Did you know the Portuguese Empire was the largest and one of the longest-lived empires in the world? Known as the driving force behind the Age of Discovery, the Portuguese began investigating and claiming areas beyond the known world in the early 1400’s.
Today Portugal is again on the rise, this time as a top tourist destination. The #1 must see in Portugal is Lisbon. Lisbon was the center of the Portuguese Empire, and like Rome is situated on seven hills. Lisbon is a visually stunning city with tree-lined avenues and plaza’s bordered by historic buildings and mosaic pavements. It is also one of the oldest cities in the world, predating Paris, London and even Rome by hundreds of years.
Lisbon was taken by Muslim forces in the 700’s, and then occupied by Norwegian invaders 400 years later. It was recaptured by the Moors, then taken back and returned to Christianity in 1147.
The Belem Tower on the Tagus River, an imposing monument to the Age of Discover, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a must see edifice in Lisbon. In the Alfama district the stunning St George’s Castle offers a commanding view of the city from its hilltop perch. Jeronimos Monastery features the burial sites of the Portuguese kings and heroes, among them Vasco da Gama (the first man to reach India from Europe by sea).
The second largest city in Portugal is Oporto, situated on the Douro River and birthplace to Henry the Navigator (initiator of the Age of Discovery and Father of Portuguese Exploration). Oporto dates back to Roman times and a leisurely afternoon stroll in the old city will be memorable. Don’t miss the Arabian Hall, inspired by the Alhambra in Granada. Oporto is known as the “City of Bridges” and is the departure port for Douro Valley river cruises. Wine appreciation cruises on the Douro are especially popular, especially for people who enjoy a good port wine which is produced in the Douro valley. The historic center of Oporto is yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site in Portugal.
The Roman Ruins of Conimbriga and the excellent museum there are not to be missed. Conimbriga is a walled settlement surrounded by a stone wall over 4900 feet in length. There is a forum, basilica, thermal spa, homes and everything else reflective of typical Roman life, all thoroughly excavated and waiting for your investigation. With beautifully preserved mosaics, this site pays testimony to the Roman influence in Portugal.
The 700 year old Library at the University of Coimbra (one of the oldest continually operated universities in the world), in its’ gilded baroque style is another must see, as are the Jewish Quarter and Jewish Museum in Castelo de Vide and Belmonte. Belmonte is the last remaining community of Marranos, also known as Belmonte Jews.
The massive stone walls surrounding Evora’s medieval city center are another UNESCO World Heritage Site in Portugal. You’ll enjoy finding the Roman Temple to Diana in the heart of the Old City, early gothic Cathedral, Portas de Moura fountain and the Sao Francisco Church (whose Ossuary Chapel has walls covered with thousands of human bones and skulls) as you investigate the narrow alleyways.
There are a number of wonderful ways to experience Portugal. An escorted tour of Portugal by land that includes all of the major cities and attractions would be my first choice, followed by a Douro River cruise with a few extra days in Lisbon coming in as second choice. For the independent traveler there are great local hosts that will be available to you on an independent tour of the country, and the high speed train service there is excellent.
Have you added Portugal to your bucket list?
Joy Gawf-Crutchfield owns and operates The Joy of Travel. Contact Joy at 918-339-4805