Portugal is well known for its amazing beaches in the Algarve – most people visit the country in the summer to enjoy the Sun and the ocean. Also, the big cities (Porto and Lisbon) take the lion’s share when it comes to visitors. But that doesn’t mean that other cities aren’t just as beautiful! Here, I’ll be sharing with you some of Portugal’s best kept secrets – lovely small cities that you’ll certainly enjoy visiting.
Coimbra is one of the oldest cities in Portugal and in Europe, with a remarkably long and rich history. The most well known attraction in Coimbra is its University. Established in 1290, it is one of the oldest universities in continuous operation in the world. The building of the University itself is amazing, and the sight is beautiful as well. If you buy a ticket for a full University tour, it’s definitely worth it; you’ll get a chance to dive into the intricate history of the University and the city, and you’ll see classrooms which have remained unchanged for centuries.
Also in the University area, you can find the Biblioteca Joanina – quite possibly the most spectacular library in the world. This rnate 18th century Baroque library of the University of Coimbra, owes its name to the monarch under whose aegis it was built and is definitely a sight you don’t want to miss.
The old and new cathedral in Coimbra are also spectacular – the Old Cathedral of Coimbra is one of the most important Romanesque Roman Catholic buildings in Portugal while the new one is the current bishopric seat of the city. The entire city still maintains its medieval aspect, and to me, the best part of Coimbra are the small, narrow streets zigzagging along the city center.
The city is also known as one of the poles of Fado music (the other one being Lisbon), and Coimbra is also well known for its cuisine and traditional drinks. Ginjinha is one of the most memorable drinks – an alcoholic drink made from sour cherries, which you most properly enjoy from a chocolate cup. The botanical garden is also very pleasant to spend some time in.
Great traditions, a world class University, lovely streets, fantastic music and wonderful cuisine – Coimbra truly is a delightful city.
Unlike most big Portuguese cities, Evora isn’t located on the coast – it’s pretty deep inside the continent. Évora is ranked number two in the Portuguese most livable cities survey of living conditions published yearly by Expresso.
Evora is a historic city, and many people rightfully call it an open air museum – with a history ranging from prehistoric times to the present. However, the most spectacular sights are the roman ruins – within the city, you can find and old aqueduct with houses built in the arches, old springs, ruins, and the most spectacular thing – a Roman temple of Diana, the goddess of hunt. If you’re even the slightest interested in history and historic buildings – Evora is the place to go.
If you’re interested in even more ancient history, you can check out the Almendres Cromlech – a megalithic complex close to the city. All in all, the city is simply riddled with historical buildings. But it’s not all ruins. The city is still thriving today, with many a beautiful cathedral and many cloisters. There is also one of the most spooky churches in the world – Capela dos Ossos (Bone Chapel), which is totally ornamented with real human bones.
Located in the Alentejo area, known for heavy foods, Evora also has dishes to boast. Most notable are the recipes involving pork and the migas – a dish with many variants.
Aveiro is rightfully called “The Portuguese Venice”, due to its system of canals and boats similar to the Italian city of Venice. The city is really small – you can basically visit it all in one go, but that doesn’t make it any less beautiful. Be sure to book a place on the traditional boats and see the city this way, and also walk along side the canals.
Aveiro is also known as the Art Nouveau city, due to the style in which the buildings in the center are constructed. Aveiro is a member of the “Réseau Art Noveau Network”, along with Barcelona, Brussels, Budapest, Glasgow, Helsinki and Havana. Aveiro also used to be the main salt extracting center of the country – with salt being extracted not from mines, but from evaporating ocean water in traditional salt panes. The salt was then transported on the canals.
Again, the city is really pretty, but it’s also quite small – so if you get tired of it, you can head on to the nearby station of Costa Nova – famous for its striped houses. Costa Nova has one of the most beautiful beaches in the country, and most of the buildings in the area have either green, red or blue stripes (or some shades). It’s quite unique, I’ve never seen anything like it – it’s really enjoyable and pitoresque.
The most famous local cake is the Ovos Moles (soft eggs) – a very sweet cake with almost raw eggs. Personally, I found them to be not quite to my liking, but most people love them.
Finally, we have the city of Braga – the city of churches. It’s religious significance is unrivaled in Portugal, and the city mixes in tradition with modernity with stunning ease.
The historic city centre, with the cathedral and other churches, museums and traditional shops is the main attraction. There is also a small river along side which you can take a small walk, but the city center is definitely the best sight. Night life in Braga may be quite monotonous sometimes. Clubs in town are open only on weekends and Wednesdays – if that’s what you’re looking for, Braga may not be for you. But if you’re looking for history and culture… then Braga is the city for you.
In the week before Easter, visitors flock to Braga to see the events commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ, such as processions. The city is decorated with flowers and violet sheets. Also, to celebrate the influence of the Roman empire in Braga’s history, there is a cultural fair around the streets of the city centre – the Braga Romana. But by far the most spectacular celebration in Braga is the Sao Joao – on the night of 23 June, Braga’s people come to the street to celebrate. The entire city is pretty much full of people singing, dancing and drinking until morning.
Very close to Braga, you can find the monasteries of Bom Jesus and Sameiro. Bom Jesus is most well known, offering a very nice walk to the top of the nearby hill. You get to see the stunning church, the beautiful garden and a breathtaking view of the city. Sameiro offers a pretty similar view, but it is not as important historically.
Also, very close to Braga, there is the city of Guimaraes – the birthplace of Portugal. Just like Braga is the religious center of the country, Guimaraes is the historical center of the country – a visit there is definitely the cherry on the cake.
Just like in Porto, in Braga you can eat lots of traditional foods like the Francesinha and a special type of codfish – the bacalhau. Cookies are also very good in Braga, much like in the rest of Portugal.
So, there you have it – some of Portugal’s well hidden gems. They may not be as flashy and well known as Porto or Lisbon, but they’re just as beautiful, and perhaps even more charming!