Nestled on the Iberian Peninsula, Portugal is a mesmerizing blend of vibrant cities and serene countryside, but what truly sets it apart is its rich tapestry of history. From the bustling streets of Lisbon to the Azores islands in the middle of the Atlantic, every corner of this nation holds a tale waiting to be told.
When I visited Portugal, it was the history and the stories that I learned that truly captivated me. I’ve built this list drawing from my personal experiences in the country. As you read about the top 21 historical landmarks in Portugal, I hope you gain the insights you need to plan an amazing trip.
The Top 21 Historical Sites in Portugal
1 | Jerónimos Monastery
Located in the Belém district of Lisbon, the Jerónimos Monastery stands as a testament to Portugal’s Age of Discovery. Commissioned by King Manuel I in the early 16th century, this architectural marvel was built to honor Vasco da Gama’s successful voyage to India. The monastery is a prime example of Manueline architecture, a unique Portuguese style that combines Gothic, Renaissance, and Moorish elements.
When I visited this monastery I was impressed by the architecture and intricates sculptures that depict historical and biblical scenes. The highlight for many is the church’s nave, with its towering columns and delicate ribbed vaulting. While here, you will be able to see the tombs of prominent figures, including Vasco da Gama and the renowned poet Luís de Camões.
Adjacent to the monastery is the beautiful Praça do Império garden, perfect for a leisurely stroll. Given its historical and architectural significance, the monastery has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Location: Praça do Império 1400-206 Lisboa, Portugal
2 | Tower of Belém
The Tower of Belém is one of Lisbon’s most iconic landmarks. Constructed between 1514 and 1520 during the reign of King Manuel I, this fortress served as both a ceremonial gateway to Lisbon and a defensive bastion against potential sea invasions.
The tower was built in the Manueline architectural style and features ornate designs that draw inspiration from maritime elements. Over the centuries, the tower has played various roles, from a customs checkpoint to a prison, but its primary purpose was always maritime defense.
Travel Tip: To avoid long queues, especially during peak tourist seasons, I recommend you arrive early or pre-book tickets. As the passageways are quite narrow, it’s also recommended that you store your bags nearby if traveling with luggage.
Location: Av. Brasília, 1400-038 Lisboa, Portugal
3 | São Jorge Castle
São Jorge Castle sits atop Lisbon’s highest hill. Its origins can be traced back to the 1st century BC when it was a fortified Roman settlement.
The Visigoths and the Moors subsequently occupied it, with the latter significantly expanding the fortifications in the 10th century. The castle’s defining moment came in 1147 when it was captured by King Afonso Henriques and his Christian crusaders, marking a pivotal point in the Reconquista.
The castle’s robust walls and watchtowers offer panoramic vistas of Lisbon, the Tagus River, and the Atlantic Ocean beyond. As you wander through its stone corridors and courtyards, you can explore archaeological sites that reveal layers of Lisbon’s past, from Roman to Moorish times.
Location: R. de Santa Cruz do Castelo, 1100-129
4) Capela dos Ossos
The Capela dos Ossos, located within the Church of St. Francis complex in Évora, is one of the most unique and somber religious sites in Portugal. Constructed in the 16th century by Franciscan monks, the chapel serves as a meditation on mortality.
The monks, facing the challenge of overflowing graveyards around the church, decided to exhume the remains and use them to create a space for reflection. The result is a chapel whose walls, columns, and ceilings are adorned with the bones and skulls of over 5,000 individuals. I found this morbid, but the ingenuity of the monks is clear.
Upon entering the Capela dos Ossos, visitors are met with the chilling inscription: “Nós ossos que aqui estamos, pelos vossos esperamos” which translates to “We bones that are here, await yours.” The meticulously arranged bones, combined with the dim lighting, create an atmosphere of contemplation on life’s transience and the inevitability of death.
Location: Praça 1º de Maio 4, 7000-650 Évora, Portugal
Best Tour: Chapel of Bones Private Tour
5 | Pena Palace
Pena Palace sits atop the Sintra Mountains, and is one of the most famous landmarks in Portugal. The site originally housed a monastery built in the Middle Ages, which suffered significant damage during the 1755 Lisbon earthquake.
In the 19th century, King Ferdinand II, struck by the beauty of the Sintra hills, decided to build summer palace for the royal family here. He transformed the ruins of the old monastery into a this palace, drawing inspiration from Gothic, Renaissance, Moorish, and Manueline architectural styles. The result was a colorful and eclectic structure, surrounded by equally enchanting gardens.
I found that the vibrant reds, yellows, and blues really give this palace a distinct feel. The palace’s interiors are equally captivating, with rooms that showcase the opulence of the 19th-century Portuguese royalty. From the Arab Room with its intricate stucco work to the ornate bedrooms and reception halls, every corner tells a story of luxury and grandeur. The terraces and balconies of the palace offer breathtaking views of Sintra, the nearby Moorish Castle, and on clear days, even the city of Lisbon.
Travel Tip: Given the popularity of this site, I recommend you arrive early, especially during peak seasons. You should also wear comfortable footwear, given the hilly terrain and cobbled pathways.
Location: Estrada da Pena, 2710-609 Sintra, Portugal
Best Tour: Small Group Sintra, Pena Palace Tour
6 | Convent of Christ
Originally founded in the 12th century as the headquarters of the Knights Templar in Portugal, this monumental complex stands as a testament to the order’s influence and power. When the Templars were dissolved in the 14th century, the site was handed over to the Order of Christ, which played a pivotal role in Portugal’s Age of Discovery.
The architectural evolution of the convent over the centuries is evident in its structures, blending Romanesque, Gothic, Manueline, and Renaissance styles. The most iconic feature is the Charola, an oratory resembling a fortress, which reflects the Templar’s dual role as monks and soldiers.
The convent’s elevated position provides panoramic views of Tomar and the surrounding countryside, making it a favorite spot for photography.
Location: JH3J+99 Igreja do Castelo Templário, Estr. do Convento 8, 2300-000 Tomar, Portugal
7 | Alcobaça Monastery
The first Portuguese King, Afonso Henriques, founded this monastery in 1153. It was a gift to Bernard of Clairvaux, following a vow the king made to dedicate a monastery to the order if he conquered Santarém from the Moors, which he did in 1147.
Over the centuries, the monastery grew in importance and wealth, becoming one of the richest and most powerful monastic institutions in Portugal. Its architecture is a reflection of the Cistercian’s dedication to simplicity and austerity, with the church being one of the first Gothic buildings in Portugal.
Beyond its architectural significance, the monastery is also known for housing the tombs of King Pedro I and his lover, Inês de Castro, whose tragic love story is a famous chapter in Portuguese history.
While here, I recommend you visit the tombs of Pedro and Inês, the cloisters, and the Refectory. This is where the monks cooked their meals in silence, and they provide a great sense of what monastic life was like here.
Location: Praça 25 de Abril, 2460-018 Alcobaça, Portugal
8 | Óbidos Castle
The Óbidos Castle has a history that spans over a thousand years. The castle has Roman origins, but it was the Moors in the 8th century who significantly fortified the site. After the Reconquista, the castle and the surrounding town were retaken by the first King of Portugal, Afonso Henriques, in 1148.
As you pass through the town’s main gate, adorned with traditional azulejos, you may feel like you are transported back in time. The castle’s robust walls, offer panoramic views of the picturesque town and the surrounding countryside. A highlight for many is the Pousada, a historic hotel within the castle, offering a unique chance to experience medieval luxury with modern comforts.
The town of Óbidos itself is a maze of cobbled streets, quaint shops, and traditional houses, often adorned with vibrant flowers. Throughout the year, the town hosts various festivals, with the Medieval Market being a favorite, where the town and its inhabitants embrace medieval attire, food, and entertainment.
Location: R. Josefa de Óbidos, 2510-001 Óbidos, Portugal
9 | University of Coimbra
The University of Coimbra, established in 1290, holds the distinction of being one of the oldest continuously operating universities in the world and the oldest in Portugal. Initially founded in Lisbon, the university was permanently moved to Coimbra in 1537 by King John III.
The university’s Joanina Library, built in the 18th century, is particularly noteworthy, housing rare manuscripts and showcasing a stunning Baroque design.
The Royal Palace, which once served as the residence for Portugal’s kings, now houses the university’s main administrative offices. While here, you must visit the Joanina Library. It features intricately carved wood, gold leaf decorations, and an impressive collection of ancient books.
Location: 3004-531 Coimbra, Portugal
10 | Castelo dos Mouros
The Castelo dos Mouros sits atop the Sintra hills. The castle’s origins date back to the 8th century when the Moors, recognizing the strategic value of this elevated location, established a fortified outpost here. For centuries, it served as a vital defensive position, overseeing the Atlantic coast and the city of Lisbon.
However, during the Reconquista, the Moors surrendered the castle to Christian forces, marking a new chapter in its history. Today, you can visit the castle’s ruins and navigate the winding pathways and battlements. I was impressed with the breathtaking panoramic views of Sintra, the Pena Palace, and the vast Atlantic Ocean found here.
Location: 2710-405 Sintra, Portugal
11 | Porto Cathedral
Dominating the skyline of Porto, the Porto Cathedral, or Sé do Porto, is one of the city’s oldest and most significant monuments. Its construction began in the 12th century during the High Middle Ages, showcasing a blend of Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque architectural styles.
The interior of the cathedral reveals a richly decorated main chapel, adorned with intricate gold leaf work, and an impressive Gothic cloister adorned with azulejos, the traditional Portuguese tiles that depict various religious and historical scenes. The cathedral’s terrace offers panoramic views of Porto’s historic district and the Douro River – it’s a great spot for you to grab a picture!
Location: Terreiro da Sé, 4050-573 Porto, Portugal
12 | Livraria Lello
Established in 1906 by the Lello brothers, José and António, this bookstore quickly became a hub for intellectuals, writers, and artists. The building itself is a masterpiece, designed by engineer Francisco Xavier Esteves, and showcases a blend of Neo-Gothic, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco elements.
The bookstore’s stunning stained glass ceiling, carved wooden shelves, and the sinuous red staircase in the center are particularly noteworthy. Over the years, Livraria Lello has maintained its reputation as a haven for book lovers and has gained international fame, partly due to rumors of its inspiration for J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series, as the author lived in Porto during the early 1990s.
Due to its popularity, there’s often a queue outside, and a small entrance fee is charged, which can be redeemed against any book purchase. This does mean the bookstore can become very busy and if you have any suitcases or backpacks, it’s recommended that you store them nearby.
Location: R. das Carmelitas 144, 4050-161 Porto, Portugal
13 | Igreja de São Domingos
The Igreja de São Domingos is located in Lisbon, and was once the largest and most significant in the city. Over the centuries, it played host to numerous important events, including royal weddings and the beatification of Portuguese saints.
In 1959, a devastating fire consumed much of its interior, and the scars from this event are still visible today. Prior to that, in 1755, the church was severely damaged by the infamous Lisbon earthquake. The church also bears the weight of darker times, as it was adjacent to the Rossio Square, where the Portuguese Inquisition held public executions.
Visiting the Igreja de São Domingos is a poignant experience. The church’s walls, charred and cracked, stand as silent witnesses to the adversities it has faced. Instead of extensive restorations, the decision was made to preserve these marks, allowing visitors to feel the passage of time and the resilience of the structure. The church’s ambiance is one of solemnity and reflection, accentuated by the play of light through its stained glass windows.
A small memorial inside the church pays homage to the victims of the Inquisition, serving as a somber reminder of the darker chapters in Portugal’s history. Adjacent to the church is a small square with a lovely olive tree and a monument dedicated to the Jews persecuted during the Inquisition.
Location: Largo São Domingos, 1150-320 Lisboa, Portugal
14 | Batalha Monastery
The Batalha Monastery, whose name translates to “Monastery of the Battle,” stands as a monumental tribute to Portugal’s victory in the Battle of Aljubarrota in 1385. King John I of Portugal vowed to build a grand monastery in honor of the Virgin Mary if the Portuguese emerged victorious against the Castilians, and true to his word, the construction began a year after the battle.
The monastery took over a century to complete, and its architectural style evolved during this period, showcasing a blend of Gothic, Manueline, and Renaissance elements. The monastery also serves as the burial site for King John I, Queen Philippa of Lancaster, and their descendants, including the ill-fated Prince Henry the Navigator.
Location: Largo Infante Dom Henrique, 2440-109 Batalha, Portugal
15 | Carmo Convent
The Carmo Convent, is a hauntingly beautiful reminder of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake‘s devastation. Founded in 1389 by the knight Nuno Álvares Pereira, the church and convent were initially part of the Carmelite Order.
For centuries, it was one of Lisbon’s most important and opulent religious structures. However, the earthquake, followed by a tsunami and fires, left it in ruins. Instead of being fully rebuilt, the church was preserved in its ruined state, serving as a poignant monument to one of the city’s darkest days. I took a tour that stopped here – it was a great experience to learn more about the structure and the events leading up to the great earthquake.
Adjacent to the ruins is the Carmo Archaeological Museum, housed in the former convent’s main building. The museum boasts a diverse collection, ranging from prehistoric artifacts to medieval tombstones and even items recovered from the earthquake’s aftermath.
Location: Largo do Carmo 27, 1200-092 Lisboa, Portugal
16 | Roman Ruins of Troia
Situated on the Setúbal Peninsula, overlooking the Sado River, the Roman Ruins of Troia are a testament to the region’s significance during the Roman era. Established in the 1st century AD, this site was primarily dedicated to the production of garum, a popular Roman ish sauce, a highly prized commodity in ancient Rome.
The complex thrived for several centuries, benefiting from its strategic location near the river and the sea, facilitating both production and trade. Apart from the fish-salting facilities, the site also housed thermal baths, necropolises, and a religious temple. However, by the 6th century AD, the complex was abandoned, possibly due to economic decline or external invasions.
Today, the Roman Ruins of Troia offer a fascinating glimpse into the daily life and industry of ancient Rome. The on-site museum provides valuable insights into the site’s history, displaying artifacts unearthed during archaeological excavations, including pottery, coins, and tools.
Location: Tróia, 7570-789, Portugal
17 | São Cucufate Roman Villa
Located near the town of Vidigueira in southern Portugal, the São Cucufate Roman Villa is a significant archaeological site that showcases the remnants of a large Roman agricultural estate. The villa’s origins can be traced back to the 1st century AD, and it underwent several phases of construction and modification until the 4th century.
The estate was not just a residence but also a center of agricultural production, particularly focused on wine and cereals. After the decline of the Roman Empire, the villa experienced a period of abandonment before being repurposed as a Christian monastery during the medieval era, which led to further architectural modifications.
The ruins reveal a complex layout, including residential quarters, agricultural facilities, storage rooms, and courtyards. One of the site’s most distinctive features is the peristyle, a central courtyard surrounded by columns, which was typical of Roman villas. The remnants of the wine presses and storage vats provide insights into the villa’s agricultural activities and the importance of wine production in the region.
Location: Vila de Frades, Portugal
18) Castle of Bragança
The Castle of Bragança is located in the northeaster region of Portugal. Its origins date back to the 12th century, during the early days of the Portuguese monarchy. The castle was strategically positioned near the border with Spain, serving as a crucial defensive stronghold against potential invasions.
The castle features imposing walls, towers, and battlements. The castle’s keep, known as the Torre de Menagem, is its most iconic feature. Standing at 33 meters high, it offers panoramic views of Bragança and the surrounding landscapes. Inside the keep, a military museum showcases a collection of weapons, armor, and other artifacts, providing insights into the castle’s defensive history.
Location: R. Dom João V 62, 5300-025 Bragança, Portugal
19 | Citania de Briteiros
Located near the city of Guimarães in northern Portugal, the Citânia de Briteiros is one of the most significant and well-preserved Iron Age settlements, or ‘castros’, in the Iberian Peninsula. Dating back to the 1st millennium BC, this hilltop settlement provides valuable insights into the pre-Roman cultures of the region.
The site was inhabited continuously from the Iron Age through to the Roman period, showcasing a blend of indigenous and Roman influences in its architecture and artifacts. The layout of the settlement, with its fortified walls, stone houses, and communal spaces, reflects the social and economic organization of the Castro culture.
The on-site museum enhances the visitor experience by displaying a range of artifacts unearthed during archaeological excavations, such as pottery, tools, and jewelry.
Location: Estrada Nacional 309, km 55, 4805-181, Portugal
20 | Faro Cathedral
The Faro Cathedral, or Sé de Faro was originally built in the 13th century on the site of a Roman temple and later a Moorish mosque. Since then, the the cathedral has undergone several reconstructions and renovations due to pirate attacks and earthquakes.
Upon entering the Faro Cathedral, visitors are greeted by a serene ambiance, accentuated by the play of light through its stained glass windows. The main chapel, with its ornate altarpiece, is a masterpiece of Baroque artistry. The cathedral also boasts a collection of religious artifacts and artworks, including beautifully crafted azulejos (traditional Portuguese tiles) that depict biblical scenes.
One of the highlights for many visitors is the opportunity to climb the bell tower. The ascent, though steep, is rewarded with panoramic views of Faro’s historic old town, the Ria Formosa lagoon, and the surrounding landscape.
Location: Largo da Sé 11, 8000-138 Faro, Portugal
21 | Igreja de São Francisco
The Igreja de São Francisco is located in the historic center of São Francisco. Construction of the church began in the 14th century as part of a Franciscan monastery. The church features a lavish use of gold leaf, especially in the Baroque altarpieces to dazzling effect.
One of the most notable features is the Tree of Jesse, a polychrome woodwork sculpture that represents the family tree of Jesus Christ.
Beneath the church lies the catacombs, a place of burial for members of the Franciscan order and the local elite. The catacombs offer a stark contrast to the church’s grandeur, providing insights into the historical practices related to death and remembrance.
Location: Rua do Infante D. Henrique, 4050-297 Porto, Portugal
A Brief History of Portugal
Portugal has roots that stretch back to prehistoric times. Ancient civilizations, including the Celts, Iberians, and Lusitanians, have left their imprints on this land. Following their era, the Romans colonized the region in the 2nd century BC, weaving their influence into Portugal’s language, culture, and infrastructure. This Roman dominance eventually gave way to the Visigoths, a Germanic tribe. However, their reign was brief, as the Moors from North Africa took control in the 8th century AD, introducing profound Islamic influences, particularly in architecture, art, and science.
The Christian Reconquista, initiated in the 8th century, marked a pivotal turn in Portugal’s history. This series of campaigns by the Christian kingdoms aimed to reclaim territories seized by the Moors. By the mid-12th century, the region we recognize as Portugal today was liberated. The Treaty of Alcañices in 1179 further solidified its status, acknowledging Portugal as an independent kingdom under King Afonso I. The subsequent centuries, particularly the 15th and 16th, heralded Portugal’s golden age of exploration. Visionary navigators like Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan embarked on groundbreaking voyages, discovering new sea routes and establishing Portugal as a formidable maritime power with a vast overseas empire.
However, the 16th century also brought challenges. A succession crisis in 1580 led to the Iberian Union, placing Portugal and its territories under Spanish rule. This arrangement was met with resistance in Portugal, culminating in the Portuguese Restoration War in 1640. By 1668, Portugal’s sovereignty was restored, marking an end to Spanish dominance. The nation’s trajectory took another significant turn in the 20th century. The monarchy was dissolved, giving rise to the First Portuguese Republic. Yet, political turbulence ensued, leading to the establishment of the Estado Novo in 1933, an authoritarian regime that persisted until the peaceful Carnation Revolution in 1974. This revolution paved the way for the Third Portuguese Republic.
In the years that followed, Portugal underwent a process of decolonization, releasing territories like Angola, Mozambique, and East Timor. Present-day Portugal stands as a democratic republic, a proud member of the European Union. It’s a nation celebrated for its cultural richness, breathtaking landscapes, and enduring impact on global history.
FAQs | Historical Sites in Portugal
The Tower of Belém in Lisbon is often considered one of the most historical places in Portugal due to its significance in the Age of Exploration.
The Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon and the Alcobaça Monastery in Alcobaça are two prominent historical sites in Portugal.
Braga, located in the northern part of Portugal, is often cited as the oldest town in the country with its origins tracing back to ancient Roman times.
The Historic Centre of Oporto, Luiz I Bridge and Monastery of Serra do Pilar and the Cultural Landscape of Sintra are two unique World Heritage Sites in Portugal.
In Summary | The Top Historical Places in Portugal
I hope that you’ve enjoyed this post on the top historical places in Portugal. As you can see, the country features historical sites that date back before the Romans. Each site, with its unique narrative, invites visitors to delve deep into Portugal’s rich heritage and legacy.
Also, if you are planning a trip to Portugal soon, check out my Lisbon Travel Guide.
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