There’s a country no one is talking about but should: Portugal. With breathtaking coastlines, stunning wineries, affordable food, and charming cities, it should be one of Europe’s go-to destinations but is often overlooked. If you’re torn between vacationing in a fun city or the relaxing countryside, look no further. Portugal is small enough that you can enjoy both. And for a small price compared to its neighbors. Here are the top cities in Portugal and why you should give them a visit.

Lisbon

lisbon

From the eastern United States, Lisbon is just a 6-hour flight on airlines like TAP Portugal. Portugal is the closest European country to the U.S., which means your flight is sure to be more affordable than anywhere else in Europe. Prices run as low as $600 in the off-season.

Portuguese history is one you likely didn’t learn about in school. A blend of Roman and Moorish influence, Lisbon is lined with ruins, cathedrals, and cobblestone streets. To learn more about who ruled the city and when, visit the Núcleo Arqueológico, a free tour showcasing ruins from the Roman era. Then check out the Praça do Comércio, the central plaza that opens to the sea.

The best part of Lisbon is wandering through the narrow, winding cobblestone roads of the Alfama, where you’ll catch locals playing fado (a Portuguese music genre) on the streets. For a lively night scene, head to the Bairro Alto neighborhood, which hosts a number of bars and restaurants. Like the rest of Europe, alcohol is as affordable as water.

Before you leave the city, catch the sunset over the Atlantic Ocean while strolling the Av da Ribeira das Naus.

sunset

Top picks:
Food – Taberna Ideal

Lodging – Lisbon Lounge Hostel

Attraction – Sunset stroll along Av da Ribeira das Naus

Want more from one of the top cities in Portugal? Get a first-hand glimpse from someone who took a day-trip to Lisbon.

Belém

After exploring central Lisbon, head four miles west to Belém. It’s accessible by train or cab, but you can also walk or bike the pathway parallel to the river. Belém is known for its pastry shop, Pasteis de Belém, which serves Portugal’s famous pastries, Pasteis de Nata. Before leaving, check out the Belém Tower, which overlooks the water where the Tagus River opens to the Atlantic Ocean.

pastry

belem-tower

Top picks:
Food – Pasteis de Belém

Lodging – Stay in Lisbon

Attraction – Torre de Belém (Belém Tower)

Sintra

The fairytale town of Sintra is just a 40-minute train ride from Lisbon, which makes an easy day trip, but you can also stay the night. The main attractions are the Palacio Nacional de Sintra and the Castelo dos Mouros (Castle of the Moors). Hike through the dewy forest to the castle for panoramic views of Sintra and beyond.

castle-moors

It takes a couple of hours to make the trek, but it’s worth it because along the way, you can visit a small chapel showcasing ruins from 3000 BC. Once at the top, you can scale the castle’s ruins before making your way to the palace.

If you’re lucky, you will get a sunny day with a stunning view. However, most days are misty because of the rainforest climate. But, hey, it adds to the magical fairytale feeling.

sintra-mist

Top picks:
Food – Travesseiro pastry from Casa Piriquita

Lodging – Nice Way Sintra Palace Hostel

Attraction – Palacio Nacional de Sintra and Castelo dos Mouros

The Douro

Northeast of Lisbon lies the gorgeous wine region of the Douro Valley, homeland to the country’s most famous beverage: port. You can take a 2-hour train ride north from Lisbon to Porto and then head east to the Douro Valley. People have been growing grapes and drinking wine in this region since the Romans were there, but port emerged in the mid-1600s. When England forbid the import of French wines, they had to seek alternate sources for their vhino. That’s when they discovered the steep hillsides of the Douro, perfect for winemaking. To keep the wine preserved as it was shipped to England, they added brandy to it creating port.

douro-wine

douro

douro-2

If you don’t like port, you will after this trip. The train ride along the river is breathtaking but if you want to explore the vineyards once you are there, rent a car. The town of Pinhão is a great home base for exploring. It’s surrounded by several vineyards that offer tours and tastings. For a relaxing place to stay with endless pours of vhino tinto, book a room at Casa Cimeira, just outside of Pinhão, where they serve home-cooked dinners and port every night.

Top picks:
Food – Home-cooked dinner at Casa Cimeira

Lodging – Casa Cimeira

Attraction – Quinta dos Espinheiros (vineyard)

Porto

With the meandering Rio Douro, medieval alleys, and ornate cathedrals, Porto is a charming but lively city with some of the best food in Portugal. It’s 2 hours north of Lisbon and 2 hours west of the Douro Valley. Make the Torre dos Clérigos, a 76m-high tower, your first stop so you can get your bearings. You’ll have to climb 225 steps to reach the top, but the views are worth it.

porto-tower

Next explore the Ribeira district where you can walk along a bustling boardwalk lined with restaurants and bars. Across the river you’ll see Taylor’s, Graham’s, and other British-founded ports. They offer tours of their wine caves as well as tastings. After watching the sunset over the Rio Douro, make your way back towards the winding cobblestone roads and choose from a plethora of eateries for dinner. The street, Rua dos Caldeireiros, has delicious options.

porto-river

Top picks:
Food – Miss’Opo (book ahead), As 7 Maravilhas, A Sandeira

Lodging – Garden House Hostel

Attraction – Torre dos Clerigos, Igreja de Sao Francisco

Flights- Tap Portugal

 

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    About Lainey Younkin MS, RD