5 Most Beautiful Places in Spain & Portugal
La Coruña – history and dramatic architecture
The bustling, historic port of La Coruña sits on a promontory in the Golfo Artabro on Spain’s Atlantic coast. With its history as a fishing and commercial port, it has an interesting Romanesque mix of streets, squares and churches and a picturesque medieval quarter. It’s also home to the Roman Tower of Hercules, the oldest lighthouse in the world, which has been in continuous operation since the 2nd century. Dramatic galleria-style buildings with their characteristic glazed window balconies dominate the harbourfront, giving the striking area the nickname Crystal City. Visit the imposing Maria Pita Square with its awe-inspiring Palacio Municipal building and the Old Fortress, now the Garden of San Carlos, in which Sir John Moore is buried. Take a seaside stroll along the peninsula on the Paseo Maritimo, one of the longest seafront promenades in Europe. Relax in one of the many cafés or restaurants, enjoying La Coruña’s fine food and buzzing nightlife.
Vigo – seafood and sailing
Vigo, mainland Spain’s westernmost city, is a scenic port with a rich maritime and gastronomic culture. Just beyond the port you’ll find the Old Town of Casco Vello – a small, charming neighbourhood with narrow, winding streets and plazas lined with beautiful buildings and outdoor cafés. In Plaza da Pedra, visit Vigo’s oldest church, the Santa Maria Collegiate Church, originally constructed in the Middle Ages and rebuilt in 1836. Explore the remains of the Castro Fortress, one of the city’s oldest structures with panoramic views of the bay and the Cíes islands, and take a stroll along the Paseo Maritimo to visit the statue of Jules Verne, who’s perched on the legs of a giant squid. Ruá de Pescaderia (fish street) is a must for seafood lovers – it’s where you’ll find Vigo’s famed women oyster sellers – as is the seaside neighbourhood of O Berbés, where fishermen bring their daily catches to be sold.
San Sebastian – food and culture
The elegant town of San Sebastian, set on the crescent-shaped Bay of La Concha and surrounded by lush hillsides, is one of Spain’s most fashionable beach resorts. With more Michelin-starred restaurants per metre than any other city on the planet, it’s known as one of the world’s great dining destinations. Once a favourite with Spanish royalty, the town oozes grandeur with Art Nouveau buildings, ornate bridges and beautifully manicured plazas and parks to explore. Amble along the terraced seaside promenade, visit the exquisite 18th-century Baroque Basilica de Santa Maria del Coro and explore the Miramar Royal Palace with its magnificent gardens leading down to the seafront. Learn about the fascinating culture and heritage of the Basque country in the Museo de San Telmo, housed in the Renaissance-era buildings of a 16th-century convent. And when you need a break, take a stroll along the cobblestoned streets of the vibrant Parte Vieja (old town) in search of some traditional pintxos (Basque tapas).
Visit San Sebastian on a shore experience from Bilbao.
Lisbon – ancient history and lively nightlife
Portugal’s capital is one of the oldest cities in the world, sprawled over seven steep hills. Lisbon was decimated by an earthquake, tsunami and week-long firestorm in 1775 and rebuilt in Pombaline style, with some of the first seismically protected buildings in Europe. The heart of the city, Baixa, was recreated and this vibrant area is home to grand plazas, avenues and shopping boulevards as well as a huge variety of eateries – the perfect place to embrace the café culture of Portugal. Discover Alfama, the oldest district in the city, between the São Jorge Castle and the Tejo River. Visit the Jardim da Praça do Império (one of Europe’s largest plazas), the intricate Jerónimos monastery and the amazing Museu Nacional do Azulejo with its display of tiles spanning 500 years. As well as its long history, Lisbon has a reputation for a lively nightlife and delicious food with a bounty of fresh seafood and top-grade local beef on its doorstep. For sunseekers, the beaches of Estoril and Cascais are a short trip away.
Porto – wine and culture
As well as being known for the port wine it gives its name to, Porto (tours from Leixoes) is also famous for ornate bridges, Roman ramparts and grand Parisian-style squares. Amble through the historic centre that dates back to medieval times and is rich in monuments and buildings, in an incredible range of styles from different eras, including the immense Sé do Porto cathedral and the Church of São Francisco with its blend of Baroque and Gothic architecture. Escape to the Jardins do Palácio de Cristal, the gorgeously peaceful botanical gardens set on high with stunning views of the city and the river beyond. Head for the narrow streets of the medieval riverside quarter of Ribeira with its colourful, crowded houses and streets lined with fashionable bars and restaurants. You’ll find a wide selection of local dishes, including fresh seafood, and great views across the Douro towards Vila Nova de Gaia, which is home to more than 50 port labels.