Want to visit the best historic places in Portugal? Grab this epic Portugal travel guide with the 9 best historic cities in Portugal where you can learn all about Portuguese history and culture.

9 BEST Historic Cities In Portugal


Last Updated on May 30, 2024 by Soumya

If you’re looking for the best historic cities in Portugal, you’re in the right place.

The tiny country of Portugal is a treasure trove of history and culture, offering a wide array of historic cities that take visitors on a journey through time. 

From ancient castles and charming cobblestone streets to majestic cathedrals and royal palaces, Portugal’s historic towns reflect its rich heritage, which dates back thousands of years. 

If you’re a history buff and a culture vulture, we have good news. Portugal won’t disappoint you.


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Best Historic Cities in Portugal

Lisbon

Sao Jorge Castle in Lisbon
The towering walls of Sao Jorge Castle date to the Middle Ages.

Lisbon, the vibrant capital of Portugal, is a city steeped in history and tradition. 

As one of the oldest capital cities in Europe, Lisbon has been a significant cultural and political center for centuries

The city’s history is evident in its architectural landmarks, such as the medieval Sao Jorge Castle, which served as the city’s stronghold in the Middle Ages. The oldest fortifications at this spot date to the 2nd century BCE.

Soulful Fado music was born in the historic district of Alfama. Alfama is also home to Lisbon Cathedral, one of the city’s oldest and most influential churches.

The district of Belem is known for its maritime history. During the Age of Discoveries, it was the starting point for many of Portugal’s famous explorers, including Vasco da Gama and Pedro Alvares Cabral. 

The influence of Portugal’s maritime explorations can be seen in the new and ornate Manueline architectural style that developed in Belem. Both Jeronimos Monastery and the Belem Tower are full of Manueline motifs, including nautical ropes, anchors, and armillary spheres.

📖 Read Next: 10 Most beautiful places to visit in Lisbon.

Coimbra

Coimbra University, one of the best places to visit in Central Portugal
Coimbra University is one of the oldest in Europe.

Once a former capital of the Kingdom of Portugal, Coimbra is a city that breathes history. 

Coimbra’s history dates back to Roman times when it was an important center of the Western Roman Empire. 

Today, Coimbra is home to one of the oldest universities in Europe, the University of Coimbra, a UNESCO world heritage site. With the university’s history dating to 1290, the city has been a beacon of learning and culture since the Middle Ages. 

The university’s Joanina Library is a Baroque masterpiece. The city’s old cathedral, Sé Velha, is a beautiful symbol of its medieval past.

In Coimbra, you’ll also find Quinta das Lagrimas, a beautiful garden that witnessed the love story of King Dom Pedro of Portugal and Ines de Castro. Pedro and Ines’ love story is one of Portugal’s most tragic yet famous love stories ever. Today, they lie in ornate tombs inside the Monastery of Alcobaca in Central Portugal.

📖 Related Read: One perfect day in Coimbra, Portugal.

Guimaraes

Guimaraes Castle
The historic Guimaraes Castle in North Portugal.
Image courtesy: Leonid Andronov via Canva Pro

Often referred to as the “birthplace of Portugal,” Guimaraes is where the country’s first king, Afonso Henriques, was born. 

Guimaraes was also the site of the Battle of Sao Mamede, an important war that led to the foundation of the Portuguese Kingdom.

The Historic Center of Guimaraes is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is an exceptional example of European medieval settlements evolving into modern towns. According to UNESCO, the construction techniques in Guimaraes represent the evolution of Portuguese architecture from the 15th to the 19th centuries.

Landmarks such as the Guimaraes Castle and the Ducal Palace of the Braganza highlight the city’s historical significance. Largo da Oliveira is a charming square in the heart of Guimarães, featuring historical buildings and the ancient olive tree that gave the square its name.

Braga

Impressive baroque stairway of Bom Jesus do Monte
The impressive baroque stairway of Bom Jesus do Monte in Braga.
Image courtesy: marguillatphotos from Getty Images via Canva Pro

Braga is one of Portugal’s oldest cities and has been an important religious center since Roman times. 

The history of Braga dates back to 290 BCE, when the Romans founded it and named it “Bracara Augusta.” Five military roads once passed through this historic town in Portugal. The Suebis, Visigoths, and Moors captured and ruled it before it was annexed into the Portuguese Kingdom.

Known as the “Portuguese Rome,” Braga boasts numerous churches and sanctuaries, including the impressive Bom Jesus do Monte, a pilgrimage site with a monumental Baroque stairway. 

The city’s Se Cathedral is the oldest in Portugal. It offers a fascinating glimpse into various architectural styles, including Manueline and Moorish.

📖 Read Next: How to spend one memorable day in Braga, Portugal?

Porto

Church of Ildefonso in Porto Portugal

Porto is Portugal’s second-largest city and one of Europe’s oldest centers of history, culture, and architecture. 

Set along the Douro River, Porto was once a prosperous Roman town and a crucial trading post throughout the Middle Ages. 

One of Portugal’s most famous personalities in the Age of Discoveries, Prince Henry the Navigator, was born in Porto in the 14th century. 

The city’s historical importance is exemplified by its array of architectural marvels, including the awe-inspiring Dom Luis I Bridge and the baroque Clerigos Church. 

The historic center of Porto, particularly the Ribeira district, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, celebrated for its picturesque streets and colorful buildings. Porto’s blue-tiled churches are absolutely unmissable.

Additionally, Porto is famous for its production of Port wine, which has been integral to the city’s economy and culture for centuries. The wineries in the lush, rolling hills of the Douro Valley and the cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia, across the Douro River from Porto, are witness to this long-standing winemaking tradition of Portugal.

📖 Related Read: 12 Porto travel tips to make your Portugal journey memorable.

Belmonte

The historic town of Belmonte in Portugal
Image courtesy: vector99 from Getty Images via Canva Pro

Belmonte is a town with a rich Jewish heritage. It is known for being the birthplace of Pedro Alvares Cabral, the discoverer of Brazil. 

Belmonte’s Jewish Museum showcases the Portuguese Jewish community’s rich history and cultural heritage.

The medieval Castle of Belmonte, perched on a hilltop, offers stunning views of the surrounding landscape.

You cannot miss the Church of Santiago, an architectural delight combining Romanesque and Gothic styles.

Sintra

Quinta da Regaleira facade
The mysterious Quinta Regaleira in Sintra, Portugal.

Sintra is a fairy-tale town in the Sintra Mountains, renowned for its palaces, castles, and gardens. The city’s history is not as long as it is eclectic. 

This beautiful city of Sintra was the summer residence of Portuguese royals in the 15th century. In the historic center, you’ll find the old National Palace, a beautiful mix of Gothic and Moorish architectural styles that served as the royal summer refuge.

In the mid-19th century, King Ferdinand II built the eclectic and colorful Pena Palace, heralding the age of European Romantic architecture in Sintra. 

The Moorish Castle, an ancient fortress built by the Moors in medieval times, is the oldest of the lot.

Perhaps the most eccentric historic mansion in Sintra is Quinta Regaleira, which features a mix of Manueline, Renaissance, and Medieval Portuguese architecture. It is known for its mysterious underground tunnels and two initiation wells, which were used for secret initiation rites.

📖 Related Read: How to plan the best day trip from Lisbon to Sintra?

Conimbriga

Roman mosaics at Conimbriga
The ancient mosaics of Conimbriga tell many stories.

Conimbriga is one of the most historic cities in Portugal due to its extensive and exceptionally well-preserved Roman ruins. 

The archaeological site of Conimbriga dates back to the 2nd century BCE. It is home to the Roman Forum, which was once the hub of social, political, and economic activities

Conimbriga is renowned for its exquisite mosaic floors, particularly those in the House of Fountains. These floors depict intricate and vibrant scenes from Roman mythology and daily life.

The Conimbriga Museum houses significant artifacts excavated from the site, including statues, tools, and personal items. This gives visitors a comprehensive understanding of the community that thrived here.

📖 Related Read: Best things to see and do at the Roman ruins of Conimbriga.

Tomar

Tomar Castle
Image courtesy: Andrey X. via Canva Pro

The Portuguese city of Tomar is closely associated with the Templar Knights. This Catholic military order played a significant role in Portuguese history.

Tomar’s Convent of Christ, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a fortified complex and a stunning example of magnificent Manueline architecture. The convent served as the headquarters of the Templars.

The 12th-century Church of Santa Maria do Olival served as the burial place for the Knights Templar and showcases fine examples of Gothic architecture.

One of the best-preserved medieval synagogues in Portugal, the Synagogue of Tomar reflects the region’s Jewish heritage and history.

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Want to visit the best historic places in Portugal? Grab this epic Portugal travel guide with the 9 best historic cities in Portugal where you can learn all about Portuguese history and culture.

Soumya is an acclaimed travel writer who has traveled to 30+ countries and lived in 8 while pursuing her passion for history and culture. Her writings have been published in BBC Travel, Architectural Digest, National Herald, and many more. She loves exploring world heritage sites and has a deep affinity for everything ancient, especially the lost civilizations of Mesoamerica!

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