Portugal’s Christian roots are apparent at first glance.
Ancient churches stand out prominently in most Portuguese villages, either on the main square or on a hilltop overlooking the town. Many of these places of worship date back to the 16th century and feature decorations of wood and gold leaf paid for by the country’s conquests during the Age of Discovery.
The country’s most famous faith-based site is the Shrine of Fatima. In 1917, three shepherd children in Fatima reportedly saw a vision of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The children were initially told to keep their encounter private, but news of the miracle and subsequent sightings eventually spread worldwide. Today, pilgrimages to the site occur year-round, with the largest crowds on the anniversary of Mary’s appearance on May 13.
Today, religion remains close to the heart of Portugal. About 81 percent of the country’s population is Catholic, which has led to many pilgrimage sites, popular religious festivals and preserved historic churches.
The country’s charms go beyond its faith heritage. Centuries-old castles, ornate architecture and sun-kissed beaches rival the best of Europe, with the added benefit of affordable prices.
Portugal’s borders have remained the same since the 11th century, making it one of the oldest countries in Europe. Despite the country’s small size, it packs in a plethora of well-preserved historic sites and cultural wonders. The 2018 World Travel Awards chose the country as Europe’s Leading Destination for its distinctive cultural identity, friendly locals and world-renowned wine and cuisine.
The weather also entices visitors, since Portugal’s climate stays temperately warm much of the year. Portugal’s exquisite coastal beauty and historic towns make the beaches even more tempting.
Lisbon, Portugal’s capital and largest city, is a must-see destination famous for its Gothic cathedrals, quaint shops, cobblestone streets and colorful neighborhoods.
Top Attractions for Church Groups
• Jeronimos Monastery — On the spot where Vasco da Gama prayed in 1497 before setting off to discover the sea route to India, King Manuel I commissioned a lasting monument. The Jeronimos Monastery embodies Portugal’s golden Age of Discovery. The UNESCO World Heritage Site contains some of the most exalted examples of Manueline architecture, a decorative style of stonework with maritime motives.
• Fatima — One of the most famous Catholic shrines, Our Lady of Fatima Basilica honors the Marian apparitions of 1917. Groups can visit the Tomb of the Visionaries and the Chapel of the Apparitions and join pilgrims for an evening candlelight procession at the basilica
• Porto — Portugal’s second-largest city has no shortage of gardens, medieval palaces and cathedrals. The vibrant city’s two most popular churches are the 14th-century Church of Saint Francis and the Gothic Porto Cathedral, which contains a famed statue of Our Lady of Vandoma.
• Braga — Known as the “Portuguese Rome,” Braga is one of the oldest Christian cities in the world. Pilgrims flock to the Bom Jesus do Monte Sanctuary to walk the Stations of the Cross and see the building’s symbolically significant architecture.
• capela dos Ossos — In Evora, the Capela dos Ossos, or Chapel of Bones, originated in the 16th century when a Franciscan friar wanted to remind followers of the transience of life. To illustrate the point, the friars covered the interior walls of the chapel with human skulls and bones.
Must Have Experiences
Must-Do: Groups looking to step back into the Age of Discovery can climb the Torre de Belem. The UNESCO World Heritage Site fortress allows guests to climb a spiral staircase for views of Belem and the river.
Must-Taste: With its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, seafood is an important staple in Portugal, and bacalhau, or codfish, is a local specialty. Guests can taste this popular dish with a glass of port, a celebrated local drink.
Bring it Home: Introduced in the 15th century, azulejos, or ceramic tiles, come in many colors and range in age from antique to new in shops across Portugal.
Photo Op: Groups can take stunning pictures of both the ornate Santa Luzia Sanctuary and its mountaintop view of the town Viana do Castelo.