Stunning nature, long years of history and the incredible wealth amassed in Portugal in its medieval and colonial times made the existence of 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites possible in this country. I have visited 10 of them, including the two newest ones, added only in 2019. I would say they are among the best places to visit in Portugal and awesome Portugal tourist attractions so I highly recommend seeing all of them during one or several of your Portugal visits.
The date of the inscription of a particular site in the UNESCO World Heritage list is shown in brackets after the name of the particular site. So let's start from the north to the south of Portugal.
Historic Centre of Oporto (1996)
The full name of the UNESCO heritage site is Historic Centre of Oporto, Luiz I Bridge and Monastery of Serra do Pilar. Oporto, or Porto in northern Portugal, is an outstanding example of an urban landscape with a 2,000-year history. The Romans gave it the name Portus, or port, in the 1st century BC. Its continuous growth can be seen in its many and varied monuments, from the cathedral with its Romanesque choir to the neoclassical Stock Exchange and the typically Portuguese Manueline-style Church of Santa Clara. The Historic Centre of Oporto is located inside Fernandine city walls. It keeps the medieval town plan along with some later developments.
The core of stunning Porto Cathedral dates back to the 12th century. You can also find many other fine churches in various styles here. The historic centre has a number of outstanding public buildings as well, including the São João theatre and the former prison “Cadeia da Relação”. Among the important structures that appeared later are Palácio da Bolsa and São Bento railway station. This property also includes Monastery of Serra do Pilar and Luíz I Bridge.
Historic Centre of Guimarães (2001)
The exceptionally well preserved Historic Centre of Guimarães, located in the northern Portugal district of Braga, plays an important role in the creation of the national identity and the language of Portugal. Founded in the 4th century, Guimarães became the first capital of Portugal in the 12th century. A particular type of construction developed here in the Middle Ages. It featured a ground floor in granite with a half-timbered structure above. The historic centre of Guimarães has maintained its medieval urban layout. Guimarães has examples of architecture from different periods. The castle in the north and the monastic complex in the south are from the 10th to 15th centuries. Many noble houses and civic facilities are from the 15th to 17th centuries. Best to visit together with Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte in Braga as a day or overnight trip from Porto.
Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte in Braga (2019)
Located on the slopes of Mount Espinho, overlooking the city of Braga in the north of Portugal, the sanctuary is created as a sacred mountain crowned with a church. The sanctuary was developed over a period of more than 600 years, mostly in a Baroque style. The Bom Jesus ensemble is centred on a Via Crucis or Way of Cross with 14 stations. It includes a series of chapels that house sculptures evoking the Passion of Christ, as well as fountains, sculptures and formal gardens. The Via Crucis culminates at the church, which was finished in the early 19th century, in Italian inspired neo-classical design. The stairway of the Five Senses leading to the top contains 17 landings adorned with fountains, statues, and other Baroque style decoration. The view up from the bottom of the Stairway is awesome. If you are there at sunset, it adds an even more special feeling to the place. It’s best to visit together with Guimarães as a day or an overnight trip from Porto.
Alto Douro Wine Region (2001)
Wine has been produced by traditional landholders in the Alto Douro Region for some 2,000 years. Since the 18th century, its main product, Port wine, has been world famous for its quality. The long-standing tradition has produced a cultural landscape of remarkable beauty. Steeply sloping terraced vineyards cover some 24,600 hectares. They are still profitably farmed in traditional ways by traditional landowners. Characteristically white-walled villages and homes are located in the middle part of the valley slopes. The landscape is dotted with small chapels placed high on the hills or next to manor houses. Visit the Douro valley as part of a river cruise, by train or by car from Porto.
University of Coimbra – Alta and Sofia (2013)
Coimbra was the capital of the country from the early 12th to the middle of the 13th century, and its university was founded in 1290 in Lisbon and transferred to Coimbra in the early 16th century. Today this impressive university is still one of the world's most distinguished and the city's biggest attraction. The Old University of Coímbra was placed in the buildings of the previous Real Paço de Coímbra (Royal Palace), a former royal residence. These buildings were restored and transformed into “Paço dos Estudos”. The University of Coimbra was for several centuries the only university in Portugal. Coimbra University is an exceptional example of a university city, which illustrates the interdependence between the city and the university. If you just visit one building of the University, let it be Joanine Library. Joanine Library of the University complex is exceptional. Founded as a study bookstore, it is one of the most stunning libraries in the world. Besides an awesome interior, it contains two hundred thousand volumes, dating from the 16th to the 18th centuries, which can still be consulted today. Coimbra is about 130 kilometres from Porto and a bit more than 200 kilometres from Lisbon.
Convent of Christ in Tomar (1983)
The cityscape of Tomar in central Portugal, about 150 kilometres from Lisbon, is dominated by the monumental complex of the Convent of Christ standing at the top of a hill. The Convent is surrounded by the walls of the Castle of Tomar. It belonged to the Order of the Templars and was founded in the late 12th century. Built over the span of five centuries, the Convent of Christ is a testimony to an architecture combining Romanesque, Gothic, Manueline, Renaissance, Mannerist and Baroque elements. A special feature of the convent is Manueline style dating from the 15th and early 16th centuries. It is a very specific interpretation of the Gothic in terms of architectural structure and decoration. This set of ornaments and a combination of symbols can only be found in Portugal. The Convent’s centrepiece is its 12th century rotunda, Oratory of the Templars, influenced by Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre Rotunda. This is one of the typical "rotundas" of Templar architecture among just a few other examples of this kind of architecture in Europe. Major changes in Convent took place in the early 16th century when additional cloisters and new monastic buildings were constructed. The paintings and the frescoes of the 16th century, as well as the gilt statuary under the Byzantine dome, are carefully restored. Visitors can admire the Sacristy, the Cemetery, Laundry and other cloisters, the Infirmary, the Knights hall, and the pharmacy. You can also visit nearby Alcobaca monastery which is also a UNESCO world heritage site together with the Batalha monastery and Tomar buying a combined ticket for all three.
Monastery of Batalha (1983)
This grand monastery in a peaceful town of Batalha in the centre of Portugal about 130 kilometres from Lisbon represents the transition from Gothic to Manueline architectural styles and is one of the masterpieces of Gothic art. This building has heavily influenced Portuguese architecture for future generations. It was constructed by King João I to commemorate the victory over the Castile crown in 1385, securing the independence of Portugal. Most buildings of the monumental complex were built during the reign of João I in the late 14th and early 15th century, yet the construction of the monastery was never completely finished. Outstanding parts of the interior are the Chapel with stained-glass windows, the cloisters, the Unfinished Chapels, and the Chapter House. The main entrance of the church is on the west facade. It’s decorated with an impressive ensemble of sculptures. The chapel of the monastery contains an enormous tomb of Dom João I and his wife, Queen Philippa of Lancaster. The bays in the chapel walls contain the tombs of their sons, among them Prince Henry the Navigator. You can also visit nearby Alcobaca monastery which is also a UNESCO world heritage site together with the Batalha monastery and Tomar buying a combined ticket for all three.
Royal Building of Mafra (2019)
Royal Building of Mafra – Palace, Basilica, Convent, Cerco Garden and Hunting Park (Tapada) as it is called in full is located 30 km northwest of Lisbon. This imposing quadrangular building was completed in the middle of the 18th century. It houses the king and queen's palaces, the royal chapel, shaped like a Roman baroque basilica, a Franciscan monastery and a library containing 36,000 volumes. The complex includes the Cerco garden, and the royal hunting park (Tapada). The Royal Mafra Building is an exceptional example of Italian Baroque. It is one of the most remarkable works undertaken by King João V, showing the power of the Portuguese Empire. Built in limestone and marble, the building covers an area of almost four hectares, has 1200 rooms, more than 4700 doors and windows, 156 stairways, and 29 inner yards and courtyards. Such magnificence was only possible due to the Brazilian gold brought to the country. The last king of Portugal, Manuel II, left for exile from there in 1910, following the proclamation of the Republic. The Royal Palace was opened as a museum in 1911 as a Palácio Nacional de Mafra.
Cultural Landscape of Sintra (1995)
The Cultural Landscape of Sintra is located in Portugal’s central region, about 30 kilometres from Lisbon on the Iberian Peninsula. From a distance, it gives the impression of a natural landscape: a small chain of forested granite mountains rising over the hilly rural surroundings. If you have time, Sintra is worth a day trip from Lisbon. Major landmarks such as the Pena Castle, the Moorish Castle, the Church of São Pedro, Penha Verde, the Cruz Alta, and the Palace of Seteais interact with one another and with the landscape. It all together made Sintra the first centre of European Romantic architecture. The Royal Palace in the town centre is the dominant architectural feature of Sintra. The palace’s buildings date from the early 15th and early 16th centuries. The interior contains painted and tiled decorations and other features characteristic of the Mudéjar and late Gothic Manueline styles.
The Pena Palace, high on a peak in the Serra, is a work of Romanticism. It is one of the world’s most magnificent palaces, so be prepared for crowds. The Moorish Castle, high on a peak of the Serra, is now in ruins. There are many other buildings in this complex, including the Palace of Monserrate, the Palace of Ribafrias, Townhall, the Trinity Convent of the Arrabalde, and several churches.
Historic Centre of Évora (1986)
The Historic Centre of Évora, the capital of the Alentejo Province, Portugal, has been shaped by more than twenty centuries of history. It still retains the ruins of the Roman period, including those of the Temple of Diana. There are a number of buildings from the medieval times, the best known of which is the Cathedral that was completed in the 13th century. In the 15th century, when the Portuguese kings began living in Évora more often, Évora’s golden age began. At that time, many remarkable monuments very built, including St Claire Convent, the royal church and the convent of São Francisco, and Os Lóios Convent with the São João Evangelista Church. Évora also has many noteworthy 16th-century patrician houses. Évora was almost untouched by the great earthquake of 1755 that destroyed many towns in Portugal, including Lisbon. The distance from Lisbon is about 140 kilometres.
I advise you to allow two days in Évora in your Portugal itinerary.
For visiting places on this list, I highly recommend renting a car and doing a road trip, allowing yourself flexibility during your visit.
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Author: Anita Sāne
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