You might know Portugal for its sun-drenched coastline, but this is also a land of palaces.
With the Atlantic Ocean on the west and Spain to the east, Portugal was always forced to protect its borders. Traveling through the country today, you’ll find numerous strongholds built to prevent invasions from the Spanish and many civilizations before them. The region of Alentejo alone has more than a dozen castles, and there are many more hiding in the northern part of the country around Porto and even close to the capital city of Lisbon. Some have been converted into hotels, while others remain empty, coming alive only during summer festivals. From isolated structures to entire towns enclosed by stone walls, these are the best castles and fortified cities in Portugal.
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Castelo dos Mouros
WHERE: Sintra, Portugal
Way before Sintra had its cluster of fairytale palaces, the Castelo dos Mouros was already standing tall in the mountains. Established in the 9th century, this castle was in the hands of the Moors until it was taken over during the Christian conquest of Portugal. By the 19th century it was in ruins, but the Portuguese royalty brought it back to life when they made Sintra their summer getaway. Today, you can stroll along the fortified stone walls and enjoy the panoramic views.
INSIDER TIPMake sure to catch a glimpse of the infamous Pena Palace on the opposite hill.
Castelo de Óbidos
WHERE: Óbidos, Portugal
The town of Óbidos is home to one of the best-preserved castles in Portugal. Its walls surround a maze of cobblestone lanes lined with picturesque houses and churches. The Moors might have laid the first foundations, but the castle you see today dates back to the 12th century. In July, the town is transformed into a medieval village with jousting knights and fire jugglers taking over the streets, and when Christmas arrives, the walls are lit up at night.
INSIDER TIPYou can walk along the ramparts for free or splurge a little and spend the night inside the castle at the Pousada Castelo de Óbidos.
Castelo de Almourol
WHERE: Santarém, Portugal
You’ll need a boat to reach this castle in the middle of the Tagus River. It’s the same river that flows through Lisbon, except here there’s nothing but trees as far as you can see. Belonging to the Order of the Knights Templar, the Castle of Almourol was built in the 12th century where a Roman fort once stood. To get to the islet, you can board a boat near the train station of nearby Almourol or take the more leisurely route from Tancos.
INSIDER TIPMake sure to take pictures of the castle while you’re on the boat to capture its reflection on the river.
Castelo de Penedono
WHERE: Penedono, Portugal
Not far from the Douro Valley, and with a little less than 3,000 residents, is the town of Penedono. There’s not much here, other than the castle, but it’s one you shouldn’t miss. Dating back to the 14th century, it has a distinctive hexagonal shape and five towers with pointy tops. A cobblestone stairway leads the way to the entrance, and from there you can climb up to enjoy the views over the rolling hills.
INSIDER TIPThe town hosts a medieval fair in July featuring street performers and a crafts market.
Castelo de Marvão
WHERE: Marvão, Portugal
In the northern reaches of Alentejo, clinging to a rocky crag, you’ll find the fortified town of Marvão. As you enter the gates, follow the battlements and before long the Castelo de Marvão will appear. Built by King Dinis in the 13th century, the castle provides astonishing views past the São Mamede Natural Park and all the way to the Spanish border. Shout out inside the cistern by the entrance and listen to your voice echo through the historic walls.
INSIDER TIPHead here in July when Marvão hosts a classical music festival inside the castle.
Castelo de Guimarães
Lisbon wasn’t always Portugal’s capital: Guimarães was the first to be bestowed this title. It was here, circa 1109, that the nation’s first king, Dom Afonso Henriques, was born. At the time, the whole city was protected by walls, but today you can only see fragments of them around Avenida Alberto Sampaio and Largo do Toural. It’s in the latter you’ll find the old tower featuring the quote “Aqui Nasceu Portugal” (Portugal was born here), one of the most photographed sites in Guimarães. The Castelo de Guimarães, however, predates the 10th century, and it’s still standing strong.
INSIDER TIPFrom its castle’s towers, you can see the lofty Serra Penha in the background.
Standing at the foot of the Montesinho Natural Park, the town of Bragança is in the remote region of Trás-os-Montes. The medieval Cidadela divides the city into two sections: the new town, outside the fortified walls, and the old town, with its whitewashed houses clustered around the castle. Dating back to the 12th century, the castle is visible from afar thanks to its prominent keep. There are several attractions inside the walls, including a church, the city hall, and a military museum.
INSIDER TIPMake sure to walk up to the rooftop and admire the mountainous scenery.
Fortaleza de Valença do Minho
WHERE: Valença do Minho
The fortified city of Valença do Minho stands shoulder to shoulder with Spain, with only the Minho River separating the two countries. Its location along the border made it one of the most important defensive points during the wars between Portugal and Spain. The fortress emerged in the 13th century, but it was only in the 18th century that it gained its emblematic bulwarked structure. Stretching for five kilometers, it surrounds the city’s historic center and offers incredible views of the river and the neighboring town of Tui. Inside the fortress, you’ll come across old cannons, several churches, and a Roman milestone.
INSIDER TIPIf you feel like you never want to leave this old fortress, book a room at the lovely Pousada São Teotónio.
For the history lover, there’s no better place to visit than Évora. Built between the 14th and the 15th century, the Cerca Medieval (also known as the Cerca Nova) is the ancient city wall that encloses this UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are dozens of eye-popping churches to explore (including the impressive Cathedral, constructed in 1186 from huge granite blocks), and an ancient Templo Romano (Roman Temple) constructed in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD.
INSIDER TIPWhile there are no ramparts to climb, you can admire the city walls from the outside, wandering along the leafy path connecting gates like Porta do Raimundo and Porta de Aviz.
Forte de Santa Luzia
It may be small, but the unassuming town of Elvas is where you’ll find one of the best examples of bulwarked fortifications in Portugal, making the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Up until the 17th century, the town was at the frontline of numerous battles with Spain and served as a military base during the Napoleonic Wars. The fortifications, including the Forte de Santa Luzia, are famous for their star-shaped structure. Beyond its numerous forts, Elvas is also home to a 13th-century castle, which offers spectacular views over the old town and far into the Spanish frontier.
INSIDER TIPIt’s worth visiting Elvas in September during the São Mateus festivities when the church of Senhor Jesus da Piedade is lit up from top to bottom.