Portugal joined the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 1965, although later, in 1972, the country left the organisation before officially re-joining in 1974. Portugal was also a member of the Executive Committee from 2007 to 2009 and has been deeply involved with UNESCO ever since, with different contributions from the country’s government and artists.

Seventeen landmarks constitute Portugal’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, all of which have a major historical significance to the country and the world. From archaeological sites and rich natural venues to the beautiful uniqueness of the country’s architecture.

These outstanding UNESCO Portugal sites will have you travelling through time by giving you insights into over 900 years of history and culture, enriching your eyes and mind with the beauty of each of these locations. You’ll certainly want to book a flight back as soon as you leave Portugal, as the country is known for its fantastic receptiveness to tourists – plus, it will be a struggle to visit all seventeen in one trip!

Another bonus is nearly all of these sites also have guides (printed, audio, or tours) available ready to tell you everything you need to know about these amazing places, buildings and monuments. Usually, the guides are in several different languages and answer any questions that you might have about the site’s surroundings or traditions.

The UNESCO listed University of Coimbra
The UNESCO-listed University of Coimbra | Credit: Daniel James Clarke

University of Coimbra – Alta and Sofia

The University of Coimbra is one of the oldest currently working universities in the world. It is situated on top of the hill overlooking the city of Coimbra, in a privileged place in town, surrounded by centuries of history that now are mixed with services, residencies, green spaces where you can relax, restaurants and a lot of cultural attractions. 

You can expect to be greeted by uniformed students and maybe even an opportunity to hear the amazing music played by the tuna. This is an academic orchestra that covers songs from the best Portuguese artists throughout time or transforms poetry by the most significant Portuguese writers into songs in a beautiful mix of different instruments and unique acapella interpretations.

Inside, the tour will take you through some of the ancient faculties, with the library a particular gem not to be missed! When you visit Coimbra, don’t miss out on the chance for a stroll down “Rua de Sofia” and appreciate the details still clear from de Renaissance artistic style. 

Where to stay in Coimbra? For a truly unforgettable stay, this opulent and grand hotel with rooms seemingly carved into the rock is something very special!

Looking for a tour? Sign on to a free walking tour of Coimbra to get to know the city, or buy your tickets to enter the university from the ticket office.

Monastery of Alcobaça

Located in the North of Lisbon and founded in the 12th century by King Alfonso I, The Monastery of Santa Maria d’Alcobaça is deeply connected to the proclamation of Portugal as an independent kingdom in 1139. 

This monument is a masterpiece of Cistercian Gothic art, something you will notice from the beauty of the architectural style, the materials and the attention to detail used in its construction. It’s common you will find different kinds of exhibitions here, from art expositions to musical and performative art events or educational lectures, assuring your visit to this place will always enrich your spirit.

Gastronomy is also a must-try in this region with their traditional “Doces Conventuais” (traditional sweets) and the tasty “Licor de Ginja” (a cherry liquor)  that will be even better if served in a small chocolate cup.

Where to stay in Alcobaça? Just outside of the city, this spa hotel with unique architecture really captures the surrounding nature.

Looking for a tour? To combine Alcobaça, Tomar and Batalha in a day, consider this private tour from Lisbon as it’s hard to combine public transport between the three in one day due to bus times.

Douro Wine Region
Take a cruise through the Douro Wine Region | Credit: Daniel James Clarke

Alto Douro Wine Region

You have probably already tried the famous Portuguese sweet wine known as port (Vinho do Porto), popular around the world for its quality and usually drank as a digestive or an aperitif. Wine has been produced in the Alto Douro region for at least 2000 years, and the viticulture tradition has marked its position in Portugal’s culture and economy. 

The landholders of the area, together with the Government, have constantly been working on the evolution of the production while always respecting the purity of the natural ingredients – essential for great results. 

The outstanding beauty of this area makes it just the perfect landscape for a relaxing wine-tasting day while learning about its history and process. Here, in the middle of beautiful natural venues, you can breathe fresh air while sipping a great wine that will awaken all your senses – there is a reason it’s one of the most celebrated Portugal wine regions.

Where to stay in Douro? Quinta Da Estrada Winery Douro Valley.

Looking for a day trip from Porto? Consider this tour with a cruise, wine tasting and lunch.

Colourful and ancient palaces in the UNESCO listed Sintra
Colourful and ancient palaces in the UNESCO-listed Sintra | Credit: Daniel James Clarke

Cultural Landscape of Sintra  

Sintra became the first centre of European Romantic architecture in the 19th century. This city’s unique mixture of parks and gardens surrounding its beautiful buildings, castles and palaces (for example, the National Palace of Pena, on top of the city) make it a magical experience for every visitor. 

Enveloped by the beautiful “Serra de Sintra” microclimate, the combination of pure nature with beautiful and artistic architecture makes the walk around this UNESCO Portugal Site feel like a living fairy tale. Keep in mind to ask the city guides about the popular stories and legends surrounding the town’s history throughout the times, too! Best explored on foot or by tuk-tuk, it’s less than an hour from Lisbon by train, making it a perfect day trip, although you’ll likely need a couple of days at least to really explore. If you are short on time, pre-booking your tickets might make sense on peak days.

When in Sintra, don’t forget to try the unforgettable “Queijadinhas de Sintra”, a traditional cake from the area which will make this visit even more memorable – if that’s possible!

Where to stay in Sintra? This rustic 19th-century Quinta fits in with the historical stories of a Sintra stay.

Looking for a tour? Even though Sintra is easy to do from Lisbon by yourself, if you are short on time (and also want to visit the coast), then this day tour will be appreciated.

Step back in time in the UNESCO listed old town of Guimarães
Step back in time in the UNESCO-listed old town of Guimarães | Credit: Daniel James Clarke

Historic Centre of Guimarães

In this beautiful city, one of Portugal’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the first king of Portugal, D. Afonso Henriques, according to the history, was born. The historic part of Guimarães is set inside the small medieval town surrounded and protected by a castle built with big rocks and wood. It’s one of Portugal’s main points of memory of the country’s history, mixing with harmony the traditional with the modern times of these days. 

Guimarães represents a great example of how Portugal searches for evolution without ever renouncing its roots and makes an effort to respect the traditions and historical marks of the country. Did you know, for example, it was the first capital of Portugal in the 12th century?

Enjoy the walk through the city and appreciate the warmness of the locals you encounter; you’ll also often find outside art displays or other cultural elements in addition to the historic architecture. 

Where to stay in Guimarães? Stay in this 12th-century convent to really appreciate the city’s history.

Looking for a tour? Combine Guimarães and Braga on this day tour from Porto.

Mafra Palace, one of Portugals's UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Mafra Palace, one of Portugals’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites | Credit: Daniel James Clarke

Royal Building of Mafra Palace

This fantastic building was built in 1711 by the then king, D. João V, and illustrates the power and large reach of the Portuguese imperium. 

Built with inspiration from the Italian baroque artistic and architectural style, it includes a convent that belonged to the Franciscan religion, a library with 36,000 volumes, and palaces for the King and the Queen.  The amazing garden will make you travel back to the monarchy period as soon as you step foot in this UNESCO Portugal Site.

Amazingly, Mafra Palace has over 1200 different rooms, more than 4700 doors and windows, 156 beautiful stairways and 29 lobbies – although you won’t be allowed to visit them all, the ticket is well worth it. 

Inside you will also have the chance to see different jewellery collections, art pieces such as tapestries, paintings, sculptures or furniture in a great state of conservation that will make you feel like you just visited the Kings. The library, which still uses bats at night to keep the books free of bugs, is a highlight!

Where to stay in Mafra? A little outside the city centre, this historic village has been converted into dreamy accommodation.

Looking for a tour? Take a private tour of the royal palaces around Lisbon, including Mafra, to maximise your time.

Climb the UNESCO staircase of Bom Jesus in Braga
Climb the UNESCO staircase of Bom Jesus in Braga | Credit: Daniel James Clarke

Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte in Braga

This landscape, located in Mount Espinho, overlooking the city of Braga, was founded in Roman times and has excellent views, overlooking the ocean itself sometimes. It’s a sanctuary of devotion and peregrination for the residents of the area and for visitors from around the world, promoted by the Catholic Church. The complex includes a series of chapels that remind us of the Passion of Christ with several details, such as fountains, sculptures and surrounding gardens. The incredible stairway that leads to the church is hard to describe, and while impressive from the bottom, the walk to the top will likely leave you short of breath!

Whether you are a devote or not, the picturesque landscape of this site will leave you fascinated and bring you a sensation of peace and harmony. You’ll certainly be fascinated by the ornamental elements and stonework present in the granite walls of the monument. One of the absolute must-visit Portugal UNESCO World Heritage sites!

Where to stay in Braga? Skip the city centre hotel and stay in this gorgeous panoramic hotel in the hills of Bom Jesus.

Looking for a tour? Book a free walking tour of Braga to learn more about the city beyond Bom Jesus.

The magnificent ceiling painting in Portugal's UNESCO listed Tomar cathedral
The magnificent ceiling painting in Portugal’s UNESCO-listed Tomar cathedral | Credit: Daniel James Clarke

Convent of Christ in Tomar 

This building joined the list of Portugal’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1983. Built upon a Roman cult place, it represents 700 years of Portugal’s history and extraordinary moments of Occidental’s history. 

The monument has so many different architectural styles present that it is somewhat of a guide to the country’s art history, showing the evolution of a country that adventured through seas and continents, bringing influences to be pictured in the stones of these walls. Gothic, renaissance, mannerism and baroque are some of the styles you will manage to observe while visiting this site. You will also be able to have an idea of how the cavaliers and monks lived back in the day.

The city of Tomar will make you feel welcome and surrounded by culture, and you will even find bars and restaurants inspired by the different art styles present in the convent.

Where to stay in Tomar? Stay in this cute 18th-century family-run hotel.

Looking for a tour? Take the ‘Knights Templar’ day tour from Lisbon to visit castles and convents in Constância and Tomar.

The UNESCO heritage city of Porto
The UNESCO heritage city of Porto | Credit: Daniel James Clarke

Historic Centre of Porto (including Luiz I Bridge and Monastery of Serra do Pilar)

Porto is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the country, so it’s not surprising that it’s listed as a UNESCO Portugal site. Although, as is already a pattern in this country, even the most modern cities will conserve their marks of history and culture. The Historic Centre of Porto is surrounded by the Douro River and has a lot of beautiful monuments and history present that take us back to eras gone by, such as Roman, Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassic.

When visiting, take the chance to try the traditional “Francesinha”, a dish that entered the list of the world’s best sandwiches. And don’t forget to finish it with a port wine by the river for dessert.

Where to stay in Porto? Stay in this gorgeous boutique palace hotel.

Looking for a tour? Sign up for a free walking tour of Porto to learn the city’s history.

Belem Tower sitting on the River Tejo
Belem Tower sitting on the River Tejo | Credit: Daniel James Clarke

Jerónimos Monastery and Tower of Belém in Lisbon

When visiting Lisbon, visiting these monuments is almost mandatory, which are an integral part of Portugal’s UNESCO sites. Situated by the banks of the River Tejo, the Tower of Belém was built strategically to defend the city in case of attack, and its architecture is prepared to resist the fire from the enemies. 

The Monastery of the Hieronymites is a symbol of some of the most important moments of the country’s history, maintaining to this day its remarkable features like the cloister from the 1500s and the dining hall of the Monks and its magnificent library. 

Where to stay in Belem? Stay in this stylish hotel moments from the monastery.

Looking for a tour? Sign up for a free walking tour of Belem to learn more about this beautiful neighbourhood.

Monastery of Batalha

Also known as the Monastery of Santa Maria da Vitória, this monument took almost 200 years to build (from 1386 to 1563, approximately) and was thought and edified by the King D. João I of Portuga.

It was constructed l to show appreciation to the Holy Mary after winning Aljubarrota’s battle against Castilian enemies as proof of his gratefulness and devotion. It’s remarkable to the country’s history as it represents its moment of independence and emancipation. 

You’ll be taken in by its gothic architecture while visiting the different rooms, which take you back in time and allow you to have an idea of the routines and activities of the monks and priests living in the convent.

Apart from being a museum, it is also another monastery considered one of the National Pantheons. 

Where to stay in Batalha? Stay in this trendy and chic boutique hotel with a pool and views of the Monastery.

Looking for a tour? Combine Batalha with Fatima and Obidos on this day tour from Lisbon.

Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley and Siega Verde  

These prehistoric art sites were one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the 20th century, taking us back to the palaeolithic time. The illustrations on the rocks allow us to have exceptional insight into the social, economic and spiritual life of our prehistorical ancestors in a truthful communication with our past, showing us also the signs of the artistic development of the human being. 

Since 2010, an extension of the Côa Valley in Siega Verde, Spain, was found to contain much more artwork and information, becoming the only one of these UNESCO Portugal sites sharing territory with Spain. This brings the chance to visit the two amazing countries together while allowing our ancestors to tell us their stories through their art.

The historic UNESCO Heritage Centre of Evora
The historical UNESCO Heritage Centre of Evora | Credit: Daniel James Clarke

Historic Centre of Évora

Being located at the confluence of three important Portuguese rivers – The Tejo, Sado and Guadiana –, Évora was always of high value to Portugal’s commercial routes since its early days. This gave the city relevant importance to the country’s social and political activities throughout all the different civilisations passing through the country. You will be able to see the presence of Roman and Islamic influence.

The greatness of the buildings joins the magnificent views and cosmopolitan city centre of the beautiful Portuguese area of Alentejo, known for its receptivity and tenderness to visitors. You will be able to relax while hearing the music of street artists and feel the youth’s presence due to the city students. Don’t miss monuments such as Diana’s Temple or the Cathedral of Sé.

Where to stay in Evora? The beautiful L’AND Vineyard Resort is just outside the city.

Looking for a tour? Discover the nearby wine history on this four-hour wine-tasting tour from Evora.

Black rocks frame the Pico Wine Region in Portugal
Black rocks frame the Pico Wine Region in Portugal | Credit: Daniel James Clarke

The Landscape of the Pico Island Vineyard Culture

The Portuguese  Islands are also present on the list of UNESCO Portugal Sites. The Landscape of the Pico Island Vineyard Culture occupies an area of 987 hectares on the second biggest island in the cluster of nine Azores Islands.

Here you will find an extremely rich geological beauty due to being a volcanic area with a considerable diversity of fauna and flora, much of which is rare protected species.

What makes this area such a unique vision is the labour of the wine workers throughout time to be able to form their plantations and vineyards across hard black rocks. Using these basaltic rocks to protect their cultivations from the wind and sea, they took advantage and made the best benefit out of their soil. Enjoying a wine tasting in this magnificent landscape is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Where to stay in Pico Wine Region? Book a private home rental at this beautiful Adega amongst the Pico vineyards.

Looking for a tour? Pico Island Wine Tour.

Central Zone of the Town of Angra do Heroismo in the Azores  

The city of Angra do Heroísmo, located on Terceira Island (another of the Azores archipelago), distinguishes itself due to the geographic and atmospheric features that made it a great point of exchange developed from the 16th century. Thus, it became a mandatory route of call for boats from Mina, India or Brazil. 

The city has been built and structured based on Renaissance design and has several available monuments to visit, such as white-washed and grey-stone churches or palaces. Given the number of people and cultures mixing in this essential point of commercialisation, it conserves a legacy of historical decoration noticeable in the architecture, sculptures, tiles and porcelain.

Where to stay in Angra? Stay in a historic fort, now a beautiful Pousada hotel.

Looking for a tour? Enjoy this guided walking tour of the city.

Wine Region in Madeira at Quinta da Saraiva
Vines at Quinta da Saraiva in Madeira / Credit: Daniel James Clarke

Laurisilva of Madeira

This 100-per cent natural site is considered a relic thanks to its mystical beauty. It occupies 150,000 hectares which represents some 20 percent of Madeira Island. Its humid and subtropical features are the home of many fauna and flora, boasting a lot of native tree species. Thus, the UNESCO designation is important as it’s very important to protect this important part of the environment. 

The best way to know this magnificent forest is to “get lost” in its amazing trails and feel the peace and relaxation of the green views while breathing the freshest air of the ancient trees around you.

When planning your trip, keep in mind there are always activities available such as hiring a guide and having an educational show that will help you understand the natural benefits this amazing location brings to us. 

Where to stay in Madeira? Check out our favourite stay in Madeira, Quinta da Saraiva.

Portugal is a country renowned for its rich culture and artistic heritage, from the ceramics of the north to the ornate lacework on the island of Madeira. Join us to take an introductory dive into the crafts and culture of Northern Portugal with artist and local expert Luísa Barbosa.

In Portugal’s northern Minho region, the colours are stronger, the costumes are more detailed, and the people celebrate life by performing The Vira, a local whirling dance accompanied by singing. The Folklore here screams diversity and beauty as boys and girls transmit their stories, love and values of generations.

It is with these expressions, their practices and craftsmanship that the North of Portugal is defined as an undeniable community full of authenticity and creativity. Here are five regional practices which will add another cultural layer to any trip through this region.

Lenço dos Namorados, Vila Verde

It is not just in the modern world that we feel the need to express our emotions and feelings for those we love.

Throughout history, whether using digital media or through other releases of more uncomfortable words since the beginnings of Humanity, many traditions have been born from through intrinsic eagerness of ours.

Lenço of lovers is an example of this expression. Initially made with black and red thread on white fabric, the women of the locale people resignified the function of scarves that were originally present in their clothing and other decorative adornments in everyday life.

Young women of marriageable age began to see the scarf as a way of “flirting” with their loved ones. Statement phrases with recurrent spelling errors and childish handwriting were presented with botanical symbols in a naive style; if the boy used the scarf on his body, a relationship would spring up.

A form of expression of affection, love and a lot of Saudade* for those who spent long hours with the thread and needle. These colourful scarves are the extension of our feeling – a representation of the passionate souls of Northern Portugal.

*Saudade is a Portuguese expression of the feeling caused by the absence of something/someone (physical or not) because we can miss a friendship or a relationship that ended, for example, with loneliness, nostalgia, or a black hole in the heart. 

 L: Barcelos R: Embroidery is a Minho tradition / Canva
L: Barcelos R: Embroidery is a Minho tradition / Canva

Figurado, Barcelos

We all know the Galo de Barcelos, but what about devils, big-headed musicians, goats and whistling birds? These are some of the ambiguous figures that the popular art of Figurado offers us.

With festive themes and representations of everyday activities, these primarily small creatures express the craftsman’s experiences and his surroundings through saturated primary colours, thus attracting the attention of any eye.

The sacred and the profane come together in an invigorating way. With this solid religious influence and popular tradition, the people of North Portugal are seen and self-recognised in each figure.

Genuine souls with both strong and delicate hands, these craftsmen make Barcelos the ideal place to dive into the knowledge and work of Minho ceramics. On a  visit to one of the region’s 89 parishes, you’ll certainly encounter some of these works.

R: Northern Portugal town L: The country's cock symbol / Canva
L: Ponte de Lima R: Galo de Barcelos, / Canva

Jugo or Canga, Ponte de Lima

Everyday objects constantly have their function resignified with the passing of generations. The jugos or cangas are wooden structures where two protrusions support the head of two oxen.

This instrument was essential in the care of the land and the domestication of cattle, and it is in this submission that the very term of the word was created – “jugo” means obedience and dominion.

Merely functional, it later becomes a decorative piece when the artisans decide to include the carving, thus becoming the most sublime feature of the whole work. With a chisel, the craftsman subtracts light splinters from the wood, emphasising symbols that represent the daily experiences of the time. Crosses, the sun, the moon and monstrances are the most common representations because the farmers believed that good harvests would come with their presence.

Nowadays, Jugos decorate the walls of Portuguese houses where their history, detail and rustic content stand out. If you are looking for an original souvenir, then this is a good choice – wouldn’t it be more interesting to have a hand-carved wood piece in your home than just another fridge magnet?

L: Viana do Castelo R: Example of / Canva
L: Viana do Castelo R: Example of Filigree / Canva

Filigree (Heart of Viana), Viana do Castelo

A delicate artistic jewellery item rich in heavenly detail, this work has been taking place on earth for over three centuries. Passed from generation to generation through family connections, it carries stories, legacies and values ​​that only a jewel can hold.

At the request of Queen Maria I, this relic was created out of gratitude for the birth of her son. With the heart of Jesus as a tribute, the small upper crown symbolises the flames characterised by the religious aspect. However, over the years, the Heart of Viana has been increasingly understood for its more profane and romantic meaning.

Nowadays, this tradition continues to adorn Minho costumes, where several kilos of gold hang around the necks of Portuguese women, but it is also present in jewellery and contemporary art.

Gold threads and heat manipulated in curves and counter-curves are necessary elements to create this emblematic, sublime and timeless piece. It carries history, values ​​and hidden symbols of that time most connected with Nature – from generation to generation – to become a symbol of affection, union and love.

Black Pottery of Bisalhães

And what about black ceramics where neither the clay is black nor are the pieces painted black? Yes, these incredible compositions exist and are made in the small town of Bisalhães in the North of Portugal.

A tradition over 300 years old, it is currently practised by only five people (three of them over 75 years old), which makes this ancient practice an urgent safeguard. In 2016 it was declared an Intangible Heritage of Humanity in Portugal by UNESCO, which has helped this artisanal technique to survive longer due to support and visibility.

And what about the Bisalhães technique for itself?

First, the dry clay is manually crushed with a wooden hammer on a stone base, where it is then carefully sieved until obtaining a homogeneous powder. The final result is already in the craftsman’s mind at the beginning of the process because depending on whether he wants to make “Louça churra” or “Louça fina” (utilitarian pottery or decorative pottery) the clay will have to be kneaded in different ways and using different tools. 

After structuring the shape and adding all the final details, the piece is finally ready to be baked, and this is where the magic of generations happens.

A hole in the ground is dug, the pieces are placed organically, and then everything is covered with dark earth and tree leaves. The smoke created is the secret to these spectacular pieces turning black after the objects are carefully removed from the hole, and old fabrics are used to shake off all the dust.

This is a village that is worth knowing about. If you’re lucky, perhaps your visit will coincide with the cooking day of these authentic black bowls and pots.

Clay figures are the strongest artistic expression in the city of Barcelos, but it is, in fact, the Galo de Barcelos Rooster that stands out among the others. Here, local artist Luísa Barbosa shares the story behind this symbol you’ll spot throughout the country.

A legendary object based on a great Miracle story, it all started in Medieval times. 

There was a crime, and the situation shook all the city’s dwellers because the criminal could not be found. One day, a pilgrim passing through Barcelos was considered a suspect because no one believed that he was heading to Santiago de Compostela on a religious promise. Despite his oaths of innocence, the man was found guilty, and his sentence was to be hanged.

Knowing his verdict, he requested to be taken to the judge to speak one last time. They took the man to the magistrate’s house, who was at a banquet that night.

Asserting his innocence again, the pilgrim pointed to the Roast Rooster that was on the table and said, “It is as certain that I am innocent as this Rooster will crow again at the moment when I will be hanged”.

Besides this disbelief with such nonsense, those present did not eat the Rooster because this situation created a lot of laughter and comments, and who knows if the animal may come back to life.

Such was the incredulity the Rooster got up and began to crow. The judge quickly goes to the gallows to change his verdict, and the pilgrim is saved.

Galo de Barcelos
Galo de Barcelos / Canva

Nowadays, in Praça dos Condes de Barcelos near the emblematic castle, there is a monument with reference to this legend, with a tribute to Santiago and the Virgin Mary.

An easily understood legend that inspired a craftsman in the village of Galegos Santa Maria, the first rooster was created, and easily everyone identified with him. A symbol of simplicity and honesty for those whose faith always guides life.

The Rooster was quickly exposed at the Thursday fair, an event with more than 600 years where all kinds of things are found, from handicrafts, clothes and products from the countryside. Thousands of people easily visit this great and open stage, and from year to year, the Rooster grows in importance in the tourist sector.

Thus, its popularity grew from city to city, reaching various corners of the world and quickly becoming a Portuguese symbol. Any good Portuguese takes their Rooster from Barcelos in their suitcase, either to remember their homeland or simply to give as a gift to those around the world which warm our hearts.

Learn more: Discover the Black Pottery of Bisalhães with our introduction to the crafts and culture of Northern Portugal