20 Cities in Portugal for sustainable cultural tourism

20 Cities in Portugal for sustainable cultural tourism

The first blog post of the year on the best sustainable cultural tourism destinations has become a Tripper classic (and one of my favorites to write). In 2020, I chose to focus on twenty cities in Portugal for sustainable cultural tourism instead.

One of the top travel trends for the year ahead is second-city travel. According to the predictions of Booking.com“Second-city travel, meaning the exploration of lesser-known destinations in a bid to reduce overtourism and protect the environment, will take a leap forward in the year ahead. Over half (54%) of global travelers want to play a part in reducing overtourism, while 51% would swap their original destination for a lesser-known but similar alternative if they knew it’d leave less of an environmental impact. “

Although it takes longer, I prefer traveling using public transport, so most Portuguese cities listed below are reachable by train or a combination of train and metro (like Maia and Matosinhos). Two of them are reachable by ferry (Barreiro and Almada). Three of them are reachable by express bus (Vila Real, Bragança, and Estremoz).

1. Águeda

A particular street with colorful umbrellas may have put Águeda on the world’s travel map, but the city transcends this creative urban art installation. With a renowned arts festival happening since 2006, Águeda is one of Portugal’s cities doing cultural tourism the right way.

Go for the umbrellas but stick around for the arts festival.

2. Covilhã

Two things come to mind when we hear about Covilhã: wool and Serra da Estrela (mainland Portugal’s highest mountain). For many years it was a city you traveled by in pursuit of the fleeting chance to see snow. A place where you’d make a pit stop to buy local cheese.

In 2011 WOOLFest brought the old (wool industry) and the new (urban art) together in one event and, well, the rest is history. The Portuguese inland territories have always struggled harder than other places to remain relevant and attract visitors, but Covilhã has set quite an example.

3. Guimarães

Medieval castle in Guimarães, where Afonso Henriques the first King of Portugal was born

Guimarães is the birthplace of Portugal (the first king, Afonso Henriques, was born here) and a former European Capital of Culture (2012). Its historic center has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001.

Walking around the city’s narrow streets and experiencing it is the best thing to do in Guimarães; no plans are needed. But check what cultural events are happening at the time of your visit if you’d like to stick around for an extra day or two.

4. Loulé

Photo by Dulcineia Dias on Unsplash

I doubted if I should include Loulé in this list of Portugal cities for sustainable cultural tourism, but I soon realized that feeling came from prejudice. You see, to me, Loulé is that city where everyone flocks to in the summer, for the beaches and the laid-back nightlife.

Of course, as I realized when researching for this blog post, Loulé also has plenty of potential for cultural travelers. Known country- and worldwide for its Carnaval (not one of the traditional ones, though), most people probably don’t realize that Loulé also hosts one of Europe’s biggest world music festivals.

5. Portalegre

Despite being part of Alentejo, the small city of Portalegre (with a little over 20,000 people) doesn’t look like it’s part of the Southern region. It stands out from what we typically imagine as the south of Portugal’s landscape by being more mountainous and greener.

Although these different landscapes and the religious and historical heritage would be enough reason to head to Portalegre, it’s the annual FIMM in the nearby town of Marvão (about 13 miles) that draws all the attention.

6. Aveiro

"Moliceiros" at a canal in Aveiro in front of Art Nouveau buildings

Well, I’ll refrain from calling Aveiro “the Venice of Portugal,” but yes, the city has canals, which you can tour on typical boats called moliceiros. That said, I’m not a fan of comparing cities because it’s lazy and gives people false expectations.

Every time I travel by Aveiro on my way to Porto, I plan to visit the city soon. Mostly because I’m curious to see all the Art Nouveau buildings – there’s a reason Aveiro is known as the capital city of this architectural style.

7. Matosinhos

Urban art at the beach in Matosinhos

I visited Matosinhos for a travel journalism masterclass in September 2019, so it was more of a business trip. But, I felt in Matosinhos something I had felt before in destinations that one is led to believe “have nothing to see.”

It’s definitely a city that lives by and for the ocean. The wide street by the beach calls for hiking, biking, skating, or simply enjoying the sunshine. Eating at one of the traditional restaurants is in itself a cultural experience. The film festival that happens in the market every year in September is a good reason to visit if you need one.

8. Maia

City Council building and Lidador Tower in Maia, Portugal | One weekend in Maia, Portugal showed me that this Northern city is one of the best for sustainable cultural tourism in the country. Find out why.
City Council and Torre do Lidador in Maia

It’s been almost three years since I visited Maia for the first time, but I still think the city doesn’t get the attention it deserves. So, in the light of this 2020 trend of second-city travel, Maia seemed to fit right in.

There’s more new than old to look at, but that’s also part of the local heritage. In October, the international festival of comic theater should be on your calendar of must-attend events in Maia (and Portugal).

9. Braga

Photo by Ana Teixeira on Unsplash

With all the titles Braga has gained over the years, I don’t know if it’s still eligible as a lesser-known destination. Alongside York, Austin, Dakar, Toronto, and others, Braga became one of UNESCO’s Creative Cities in 2017 in Media Arts.

The number of cultural events and distinctions is refreshing in a city whose history has been primarily linked to religion – Braga is the oldest archdiocese for the Catholic Church in Portugal.

10. Viana do Castelo

In my youth (if this intro doesn’t make me feel old, nothing else will!), I traveled a few times to Viana do Castelo. Coming from a small island, I was fascinated to be somewhere so close to another country.

These days, I’d probably be more fascinated by the mix of architectural styles (Rennaissance, Manueline, Baroque, Art Deco) and the fact that Viana do Castelo is part of the Cittaslow network – an NGO inspired by the Slow Movement, where the quality of life matters.

11. Estremoz

The famous clay figures of Estremoz, now Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

Known for its marble (used to build the Roman Temple in Évora), the city lives mostly from exporting this construction material. The must-sees include churches, local museums, and the castle, but since 2017 Estremoz is famous for something else.

That year, Estremoz clay figures’ craftsmanship was classified as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. Only eight living artisans still produce these clay figures—most of them with visitable workshops in the city.

12. Barreiro

Sunset over the windmills at Praia da Alburrica in Barreiro, with Lisbon in the background

Barreiro, a former industrial city 20 minutes from Lisbon by ferry, has been my hometown since 2009. A blog post about Barreiro is long overdue, but it will be out this month. Barreiro has masterfully used its industrial heritage as a tourist attraction, joining forces with urban art with local cultural associations.

Tagus River’s south bank cities have always been edgier, more alternative. Coincidentally, most of them have an industrial past. Oh, and take a word of advice: never ever call it Lisbon South Bay. As brilliant as that might have sound as a marketing stunt, it simply strips all these cities (Barreiro, Seixal, Almada) from their identity.

13. Almada

Photo by Al Ho on Unsplash

Cristo Rei has one of the best views over Lisbon, and it’s probably the only thing people remember about Almada. Because why else would anyone go there anyway?

Quaint Cacilhas, a small town in the district and the area closer to the Tagus River, is famous for its riverside restaurants and perhaps what people imagine when they hear about Almada. However, Casa da Cerca (the Center for Contemporary Art) has since 1993 been proving that the city has plenty of things to do for cultural tourists.

14. Setúbal

Statue of Bocage in the city center of Setubal

Setúbal is famous for its staple dish (choco frito), the nearby Arrábida mountains, and the ferry that takes you to white-sand beach resort Tróia. If you think Setúbal is not a cultural city, you never spent time wandering the historic center’s streets.

Apart from visiting the Museum of Baroque (at Casa do Corpo Santo) and trying to spot the resident families of dolphins in the Sado River, visit Casa Bocage – this house-museum is dedicated to Setúbal-born poet Manuel Maria Barbosa du Bocage.

15. Tomar

Inside the Convent of Christ in Tomar

To Portuguese (and probably most tourists), Tomar is mostly famous for two things: Festa dos Tabuleiros (a semi-religious event that only happens every four years) and the massive templar Convent of Christ, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983.

Tomar is about two hours by train from Lisbon, and a lot of people choose the city as the destination for a day trip. 

16. Santarém

Speaking of my planned day trips from Lisbon by train, Santarém is the second city I want to visit soon.

I visited the so-called “Capital of Gothic” a few years ago, but I confess I don’t remember much. However, most of the visitable heritage are religious landmarks (unless you consider the extra-sweet pastry Pampilhos as heritage).

17. Alcobaça

Mosteiro de Alcobaça

For years, Alcobaça was famous for one thing only: the 13th-century Monastery that is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Most tourists included a trip to Alcobaça as part of a larger itinerary that included Fátima and Óbidos.

But thanks to two cultural events, Alcobaça has been able to carve out a new spot as a sustainable cultural tourism destination. Religious tourism is significant in this region, but it’s time we start seeing it for something else.

18. Peso da Régua

Peso da Régua (affectionately known by locals just as Régua) is a small city in the middle of the Douro Valley and shaped by wineries and the winemaking industry. Culturally, the city is connected to wine and, to some, it’s one of the most beautiful places in Portugal.

Well, owning wine as part of a city’s cultural identity is what makes Peso da Régua such a strong sustainable cultural tourism destination. As Wine City since 2019, all cultural events programmed throughout the year stick to that theme.

19. Bragança

Bragança is the northernmost capital city of all the districts in Portugal, founded by Celtics in the 2nd century BC. Temperatures range from ridiculously low minimums in the winter to ridiculously high maximums in the summer. Still, despite that, a lot of that Celtic energy remains deeply ingrained in the locals’ DNA.

One example is the local Carnaval tradition in the village of Podence (about 30 minutes from Bragança) and classified as UNESCO World Heritage in 2019.

20. Vila Real

To not be confused with the Algarve city with the similar name of Vila Real de Santo António. Both cities are on opposite sides of the country.

Apart from being the birth town of 15th-century Portuguese navigator Diogo Cão, Vila Real doesn’t seem to have much more to be famous for. That’s precisely why I included it on this list of some of Portugal’s best cities for sustainable cultural tourism. Some places need to be discovered from scratch, even if your first intention was to just attend a festival.

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