Home to cliff-backed beaches, dramatic river valleys and wildlife-filled wetlands, Portugal is packed with unique places to visit. Whether you’re after otherworldly views on the edge of Europe or a mountain wilderness full of history and natural beauty, you’ll find it in Portugal.
Portugal’s relatively small size means you can see a lot on even a short trip. If time allows, it’s worth tacking on a visit to the Azores or Madeira. These Atlantic islands have soaring peaks, volcanic landscapes and stunning coastlines. The challenge is simply deciding where to begin. Here are some of the natural wonders in Portugal you won’t want to miss.
Cabo de São Vicente
There’s something thrilling about standing at Europe’s most southwestern edge, a headland of barren cliffs to which Portuguese sailors bid a nervous farewell as they sailed past and ventured into the unknown during Portugal’s golden years of exploration. The windswept cape is redolent of history – if you squint hard (really hard), you might see the ghost of the explorer Vasco da Gama sailing past. After taking in the view, visit the nearby Fortaleza de Sagres, which has a 16th-century chapel, imposing fortress walls and yet more breathtaking views from its clifftop perch.
Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês
Tucked away in a northern corner of Portugal, the Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês is a wilderness wonderland of craggy peaks, riverside woodlands and hidden waterfalls. Hiking here isn’t just about taking in the striking landscapes of Portugal’s only national park. The reserve also encompasses stone villages where you can walk cobblestone lanes past the ruins of old mills and once mighty castles. Sparsely inhabited settlements (like scenic Peneda) make great bases for exploring remote corners of the park.
Just east of Porto, the meandering Douro River winds its way past towering hillsides with steep terraces covered by vineyards. This Unesco World Heritage site offers dramatic views at every bend, whether viewed from the water on a boat excursion or a winery estate overlooking the expansive river valley. Most people just make a short excursion into the area from Porto, though you could easily spend a few days in the region – especially if you tack on a visit to the Parque Arqueológico do Vale do Côa, a protected area near the river with the most extensive collection of prehistoric rock art in the Iberian peninsula.
Parque Natural da Ria Formosa
Enclosing a vast area of sapais (marshes), salinas (salt pans), creeks and dune islands, this protected lagoon system stretches for 60km (37 miles) and encompasses 18,000 hectares in the eastern Algarve. It's a hot spot for birdwatchers, as it's a key stopover on the migration between Europe and Africa. And it’s all accessible from various towns – take a boat over to an undeveloped island or amble along one of the different nature trails through the area. You can also take a guided kayaking trip (like those offered by Formosamar), which is one of the best ways to experience the wetlands.
One of the Algarve's – and Portugal's – most emblematic sights, this enormous natural seaside cave has a hole in its ceiling through which streaming sunlight illuminates the sandstone and beach below. The only way to access the interior is via the water. Numerous companies along the coast, such as Taruga Tours, run boat trips, and you can hire kayaks and SUPs (stand-up paddleboards) to paddle here yourself. Swimming to the caves is discouraged due to strong tides and currents and high watercraft traffic.
Verdant highlands overlook hidden beaches along the Costa Vicentina, a dramatic swath of shoreline stretching along the western edge of the Algarve. You can come to admire the views while digging your heels into the sand or surf some of southern Portugal’s most reliable waves. There are also some outstanding trails through this protected region. For instance, you can hike all or a part of the 227km (141 miles) Fisherman’s Trail that takes you along cliffs and past glorious beaches like Arrifana, Monte Clerigo and Adegas.
Ponta da Piedade
Protruding 2.5km (1.6 miles) south of Lagos, Ponta da Piedade is a dramatic wedge of headland with contorted, polychrome sandstone cliffs and towers, complete with a lighthouse overlooking the crystal-clear turquoise water below. In the spring, you might hear the sounds of nesting egrets and see the blaze of blooming wild orchids in the surrounding area. On a clear day, you can see east to Carvoeiro and west to Sagres. The only way to reach it is by car or on foot.
Ilha de Tavira
Ilha de Tavira has the lot for sunseekers, beach bums, nature lovers and naturists: mile after mile of golden beach (think sand, sand, sand, as far as the eye can see), a designated nudist area, busy restaurants and a campground. To top it off, it’s part of the protected Parque Natural da Ria Formosa. Outside high season (July and August), the island feels wonderfully remote and empty, but be warned: during high season, the hordes descend. You can get there by mini-train or on foot via Pedras d’El Rei. You can also catch a ferry to the island from Quatro Águas or Tavira.
The Azores are full of places that stop visitors dead in their tracks and cause a sharp, involuntary intake of breath. But the first glimpse of this enormous caldera with its sparkling twin lakes might be the most eye-popping of them all. Sete Cidades is crisscrossed by superb walking trails, including a 12km (7.5 miles) circuit of the hydrangea-fringed rim and several routes leading down to the water’s edge.
Surrounded by thickly forested cliffs, this landscape has a fairy-tale quality, so it comes as no surprise that Sete Cidades is the source of an Azorean legend. According to the legend, the lakes – one blue, one green – formed from the tears of a shepherd and princess who shared a forbidden love. You might well shed a few tears (of joy) at the scenery.
The highest mountain in Portugal rears out of the Atlantic Ocean to a height of 2351m (7713ft). A near-perfect cone, Mt Pico is more than postcard material: an ascent of this slumbering stratovolcano is the Azores’ ultimate hiking experience.
Climbers should register with the visitors center at the trailhead at Cabeço das Cabras. From there, it’s a signposted slog to the crater, followed by a short, steep climb to the summit, which offers staggering views of neighboring islands.
The climb to the top takes two to four hours, depending on your fitness level and experience. You can conquer Mt Pico unaccompanied, but hiring a guide is recommended – particularly if you want to begin in darkness to catch the sunrise.
Grutas e Centro do Vulcanismo
Top billing on Madeira's north coast goes to this two-for-one attraction just south of São Vicente. The first part of the experience is a guided tour of the local caves – 900,000-year-old lava tubes studied by English geologist James Johnson in the 1850s. The second part is the Centro do Vulcanismo – a 3D, interactive look at Madeira's volcanic birth and volcanoes in general. It's a real hit with the kids and a great wet-weather activity.
Porto Santo Beach
Porto Santo's 7.5km (4.6 miles) long sandy beach is the reason most people head to Madeira’s little sister. The sand is actually tiny pieces of coral that shelve gently into the cool Atlantic waves. The beach has virtually no development and has a wild feel, especially during the winter when you can have the entire place to yourself.