Portugal is booming right now. For far too long it sat in the shadows of more famous European siblings, but today it’s fully stepped into its own dazzling sunshine, drawing tourists in the millions to the coastal cities of Lisbon and Porto to be wowed by the multicultural vibes, historic architecture, and fantastic cuisine (port wine and egg tarts, anyone?).
But while the cities are being swarmed, the interior of the country largely remains a quiet paradise of rolling hillsides dotted with quaint hamlets, constructed in traditional styles and full of art, culture, and history. But there are some that rise above the pack, like these 10 most beautiful villages in Portugal.
Near Portugal’s border with Spain, a mountain of granite rises from the landscape like a battleship. Perched along its uppermost reaches and surrounded by 13th-century walls sits the medieval town of Marvão.
Deemed so beautiful and of such historic relevance that it was featured in the New York Times travel book “1,000 Places to See Before You Die”, Marvão was hugely important in the Middle Ages for its defensive location.
Today, evidence of its military past is found in the walls and old castle, with the main village consisting of immaculate, white-washed houses topped with red-tiled roofs and wrought-iron balconies, cut through by cobblestoned streets.
Its close location to Spain means there’s a heavy Spanish, Moorish, and Jewish influence with the religious architecture. The top-of-the-world views are unparalleled as well.
Dubbed “The Most Portuguese Village in Portugal”, even the picturesque traditional stone and red-roofed houses pale in comparison to the town’s unique bedrock: Monsanto is literally built around and on a giant heap of moss-covered boulders. Houses and streets curve to fit around behemoth rocks, and in some cases, the boulders form part of walls, ceilings, and doorways.
Wander the steep cobblestone avenues for surprise views of the rock-houses before eventually finding yourself at the top of the hill, where the remains of a partially-destroyed Templar castle offer panoramic countryside views.
Since ancient times, the hilltop that Monsanto is perched on has been a key strategic defense location; together with eleven other villages around the country, Monsanto was instrumental in helping defend the country from invaders.
The village can be explored on just a day trip, but as it’s a roughly three-hour drive from Porto or Lisbon, make it an overnighter by staying at one of the quaint bed-and-breakfasts and enjoying a nice dinner on the scenic terrace at Petiscos & Granitos.
Nestled into the natural amphitheater of a terraced hillside in the enchanting Serra do Açor region, the tightly-clustered houses of Piódão have existed since medieval times relatively undisturbed by the outside world thanks to the region’s isolation.
Nearly all the houses and streets are made from schist, a dark-grey stone commonly found in the surrounding countryside. This makes the uniform-grey village stand out against the lush green. The only note of dissonance comes from the white-washed church of Our Lady of Conception and the occasional blue-painted door or windowpane.
An ideal town for wandering and climbing the stairways to admire the craftsmanship of the stone houses, you can also go on walks through the terraces to other smaller villages like Foz de Égua, a smattering of hillside stone houses and a schist bridge spanning a babbling brook that looks like a place out of Middle Earth.
A charming town of wedding-cake white houses with colorful trim and tile roofs bathed in hilltop sunshine, Óbidos is incredibly easy on the eyes.
Up until the 19th century, it was traditional that the town was passed into the ownership of the incoming queen on her wedding day, a tradition that started when Queen Urraca of Leon was gifted Óbidos by her husband King Leon in the 1200s. As such, generations of wealthy royals heaped favor on Óbidos and funded the construction of its sumptuous dwellings. The town is also dotted with quaint historic churches dating from throughout the centuries.
Surrounded by vineyards and cherry orchards (which are used to make the region’s signature cherry liqueur), it also has idyllic countryside views, which are best enjoyed from the castle on the top of the hill, which has Moorish origins from the 700s. The meandering, cobblestone streets are too narrow for cars, so you can explore without the noise and congestion.
A gem to visit throughout the year, March-April is especially nice for its luscious spring weather, blooms, and annual International Chocolate Festival.
Located in the heart of the Portuguese countryside, Sortelha’s pride and glory is its magnificent castle, which has been designated a National Monument. Dating from the Roman Empire, the castle passed through the hands of various kingdoms and rulers, many of whom, like King Sancho in the 13th century, took definite advantage of its defensive capabilities.
The ancient walls and ruins can now be explored at leisure, and visitors can even climb up the main tower to take in the view. From the castle, descend winding streets between the stone houses, where you can find restaurants serving authentic medieval fare and artisan shops selling the town’s signature woven baskets, jams, and liqueurs.
Castelo de Vide
Lovers of ancient history and culture will have a field day in Castelo de Vide. Human occupation in the area dates from the Bronze Age and archeological treasures litter the surrounding landscapes.
Heading into town reveals closely-packed cobblestone streets hemmed in by the traditional white-walled and red-roofed houses of most Portuguese villages, as well as an ancient castle and beautiful churches. Much of the architecture dates from the 13th century, giving the entire village a true air of antiquity.
Similar to nearby Marvão, Castelo de Vide’s location near the Spanish border meant that many Jews fleeing persecution came to Portugal, and in Castelo they established a Jewish Quarter that is one of the most important and best-preserved in the whole of Portugal.
The area is also home to hot springs with reputed healing powers, but be careful: legend has it that if you drink the waters from the Fonte da Mealhada fountain, you’ll return to Castelo de Vide to get married!
Located on a sloping hill overlooking the Guadiana River and Alqueva Lake, Monsaraz is another postcard-perfect example of a classic Portuguese village with its limestone-and-schist white houses with red roof tiles and churches built in a variety of styles.
Protected by an ancient stone wall, visitors enter the town through one of four entry gates. The interior streets and houses are bright and welcoming, inviting visitors to stroll around at their leisure (Monsaraz is another non-car village) and travel back in time at historic monuments like the castle keep, which dates from the 14th century. Due to the town’s close location to Spain, the castle even features a bullfighting ring (which is no longer in use).
Another of the town’s biggest attractions are the nearby examples of megalithic architecture, showing that the area has been occupied since the Neolithic era.
Azenhas do Mar
The rugged Atlantic coastline. Towering sea cliffs battered by white-tipped swells. And at the peak of these cliffs, a huddle of white-washed houses topped with red tiles. That vision is Azenhas do Mar.
Located just a short drive from Lisbon, Azenhas do Mar is a lovely place to decamp for a beach getaway, with ancient staircases leading from the clifftop village down to a beach and a rock saltwater swimming pool. The white buildings, with blue accents and sea view terraces, bring to mind the Mediterranean island of Santorini with its Cycladic architecture.
While there is not much to do in Azenhas itself, the surrounding region of Sintra is dotted with fantastical castles of astonishing colors and architectural styles, like Pena Palace, Monserrate Palace and Park, and Quinta da Regaleira.
Azenhas is close to Cabo da Roca, a picturesque cape that is also mainland Europe’s westernmost point.
Portugal’s coastal Algarve region is a well-trammeled paradise of secluded beaches surrounded by sea cliffs, sprawling resorts, and fancy villas. The white-washed seaside villages for which the area is also known are often overrun in summer by beachgoers, but one village has managed to retain its charm and largely stay off the radar: Ferragudo.
Located at the mouth of the Arade river and estuary, Ferragudo is a prime example of a classic fishing village from this part of the coast, with a tranquil bay dotted with pretty fishing boats and white cottages with red roofs clustered together right up to the waterline.
Home to a 16th-century fort, Ferragudo’s protected waters are also ideal for water sports, and its obscurity (relative to other fishing villages along the coast) means that you can wander the cobblestone backstreets unbothered by tourist hordes. And, this being a fishing village, you can stop at any number of bayside or neighborhood restaurants for fresh, delicious seafood.
While most of the villages on this list are renowned for their beautifully-preserved white-washed houses with red-tiled roofs, the traditional architecture of Santana is entirely different. The historic houses of this village on the northern coast of Madeira Island (the largest of the Madeira archipelago, which is located off Africa’s northwestern coast) are triangular-shaped, with a front door and three small windows on the sides and top of the door.
Made from stone and with thatch roofs, the buildings are painted white with red or blue trim on the doors and windows. Most of the traditional houses are open to visitors, but the Madeira Theme Park is also home to replicas where guests can thoroughly learn about the history and culture of this unique, subtropical island.