Portugal has everything you need for a dream vacation. Spend your time unwinding on idyllic beaches, hiking breathtaking cliff passes and eating your way through a mountain of pastel de natas thanks to our guide to the country’s most unmissable spots.
1- Take to the waves Listen up surfers: forget Australia and Hawaii. The highest wave ever surfed (24m) was in Nazaré, just a few kilometers north of Lisbon. Even if you’re not that into surfing, from the lookout point of Miradouro do Suberco, you can enjoy spectacular views of the ocean crashing against the rugged coastline. The biggest waves usually occur in early November, but you’ll need a bit of luck to catch an elusive 20m one. Unfortunately not all of us are able (or crazy enough) to surf waves as high as a house, but luckily Portugal has more surf spots to offer than just Nazaré. On Arrifana Beach in the southwest of the country, perfect surf swell awaits you on a stretch of coastline that’s lined with high cliffs.
2- Unwind on a deserted island An uninhabited island that’s basically just one giant beach with a little restaurant on sounds pretty damn perfect in comparison to the touristy alternatives on the mainland. Soak up the sun, swim and repeat all day – with absolutely nobody disturbing your peace. The nature on Ilha Deserta is still relatively untouched, and its remoteness will make you feel like you wandered into paradise. Instead of spending the entire day on the island, you can take a catamaran tour that visits both Ilha Deserta and Ilha Farol. The latter is ready-made for hiking enthusiasts since there are no roads or vehicles.
3- Find your dream beach Portugal’s 900 km coastline is home to its fair share of unique beaches. One such beach, Miramar, is just a short drive from Porto. Here, embedded in dreamy white sand and built on several rocks, sits Senhor da Pedra, a picture-perfect little chapel marooned in the middle of the beach. If you find yourself further south, head to Praia do Paraiso (Paradise Beach). You can only reach the beach by walking down a set of cliff steps, but you’ll be rewarded with a stunning sandy beach that truly lives up to its name. The charming fishing village of Carvoeiro, which overlooks Praia do Paraiso, is well worth exploring.
4- Get lost in nature There are seemingly millions of different hiking tracks you can choose to tackle in Portugal – and with each route more breathtaking than the next, it’s tough to settle for just one or two. Arguably Portugal’s (and the world’s) most picturesque coastal path is known as the Fisherman’s Trail, a single track along the cliffs of the west coast. Even though the whole trail is 120 km long, it’s easily accessible meaning you can choose to hike as much or as little as you want. If you’re less of a hiker, you can enjoy the many different paths (or even kayak routes) in Arrabida National Park, just a short drive from Lisbon.
5- Meet the Venice of Portugal With its brightly painted gondolas peacefully floating through the canals, Aveiro easily gives Venice a run for its money. Each gondola (also called a Moliceiro) is unique, usually painted to depict traditional landscapes found around Aveiro. They were originally used to collect seaweed in the lagoon, but you’ll now see them taxiing locals and tourists. Make sure to also explore the city by foot – Aveiro boasts beautiful pastel houses, public gardens and a century-old train station with stunning blue azulejo tiles.
7- Do go chasing waterfalls After a quick forest hike in Serra do Açor, you’ll find yourself standing in front of the stunning 20m high Fraga da Pena waterfall. If you’re brave enough, you can go for a swim in the lagoon that sits underneath it, but only if you don’t mind very (and I mean very!) cold water. The closest ‘big’ town is Coimbra – it’s easy to reach from Fraga da Pena and the perfect starting point for a camping trip.
8- Venture to the end of the world We (hopefully) all know that earth is not flat, but when you’re in Cabo de Sao Vicente it sure feels like you’re about to fall off the edge of the world. At the most southwestern point of continental Europe, you’ll find an almost hundred-year-old lighthouse that sits perched atop cliffs that can reach up to seventy meters. You can enjoy “The Last Bratwurst Before America” from a little food stand while you take in the amazing scenery. In the unlikely case that you get sick of the view, just a kilometer before the lighthouse is Fortaleza do Belixe, a 15th-century fort that’s packed with history.
9- Explore Europe’s trendiest capital A trip to Portugal is incomplete until you’ve visited its artsy capital city. The age-old yellow cable cars will transport you from A to B in what may feel like the hilliest city in the world. No matter where the cable cars (or your legs) take you, you’ll soon realize there’s no shortage of things to do in Lisbon. Take in the views from Park Bar (an inexpensive rooftop bar in the city center), enjoy exhibitions at the MAAT and do not leave the city without enjoying a pastel de nata from Manteigaria, a famous little bakery that produces fresh batches every hour.
10 – Marvel at the almond blossoms Everyone’s heard of the gorgeous cherry blossom trees in Japan, but you’ll find something equally as beautiful at the very edge of western Europe. From late February until early March, the Douro Valley in northern Portugal becomes a flower paradise you really don’t want to miss. Legend has it that a young king had the almond trees planted to woo a Nordic princess. He hoped by covering the valley with white almond blossoms she would be reminded of the snow back home. We’re not sure if it worked – but it did leave us with a breathtaking natural spectacle to enjoy! Be sure to celebrate the blossom with the locals at the Folklore Festival of the Almond Trees in Mogadouro.
I hope you can keep a secret, because it’s time to leave the crowds behind and discover eight beautiful Mediterranean’s islands where hunting for space on a crowded beach simply doesn’t exist.
So put down your guide to Mallorca and start planning a trip to one of these dreamy destinations:
1. Porquerolles, France The French Riviera is a byword for luxury – but where can you peel back this layer of glitz and glamor to experience traditional French culture? Step forward Porquerolles, an idyllic island located just 20 minutes by ferry from Hyères. The locals are loco for pedal power, so rent a bike and get exploring. You can rent one from almost every corner, and they’re the perfect mode of transport for stopping at one or two (or three) of the numerous wineries that are scattered across the island. It’s the ideal location to have no set plans, as when you start exploring, you’ll find little pathways leading to breathtaking beaches where you’re unlikely to find any other tourists. One of the more popular beaches is Pointe Prime, where a small ribbon of sand connects a smaller island to the beach.
2. Nisyros, Greece It’s pretty tough to find a Greek island that isn’t beautiful, but you’ll struggle to find one as special as Nisyros. Not only is the island literally a volcano, but it’s also home to the most gorgeous church in Greece (Church of Agios), and few tourists venture here compared to Kos, its famous island neighbor. In the quaint port town of Mandraki, you’ll find a mixture of white and colorful houses that are actually made of volcanic rocks. You can even take a walk on the wild side by hiking through the volcano crater. If you’re after water adventure, the island’s rugged coastline is ideal for windsurfing and snorkeling.
3. Biševo, Croatia With a mere 15 permanent residents and measuring only 6 km2 in size, the little island of Biševo would probably go unnoticed if it weren’t for its famous caves. This tiny Croatian island is perfect for a day trip from Viš, another island that’s well worth a visit. Rent your own ship or hop on a tour boat and explore ten entirely different caves along the coast, with the most famous known locally as Modra Špilja or simply the Blue Cave. Here, sun rays shine through an underwater crack in the rocks and set the cave alight with a vivid blue color. You can’t visit the Blue Cave with your own boat, unfortunately, but there are several local companies who offer tours. Make sure you go around lunchtime when the blue is the brightest. Away from the caves, Biševo is home to beautiful beaches, with two of the best found at Porat and Salbunara.
4. Agistri, Greece It’s hard to compete with the likes of Santorini or Mykonos, but Agistri, a little island just one hour from Athens, comes pretty close. Here, you can enjoy an authentic Greek holiday away from the hoards of tourists and sky-high hotel prices. Its proximity to Athens allows you to combine an island getaway with a quick city trip. Simply take the ferry from Piraeus, the main port of Athens, and you’ll be unwinding in no time. Most of the hotels are found in Skala, just five minutes from Agistri’s ferry terminal. From here, Chalikiada Beach is just a short hike away. After marveling at the ocean views from atop the cliff, head down a small cliff path to feel the white sand between your toes.
5. Ischia, Italy Sitting next to Capri is the sun-soaked gem of Ischia. Known as ‘Isola Verde’ (Green Island) due to the azure ocean clashing with the island’s colorful fauna, Ischia is a welcome break from the crowds of Capri. Away from its dreamy beaches, you’ll find Castello Aragonese, a dramatic-looking Medieval castle sat atop a craggy islet. After a day of sightseeing, enjoy a breathtaking view of the castle while enjoying delicious Italian dishes at Da Maria, a restaurant that you can only reach by boat. Of course, no trip to Ischia is complete without relaxing on the island’s beautiful beaches, and if you visit during the summer shoulder months, you’ll enjoy the tranquility of island life away from the scorching summer heat.
6. Elba, Italy If you think Ischia is the only hidden Italian paradise, you’re very much mistaken. Sandwiched between Corsica and the Tuscan coastline, lies the picture-perfect island of Elba. The ferry ride from the mainland to Portoferraio, which is the island’s largest town and well worth exploring, gives you a taste of what’s to come as it skips across the ocean. In addition to its crystal-clear waters, pebbled beaches, and spectacular cliffs, Elba boasts an extensive amount of history. So, if you’re ever sick of relaxing on a beach (is anyone ever?), there’s plenty for your inner culture buff to enjoy, including the mansion that Napoleon Bonaparte lived in while exiled on the island.
7. Formentera, Spain The Balearics. Everybody’s heard of Mallorca, Menorca, and Ibiza, yet for some reason, a little island just nine kilometers from Ibiza has managed to stay out of the spotlight. Formentera, with its white sand beaches and crystalline waters, is one of the most idyllic islands in the Mediterranean. There are no wild party nights like on neighboring islands; it’s where people come to chill out to the max. While Formentera is the epitome of relaxation, it’s also a hub for adventure with its clear water providing the perfect setting for snorkeling and diving. Hiking or hopping on a scooter to one of the old lighthouses (especially Cap de Barbaria) to watch the sunset is a must.
8. Cunda Adası, Turkey Doesn’t an olive-grove-covered island between Greece and Turkey sound like a place you want to be? If the answer is yes, then Cunda, the largest of the Ayvalık Islands, is the place for you. From the moment you arrive, start exploring the narrow alleyways, which are home to stone houses, colorful shutters, and vibrant flowers. The island’s main landmark, Taksiyarhis Church, will make you feel like you just traveled back in time while the island’s plethora of beaches and selection of fine fish restaurants will ensure you enjoy all the perks of a Mediterranean break, but away from the crowds.
Like cities frozen in time, old towns bring us back to another era, when life was slower and mystery waited around every cobbled corner. Europe offers some of the world’s best-preserved towns and neighborhoods, letting us stroll through history, taste tradition, and feel the past.
Here are 7 of Europe’s most picturesque old towns that will have you forgetting what year it is until you see a church you just have to put on Instagram.
1. Bruges, Belgium Few places bring a medieval fantasy to life as well as the old town of Bruges. Seemingly every market square is overseen by a lofty cathedral while the town’s cobbled lanes are interrupted by a sleepy network of canals. By day, it’s a hive of activity as day-trippers flock to the city to feel its medieval glow. But Bruges tells its best secrets after dark. Be sure to lean on stone bridges and watch white swans float down the canals and lose track of what century you’re in as you meander along moonlit lanes, stumbling on glowing garden pubs that serve Belgium’s finest beers.
2. Edinburgh, Scotland No city does eerie, ghost-like ambiance as well as Edinburgh, Scotland’s brassy and culture-rich capital. The buildings breathe history here, telling stories of siege, progress, and revolution. Cute boutiques usher you in from Scotland’s famous drizzle, which only adds to the city’s charm. Edinburgh Castle lets you step back in time for an afternoon while the city’s nightlife is a chorus of good times in cozy pubs and age-old restaurants.
3. Ronda, Spain Perched atop the soaring El Tajo Gorge, Ronda overlooks miles of green pastures and vineyards. The town crosses the canyon it’s built on with the gorgeous Puente Nuevo bridge, which rises quite spectacularly from the valley floor. It’s the highlight of the city, especially at night when it’s romantically lit for the town to admire. It’s also where witches were reportedly tossed into the gorge during the Spanish Inquisition. Fortunately, they stopped that practice a few centuries ago. Now it’s safe for evening strolls and morning jogs with epic views.
4. Tallinn, Estonia It’s easy to see why Tallinn’s old town is protected as a UNESCO heritage site. Sitting on the Gulf of Finland, the old town is packed with the kind of atmospheric streets and ancient architecture that make it one of Europe’s best-kept secrets. Snorkel your way around an underwater prison (yes, you read that right), or gorge yourself on food truck fare before climbing the tower of St. Olav’s church for sweeping views of the city. With some of the best scenery and lowest prices in Europe, Tallinn is worth seeing before the word gets outs.
5. Riga, Latvia Across the river from the city’s sleek glass office towers, Riga’s old town pops with pastel blues and pinks almost too perfect for real life. Seeing it from a distance, the dreamily painted buildings look like toy houses with neat white windows peeking out from candy-colored facades. But there really are people here, and this town of exquisite art-nouveau architecture and delicious food is waiting for you to discover it.
6. Dubrovnik, Croatia Nestled on the coast of the glittering Adriatic Sea, the walled city of Dubrovnik holds its charm no matter how many times you visit. The city’s terracotta rooftop, sun-soaked stone houses, and shimmering blue sea can be admired from atop Srđ mountain, which you can easily reach by cable car. By sunset, tour the walls that once protected a cultured city and early democracy that grew rich off maritime trade. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, plan for an extended stay as King’s Landing is filmed here.
7. Krakow, Poland
Stumble upon Krakow’s old town and you might never want to leave. Perfectly sculpted archways call to you from across stone streets, while towering cathedrals keep a proud watch over the largest market square in Europe. Legend goes that Krakow was founded after a local cobbler saved the people from a bad-tempered dragon, and the feeling of legends still echoes through these narrow alleys. Conveniently, the old town is also where most of the good pubs are.