It is no secret that Portugal is home to stunning beaches and other natural treasures. However, there’s much more to discover in a country with such a rich history and cultural diversity. From stunning cities to century-old monuments and breathtaking landscapes that hold ancient and unique stories to tell each visitor.
With so much to offer, it is no wonder that UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has classified 17 places in Portugal as World Heritage sites.
World Heritage Sites in Portugal
The list of World Heritage Sites in Portugal includes historical centres, archaeological sites, cultural and natural landscapes, all of which offer a unique identity:
1. Alto Douro Wine Region
The Alto Douro Wine Region represents the typical landscape of the vast Douro Region, the oldest regulated wine region in the world where the famous Port and Douro wines are produced
This area is the result of nature’s gift and the Portuguese people's ingenuity. Back in the day, people would open terraces to plant the vines, which created the geometrical landscape we now see embracing the river. While visiting this beautiful region, don't miss the opportunity to taste local Douro wine!
2. Central Area of Angra do Heroísmo (Terceira Island, Azores)
Located on the island of Terceira, which belongs to the Portuguese Autonomous Region of the Azores, the central area of Angra do Heroísmo has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983.
Angra do Heroísmo was an important port for fleets crossing equatorial Africa and the East and West Indies routes during their voyages to and from Europe from the 15th century until the advent of steamships in the 19th century.
Today, the city stands out due to its urban layout inherited from these ancient times, presenting several elements reminiscent of Portuguese history and connection to maritime explorations.
This is a beautiful area to walk around, enjoy nature and get to know a bit more about the island's history.
3. Convent of Christ in Tomar
In 1983, the Convent of Christ in Tomar, Central Portugal, was also considered a World Heritage site. Built over five centuries, the Convent is surrounded by the Castle of Tomar, which was founded in 1160 by Gualdim Pais, grandmaster of the Knights Templar.
This amazing example of architecture combines Romanesque, Gothic, Manueline, Renaissance, Mannerist and Baroque elements. Its mains centrepiece is a 12th-century rotunda, Oratory of the Templars, influenced by Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre Rotunda. In 1356, the Convent became home to the Order of Christ in Portugal.
Major changes were made during the reign of King D. João III (1521-1557), adding rich Manueline-style decorations. Originally designed as a monument to honour the Portuguese Reconquest, the Convent came to symbolise the opposite during the Manueline period: the opening of Portugal to other civilisations.
4. Sintra Cultural Landscape
Sintra is one of Portugal's most beautiful places! This fairy tale village, located near Lisbon, is filled with stunning natural landscapes and beautiful monuments. One of the most famous is the Pena Palace, which looks like something out of a movie, in a mix of Gothic, Egyptian, Moorish and Renaissance elements.
The village is surrounded by a vast natural park, with rare and exotic trees, fountains, ponds, cottages, chapels and ancient ruins that are embraced by thousands of trees of the Serra de Sintra forest. Walking around the village, you can also enjoy the small cafés and restaurants.
5. Fortifications and Garrison Town of Elvas
Extensively fortified from the 17th to the 19th century, Elvas represents the largest bulwarked dry-ditch system in the world. Within its walls, the town contains barracks and other military buildings, as well as churches and monasteries.
Although the city still has remains dating back to the 10th century, its fortification began when Portugal regained independence in 1640, transforming Elvas into a strategic point of border defence. The site also includes the Amoreira aqueduct, built to enable the stronghold to withstand lengthy sieges.
It was classified as a World Heritage site due to its historical centre, the fortified walls of the 17th century, the Fort of Santa Luzia, the Fort of Graça, the Amoreira Aqueduct and the three forts: São Pedro, São Mamede and São Domingos or Piedade.
6. Historic Centre of Évora
Évora has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986. Capital of the Alentejo district of Portugal, the ramparts and historic buildings of this museum-city make it a mandatory stop for anyone who loves history and culture.
The Historic Centre of Évora has been shaped by more than twenty centuries of history, going as far back as Celtic times. Amongst its many historical monuments, the Roman ruins of the Temple of Diana are one of the most popular, as well as several medieval buildings such as its 13th-century Cathedral.
When the Portuguese kings began regularly living in Évora in the 15th century, several convents and royal palaces were built. Namely, the St. Claire Convent, the royal church and convent of São Francisco, as well as Os Lóios Convent with the São João Evangelista Church, all of which are characterised by the Portuguese Manueline style.
Évora is also remarkable for the uniqueness of its urban architecture, dating from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Numerous low whitewashed houses, decorated with Dutch tiles, iron balconies and covered with tile roofs, line narrow streets of medieval configuration.
7. Historic Centre of Guimarães
Located in northern Portugal, the city of Guimarães also has a spot on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. Considered "the cradle of the Portuguese nationality", this land was originally the feudal territory of the Portuguese Dukes who declared the independence of Portugal in the mid-12th century.
The Historic Centre of Guimarães is exceptionally well-preserved, filled with beautiful buildings where so many generations have witnessed several historical moments of Portuguese history. The city is considered an authentic example of the evolution of a medieval settlement into a modern town. Amongst its many historical buildings, its castle and the monastic complex are a must-visit.
8. Historic Centre of Porto, Luiz I Bridge and the Monastery of Serra do Pilar
The Historical Center of Portugal's most famous northern city, Porto, the Luís I Bridge and the Serra do Pilar Monastery have also been included in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites, and rightfully so! This area combines beautiful architecture with nature and uniquely colourful buildings, built along the hillsides overlooking the Douro river.
This outstanding urban landscape spans over 2,000 years of history, with iconic monuments including the cathedral with its Romanesque choir, the neoclassical Stock Exchange and the traditional Portuguese Manueline-style Church of Santa Clara.
9. Landscape of the Pico Island Vineyard Culture
The Vineyard Landscape in Pico Island was also classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, due to its unique characteristics. In this place, vines are grown on black lava soil and the landscape is absolutely beautiful and unique.
Pico Island is one of nine volcanic islands in the Azores Archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean. This landscape is an outstanding example of the adaptation of farming practices to a remote and challenging environment.
10. Laurissilva of Madeira (Madeira Island)
Laurissilva is a big and diverse forest on the Portuguese island of Madeira. This place is home to some of the most beautiful landscapes you’ll find on the island, as well as a great variety of plants, trees and flowers that are a paradise for nature lovers.
Located within the Parque Natural da Madeira (Madeira Natural Park), this forest conserves the largest surviving area of primary laurel forest or "laurissilva", a type of vegetation that is unique to the Azores, Madeira and Canary Islands.
The forest, which covers a series of very steep, V-shaped valleys leading from the centre of the island to the north coast, has a predominant role in maintaining the hydrological balance and biodiversity of Madeira.
11. Monastery of Alcobaça
The Monastery of Santa Maria d'Alcobaça, also known as Monastery of Alcobaça, is an imposing and grandiose monastery, founded in the 12th century by King Alfonso I.
Located north of Lisbon, in the city of Alcobaça, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of Portugal's finest examples of early Gothic architecture in Portugal. Its size, the purity of its architectural style, the beauty of the materials and the care with which it was built make this a masterpiece of Cistercian Gothic art.
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12. Monastery of Batalha
The Batalha Monastery is undeniably one of the most beautiful works of Portuguese and European architecture. It is one of the most important Gothic buildings in Portugal, also standing out on an Iberian and European level.
The Monastery was built to commemorate the victory of the Portuguese over the Castilians, in the1385 battle of Aljubarrota.
13. Jerónimos Monastery and Belém Tower (Lisbon)
Standing at the entrance to Lisbon harbour, the Jerónimos Monastery has been a National Monument since 1907, and in 1983 was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with the Belém Tower.
These two iconic buildings are very near each other and are major touristic attractions in Portugal due to their beauty and unique architecture.
The Jerónimos Monastery, dating back to the late 15th century, was built to perpetuate the memory of Prince Henry the Navigator. Its rich ornamentation is a beautiful example of the Portuguese Manueline art style, present in several of its 16-century buildings.
The famous Tower of Belém is also symbolically linked to the Portuguese Age of Discoveries. Built in 1514, it commemorates the expedition of Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer who in 1497 sailed from Lisbon to India on a mission to reach a direct sea route from Europe to the East.
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14. Archaeological Park of the Côa Valley
The Archaeological Park of the Côa Valley was created in August 1996 to manage and protect the carvings of Foz Côa for visitors, as well as future generations. The prehistoric rock art site in the Côa Valley was classified as a National Monument in 1997 and a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1998.
The site documents continuous human occupation from the end of the Palaeolithic Age. Bearing hundreds of panels with 5,000 animal figures carved over several millennia, Foz Côa represents the most remarkable open-air ensemble of Palaeolithic art in Portugal.
At the site, you can visit the Côa Museum, created in 2010. Being one of the largest Portuguese museums, it sits gracefully at the top of the mouth of the Côa River, celebrating the meeting of the two World Heritage sites in this region: the Prehistoric Art of the Côa Valley and the Douro Wine Landscape.
15. University of Coimbra - Alta and Sofia
The University of Coimbra, Alta and Sofia form an architectural ensemble that, since 2013, integrates the list of places in Portugal recognised as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. A well deserved recognition, as this was the place where Portugal's first university and one of the oldest in Europe was created.
Located on a hill overlooking the city of Coimbra, this centennial institution includes colleges that grew and evolved over more than seven centuries within the old town. Notable buildings include:
The 12th-century Cathedral of Santa Cruz;
Several 16th-century colleges;
The Royal Palace of Alcáçova, which has housed the University since 1537;
The Joanina Library, with its rich baroque decor;
The 18th-century Botanical Garden and University Press;
16. Royal Buildings of Mafra
Located 30 km northwest of Lisbon, this World Heritage Site consists of several parts of the Royal Building of Mafra, including its Palace, Basilica, Convent, Cerco Garden and the hunting park known as "Tapada".
Considered one of the most magnificent works of Portuguese King D. João V, which illustrates the power and reach of the Portuguese Empire of the time. Here, you will find stunning architecture as well as several iconic stories from Portugal's rich history. Amongst its most interesting places to visit, is the quadrangular building that houses the king’s and queen's palaces, the royal chapel and the Library of the Convent of Mafra, which has over 40,000 books!
17. Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte in Braga
Located on the slopes of Mount Espinho, overlooking the city of Braga in the north of Portugal, the Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte includes an iconic staircase, the church of Bom Jesus, the Bom Jesus elevator and a park.
This religious site is one of the most popular locations in Braga. Offering a cultural landscape that evokes Christian Jerusalem, it recreates a sacred mount crowned with a church built between 1784 and 1811.
The Baroque style sanctuary was developed over more than 600 years and includes a series of chapels with sculptures evoking the Passion of Christ, as well as fountains, allegorical sculptures and gardens.
Next time you visit Portugal, don't forget to add World Heritage Sites to your bucket list! If you are currently living here, make the most of each visit by checking local museums, traditional restaurants or cultural events nearby.
With so much to see and do from North to South, and plenty of sunny days to enjoy the outdoors and explore, make the most of each experience. Enjoy Portugal!