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Living history

Portugal’s cultural heritage is unique, but perhaps not always fully appreciated. Many of its UNESCO World Heritage Sites are hidden gems.

The majority of visitors to Portugal, almost inevitably, head to the beaches and golf courses of the Algarve, or the bright lights of Lisbon. But with a rich and diverse history as a nation state going back to the 12th century, pre-dated by years of foreign conquest, there is another Portugal often overlooked by mainstream tourism: one of towering cathedrals, majestic monasteries, fortified towns, royal palaces and sweeping landscapes. Thankfully, it is a fact recognised by UNESCO - the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation - which currently lists no less than fourteen locations in mainland Portugal and its islands as World Heritage Sites, with the aim both of preserving them for posterity and raising awareness of what all ought to be leading tourist attractions.

To be fair, some - such as the Tower of Belem in Lisbon or the historic centre of Porto - are well known, but there are others which would have most Mastermind contestants scratching their heads if they were asked to locate them.
Here, we look a little more closely at each of Portugal’s designated UNESCO cultural sites and landscapes: what makes them special, where they are, and what else there is to see and do nearby. Time to get out the map and find out what you might be missing.


What is it? Walled royal Renaissance city with a history dating back to the Romans. A maze of backstreets, elegant squares, fountains, palaces, merchants’ houses, museums, churches and temples, overlooked by a fortress cathedral.

Where is it? Central Alentejo, an hour to the south-east of Lisbon.

In the region: Beja, Vila Vicosa, Elvas and the Alentejo wine country.


What is it? A walled and fortified town, with work mainly from the 17-19th centuries, but with its origins going back to the 10th century. Contains military installations, churches, monasteries and a spectacular aquaduct.

Where is it? North-east Alentejo, an hour and a half to the east of Lisbon.

In the region: Beja, Vila Vicosa, Portalegre and the Alentejo wine country.


What are they? Glorifying Portugal’s Age of Discovery, the Monastery was commissioned in 1501. Features include a superb cloister, a vaulted nave, a chancel, a chapterhouse, a refectory and the impressive South Portal. The nearby Tower of Belem was built in 1515 to guard the harbour.

Where are they? The entrance to Lisbon harbour.

In the region: Palacio de Belem, national coach museum, tropical gardens, national archaeological museum and the Gulbenkian planetarium.


What is it? The word fairytale doesn’t quite capture the eccentricity of Sintra – it looks more like somewhere designed by Salvador Dali, with a helping hand from Terry Gilliam. Summer retreat of royalty since the 19th century, it is a confection of palaces, castles, turrets, museums and mansions, perched on a steep hillside offering unrivalled views of the Lisbon Coast.

Where is it? Just outside Lisbon.

In the region: Lisbon, Estoril, Cascais, Mafra and Ericeira.


What is it? The largest church in Portugal, founded in 1153, and home to the Cistercian Order. Famous for its exquisite Cloister of Silence, central nave, vast kitchen, chapterhouse, azulejo tiled walls and the heartbreaking tombs of Pedro I and his murdered mistress, Ines de Castro.

Where is it? Estremadura, just north of Lisbon.

In the region: Fatima, Batalha, Tomar, Obidos and the Silver Coast.


What is it? One of the most fascinating Gothic monuments in Europe, built to commemorate victory over the Castilians at Aljubarrota in 1385. The epitome of Manueline art, demonstrated by its masterpiece, the Royal Cloister. But don’t miss the Chapterhouse with its amazing vaulted ceiling, the Founder’s Chapel, the main portal and the Unfinished Chapels.

Where is it? Estremadura.

In the region: See above.


What is it? Founded in 1162 by the Grand Master of the Templars and extended in the 15th and 16th centuries, it contains the splendid Charola oratory, based on the Rotunda of Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre, an ornate Manueline church and the Great Cloister with its concealed spiral stairways.

Where is it? Estremadura.

In the region: See above.


What is it? Overlooking the mouth of the Douro river, a city with a 1,000-year history, and the home of port wine. See the 12th century cathedral, the riverside quarter of Ribeira, museums, baroque houses, the Arabian room at the Palacio de Bolsa, the churches of Sao Francisco, Congregados and Clerigos, and the bridge of Dom Luis I before visiting the port lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia.

Where is it? Northern Portugal.

In the region: The Douro Valley, Guimaraes, Lamego, Braga, Vila Real and Braganca.


What is it? Wine has been made here by traditional landholders for almost 2,000 years, producing a cultural landscape of outstanding beauty: terraces, quintas, villages, hillside chapels and gorges that define picturesque. See it by car, bicycle, cruise boat or on a walking holiday. And of course take in a vineyard tour or two.

Where is it? Inland from Porto.

In the region: See above.


What is it? An exceptional concentration of rock carvings from the Upper Palaeolithic (22,000–10,000 B.C.) period, an outstanding example of early human artistic activity featuring horses, bulls, fishes and hunters. The World Heritage and Sustainable Development International Conference takes place here in May 2008, backed by UNESCO and the Portuguese Ministry of Culture.

Where is it? Close to the Douro Valley.

In the region: See above.


What is it? The birthplace of Portugal and its first capital, proclaimed in 1139. The beautifully preserved medieval settlement has evolved over the years, with traditional building materials and techniques highlighting the best of Portuguese architecture over the centuries: a square-keep castle, a 15th century palace, Romanesque cloisters, Gothic shrines and blue-tiled chancels. Named as European capital of Culture in 2012.

Where is it? Just north of Porto.

In the region: See above.


What is it? A remarkable natural landscape, one of the world’s largest surviving areas of laurel forest. Renowned as a centre of plant diversity, it contains numerous rare and endemic species of bryophytes, ferns and flowering plants, and has a rich invertebrate fauna.

Where is it? On the island of Madeira

In the region: Explore the town of Funchal, try the Monte toboggan ride and sample Madeira wine.


What is it? Historic port of call since the 15th century, its wealthy past is reflected in its quaint streets, balconied houses and magnificent churches. Enjoy the spectacular views of the harbour from Monte Brasil and visit the town’s museum, housed in the Convento de Sao Francisco.

Where is it? On the island of Terceira.

In the region: The other picturesque islands of the Azores such as Sao Miguel, Santa Maria and Pico.


What is it? A remarkable pattern of spaced-out, long linear walls built to protect the thousands of small, contiguous, rectangular plots from wind and seawater. Viticulture here dates back to the 15th century and is manifest in the extraordinary assembly of fields, houses, wine-cellars, churches and ports.

Where is it? On the island of Pico

In the region: Whale watching and the highest mountain in Portugal, the volcanic peak of Pico.

Coming soon?

A further twelve locations in Portugal are on what UNESCO calls its Tentative List, awaiting recognition as World Heritage Sites. They include Coimbra University, Mafra Palace and the historic towns of Santarem in Estremadura and Marvao in the Alentejo.

The role of UNESCO

Established in 1972, UNESCO’s mission is to ensure the protection of the world’s natural and cultural heritage, encouraging countries to nominate sites for inclusion and establish management plans to preserve, protect and promote awareness of what it describes as “our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations.” It also provides technical assistance and professional training to oversee restoration and maintenance projects and, where necessary, provide emergency assistance for sites deemed to be in immediate danger.

There are currently over 850 World Heritage Sites, as diverse as the Pyramids, the Great Barrier Reef and the Tower of London.


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