Portugal should be on every traveler’s bucket list. The diverse heritage and stunning architecture make it a must-see for history lovers, while the sublime cuisine is a foodie’s dream and the coastline attracts surfers and beach-goers from all over the world. If you’re planning a break to this fantastic country, here are eight suggestions for things to do in Portugal that will take your trip off the beaten track and make some memories you’ll never forget.
Explore Fairytale-worthy Castles
If you enjoy the odd bit of fantasy, you absolutely have to visit the Sintra region, which has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its incredible array of palaces. First, there’s the Quinta da Regaleira, built by Carvalho Monteiro and Luigi Manini in a style that draws from the Romantic era, Gothic and Renaissance architecture and Manueline ornamentation. In its details, the building is alleged to have references to the Knights Templar, Masonry, the Rosicrucians and other mysterious alchemic symbology. Once you’ve finished there, head up to the eclectic Pena National Palace, which is considered to be one of the major examples of Romantic architecture in the world. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its own right and is known as one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal.
Eat at the Fanciest McDonald’s, Ever
If you’re heading to Porto, make sure to drop by the fast food outlet on Praça da Liberdade, found inside a majestically restored Art Deco café. With sweeping staircases, an impressive stained-glass wall and an imposing eagle sculpture watching you enter and exit, tucking into a Big Mac doesn’t seem to make any sense.
Witness the World’s Largest Collection of Matchboxes
Extinguish all open flames before heading into the curious Musea dos Fósforos, in Tomar, which houses 43,000 matchboxes – or approximately 2-3 million matches. The private collection was started in 1953 by Aquiles da Mota Lima, and is now supervised by his daughter and a modest collection of staff. Matchbox designs from 127 countries are represented, covering just about every subject and using a vast range of illustrative and typographic techniques. One visit is simply not enough.
Discover the Venice of the Algarve
If your trip takes you to Faro, make sure you head out to Tavira, a historic town about an hour’s bus ride away. The unusual architecture is inspired by a combination of Roman, Christian and Arabic heritage, and the winding streets are tranquil and charming. Thanks to its position at the mouth of the Gilão River, Tavira spreads across several waterways and offers some exceptional beaches.
Peruse an Incredible Bookshop (or two)
As you wander the streets of Clérigos, Porto, it’s likely that the intriguing Art Nouveau façade of the Livraria Lello will catch your eye – but don’t just take pictures from the street. Head through the door and have your breath taken away by the incredible Neo-Gothic interior, complete with a stained-glass ceiling, ornately carved handrails and the most beautiful staircase you’ve ever seen in your life. It’s easy to see why JK Rowling cited the shop as an inspiration for Harry Potter. For a more humble experience, head to Lisbon to seek out Livraria Bertrand, the world’s oldest bookshop. It’s changed ownership, business name and premises on several occasions, but technically hasn’t closed since opening in 1732.
Rethink Your Funeral Plans
Most people consider burial or cremation, but few think about being turned into a building. It’s certainly something you can ponder while perusing the architecture of the Capela dos Ossos, in Faro, which is built and decorated with countless human bones. You can find a similar structure near the entrance of the Church of St. Francis in Évora, although it’s a little more morbid. Two desiccated corpses (one child-sized) hang at one end of the room, with jolly inscriptions that include “We bones, are here, waiting for yours” and “The day that I die is better than the day that I was born.” You know we love creepy haunted places so, we’re all about this!
Ride a Tuk-Tuk
You might have thought you needed to travel to the other side of the world to get a ride in one of these three-wheeled, motorized rickshaws, but it’s not the case! Named simply after the noise they make, tuk-tuks have trundled their way over to Portugal and offer a convenient and novel way to see Lisbon or Porto. If you’re into unusual methods of transport, keep an eye out for gondolas, trams and funicular railways, too.
Stand on the Most Western Point in Europe
Okay, technically just continental Europe, but that’s still pretty cool. To do this, you’ll need to head to Cabo da Roca, in the municipality of Sintra. The beautiful coastal trail offers stunning panoramas of the North Atlantic as well as dramatic cliff-faces, secluded beaches, and a picturesque lighthouse.
If you’re looking for cool things to do in Portugal, these spots are sure to give you something to talk about when you return home to your friends and family.