The 15 Things to Do in Portugal That Locals Recommend

ViaHero
Updated January 16, 2020

There’s a reason Portugal keeps winning all those travel awards—it’s a fantastic place to visit!  From taking in incredible views to exploring ancient palaces to eating amazing food, here are the 15 things that locals recommend checking out. 

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#1: Fill up on fresh Portuguese seafood

Bacalhau in Lisbon | Marco Verch/Flickr

Portugal’s shores are teeming with fresh fish, and Portuguese chefs make endless use of their swam-in-the-ocean-yesterday ingredients. Getting personalized advice is a great way to know where to eat. If you love shellfish, our local trip planners suggest Ramiro for the giant lobster (they say to go at lunch to beat the hungry crowds). In Porto, locals recommend trying deep-fried octopus at O Bom Talher.

Local Tip:

Bacalhau—or salt cod—is a quintessential element of Portuguese cuisine and used in countless dishes. Check out the self-proclaimed “King of Cod,” Laurentina Restaurante in Lisbon.

#2: Roam Algarve's pristine beaches

Beach in Algavare | Denis Oliveira/Unsplash

You may associate good surfing more with Australia or the Caribbean than with Portugal. But superstar surfer Garrett McNamara set the world record for the largest wave ever ridden along the Portuguese coast!

Even if you aren’t big on surfing, sinking your toes in the sand is a must while visiting Portugal. The country’s southernmost region, Algarve, is a prime destination for those who want to comb the beach or ride a wave.

Getting local insight can help narrow down where in Algarve you want to explore. Our trip planners tell us that Lagos, replete with white-washed walls and dramatic cliffs, is a popular choice. (If you're looking for something less well-known, you can always ask for off-the-beaten-path suggestions!)

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#3: Get lost in Alfama, Lisbon’s trendiest district

Alfama neighborhood | vdugrain/Pixabay

Locals recommend giving yourself the freedom to get lost in Lisbon’s Alfama neighborhood. Traverse the tangle of twisting streets that comprise one of the city’s oldest districts and you’re bound to uncover hidden gems. Discover cafes in quiet courtyards shaded by flowering vines; catch spectacular glimpses of the sea sandwiched between red-tiled roofs and an azure sky. 

Be sure you don't miss out on what makes Alfama so special. Combine your exploration with some suggestions from our trip planners—ones that only locals know.

Local Tip:

At the tippy top of Alfama’s steep hills, you’ll find Sao Jorge Castle—a site that has served as a fortification since the first century. When you see the castle’s 360° views, you’ll understand why this has long been an ideal place to keep watch over Lisbon.

#4: Sip port wine in Porto, Portugal’s second-largest city

Port wine in Porto | Jorge Franganillo/Flickr

On the banks of the Douro River lies Porto, Portugal’s second-largest city. Porto gave one of the country’s biggest exports its name: port wine. Just like a glass of bubbly can only be called champagne if it truly hails from the famed French region, fortified wine can only be called port if it comes from Portugal’s Douro Valley

And if you previously thought of port as a one-note wine—sweet, syrupy, and only to be enjoyed with dessert—locals tell us a visit to Porto will change your mind. From sweet to dry, ruby red to white, port has many variations in taste and color.

Local Tip:

Get to know the multi-faceted personality of port with a tasting at the historic Ferreira cellars, established in 1751.

#5: Climb a miradouro for an amazing view

Miradouro da Vitoria | WASD42/Flickr

Our local trip planners say that one word you should know in Portugal is miradouro. In Portuguese, miradouro means “viewpoint”, or “overlook”—and this country is packed with them. Because Portugal is both mountainous and coastal, you’ll have no trouble finding tall hills from which you can admire sweeping vistas of the azure Atlantic Ocean, the neatly curved rows of a nearby vineyard, or a maze of centuries-old, red-tiled city roofs.

Local Tip:

Lisbon’s Miradouro das Portas do Sol is a favorite for iconic views of the Tagus River and the capital’s charming Alfama neighborhood. In Porto, head to Miradouro da Vitoria to see the famous Dom Luís I Bridge.

#6: Reach new heights on Lisbon’s iconic yellow tram 

Tram in Lisbon | DaBrick/Pixabay

Remember those miradouros we mentioned? They’re beautiful and Instagrammable, but they’re also at the top of hills. Steep hills. Luckily, you don’t need to spend months training on the Stairmaster to enjoy Lisbon’s labyrinth. Take the iconic yellow no. 28 tram through the Alfama neighborhood’s historic streets. It’ll drop you off near the castle, allowing you to save your energy for the last push to the summit. 

However, locals advise that this route is a favorite of tourists, attracting crowds and pickpockets.

Local Tip:

Take the no. 12 tram. Though shorter than no. 28’s route, this circular route is guaranteed to be less crowded.

#7:  Indulge in Portugal’s national dessert

Pastéis de nata | Rohan D/Flickr

Lemony and smooth, pastéis de nata are a must for anyone with a sweet tooth. This egg tart pastry was invented by Catholic Monks looking for a way to use up egg yolks. Why did they have so many creamy yolks available? The egg whites were used for starching clothes. So, you have a monk’s crisp robe to thank for these delicious treats. 

Head straight to the source at Lisbon’s Pastéis de Belém, a pastry shop next to the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos monastery where the tarts originated. This store maintains a secret recipe, so its egg tarts are distinguished by the name pastéis de Belém. Locals reassure us that pastéis de nata, however, can be found at bakeries throughout the country.

Local Tip:

Don’t neglect other Portuguese pastries, like the Madeira Honey Cake which is just as drool-worthy.

#8: Visit Sortelha, a medieval village frozen in time

Sortelha | Vitor Oliveira/Flickr

Visiting the medieval village of Sortelha makes it easy to envision what life was like centuries ago. Explore the town’s cobbled streets, Gothic stone houses and feudal castle. Enclosed by the village's fortified wall, Sortelha is an amazingly-preserved relic of a long-lost time. Built by King Sancho II in the 13th century, the village’s castle protected Portugal’s eastern border from Spanish invaders. Locals suggest climbing to the top for a stellar view.

Local Tip:

Another bonus of visiting Sortelha is the chance to see the diversity of Portugal’s landscape. With its thick granite buildings, the village blends in with the surrounding rocky outcrops—a far cry from the country’s sandy, palm-tree-lined coast.

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#9: Marvel at Sintra’s many palaces

Sintra | essuera/Pixabay

A short drive from Lisbon is Sintra, a city made popular by Portugal’s rich and famous. Visit the Palace of Sintra to see how Portuguese royalty lived as far back as the 1400s, and marvel at its white, cone-shaped towers. This medieval royal residence is just one of many immense, opulent palaces to be found in the city’s glamorous hills.

In the late 18th century, Sintra emerged as a fashionable retreat for Lisbon’s elite. To escape the city’s heat, they traveled to the cooler climates of the Serra de Sintra to build their summer homes—and these mountainside retreats are anything but rustic. Admire the colorful mishmash of architectural styles at Pena Palace, the underground grottoes at Quinta da Regaleira, or the intricate latticework at the Moorish-influenced Palace Monserrate

#10: Make a pilgrimage to the stunning sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte

Bom Jesus do Monte | Arian Zwegers/Flickr

Pilgrims have flocked to Bom Jesus do Monte, just outside the northern city of Braga, since 1373. The sanctuary, whose name translates to “Good Jesus of the Mount,” is perched on top of a picturesque mountain. Many pilgrims climbed the nearly 600 stairs to the chapel on their knees, a grueling effort meant to prove their faith. Today, visitors opt for a more leisurely course. Stroll the zig-zagging stairways to admire the many architectural details, like fountains dedicated to each of the five senses. A return ride in a funicular with sweeping views of the historic city below is a perfect reward for the climb.

Local Tip:

Take a guided tour so as not to miss out on the symbolism of each stairway.

#11: Dive into Lisbon’s incredible aquarium 

Lisbon aquarium | nathsegato/Pixabay

Portugal is a seafaring country and its connection to the ocean runs deep. Fittingly, The Portuguese capital houses the incredible Oceanário de Lisboa aquarium. The main exhibition is a vast tank, two levels tall, that showcases more than 100 different sea species. 

Called “One Planet, One Ocean,” the exhibit aims to show visitors that, although there may be many names for the world’s waterways, there is only one global ocean. And with so much of Portugal’s economy tied to the sea, it’s no wonder that Oceanário de Lisboa serves as a passionate proponent for conservation.

Local Tip:

Do not get caught at the aquarium on a day that school is out of session. Check the calendar for any national holidays before you plan your visit.

#12: Experience a moving performance of Portugal’s traditional folk music

Fado in Portugal | Feliciano Guimarães/Flickr

Originating in the early 19th century, fado music is Portugal’s traditional folk genre. Locals say that in Alfama, you’re guaranteed to hear a mournful fado melody as you wander through the streets. Alfama was once home to the working class—particularly Lisbon’s sailors and shipyard workers. Fado arose as an emotional outlet for these marginalized citizens. 

The singing is raw and the artist’s emotions are on full display. Locals suggest visiting the Museo do Fado to learn more about the history of this unique cultural heritage. Then, benefit from local advice—our trip planners can suggest a great cafe for a fado performance.

Local Tip:

Travel to Amarante, which is a UNESCO City of Music. (Only 31 cities have earned this distinction worldwide.) Amarante features impressive headliners in its Summer Stage series and hosts an International Guitar Festival.

#13: Enjoy a cocktail and conversation with Lisboans at a quiosque de refresco

Quiosques de refrescos | SofiLayla/Pixabay

You’ll never go thirsty in Lisbon thanks to its ubiquitous quiosques de refrescos. Locals tell us these refreshment kiosks can be found throughout the city offering hot and cold drinks and a shaded place to linger. 

Many of the kiosks date back to the 19th century. However, during the reign of Prime Minister Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, gathering in public was discouraged and the kiosks fell into disrepair. After years of abandonment, local entrepreneurs decided to revive the kiosks. While you’re likely to find a crisp glass of the slightly effervescent Vinho Verde on every menu, each kiosk has its own personality.

#14: Visit the bewitching bookstore that inspired Hogwarts

Livraria Lello | A wandering minstrel/Flickr

Yes, J.K. Rowling is British. So, why is the inspiration for Hogwarts rumored to be in Portugal? Well, Rowling taught English in the city of Porto for several years. And while there, she was a regular customer of Livraria Lello, a stunning bookstore whose grand staircases inspire all who enter—perhaps even the author of the best-selling book series of all-time. Whether you’re a Potterhead looking to verify the rumors or a bibliophile in search of first editions, this spectacular bookstore is not to be missed.

Local Tip:

Be prepared to pay €5 to enter the store (this value will be deducted from any purchase you make).

#15: Hunt for striking painted tiles around every corner

Building in Lisbon | Jocelyn Erskine-Kellie/Flickr

Throughout Portugal, you’ll notice beautiful and vibrantly painted tiles called azulejos. In the 15th century, much of Portugal was under Moorish control—and azulejos are a lasting legacy of this period. 

From entire houses tiled with blue-and-white geometric patterns to the large tiled murals in Portugal’s metro stations, building with azulejos is a Moorish artform very much alive in modern Portugal. Get your camera ready and capture your favorite azulejos as you tour the country. Or to learn more about their historical significance, locals suggest paying a visit Lisbon’s Museu Nacional do Azulejo.

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