We visited Northern Portugal some years ago. When you think about Portugal, most people tend to talk about Lisbon or the Algarve. This beautiful country, however, has much more to offer. We fell in love with the northern part of the country (from all the way up north just until north of Lisbon). Discover the breathtaking landscapes, the dramatic coastlines, the rustic villages where time stood still and the vibrant cities like Porto.
Why you should visit Northern Portugal
Portugal is a very popular touristic destination. It has a lot of authentic spots and it is still affordable (one of the cheapest countries in western Europe). When should you travel to Portugal? Late spring and early autumn are the nicest seasons. You avoid the big mass of tourists in July and August and can still enjoy the summery weather. If the summer break is the only suitable period for you, no worries. We went in July and we had a marvellous trip! Although I have to say I had to cope with a partner who was a bit more grumpy because of the heat ;-))!
If you have the possibility to take 2 or 3 weeks off, take your time to explore the country by car. Don’t rush from one highlight to the other, but embrace the southern Portuguese way of life. We spend 2,5 weeks only for exploring northern Portugal. Wander around the little streets, take long hikes in the stunning nature, taste the delicious food and don’t forget the marvellous wine. Living the good life, it isn’t that difficult at all! Check out the places we think you should visit.
This is definitely one of the must-visit villages in Northern Portugal. Although it is rather touristic, that’s also for a reason. We totally fell in love with the place. We even considered for a while to go back and get married there, after seeing a local wedding going on in the old city centre. How wonderful it must be to wander along the little colourful streets as newlyweds… But even without wedding plans, go and discover the magic in Obidos!
Try to go there in the late afternoon. Most people visiting from Lisbon (which is only 1-hour drive away) are going back to there hotels by then. The heat also starts to become bearable and it is the best time to take some killer photos. Even better, stay for one or more nights near or within the walls and really soak up the atmosphere. You will take hundreds of photos! But don’t forget to put the camera away and get lost in the magic of the place.
The Medieval Castle
When visiting Obidos, you can’t miss out on the medieval castle. It’s situated at the highest point of the town. Although we didn’t have children back then, they would have definitely loved it. It is still in pretty good shape and worth the climb. Obidos is completely surrounded by ancient city walls. To get a better view and feel on the entire centre, make the one-hour walk along these walls. Be careful, however, especially with children. There are no handrails and some tricky parts, so not for the faint of heart. We survived, however, even with Jurgens fear of heights.
After surviving the city walls, take your time to wander along the car-free cobblestone streets. Explore the little alleys with colourful white-washed houses. Visit one of the historical churches and shop around the many souvenir and artisan shops. Complete your visit with drinking a glass of Portuguese wine on one of the picturesque cafe terraces. We sure did.
When going to Portugal, we initially weren’t planning on driving all the way to Peniche. But along the road, we met people who told us we should definitely go there. And boy, we didn’t regret it! Peniche is built on a rocky peninsula and famous for its surfing. It has some of the best beaches if you want to conquer the waves or even take your first steps into this thrilling sport. With its historical fort and fishing harbour, there is plenty to visit and eat. The fish don’t get any fresher over here!
Another great experience is taking a boat trip (by ferry or with a smaller vessel) to the Berlengas Archipelago. This natural reserve lies 10 kilometres offshore and is definitely worth your time. Crystal clear waters with a rich marine life and an ancient fort. Unfortunately, we didn’t take this trip, so we definitely will have to go back for that. If you want to know more about how to get to the archipelago and what there’s to see, read the blogpost of this nice young couple.
We have however a memorable experience of our own. Driving on top of the rocky cliffs, we were admiring the stunning sea views. We reached Cabo Carvoeiro at the end of the peninsula, one of the westernmost points of mainland Portugal. Suddenly we saw some seawater coming over the edge of the 25 metre high cliffs. Could the splash of the waves really get this high? Pulling over the car and looking over the edge, we witnessed mighty waves crashing up to the cliffs creating huge bursts of white foam! An experience we will never forget. We have to be honest however, we advised friends to go over there and they weren’t that lucky. No big waves to be seen. It seems you have to be lucky with the weather, but it is worth to take the risk!
Porto deserves its very own blog post, but we’ll try to explain briefly why you should visit the second-largest city in Portugal. When arriving in Porto, we immediately loved the southern atmosphere of this vibrant city. It is becoming one of Europe’s most popular cities for a reason, partly because of the great value you get for your money. Food, accommodation and leisure all cost less than what you’re used to in other European cities.
Porto is divided into two major parts by the mighty river Douro. First there us the ancient Ribeira district on the left side. And then there is Vila Nova de Gaia on the right (which is actually a village on its own) with all the Port houses alongside the riverbanks.
When discovering Porto, walk through the old city centre with narrow cobblestone streets and historical tiled buildings. Take your time to take a tram up the steep hills. Enjoy delicious fresh fish right out of the ocean and sit next to friendly locals zipping their coffee on one of the terraces alongside the Douro. Don’t forget to cross the Dom Luis 1 bridge and visit one of the Port houses on the other side. In the evening dine in the Ribeira district in one of the local family-owned restaurants.
4. Penada Geres National park
Portugal is so much more than the sunny beaches in the south. When you visit the Penada-Gerês National Park, way up in the north of Portugal, you will be blown away by its stunning beauty. As we entered Portugal by car from Spain, this was one of our first stops.
The park combines four mountain ranges: Penada, Soajo, Amarela and Gêres. Although they are not very high (not above 1500 metres), you will be able to undertake quite challenging hikes. We walked for an entire day and stumbled upon one amazing view to another. Nature’s beauty is breathtaking out there, whether it’s a bird flying by, the blue waters of a lake popping around the corner or maybe the natural springs and waterfalls that are just all over.
Driving and walking through the park got us the feeling we went back in time. The quite traditional villages gave a sense of how life would have been decades ago. As agriculture still is the main income here, you can see mills, ancient stone grain dryers and cattle wandering around the green hills.
5. Douro Valley
Unfortunately we didn’t visit the Douro valley. And frankly, I really don’t understand why we missed it. So definitely a reason to go back there. But since this is a highlight in this region, it had to be listed in the 10 places you must visit in Northern Portugal. If it isn’t for the landscape you head over there, it could be for the delicious Douro wines. As we weren’t there ourselves, I found this very good and helpful blog post that will tell you what to do, when to go and how to plan your visit to the Douro valley https://juliedawnfox.com/explore-douro-valley/
Never heard of Braga? It was named the Europe Youth Capital in 2012. Why? It is a beautiful city not far from Porto with lots of charming cafes and restaurants right in the old centre where you can sit down after visiting the numerous churches all over town.
Be sure to visit Bom Jesus, an impressive church just outside of the city. The site really is incredible. Park the car below the church, as we did. It allows you to walk the up the marvellous staircase and once you have reached the top, you get rewarded by stunning views. Kids will definitely like the grottos, lake with rowing boats, the gardens to play in and the nice terrace.
The glorious beaches of Nazaré are packed in summer, but in winter the ocean shows its most powerful side and Nazaré becomes a surfers mecca. The more than 30 metres high killer waves have made this little fishing town legendary.
But as we don’t belong to the extreme surfing scene, we only tried the modest waves of the summer season with our little body board. If you want to learn this beautiful sport, come to these beaches and join one of the surfing schools.
There’s however more to this town than only the surrounding beaches. The white-washed houses shine in the sun, some locals still wear the traditional clothes and their fishing boats compete for the most colourful paintings. Take your time to discover this enchanting little town and go see the views on top of the cliffs. You will not be disappointed.
8. The Batalha Monastery
A Unesco World Heritage Site you must see in northern Portugal! The site is huge and full of architecture and history. The golden-coloured façade is beautifully decorated, the church and chapels have one of the highest ceilings in the world and the cloister will take your breath away.
We wandered around for hours and could have stared forever at all those details that make this site so worthwhile to visit. In those old days, men really could build some absolute masterpieces. It took them two centuries to complete the monastery and even then they couldn’t finish all the chapels. Which now gives the strange view of beautifully carved chapel walls without a sealing.
The colourful stained glass windows, gothic sculptured architectures, tombs of the royal family, and the sun peeking through the arches surrounding the garden of the royal cloisters will make every photographer absolutely delightment.
9. The Alcobaca Monastery
Another Unesco World Heritage Site, only a 30 minutes drive away from the Batalha Monastery. Hard to say which one is more beautiful, we couldn’t decide. Together with the Convent of Christ in Tomar, these 3 Unesco Sites alone are a good reason to come to this region. And they are only a one hour drive away from each other.
Visiting the monastery of Alcobaca, which is Portugal’s largest gothic church, gives you a great inside in how the life of the monks must have been. You can see the kitchen with its enormous chimney, seven dormitories, a small door to the refectory that made sure that the monks wouldn’t get to fat, and the immense church with sky high pillars. I, loving photography, especially enjoyed the orange trees, growing in the central yard of the Cloister of Silence, peeking through the gothic shaped windows. The green of the trees, whites and browns of the structures, red and orange of the roof and of course deep blue of the Portuguese sky are all a photographer’s heart wants.
10. Montesinho National Park
This national park made our list because it’s one of those places that are off the beaten track, unknown by the majority of tourists, but so worth your time and visit.
The park is situated in the far remote northeast corner of the country right next to the border with Spain. It is one of the few places in Portugal where there is still a stable population of the Iberian wolves. Not that we have seen one ;-). But the park offers far more than only the wolves. The nature is stunningly beautiful, with oak and pine forests, mountains with nice river canyons and valleys, rolling hills with ackers and lots of birds and mammals to spot.
Surrounded by this overwhelming nature live more than 800 people all concentrated in some little villages where time stood still. They live mainly off agriculture. Rio de Onor is one of these characteristic towns you should pay a visit.