Apart from Porto, Northern Portugal is often forgotten by international tourists. However, as Portuguese who have traveled extensively in our country, we know that Northern Portugal is probably the most authentic region, with a wide range of interesting destinations. If you’re planning a trip to Portugal, you should reserve at least a few days to discover this fascinating region. Let’s dive into the most interesting things to do in Northern Portugal, and what you should know when planning when, where, and how to visit.
Porto is the biggest city and the main travel hub in northern Portugal. However, until a few years ago it was forgotten by tourism, but in the last 10 years, that has changed. Porto has been considered the best European destination three times by major international outlets, and the Historic Center of Porto is now a UNESCO world heritage site.
Today, tourists travel to Porto to enjoy the exquisite food, the beautiful views, and the charm of its historic center. Ribeira is probably the most famous area in Porto with its old houses, narrow alleys, the Douro river, and D. Luis Bridge. Nevertheless, we strongly advise you to visit some other important attractions, too, like the neoclassical Stock Exchange building, the Cathedral, Clérigos Tower, the modernist House of music, and Porto’s city park.
The best way to explore Porto is via walking and day tours. Our favorites include:
Guimarães is located 50 km north of Porto and it’s regarded as the birth of the Portuguese nation due to the fact that the Battle of São Mamede was fought there, which is considered the crucial event for the foundation of Portugal.
In Guimarães, the two main buildings are the Castle of Guimarães and the Palace of the Dukes of Bragança. The castle was initially built in the 10th century and it has a big national significance, while the Palace of the Dukes is a 15th century impressive manor house with majestic rooms.
Nevertheless, the biggest reason this is one of the best places to visit in Northern Portugal is because Guimarães has an extraordinarily well preserved old town filled with beautiful squares, cobbled streets, quaint alleys, and churches. Guimarães has also been a UNESCO world heritage site since 2001.
Despite being one of the oldest Portuguese cities, Braga is also one of the liveliest, mainly because of its University. Located in Minho about 55 Km north of Porto, Braga was always a very prominent city. During Roman times, Braga (Bracara Augusta) was the capital of the province of Gallaecia, and later on Braga became the first Portuguese Diocese.
Braga’s Cathedral was built in the 12th century by the parents of Portugal’s first King, D. Henrique, and D. Teresa, who were later buried there. This cathedral is the oldest in Portugal and it’s also called the Treasure Museum. One of the most pleasant things one can do in Braga is leisurely stroll around the historic center to visit the many churches and admire the houses and historical buildings.
Chaves is located in Tras os Montes, very close to the Spanish border. The around Chaves is a key place to visit as it’s famous for being a great thermal region, offering travelers several spas and thermal baths. Chaves has been recognized by the excellent quality of the thermal springs and the healing properties of the water since the Roman times. In fact, one of the city’s top attractions are the Roman baths.
Chaves has also been strategically important for centuries since it was the first defense against invaders. The medieval castle, its keep, and the whole medieval quarter contained within the city walls are the remaining testimony to the city’s defensive importance.
Some of the other attractions not to miss in Chaves include the Trajano Roman bridge, the beautiful floral balconies in the old town, and the ducal palace. Finally, when visiting Chaves, don’t forget to try the local specialties: Pastel de Chaves, the hams, and sausages.
5. Gerês National Park
Gerês National Park is located in the extreme north of Portugal, bordering Spain. It’s about an hour and 30 minutes from Porto, and it’s the only national park in Portugal. Gerês is a nature wonderland featuring lush woods, waterfalls, and lakes. However, it’s also home to traditional villages with very unique settings and cultural heritage.
One of the best ways to explore Gerês is by hiking through the park’s several trails and discovering hidden viewpoints, cascades, and river lakes. For adventurous travelers there’s evening canyoning. And if it’s warm enough ,one can even dive into the water to refresh!
Some of the most famous (and beautiful) attractions in Gerês National Park are:
- Pedra Bela Lookout: One of the most beautiful lookouts in Portugal.
- Albergaria Forest: The heart of Gerês National Park.
- Tahiti Waterfalls: Possibly the most beautiful of the many falls in Gerês.
- Misarela Bridge: An incredible bridge hidden in a canyon.
Here are four key tours to consider to get the most out of a visit to Gerês National Park:
6. Douro Valley
The Douro valley is a big region where the Douro river snakes through the hills of vineyards creating incredibly scenic views. One of the things we love about the Douro Valley is that you can visit it in different ways. One can have a river cruise, a road trip, a train trip, a helicopter ride, or even explore it by bike! Each way you visit it is different, but it’s always a wonderful experience.
The vineyards in the Douro Valley produce the famous Port wine, and the whole region has been a UNESCO heritage site since 2001. While visiting the Douro Valley, some of the mandatory stops are Pocinho, Pinhão, Peso da Régua, and Miranda do Douro.
There are a lot of ways to enjoy the Douro Valley on a tour from Porto. Here are three we recommend!
7. Viana do Castelo
Viana do Castelo is located in the north of Portugal, about one hour from Porto, at the mouth of Lima River. Located on a mountaintop is Santa Luzia Basilica and its panoramic views are our favorite things in Viana do Castelo. The church itself is iconic and would be enough for a visit, but its location and the lookout over the city, the Lima River, and the ocean is majestic.
The beaches close to Viana do Castelo are also very nice, however, the water is cold—very cold!—even in Summer. Finally, Gil Eannes is a former Portuguese hospital ship that was converted into a very interesting museum and a youth hostel. It’s a very different attraction, but one that we strongly advise you to check and even spend a night, if you can.
You can visit Viana independently, or you can join a multi-day tour that provides comfortable transportation around this less visited area of Portugal.
Book a Multi-Day Tour: Porto Multi-Day Tour: 5 Days in Northern Portugal
Amarante is a sleepy village beautifully located on the bank of Tamega River. The picturesque Saint Gonçalo bridge and the beautiful church next to it are the most important features of the historic center, while the garden park by the Tamega river gives Amarante the special touch that makes this village so appealing.
The small cobbled alleys and the balconied houses lend a medieval and even romantic touch to Amarante. Walking through the village is definitely the best way to visit it, and while doing so you might as well try some of its famous conventual pastry. If you like sweets and pastries, you’re in for a treat!
9. Ponte de Lima
Ponte de Lima is known in Portugal as the oldest “vila” (town/municipality) in the country. It’s also a very well know foodie destination, with plenty of traditional northern Portugal food. Among these, one particular dish stands out “arroz de sarrabulho,” a unique and traditional pork and rice stew featuring a very particular ingredient: pork’s blood. It’s one of those things—you either love it or … can’t even try it …
Discover the history of Vinho Verde on a Foodie Tour: Vinho Verde Small Group Tour: Visit Ponte de Lima, Wine Tastings & Lunch
10. Paiva Walkways
The Paiva walkways (passadiços do Paiva in Portuguese) are probably the most famous trail in Portugal. They are located in the municipality of Arouca, about 65 km south-east of Porto, along with the left bank of the Paiva River.
The walkways are about 8 km long and provide a nature trail through the beautiful landscape along the Paiva River. The route stretches from the river beaches of Areinho and Espiunca, lying between them, the Vau beach. During the trail walk you can also observe the Aguieiras waterfalls, the rapids, and the gorge of the Paiva River. Please note that despite not being very long, this is a very steep trail, which makes it quite difficult and you should be prepared for the hike!
The city of Aveiro is located about 50 km south of Porto in the mouth of the Vouga River, the Aveiro Lagoon. Aveiro is usually dubbed as the Portuguese Venice because of its high-prowed boats, bridges, and the network of picturesque canals. Like almost every Portuguese town, Aveiro is best visited by foot, though its canals make a tour with the traditional boats (moliceiros) an incredible experience.
While visiting Aveiro, one needs to visit the colorful Costa Nova, a stretch of sandy beach best known for its strip painted houses, and the nearby dunes in the Natural reserve of São Jacinto.
12. Pitões de Júnias
This very small village is still located in Peneda-Gerês National Park but it’s so far from most of the other attractions in Gerês it needs a feature as one of the best places all by itself. In fact, it isn’t only far from the rest of Gerês, it’s far from everything in Portugal. But that’s one of its key appeals.
Pitões de Júnias isn’t your usual travel destination—it doesn’t really receive many tourists, yet it’s a marvelous soothing place. There are two main attractions in Pitões de Junias, an old decrepit monastery, and a nice waterfall with a trail leading to it. The monastery was built in the 9th century and it’s no longer in use. Yet it’s such a wonderful sight and a great place to explore that makes the trip to Pitões de Júnias worth it.
13. Foz Coa
Foz Coa literally means the mouth of Coa (river) and it’s where the Coa River drains into the Douro. Despite its wonderful setting, Foz Coa only became a tourist attraction and one of the best places to visit in the last 20 years. While doing an environmental impact study for a dam, researchers discovered an astounding collection of Palaeolithic art.
In a hindsight, the archaeologists brought the petroglyphs to the world’s attention, the dam construction was canceled, the paintings became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and now Foz Coa is one of the most interesting things to visit in Portugal.
Explore the River Douro en Route on a Cruise to Foz a Barca D’Alva
Caminha is a small coastal located in the north west of Portugal on the banks of the Minho River. This is a cute old town that combines different architectural styles. In Caminha, a traveler should visit Rua Direita (which means straight street), the central square with its beautiful fountain, and the clocks town.
The beach at Caminha wraps around the coast and alongside the river giving beachgoers two options: the ocean or the river. Around 200 meters off the coast there’s the impressive (and picture-perfect) 17th century Forte de Insua. The beaches around Caminha are some of our favorite in northern Portugal—however, remember the water is very cold!
Discover the Minho Coast on a 4X4 Tour – Minho Coastal – Discover the coastline of Minho
15. Miranda do Douro
Miranda do Douro is a fortified frontier town, located on the bank of Douro river. In this region, the Douro river creates an impressive and dramatic gorge. The ruined castle and the Cathedral of Miranda do Douro give the town a medieval touch and charm.
One of the best things to do in Miranda do Douro is going on a river cruise through the Douro international natural park and enjoy the views. Miranda do Douro is also famous for its delicious “posta mirandesa,” an extremely tasty and large veal steak made from calves raised in this region.
How to Get Around
To truly hit all of these sites in a short time you’ll need to book a multi-day tour of Northern Portugal. A budget option includes: Porto Multi-Day Tour: 5 Days in Northern Portugal. Otherwise, there is a good bus network in the area, and you can often book private transport to the next city and then independently explore from there.
Where to Stay
When you’re booking your stay in Porto, which makes the best base consider these three hotel options for every budget:
- Zero Box Lodge on a mid-range budget
- Infante Sagres – Luxury Historic Hotel for an affordable splurge
- Hotel Paulista for those on a tight budget
By Jorge & Claudia Bastos
Jorge and Claudia are travel bloggers from Portugal who love to travel the world. They lived in Angola for three years and currently are traveling the globe. Their mission is to keep on discovering new countries and sharing their tips on smart and budget traveling on their site Travel Drafts.