Portugal is the oldest nation state on the Iberian Peninsula and indeed one of the oldest in Europe, its territory having been continuously settled, invaded and fought over since prehistoric times.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal established the first global maritime and commercial empire, becoming one of the world’s major economic, political and military powers during the Age of Discovery – leaving a profound cultural, architectural and linguistic influence across the globe, and a legacy of around 250 million Portuguese speakers.
There’s a host of top historic sites to visit, including Belém Tower, St George’s Castle and Pena National Palace. Other popular sites tend to include Lisbon Cathedral and the Roman Ruins of Troia. Here’s a guide to some of Portugal’s key cultural locations, landmarks and monuments.
Belém Tower is an imposing medieval defensive tower on the bank of the River Tagus in Lisbon and a symbol of the Age of Discovery. Built between 1514 and 1520, Belém Tower is sometimes known as The Tower of St Vincent as its construction celebrated the expedition to India of Vasco da Gama, the famous Portuguese explorer.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage site together with the Jeronimos Monastery, Belem Tower is a beautiful mix of sturdy fortifications and intricate detail. Built during the reign of King Manuel, it is considered one of the best examples of the architecture of its time, known as the Manueline style. However, it also includes distinctive Moorish features such as ornately decorated turrets.
St George’s Castle (Castelo de São Jorge) in Lisbon is a medieval citadel resting on top of the city’s highest hill, overlooking the Tagus River. It is one of the finest and most iconic symbols of Lisbon and can be seen from almost anywhere in the city.
Today, people mostly visit St George’s Castle for its beautiful views across Lisbon on Ulysses Tower. The Castle does have some exhibitions, including a multimedia presentation of the city’s history and a space for temporary exhibitions as well as a handful of courtyards and battlements to explore. Also visible are the remnants of an old Moorish wall, which was reconstructed by the King Ferdinand I in the 1370’s.
The Pena National Palace is one of the most expressive and beautiful examples of 19th century romanticism in the world. This whimsical multi-coloured creation, sitting high on a peak among swirling mists, is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Sintra’s Cultural Landscape. On a clear day it can be easily seen from Lisbon.
The Palace is open to visitors and combines an almost fairy-tale-like exterior with ornate and remarkable décor. And if the palace itself was not draw enough, the beautifully maintained park includes an array of gardens, grottoes, ponds and fountains with statues and sculptures dotted amongst them.
Lisbon Cathedral is one of the city’s oldest structures. Built in the mid-12th century, Lisbon Cathedral was constructed after Christian crusaders led by King Afonso Henriques had retaken the city from the Moors.
Originally built in a Romanesque style, Lisbon Cathedral has since undergone a series of reconstructions and renovations, not least due to damage caused by earthquakes. As a result, today, this imposing fortress-like structure also has elements of other styles, particularly Baroque.
The ruins of the Roman settlement of Troia in Portugal contain the remains of an important trading centre that grew into a small residential settlement.
Visitors to the ruins of can explore the large fish-salting complex, a set of Roman baths, an ancient mausoleum and cemetery and the remains of the residential areas of the settlement. The site also boasts an early Christian basilica, though this can only be visited on guided tours. There is an informative visitor track around the ruins which is dotted with explanatory panels.
Faro Cathedral or “Se” was first built atop the site of a Roman forum turned mosque sometime after the area reverted from Muslim to Christian rule in 1249. Since then, Faro Cathedral has suffered damage and destruction both in the form of attacks and natural disasters, such as the devastating earthquake of 1755.
Today, with its mix of Renaissance and Baroque influences, Faro Cathedral offers the visitor mostly artistic delights, especially its seventeenth and eighteenth century tiling and gold leaf decoration.
The Jerónimos Monastery (Mosteiro dos Jerónimos), also known as the Hieronymites Monastery, is an iconic 16th century monastery in Lisbon, and along with the nearby Tower of Belém, is one of the most visited sites in Lisbon.
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site together with the Tower of Belem (in 1983), the Jerónimos Monastery is the most impressive symbol of Portugal’s power and wealth during the Age of Discovery.
The Jerónimos Monastery replaced the church formerly existing in the same place, which was dedicated to Santa Maria de Belém. In 1502, King Manuel I ordered the Jerónimos Monastery to be built in honour of the successful voyage to India of celebrated Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama. (Da Gama and his crew had spent their last night in Portugal in prayer there before they left). The monastery took around 100 years to build, and is a beautiful example of Portugese late Gothic architecture.
Sao Cucufate Roman Villa, also known as Villa Aulica, in Portugal dates back as far as the first century AD, although most of what can be seen there today dates to the 4th century. At this time, the Sao Cucufate Roman Villa may have operated as a farmhouse.
The ruins are quite impressive and distinctive, even rising up to a second storey. Visitors can also see the remains of the hot and cold baths situated within the villa complex.
Carmo Convent is a part-ruined medieval convent in Lisbon now used as an archaeological museum. Built in 1389, Carmo Convent was the work of Nuno Ãlvares Pereira, an important figure in Portuguese military history – including in the victory at the Battle of Aljubarrota – turned member of the Carmelite Order.
In 1755, Carmo Convent was devastated by an earthquake and its picturesque ruins are now open to the public. The convent is also now home to the Museu Arqueologico do Carmo, with its collection ranging from prehistoric to medieval artefacts.
Citania de Briteiros is a Portuguese archaeological site containing the ruins of an ancient settlement. In fact, dating back to the second century BC, Citania de Briteiros was home to a people known as part of the castro culture, named as such because the high areas on which they settled where known as “castros”.
Today, visitors can see the remains of Citania de Briteiros Iron Age hillfort, circular homes and a cremation furnace. There’s also a small exhibition of excavated finds.
Bussaco Battlefield in Portugal was the site of a British-Portuguese victory against the French during the Peninsular War.
The Battle of Bussaco took place on 27 September 1810 and the allies were led by the Duke of Wellington. Visitors can see the headquarters of the French Marshal André Masséna and also visit the nearby military museum.