When you think of historic hotspots in Europe, Portugal’s extensive catalog may not immediately spring to mind. In fact, in 2019, Portugal was just the tenth most visited country in Europe by international tourists, with front-runner France receiving over three times as many visitors in the same year. However, for tourists with a penchant for history, Portugal remains a very popular destination, with 17 UNESCO world heritage sites and thousands of years of history to discover. Whether you are spending time in the bustling metropolises or venturing further off the beaten track, there are plenty of prominent historic sites for you to discover right across the country. Here are 3 of the best places in Portugal for history lovers.
Belém Tower, Lisbon
Situated on the northern bank of the River Tagus, Belém Tower is a distinct nod to the country’s celebrated maritime heritage which dates back to the 15th century. With construction beginning in 1514, the fortress was commissioned to defend Portugal’s valuable capital city from invaders, but was also used as a prison right up until the 19th century.
Alongside the neighboring Monastery of the Hieronymites (Jeronimos), the Belém Tower was one of the country’s first sites to be inscribed on UNESCO’s world heritage list. The unused tower remains a hotspot for tourists and locals alike, and has even been named as one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal! With kids under 12 going free and adults paying just €6, a trip to Belém Tower should certainly feature on your Lisbon to-do list.
Where better for history fans to learn about Portugal’s fascinating heritage than in Coimbra, one of the country’s oldest cities. If this alone wasn’t enough to entice you to Coimbra’s medieval, cobbled streets, maybe a potential trip to the city’s world-famous university can? Established in 1290, the University of Coimbra is one of the oldest universities on the planet and was the only operating university in Portugal for some centuries.
In 2013, the University of Coimbra was awarded UNESCO world heritage status, owing to its stunning make-up and architecture, particularly that of the Joanine Library. Adults can pay 20 euros for a guided tour accompanied by a member of the university’s vast student community. They will guide you around the most beautiful buildings on site, including the Baroque-style library and the Royal Palace.
Historic Center of Guimarães
Any historical tour of Portugal would not be complete without a visit to the historic center of Guimarães. Home to the country’s very first king, Afonso I, Guimarães is often referred to as the “birthplace of Portugal” and is synonymous with the creation of Portuguese identity. Situated in northern Portugal, Guimarães is no more than an hour’s drive from Porto, making for a perfect day trip away from the busy city center.
The former capital city is famed for its groundbreaking architecture, and whilst Guimarães has since transitioned into a more modern city, many of the medieval structures remain intact, with construction techniques from the 15th to 19th centuries still very much on display.
One of the must-see spots in the city is the Castelo de Guimarães, the site of many famous battles throughout the early years of Portugal’s independence. Whilst the castle was left abandoned for many years, 20th century restoration work now gives visitors a glimpse into the former glory of Castelo de Guimarães. Due to its historical importance and appeal, the castle sits alongside Belém Tower as one of the country’s Seven Wonders.
Why stop your historic Portuguese pilgrimage there? There are plenty more spots to discover, each detailing a segment of the rich and complex heritage of a nation entrenched in European history. You can add on visits to the historic center of Evora, the Convent of Christ in Tomar, the lighthouse of Sagres, or monastery of Batalha. All of these are some of the best places in Portugal for history lovers.
For more detailed descriptions, you may like my articles on what to do in Central Portugal as this is a very historic area of the country. Portugal is truly a history lover’s paradise!