In Portugal’s Norte region you could begin with the UNESCO sites in Porto, Guimarães or the Douro Valley. Or you could escape to the unspoiled wilderness of Peneda-Gerês, Portugal’s only national park, or the Atlantic Coast and beach after beach of tempting golden sand.
And then there’s the wine, grown on the spectacular terraced vineyards on the banks of the Douro in the east and the Minho in the north. In Porto grape spirit is added to make a fortified wine that is known and loved the world over. And in Côa many thousands of years of prehistoric art is etched into rocks and presented like an enormous outdoor gallery.
Lets explore the best things to do in North Portugal:
Norte’s capital has a subtle allure, capturing hearts in its earthy Ribeira area by the water.
This close, chaotic quarter is at odds with the genteel 18th-century city further up the hill.
There’s loads to see and do in Porto, but you should always save some an hour two for the churches like Santa Clara, which have the most lavish gilded woodwork from the early 1700s.
The Foz de Douro neighbourhood is the place to dine and watch the sun go down, while Vila Nova de Gaia on the south bank of the river has hundreds of years of port-making knowhow to share.
The capital of the Minho region, Braga is a young university city around an old core endowed with delicate Manueline and Baroque architecture from the 16th and 17th centuries.
There are churches, fountains and mansions covered in azulejos to win you over.
For sheer drama nothing can top the Bom Jesus do Monte sanctuary outside the city.
It’s as extravagant as they come, with a Baroque stairway that zigzags more than 100 metres up the hill to this pilgrimage chapel, passing fountains on the testing climb.
That climb might not be everyone’s idea of a fun day out, so happily there’s also a 19th-century funicular railway to take the strain.
When Portugal was reclaimed from the Moors in the 12th century Guimarães was the base of power and became the capital at the time.
So it’s not wrong to claim that Portugal was born at this enthralling city.
Your priorities should be a couple of the monuments that go back to this time, like the 10th century castle and Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Oliveira church.
The historic centre has lots of Gothic architecture on adorable little plazas, as well as the 15th-century Dukes of Braganza Palace, decorated with period furniture and tapestries.
You could also catch the cable car up to the summit of Penha Mountain and take a picnic over a panorama of the city .
4. Douro Valley
The Douro Valley flows through the region from east to west and arrives at the Atlantic in Porto.
In the east the valley is one long World Heritage Site, and can be the green thread running through your holiday in the region.
You might be in Northern Portugal for the history, natural scenery or wine, but you may find you keep coming to these banks.
The International Douro Natural Park in the far east of the region heralds the river’s arrival into Portugal with rugged canyons.
And then a classic scene in the Alto Douro wine region is steep green banks with vines on terraces down to the water’s edge.
This is magical in February or March when the almond trees are in bloom.
5. Parque Arqueológico do Vale do Côa
Included in the Douro Valley’s Wold Heritage is this major prehistoric art site, discovered during construction of a dam in the 1990s.
Starting 24,000 years ago humans engraved images into the rocks, portraying people and animals.
This activity continued all the way up to the 1st century BC so there’s an almost perfect chronology of art from prehistory to the Roman era.
There are several different tours of the park available, but these images are best seen when illuminated at night and interpreted by a guide.
And come back to browse the modern museum if you can’t get enough of this mysterious place.
6. Old Viana do Castelo
The old centre of this harbour city is made to be seen on two feet.
You don’t really need a plan; just start in front of the old city hall and see where you end up.
There are refined Manueline and Renaissance houses to turn your head.
Beginning on Praça da Republica you’ll find a sculpted fountain from the 16th century, and that former city hall building is from the same era, made from granite and with the city’s coat of arms.
Next door the Santa Casa Da Misericórdia is very richly decorate, with a loggia supported by ornately carved caryatids.
7. Fortaleza Valença
Separated from Spain by the width of the Minho River, you can bet that the border town of Valença has seen some battles in its time.
The citadel walls have been torn down by the Barbarians, Moors, armies from various Spanish Kingdoms and the French, but were put back up after every attack.
The walls in place now are a sophisticated system of bulwarks and angular walls from the 17th and 18th centuries.
As well as being very scenic in the way it harmonises with the hillside, it’s a wonder of military engineering that will keep historians engrossed .
8. Peneda-Gerês National Park
The largest protected area in the country is in Northern Portugal.
And when you enter this unique region and in get touch with its wildlife you’ll understand why it should be safeguarded as a national park.
The muted colours of the granite and vegetation are very pretty, in holly forest and woodland with giant oaks.
Tread quietly on walks and you might get to see roe deer or its natural predator, the Iberian wolf.
Wherever you go you should see handsome garrano ponies, which are semi-wild and go where they want in the park.
There are traces of much older human life too in Roman milestones, cromlechs and menhirs.
9. Espigueiros de Soajo
In the village of Soajo just inside the boundary of the national park you’ll come across these peculiar stone structures scattered around the village.
There’s also a spot near the church where several are clustered together.
With stone crosses their roofs, they look like they could be tombs for giants.
But these are actually old corn granaries, made from granite, supported by ten stone legs and with a triangular roof.
The oldest dates to 1782 and they’re all still used to keep corn cool and dry.
10. Chaves Roman Bridge
In the Roman era Chaves was a regional power as it sat at the meeting point of three vital roads, essentially connecting the Roman provinces of Lusitania and Hispania.
And this bridge over the Tâmega River has been dated the turn of the 2nd century during the reign of Trajan.
It’s only natural that a 140 metre-long bridge with 12 arches would need some running repairs down the years, but two commemorative columns from the original bridge survive.
One has an inscription about the construction, describing the local labour drafted for the construction.
11. Castelo de Bragança
Remote Bragança is an unassuming town in the far northeast of the country, but the dominating medieval castle will spark the imagination of visitors young and old.
This lies within a larger outer enclosure containing the citadel, and all of the walls are built with shale.
This is quarried locally and used for a lot of buildings in the area, but gives the old defensive walls an unusual mix of colours and tones.
The battlement walk is free, but you have to pay to enter the keep.
This rises to 33 metres and was built in the 12th century.
You have to use a ladder to reach the roof, but will have satisfying vistas of the Fervença River to make it worthwhile.
12. O Navio Gil Eannes
Docked at Viana do Castelo is this ship that was launched in 1955 and had a very specialised purpose.
It would sail to Arctic waters and provide medical assistance for Portugal’s large cod-fishing fleet.
It served this role for 20 years and was due to be scrapped, before being restored in Viana do Castelo’s shipyards in the late 90s and opened up.
As much as anything it will push home just how perilous the life of a trawler worker was.
There’s lots of vintage medical gear that’s been saved, including a operating theatre positioned towards the hull to lessen the movement.
13. Castelo de Santa Maria da Feira
A contender for the most photogenic castle in Portugal, this fortress in Santa Maria de Feira dates from the 9th century.
It was directly on the front line in the fight between Christians and Muslims, and was an instrumental springboard after being wrested from Moorish control twice in the 11th century.
Unlike many other medieval castles, this building is much more than a shell.
There’s a chapel next to the barbican that guards the entrance, and tight spiral stairways lead to the top of the keep where you can see Feira and the ocean.
If you like your beaches big and beautiful in a widescreen, cinematic kind of way, Northern Portugal is your sort of place.
There are crashing Atlantic waves, towering dunes and enormous strips of golden sand.
Wherever you are on the coast you won’t have to drive far.
One of the picks is Caminha, in the very north, on the Minho Estuary and blessed with views of the 341-metre Monte de Santa Tecla on the Spanish side of the river.
For unfettered nature there’s Praia de Árvore further to the south, which runs parallel to a nature reserve and has granitic white sand.
And for a superb city beach you can take it easy on the bar terrace at Praia da Luz in Porto.
Northern Portugal is where the best wines in the country are made.
You have to start with the Douro Valley: Here on the east there’s less of an Atlantic influence and the climate is more akin to the Mediterranean.
You can grow almost any sort of grape in the Douro Valley, and the region produces reds ranging from light to robust, as white a white sparkling wine and even muscat.
Well known for its whites is the Minho region further north, growing albariño grapes that make superb wine for fish.
And lastly, nothing compares to port, which is shipped from the upper valley down to Vila Nova de Gaia.
Here by the Atlantic there are cellars that have been in the business of crafting this fortified red dessert wine for hundreds of years.