The secret is out – Portugal is now one of the most visited countries in Europe. Yep, a whopping 26.5 million of us dropped by in 2022 and that number is only expected to grow throughout the 2020s. The thing is, the vast majority of people who holiday here stick to just a few places: The sun-splashed Algarve, bumping Lisbon, the surf breaks of Ericeira. To dodge them, check out our list of hidden gems in Portugal…
It’s a list that skips over the bar strips of Albufeira and the trodden walks of Porto’s UNESCO core, all to hunt out places that aren’t on the covers of travel mags, and don’t don the fronts of Portugal postcards. We think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what’s on the menu…
From medieval settlements to fairy-tale castles to thermal springs, our hidden gems in Portugal are an eclectic mix. They’re located all over, both up between the lush mountains on the Spanish border and down in the balmy Algarve. There are beaches and highland escapes, and even cool resort towns where you can glug cold vinho verde to the sunset.
Costa Nova, Aveiro
Looking like something plucked straight out of the Florida Keys, Costa Nova is marked by its rows of colorful, striped houses. They were once used to store fishing equipment but are now one of the town’s top attractions. Costa Nova is located three kilometers south of Barra, and although its unique holiday homes are postcard perfect, it is still a small, laidback fishing town squashed onto a tiny strip of land between the sea and the Aveiro lagoon.
The narrow sandbar peninsula where Costa Nova is located shelters the Ria de Aveiro, or Aveiro lagoon – an enchanting wildlife area where seawater mingles with freshwater, creating salt marshes and unique habitats for diverse wildlife. Even though Costa Nova has the Atlantic on its other side, the lagoon is a fisherman’s paradise, and the freshly caught shellfish – edible crab, goose barnacles, coastal shrimp – are all prepared and sold at the Costa Nova Fish Market (a must for foodies).
Still, Costa Nova has a close relationship with the Atlantic Ocean that lives at its feet. Costa Nova’s rolling dunes of white sand can feel endless. Never crowded, the long stretch of beach is perfect for sunset walks and bird watching. The rough waters are also no stranger to surfers and you can even sail and windsurf in the Aveiro Estuary on the other side of Costa Nova’s coastal road.
Ponte de Lima, Alto Minho
Nestled in Portugal’s northwest corner, Alto Minho is the country’s greenest area. Situated between the Lima and Minho Rivers, the region is home to Portugal’s only national park (more on that later) and encompasses several mountain ranges and charming isolated villages. Ponte de Lima is one of those. It’s known as the oldest village in Portugal and is named after the long medieval bridge that crosses the River Lima next to the town.
The ancient bridge was first constructed in the year 1AD by the Romans and was the only crossing point on the pilgrimage route from Braga to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Although restored in the Middle Ages, five of the 13 arches are original Roman constructions. Still, this isn’t the only important piece of heritage tied to the town. Ponte de Lima is the center for Vinho Verde wine production in Portugal.
The fizzy fermented wine, which literally translates as “green wine”, is made from a blend of native Portuguese grapes and is released without being aged. Wine production dates back to the 17th century in Alto Minho, and Ponte de Lima, along with its surrounding vineyards, is the perfect place for some destination wine tasting.
Winding alleys, cozy cafés, decadent mansions, and leafy outskirts oozing Romance are all on the agenda here. Kayaking and paddle trips along the River Lima, as well as eco-trails, bike paths, and even thermal springs, are also popular day trips from the town.
Vila Nove de Milfontes, Alentejo
The days of Comporta being somewhat of an undiscovered gem are in the past, thanks to its A-list visitors and hippy-chic appeal. If you’re driving to the south coast from Portugal’s capital, skip the bohemian seaside haven and head to Vila Nova de Milfontes instead, one of Alentetejo’s friendliest and most underrated towns.
Vila Nova de Milfontes is a popular summer haunt with locals, but it’s largely unknown beyond Portugal’s borders. Pretty squares, sun-bleached houses, and a tiny 16th-century castle are all emblematic of the old town, and dazzling white sand-beaches fringe the nearby coast.
The restaurants here are also worth mentioning, as Vila Nova de Milfontes is a great place to savor Alentejan food and enjoy the freshest seafood feasts accompanied by fitting sea views. Somehow, the town retains its relaxed atmosphere, even in the summer months.
Vila Nova de Milfontes lies in the Mira River estuary, providing shelter from Atlantic winds and waves. The river’s own set of pristine white beaches line the banks where the Mira flows into the sea. The landscape and wildlife of the unique ecosystems there are best enjoyed from a quiet boat going upstream.
Trancoso, Beira Alta
Portugal probably isn’t the first country in Europe that comes to mind when you picture crumbling castles and fortress towns. Still, that only makes Beira Alta and its fairytale landscapes even more appealing.
Sun-bleached plains punctuated by river valleys and hilltop villages are characteristic of Beira Alta, but the region is far less explored than some other castle-rich areas of western Europe. The province is located close to the Spanish border and so has a rich history, riddled by Moorish and Spanish invasions, but for this, it has its defensive towns and ancient architecture to thank.
Trancoso is one of the highlights. King Dinis married Isabel of Aragon in Beira Alta in 1282 and the dowry included 12 castles and four towns, one being Trancoso. Despite its heritage, Trancoso is a sleepy place but within its 13th-century walls, a tangle of squares, churches, and narrow streets are contained.
The center has been barely altered since the 1400s and at the northeast corner, Trancoso’s landmark castle perches atop a hill in its medieval and heavily fortified glory. The panoramic views demonstrate why the town was constructed here, as the highest plateau in the region. Trancoso was also home to a large Jewish community in the Middle Ages and Jewish symbols and icons can be spotted throughout the pretty cobblestone streets.
Located just 30 minutes west of Lisbon, Cascais was once a small fishing village and defense outpost. Later, it became one of Portugal’s first holiday destinations after attracting the likes of King Luis as early as 1870.
Cascais’s idyllic scenery continued to catch the attention of artists, writers, and high society throughout the 20th century. Yet, it returned to a somewhat hidden status in recent years, with destinations like the Algarve replacing Lisbon’s coast as Portugal’s premier beach destination. Today, Cascais is an unbeatable spot if you’re looking to score the perfect balance between a city break and a beach getaway.
Cascais is home to three spectacular bays, peppered with upscale restaurants, boutique hotels, and small, sheltered beaches. Cascais might be quiet compared to the big metropolis that’s just down the road, but it can still get pumping in the summer months, especially that gorgeous coastal promenade and its stretch of hip bars and casinos.
Check out the Conde de Castro Guimarães Museum, a former palace, for an impressive display of art and relics which recently opened to the public. Or try your hand at windsurfing or sailing in the gentle waves of the Atlantic.
Untrodden areas of the Algarve are practically impossible to stumble across, but the unassuming town of Alcoutim, home to Portugal’s lowest population density, is as close as you’re going to get. Alcoutim might be in the Algarve, but it is tucked away some 50 kilometers inland in the region’s northeastern corner. Alcoutin sits on the banks of the River Guadiana on the Portugal-Spain border.
The attractive waterside setting is one of Alcoutim’s biggest draw factors. The Guadiana becomes tidal at Alcoutim, and the town was actually founded when trade vessels were impelled to wait here for hours for the right river conditions to continue on with their journey. The centuries-old walls that once surrounded the town might be gone, but Alcoutim still has a surprising amount of history and there’s plenty of nature to enjoy.
Traditional houses, white-washed churches, open-air cafés, and the humble hermitage of Santo António at the riverside all help Alcoutim to retain its original charm. The steep narrow streets are surprisingly quiet for the Algarve and the town is also a great vantage point into Spain.
Berlengas Archipelago, Peniche
Considering that the small fishing village of Peniche is already a hidden gem, the windswept Berlengas Islands, located around 15 kilometers off the coast of Peniche, are a unique find if you’re after uncharted lands. The archipelago comprises three curious islands, namely Estelas, Farilhões, and Berlenga Grande, the latter being the largest and most emblematic of the chain.
The Berlangas Islands are craggy and barren, with dramatic cliffs, hidden caves, unique flora, and protected wildlife. They’ve been visited and briefly inhabited by Moors, Vikings, pirates, and British mariners over the last 3,000 years, but there is no permanent habitation in the archipelago today, even though Berlanga Grande is home to a hotel, museum, and a restaurant.
The bumpy boat from Peniche only adds to the adventure, and swimming in the waters around Estelas and Farilhões exposes snorkelers to unique marine life and geology that you won’t find elsewhere on the Portuguese coast. There’s also a fort and lighthouse on Berlenga Grande, but in the low season, you could be the only visitor. Be sure to book a private transfer because the ferry routes and hotel are only up and running in the summer months.
Peniche is around one hour from Lisbon, and the 45-minute boat ride to Berlangas is usually booked as part of a half-day trip through local companies in the village.
Aljezur has been hailed as the coolest surf town in the whole of Portugal. Mhmm, move over Ericeira. Take a back seat Peniche. This sleepy little cluster of cottages on the hillsides of the northern Algarve might just be the hidden gem you’ve been looking for, particularly if you planned to bring the board in tow.
First, let’s focus on the waves that await nearby. Aljezur is a gateway to a string of beaches in the wonderful Costa Vicentina. It sits some 15 minutes’ drive through a nature reserve from the coast itself, which means you’ll need wheels to access the sands and swells. But there’s oodles on the menu, from beginner-friendly Arrifana to the hardcore rights of Carrapateira.
Back in the center, you’ll navigate postbox-thin roads that zigzag up a steep slope over in the old town area. They eventually clamber up to an ancient Moorish castle that’s half ruined but still epic for sunset viewing across the snaking Aljezur River. Down below, there’s a cluster of surf shops and artisan pizza joints, plus a couple of chilled coffee bars. All very atmospheric.
Parque Nacional Peneda-Gerês, Trás-os-Montes
The sole national park in the whole of Portugal sits out of the limelight of the coastal resorts, far up between the wild ranges of hills and low mountains that mark the border with Spain in the north. It’s a land of high ridges and wiggling rivers, all framed by 10,000 shades of greenery as the pine woods cascade like waterfalls to the valley bottoms.
Not all that many travelers choose to come this way. Those who do usually aim to fly into Porto and then drive the 1.5 hours north through the ever-more-rustic roads that lead to the gateways to the park in Rio Caldo and sleepy Paradamonte, a hillside village with charming churches and maze-like roadways.
Once you’re inside the Parque Nacional Peneda-Gerês, look forward to umpteen adventure pursuits and other secret little POIs. Check out the ancient Roman bridge at Cava da Velha, thought to be nearly 2,000 years old. Hike to the Portela do Homem falls, where you can wild swim in crystal-clear water on a riverway that flows down from Spain.
Schist Villages, Beira
You could be forgiven for thinking that you’d been transported over to the sylvan valleys of Transylvania as you cruise into the sierras that host the Schist Villages. Deep in the highlands of central Portugal, this is a place unlike any other in the country – lush, green, almost alpine in appearance.
The Schist Villages themselves number 27 in all. They dot the ridges that peel off the southern end of the Serra da Estrela ranges. And boy are they pretty! We’re talking super-rustic clusters of cottages all made from dark schist stone, capped off with slate roofs, and woven together by crooked pathways caked in moss and lichen.
Each village has its own unique charm but there are a few that really stand out from the crowd. Check out Piodão for visions of a moody hamlet beset by terraced farm fields. Head to Talasnal, where you can view the mist gathering on the forested peaks above and enjoy farm-to-table food in one of the startout agro restaurants.
Costa da Caparica, Lisbon
The Costa da Caparica is hardly a secret, and it’s hardly hidden. The long, 14-mile coastline runs south of Lisbon in a show of perfectly yellow-tinged sand backed by endless dunes and shoreline hotels. Thousands of city dwellers will make the hop over here when the temperatures crank skywards in summer, all on the hunt for sea, sun, and cooling ocean breezes.
So, how does Costa da Caparica make it onto our list of Portugal’s hidden gems? Well…most people stay in the top two miles of it and never go any further. There are empty beaches, empty waves, and runs of undeveloped oceanside on the menu for those willing to branch out.
About six miles south of the Tagus estuary, which marks the end of Lisbon itself, you’ll enter a part of the Costa da Caparica that’s known for the Paisagem Protegida da Arriba Fóssil, a long ridge of ancient stone that’s filled with strata of fossilized remains from various geological epochs. Keep going and you’ll soon come to Bicas, a chilled coast town that has good surf breaks and a very low-key vibe. A car is necessary.
What is the cheapest area in Portugal?
Bragança, in northeast Portugal, is one of the cheapest cities in the country thanks to its student population, but Lisbon is also affordable for a European capital, thanks to the sheer diversity of budget hotels and cheap street food. Castelo Branco, best known for its embroidered linen, and Beja in Alentejo, are the cheapest places to buy property in Portugal.
Is Portugal safe?
Portugal is one of the safest countries in the world. This is mainly due to the stability of the political climate, something that the Portuguese government has maintained for years. The police force doesn’t have the best reputation, but the population is relatively obliging, and Portugal is a friendly and liberal place where English is widely spoken. Petty crime does happen in touristy areas, but overall crime rates are still very low and it’s a great solo travel destination.
What is the warmest area of Portugal?
The Algarve not only has the warmest climate in Portugal but one of the best in Europe. The Algarve experiences more days of sun than anywhere else in the country and the prevailing winds are a welcoming relief from the sweltering temperatures that exist from June to September. Still, the Algarve is beach-friendly most of the year. Average air temperatures hover around 75 degrees Fahrenheit, often hitting 90 in summer.