1. Castles are de rigeur here. Portugal boasts more per capita than any other nation, and most are free to the public! In the Middle Ages, Portugal sat a crossroads of cultures, with hostile
Moors to the south and rival Spanish kingdoms to the east. Hence the need for fortifications.
The Castle of Guimarães is suitably imposing. Other free castles include the fortifications of Palmela, Lousã, Evora, Marvão, Castelo Bom, Penela, Almeida plus many others. The Portuguese learned the art of fortification from the master builders, the Romans and the Moors.
2. Cathedrals. Hundreds of historic churches and cathedrals across Portugal are yours for free, but some may charge slightly to visit the cloisters or sacristy. You will witness 1,000 years of architecture with rich gold and silver ornamentation, remarkable woodwork and sculpture, and tombs of priests, warriors, kings, and everyday people.
3. Festivals celebrate religious and general holidays. Attending a traditional festival (festa) is a great way to absorb Portuguese culture and get to know the locals. Coimbra hosts one of the biggest student parties in Europe.
The Queima da Fitas (burning of the ribbons) lasts for 8 days, one for each University of Coimbra's colleges. There are open-air concerts, parades, and many cultural events for the public to enjoy. This culminates with a massive burning of the ribbons, symbolizing the end of the student's stay at the old university. The finale is held in a square in front of the Romanesque city cathedral, with hundreds of students signing and celebrating their entrance into the professional world. This ancient academic festival, held to celebrate graduation from the nation's oldest university (founded in 1288), takes place at the end of the second semester in early May.
4. City Parks. From the sweeping vistas of the Sao Pedro de Alcantara Park in Lisbon, to the charming and stylish paths of the ancient Mata de Santa Cruz in Coimbra to the breathtaking Garden of the Episcopal Palace in Castelo Branco - Portugal's hundreds of city parks, rich in heritage and monuments, are free. The handsome Garden of the Episcopal Palace in Castelo Branco is built on a renaissance plan with baroque decorations, one of the most beautiful baroque gardens in Portugal. It contains statues of kings and zodiacal signs, arranged around ponds, terraces and staircases.
5. Beaches. With more than 500 miles of clean Atlantic coast, Portuguese beaches are a wonderful tonic of swimming, surfing, and sun. The Blue Flag symbolizes environmental quality and is awarded annually to beaches and marinas assessed against strict criteria. Portugal claims more than 300 miles of sandy beaches, and some of the best weather in Europe in which to enjoy them. From the warm water of the Algarve to the healing sands at Porto Santo, Portuguese beaches are most hospitable.
6. The Cacilheiro. Okay, it's not really free, but only 95 cents! These orange boats travel from Lisbon to Cacilhas, and they provide breathtaking views of Lisbon from the river.
7. Museums on Sundays and Holidays until 2 p.m. Children under 14 years old are free and there is a 50% discount for seniors.
8. Lisbon's historic trolley #28 begins in Graça and descends to the river. The cost is a mere 2.50 Euros (or purchase a one-day metro ticket for 3.95 Euros) and you pay the fare directly to the driver. Lisbon's #28 trolley crosses the city from east to west, climbing away from the center through the narrow cobbled streets and steep gradients of the Bairro Alto, Baixa, and Alfama districts. The small vintage trolley navigates tight turns past markets, restaurants, and churches and the like. You can get off in the Graça neighborhood and catch a #37 bus to the Castelo de São Jorge, where you can enjoy views of the whole city.
9. The running of the bulls on Terceira. From the 16th Century, the "touradas à corda"
(bullfights by rope) have been held by local Terceira villagers from April/May to late September. Similar to Spain's "Running of the Bulls," a bull is let loose from the town's square with a very long rope around its neck. Participants risk life and limb getting close. Following these "games," a festival ensues.
10. The Levadas on Madeira. "Levada," derived from "levar," means to carry and is roughly translated as "carriageway," but more correctly defined as mini-canal. Mini-canals are irrigation systems developed to distribute water from heavy rainfall and wet regions on the north of Madeira island to the drier sun-parched regions of the south. The Levada "walks" are walking trails along the maintenance paths beside the Levadas. Madeira's levadas are famous worldwide, offering extraordinary scenery through the Laurisilva forests. Being volcanic and mountainous, the combination of tropical
climate and mountainous terrain makes Madeira a perfect location for walks, hikes and trekking.
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.