“Any Portuguese town looks like a bride’s finery - something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue,” wrote Mary McCarthy, renowned US novelist and activist.
Portugal is an untapped treasure. While most people have probably heard of the country (and its football team), it hasn’t been top of mind as a holiday destination. Tourists are usually drawn to neighbouring Spain, Italy and France where there have been long standing efforts to promote tourism.
Things started to change when Portugal was named the World’s Leading Destination at the World’s Travel Awards for three consecutive years (2017-2019). Official data also shows that the country is experiencing a post-pandemic tourist rebound.
Indeed, regardless of the purpose of your visit, Portugal’s rich history, heritage and tradition, alongside its gorgeous coastline, breathtaking nature and magnificent architecture, seem to offer something for everyone. The country’s tourism is gradually emerging from her long-sleep and getting a spot in the limelight. These are the things to do in Portugal, in case you are starting to get curious.
1. Take a day trip to Site Sintra - a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Sintra is a charming Portuguese town taken right out of a fairy tale where visitors can get a glimpse of Portuguese aristocracy. For centuries, the Portuguese aristocracy considered Sintra the imperial retreat destination because of its proximity to Lisbon and the cooler climate set on top of the hill.
Pena Palace (Palácio da Pena) is the most notable attraction in Sintra. The 19th century Romanticism style castle has bright red and yellow façades that make it look mythical from afar.
Yet, the national monument is lavishly detailed with a coat of glazed tiles called azulejos that draw tourists instantly to the opulence that was greatly resented by the Portuguese people, most of whom lived in extreme poverty, at the end of the 19th century.
There are several points of interest within the Palace, with the Queen’s terrace offering a splendid view of the entire region, including a 200ha royal garden and the majestic pine forest.
The Moorish Castle (Castelo dos Mouros) is a 15min walk from the Palace. Although it’s called a “castle”, only its ruins and medieval-era walls still stand today. The Moors ruled Portugal from the 8th to 12th centuries. This castle was strategically built to defend the Sintra region.
If you are keen on spending more time to explore palaces and castles in Sintra, you can dedicate more than one day to fully experience the sights that it has to offer. The woods and hiking trails through the hills that are peaceful and gorgeous, and definitely worth spending more time to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life.
How to get to Sintra
Sintra is ideal for a day trip from Lisbon. The easiest way to get to Sintra is by trains. There are services that leave from Lisbon’s Rossio station at least once every 30min. The train journey is 40minlong with a return ticket at the price of EUR4.60 (approximately S$6.50).
It’s advised to start the trip to Sintra as early in the day as possible because of her popularity. Most of the destinations in Sintra are accessible on foot via cobbled stone pathways.
2. “Hike and Swim” in the Azores
A trail into the lost world. Azores is an archipelago of nine islands situated in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The volcanic islands are known for its rich flora and fauna as well as its dramatic landscapes.
Hiking is one of the most preferred activities in the Azores. There are over 60 hiking trails suitable for visitors of different ages and levels of fitness.The adventurous ones may climb through the hot and dry, but wonderfully mineral-rich, soil of Pico. The highest peak of Portugal offers a bird eye’s view of the nearby islands and waterfalls.
The Azores is also famous for its geothermal springs. The pool inside the Terra Nostra Garden is the largest and most renowned of all. The mineral infused water is rich in iron that makes it look golden from afar.
Don’t leave without trying Cozido, a kind of Azorean meat stew cooked using geothermal heat.
Another cool spot to visit in the area is Ponta da Ferraria, where the hot spring meets the sea. Temperatures in this part of the water differ during high and low tides. It’s recommended to visit at low tide, so you can feel the heated water. You can check the latest Ponta da Ferraria tide forecast so that you can time your visit during the low tide periods..
How to get to Azores
Azores is considered an autonomous region of Portugal. All Azores islands, including the tiny Corvo, have an airport.
Major European cities like London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Barcelona and Frankfurt offer direct flights at certain times of the year. If not, visitors may opt to fly from Lisbon or Porto. It’s also possible to fly from one Azores island to another. This website offers an updated and comprehensive overview on the flights to and within Azores.
Besides, there are more than 280 ferry services running each week across 47 routes to Azores. Sail times and prices vary depending on which island you are travelling to and the season of your travel. You may wish to compare ferry prices and schedules on this website.
Once you arrive in Azores, you may wish to explore different parts of the island on foot (as mentioned, hiking is a great way to explore Azores) or by car. Car rental starts from US$18 (approximately S$25) per day.
3. Take a tram ride down the scenic streets of Lisbon
If you could do only one thing in Lisbon, that must be to take a ride on the tram. Lisbon’s first electric tramway commenced operations in 1901 – it’s an integral part of the capital’s bus and metro systems.
Lisbon trams come with two designs: the nostalgic yellow Remodelado trams and the modern electric Articulado trams. The Articulado trams can carry more passengers but they can only travel on the flatter part of the city.
Tram services and routes
Visitors will find the Articulado trams operating on the E15 route, which connects central Lisbon to the historic Belém district. E15 also stops by the scenic Santo Amaro Docks, where there is a wide selection of restaurants and bars with open seating.
As E15 is also one of the most used routes, it’s often jam packed. Visitors are advised to watch out for skilful pickpockets. Essentials like anti-theft wallets can go a long way in keeping your items secure.
Of all routes, E28 is best for sightseeing as it takes passengers to the city’s landmarks and beautiful streets like the charming run-down Bairro Alto and the artistic neighbourhood of Chiado.
In case E28 gets too crowded, visitors may hop onto E12. It follows some of E28’s route and also passes through Alfama, the oldest district of Lisbon that offers an unblocked view of the Tagus River.
A single tram ticket can be purchased on board from the driver at the cost of EUR3 (approximately S$4.20). There are ticket machines on the Articulado trams, but one needs to have the exact change.
The other option is to buy a 24-hour public transport ticket at any metro station at the price of EUR6.40 (approximately S$9) that includes unlimited journey on tram, bus, and metro. The ticket also covers the fee for the Elevador da Glória and Elevador de Santa Justa – the two neo-gothic elevators that still stand in the city.
4. Savour a Portuguese egg tart and admire the architecture in Belém
Don’t mistake Belém, the Brazilian city for the Belém district in Lisbon. This is where one would get the most authentic Portuguese egg tarts, Pastel de nata (or Pastel de Belém as the Southerner would call).
Many believe this representative sweet treat was invented by Hieronymite monks in the mediaeval times, and they are still guarding the secret recipe. The public came to know of the pastry during the 1820 liberal revolution, when someone from the monastery offered to sell them in a shop in Belém for survival.
Today, a small pastry shop called Pastéis de Belém is where visitors would go to satisfy their egg tart cravings. Apart from food, the Belém district is a step back in time from Lisbon’s modernity. In the 16th century, explorers set off from the mouth of Tagus River to discover sea routes to East Africa, Brazil, and India.
The Belém district is a museum neighbourhood. Some of the notable ones include Museu Nacional dos Coches, which showcases carriages from the 17th and 19th centuries; Museo da Marinha, with a large maritime collection, and MAAT (Museum of the Art, Architecture, and Technology), a futuristic looking disc-shaped structure overlooking the river.
Belém also has three of the capital’s resplendent historic sites – Padrão dos Descobrimentos, Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (Jerónimos Monastery) and Torre de Belém (Belém Tower). Whether you are romanticising a walk along the river or admiring the spectacular monuments, the Belém district evolves a gentler vibe as compared to central Lisbon.
How to get to Belém district
The best way to get to Belém district from central Lisbon is by tram. Tram service E15 departs from Praça da Figueira (Fig Tree Square), the large square in the centre of Lisbon and it passes by Praça do Comércio, one of the largest, harbour-facing plazas in Portugal. The tram journey takes about 15min. A single tram ticket can be purchased on board from the driver at the cost of EUR3 (approximately S$4.20).
5. A cruise along the Douro River
Porto, the second largest city in Portugal, is a historic treasure. Its existence traces back to the 12th century. This is where Douro River enters the country and the world-famous Port and Douro wines were born.
Much of Porto’s life revolves around the Douro River, which flows through the city centre and crosses six handsome bridges, including the iconic Dom Luís I. Thus, a boat trip on Douro is the best way to learn about the city.
Visitors may set sail on the traditional Rabelo. The wooden cargo boats used to ferry barrels from the vineyards to the inner cities. Other modern boat tours cover all the six bridges and take visitors to the mouth of the Douro River.
Foz do Douro is where Douro leaves for the Atlantic Ocean. The peaceful district has a concrete walkway that leads to Farolim da Barra do Douro, a dazzling lighthouse. This is also a lovely spot to catch the sunset.
Booklovers may recognise The Livraria Lello, Portugal’s most famous bookstore, situated in the heart of Porto. The neo Gothic style and Art Nouveau design bookstore is known to have inspired J.K. Rowling, the author of the renowned Harry Potter series.
Where to take the Rabelo
In Porto, a Douro River cruise on a Rabelo is also known as the Six Bridges Cruise. These cruises depart from Riberia, a lively and picturesque neighbourhood in Porto, crossing under all the city’s six bridges up until the river mouth that leads into the Atlantic Ocean. It’s recommended to book the boat ride in advance as it’s extremely popular.
The cheapest 50min long ride costs around EUR15 (approximately S$21). Visitors may also wish to book a combined ticket to the cruise, a Port wine cellar tour and a sightseeing bus around the city for EUR30 (approximately S$42).
How to get to Porto
The best way to get to Porto from Lisbon is by train. There are frequent services connecting the country’s capital to her second largest city.
The train ride lasts about 2h 40min to 3h 10min, depending on whether you are opting for the Alfa Pendular high speed trains or intercity trains which have more stops along the way.
All train services between Lisbon and Porto are operated by Comboios de Portugal (CP), the national railway company. A one way advance-booked ticket costs about EUR15 (approximately S$21).
Otherwise, a regular one-way intercity train ticket costs EUR25 (approximately S$35) while an Alfa Pendular high speed train ticket is about EUR31 (approximately S$43.50). Many of the trains to Porto depart from Lisbon’s Lisboa Santa Apolonia station, which is located near the Alfama district and is accessible by the Blue Metro line (Linha Azul).
In Porto, all trains arrive at the Porto Campanha station, which is some distance from the city centre. Visitors may wish to take a connecting train to the centrally located Sao Bento station or to other parts of the city via the A (blue), B (red), C (green), and F (orange) metro lines.
Bus is a relatively cheaper option to get to Porto from Lisbon. The journey takes about 3h 30min. If visitors book in advance, a one-way ticket costs around EUR9 (approximately S$12.60) only. The regular price is about EUR19 (approximately S$26.50).
The Lisbon-Porto bus services are operated by Rede Expressos, the largest long-distance bus company in Portugal. Buses depart from Lisbon from the Sete Rios station, next to the Jardim Zoologico metro station on the Blue Metro Line (Linha Azul).
The bus station in Porto is located at Campo 24 de Agosto, which is within walking distance from the metro station of the same name. Over here, visitors are able to get to different destinations within the city via the Metro.
6. Taste wine in Douro Valley
It’s impossible to leave Portugal without having a sip of Port, a kind of sweet wine that was first produced 2000 years ago. Only grapes that grow in the Douro Valley and aged in Vila Nova de Gaia (the area opposite of Porto on Douro River) can be classed as Port.
There are many Port houses in Vila Nova de Gaia and most of them have a tasting room near the river. A typical wine tasting walking tour in Vila Nova de Gaia starts at around EUR39 (approximately S$54) per person. The tour includes a visit to three wine houses and 10 tastings.
Another way to enjoy Port wine is to visit the nearby Douro Valley. The area is characterised by steep terraces, grape vines and centuries old wine estates (quintas). It’s also one of Europe’s most famous wine regions.
The wine tasting sessions in the Douro Valley are believed to be more exclusive and economical compared to Vila Nova de Gaia. Visitors will have a chance to immerse in and learn more about Portugal wine-making traditions.
Wine producers in the region can’t wait to show visitors what they have got. It’s recommended to be sure of your personal preferences and make an advance arrangement to avoid disappointment. Some of the major Port producers for consideration include Sandeman, Cálem, Graham’s and Quinta do Noval.
A wine tasting tour in the Douro Valley lasts at least half a day long. This usually includes lunch, a visit to at least two wine estates, and an hour-long relaxing boat ride on a Rabelo to admire the whole valley. Price starts at around EUR95 (approximately S$132.50) per person.
7. Learn the birth story of Portugal in Guimarães
If you are into European history and plan to spend some time in the Porto region, arrange a day trip to the birthplace of Portugal. Guimarães is where the first King of Portugal, Afonso I, was born. This is also where a series of political and military events that led to the country’s establishment in 1128 took place.
Guimarães was briefly the capital city in the early years of Portugal's independence. The area is seen as a cradle to uncover Portuguese heritage and her illustrious past. In fact, as soon as you arrive in Guimarães, you will see bold white letters that say “Aqui Nasceu Portugal” (translated as ‘Here Portugal was born’).
Guimarães is compact, with mediaeval plazas and narrow streets closely parked within walking distance. Even if you are not into ancient Portugal, Guimarães is a great place to admire unique mediaeval architecture that you won’t get elsewhere.
Visitors may begin their exploration at the mediaeval quarter around three plazas – Largo da Oliveira, Largo República do Brasil and Largo do Toural. All of which are picturesque with a maze of cooblestreets.
Others may head to the cable car for Penha Hill (Monte da Penha), the highest point of Guimarães for a bird eye’s view of the city. Have your monopod ready to capture clicks never seen before!
How to get to Guimarães
The train journey from Porto to Guimarães takes about 1h and 15mins. It’s recommended to stay a night here or plan the trip around train times as trains only leave once every two hours in the afternoon. A return ticket from Porto to Guimarães is EUR6.50 (approximately S$9.15).
8. Visit enchanting beaches
Portugal has an impressive 832km of coastline. Naturally, a visit to the seaside should be on the itinerary. Aside from the most-visited Madeira, Praia do Camilo is one of most enchanting beaches in Lagos, the popular beach-hopping town in the Southern Portugal Algarve region.
Visitors can have a panoramic view of the horizon on the cliff top at Praia do Camilo. They can also meander down the 200 steps wooden staircases to the golden sand and turquoise sea. The area is excellent for sunbathing and snorkelling, so even though it’s small and secluded, it gets rather popular during summer.
Praia do Camilo is also a short walk to Point of Mercy (Ponta da Piedade), where an idyllic cluster of rock formations, natural arches and caves are. Visitors may join a boat tour or kayak session for a fuller water experience.
There aren't any facilities like showers and toilets in the beach area, so make sure you settle your needs before descending the stairs. However, O Camilo is a popular restaurant for tourists who want a view with their meals. Overlooking Praia do Camilo, O Camilo offers not only beautiful sea views but also high-quality seafood at affordable prices.
Technically, it’s possible to swim from one arch structure or rock formation to the next. However, do note that the water gets rough from time to time due to the incoming waves. There is usually a lifeguard on duty during summer.
How to get to Lagos
Lagos is 250km south of Lisbon. Even though Lagos is one of the popular holiday destinations in the Algarve region, there is no direct train service between Lisbon and Lagos. One must stop for a quick train change in Tunes.
The whole journey takes about four hours. A regular one-way intercity train ticket costs EUR25 (approximately S$35) while an Alfa Pendular high speed train ticket is about EUR30 (approximately S$41.80).
There are also a total of five different bus routes running between Lisbon and Lagos. The fastest services take about 3h 45mins while the slower ones take 4h 55mins.
Ticket prices range from EUR19 (approximately S$26.50) to EUR36 (approximately S$50.10) depending on which bus service provider visitors are going for. At the moment, Rede Expressos, Eva Tranportes and RENEX bus take visitors from Sete Rios bus station, the main bus station of Lisbon to Terminal Rodoviario, the bus station in the historic centre of Lagos.
Feeling inspired? And this isn’t the full list – drop in favourites like Coimbra, Nazare waves, Benagil Cave and the Madeira islands, and you’d be spoilt for choice when it comes to things to do in Portugal. Don’t forget to bring this must-do list and expand it with your personal favourites. Vejo você em Portugal! (See you in Portugal!)
Things to take note while travelling in Portugal
Portugal is in the Euro zone and is one of the European Union member states. Singaporeans do not need to apply for any visa for visits of less than 90 days.
You must provide your vaccination certificate at point of entry to be exempt from presenting a COVID-19 test screening.
Entry to Portugal without a vaccination certificate is only allowed for essential reasons such as academic, professional, family, health or humanitarian reasons. You must present proof of PCR valid for 72 hours and a Rapid Antigen Test valid for 24 hours, with a negative result.
Children 12 years and below do not need a certificate nor test proof.
English is widely spoken in Lisbon, Porto and Algarve. However, it’s less so outside these three major zones and possibly none in small towns and villages.
It’d be helpful to pick up some basic Portuguese before your trip. Phases such as bom dia (good morning), bom noite (good night), quanto custa (how much is it), Cadê (where is) and ajude-me (help me) may come in handy during your visit.
When ordering coffee in Portugal, please note that one will be served an espresso when they ask for a “café”. Some visitors may find the taste too strong. Hence, it’s recommended to go for meia de leite (coffee with milk) or a galão (a shot of espresso with triple the milk).
- Watch out for your personal belongings in busy streets and beaches
- Remember to wearor bring along a pair of comfortable footwear. While major Portuguese cities are well-connected by public transport, visitors may find themselves walking on cobblestone streets in certain mediaeval towns or on the hilly Lisbon.
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Best time to travel
Portugal is safe and tourist-friendly all-year round. However, if you do not wish to find yourself in crowds, do avoid visiting the country during the summer holidays (between July and August).
Portugal’s currency is the Euro. You can buy currencies at real-time exchange rates and collect your currencies at Changi Airport using Changi Recommends FX.
Presently, there’s no direct flight from Singapore Changi Airport to Lisbon or Porto. Visitors will have to transit at other major European airports for connecting flights into Portugal. When travelling within Portugal, you can easily avail their buses, trains and trams.