Medieval castles, cobblestone villages, captivating cities and golden beaches: the Portugal experience can be many things. History, great food and idyllic scenery are just the beginning.
Why the Azores are Europe's secret islands of adventure
7 min read — Published Aug 29, 2021
With whale-watching, diving, hiking and a host of other adventures on offer, Portugal's Azores islands are a great destination for adrenaline junkies.
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The extraordinary monastery of Batalha was built to commemorate the 1385 Battle of Aljubarrota (fought just south of here). Most of the monument was completed by 1434 in Flamboyant Gothic, but Manueline exuberance steals the show, thanks to additions made in the 15th and 16th centuries (the 'unfinished chapels'). At the Battle of Aljubarrota, around 6500 Portuguese, commanded by Dom Nuno Álvares Pereira and supported by a few hundred English soldiers, repulsed a 30,000-strong force of Juan I of Castile, who had come claiming the throne of João d’Avis. João called on the Virgin Mary for help and vowed to build a superb monastery in return for victory. Two years later he made good on his promise, as work began on this magnificent house of worship. The glorious limestone exterior bristles with pinnacles and parapets, flying buttresses and balustrades, and late-Gothic carved windows, as well as octagonal chapels and massive columns. The spectacular western doorway's layered arches pack in apostles, angels, saints and prophets, all topped by Christ and the Evangelists. The vast, vaulted Gothic interior is plain, long and high (the highest in Portugal), warmed by light from the deep-hued stained-glass windows. Some of the interior was originally painted. To the right as you enter is the intricate Capela do Fundador (Founder’s Chapel), an achingly beautiful, lofty, star-vaulted square room lit by an octagonal lantern. In the centre is the joint tomb (the first pantheon to be built in Portugal) of João I and his English wife, Philippa of Lancaster, whose marriage in 1387 cemented the alliance that still exists between Portugal and England. The tombs of their four youngest sons line the south wall of the chapel, including that of Henry the Navigator (second from the right). Afonso Domingues, master of works during the late 1380s, built the fabulous Claustro Real (Royal Cloister) in a Gothic style, but it’s the later Manueline embellishments by the great Mateus Fernandes that really take your breath away. Every arch is a tangle of detailed stone carvings of Manueline symbols, such as armillary spheres and crosses of the Order of Christ, entwined with writhing vegetation, exotic flowers and marine motifs – corn and shells. Three graceful cypresses echo the shape of the Gothic spires atop the adjacent chapter house. (And we challenge you to spot the ancient graffiti on the walls!) Anything would seem austere after the Claustro Real, but the simple Gothic Claustro de Dom Afonso V is like being plunged into cold water – sobering you up after all that frenzied decadence. Between the two cloisters is an interpretation centre. To the east of the Claustro Real is the early-15th-century chapter house, Sala do Capítulo, containing a beautiful 16th-century stained-glass window. The huge vault was considered so potentially dangerous that prisoners on death row were employed to remove its supports. A guard of honour watches over the tomb of unknown soldiers (a Mozambican soldier and Flemish soldier from WWI). The roofless Capelas Imperfeitas (Unfinished Chapels) are perhaps the most astonishing aspect of Batalha. Only accessible from outside the monastery, the octagonal mausoleum with its seven chapels was commissioned in 1437. However, the later Manueline additions by the architect Mateus Fernandes overshadow everything else. Although Fernandes’ plan was never finished, the staggering ornamentation is all the more dramatic for being open to the sky. Most striking is the 15m-high doorway, a mass of stone-carved thistles, ivy, flowers, snails and all manner of ‘scollops and twistifications’, as William Beckford noted. Dom Duarte can enjoy it for all eternity: his tomb, and that of his wife, lie opposite the door.
One of Iberia's great monasteries utterly dominates the town of Alcobaça. Hiding behind the imposing baroque facade lies a high, austere, monkish church (free entry) with a forest of unadorned 12th-century arches. But make sure you visit the rest too: the atmospheric refectory, vast dormitory and other spaces bring back the Cistercian life, which, according to sources, wasn't quite as austere here as it should have been. The monastery was founded in 1153 by Afonso Henriques, first king of Portugal, honouring a vow he’d made after the Reconquista of Santarém in 1147. The monastery estate became one of the richest and most powerful in the country, apparently housing 999 monks, who held Mass nonstop in shifts. In the 18th century, however, it was the monks’ growing decadence that became famous, thanks to the writings of 18th-century travellers such as William Beckford, who, allowing for his tendency to exaggerate, was shocked at the ‘perpetual gormandising…the fat waddling monks and sleek friars with wanton eyes…’. The party ended in 1834 with the dissolution of the religious orders. Much of the original facade of the church was altered in the 17th and 18th centuries. However, once you step inside, the combination of Gothic ambition and Cistercian austerity hits you immediately: the nave is a breathtaking 106m long but only 23m wide, with huge pillars and truncated columns. It is modelled on the French abbey of Clairvaux. Occupying the south and north transepts are two intricately carved 14th-century tombs, the church’s greatest possessions, which commemorate the tragic love story of Dom Pedro and Dona Inês de Castro. Although the tombs themselves were badly damaged by rampaging French troops in search of treasure in 1811, they still show extraordinary narrative detail. The tombs are inscribed Até ao Fím do Mundo (until the end of the world) and, on Pedro’s orders, placed foot to foot so that, when the time comes, they can rise up and see each other straight away. Nearby, look at the remarkable clay figures in the chapel of St Bernard and the unusual arching in the ambulatory. The grand kitchen, described by Beckford as ‘the most distinguished temple of gluttony in all Europe’, owes its immense size to alterations carried out in the 18th century, including a water channel built through the middle to divert wild fish right into the kitchen. The adjacent refectory, huge and vaulted, is where the monks ate in silence while the Bible was read to them from the pulpit, reached by a photogenic arched staircase. The monks entered through a narrow door on their way to the refectory; those too fat to pass through were forced to fast. The beautiful Claustro do Silencio (Cloister of Silence) dates from two eras: Dom Dinis built the intricate lower storey, with its arches and traceried stone circles, in the 14th century; the upper storey, typically Manueline in style, was added in the 16th century. Off the northwestern corner of the cloister is the 18th-century Sala dos Reis (Kings’ Room), so called because statues of practically all the kings of Portugal line the walls. Below them are azulejo friezes depicting stories relevant to the abbey’s construction. Upstairs, make sure you see the vast vaulted dormitory.
Wrapped in splendour and mystery, the Knights Templar held enormous power in Portugal from the 12th to 16th centuries, and largely bankrolled the Age of Discoveries. Their headquarters sit on wooded slopes above the town and are enclosed within 12th-century walls. The Convento de Cristo is a stony expression of magnificence, founded in 1160 by Gualdim Pais. It has chapels, cloisters and choirs in diverging styles, added over the centuries by successive kings and Grand Masters. The Charola, the extraordinary 16-sided Templar church, thought to be in imitation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, dominates the complex. Its eastern influences give it a very different feel to most Portuguese churches; the interior is otherworldly in its vast heights – an awesome combination of simple forms and rich embellishment. It’s said that the circular design enabled knights to attend Mass on horseback. In the centre stands an eerily Gothic high altar, while wall paintings date from the early 16th century. A huge funnel to the left is an ancient organ pipe (the organ itself is long gone). Dom Manuel was responsible for tacking the nave on to the west side of the Charola and for commissioning a two-level choir. The coro alto (upper choir) is a fabulous Manueline work, with intricate decor on the vaulting and windows. The main western doorway into the nave is a splendid example of Spanish plateresque style. Seeming to have grown from the wall, the Janela Manuelina (Manueline Window) on the church's western side is the most famous and fantastical feature of the monastery. It’s the ultimate in Manueline extravagance, a celebration of the Age of Discoveries: a Medusa tangle of snaking ropes, seaweed and cork boats, atop of which floats the Cross of the Order of Christ and the royal arms and armillary spheres of Dom Manuel. It’s best seen from the roof of the adjacent Claustro de Santa Bárbara. Follow signs to the janela. Unfortunately obscured by the Claustro Principal is an almost-equivalent window on the southern side of the church. Two serene, azulejo -decorated cloisters to the east of the Charola were built during the time when Prince Henry the Navigator was Grand Master of the order in the 15th century. The Claustro do Cemitério (Burial-Ground Cloisters) contains two 16th-century tombs and pretty citrus trees, while the two-storey Claustro da Lavagem (Ablutions Cloisters) affords nice views of the crenellated ruins of the Templars’ original castle. The elegant Renaissance Claustro Principal (Great Cloisters) stands in striking contrast to the flamboyance of the monastery’s Manueline architecture. Commissioned during the reign of João III, the cloisters were probably designed by the Spaniard Diogo de Torralva but completed in 1587 by an Italian, Filippo Terzi. These foreign architects were among several responsible for introducing a delayed Renaissance style into Portugal. The Claustro Principal is arguably the country’s finest expression of that style: a sober ensemble of Greek columns and pillars, gentle arches and sinuous, spiralling staircases.
Belém’s undisputed heart-stealer is this Unesco-listed monastery. The mosteiro is the stuff of pure fantasy: a fusion of Diogo de Boitaca’s creative vision and the spice and pepper dosh of Manuel I, who commissioned it to trumpet Vasco da Gama’s discovery of a sea route to India in 1498. Wrought for the glory of God, Jerónimos was once populated by monks of the Order of St Jerome, whose spiritual job for four centuries was to comfort sailors and pray for the king’s soul. When the order was dissolved in 1833, the monastery was used as a school and orphanage, until about 1940. Entering the church through the western portal, you’ll notice tree-trunk-like columns that seem to grow into the ceiling, which is itself a spiderweb of stone. Windows cast a soft golden light over the church. Superstar Vasco da Gama is interred in the lower chancel, just left of the entrance, opposite venerated 16th-century poet Luís Vaz de Camões. From the upper choir, there’s a superb view of the church; the rows of seats are Portugal’s first Renaissance woodcarvings. There’s nothing like the moment you walk into the honey-stone Manueline cloisters, dripping with organic detail in their delicately scalloped arches, twisting auger-shell turrets and columns intertwined with leaves, vines and knots. It will simply wow. Keep an eye out for symbols of the age, such as the armillary sphere and the cross of the Military Order, plus gargoyles and fantastical beasties on the upper balustrade. If you plan to visit both the monastery and the Museu Nacional de Arqueologia, you can save a little by purchasing a €12 admission pass valid for both.
The star of Sintra-Vila is this palace, with its iconic twin conical chimneys and lavish, whimsical interior, which is a mix of Moorish and Manueline styles, with arabesque courtyards, barley-twist columns and 15th- and 16th-century geometric azulejos that are among Portugal’s oldest. Of Moorish origins, the palace was first expanded by Dom Dinis (1261–1325), enlarged by João I in the 15th century (when the kitchens were built), then given a Manueline twist by Manuel I in the following century. Highlights include the octagonal Sala dos Cisnes (Swan Room), adorned with frescoes of 27 gold-collared swans, and the Sala das Pegas (Magpie Room), with its ceiling emblazoned with magpies. Lore has it that the queen caught João I kissing one of her ladies-in-waiting. The cheeky king claimed the kisses were innocent and all ‘por bem’ (‘for the good’), then commissioned one magpie for every lady-in-waiting. Other standouts are the wooden Sala dos Brasões, bearing the shields of 72 leading 16th-century families, the shipshape Galleon Room and the Palatine chapel featuring an Islamic mosaic floor. Finally, you reach the restored kitchen of twin-chimney fame, where you can almost hear the crackle of a hog roasting on a spit for the king.
Towering dramatically above Lisbon, these mid-11th-century hilltop fortifications sneak into almost every snapshot. Roam its snaking ramparts and pine-shaded courtyards for superlative views over the city’s red rooftops to the river. Three guided tours daily (in Portuguese, English and Spanish), at 10.30am, 1pm and 4pm, are included in the admission price (additional tours available). These smooth cobbles have seen it all – Visigoths in the 5th century, Moors in the 9th century, Christians in the 12th century, royals from the 14th to 16th centuries, and convicts in every century. Inside the Tower of Ulysses, a camera obscura offers a unique 360-degree view of Lisbon, with demos every 20 minutes. There are also a few galleries displaying relics from past centuries, including traces of the Moorish neighbourhood dating from the 11th century at the Archaeological Site. But the standout is the view – as is the feeling of travelling back in time amid fortified courtyards and towering walls. There are a few cafes and restaurants to while away time in as well. Bus 737 from Sé or Praça da Figueira goes right to the gate. Tram 28E also passes nearby. A set of escalators traversing the hill from Praça Martim Moniz opened in 2018.
Wander downhill (to save your legs) through Alfama's steep, narrow, cobblestoned streets and catch a glimpse of the more traditional side of Lisbon before it too is gentrified. Linger in a backstreet cafe along the way and experience some local bonhomie without the tourist gloss. As far back as the 5th century, Alfama was inhabited by the Visigoths, and remnants of a Visigothic town wall remain. But it was the Moors who gave the district its shape and atmosphere. In Moorish times this was an upper-class residential area. After earthquakes brought down many of its mansions (and post-Moorish churches) it reverted to a working-class, fisher-folk quarter. It was one of the few districts to ride out the 1755 earthquake. With narrow lanes of residential houses and grocery stores, it has a distinct village atmosphere; you can quickly feel like an intruder if you take a wrong turn into someone's backyard. Early morning is the best time to catch a more traditional scene, when women sell fresh fish from their doorways. For a real rough-and-tumble atmosphere, visit during the Festas dos Santos Populares in June.
Set in a lemon-fronted, 17th-century palace, the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga is Lapa’s biggest draw. It presents a star-studded collection of European and Asian paintings and decorative arts. Keep an eye out for highlights such as Nuno Gonçalves’ naturalistic Panels of St Vincent, Dürer’s St Jerome and Lucas Cranach’s haunting Salomé, as well as period furniture pieces like King Afonso V's ceremonial 1470s armchair and an elaborate lacquered wood, silver-gilt and bronze late-16th-century casket. Other gems include golden wonder the Monstrance of Belém, a souvenir from Vasco da Gama’s second voyage, and 16th-century Japanese screens depicting the arrival of the Namban (southern barbarians) – namely big-nosed Portuguese explorers. Biannual temporary themed exhibitions (priced separately, at around €6) are reached via a second entrance on Rua das Janelas Verdes, as are the stone-arched cafe and wonderfully peaceful gardens with river views.
Coimbra's Unesco-listed university, one of the world's oldest, was originally founded in Lisbon in 1290. It was subsequently relocated several times before being permanently established in Coimbra in 1537. Its showpiece centre is the Pátio das Escolas, a vast courtyard surrounded by majestic 16th- to 18th-century buildings. These include the Paço das Escolas, Torre da Universidade, Prisão Acadêmica, Capela de São Miguel and Biblioteca Joanina. Admission tickets come in two forms: one giving access to all university buildings (except the Torre) and the Museu da Ciência, and a second one which does not include the Biblioteca Joanina. Buy them at the office outside Porta Férrea. Note also that library visits are in groups at set times.