Visiting Portugal is to discover a remarkably diverse destination. Inextricably linked with the sea, the country has more than 800 kilometers of enticing Atlantic Ocean coastline. Lisbon
, the capital city, enjoys a stunning location near the mouth of the River Tagus. From here, trailblazing mariners set sail in the 15th and 16th centuries on epic voyages of discovery, and Portugal has nurtured a proud seafaring tradition ever since.
Portugal's interior melds dramatic northern mountain ranges with the vast rolling plains of the country's sun baked central regions. In the south, some of the best beaches in Europe
flank picturesque coves and warm, shallow waters. Dotted throughout are stone-built villages, enchanting towns, and cosmopolitan cities where historic palaces and castles, museums and monasteries are waiting to be explored. And traveling to Portugal can also mean a visit to the verdant, subtropical island of Madeira - the "Garden Isle" - or the isolated, but tranquil Azores archipelago.
1 Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon
is synonymous with Portugal's golden Age of Discovery
. It's from the shores of this Lisbon suburb that intrepid navigators set sail in the 15th and 16th centuries on long and perilous voyages to chart unknown waters and map new territories. One such mariner, Vasco da Gama, discovered the sea route to India
in 1498 and to honor his achievement, King Manuel I commissioned a monument that became a lasting symbol of the country's astonishing era of conquest and expansion. Today, the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos
is one of the country's most cherished and revered buildings, and a "must see' on every tourist's agenda.
The church and monastery embody the spirit of the age, and feature some of the finest examples of Manueline architecture
found anywhere in Portugal; the beautifully embellished decoration found on the South Portal is breathtaking. Inside, the beautiful cloister is equally exuberant. Appropriately, the church houses the tomb of Vasco da Gama and other national figureheads, including Luís de Camões, Portugal's greatest poet and chronicler of the discoveries.
2 Oceanário de Lisboa, Lisbon
Arguably Portugal's most popular and family-friendly visitor attraction, Lisbon'soceanarium
is brilliantly conceived to highlight the world's diverse ocean habitats. This is one of Europe's best and largest oceanariums, containing a vast array of fish and marine animals. Four separate sea- and landscapes recreate the ecosystems of the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, and Antarctic oceans. A huge central tank, visible from different levels, teems with shark, ray, and many other finned wonders and denizens of the deep. The transparent plexiglass design is such that smaller tropical species housed in separate aquaria set around the main tank appear to be swimming with their larger cousins. Complementing this amazing spectacle are the open-air landscapes where penguins, sea otters, and other cute and cuddly birds and mammals co-exist in carefree harmony.
3 Palácio Nacional de Sintra, Lisbon Coast
Nestling in the lap of a wooded mountain range, Sintra's stunning location is reason enough to visit this charming, verdant town. Indeed, UNESCO acknowledges the destination as a World Heritage cultural landscape
such is its beauty and the significance of the collection of historic visitor attractions clustered in and around the old town, Sintra Velha
. A favorite summer retreat for the kings and queens of Portugal and an alluring destination for numerous writers and poets, including Lord Byron and William Beckford, Sintra exudes romance. The old town is a maze of cobbled lanes lined with handsome town houses painted in pastel hues of pink, mustard, and lilac. The narrow streets surround a pretty central square that's dominated by the wonderfulPalácio Nacional de Sintra
Easily recognized by its huge conical chimneys, Sintra's National Palace dates from the late 14th century and is the oldest surviving palace in Portugal. Regally furnished, the building is set over several floors, many conveying a unique theme and decorated accordingly. A highlight is the magnificent Sala dos Brasões
, a glittering domed hall embellished with the coats of arms of 72 noble Portuguese families.
4 Torre de Belém, Lisbon
One of Portugal's best-loved historic monuments and a Lisbon icon, the Torre de Belém stands as a symbol of the Age of Discovery and the voyages of exploration undertaken in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Completed in 1521 as a fortress to defend the approaches to the River Tagus, the tower is regarded as a masterpiece of military architecture. Designed in the Manueline style by Francisco de Arruda, the façade is a confection of beautifully carved stone, typified by maritime motifs such as twisted rope and the armillary sphere. An impressive Renaissance loggia heightens the decoration. The tower's cultural significance is such that UNESCO has listed it as a World Heritage Site.
5 Convento do Cristo, Tomar
Dominating the charming riverside town of Tomar
is a mighty castle that shields theConvento do Cristo
, one of Portugal's standout historic attractions. Founded in 1160 as the headquarters of the Order of the Knights Templar, the Convent of Christ is as awe-inspiring as it is mysterious, its masonic heritage tangible and beguiling. At its center is the medieval Charola
, the original Templar church, richly decorated and exuding all the strange symbolism associated with the Order of Christ. The 16th-century cloisters bewitch with Manueline flourishes and tease visitors with their concealed spiral staircases. And the convent's magnificent Manueline window
, designed by master sculptor Diogo de Arruda, remains one of the most architecturally appealing aspects of any building found in Portugal.