Portugal’s 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites put the country firmly on Europe’s tourism podium offering a rich variety of experiences from vineyard culture to Roman ruins and prehistoric rock art.
Europe is home to almost half of the world’s 1,154 sites, of which 17 are in Portugal. The Laurisilva of Madeira is the sole natural UNESCO World Heritage site in Portugal and the largest surviving area of laurel forest in the world.
While other sites offer something for every type of culture vulture from historic city centres and ancient art to one of Europe’s finest examples of a traditional wine making region.
UNESCO World Heritage sites in Portugal
Historic centre of Guimarães
The medieval town of Guimarães was the first capital of Portugal in the 12th century and is strongly associated with the emergence of the Portuguese national identity and language. Since then, Guimarães has evolved into a modern city with a well preserved historic centre where tourists can see the development of Portuguese architecture from the 15th to the 19th century.
Cultural Landscape of Sintra
One of the most well known UNESCO World Heritage sites in Portugal is the Cultural Landscape of Sintra perched in the hills near Lisbon. The area includes around 960 hectares with palaces, parks, monuments and plants. The most notable sites include the National Palace of Sintra and the National Palace of Pena.
Portugal is home to an unrivalled destination for Palaeolithic art, giving visitors a glimpse into the first signs of human drawings. One of the most impressive open air sites full of prehistoric art is found at the Côa Valley and Spain’s Siega Verde. Hundreds of panels with animal figures carved over several millennia have been discovered at both sites showing horses, mountain goats, deer, cattle and a rare engraving of a human form.
Historic centre of Porto
The historic centre of Porto dates back 2,000 years with styles and influences from different eras including Gothic, Roman, Art Nouveau, and Baroque. Porto’s medieval past can be seen in the remaining sections of the Fernandine walls, while some of the most notable buildings include the Sé do Porto cathedral and the Monastery of Serra do Pilar.
Monastery of Alcobaça
The Monastery of Alcobaça is the largest church in Portugal, founded in the 12th century by the country’s first king Alfonso I. It dates back to 1178, around the same time as the foundations of Portugal as a nation were being built, and is now a museum. At its peak, the monastery was home to more than 900 monks who took it in turns to hold Mass nonstop.
Historic Centre of Évora
Evora is the best example of a city from Portugal’s golden age after much of Lisbon was destroyed by the 1755 earthquake. Its historic city centre joins the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Portugal and was built in the 17th century.
University of Coimbra – Alta and Sofia
The University of Coimbra was founded in 1290 when Coimbra was the capital of Portugal. It was the country’s only university for more than 600 years until 1911 and remains one of the most distinguished universities in the world.
Alto Douro Wine Region
Wine tourism in Portugal starts in the Alto Douro Wine Region where wine has been produced for some 2,000 years. It is one of the finest examples of a traditional wine-producing region in Europe, covering more than over 24,600 hectares, and was recognised by UNESCO as an “outstanding example of humankind’s unique relationship with the natural environment.”
Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte in Braga
Another of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Portugal is the Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte in Braga.
The church and pilgrimage site looks across the city from the slopes of Mount Espinho. Visitors can walk its 116 metre Baroque staircase and enjoy its formal gardens and fountains below.
Monastery of Batalha
The Monastery of Batalha is a masterpiece of Gothic art which has heavily influenced architecture for generations to come. One of its most outstanding features is the enormous medieval tomb of founder Dom João I and his wife, Queen Philippa of Lancaster.
Royal Building of Mafra
The Royal Building of Mafra was built by order of King João V featuring a Royal Palace, a basilica, a convent and a game reserve. Boasting 1,200 rooms, 156 stairways and 29 inner courtyards, it showed the power of the Portuguese Empire. The palace also holds the world’s largest collection of bells, with 57 in each of its two bell towers. They can be heard up to 15 miles away when played on Sundays.
Monastery of Jerónimos and the Tower of Belém
Both the Tower of Belém and the Monastery of the Hieronymites stand as symbols of the Portuguese Age of Discovery located on the shore of the Tagus River in Lisbon’s port. The tower itself was built to celebrate Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama’s famous expedition which uncovered the first sea route to Asia. Carvings of the monastery combine religious symbols and royal imagery with nautical themes.
Garrison Border Town of Elvas and its Fortifications
Elvas once held a strategic location on the route between Lisbon and Madrid and its garrison town was heavily fortified between the 17th and 19th centuries. Barracks and military buildings remain alongside churches and monasteries within its walls. It also holds the Amoreira aqueduct, a remarkable dry moat defensive system and the best surviving examples of the Dutch school of fortifications anywhere in the world.
Convent of Christ in Tomar
The castle and convent of Tomar is a vast monumental complex covering around 45 hectares and is popular among history buffs. The city is widely considered the historical jewel of Portugal, as it was the chosen residence of kings and other important figures since its construction in 1160, placing it among the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Portugal.
Laurisilva of Madeira
Of all the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Portugal, the Laurisilva of Madeira is the only natural listing. The area is an outstanding relic of laurel forest which covered much of Southern Europe millions of years ago and is now only found in the Azores, Madeira and the Canary Islands.
The Laurisilva of Madeira is the largest surviving area of primary laurel forest, made up of around 90% woodland, which tourists can explore along designated pathways.
Landscape of the Pico Island Vineyard Culture
The volcanic island of Pico is the second largest in the Azores archipelago where winemaking began in the 15th century, reaching its peak some 400 years later when it is said the Verdelho variety vines even arrived at the table of the Russian Court. Early settlers took advantage of the volcanic soil and began testing with grape varieties, with some production continuing today around the village of Criação Velha.
Central Zone of the Town of Angra do Heroismo
The Town of Angra do Heroísmo, on the island of Terceira, was used on key shipping routes between the world’s great civilisations from the 15th until the 19th century. It is the oldest city on the Azores, possibly dating back to 1450AD, and its development is linked with the maritime world with examples of military architecture made to protect and dominate.
Churches and convents are found elsewhere in the city which is also full of Portuguese colonial architecture including two-storey homes with painted wood balconies.
More information can be found in the highly-informative guide to Portugal’s BEST UNESCO World Heritage Sites