Portugal has been collecting a variety of international prizes and awards lately, and this past month we were favored with yet another recognition for some of the country’s best experiences. Does this come as a surprise? We would be lying if we said that it does!
This time the prizes came from the Remarkable Venue Awards held by the online museum-and-attraction booking platform, Tiqets. The prizes are part of an annual celebration of tourism awards that elects the best museums and more innovative attractions in different countries. Each country has a choice of nominees for which online users from around the world vote. In the end, accolade is awarded to 7 locations in 7 different categories.
Without making you wait any longer, here are the winners in each category and a few lines on why you should come and visit them. As if you ever needed an excuse to travel to Portugal!
Most Remarkable Venue: Oceanário de Lisboa (Lisbon’s Oceanarium)
This enormous fish tank is located in the most modern neighborhood of Lisbon, the so-called Parque das Nações (Park of Nations) to the East of the historic center, or quite simply “the Orient”, as Lisboners say. The aquarium was built in 1998 as part of Expo 98, the last world exhibition of the 20th century, with the theme "The Oceans, a Heritage for the Future". The project of the aquarium was led by the American architect’s company Peter Chermayeff, who specializes in such constructions and it is also home to a Research Institute on Marine Biology and Oceanography.
The impressive building houses 15,000 animals and plants of over 450 species in 30 tanks containing over 7000m3, totaling more than 5 million liters of saltwater! The visit is held in a sequence where you will start at land level, then head to the underwater level featuring different ecosystems of the Oceans, in four specific habitats: the rocky shores of the North Atlantic, the Antarctic coastline, the Pacific Kelp forest and the coral reefs of the Indian Ocean. This is a fun place with many activities that will be much to the liking of both children and adults.
Since you are in the neighborhood, take a walk around Parque das Nações and enjoy some of the best river views in the city! Take the cable car which is a few minutes walking from the Oceanário and see the area from above. From there, you will be able to see the Torre Vasco da Gama, an impressive 140m (459ft) high tower, built also in 1998 for the Expo and now home to a luxury hotel and panoramic restaurant holding a Michelin star. If you saved some time for shopping in Lisbon, go on a shopping spree at the Vasco da Gama Shopping Center, an amazing mall with 170 stores, including 33 restaurants, 6 movie theaters and even a Health Club!
If you feel this is your lucky day, go to the Casino Lisboa and try your hand at gambling! The building was inaugurated in 2006 and is a reference in Europe, featuring diverse gambling areas but also shows venues, bars and restaurants. Walk across the street and take your camera out: prepare to be amazed at the beautiful sight of the Oriente Train Station. This was a project by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava for the Expo 98. He designed a unique building with a curious combination of materials such as glass, steel, and concrete, leaving the structures in plain sight for everyone to see and meant to resemble the bones of a fish.
To end your day perfectly, take a stroll around the Jardins de Água, an ensemble of massive water sprinklers surrounded by mini-themed-gardens and facing the Pavilhão do Conhecimento (Pavilion of Knowledge), an interactive Science Museum that can easily become the highlight of your visit!
Best Museum: Immersivus Gallery Porto
The votes of the users of the platform awarded the Immersivus Gallery in Porto as the Best Museum in 2022. The museum is the first gallery for immersive arts experiences in Portugal. The company running the gallery has another 4 exhibits in different historical places in Porto and Lisbon. The space makes use of light, sound, art and technology to deliver themed shows and exhibitions by both national and international artists in which the visitor immerses as an active part of the performance. Definitely an experience to remember from your stay in Porto!
You can also make sure that there are many other memories to hold on to though. If you go to see the Immersivus Gallery show in the Alfândega do Porto (The Customs House of Porto), take the chance to go on a walk through the historic center of Porto and enjoy the real life show! Departing from the Alfândega area where the Immersivus Gallery is located, you can take the tram to the Passeio Alegre neighborhood, a historical upscale residential section with lovely gardens along the river walk and many mansions and manor houses that are considered national heritage. The Foz section is also nearby - there you will be able to find some very good sand beaches and beautiful public gardens. If you keep going, whether by tram or driving, you will arrive in Matosinhos a typical fisherman’s town that developed immensely in the last century, but that is still known for having the best fish and shellfish restaurants in the area of Porto.
Alternatively, you can also take a stroll down to the Ribeira, which is the most traditional of neighborhoods in Porto. The houses that decorate the centuries-old streets going down to the river are made of dark granite, and some of them painted with lively colors to contrast with the stone. By the river Douro you will find restaurants, bars and a variety of street artists performing at every square. Any time is a good time to visit Ribeira, but try to go at sunset and if weather permits, you will see the dim sun light slowly dissolving into the river waters, and then you will understand better why the River is called Douro: River of Gold!
Best Attraction: Museu do FC Porto – Estádio do Dragão (FC Porto Museum- The Dragon’s Stadium)
If you are the real deal soccer fan then the next award winner is quite the treat for you! The Estádio do Dragão (or The Dragon’s Stadium) belonging to Porto’s most famous soccer team, the FC Porto, came in first place for the Best Attraction election by the Tiqets platform voters. The stadium was built in 2003 just in time for the Euro 2004, the European Soccer Championship, and was named "Estádio do Dragão" by reference to the dragon that is featured on the club's emblem.
By visiting the museum, you will have the opportunity to get to know the museum, claimed to be “one of the most technological museums in the world” according to the management of the site, followed by a visit to the Dragão stadium. The tour allows you to learn more about the history of the team, their achievements and also about the city of Porto.
And just because you are so close and it is really worth going, take the chance to go across the river to Vila Nova de Gaia, the next city where all the wineries are located. There are many to choose from on the pier of Vila Nova de Gaia, just a 10 minutes’ drive away from Porto, and a beautiful place to enjoy some of the best river views over the city. Wine tastings are widely available and we recommend that you book at least one in advance, just to make sure you try some of the best Port Wine with nothing getting in the way of it! Even though later, you might want to try a few more, just to be sure!
Best Landmark: Castelo dos Mouros, Sintra (Moorish Castle, Sintra)
The impressive fortress stands high on a hill in Sintra, from where it is possible to see the surrounding mountain, the nearby Pena Palace, the different towns around and even as far as Lisbon if it is a clear day! The online voters decided that these ramparts originally dating from the 10th century but completely adapted to 21st century technology were worthy of the award for Best Landmark. We agree 100% with this!
Visiting the Moorish Castle can be one of the most amazing experiences of your trip to Sintra. In one single space you will find archaeological excavations with interactive explanations, a nature itinerary telling you about the local fauna and flora and some amazing views over the town of Sintra, perfect for photography lovers!
If you have some time, go to the Pena Palace as well, a former 16th-century convent turned into a palace by the same monarch who rebuilt the ruins of the Moorish Castle in the 19th century. The Romantic palace displays a variety of styles and architectural influences from across the world and is surrounded by a lavishing green park of over 200 hectares (or 494 acres), including species of trees and plants that the royal family collected throughout the years and with different provenances. The ensemble including the Pena Park and Palace and the Moorish Castle are part of the Cultural Landscape of Sintra, classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site since 1995.
Head to the town below to visit The National Palace of Sintra, the former royal palace in medieval Portugal and home to a unique collection of glazed tiles, or even the Quinta da Regaleira, a private estate of a millionaire from the beginning of the 20th century who built a palace and garden that look almost like they jumped out of the pages of Alice in Wonderland!
Before leaving Sintra you must go to the local cafes in the town’s center to try the traditional pastries: the famous queijadas, an oven baked mini-cheesecake with almond and cinnamon, and the travesseiros, a filo pastry pillow-shaped sweet with a filling of egg and almond paste. What a reward for a full day of hiking and exploring!
Best Onsite Experience: Ideal Clube de Fado, Porto
Fado is a unique singing style to Portugal that has finally seen its worth recognized by UNESCO in 2011 as Intangible Heritage of Humanity. This heartfelt, melancholic way of playing the Portuguese 12-string guitar and singing your pains away has been referred to more than once as the Portuguese Blues. Fado is now an essential part of any tour of Portugal if you want to learn more about the country and its people.
It is with great joy that we see that the online platform Tiqets has awarded the Best Onsite Experience prize to a Fado venue: the Ideal Clube de Fado in the city of Porto. This is an upgrade to what the Portuguese call a Fado House - little bars and hole-in-the-wall kind of places where Fado is sung almost every night in very intimate settings by different singers. Some of them evolved to proper restaurants with a delicious menu of authentic Portuguese cuisine. They are actually called “Houses” because the tradition started when locals opened the doors of their own homes to host Fado singing sessions for their neighbors.
Porto, Coimbra and Lisbon have some of the most famous Fado Houses in the country and getting a place in some of them might prove to be challenging if you forget to book them in advance! Make sure you get to know this beautiful Portuguese tradition that says so much about the country’s spirit and soul!
Best Hidden Gem: 516 Arouca - Ponte Suspensa (Suspended Bridge)
The Best Hidden Gem of Portugal, according to the online voters of Tiqets, is the incredible suspended bridge over the River Paiva in the town of Arouca, about 1 hour from Porto in the North of Portugal. The bridge stands at 175m (or 574ft) of height and has a fascinating length of 516m (or 1692ft), with no middle supports, forming the impression of a thin line of metal balancing between the sky and the wild river below.
The bridge is located within the Arouca Geopark, with a breathtaking landscape, which is well worth some time exploring. If you feel like you might want to skip the bridge experience though, maybe try the wooden walkaways that cross the mountains and are a family favorite of tourists. Arouca is a paradise for the lovers of the outdoors, as it is possible to go for hikes and radical sports in the Geopark, but also to visit the charming ancient towns of the municipality, many of them built on the mountain slopes using the local stone in their buildings.
The regional gastronomy is another great reason to visit! Take your pick between posta arouquesa (steak from a local cattle breed), veal medallions or grilled veal chops. Match them with a green wine from this region, a wine that is like white wine in color but called “green” due to the fact that the grapes are still unripe when picked, creating a particular blend of flavors that go from fruity to astringent in one single sip. Finish a perfect meal with a bowl of Conventual sweets, simple recipes that originated in monasteries and convents centuries ago.
Take the time to visit Arouca as a time of enjoying good food, pure landscapes, the calmness of the mountain air and of hiking through places whose beauty is way beyond your imagination.
Most Innovative: Livraria Lello, Porto (Lello Bookstore, Porto)
When the owner of Livraria Lello opened its first store at the end of the 19th century in Rua do Almada in Porto, little did he know that his small business and lifetime dream would grow and move to the next section of the neighborhood at number 144 in Carmelitas Street in 1906, and that it would become one of the main attractions in the city of Porto.
The Art Déco project by the bold architect Francisco Xavier Esteves was a success that lasts to this day.
Lello is first referred to as "the Most Beautiful Bookstore in the World" by Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas, in an article published in El País; in 2008, The Guardian newspaper considered it one of the most beautiful in the world and in 2011, the Lonely Planet travel guidebook also mentioned that it is among the best bookstores in the world, naming it "a pearl of Art Nouveau”. Lately the company that holds the bookstore purchased the catalog of other minor publishers and even a theater in Porto. They are aiming to become a cultural reference in the different art’s panorama.
The way the bookstore has survived the centuries, reinventing itself and attracting more and more customers or simple visitors, has won it both national and international recognition, including the recent award of Most Innovative attraction by the online voters on platform Tiqets. A visit to Porto is only complete after a climb up the spiraling staircase of this incredible bookstore!
Better start packing!
Some agree to the above selection, others have their own favorites. It is hard to decide when there is such a variety and cultural richness at stake. There’s a little bit for everyone in a country that has one of the closest relationships with its past but also with both feet jumping confidently into the future and to the new age of constant changes. The feeling of wanting to warmly welcome visitors is still the same for the Portuguese for centuries, and Portugal is up to date on Innovation and Technology to allow that to happen in a modern, smooth way.
However better than taking our word for it is to come and design your own itinerary of Portugal’s Best Attractions in 2023. Are you up for the challenge?