Want to see more than Lisbon and Porto? These Portuguese towns are just want you need. There are plenty of places outside of Portugal’s main urban centers that are worth the trip. Below are some of the places where locals go when they want to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Towns around Lisbon
About a 45 min car ride from downtown Lisbon is the fishing enclave of Sesimbra. The town is most famous for its beaches, seafood restaurants and the ruins of an old Moorish castle. Consequently, these things have also made Sesimbra popular with many Lisbon locals, known as Lisboetas.
Sesimbra retains much of its old world charm. Nestled within its narrow streets towards the center of town is the Santiago Fort (Fortaleza de Santiago), now a customs port with a good view of the sea. For an even better view, especially at sunset, one should climb (or drive) to the top of the city’s old Moorish fortress. Sesimbra is also known for its beaches, the most popular being Praia da California and Lagoa de Albufeira. There is also the more isolated Praia Ribeira do Cavalo, though this one is a bit tough to get to by foot.
Sesimbra is known for its seafood, especially swordfish. There are plenty great seafood restaurants alongside the town’s waterfront. One should also stop by Porto do Abrigo to see the colorful fishing boats that bring in their fresh catch daily.
Sinta’s rocky hills, wooded ravines and springs tied in with it’s manmade wonders makes it one of Portugal’s most beautiful towns. The city served as a summer retreat for the kings and queens of Portugal and is popular with Lisboetas today.
Popular places to visit in Sintra are its Old Town and the Palácio Nacional de Sintra. Other attractions include the Quinta da Regaleira and the 8th-century Moorish castle that can be seen towering on a hill about the city. Probably the most famous structure though is the Palácio da Pena.
Palácio de Queluz
Just outside of Lisbon is an exquisite former royal residence known as the Palácio de Queluz. Built by King João V’s son Pedro, this French-influenced palace was constructed after his marriage to Maria I, Portugal’s first Queen regnant. Known for being very pious, she also was known as “Maria the Mad” for her bouts of melancholia, especially in 1788 after the death of her son. She remained in this palace until Napoleon’s invasion of Portugal in 1807, after which her son King João, took her with him to Brazil.
There are many interesting rooms inside the palace, the most interesting ones being the Don Quixote Chamber, the Music Room, the Corridor of the Tiles, the Chapel and the Throne Room. The extensive gardens around the palace are also a nice place to take a stroll on warm days.
Largo Palácio de Queluz, 2745-191
Palmela’s main claim to fame is the moderately sized castle that overlooks it. From this vantage point, one can get a superb view of the surrounding countryside for miles. That’s probably what the Moors and later the Portuguese were thinking when they occupied the fortress on this hill. As the Moorish threat subsided and peace became the norm, the castle was transformed into a monastery in 1423 for the Order of the Knights of Santiago. Today though much of the castle has been transformed into a boutique hotel and restaurant, the Pousada de Palmela.
In the town itself there’s not much with the exception of the Church of St. Peter (Igreja de São Pedro), famous for its 8th-century tiles depicting the life of St. Peter. Palmela also comes alive during its annual wine festival, the Festa das Vindimas.
Cascais is like the Beverly Hills of Lisbon, only with a beach. The town started out as an ordinary fishing village but gained popularity and prestige when Portuguese King Luis I started to spend his summers here in the mid 19th century. Soon after this, many wealthy Lisboetas followed suit and established their own mini-mansions along the town’s coast. Now a wealthy suburb of Lisbon, Cascais is filled with golf courses and expensive apartment blocs overlooking the sea along with some really good traditional seafood restaurants.
The highlight of Cascais is arguably Praia do Guincho, a beach just outside of town. Another attraction is the Museu do Conde de Castro Guimarães, a small villa (more like a castle) with interesting rooms showing how the wealthy of Lisbon society used to live during the past 150 years. There is also the Casa das Histórias Paula Rego which houses the works of the painter and illustrator of Paula Rego.
A wealthy town with a nice beach and golf courses, Estoril is similar to Cascais in many ways (see above). What differentiates it though are the town’s modern office parks and casino, Estoril, the latter reportedly being the largest of its kind in Europe. It was here that the James Bond film Casino Royale was shot.
Ericeira is a sleepy little fishing village perched high atop a 30 meter cliff. The town really comes alive in July and August when roughly 20,000 people come to enjoy the sea and the town’s other attractions. In Ericeira, the beaches are clean, the seafood excellent and the town’s cobblestone streets and quaint little neighborhoods fun to explore. Most of the action happens around Praça da República, the place where Ericeira’s most famous bars and restaurants are located.
The beach, Praia des Pescadores, is probably the most popular place in Ericeira. The waves are great for all types of surfing (traditional, kite and wind). When not on the beach, it’s worth checking out is the Museu da Ericeira, a museum dedicated primarily to the town’s seafaring history.
August 16th is Ericeira’s Fisherman’s Festival. It is on this night that candles are lit throughout the town’s harbor to bless the boats of local fishermen.
A fun fact is that it was from Ericeira in 1910 that Portugal’s last king, Manuel II, sailed to permanent exile in England.
Ericeira was also rated one of the best beach towns by Men’s Journal Magazine.
Palácio de Mafra
Not too far from Ericeira is the Palácio de Mafra, a large palace and former monastery. Started in 1717 for the extravagant King João V, the palace took nearly 38 years to build (it was considered complete in 1755). The lifespan of the palace as a royal residence was relatively short. Just a few decades after its completion, it was abandoned in 1807 as the royal family fled Napoleon’s invasion of Portugal. Though they stayed there upon their return a few decades later, the palace was permanently closed in 1910 when the country’s last king, Manuel II, was exiled to England.
Along with the King and Queen’s apartments, the palace’s basilica is really impressive, especially the marble statues that line its atrium. There is also a pharmacy with old medicine jars that’s interesting to see. My personal favorite? That would be the awesome library with its patterned floor and 40,000 rare and old books. The grounds near the palace were popular spots for members of the royal family to hunt deer and wild boars. Today though these areas have been turned into a wolf conservation project.
Overlooking the Tagus (Tejo in Portuguese) River, Alcochete is a picturesque town that is best known for its age-old salt industry. The town is also the birthplace of Portuguese King Manual I, who was born here on June 1, 1469.
Alcochete is a good place to use as a base to see the Reserva Natural do Estuário do Tejo, a marsh that is filled with various water birds, bulls and other wild life.
Outside of Lisbon
Ok, now it’s time to step outside of our Lisboa comfort zone. Portugal may be a small country, but there are a lot of little towns and historic hideaways outside of the capital. For example…
Probably the best thing about Nazaré are its beaches. In fact due to the monstrous waves that crash along its shores, the Nazare is one of the most popular surf spots in all of Europe. Why such large waves? This phenomenon is due to an underwater canyon just off the coast. In addition to great waves, Nazaré is also known for its wonderful seafood.
AlcobaçaAlcobaça is a low key city with one exception: the great Alcobaça Monastery. Declared as a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the seven wonders of Portugal, this Cistercian Abbey was begun in 1153, shortly after the area was conquered by the Portuguese from the Moors. In fact legend has it that Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henriques, laid the first stone. The monastery contains Portugal’s largest church and is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture. Along with monks and clergy members, the monastery houses the final resting place King Pedro I and his mistress, Inês de Castro. She was allegedly killed by father, Afonso IV. The king and his mistress lie in intricately-designed tombs that face each other.
Other things too see in Alcobaça include a ruined old castle and a few museums, one of them, the Museu do Vinho de Alcobaça, dedicated exclusively to grape cultivation and wine.
MonsarazMonsaraz and the surrounding areas are some of the oldest known places of human settlement in Portugal. In fact, the countryside just outside this border town is littered with prehistoric megalithic monuments whose date go back at least 10,000 years. In the 13th century, Monsaraz held a very important position as a frontier outpost that helped to guard Portugal from both the Moors and later, the Spanish. Thus, the city’s prominently-placed hilltop castle has changed hands several times between Christians, Moors and Templar Knights. Today though, Monsaraz is a picturesque town with windy old streets, quaint cottage-like homes and less than 800 people. What it lacks in size though it totally makes up with charm as well as authentic Alentejo cuisine.
SerpaSurrounded by seemingly endless sea of fields, Serpa is a walled town still stuck in the Middle Ages. The original inhabitants were Roman colonists. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Serpa was ruled by Visigoths and later the Moors. Conquered by the Portuguese in 1295, Serpa was a fortified town that helped to protect Portugal’s old frontier with both the Moors and Spain. Still retaining its medieval charm, Serpa is filled with narrow streets, white houses with old latticed windows, old churches and tiny pousadas. Other prominent attractions include the city’s old castle/fortress and the ruins of an ancient aqueduct. Serpa is also famous for its Alentejo dishes comprising its local cheese and pork sausage. In addition, Serpa contains an archaeological museum devoted to its history and that of the surrounding region.
Castelo de VideThis is the place to visit if you want to experience small town Portuguese life. As the name implies, Castelo de Vide is a town that is dominated by a castle. The hilltop view of the Spanish and Portuguese countryside is amazing. Though small and remote (it has a population of barely 4,000 people and is on the eastern frontier with Spain) Castelo de Vide is an absolutely beautiful place. Along with its well-preserved medieval castle, Castelo de Vide is famous for it’s crystal-clear and refreshing mineral water that can be accessed via small fountains throughout.
SortelhaLike many medieval small towns of Portugal, Sortelha too is defined by its castle and once towering walls. The castle is fun to explore and offers great views of the village and surrounding areas.
It’s also worth walking through the Sortelha’s windy streets and sampling some of the region’s best cuisine in one of the town’s local eateries.
AlmeidaAlso located a stone’s throw from the border with Spain is Almeida. This town of roughly 1,500 was once a village inhabited by the Moors until Portugal’s second king, Sancho I, conquered it. Due to its strategic location on the frontier with Muslim Almohads and Castile, Sancho fortified the city with new walls and a castle. During what has been called the “Peninsular War” with Napoleon, the castle and town suffered massive damage from a freak gunpowder accident that killed 500 of the village’s defenders.
If you do come here, definitely visit the Museo Historico-Militar de Almeida. Inside, you’ll learn a lot of interesting information about both this region of Portugal and the Peninsular War with Napoleon.
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