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UNESCO Portugal: a quick guide to Portugal’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Portugal joined the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 1965, although later, in 1972, the country left the organisation and officially re-joined 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 venues 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 the 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 the 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 Portuguese famous 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 never 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 the 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 on to 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 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 a lot more artwork and information, becoming the only one of these UNESCO Portugal sites sharing territory with Spain. This brings the chance of visiting 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 historic 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 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-percent natural site is considered a relic, thanks to its mystical beauty. It occupies 150,000 hectares which represent 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

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