Northern Portugal, a region often overshadowed by the popularity of Lisbon and the sunny allure of the Algarve, offers a completely unique and authentic Portuguese experience for those willing to venture off the well-trodden tourist path. The north is the cradle of Portugal, brimming with historical towns, ancient castles, vineyard-covered valleys, and breathtaking natural parks. Beyond the vibrant city of Porto, known for its eponymous wine and enchanting riverside charm, lies a landscape that’s a testament to the rich tapestry of Portugal’s past and the diverse beauty of its terrain.
Compared to its southern counterparts, Northern Portugal offers a less touristy, more authentic taste of the country. The region is deeply steeped in tradition, from the distinct architecture of its medieval towns to the time-honoured practices of its vineyards. The food and wine here are of particular note, offering some of Portugal’s most celebrated culinary delights, from the hearty, traditional dishes of Minho to the rich wines of the Douro Valley.
Culturally, Northern Portugal is a world away from the cosmopolitan vibe of Lisbon or the beach-centric lifestyle of the Algarve. The north is home to distinctive cultural traditions, from the unique musical heritage of Fado music to the region’s colorful folk festivals. In essence, Northern Portugal is a place of contrasting charms – vibrant cities and quaint villages, breathtaking coastlines and verdant valleys, ancient history and dynamic modernity. It’s a region ripe for exploration, offering rewards for those who seek to uncover the diverse layers of Portugal’s captivating allure.
Useful Resources for Your Trip to Northern Portugal
Here’s our top tips and tricks for getting the best deals for your trip to Viseu.
- Accommodation: Booking.com and Airbnb are the two most comprehensive websites for finding hotels, hostels, apartments, and other types of accommodation in Northern Portugal.
- Car Rental: Discover Cars and Rental Cars are the two most useful sites for booking local car rental.
- Airport transfers: There are taxis and Ubers at Lisbon and Porto Airport, but you can also pre-book an airport transfer with Welcome Pickups.
- Tours & Things to Do: Both Get Your Guide and Viator list lots of local tours and activities in Northern Portugal.
- Luggage Storage: Luggage Hero and Bounce are two great sites for finding places to store your luggage in Portugal, including cities in Northern Portugal like Braga and Porto.
- Public Transport: Cp.pt is the main website for trains in Portugal. For longer distance buses, see Rede Expressos. Flixbus.pt often has cheap tickets between cities in Portugal.
- Flights: Skyscanner and Google Flights are the two most useful websites for finding flights to Portugal: The main airport for Northern Portugal is Porto Airport.
For most people, the easiest way to get to this part of Portugal is to fly into Porto Airport and then to hire a car to explore. Car rental comparison sites like discovercars.com and rentalcars.com, are great for finding the best deals, which are typically at the airport rather than in the small towns. You can also explore some of Northern Portugal by train (see cp.pt for tickets and timetables) and where that’s not possible, there’s always the bus (see Rede Expressos or Flixbus.pt).
And if you’re travelling from another part of Portugal, buses and trains are also an option. Depending on where you’re coming from, you may have the option of both or just buses – Portugal’s train network only covers some of the country.
Top Places to Visit
Porto holds an irresistible charm. Its labyrinthine streets wind through colourful, tiled houses, leading down to the lively Ribeira district, which brims with restaurants, bars, and buzzing energy. The iconic double-deck iron bridge, Dom Luís I Bridge, offers stunning views over the city and the shimmering Douro River. Exploring the city, you can’t miss the Clerigos Tower, a baroque tower that affords an incredible view of the city, and the stunning Lello Bookstore, one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world. Don’t forget to take a stroll along the river, where you can peek into the myriad of Port wine cellars that line its banks, possibly stopping for a tasting session or two.
Porto’s food scene is an absolute delight. From Michelin-starred restaurants to charming petiscos (tapas) bars and traditional tascas, the city offers something for everyone. Try the famous Francesinha, a hearty sandwich that’s a local favourite, and don’t miss the opportunity to sample local Portuguese wines, particularly the city’s namesake Port wine. Porto, a UNESCO World Heritage city, beautifully combines its rich history and tradition with a vibrant, modern energy, making it a must-visit destination in Northern Portugal.
Suggested Hotel: Pestana Palácio do Freixo, Pousada & National Monument: This exquisite Pousada in Porto is a national monument set in a beautifully restored 18th-century Baroque palace. Its position on the Douro River provides picturesque water views.
Often referred to as the “Rome of Portugal”, Braga is a city steeped in spiritual and historic significance. It’s home to the country’s oldest cathedral, a beautiful blend of Romanesque, Manueline and Baroque styles. Wander through the city’s cobbled streets and you’ll discover stunning baroque monuments, historic churches, and peaceful plazas. The most iconic of these is the Bom Jesus do Monte sanctuary, a Baroque masterpiece known for its ornate stairway that spirals up the hill to a church with breathtaking views over Braga.
But Braga isn’t just about history and spirituality. It’s a lively city with a young population, thanks to its status as one of Portugal’s leading university towns. This gives Braga a unique mix of old and new, where buzzing bars and contemporary restaurants coexist with centuries-old traditions and religious festivals. Braga’s local cuisine is also well worth exploring, with specialties such as Bacalhau à Braga and Pudim à Abade de Priscos. Braga represents the essence of northern Portugal – where history, culture, and modernity intermingle to create a destination of captivating allure.
Revered as the birthplace of Portugal, Guimarães is a treasure trove of history and culture. Its well-preserved medieval center, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a maze of narrow cobblestone streets, charming plazas, and beautiful old houses adorned with statuary and intricate wrought-iron balconies. Dominating the skyline, the imposing Guimarães Castle, built in the 10th century, is an emblem of the nation’s birth and an absolute must-visit. The nearby Palace of the Dukes of Braganza, a grand 15th-century edifice, is equally impressive, filled with fascinating artefacts and offering stunning views from its rooftop.
Yet, Guimarães isn’t simply a living museum. It’s a vibrant city with a youthful energy, thanks to its student population. Its modern side reveals itself in the form of stylish boutiques, inviting cafes, and innovative restaurants scattered around the city. Guimarães’ rich history, combined with its contemporary vigor, creates a destination that captivates every traveler. Make sure to try local dishes such as “Torta de Guimarães” and “Toucinho do Céu” while you’re there, both exquisite examples of Portugal’s sweet tooth.
Suggested hotel: Pousada Mosteiro de Guimaraes – Once a 12th-century Augustine Monastery, this Pousada has been transformed into a luxury hotel that perfectly combines history with modern comforts. It’s nestled on a hilltop with sweeping views over the city of Guimaraes.
Barcelos, a picturesque town in Northern Portugal, is best known for its lively weekly market and the famous rooster emblem, the Rooster of Barcelos, which is one of the most common emblems of Portugal. The market, or Feira de Barcelos, is the largest open-air market in Portugal and takes place every Thursday. Here, you can find everything from fresh produce and food to handmade crafts, pottery, and clothing. It’s a vibrant spectacle of color and activity that truly immerses you in the local culture.
The heart of Barcelos is its charming medieval center, with highlights including the 12th-century Paco dos Condes, a former palace now serving as an archaeology museum, and the Mother Church, a large 13th-century Romanesque structure. Just as captivating are the town’s quiet, winding streets filled with beautiful Baroque houses, historical monuments, and the iconic colorful rooster statues that embody the spirit of the local folklore.
Viana do Castelo, a gem of a city nestled where the Lima River meets the Atlantic Ocean, offers the perfect blend of natural beauty, historic charm, and cultural richness. The city’s historic centre is a delightful maze of narrow streets and squares, lined with beautiful, ornate manor houses that pay tribute to the city’s wealthy past, when it was a crucial port for trade with the New World. The standout attraction is the impressive Santa Luzia Basilica, perched atop the Santa Luzia Hill. This monument offers a panoramic view of the city, the Lima River, and the vast Atlantic – a sight that is often described as one of the most stunning in Portugal.
Viana is also famous for its vibrant cultural scene, particularly its folklore. The city hosts the Festival of Our Lady in Sorrow, one of Portugal’s most colourful and exciting folk festivals, which features traditional dances, extravagant processions, and a beautiful display of the region’s traditional costumes. Be sure to explore the city’s dining scene as well, with its bounty of fresh seafood and traditional Minho dishes, such as Bacalhau à Viana, the local recipe for bacalhau.
Suggested Hotel: Pousada de Viana do Castelo – Located atop Monte de Santa Luzia, this Pousada was initially built in the early 20th century as a hotel to accommodate tourists attracted to the panoramic views of Viana do Castelo and the Lima River.
Vila do Conde, situated along the scenic coastline of Northern Portugal, seamlessly blends historical charm with natural beauty. The town is renowned for its maritime heritage, showcased by the iconic Nau Quinhentista, a replica of a 16th-century ship, and the impressive Santa Clara Aqueduct. The historic Igreja Matriz de São João Baptista and the Igreja e Mosteiro de Santa Clara add to the architectural allure of the town. But it’s not just history that attracts visitors; Vila do Conde’s golden beaches provide a perfect setting for relaxation, water sports, or dining by the sea. Whether exploring the narrow cobblestone streets, soaking in the rich maritime traditions, or lounging on the inviting beaches, Vila do Conde offers a delightful and multifaceted experience in Northern Portugal.
Parque Nacional Peneda-Gerês
Parque Nacional Peneda-Gerês, Portugal’s only national park, is a breathtaking wonderland of natural beauty and biodiversity. Covering more than 700 square kilometers, the park stretches from the verdant Minho region to Trás-os-Montes in the north. It’s a dream come true for outdoor enthusiasts, offering stunning landscapes of towering granite mountains, dense forests, shimmering lakes, and cascading waterfalls. The park is also home to a rich array of wildlife, including wolves, golden eagles, and otters. Amidst the natural splendour, you’ll find traces of ancient civilisations in the form of Celtic fortifications, Roman roads, and rustic shepherds’ villages.
Nestled in the rolling hills and vineyards of the Minho region, Amarante is a tranquil town that is as rich in natural beauty as it is in historical and cultural charm. The town is built on both banks of the scenic Tâmega River, and its heart is the charming historic centre, with narrow cobblestone streets lined with pastel-hued houses. The star attraction here is the impressive Church of São Gonçalo, a large 16th-century church and monastery that stands proudly over the river. The nearby Ponte de São Gonçalo, an arched stone bridge, offers postcard-perfect views of the town and is steeped in fascinating local legends.
In addition to its historical landmarks, Amarante is also known for its vibrant art scene, as the birthplace of renowned artist Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso. The town’s museum, named after the artist, houses a diverse collection of modernist and contemporary art. And for those with a sweet tooth, don’t leave Amarante without trying the heavenly pastries from Confeitaria da Ponte, especially the “papos de anjo” and “são gonçalos”.
The Douro Valley, one of Portugal’s most treasured regions and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a spectacle of nature’s artistry. Its terraced hillsides, dressed in a tapestry of vineyards, slope dramatically down to the winding Douro River, creating a landscape of unparalleled beauty. The region is known worldwide for its port wine production, and the small town of Pinhão, at the heart of the valley, serves as an excellent base for exploring the area and its many quintas (wine estates).
A common way to explore the valley is by boat, gliding on the Douro River. It offers stunning views of the vine-clad hills, punctuated by white quintas and small, clustered villages. Another timeless option is the historic train ride, which takes you on a picturesque journey along the river, providing captivating views at every turn. A visit to the Douro Valley would not be complete without trying the rich, fortified Port wine, and many quintas offer guided tours and tastings. These allow you to delve into the rich history and process of Port wine making, all while sampling some of the finest examples. The Douro Valley, with its fusion of natural beauty and age-old wine culture, offers a remarkable, immersive experience that is a highlight of any visit to Northern Portugal.
The charming town of Ponte de Lima, said to be the oldest in Portugal, is a picture of traditional Minho region charm. Straddling the Lima River, it is graced by a medieval bridge that serves as the town’s centrepiece, linking the two sides and adding to its timeless appeal. The town is characterised by its narrow, cobbled streets, dotted with centuries-old houses, charming cafés, and beautiful gardens. Its riverside location adds to the town’s tranquil ambiance, providing idyllic spots for picnics and riverside strolls. The region is also renowned for its excellent Vinho Verde, so wine enthusiasts will find much to love here. Don’t miss the bi-monthly market, one of Portugal’s largest, where you can explore an array of local products, from food to traditional handicrafts.
The Paiva Walkways, or Passadiços do Paiva, offer one of the most exciting and picturesque nature experiences in Northern Portugal. Stretching 8 kilometers along the Paiva River, in the Arouca Geopark, the wooden walkways zigzag through the verdant, rugged landscape, leading you on an immersive journey through one of Portugal’s most pristine and untouched regions. The path takes you across dramatic cliffs, dense forests, and cascading waterfalls, with several lookout points offering breathtaking panoramic views. A highlight of the walk is the trek to the Areinho beach, a secluded haven of peace along the river. The Walkways do require a moderate level of fitness, but the awe-inspiring beauty of the surroundings makes every step worthwhile.
Northern Portuguese Food
Northern Portugal’s culinary scene is held in high esteem throughout the entire country, known for its hearty, robust dishes that reflect the region’s farming traditions and seasonal bounty. Comfort food is king here, and a tour through the north’s cuisine is a journey into the heart and soul of Portugal.
The Francesinha, hailing from Porto, is an iconic dish, essentially a sandwich loaded with different meats and smothered in a beer-based sauce, usually accompanied by a serving of french fries. For the adventurous, there’s Arroz de Cabidela, a chicken or rooster rice dish cooked in its own blood.
In the Trás-os-Montes region, you’ll come across the warming Feijoada à Transmontana, a rich bean stew teeming with various cuts of pork, vegetables, and smoked sausages, while Rojões, chunky cuts of marinated pork, fried to golden perfection, are another local favorite. Caldo Verde, a lush, green soup made with kale or cabbage, potatoes, and chorizo, is a simple but beloved dish that embodies the rustic charm of northern Portuguese cuisine, and is a common starter on restaurant menus across the country.
To accompany these dishes, there’s nothing more traditional than a slice of Broa de Milho, a dense, flavourful cornbread. More unusual, but no less tasty, are Papas de Sarrabulho, a thick porridge-like stew made with pork, chicken, and various offal, seasoned with cumin and served with Pão de Milho. And don’t forget to try the flaky Pastéis de Chaves, a puff pastry filled with tender veal, it’s a culinary symbol of the town of Chaves.
Northern Portugal’s cuisine is a testament to the region’s agricultural richness, time-honoured traditions, and the gastronomic wisdom of its people. Its hearty and richly flavoured dishes are not just meals, but a warm, welcoming embrace from the region’s vibrant culture and way of life.