The 10 Best Small Towns in Portugal
Portugal has a surprising inventory of cross-cultural small towns that are both historic and charming, with whitewashed, tile-roofed houses winding around age-old streets that converge on ancient squares, offering quaint shops and eateries, colorful events that celebrate their respective heritage and popular markets that draw residents and visitors alike. And of the lot, here are 10 of the best small towns in Portugal.
A thoroughly endearing small town with red-roofed white-limestone houses and a medieval atmosphere, located within the walls of the Óbidos Castle. There are Roman remains and medieval architecture, with cobbled streets and ancient squares, all surrounded by the centuries-old city walls. The town also hosts a popular "Medieval Market" for two weeks every July, recreating the spirit of medieval Europe, with minstrels, jesters, jugglers, soldiers and merchants in period costumes, and jousting knights with heraldic flags.
Location: Oeste Subregion
One of Portugal's prettiest and most historic towns, and the last of the Templar towns, dating from the 12th century. The town is actually built inside the walls of the Convento de Cristo, and has, besides the ancient convent, a half-dozen old churches worth seeing, several buildings of note with Renaissance, Baroque and Romantic façades, and a historic center with charming little streets and squares that are organized on a chessboard-pattern grid. The town sits on the river Nabão.
Location: Tomar Municipality, Santarém District
The village of Sintra in Estremadura, as Lord Byron once wrote, "is the most beautiful in world." The centerpiece here is of course the Palacio Nacional da Pena, National Palace of Pena, which overlooks the town and is now a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Location: Grande Lisboa subregion, near Lisbon
Small town in the southwest corner of Portugal, Lagos offers fabulous, sun-drenched beaches, marinas filled with boats, a good selection of hotels and restaurants, and a vibrant nightlife, particularly during the summer tourist season, with wild parties and some of the edgiest bars and clubs you're likely to find in this part of the world. There's also no dearth of colonial architecture and other historic gems, and a legacy tied to Portugal's "Age of Discovery."
Location: Algarve Region, Faro District, in southern Portugal
The walled Middle-Ages town of Monsaraz sits above the River Guardiana on the border with Spain, and is one of the most atmospheric in all of Spain. There are ancient whitewashed houses winding along narrow, cobbled lanes, a massive castles that looms above the town, a parish church that adds to its Old Portugal atmosphere, and shopping opportunities in the nearby village of São Pedro do Corval which is known for its ceramics. Monsaraz is located in the Alentejo region in the vicinity of Évora.
Location: Alentejo region, near Portugal's border with Spain
Évora, though largely a Roman find, is a surprising amalgam of Baroque, Gothic, Romanesque, Renaissance and Manueline architecture, and a must-see for history and archeology buffs, with its ancient Temple of Diana and megaliths from 5000 BC. Also worth seeing here are the Évora Sé Cathedral and the eerie Capela dos Ossos – or Chapel of Bones!
Location: Alentejo Region, in south-central Portugal
Guimarães, a lovely little town in the northwestern part of Portugal, was once the Portuguese capital, and has an impressive array of 15th- to 19th-century buildings in its Historical Centre to show for it. There is also a 10th-century castle here, plus such gems as the Church of Nossa Senhora da Oliveira, the Santa Clara Convent and the Palace of the Duke of Braganca, all worth seeing. In 2012, Guimarães was anointed the European Capital of Culture.
Location: Ave Subregion, Braga District, in northwestern Portugal
Coimbra's main draw is its 13th-century university with magnificent old buildings, a library harking back to the Age of Enlightenment, and a lore that leaves visitors spellbound. As an added bonus, Conímbriga, one of the largest Roman settlements in Portugal, located just 10 miles (16 km) from Coimbra, offers in itself a fabulous showpiece of Roman digs, with an entire village unearthed and open to viewing.
Location: Centro Region, in central Portugal
Madeira is actually the main island of Portugal's Madeira archipelago, and its principal town is Funchal which tumbles down the volcanic slopes of the island to the periphery of the azure blue Funchal Harbor on the Atlantic. At once historic and urbanized, the town is a popular tourist destination, with the largest New Year's fireworks show in the world, and a memorable wine, Madeira, to boot.
Location: Island in the Autonomous regions of Portugal, 250 miles (400 km) north of Tenerife
Population: 112,000 (Funchal population)
Although not a small town, Porto warrants inclusion as a supremely historic city with a fabulous Historical Centre, cascading down a hillside to the edge of the delta of the Douro River. While mostly a working city, it has a magnificent cathedral to see, and several good museums, quaint shops and provincial restaurants to add to the visitor interest. It is also the center of the Port wine industry, a fact that has not been lost on the visitor to the city.
Location: Norte Region, on the northwest coast of Portugal
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