Porto had been on my bucket list for ages. I was longing to see the colorful tiled buildings and try that famous local wine. When I started researching the destination, however, I quickly realized how much there was to do in the surrounding area. I therefore decided to turn my city break into a northern Portugal road trip. Keep reading for my tips and tricks for the perfect vacation in northern Portugal.
1 | Chaves
I loved the historic landmarks dotted around this Roman thermal spring town. Look out for the Latin inscriptions when you’re crossing Trajan’s Bridge, before relaxing in the hottest natural springs in the Iberian Peninsula. Being a foodie, I also had to try the local presudo ham, a special kind of dry-cured jam similar to prosciutto. I washed it down with a glass of wine from the nearby village of Boticas, which has a strange tradition of burying its bottles!
2 | Côa Valley
The valley’s main attraction is its archaeological park, which protects rock art dating back 30,000 years. I took a night time tour, when the artwork and carvings show up really well under the guide’s torch.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to make the most of the valley. If you have more time to spare, be sure to check out some of its villages. I’ve heard the manor houses in Castelo Melhor and Almendra are well worth exploring!
3 | Vila Nova de Gaia
Yes, I loved Porto, but I was equally impressed by the city on the opposite side of the river. Don’t miss out on the cable car to the top of Serra do Pilar hill. As well as incredible views over Porto, I found great walking routes to a 16th-century monastery and the peaceful Jardmin do Morro public gardens. Back at ground level, I’d recommend heading to the small fishing village of Afurada, where you’ll find the best seafood around in the marina’s restaurants.
4 | Viseu
This city is perfect whatever the weather. If the sun’s shining, spend a few hours strolling around the Parque do Fontelo. As well as scenic walking paths, you’ll find a skate park, swimming pools, tennis courts, and more! If the weather’s not on your side, check out Palácio do Gelo. I’m not normally one for shopping malls when in a new city, but I was pleasantly surprised. The elegant design and natural light made this feel more like a historic site than a shopping center. I browsed some of the 160 shops, before treating myself in the spa. Yes, you heard me correctly, a mall with its own spa!
5 | Figueira da Foz
Located halfway between the southern capital of Lisbon and the northern city of Porto, the resort town of Figueira da Foz is the perfect stop off for anyone exploring Portugal by car. It’s home to one of Europe’s widest beaches, a huge working port, and is a great surfing spot. My favorite sandy stretch was Claridade; however, it can get pretty rowdy and is popular with families, owing to its boardwalk and restaurants.
6 | Peneda-Gerês National Park
I’m always on the lookout for scenic hiking routes while on vacation and Peneda-Gerês did not disappoint! The best trails lead out of the park’s villages. I started at Soajo, the largest village in the park, and passed an old sanctuary and traditional grain mills. If you’re more of an adrenaline junkie, you can explore one of the park’s four mountain ranges or climb to the highest peak (1,500m). I preferred to stay relatively close to ground level, spotting animals like gray wolves, roe deer, and boars.
7 | Douro Valley
Tourists typically explore the Douro Valley’s famous vineyards by boat. There are lots of tour operators in the region, which will stop off at family-run wineries. There, you can learn about the wine making process, try some samples, and even press some grapes yourself!
I suffer from sea sickness, so decided to stick to my own two feet. I’d recommend hiking to one of the several viewpoints, such as São Salvador do Mundo. There, you’ll find the best panoramic views of the river, as well as a set of small chapels. You can also stroll around the Parque Arqueológico do Vale do Côa to see rock art similar to that in the Côa Valley.
8 | Coimbra
Prepare yourself for the 180 steps to Coimbra’s amazing university! You’ll be taken aback by its old library, peaceful courtyard, and botanic garden, with exotic trees and colorful floral displays.
Other than the university, there’s not much to do in this sleepy city and I definitely wouldn’t recommend spending more than a day there. If you’ve got a few hours to spare, there are a couple of interesting museums. Alternatively, you could enjoy a peaceful stroll around the hilltop Penedo da Saudade gardens for beautiful views over the Mondego River.
9 | Castelo Branco
From the medieval Old Town to the 13th-century Castelo e Muralhas, there are plenty of historic sights to enjoy in Castelo Branco. To be honest I’d kind of had enough of the past, and wanted to enjoy the present! I therefore decided to take a stroll around the pleasant Jardim do Paço, where I enjoyed neat hedges, fountains, and statues. After quickly checking out the castle, I also walked over to the nearby Miradouro de São Gens viewpoint with its old fountain, classic blue tiles, and amazing views of the surrounding olive groves.
10 | Porto
I saved the best until last! The city definitely exceeded all my (very high) expectations. As I mentioned, I’m a massive foodie, so I adored the Ribeira neighborhood, with its tasty restaurants offering stunning river views. Since I sadly didn’t have time for a wine cellar tour, I also tried as many local wines as I could in this popular district.
Over in the older part of town, I’d recommend climbing to the top of the Clérigos Tower. I was absolutely exhausted after the 225-step climb, but it was worth it for the views over the city. I then relaxed and recovered with a picnic in the gorgeous Crystal Palace Gardens, before strolling along its several walkways, passing impressive sculptures and its huge glass pavilion.