Things to do for cultural tourism in Portugal (by region)

Things to do for cultural tourism in Portugal (by region)

Far from being an exhaustive list of all the events on the calendar, I want to show the infinite possibilities for cultural tourism in Portugal. The country is compact, but its cultural identity is rich.

Portugal has been collecting prizes and awards in an unprecedented mood-lifting era. The most famous were winning the European Football Championship in 2016 and the Eurovision Song Contest in 2017. The country of past glories proves to the world that not all its great achievements are buried in the Age of Discoveries.

Fantastic weather, mouth-watering cuisine – laced with influences from South America, Africa, and Asia – reputable wines, and rich culture are Portugal’s calling card.

Find out the absolute best things to do for cultural tourism in Portugal, in each of the nine regions, including the events you can’t miss and what’s happening in each season.

Portugal's cultural snapshot

For a small country, Portugal’s climate is surprisingly diverse. From cold winters and hot summers in the center regions closer to Spain to mild all-year-round weather closer to the Ocean, like Algarve.

Madeira’s subtropical influence makes it one of the favorite destinations, whereas the Azores’ climate is slightly more moody.

Throughout its history, Portugal has been influenced by Romans, North African Muslims, and North Europeans. If you feel when visiting that something you are eating, drinking, or watching reminds you of something you’ve experienced elsewhere, chances are you are probably right. However, despite all those influences that make us who we are today, our cultural identity is unique.

Most of the population is Catholic, but many religious events are laced with pagan influences, some dating back to harvest and prosperity celebrations, and one doesn’t overrule the other.

Portugal has 15 properties inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List; 14 of them are cultural. Six elements are included on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, including Fado, the Mediterranean diet (alongside other countries), and falconry (a diverse list that includes other European countries, the Middle East, and Asia).

Cultural tourism in Portugal in the spring (March to May)

Spring in Portugal begins on March 21st and ends on June 20th. The temperatures start to rise, and days grow longer. Although the beach season doesn’t open officially until mid-June, some days in mid-May are warm enough for people to spend some time by the sea. Locals make the best of the over 500 miles of beaches.

Culturally, it’s the season to celebrate Easter (although sometimes the calendar marks it closer to the end of winter) and the popular saints (santos populares).

Suggestions of things to do

Easter celebrations in the North are unique, filled with a dark symbolism sometimes, and often seem to take the religious theme a bit too far. Nevertheless, the “burning of the Judas” in Montalegre (Vila Real District) is a (somewhat) religious representation where the locals burn an image of Judas made of hay as a symbol of victory of good over evil.

In Porto, a strongly cultural city, events are aplenty during the spring. From Serralves em Festa, a free-entrance festival in the Serralves Park, to the widely popular São João (the six-century-old celebration of St. John’s Day) and the NOS Primavera Sound (a music festival that quickly climbed spots to the top of the lists of best festivals in Europe), June is definitely the hot month to visit Porto.

In Covilhã, a city in Portugal’s center, half-an-hour from the mainland’s highest mountain Serra da Estrela, June is the month for WOOL. This urban art festival has roots in the city’s former past in the wool industry, hence the name. The goal was to become one of the most important urban art events in the country when they first started in 2011. In a country where the coast cities usually get all the attention, WOOL is breaking that trend.

In Lisbon and the neighboring Sintra, it’s also popular saint’s season. The postcard-perfect, colorful strings begin to invade the old neighborhoods’ narrow streets in the capital, food stands and grills get ready for sardine-craving eaters. Semi-amateur bands go up on stage to entertain you for the night with Portuguese, pun-filled songs.

Further south, the tiny town of Mértola in Alentejo pays tribute to its Arabic roots with the bi-annual Islamic Festival in May. The town’s center is transformed into a giant souk during the festival, while world music bands perform on the river’s stage.

In the Azores islands, this season is a mix of religious and cultural events throughout the archipelago.

In São Miguel, April is the month for TREMOR – an innovative music festival that’s raised to the top of the best festivals in the country in less than five years. In May, the island’s main city turns to devotion in one of the most popular religious events of the year, Festas do Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres

Terceira celebrates St. John’s Day with a series of colorful and exceptionally planned events, while the neighboring islands to the West are welcoming the island-hopping artsy Azores Fringe Festival from May to June.

There’s more to Madeira than New Year’s Eve fireworks and almost tropical weather, as two of the most popular spring cultural events show. Mid-June is time for Regional Arts Week and one of the oldest world music festivals in Europe, Festival Raízes do Atlântico.

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Cultural tourism in Portugal in the summer (June to August)

I mentioned the 500 miles of beaches before, and summer is definitely beach season for most between June 21st and September 21st. This is also the time of year when Portugal has more music festivals than one can keep track of. In recent years, the country has become one of Europe’s favorite travel destinations for festival-goers, with events flaunting impressive and hard-to-choose-from lineups.

Suggestions of things to do

From North to South, reaching all the way to the North Atlantic Portuguese archipelagos, the country is shaken, rattled, and rolled by lots of outdoor music festivals as diverse in music genre as they are in location. 

Festivals like Paredes de Coura in the North, Maré de Agosto in Santa Maria Island (Azores), and the ever-surprising NOS Alive in Algés (Lisbon area) may top the list of the well-established, but every year there seems to be a handful of new music gigs to keep an eye on.

You must have seen the photos of colorful umbrellas hanging over narrow streets before, but what you probably didn’t know is that the artful display is linked to AgitÁgueda – the urban art festival taking place in this city in the center of Portugal, about half an hour away from the also colorful and vibrant city of Aveiro.

In case you haven’t noticed already, the Azoreans are a creative bunch. If once the islands were the dream trip for nature and outdoor lovers, in recent years, the archipelago has been put on the map as a cultural tourism destination thanks to recurrent events like the performing arts summer festival Walk & Talk in São Miguel Island.

Overall, summer is when Portuguese emigrants return home for their annual vacation (usually around August). This is the time when more traditional events take place, some religious, some not, and when you have the opportunity for a fully immersive cultural experience.

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Cultural tourism in Portugal in the fall (September to November)

Fall is the sweet spot season for tourists who don’t like crowds.

It’s also when the most popular cultural events revolve around food and wine (not that they don’t in the rest of the year, but this is the season to take it all in, slowly).

Even though the days aren’t as cold as in other European countries, the trend is to move the events to indoor venues.

Suggestions of things to do

In the North, the popular cultural events are thematic. The country’s birth city welcomes jazz enthusiasts to another edition of Guimarães Jazz. Porto puts together the Festival Internacional da Marioneta (International Festival of Puppetry) in October. Espinho showcases the best in animated film in the over four-editions-old Cinanima in November.

Remember the food and wine topic? The Festival Nacional de Gastronomia in Santarém is precisely what you need to experience the whole Portuguese cuisine in one single place. In the Portuguese capital, the slogan “the whole world fits in Lisbon” is the motto for another edition of the international documentary film festival DocLisboa

The comics art takes over Amadora in November during one of the most important comics festivals in Europe, AmadoraBD.

All small things grow when nurtured. That is the case with AngraJazz – Terceira Island’s one-of-a-kind jazz music festival in October. With a rich line-up of North American and European renowned jazz performers, the festival always includes at least one National and one Regional band.

In Madeira, there’s a mix of gastronomic and religious events throughout the season. The Madeira Wine Essence is one of the staple events for wine connoisseurs and enthusiasts.

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Cultural tourism in Portugal in the winter (December to February)

Despite the usually mild temperatures, especially on the coast, it’s typically rain season, with shorter and colder days. Events are scarcer, and we tend to crave the sugary comfort of Christmas treats around this time of year, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of cultural events to choose from.

Suggestions of things to do

Christmas-themed events in December and the Carnaval celebrations in February are the top happenings of the season all over the country.

Some of the most popular celebrations of Carnaval happen in Podence (in the North), Torres Vedras (in the Center), Sesimbra and Loulé (in the South), and in Madeira and the Azores Islands (particularly Terceira and São Miguel).

With plenty of gaps to fill in the music festival’s winter calendar, one major event contradicts the myth that there’s nothing interesting to do here – Super Bock em Stock in Lisbon.

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