Located in southern Europe, Portugal shares its only terrestrial border with Spain, otherwise surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean which has influenced the culture and cuisine for thousands of years. A warm climate, bountiful beaches, and sumptuous seafood specialties have all made Portugal one of Europe’s dreamiest summer retreats, but it has more to offer than the resorts and bars of Porto and the Algarve.
Crowds of tourists can rob anywhere of its authenticity, and Portugal’s bustling beach towns aren’t immune from this, especially in the high season. Sometimes you need to do as the locals do to really experience a new country, and you won’t have to look as far as you might think to find hidden gems in Portugal.
From medieval settlements to fairy castles to thermal springs, hidden Portugal is the gift that keeps on giving. Our guide uncovers all of the best places to explore and the unmissable things to do off the beaten track in Portugal. Let’s get into it.
Costa Nova, Aveiro
As if straight out of the Florida Keys, you’ll first be drawn to Costa Nova by its rows of colorful striped houses, once used to store fishing equipment and 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 fresh water, 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 from edible crab to goose barnacles, coastal shrimp, and welk, are all prepared and sold at the Costa Nova Fish Market.
Still, Costa Nova has a close relationship with the Atlantic Ocean that lives at its feet. Costa Nova’s rolling dunes of white sands 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 and encompasses several mountain ranges and charming isolated villages. Ponte de Lima is one of these. 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 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 with 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 Nove de Milfontes instead, one of Alentetejo’s friendliest and most underrated towns.
Vila Nove 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 are dotted long the coast.
The restaurants here are also worth mentioning, as Vila Nove de Milfontes is a great place to savor Alentejan food and enjoy the freshest seafood feasts accompanied by fitting sea views. Somehow the town still retains its relaxed atmosphere, even in the summer months, but if you want really want to escape the crowds, the Rio Mira is even more peaceful than the old town.
Vila Nove de Milfontes lies in the Mira River estuary, providing shelter from Atlantic winds and waves. The river’s own set of pristine white sands line the banks where the Mira flows into the sea. The landscape and wildlife of the unique ecosystem are best enjoyed from a quiet boat trip 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 but 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, but its atmosphere of luxury isn’t hard to absorb. Even Cascais’s charming seaside esplanade isn’t overthrown by noisy families in the high season.
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 at 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 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 island 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 or even from the capital.
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?
Although you probably haven’t heard many horror stories about Portugal, it is lesser known that the country is one of the safest 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 well-spoken. Petty crime does happy in tourist-choked 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 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. Still, the welcoming Atlantic waters are there to cool things down all year round.