Things to do in Portugal: Lisbon, Porto and more!
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As an international holiday destination many parts of Portugal are regularly referred to as undiscovered gems or sometimes even rising stars. These terms are not untrue, the little western Iberian country is packed full of fascinating cities and areas of outstanding natural beauty that simply don't receive as many visitors as say, central Paris or London. Do they deserve the numbers? Certainly! Would it spoil an integral quality that makes them so endearing? We guess you could argue for and against.
What cannot be doubted, however, is that the cities of Portugal deserve the kind of exposure that will win them a place in hearts and minds of visitors from all around the world. This article is a brief exploration of six Portuguese cities, each with their own stories to tell and things to do and discover.
Where better to start than the country's capital, Lisbon. The Lisbon open-top sightseeing bus tour has two diverse east-west routes with over 20 stops each. Some of the best things to do in the city relate to its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. The Lisbon Oceanarium and The Vasco da Gama Aquarium allow visitors to enter a flourishing world of marine life. The former is ideal for entertaining the kids while the latter has great exhibits on the individual biodiversities of different oceans. Stop off at famous landmarks such as Belem Tower, Sao Jorge Castle and Padrao dos Descobrimentos to fully immerse yourself in Portugal's captivating domestic history and its role in the epic Age of Discovery.
Like most big European capitals Lisbon has no shortage of museums. From the qirky and the immersive, to the traditional and insightful, you'll find it in this city. The National Museum of Ancient Art, despite the name, actually showcases paintings, sculptures, metalworks, textiles, furniture and drawings from the Middle Ages to the early 19th century. Located along Rua Madre Deus this art museum is a must for any appreciator of historical works.
An interesting and highly popular anthropological institution is the Museum of the Orient, situated along Avenida de Brasilia close to the city's Atlantic coast. The museum hosts a diverse collection of Asian artefacts collected during the country's age of exploration. You'll find religious objects and a huge variety of artistic relics from various civilisations such as India, China, Japan and Indonesia. Collection highlights include a decorative range of 17th and 18th century Chinese and Japanese folding screens.
A common sight throughout the steep streets of Lisbon are the networks of yellow trams. As the city's most recognisable mode of transport it's no surprise that they have a museum at least partly dedicated to them. The Carris Museum on Rua Primeiro de Maio chronicles the past, present and future of public transport in Lisbon. A similar museum in the city's Belem district that's as good for art as it is for transport is the National Coach Museum. Housed within the old Horse Riding Arena of Belem Palace it is a place where you can admire one of the finest and most extensive collections of historical carriages in the world.
Another Belem district museum, this time set right up against the city shoreline, is the Electricity Museum. This beautifully designed former power plant contains remarkable exhibitions which chart the evolution of electric power and its associated technologies. There's also machinery displays native to the building itself; these illustrate its own history and shed light on the basic processes involved in electricity generation.
Before moving onto the summary of our next location, it's highly recommended that you check out Lisbon Zoo, known officially as the 'Jardim Zoológico de Lisboa'. Lisbon Zoo is home to animal species from every continent on earth and their enclosures are set within peaceful park-like surroundings. At various times in the day you can see a number of special attractions, such as the Sea Lions Feeding, the Dolphins's Bay Show and the Reptiles Presentation. The Zoo's main entrance is located at the Praça Marechal Humberto Delgado.
No more than a short dive outside Lisbon we have the stunning municipality of Sintra. The hop-on hop-off bus tour of Sintra is particularly special as its 14-stop sightseeing route runs mostly through the breathtaking landscape of the Sintra-Cascais Natural Park. Within the town of Sintra two unmissable places to hop-off and visit are the Sintra Natural History Museum and Museum of Modern Art. Both institutions are definitely lesser known in grand scheme of such places, but their modern facilities and incredible range of exhibits offer something for everyone, and are sure not to disappoint. While travelling on the tour one stop we highly recommend you get off at (besides the UNESCO listed palaces) is the coastal promontory of Cabo da Roca. As you look out over the rugged cliffs towards the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean know that you've arrived at the farthest western point on the European continent!
For the perfect long weekend or summer break look to the ever popular southern resort of Albufeira. Albufeira is a fairly compact city boasting plenty of spots to kickback with a drink, soak up the sun, or tee off a few rounds of golf. The Albufeira open-top bus tour has 17 stops that wind through the area's best beaches and nightlife centres. It stops on the Albufeira Strip, where you can find the greatest concentration of bars, clubs and shops. For a quiet pint outside a nice pub stop off at the Old Town with its traditional streets and copious restaurants. And if you get off at the final stop, Albufeira Marina, you can book boat trips, fishing trips and even diving excursions.
An amazing thing about Portugal is that to experience one of it's most intriguing wonders you actually have to leave Europe altogether. Madeira is a colourful island located just off the western coast of North Africa, and has belonged to Portugal ever since it was discovered by sailors from the country in 1419. Distance from the mainland has lead Madeira to develop its own distinct flavour of Portuguese culture, one that is best experienced by touring its lovely bayside capital Funchal. The City Sightseeing Funchal hop-on hop-off bus tour covers virtually everything there is to see and do in the city. Go to the Teleferico do Funchal and book a cable car ride up to Monte Civil Parish. It is there that you can take a stroll through the tropical botanical gardens and view the opulent hillside villas. When you're ready to head back down the mountain grab one of the ever-present toboggan drivers and enjoy a high speed descent. Other great things to do in Madeira/Funchal include a trip to the Workers' Market, or 'Mercado dos Lavradores', and a walk around the suburb of Camara de Lobos.
Back on mainland Europe we find two truly underrated Portuguese gems. The little coastal towns of Aviero and Ilhavo offer some of the finest archetypically Portuguese urban landscapes. Aviero is commonly referred to as the 'Venice of Portugal' due to its lovely canalside streets and richly biodiverse lagoon that locals call the Ria de Aveiro. It is connected to the neighbouring town of Ilhavo by a main road along which runs the City Sightseeing Aviero and Ilhavo open-top bus tour. It goes without saying that one of the best things to do in Aviero is to take a canal cruise on a decorated Moliceiro boat. You can also get a taster for the town's religious and artistic heritage in the Museu de Aveiro.
Ilhavo is where you'll find the renowned Vista Alegre porcelain factory, which offers guided tours of its modern crafting processes and traditional hand painting activities. To explore the region's seafaring heritage drop by the Ilhavo Maritime Museum.
Finally, we have the jewel in the crown of northern Portugal. Porto is often nicknamed the capital of the north due to its modern cultural clout and centrality within key events of Portuguese history. There's two main sightseeing options in this special city. You can either take in a full range of things to do with the City Sightseeing Porto bus tour, or zip through the narrow streets of the classic Old Town on a fun 6-person tuk-tuk tour. Many know Porto as the place from which port wine derives its name, but of equal rapport are the marvellous bridges linking it to the adjacent community of Vila Nova de Gaia. Take a boat cruise along the Douro River and see the famous 'six bridges' from their finest angle. One of them, the Ponte D. Maria Pia, was designed by Théophile Seyrig and Gustave Eiffel (designer of the famous Eiffel Tower in Paris).