- Written by Dan
By Caroline Warwick / Photo by F H Mira
15 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and So Much More: Portugal Has Reached New Levels of Popularity
Endless coastline; a history that pre-dates Roman rule by 1,000 years; medieval castles and palaces; abundant national forests and UNESCO World Heritage Sites;
Renowned port wines and a laid-back yet still traditional atmosphere: Portugal is a mix of old history, new resorts and yet-to-be discovered places, endearing it to a new generation of backpackers and boosting Portugal's popularity on the "must-do" map.
Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, is the western most capital in Europe and was recently voted a top backpacker destination. Built on Rio Tejo (Tagus River) flows into the Atlantic Ocean, the city incorporates all of the things Portugal has to offer—history, beaches, nearby towns for a weekend getaway or day trip, as well as a bustling city environment with great places to eat and drink or hang out listening to fado, Portugal’s popular national music.
For an excellent day trip from Lisbon, take the short train ride from Lisbon is Sintra, a hilltop retreat and UNESCO World Heritage Site rich in history, palaces, castles and forests. There are two royal palaces—the Pena Palace, which regally sits atop the hill, and the Palácio Nacional, situated in the centre of town. Or, if you’re in need of some sand and surf, head out to the small, youthful seaside town, Cascais.
Heading north from Lisbon is Óbidos, an ancient town surrounded by old city walls with a castle that’s been converted into a government-owned hostel or pousada. Further north is Nazaré, a scenic coastal town that mixes its roots as a fishing village with a resort-like atmosphere. It’s here that the Our Lady of Nazaré Festival takes place annually.
About halfway between Lisbon and Porto (Lisbon’s faster paced northern rival), is a town that was once the capital of Portugal. Coimbra is now better-known for Portugal's most recently announced UNESCO World Heritage Site as of 2013, its university (permanently located there in 1537). It is also known for its Romanesque and Gothic buildings and the nearby Roman ruins at Conimbriga—a Roman city with homes, shops, a forum, theaters and luxurious villas, one which has been restored with gardens, mosaic floors and fountains.
Inland is the Douro Valley, with hillsides covered in vines that produce the region’s acclaimed port wines. In this northern area, there is the Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês, one of the best national parks in Portugal. Further inland, the Vila Nova de Foz Côa exhibits the world’s largest outdoor gallery of Stone Age art, another of Portugal's UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Évora, southeast of Lisbon, is a beautifully restored medieval town with Roman, Moorish and Renaissance remains, such as medieval and Gothic stone carvings, frescoes and churches with carved wood covered in gold from Brazil, and it is also home to the Capela dos Ossos, or the Chapel of Bones. Built back in the 16th century by monks to remind them of their own mortality, this chapel is lined with the bones and sculls of up to 5,000 people, supposedly taken from a local cemetery at the time of construction.
Forgetting mortality and delving into hedonistic pursuits, head south to the coast for seaside destinations such as Sagres, Lagos or Tavira. Sagres, on the southeastern tip of Portugal’s mainland, is a small town with a laid-back atmosphere. For something a little more pumping, Lagos is full of surfer-packed bars, endless beaches and tourists to occupy them. In Tavira, further east along the coast, you can catch a ferry to the small, sandy island, Ilha da Tavira.
The pursuits in Portugal are as endless as its extensive beachside coastline and rich, unearthed history—a destination definitely worth adding to a backpacker’s must-do map.