The best days out if you are based in Porto
As Portugal's second city you'll find no shortage of things to do in Porto. You could happily spend a week there without running out of amazing sights and experiences to keep you occupied - I spent over a year there and never got bored.
But Porto is also a great base for exploring the north of Portugal, a region renowned for its beautiful, rolling verdant landscapes and towns which simply ooze history. This breif guide can be used to build an itinerary or just give you some ideas of what is a doable day trip from Porto. All these excursions are possible to do in a day, although some of them head into what we would call Central Portugal.
1. Douro Valley
The River Douro runs through the heart of Porto and presents a world of options. For those with access to a car the N222 offers one of the most scenic drives in Portugal as it winds along the south bank of the river.
If you're not driving then you are probably better placed to take advantage of the local produce. You'll be able to not only explore the terraced vineyards of the Douro Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but sample some of the region's famous port wines.
The most time-efficient way to enjoy the Douro Valley is by train. The Linha do Douro runs for 200 Km alongside the river Douro from the historic centre of Porto to the Spanish border. A slower, more indulgent mode of travel is to take one of the many cruise boats that sail the river.
The charming city of Aveiro lies around 100 km south of Porto and can be easily reached by train. Known as the "Venice of Portugal" the little city has a number of canals along which you can take a romantic boat ride in one of the traditional, brightly-coloured Moliceiros boats.
Beyond the city are the lagoons and salt marshes from which Aveiro's prosperity was once derived. Cod was once landed from Newfoundland here and salted to make Bacalhau. However the harbour silted up leaving the fishing fleet high and dry. The resulting lagoons now form an important ecosystem and bird sanctuary.
Whilst in Aveiro make sure you don't miss visiting Costa Nova. This little beach-side village is well-known for its iconic fisherman's cottages painted in red or blue pinstripes. The beach is pretty good too and home to the tallest lighthouse in Portugal.
Lisbon plays, whilst Porto works and Braga prays... Well, if you're a fan of ecclesiastical architecture than Braga won't disappoint. This northern city is considered the religious capital of Portugal and has the cathedrals, churches and monuments to prove it.
Many of the churches (including the cathedral) in Braga are among the oldest in the country, but it is the Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte that most people come to see. This Baroque masterpiece sits atop an equally impressive staircase compromising over 500 individual stairs. Fortunately there's a funicular to the top too!
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Visit the birthplace of Portugal, the historical city of Guimaraes. Once the nation's capital the city's 10th century castle still features on the Portuguese coat of arms.
This little city is awash with charm; the mediaeval quarter is home to winding cobblestone streets lined with old town houses, all of which lead to the picture-perfect central square.
Home to one of the oldest universities in Europe, this is a city packed with historic appeal. Founded by the Romans and the birthplace of six kings of Portugal Coimbra also did a stint as the nation's capital. It will therefore be unsurprising that the city boasts a number of historic churches, cobblestone streets and monuments. The city even has a very pleasant botanical garden.
But there is more to this university town than history - the student population make sure there is a vibrant nightlife if you fancy staying til late.
Coimbra is also a great point to take to the Mondego River as it meanders through its verdant valley.
6. Buçaco National Forest
Not far from Coimbra and the thermal spa town of Luso is the Buçaco National Forest. Once a hilltop monastery, and later a royal retreat, this 105 hectare walled forest is a beautifully wild and somewhat mysterious place. Wildlife abounds here with deer, wild boar and rare birds such as the black stork and peregrine falcon found here.
Dotted around the woods a various shrines and remnants of the old monastery. However, the most striking sight is the opulent, neo-Manueline Buçaco Palace. Built as a royal retreat the fairy-tale palace was barely completed when the King and crown prince were assassinated in Lisbon. Following the abolition of the monarchy the palace became a hotel.
This fairy-tale hilltop town with its stunning views and cobblestone streets was once the traditional wedding gift of Portuguese kings to their queens. Set within sturdy granite walls the town is a jumble of medieval streets, whitewashed cottages and red-tiled rooftops.
Overlooking all this and the plains below is the 12th century castle, which is now a hotel. It is hard to imagine that this castle was built to defend the port below - today the sea is barely visible from the battlements.
Viseu is another historic city in the heart of Portugal. Set in the hilly terrain inland from Aveiro this regional capital feels a little more off the beaten track. This wasn't always the case as the city is built on an important crossroads which goes back as far as Roman times. As a result the town prospered and there are some fine Renaissance and Baroque mansions and palaces dotted around the historic centre.
The city's crowning glory is the cathedral and its small square. The oldest barts date back to the 12th century with austere granite twin bell towers flanking a 17th century Baroque facade.
9. Viana do Castelo
It is probably fair to say that most visitors to Porto do not think about exploring northwards. But this is their loss as they are missing out on one of the most striking coastal towns in Portugal.
Viana do Castelo sits at the mouth of the River Lima, only about 10 kilometres south of the Spanish border. The medieval town is awash with winding streets and quaint squares which suit its relaxed pace of life. Once a prosperous fishing and shipbuilding centre, Viana boasts many a fine mansion in Manueline, Baroque and Renaissance style. The crowning feature of the town though is the beautiful, domed church of Santa Luzia set high above the town and commanding sweeping views of the beaches and coast beyond.
10. Peneda-Gerês National Park
If you needed a contrast to the bustle of downtown Porto you couldn't do much better than the Peneda-Geres National Park. Nestled among the wild and rugged mountainous region close to the border with Spain this is Portugal's only national park.
Renown for its spectacular landscape of mountains, valleys, rivers, and waterfalls you will also find plenty of history here going all the way back to prehistoric times. Not only this, but if you keep a lookout you may be lucky enough to spot a golden eagle or one of the rare Iberian wolves that roam the park.