In the extreme southwest of Europe, Portugal is a unique country that justifies a delayed visit. Bathed by the Atlantic Ocean, it is a country known for its beaches and the practice of outdoor activities and the fact that it has a good climate, with mild winters, allows it to be visited all year round. The vast cultural heritage is somehow represented by the 21 UNESCO classifications as World Heritage, that reflect the most important periods of Portuguese history and culture.
However, if you only have 2 or 3 days to visit Portugal, we suggest you to visit at least Lisbon and Porto, the two most important cities in the country.
Two days in Lisbon Region
The historical neighbourhoods of central Lisbon are perfect for visitors. Their culture, the history, the architecture and the people are fundamental aspects of Lisbon’s identity. The Bairro Alto is one of the most characterful and attractive neighbourhoods in the city – it has boutiques and bars and is a place where people meet in an eclectic and multicultural atmosphere.
Photo: Chiado, Lisboa by José Manuel
From Bairro Alto stroll down to Chiado, the sophisticated hub for the city’s young people, artists and intellectuals. It is an area of iconic cafés including “A Brasileira”, art schools, and theatres.
The Carmo area, next to Chiado, has some fascinating historical sites, such as the Convent and Church of Carmo, which maintains their elegance and grandeur. Carmo is connected to Baixa by the Elevador de Santa Justa, designed by a disciple of Gustave Eiffel, Raoul Mesnier du Ponsard. It is open to the public and boasts impressive views over the downtown of Lisbon.
The Baixa is the city's traditional shopping district where visitors can stroll around the streets and find dozens of shops offering a wide range of “temptations”.
When there is no time to shop during a tour of the historic districts of the city, you can concentrate all your energies on the shopping centres: Amoreiras, Columbo and Vasco da Gama are the largest, but Campo Pequeno and Saldanha are also alternatives worth considering.
Photo: View from São Jorge Castle, Lisboa
Start your tour at Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara and walk around downtown Lisbon and Chiado
- Visit to Lisbon São Jorge Castle and walk down Alfama
Although it was at the castle that everything began, historical sites can be found across the city. As the capital of the Portuguese Empire, Lisbon boasts a thousand years of history, and is peppered with monuments of great importance, reflecting the key moments in the country’s history.
- Visit Terreiro do Paço and Rua Augusta Arch
Rua Augusta is the main artery of the Baixa Pombalina leading north from Terreiro do Paço (known as Black Horse Square by the English), to the beautiful Praça do Rossio (Praça Dom Pedro IV).
- Shopping in Avenida da Liberdade
Discover Avenida da Liberdade, which in the 19th century was the favourite promenade for the Lisbon elite. Today, the Avenida is home to exclusive international boutiques to tempt and inspire.
- Take a tram tour through the historic districts
- Dinner in a Restaurant with Fado
In the morning, visit Sintra Downtown and Pena National Palace (UNESCO Heritage).
Photo: Palácio da Vila, Sintra
Sintra is an inexhaustible attraction. The perfect symbiosis between nature and its built heritage led to its classification by UNESCO as World Heritage, at the category of Cultural Landscape, in 1995. The town has been adored over the years by artists and writers from all over the world and the passion for the town reached its peak in the 19th century, in the heart of the romantic era. Essentially, it is the perfect fusion between natural richness and the magnificence of its monuments, combined in an extreme beauty.
In the Historic Town Centre, stands the Paço Real, one of the many monumental buildings surrounded and watched over by the grandeur of the Serra de Sintra, which offers endless different walks.
Sintra has unique examples of parks and gardens and has influenced many European landscapes. The highlights are Parque da Pena and Jardins de Monserrate. High in the Serra, on one of its steep peaks, we can find the Palácio da Pena, the most complete and notable example of Portuguese Romantic architecture, recently restored and painted in the original colours and standing out among the surrounding greenery. Built on the site of the ruins of the Mosteiro Jerónimo de Nossa Senhora da Pena, the palace dates back to 1839.
Photo: Cabo da Roca
Visit Cabo da Roca and return to Lisbon taking the coastal road of Cascais and Estoril. Cabo da Roca is the most westerly point in mainland Europe and it was immortalised by the poet Camões as the place “where the earth finishes and the sea starts”.
In the afternoon, visit the neighborhood of the Discoveries. Next along the riverside it has a large number of heritage sites connected with the Portuguese voyages of discovery. It was from the beach in Belém that Vasco da Gama, in 1497, set sail to discover the sea route to India and the grandiosity of the former empire can be sensed throughout the area. One of the most imposing symbols of the city is here - the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, the construction which was started in 1501 by King Manuel I and finished a century later. Royal, religious, naturalist and nautical decorative elements combine to create a building that is considered the jewel of the distinctively Portuguese Manueline style, and has been recognised as a World Cultural Heritage site by UNESCO.
One Day in Porto
On a brief visit to Porto, there are some places that cannot be missed. Many visitors agree the city has something mystical that is difficult to describe and which varies according to the place, time of day and light.
Morning - Visit Douro Region
Porto's best known images show the views over Porto riverside (the “Ribeira”) and Vila Nova de Gaia wharf. It is the arrival point of the unique Rabelo boats that transport the wine to the cellars where it ages but also the starting point of many cruises that go up the river Douro. The Douro Valley Region is classified as World Heritage by UNESCO and it is the oldest demarcated wine region in the world, where Porto wines and Douro wines are produced.
Photo: São Bento train station, Porto
Afternoon - Visit Porto downtown
Walk around the old and narrow streets, passing by the most interesting landmarks of the city including the Cathedral, the Clérigos Tower, ex-libris of the city, the exquisite book shop LELLO, the old grocery shops and boutiques, the colourful squares, and the new quarters of Cândido dos Reis street and Galeria de Paris street, where one can find and enjoy the best of the night life in Porto downtown with its trendy and design cafés and bars.
Don’t miss the Café Guarany, Bolhão traditional market, Sta Catarina street, the best shopping area where you can find the historic Café Majestic, and São Bento train station, covered with painted glazed tiles.
From the city centre, go down towards the River Douro and Ribeira old quarter. It is one of the most attractive districts of Porto, in which you get a feel for the ancient vernacular ambience.
Photo: View from Serra do Pilar, Porto by Rui Rebelo
- Starting point: São Bento Train Station
In the old downtown, São Bento Train Station is the point of arrival by train and a key geographical reference from where you can start any tour of the historical center, classified World Heritage by UNESCO. In the train station, don’t miss the impressive main hall covered with glazed titles depicting historic scenes.
- Porto delicatessen
Try a francesinha (a sandwich with cured ham, sausage, and steak covered in molten cheese and a hot tomato and beer sauce), one of Porto’s specialities, as well as fresh fish, seafood, or some codfish cakes.
- Porto school of Architecture
Porto is also known for its school of architecture. One of the most important references is the Serralves contemporary art museum, a work of Álvaro Siza Vieira, one of the foremost architects of the Porto School and winner of the Pritzker Prize.
- The best views
Porto has some belvederes that offer unique views over the city. Try the top of Luis I Bridge, crossing the river to Serra do Pilar Monastery, the historical Clérigos Tower, the precinct of the Cathedral and the gardens of Palácio de Cristal (Crystal Palace). All of them are worth visiting.