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Uncork Portugal

This coastal country will fill your cup with its history, beauty, wine, and food.
By Tom crosby

Portugal, the westernmost country of mainland Europe, is famous for its superior port wines, but its history is as full and complex as a fine vintage.


Above: Alfama is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Lisbon, Portugal’s capital. ©Turismo de Lisboa photo

Below: The historical center Guimarães is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Porto Convention Bureau photo

Historical center

The Portuguese Empire was the longest-lived of modern European colonial empires, spanning almost 600 years. During the Age of Discovery, its ships sailed uncharted seas.

Uncork an adventure in this fascinating coastal country. In the spirit of the great Portuguese explorers, let’s take a look at Portugal.


Portugal’s capital, Lisbon is the country’s largest city and one of Europe’s oldest. Don’t miss the four-story limestone Belém Tower located on a small island in the Tagus River. It is one of several UNESCO World Heritage Sites located in Portugal.

Nearby is Padrão dos Descobrimentos, a soaring monument to the Age of Discovery and tribute to Portugal’s Henry the Navigator, patron of explorers during that historical time. He built the nearby Jerónimos Monastery in 1459, where Vasco da Gama worshipped prior to departing on an expedition to the Orient in 1497.

Rossio Square in downtown Lisbon is a lively gathering place with outdoor cafés, public gardens, and the Dona Maria II National Theater. Sample local fare at Café Nicola, once a gathering spot for literary and political meetings. Have a sinfully sweet pastry at the historical Pastelaria Suíça.

Alfama is one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods with restaurants, bars, and historical attractions, such as the medieval Castle of São Jorge. The city’s oldest building, Lisbon Cathedral, is also here.

Enjoy a ride anytime on the Elevador da Bica. Actually, this funicular resembles a small cable car as it climbs city streets though old neighborhoods to spectacular views of the Tagus River, the dockyard, and the Alto Barrio district.

Sights off Lisbon’s beaten path would include the doll hospital at Figueira Square. Dolls have been repaired since 1830. There’s a small window to see the Roman Cryptoporticus; usually underwater, this ancient forum is available to see only three days each September when it is drained of its water.

Coimbra’s university

Portugal’s third-largest city is home to one of Europe’s oldest universities. The University of Coimbra is open to tourists. See the 18th-century library, which has marvelous city views, as well as fresco ceilings, gilded archways, and elaborate carvings.


Portugal is named after this seaside city at the mouth of the Douro River, often hailed as the world’s port wine capital. Visitors marvel at the 19th-century Palácio da Bolsa (the city’s stock exchange) sitting beside the Church of St. Francis, the city’s best-known Gothic monument. It’s known for its artistically decorated apse chapels and altarpieces.

Nearby is Rua de Santa Catarina, with an open-air market and plethora of shops. Portuguese armorial carpets can be purchased here.

There are inexpensive trams to ride, pastry to be nibbled, and tripe soup to be sipped. Hike the stairs to hike to the top of Clérigos Church’s bell tower to drink in awesome views of the city. Peruse bookshelves in the lavishly built Livaria Lello, considered to be one of the best bookstores in the world.

But the No. 1 tourist attraction lies across one of the steel arched bridges on the Douro River. At Vila Nova de Gaia, spend time browsing among the 60 wine “lodges.” Stroll along corridors lined floor-to-ceiling with wooden casks of aging port wine while learning about various vintages.

Gaia’s riverside cafés, restaurants, and bars are sites from which you can watch sailboats transporting wooden casks from vineyards to the lodges. At night, multi-colored rooftop neon signs tout port wine brands and illuminate houses rising up along the riverbank.

To the north is Guimarães, known as the “Birthplace of Portugal,” with an historical city center, numerous museums, cathedrals, monuments, art galleries, and nationally praised local “meat” cakes on restaurant menus.

The Douro Museum in Regua is in a renovated 18th-century building and highlights the wine, flora, and fauna of the Douro region with a special emphasis on viticulture. Stop at the wine bar to contemplate what you have just seen.

The Baroque Mateus Palace at Vila Real is open to the public and its likeness is on the label of Mateus Rose wine that’s sold worldwide. The expansive and meticulously tended, highly-praised garden includes carved box hedges, statues, a cedar tunnel, and grounds that come alive with color in the spring.


Located in the heart of the nation’s wine country, Pinhão’s bucolic countryside is blanketed with vineyards offering spectacular hillside views. Of the six area bridges, Gustave Eiffel (architect of Paris’ Eiffel Tower) built an iron bridge here (and in Porto, which is not used). The 100-year-old train station boasts 25 unique blue and white tiles engraved with images of Portuguese workers, landscapes, and area customs.

Walk the medieval stone streets of this 12th-century walled hilltop village and see stone houses line the steep streets leading to Chafariz dos Pretos, a uniquely designed and decorated market square fountain, all reflecting a centuries-old lifestyle.

Outstanding wine and food, memorable medieval towns, and cosmopolitan cities come together for a vacation in Portugal that will go down in your family’s history.

Tom Crosby is a contributor based in Charlotte, N.C.

July/August 2014 Issue


AAA Travel and its preferred travel partners–including Insight Vacations, Viking River Cruises, and Uniworld Cruises–offer tours of Portugal. Select the “Rivers of Gold” cruise with Viking to see Portugal. Combine a vacation in Portugal with Spain on itineraries offered by Insight Vacations and Uniworld Cruises. Ask your AAA Travel professional for details and availability. Locate an office near you or call (877) 510-8702.

For general information about vacationing in Portugal, click on


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