If you’re considering traveling to Europe, you may not think of Portugal as one of your main destinations. Many of us just think of it as a tiny little country nestled against Spain and very similar to its larger counterpart, but sunny Portugal has much to offer as a tourist destination. Like Spain, it has a sense of age and a great wealth of history and culture. If you are planning to discover some of the country’s main cities, the capital of Lisbon is always a great place to start.
If you love history and can’t get enough of old fortresses and castles, you’ll want to try Lisbon’s old St. George’s Castle, although its Portuguese name, Castelo de Sao Jorge, sounds so much more exotic. Surprisingly, the castle wasn’t originally built by the Portuguese at all, but off and on by many groups of people including Moors of Muslim descent who once lived in this region. It has all the earmarks of a foreboding medieval castle; St. George’s Castle is fascinating to visit and will make some great memories. If you’re not a big fan of heights, the castle may not be the best choice for you due to its lofty location, but I highly recommend this stop for anyone visiting Lisbon.
Like every great European country, Lisbon has its own outstanding cathedral. Its huge walls reach to the sky, and although it doesn’t have massive stained glass windows or high exterior archways like other gothic churches, don’t let its simple appearance fool you. Once you walk inside you will learn about the historical events that make it so appealing. It was constructed in medieval times to accentuate Christian victory over previous Moorish rulers, and has probably changed very little since that time. St. Anthony himself is said to be interred inside the cathedral. Best of all, admission is free and you can wander around to your heart’s content and see many fascinating artifacts.
There are churches and other religious buildings scattered throughout Lisbon, such as Santa Engracia. This beautiful Baroque church captures the imagination with its tales of ghostly interference and its elegant facade, and once you visit you will understand why it is called the National Pantheon. If you’re lucky to be visiting on Saturday or Tuesday and need something to do after your tour of the church, you can drift around at the market.
If this isn’t the kind of attraction you’re looking for, prepare to explore museums, gardens, municipal buildings, and historic streets. One terrific vacation spot especially for families with children is the Natural History Museum and Botanical Garden. Children might not be thrilled about the “natural history” part, but they should love the gardens. There are various statues of explorers, kings, and other important people throughout the city that would make great poses for portraits, but then again, the entire city is photogenic.
If you’re like me, Lisbon is the only Portuguese city you’ve ever really heard much about. The city of Braga may not be as well-known or studded with attractions as Lisbon, but it does have its worthwhile offerings. Braga’s cathedral is more eye-catching than that of Lisbon, with high turrets, a bell tower, and a weathered appearance. It is most likely close to what most people probably envision when they think of a Hispanic church. Different parts were built in different centuries; part of the “se” (the cathedral) is from the 1400s, but the higher parts of the church were not added until the 1600s. From the side, the church isn’t quite so impressive except for a wide, beautifully-sculpted door. Check the Braga Cathedral website to find out what times the church is open to the public.
For some unforgettable natural beauty, seek out Peneda Geres National Park (Parque Nacional da Peneda-Geres) and prepare to see things you might not expect to find in Portugal. Beautiful hills surround tranquil waters; look out for the picturesque waterfall. If you love walking and being one with nature, you should definitely take time on your vacation for this national park.
Where is Coimbra? This city is another historic part of Portugal that few travelers ever hear of. If you take a look at the city from afar, you may be disappointed by the newer-looking buildings, but the skyline belies Coimbra’s true age. In actuality it dates back centuries to the times of the Moors and for awhile it was Portugal’s major city. Like much of Spain and Portugal in general, many of Coimbra’s attractions are related to the development of the Catholic faith. Coimbra’s religious structures include churches, monasteries, and convents that are all worth a visit if you have the time. Don’t miss the historical significance and peacefulness of these places while traveling in Coimbra.
By Lacie R. Schaeffer