Honestly, it’s difficult to write cheerfully about travel these days. But a few weeks ago, I found some intriguing news in the midst of my pre-dawn doomscrolling. India’s government had thrown down a challenge for dedicated travelers to visit 15 of the country’s highlights before the end of 2022. If they hit them all, the government will pick up the tab.
It sounded good to me. And it got me thinking. What if something like it happened in my adopted country of Portugal, a place that is tiny but wildly dense with different cultures, cuisines, landscapes and experiences? What would an essential, insider’s tour of Portugal—hitting all the highlights but also the best secret spots and most off-the-beaten-path corners of the continental territory—look like?
With that in mind, I challenged one of the smarted Portugal-based tour operators I know, Sheree Mitchell of the boutique agency Immersa Global, to give me a wish list of the 15 must-see destinations for a definitive tour of Portugal.
Mitchell always goes above and beyond. She gave me 16.
Fortaleza de Sagres
On the southern tip of the Algarve’s Sagres peninsula, this three-sided fort protected the town from North African raiders. “In addition to being an important contribution to Portugal’s historic homeland security strategy,” says Mitchell. “This off-the-beaten path site has fantastic views of beaches, dramatic cliffs and the sea all in one.”
Ponta da Piedade, Lagos
This is one of Mitchell’s favorite nature visits in the Algarve. “For people who are memorized by the formation and complexity of naturally occurring grottoes, Ponta da Piedade is a must-see,” she says. Visitors can see the caves from above before walking down to examine them at water level. There are boat tours too.
Pena Palace, Sintra
“The palace’s exterior is the most interesting part,” she notes, “from the whimsical architecture and bright colors to the rich symbolism embedded in every corner. The views of the palace gardens and nearby forest are also stunning.” It’s worth hiring a certified guide who specializes in Sintra’s history and architecture.
Sky Bar by Seen at Tivoli Avenida Liberdade, Lisbon
Hilly Lisbon has no shortage of lookout points and rooftop bars, but Mitchell chooses the Sky Bar by Seen at the Tivoli Avenida Liberdade Hotel for its “unique and unobstructed view of the poshest and most historic part of the city as it cascades down to the Tagus River.”
Biblioteca Joanina, University of Coimbra
Any bibliophile who appreciates ornate Baroque interior design will thoroughly enjoy visiting the Johannine Library (and university campus) in Central Portugal, contends Mitchell. In between Lisbon and Porto, it’s a perfect stop to break up the drive.
The terrace of the Yeatman Bar, Vila Nova de Gaia
“Any visit to Porto must include a sunset cocktail from the terrace of one of Portugal’s most popular hotels,” she says. “You’ll have a 180-degree view of Porto from the best seat in the house: across the river in Vila Nova de Gaia.”
Mateus Palace (aka Casa de Mateus), Vila Real
“If you’ve ever dreamed of living in an early 18th-century Baroque manor with well-manicured gardens, a reflection lake, a private chapel, and a working winery on site, then Mateus Palace is for you.” It’s in a secluded area just outside Vila Real, which makes it a great half-day visit on the way to the Douro Valley.
São Leonardo de Galafura Panoramic Viewpoint (Peso da Regua), Douro Valley
“This must be one of the most stunning views in Portugal. You’ll quickly understand how the Douro Valley was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From the majestic Douro River that snakes around the mountains to the meticulously carved steeped terraces that have been used to grow grapes for centuries, this is a view that you’ll never forget.”
Prehistoric rock art site, Côa Valley, Douro Valley
“Seeing replicas of prehistoric rock art in a museum is one thing. Seeing the real deal at night with a local archaeologist in its original environment is another. This is a mind-blowing experience that everyone should make a point to have when they visit Portugal.” Note that access to the site is only possible with a certified local specialist.
Sanctuary Bom Jesus do Monte, Braga
“This site is known for its dramatic white 381-foot zigzag-shaped stairway, which leads up to a stunning Italian-inspired neoclassical church built in the late 18th century. The large terrace outside the church gives you breathtaking views of Braga.”
The outdoor terrace of G Pousada, Bragança
Mitchell, who specializes in food and wine travel, cites a dinner at this restaurant as one of her favorite experiences because it “combines a Michelin-star experience that highlights the food, wine and people of a very remote region (Trás-os-Montes) with the stunning views of a medieval castle and village at sunset.”
Wine harvest at Torre de Palma, Monforte, Alentejo
She recommends this seasonal experience to anyone who’s interested in participating in the harvest on an upscale country estate in southern Portugal (one that’s well organized to meet international travelers’ needs). “You can spend an entire weekend picking, cleaning and stomping grapes in the morning and relaxing poolside in the afternoon.”
The Roman Temple of Évora
This majestic structure, which dates from the 1st century AD, is impressive and a “must-see” for anyone visiting Portugal, she explains, “but perhaps what is even more impressive is learning the behind-the-scenes details of how this temple and adjacent area have been used over the centuries by the diverse groups that lived here.” (Immersa Global can arrange PhD guides to do just that.)
A private commented tasting in an historic port wine cellar, Vila Nova de Gaia
“Learning about and sampling Port wine with local specialists in the original centuries-old wine cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia is an unforgettable experience.” Mitchell recommends booking a private tasting at a working cellar such as Taylor’s for anyone who visits wineries in the Douro Valley.
The Jerónimos Monastery and Imperial Garden, Belém
This impressive UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the world’s best examples of Manueline architecture (aka Portuguese late Gothic). “It’s also a stark visual reminder of the wealth that Portugal enjoyed as a direct result of its global expeditions.” A visit here is not complete without a stroll through the Imperial Garden in front of the monastery and a stop by Pasteis de Belém for an oven-fresh Portuguese egg tart.
Historic downtown, Cascais
“After a stroll around the quaint downtown area of this fisherman’s village [turned posh enclave], you’ll immediately understand how Cascais has attracted affluent expats and locals for centuries. On the way back to Lisbon, take the seaside drive along the Avenida Marginal, where you’ll see small urban beaches connected by a string of historic forts.”
It should go without saying that Immersa Global can arrange all of this and more.