Top 5 UNESCO Heritage Sites in Portugal

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Martin Andersen

22 May 2017

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Despite its relatively small size, inhabiting the western side of the Iberian Peninsula as well as a handful of islands in the Atlantic Ocean, Portugal is home to breathtaking biodiversity and unique rural and urban scenes. From the cities of Lisbon and Porto, both bursting with culture and history, to the enchanting landscapes of the Douro, the Algarve and the Azores, it’s little wonder that this country attracts millions of holidaymakers each year. Regardless of where you stay in this charming nation, you’ll never be far from something spectacular, and with 14 different UNESCO Heritage Sites, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to visit and immerse yourself in unique places. We’ve selected our five favourite UNESCO Sites in Portugal.

The Alto Douro Region

The Douro River winds its way from its source in the Spanish countryside near the city of Zamora, through the verdant landscape of Portugal’s northernmost region, before finally passing under Porto’s famous Luis I Bridge and into the Atlantic Ocean. Over time, the water has carved its path through the fertile valley, where people for more than 2,000 years have made delicious wine from the grapes that thrive in this climate. The signs of two millennia of winegrowing or vinhateiro in the region are visible throughout. Vineyards appear around every corner and if you’re lucky, you might still spot one of the old Rabelo boats, which used to be the only way to transport the wine barrels to Porto, from where they could be sold to the rest of the world. The Alto Douro Region is a beautiful and tranquil part of the Iberian Peninsula and it’s definitely one of the most delicious entries on UNESCO’s list.  


The Historic Centre of Porto

The city of Porto has roots that date back over 2,300 years. From the first Celtic settlements that sprung up along the rich soil around the mouth of the Douro River, the city has grown steadily over the centuries and is today the second-largest in Portugal. In the heart of the city, you’ll find numerous buildings and structures that stand as proud monuments to the importance of the city as a merchant harbour and trading port, from where the sweet wine produced along the Douro River could be sold to countries like England and France, where port wine became a popular dessert wine from the 17th century and onwards. The most iconic structure in Porto is undoubtedly the Luis I Bridge. Connecting the city with the smaller town of Vila Nova de Gaia, the bridge leads you straight into the historic centre of Porto. Stroll through the narrow, medieval streets, past the towering cathedral and the imposing Sao Bento Train Station until you come to the vast Praca da Liberdade. Porto is a vibrant city, full of little modern nooks and contemporary gems. However, as you walk through the centre, you’ll be forgiven for thinking you’ve travelled back a few centuries in time. 


Cultural Landscape of Sintra

The Portuguese royal family developed this serene part of the country into an idyllic Summer escape from the capital during the warmer months and the undisputed jewels in this crown of achievement are the two national palaces of Pena and Sintra. In the 19th Century, after a great earthquake had laid waste to large parts of Lisbon and its surrounding area, the young King Ferdinand II acquired the ruined monastery on which he built the colourful Pena Castle, which would become the official summer residence of the king and his family. He also oversaw the construction of the Sintra Palace and numerous other estates across the mountainous region. Under the supervision of the German architect Baron von Eschwege, the region was transformed into a showpiece of Romantic architecture, where old ruins and medieval artefacts were either restored or copied and mixed with contemporary touches. The castles, surrounded by their quaint villages and green forests, can easily be visited on a day-trip from holidaymakers staying in Lisbon or Estoril.


The Monastery of the Hieronymites and Tower of Belem in Lisbon

Portugal is a nation of proud seafarers, explorers and adventurers. Vasco Da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan are just two of the more famous names that spring to mind, while Christopher Columbus first sailed for the new world from Lisbon. Facing straight onto the vast Atlantic Ocean, the Portuguese capital is the perfect starting point for a voyage into the unknown, and the wealth that the explorers and seafaring merchants brought back with them, when they landed in Lisbon again, are still visible today in the splendid buildings that exist throughout the city. One of the most iconic of these buildings is the Tower of Belem, which stands majestically in front of the city, welcoming home sailors. Built by King Manuel I, the tower was meant to be both a coastal defence for Lisbon as well as a beacon for seafarers. Next to the tower, the king also constructed the Monastery of the Hieronymites, where the resident monks would pray for the king as well as safe passage and prosperity of the nation’s explorers. Pay a visit to these two impressive monuments to learn more about the impressive maritime history of Portugal, and if you want to immerse yourself even further, then there is also the Maritime Museum, which is located immediately behind the Tower of Belem.

Belem Tower

Laurisilva of Madeira

The Portuguese UNESCO Heritage list is dominated by cultural sites located across the mainland. However, one entry breaks both of those trends. The Laurel Forest on the Atlantic island of Madeira, also known as The Laurisilva, is a vast area of prehistoric, natural splendour. Dating back to the Tertiary Period (66-2 million years BC), the 15.000 hectares of pristine forest land is today a unique glimpse into what most of the landscape in the Mediterranean Basin would have looked like before humans walked the earth. The natural park was added to UNESCO’s list in 1996 and hosts a plethora of unique plants and wildlife. If you find yourself holidaying on the beautiful island of Madeira and you want to pretend that you’ve travelled back to the age of the dinosaurs, without the hassle of having to run away from velociraptors and tyrannosauruses, the Laurisilva Forest is the perfect place to visit.


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