So, you’re on the hunt for the best holiday destinations in Portugal? Let’s just say that we don’t think that hunt will last very long. There are so many awesome locations in this sun-splashed, olive-oil-soaked land at the end of the Iberian Peninsula that you’re more likely to be swamped for choice than short on options.
Yep, from the lush territory of the Douro Valley in the north to the baking gold bays of the Algarve in the south, Portugal runs the gamut from winelands to wave-washed cliffs. It’s loaded with surf towns and electrifying cities, UNESCO World Heritage Sites and stunning shorelines where you’ll be able to laze and rejuvenate.
Cue this guide. It aims to distill all the wonderful spots in this enthralling country into one easy listicle. We’ve whittled down all the best holiday destinations in Portugal to offer just 11 stand-out places that we think are absolute stunners. We’ve also gone for a good spread of options, to offer something for all sorts of travelers, from the history buffs to the foodies.
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No guide to the best holiday destinations in Portugal could possibly be complete without a mention of the enthralling capital of the country. Perched on the side of the Tagus Estuary roughly a third of the way up the Atlantic coast, it’s a grand old dame of Europe, with roots way back in the pre-Celtic Neolithic era. Since then, it’s been inhabited by the Romans, the Moors, and Reconquista knights, and was even the epicenter of the great Portuguese Empire during the Age of Discovery.
What’s amazing is that all that history is there if you want it – check out São Jorge Castle or the 16th-century Belém Tower. But the town is no museum piece. Even the oldest area, the crooked Alfama, is alive with sardine fests in June and more bars than you can shake a salt cod at! In fact, there’s a positively wild nightlife, mainly anchored on the happening Bairro Alto.
Lisbon is a fantastic option for a holiday because it doesn’t just offer a classic city break getaway. It also sits on the cusp of the Estoril Coast and the Costa da Caparica. You can whiz over to them in less than an hour to surf the Atlantic or sun yourself on the sand. There’s also Sintra – a hidden UNESCO site in the mountains just to the north. What more could you want?
Second city, but never second fiddle, Porto can rival its larger compadre to the south (that’s Lisbon) in almost everything. History? You got it, courtesy of the tile-fronted palaces of the UNESCO Ribeira district. Culture? There are azulejo-fronted churches that will keep you sighing with nostalgia, and even bookshops that are thought to have inspired Hogwarts in Harry Potter. Nightlife? Oh yea – just dive into Vitória after dark to seek out wine bars or head to the port cellars to taste the region’s potent tipples.
The vibe in Porto is a touch more relaxed than in Lisbon. What’s more, this is a much smaller city, so you should find it a breeze to leave behind the body-packed streets for a spell. Hop on the train at São Bento Station and you could be splashing in the rock pools of Granja beach in less than 30 minutes. Alternatively, there are urban beaches like Praia de Matosinhos for surfing and dining by the waves.
Just a mention of the name Albufeira is usually enough to conjure up thoughts of classic European package holidaying. Yep, this onetime fishing village on the edge of the southern Algarve is now one of the country’s most iconic summertime escapes, complete with plenty of family hotels, gorgeous beaches, and a wild nightlife scene.
Most people will look to stay in or around the Albufeira Old Town. There, a whitewashed mix of fishing cottages (most of them now hotels or Airbnbs) fringe cobbled streets laden with souvenir shops and bars. Others will hope to be close to the Albufeira Strip, a 500-meter-long dash of hedonistic disco clubs that roars into life around May and doesn’t wind down again until September.
The other main pull of Albufeira is the beaches. The town itself is right next to one or two fantastic ones: Praia dos Alemães and Praia de Albufeira, which have a rust-tinged sand and uber-clear Atlantic waters. But you can also break away to some of the more hidden coastal coves in the Algarve, like Praia Santa Eulália and Praia de São Rafael for example.
The Douro Valley
There’s wine in the Douro Valley, don’t you know? My god there’s wine. There’s some of the best wine in the world. Rich, strong-bodied reds are the name of the game, and so is port, a type of fortified wine that’s made solely in northern Portugal.
The best way to sample the exports is to string together a trip that goes from tasting room to vineyard to cellar door. There are hundreds in the region, but our favorites include the stunning Quinta de La Rosa and intimate Quinta do Vallado, both of which have tasting terraces with views.
Talking of the views – they are the second reason that the Douro Valley makes it onto our list of the best holiday destinations in Portugal. This whole area is simply jaw droppingly gorgeous. It occupies virtually all the land between Porto and the Spanish border, unfolding to the horizon in a sweep of lush green hills and deep river valleys.
Madeira rises majestically from the frothing, whale-splashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s some 540 miles off the coast of mainland Portugal. What’s more, it’s further south, so you can look forward to a sub-tropical climate that’s influenced by the Gulf Stream (AKA: It’s hot almost all year round!).
People have been flocking here for decades in search of good old rest and relaxation. Madeira continues to happily oblige, too, offering charming coastal hotels and an endless supply of the sweet local wine, not to mention one or two manmade beaches and that balmy climate from December to December.
More recently, Madeira has positioned itself up there with the Spanish Canaries as one of the top adventure hotspots in Atlantic Europe. We can see why – the backcountry here is a symphony of jagged peaks and towering summits, all of which are crisscrossed by hiking paths and carved through by rivers that gush as waterfalls in the midst of ancient laurel forests. Amazing stuff.
The midsized city of Faro is the regional capital of the Algarve. It’s also the main gateway to that ever-popular region, hosts the biggest airport in southern Portugal, and boasts fantastic proximity to some of the best beaches in Europe. Tempted? Yep, we would be too.
But try not to ditch the city before you’ve explored a little. Faro is an interesting place in its own right. Delve into the charming Cidade Velha district to wander ancient roadways of weathered flagstones and see painted churches that date back centuries. Take some time to appreciate the Sé Cathedral, once an Arabic mosque with origins in the 1200s AD. And then there are the tapas bars and little cantinas that serve up Algarvian fish stews and whatnot.
Faro sits right on the cusp of the beautiful Parque Natural da Ria Formosa. It’s a wide swathe of wetland habitats, wiggling rivers, and brackish coast ponds that is positively brimming with curious wildlife – especially flamingos!
Calling all surfers looking for one of the best holiday destinations in Portugal for hitting the waves. Ericeira is it. An official World Surfing Reserve, it’s up there with the finest swell hotspots on the planet. There are over 12 beaches and marked spots for surfing. The most popular wait in the rugged coves to the north of town, topped off by world-class Coxos, a tubey right point break that draws in pros from all over.
But Ericeira is also about more than just waxing down the board. The center of the town, which is only a few hours’ drive north of Lisbon, is a charming mix of stone-covered alleys and buzzy bars where surfers go after a day in the water. It’s packed with great surf schools and coastal hotels with swimming pools and spas. And the legendary Silver Coast – a long run of perfect beaches and dunes – starts nearby.
A vacation to the Azores will whisk you very far from the mainland of Portugal. In fact, it will whisk you a whopping 890 miles from Lisbon, out to the very heart of the vast Atlantic blue. There, this archipelago of nine rugged volcanic islands offers something a little different to those Algarvian beaches and Lisbon nights out…
Most travelers will aim first for the fabled Green Island of São Miguel. That’s the busiest and most populous of the chain, hosting the main city of Ponta Delgada and over 140,000 people. There are intriguing maritime exhibits and old ports to see in the town but be sure to leave enough time to explore the incredible Sete Cidades crater lakes – one is pure green, while the other is musky grey.
There are other Azores that help to make this one of the best holiday destinations in Portugal. Take the island of São Jorge, with its steep cliffs and villages perched on coastal plinths, or Pico, topped by a series of centuries-old windmills built in the style of Flanders.
Aljezur is an off-the-beaten-path surf town in the north-western Algarve. It’s popular with wave riders thanks to the proximity of beginner-friendly Arrifana Beach and the more challenging swells of Carrapateira. More than just a gateway to the surf spots of this gorgeous region, Aljezur is a handsome example of the sort of rustic and less-busy destinations that you can discover by leaving the south coast behind.
The town itself is draped over a long ridge, with chestnut and oak forests rolling on the peaks around and cow-filled fields spreading out below. An ancient castle tops it, as narrow lanes barely big enough for the rental car zigzag their way through the stoop cottages. Wander there and you’ll spy out a strange mix of people, from local Algarvian farmers to expat surfers drying their wetsuits.
Aljezur is a fine entry point for the reserve of the Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina. That spreads north all the way to Sines and south to Sagres, encompassing some of the wildest and most breathtaking bays in the country.
Talasnal isn’t really like any of the other mainstay Portuguese vacay hotspots on this list. It’s not on the beaches. It’s not by the surf. Instead, it’s perched high up in the lush, green Serra da Lousã Mountains, some 1.5 hours’ drive in from the Atlantic Ocean.
Known as arguably the most famous of the so-called Portuguese Schist Villages, Talasnal is a perfect example of an historic hill town. It drapes over a steep ridge and is threaded together by narrow, cobbled alleys that zigzag past cafés, artisan eateries, and craft shops, occasionally opening to offer views of the emerald woodlands and sylvan hills all around.
You can find some lovely little guesthouses and B&Bs in tiny Talasnal, along with agri taverns that serve highland food. During the day, the main activity is likely to be hiking, or seeking out the many river beaches and wild swimming spots that abound in the region.
There’s a boom going on in the surfing world right now, and there’s hardly a town in Europe better suited to cater to newcomer wave seekers than Sagres. It’s sat right on the southwestern edge of the country, with access to Atlantic-facing beaches and southern beaches that both offer very different swells for very different levels. Pros can head north up to Praia do Beliche or Praia da Bordeira but total beginners can heads east to Martinhal or even Luz.
And when you’re done on the waves, there’s a chilled town with friendly surfer vibes ready and waiting. It straddles the main N268 roadway that cuts south from Lisbon, unfolding in a medley of chilled beer bars (Dromedario Bistro Bar and Cervejaria Talizé) and traditional Portuguese seafood taverns.
Sagres also has plenty of history up its sleeve – just check out the massive Sagres Fortress that clings the cliffs like a limpet to the south. Oh, and you get good access to the famous gold-sand coves of the Western Algarve here, since the likes of Praia do Zavial and Figueira are both within 30 minutes’ drive.
The best holiday destinations in Portugal for 2022 – our verdict
Look, Portugal isn’t going to disappoint. It’s a gorgeous country with fantastic cities and cultural centers, along with picture-perfect beaches and rich history. However, there are a few places that we think really stand out from the crowd in 2022. They’re the spots that offer world-class surf on the Atlantic and family-friendly beaches on the shoreline of the Algarve, the destinations that take you a little off the beaten track to the Portuguese mountains and winelands, and the buzzy cities that offer the country’s wildest nightlife and finest array of museums.