Portugal has a lot of hidden gems that you definitely should visit during your Portugal road trip. It has stunning monasteries with spectacular architecture or an exotic Buddha park near a popular tourist destination. There are magnificent hikes, pink lakes with flamingos or little-visited but lovely villages to discover. We spent over two months traveling around Portugal and exploring all of the major attractions, as well as some lesser-known hidden gems. In this blog, we’ll tell you about the 10 most unique places to visit in Portugal if you’re looking for a more off the beaten path experience.
How To Visit The Hidden Gems Of Portugal?
While some hidden gems can be found in or near major cities, they usually require you to get off the beaten track. You’re unlikely to get there by public transport.
So in short: Portugal’s unique destinations are best visited by (rental) car.
We drove around Portugal with our self-built camper van. We had no difficulties moving throughout the country because our small bus may easily be parked in a normal parking spot. From a bustling metropolis to a remote natural reserve, our bus took us to the most unique places of Portugal. We found all the secret gems and visited every part of Portugal in this way. So we experienced how wonderful personal transportation is and strongly advise you to travel to Portugal by car – or, of course, a camper bus.
The international airports in Portugal with the most direct flights are Porto, Lisbon, and Faro. There are frequently very good flight discounts to Faro. You’ll find many vehicle rentals at the airports of these three cities, as well. You can compare and book a rental vehicle online for the lowest price in just a few minutes. By renting a car directly at the airport, your road trip around Portugal can start right away after landing.
If that’s not within your budget, you may also easily go to the most popular attractions by public transportation. You can still hire a car from there or arrange for a day trip or taxi to visit the more unique sights in Portugal as well.
#1 Sculpture Park Bacalhôa Buddha Eden Near Obidos
What is the relationship between a sculpture garden, a billionaire, and the Taliban? When you visit Bacalhôa Buddha Eden in Portugal, you’ll learn about this unique connection. Billionaire José Barardo was so disturbed by the Taliban’s 2001 destruction of ancient Buddha sculptures in Afghanistan that he vowed to give back some art to the world. The result of that intention is the beautiful Buddha Eden Garden sculpture park in the village of Bombarral, about 20 kilometres from the popular tourist attraction Obidos.
The sculpture garden, which is 35 hectares in size, is surrounded by vineyards and olive trees. Buddha Eden Garden contains approximately 6,000 tons of marble and granite statues. It is Europe’s biggest Oriental sculpture garden. Although the park opened in 2010, construction is still ongoing.
The park’s beginning can be traced back to the Buddhas, which you’ll find in abundance. The billionaire, on the other hand, is an avid art collector who has also placed sculptures from his personal collection in the park. There’s a large area of African art, a pond with a red pagoda, and an entire zoo of metal animal sculptures.
#2 The Passadiços De Paiva
If nature and walking are what you’re after, the Paiva Walkways – or the Passadiços do Paiva in Portuguese – should definitely be on your wish list. For eight kilometers, wooden footbridges snake along the cliffs carved into the landscape by the River Paiva. The route follows the riverbed and gorge the entire time. The views are beautiful and different every season. Along the way you can also leave the path for a cooling dip in the river. This is definitely recommended in the summer, when temperatures can get high.
Along the way you will also pass two suspension bridges, of which the 516 Arouca Bridge is the longest suspension bridge for pedestrians on many bucket lists. The 516 Arouca Bridge is no less than 516 meters long, hence the name. The bridge only opened in 2021, so it is also a fairly new landmark in Portugal. The Arouca Bridge hangs 175 meters above the cliff. So you will first have to climb a lot of stairs to get there, but then you will also be rewarded with a very special attraction. Only a limited number of visitors are allowed on the bridge at a time – so make sure you buy your ticket online well in advance – and you will also go on the bridge with a guide and a group. You will then receive some explanation and then walk over the suspension bridge. Below you you can see the river running in the depths, because you can just look through the railings of the floor. So this is definitely not a Portuguese attraction for people with a fear of heights.
This short hike is located near Porto, a city that you will undoubtedly want to visit on your tour through Portugal, and therefore this hidden gem is almost always on your route. Tickets for the walkway are only € 1 and are mostly intended to limit the number of visitors. So be sure to buy it online in advance. You pay € 12 for the Arouca Bridge.
#3 Castle Town Of Silves In The Algarve
As the oldest town in the Algarve, the historic center of Silves is like a time machine. The large cathedral, white plastered houses and the enormous castle of red sandstone take you back in time. Silves is one of the nicest towns to visit in the Algarve region. But because the castle town is located a little more inland while most Algarve visitors are attracted by the sandy beaches of the area, it is much less visited than other destinations in the south of Portugal.
From afar you can see the castle of Silves on top of the hill overlooking the landscape while approaching the town. The red sandstone fortress is an impressive sight and clearly intended for defense. In the Algarve you will find more fortresses, but none are as big as the Castelo dos Mouros in Silves. It is one of Silves’ most popular attractions. The literal highlight of a castle visit is climbing the monumental castle walls. From the walls you can admire the distant view of the surroundings and the river Arade.
Other places of interest in Silves are the cathedral right next to the castle, the photogenic streets of the historic center and the special Cruz de Portugal. Make sure to stop at the viewpoint on the other side of the river for the best view of Silves.
#4 The Ghost Town Of Minas De São Domingos
Do old ghost towns also appeal to you? Then you should definitely visit the old copper mine Minas de São Domingos during your Portugal trip. What was once an important copper mine with a bustling mining village is now an abandoned place with ruins, old machinery and a poisonous red lake. You can visit this hidden gem in the Alentejo region of Portugal for free. If you’re planning to visit this area of Portugal, we highly recommend you to visit the old ghost town.
Where the Romans once already searched for precious metals, a flourishing mining village emerged in later centuries, owned by an English company. In fact, the mines were doing so well that this is said to have been the first village in Portugal with electricity. Mining sulfuric acid was ultimately not the best decision for the Minas de São Domingos. As a result, the soil became seriously polluted and more and more miners fell ill. The mine was eventually closed in the 1960s and the village fell into disrepair.
That dilapidated village still stands and is now a sort of ghost town on the edge of a poisonous, red colored lake. In the ghost town, you can still see the remains of old houses, a chimney, the loading platform of the station, the old offices and more ruins. There are information signs in Portuguese and English in various places to provide visitors with more background information about the metals in the ground and about the old mining village.
#5 The Ria Formosa Natural Park In The Algarve
Between the coastal towns of Faro and Tavira in the Algarve is the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa located. It is one of the most beautiful places in Portugal we visited. While the coast in the west of the Algarve is dominated by its well-known orange cliffs and picturesque bays with sandy beaches, east of Faro you will find a vast mudflat area. This is a beautiful nature reserve, the Ria Formosa, voted one of the seven natural wonders of Portugal by the Portuguese a few years ago.
The natural park is a unique lagoon between the Portuguese mainland and the sea, where you can visit islands, saltwater marshes, sandy beaches, pink lakes, sandbanks, mudflats, peninsulas, dunes, villages and salt production areas. Many bird species have their home here and the special flora and fauna attract many visitors. The Ria Formosa lagoon has five main islands – Ilha da Barreta, Ilha da Culatra, Ilha da Armona, Ilha de Tavira and Ilha de Cabanas – as well as two peninsulas. The islands are very close to the coast, creating a mudflat area with interesting plants and animals in between.
One of the biggest attractions of the Ria Formosa Nature Reserve are its pink lakes. Pink? Yes, that’s right. Besides fishing, salt production used to be one of the main sources of income for this area. For this purpose, the salty seawater was collected in basins, where the water would evaporate and leave a thick layer of sea salt. As the water evaporates, the concentration of salt and minerals increases. Those minerals color the remaining water pink, which is a beautiful sight! The huge mountains with white salt are also impressive to see. You would almost mistake them for snow mountains.
#6 The Marble Villages Of The Alentejo
Did you know that Portugal is famous for its beautiful marble? The northeast of the Alentejo region is one of the biggest marble production areas in the world. Marble has been the main export product for the towns in this area for many years. With so much marble available, it is not difficult to guess what these towns must look like! As marble was the easiest and cheapest building material in the area, locals used it for everything. Entire squares are covered with marble floor stones and entire buildings and palaces are constructed with marble of the highest quality.
The main villages in this marble region – Estremoz, Borba and Vila Viçosa – have used the marble for absolutely everything. From door frames and window frames to entire palaces and squares. We were told that the locals even ground the white marble to make paint to whiten their houses. That was cheaper and easier for the residents of this region than buying regular white paint.
Especially Estremoz and Vila Viçosa are worth a visit. Estremoz has the best-known and biggest marble quarries and Estremoz marble has been used all over Europe, especially in palaces and monumental buildings. You can see a marble quarry during your stay in Estremoz, but the town itself is also worth a visit. The higher part of Estremoz has old streets and a beautiful white castle from the thirteenth century. It was built by the Portuguese king for his wife Isabel of Aragon and the high tower Torre das Tres Coroas is still one of the most emblematic buildings of the city. It is a hotel, Poussada de Rainha Santa Isabel, nowadays, but you can visit parts of it as a visitor. You can climb the tower for free, even without staying in the hotel as a guest.
You can visit an even more beautiful palace in Vila Viçosa. The town was once the royal seat of the Portuguese kings and that has left quite a few beautiful traces. Impressive is the huge Praça da Républica square with the Paço Ducal Palace, both made of marble. The Dukes of Bragança built the marble palace in the sixteenth century, so even before they had the Portuguese throne and ruled Portugal for centuries. A visit to the Marble Palace gives you an insight into the Portuguese royal history, but above all shows you the splendor of that age.
#7 The Street Art Of Lagos
We didn’t associate the Algarve and the town of Lagos with modern street art, so this town definitely surprised us. The historic coastal town with its beautiful sandy beaches is a mecca for street art lovers!
Much of the modern art on the Lagos walls is the work of the LAC (Laboratório de Actividades Criativas), a cultural organization that has invited famous artists on a number of occasions since 2011 to come to Lagos and create new art. You can pick up a free street art map at the LAC to help you find the most beautiful murals in the city. You don’t have to though, as most works of art are right in the historic center. As you stroll through the old streets, you will see some of the many murals and graffiti artworks for sure.
One of our favorites is the work of the Belgian street artist ROA. He is known for his huge artworks of animals in black and white. He usually depicts furry animals, painting the fur in a very detailed way, but for his Lagos work he did a beautiful job with two black and white snails. You can find the work in Rua Lançarote Freitas, which we walked past almost every day during our one week stay in Lagos.
#8 The Convento De Cristo Monastery In Tomar
Our visit to the Monastery of Tomar – or the Convento de Cristo – took us to one of the most special places in Portugal. We were deeply impressed by the size of the monastery-church-castle complex, the special architectural styles and the beautiful details. We had never seen a building like this before and even after wandering around for an hour, we kept stumbling on yet another beautiful part of the monastery. It is not difficult to see why the monastery complex of Tomar is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Portugal has a unique, local architectural style from the Middle Ages and the Monastery of Tomar is one of the best places to see it. It is the Manueline, named after the Portuguese king Manuel I who combined a mix of Gothic and Renaissance elements in the buildings he had designed. As a reference to the overseas conquests of Portugal as a world power, this style usually has a lot of sea elements, ropes, coral, etc. in its buildings. One of the facades of the central church of the monastery complex in Tomar is also often referred to as the best example of the Manueline style. Look for the ‘Janela do Capítulo’ and you will see right away why visitors are impressed by this window.
The highlight of the complex is not even this special Manueline facade, but the central church – the ‘Charola’ – which is very different from other churches. It is a round church – or rather 16-sided – with a round altar in its centre with arches, paintings and decorations. With enormously high ceilings, many decorations and the utmost splendour, you need to walk at least a few circles around the altar of this Charola to capture what you see.
Tip: buy a combination ticket for the monasteries of Tomar, Batalha and Alcobaça for € 15 and visit all three monasteries in this area.
#9 The East Of The Douro Valley
When the Douro Valley comes to mind, most visitors of Portugal think of rolling hills with wine estates. A large part of the Douro Valley is a beautiful and much-visited wine region. But the Douro river is much longer than just this wine area and created an even more beautiful valley to the east of the country. The Douro river enters Portugal in the east at the Spanish border and we highly recommend you to follow the river from that point. You’ll explore a beautiful part of Portugal off the beaten track. It makes a wonderful short road trip in a little visited part of the country.
The starting point is Miranda do Douro, a village located right on the border with Spain. Perched on a hilltop on the bend of the river, this quaint little town of whitewashed buildings has been an important defensive spot for centuries due to its strategic position. In this remote corner of the country, the town had a somewhat isolated location, so it has developed separately from the rest of the country for ages. The result is a unique folk culture with its own traditional costume and folk dances and even its own language, Mirandese.
From Miranda do Douro we followed the river to the west, so towards the well-known wine region that is usually visited. The eastern part of the Douro River is located in the Douro International Natural Park, exactly on the border between the two countries. The river has carved a deep gorge in the mountains, creating a beautiful landscape.
Unfortunately, you cannot drive straight along the river, but there are several viewpoints on both the Portuguese and Spanish sides of the Douro. Those viewpoints are often on the edge of a picturesque medieval village that makes you feel like traveling back in time. Viewing platforms have even been constructed at the most beautiful viewpoints, such as a glass platform at the village of Picote, for an extra dramatic effect.
Set aside at least a day for this short road trip. The driving time is about 3.5 hours, but because you also want to make a number of stops, you definitely need that full day.
#10 Surf Walhalla Nazaré
When researching Nazaré, you will probably first read about the gigantic monster waves of Nazaré. Just off the coast, the Nazaré Canyon on the seabed gives waves an extra push to grow to monstrous proportions. In the past, this resulted in a lot of fishermen’s widows and legends about sea monsters, but in recent decades the coastal town in Portugal has been discovered by surfers.
In the winter months, the parking lots are filled with campervans with surfboards on the roof. The famous monster waves of Nazaré attract surfers from all over the world to conquer these towering bodies of water. Nazaré has several world records, like the highest wave ever surfed and year after year the highest wave of that year.
We visited the coastal town in December and saw those extremely high waves. Unfortunately there were no world records are set during our visit, but the waves high enough to feel the splashes from a distance. The best view of the waves is from the viewpoint at the old fortress or from the pier at the ‘Farol Nazaré Pontão Norte’. When extremely high waves are predicted, the pier is usually packed with surf fans and photographers with their big zoom lenses to watch the surfers perform their tricks.