
1. Caminha, a great place to visit for history and beaches
Way up north, in the westernmost corner of the Portuguese rectangle, you’ll find the town of Caminha. The river, in this case the Minho, acts as a natural border with Spain. With another country so close you can imagine that in troubled times, defensive structures were essential, such as the outer walls of the town, and the original citadel gates parts of which you can still see today.
The Gothic parish church is beautiful, especially from the outside – take a look at the carvings around the side doorway – and the Igreja da Misericórdia (Mercy Church) offers an abundance of details in gold, a wooden ceiling and, of course, painted tiles.
In the old town centre, Praça Conselheiro Silva Torres is probably the best spot for a coffee or a cold drink while you soak up a bit of sunshine.
Caminha has several beaches to choose from, with windswept Moledo being probably the most famous one. I prefer the river beach at the mouth of the river as it’s a little more sheltered and backed by a beautiful pine forest. Bear in mind, though, that even in August these beaches will usually be foggy and not so warm.
Caminha can be reached either by car, bus or train.
2. Viana do Castelo for culture, landscapes and thousands of years of history
Viana do Castelo is a small, charming city at the mouth of the River Lima, which is proud of its century-old traditions and has a picturesque medieval historical centre to wander around. Besides history and tradition, Viana also has beautiful beaches, an eco trail and a fascinating hospital ship (yes, you can go inside).
If you have ever seen picture of Portuguese women wearing colourful clothes, and weighed down under layers of heavy gold necklaces with plenty of oddly shaped filigree hearts, this is where they originate from. You can learn more about these traditional costumes and jewellery by visiting the Museu do Traje (Costume Museum).
If you’re looking for a really authentic experience (and an opportunity to see many variations on the traditional costumes), try visiting in August, during the festivities of the Senhora da Agonia (Our Lady of Agony). Be prepared for the crowds, though!
Still in Viana, but on top of a hill, you can visit the Santa Luzia Basilica, which is architecturally reminiscent of the Sacre Coeur in Paris and commands amazing views over the city and surrounding areas.
Getting to Viana do Castelo is easy either by car or by train from Porto and buses to other parts of the Minho.
3. Viseu for masterpieces by Grão Vasco, street art and more
What does the incredibly old and traditional city of Viseu, deep in the heart of Central Portugal, have to offer? Well, just for starters, a Street Art Festival in May and the country’s longest bicycle trail (more than 30 miles long), the Ecopista do Dão.
From early August to mid-September the São Mateus fair takes place, a 600 year old fair that attracts thousands of people every year for shopping, eating, drinking or enjoying the several open-air concerts (I’m planning to see the Gypsy Kings there this year!).
As you’d expect from such an ancient city, Viseu has a cathedral which dates back to the 12th century. Next to the cathedral you have the Grão Vasco Museum where you can marvel at the paintings by Vasco Fernandes, a.k.a. Grão Vasco. He was Portugal’s most famous Renaissance painter and lived in Viseu in the 16th century.
Take a stroll in the pretty Aquilino Ribeiro park and check out Rua Formosa, a pedestrianised shopping street where you can still find some old-style shops.
Viseu is easy to reach either by car or bus but has no train station.
4. Coimbra, the university city with a romantic story
Known as the city of students, Coimbra is rich in history and traditions. Its university is one of the oldest in Europe and the alma mater of many Portuguese personalities.
As well as visiting the UNESCO World Heritage university, you could also pop to Penedo da Saudade, a park full of poems by former students that has stunning views of the city. When visiting bear in mind that May is when the school year is officially over and students celebrate the Queima das Fitas. Be prepared for crowds, plenty of noise and alcohol!
As you can imagine, Coimbra has many ancient buildings, small quirky streets and you can still admire bits and pieces of the old medieval city and even its Roman heritage. Don’t miss out on historical gems like the Sé Velha, Jardim da Manga, Santa Clara-a-Velha Convent or the Santa Cruz church.
Outside the centre, but still within the city’s limits, do make time to visit Quinta das Lágrimas. Its beautiful garden is closely linked to a particularly gruesome episode in Portuguese history, the love story of Pedro and Inês, which inspired countless poems and paintings.
This old city is also home to mouth-watering pastries called pastéis de Tentúgal.
Coimbra is easy to reach either by car or by public transportation and well worth a night or two.
5. Leiria, an underrated destination with castle and charm
At first glance, Leiria might seem to be the kind of place without much to offer. In fact, I delayed visiting for several years as I hadn’t heard much that made it seem worth a trip. I was wrong.
For a start, you’ve got the castle to explore, built by order of Portugal’s first king, Dom Afonso Henriques. From Leiria Castle’s iconic balcony you have an overview of the city that’ll make you feel like a king! On the way up to the castle, you should also pop into the Moving Image Museum – it’s really interesting.
Update: Leiria Castle is currently closed for renovations and no one seems to know when it will reopen.
Amazingly enough, several parts of the old city have survived to this day so it’s possible to wander about the small historical centre and get a glimpse of life as it would have been in the Middle Ages.
There’s an urban route dedicated to the Jewish Quarter of Leiria (Roteiro da Judiaria de Leiria) which takes you through many of the city’s highlights, including the paper mill. Now a small museum, this mill (Museu do Moinho de Papel) dates back to 1411 and was actually one of the first of its kind in the Iberian Peninsula.
For a feel of the city’s daily life head over to Praça Francisco Rodrigues Lobo for a meal or a drink and take a stroll along the river Lis.
Leiria is easy to reach either by car, bus or train.
6. Tomar, town of the Templar Knights and colourful festivities
Come for the historical buildings, stay for the relaxed vibe. Mostly famous for its connection to the Knights Templar, the city of Tomar also features a few other perks including green parks for strolls and a river next to which you can enjoy sunny afternoons.
The Convent of Christ, former headquarter of the Knights Templar in Portugal, is the definitive must-see of Tomar. Its construction began in the 13th century with several elements being added to it over the centuries. The end result is a unique mix of architectural styles which helped it get classified as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites.
The Santa Maria dos Olivais church and the synagogue / Abraham Zacuto Luso-Hebrew Museum are worthy stops as well.
In the city centre don’t miss the church of Saint John the Baptist, around which the Festa dos Tabuleiros (Tray Festival) takes place in July, every four years, attracting masses of people. In this festivity of uncertain origin, the town’s women carry trays of bread and flowers on their heads while parading through the streets for a total of 5 km.
If you have a sweet tooth, you should try Fatias de Tomar, the local delicacy.
Getting to Tomar is easy by car or public transportation, including the train. Alternatively, you could take a cultural small group day trip from Lisbon and learn about the Knights Templar.
7. Setúbal, a colourful city south of Lisbon
Just south of Lisbon, the city of Setúbal still has an aura associated with blue-collar commuters but it’s actually colourful and very much alive, with painted murals and modern sculptures all over the city. The bustling city market is fun to visit, too.
The industrial background of Setúbal is not forgotten, however, and there’s even a museum dedicated to work. Housed inside a former fish tinning factory, the Museu do Trabalho Michel Giacometti showcases work tools that were used in the Portuguese countryside but the main focus is on the fish tinning industry, which was very important to the local economy during the first half of the 20th century.
The 15th century Convento de Jesus is considered one of the first examples of the Portuguese Manueline style architecture. Inside, the church, you’ll find intricate carvings made from an unusual composite stone from the nearby region of Arrábida.
If you have time, you could visit the old Forte de São Filipe for amazing views of the city, Tróia and the sea, of course.
There is also a resident pod of bottle-nosed dolphins in this part of the Portuguese coast. You can go on a boat tour to try and see them.
While in Setúbal do try the local specialty, fried cuttlefish (choco frito) – it’s ever so slightly spicy and deliciously crispy.
Or visit Setúbal and the surrounding wine region on a small group day trip from Lisbon
8. Arrábida Natural Park for scenic drives, beaches and history
Not far south from Lisbon, the Arrábida Natural Park is a haven for several protected species but what makes it really famous are the jaw-droppingly beautiful beaches, like Praia da Figueirinha, Praia de Galapinhos or Portinho da Arrábida. Beware, however, because the water is usually cold (even by Portuguese standards!).
The area also includes several other interesting spots. Cabo Espichel, with the Sanctuary of Nossa Senhora do Cabo and its lighthouse, are also part of the Arrábida Natural Park, while the wine, cheese and sweet eggy rolls of Azeitão (tortas de Azeitão) wait for you in Vila Nogueira de Azeitão.
Touching the limits of this natural park you’ll find the seaside town of Sesimbra, with its own set of impressive beaches, and the city of Palmela, both with castles.
Although there are a few buses serving the region it’s best if you can take a car as you’ll have a lot more freedom of movement. That said, parking near the beacjes is extremely limited so if that’s where you’re headed, consider taking the special beach bus from Setúbal or Lisbon.
9. Santiago do Cacém, a hidden gem in the northern Alentejo
The town of Santiago do Cacém, in the northeast of the Alentejo region, is a bit like the quiet kid in the classroom. It looks unassuming but has its share of secrets, some of them very old.
The most famous of those secrets are probably the Roman ruins of Miróbriga. Besides a bridge and vestiges of Roman road, in theory you can still see the remains of the only known Roman hippodrome in what is, today, Portugal. Jules and I looked very hard but couldn’t find it! The site still merits a visit.
Like in virtually every town and city in the country you’ll find a medieval castle here, too. First built by the Moors the castle of Santiago do Cacém came under Portuguese control in the 13th century and it’s where you’ll find the town’s main church. Built where a mosque used to be it holds a unique relic, a piece of the cross to which Jesus was nailed, the so-called Santo Lenho.
The town’s museum (Museu Municipal) is housed inside of the former town jail. There, you have plenty of objects from the late 19th century / early 20th century and you can get a glimpse of what daily life in the region was like at the time. The museum also holds a fairly big coin collection.
Santiago do Cacém is best reached by car – see this article for tips on renting a car in Portugal. It’s also close to some great beaches, e.g. Melides.
10. Vila Nova de Milfontes for a choice of beaches and gorgeous scenery
While some people claim that Vila Nova de Milfontes is not very typical anymore, the truth is this seaside town has lovely beaches and is a favourite of many Portuguese families in the summer months, when it is at its busiest.
Milfontes has the laid back charm of the Alentejo and locals will tell you that the best time to visit is in the winter, when there are fewer people. I went in April and loved it.
Being at the mouth of the river Mira, the town has both sea and river beaches, with the latter having very few waves. In the summer you can go paddle surfing and take a boat tour along the river. Wandering around the town centre you’ll find a variety of shops, restaurants and cafés, mostly geared towards a Portuguese clientele.
The town’s most iconic historical building is the Fort of São Clemente, an old protection against corsairs. Find your way to Praça da Barbacã and you’ll see a statue celebrating the first air travel between Portugal and Macau. From there you get a unique view of the river and the beaches on both sides.
For a real treat go down to Largo do Cais, where you can see a few still operating fishing boats and where you’ll find a small boardwalk right by the side of the water.
Milfontes is easy to reach by car although there is an infrequent bus service from Lisbon.
11. Mértola, a medieval village within a natural park
If your notions of the Alentejo region revolve around tiny white houses scattered along seemingly endless dry plains, Mértola may come as a surprise. This tiny town has seen Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Swabians, Visigoths and Moors before the Christians seized the region again.
Its castle, built in the 10th century by the Moors, would later become the Portuguese headquarters for the Order of St James of the Sword.
The Mértola Museum, which is spread throughout the town, includes Roman ruins, the country’s most important collection of Islamic art, a 6th century baptistry and Byzantine mosaics. There’s also a weaving museum where you can see the traditional methods that were used in the whole process, from collecting the wool to weaving it in wooden looms.
Mértola’s parish church used to be a mosque and you can still admire the typical Moorish arches leading onto the sacristy.
Discover more reasons to visit Mértola, plus suggestions for where to stay, in this article.
12. Faro, an often overlooked place to visit in the Algarve
Although Faro is the Algarve’s capital city many still see it as a mere entrance to other parts of the region, which is a shame. When you arrive in Faro, you’ll notice the small marina with views over the Ria Formosa estuary. This 60 km long reserve is ideal for birdwatching but head over to the Praia de Faro beach if you just want sun, sea and sand.
Stepping into the Vila Adentro (historical centre) is like going back in time as you make your way to the old cathedral (Sé). It’s worth paying the few euros to climb the tower for great views and to see the cloisters and tiles. There’s a small bone chapel here but you’ll find a more impressive one in Igreja do Carmo.
My favourite museum is the Museu Arqueológico, a.k.a., Museu Municipal. The building itself, a 16th century convent, is beautiful and it contains one of the most impressive Roman mosaics I’ve ever seen, depicting the god Oceanus.
Local cuisine favours a variety of seafood stews (cataplanas being the most famous). For something less conventional go for xarém/xerém, a dish made with corn flour and seafood, of which there are several variants.
If you only have limited time to explore the towns and cities of the Algarve, check out this Eastern Algarve small group day tour.
Otherwise, check out this article about Algarve destinations.
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