Thrill seekers looking for an adrenaline kick needn't summit Everest or go diving in Australia. There are dozens of adventurous things to do in Portugal—an easy-to-reach country on the Atlantic edge of Spain. Here, you'll find snorkeling and trekking, rock climbing, even off-roading and bullfighting.
With a mild climate year-round and one of the best values in Europe, Portugal is well-positioned to welcome intrepid travelers. There are seven distinct regions in Portugal, and each one offers its own unique form of high octane fun.
In Porto, for example, you'll find the country's only National Park—a diverse mix of rugged mountains and reservoirs. And on the beaches hugging Lisbon, you'll find locals and visitors surfing, body boarding, and kite surfing.
And you don't have to be an athlete to tackle Portugal's adventures. Whale-watching in the Azores Islands is open to visitors of all ages and abilities, though challenges can be found in cycling up the sinuous mountain roads in the Douro or rock climbing high above the ancient villages tucked between the Beiras Region mountains.
Consider this your primer to thrills and adventures in Portugal.
Jeep Trekking in Porto
The northern city of Porto might be better known for its port wine, but this region should also get recognition for its varied landscapes. The Peneda-Geres Park is a prime location for off-roading. It's also the only Portuguese protected area classified as a National Park. Set off by Jeep from Campo do Geres, located between the Cavado and Homem rivers. Along the way you'll stop at the Lindoso Dam. When the reservoir runs low, shallow waters give way to the abandoned village of Vilarinho das Furnas, which dates back to the 1st century and was drowned in the 1970s to fill the reservoir. Mountains sliced by streams and waterfalls rise just northwest of Serra do Geres, and you'll encounter a Benedictine monastery that dates back to the 9th-century in the village of Pitoes das Junias.
Canoeing in the Tras-os-Montes
Ditch the Jeep in the mountains of the Tras-os-Montes region. Here, visitors can head into the deep river valleys and rivers for an afternoon of canoeing. The Sabor and Tua Rivers are ideal for afternoons on the water. You'll pass vineyards, ancient cedar forests, and medieval towns while tackling moderate rapids. Kayaking and rafting are also available. On especially balmy days, you may even want to take a dip before your returning to your car.
Cycling in the Douro Valley
Terraced hills and olive groves are the perfect backdrop for a scenic—and challenging—bike ride through the country's premier wine region. Roads here are delightfully untrafficked, and the way they undulate through the vineyards and valleys makes cycling trips through the Douro surprisingly easy for novice bikers. Whether you join a group or opt for a self-guided tour, you'll pass quintas and the eponymous river, as well as ancient castles. Up the difficulty by stopping for a glass of port (or two) along the way.
Climbing in the Beiras Region
As travelers head south of Porto, they'll encounter the highest mountain in the country, Torre, with a 6,539-foot summit rising out of Central Portugal. Here, rock climbers and hikers will find serious climbing challenges (think: rappelling down through ghost villages of the Lousa Mountains). The border lands between Gaura and Castelo Branco, meanwhile, have old smugglers' trails that meander through granite hills, more ancient villages, and rivers.
Surfing in Lisbon
While the capital, Lisbon, may be first thought of as a cultural (and gastronomic) destination, it also appeals to adventurers. The beaches around Lisbon hug the Atlantic Ocean and have attracted water lovers for decades, with beaches like Carcavelos being the most popular for body boarders, surfers, and kite surfers. A bit farther from the city, set against Sintra and the Cascais National Park, is Guincho beach: a frequent host of European championship windsurfing and surfing events. Boards and lessons are available for rent here. Along the Sintra coast, Praia Grandealso is also known for its water sports. Landlubbers should also consider Praia Grandealso, however, thanks to the massive link of caverns—Boca do Inferno—carved out by the sea.
Horseback Riding in the Alentejo Region
As Lisbon gives way to the southern and eastern Alentejo Region, the landscape opens up to sprawling fields perfect for adventures on horseback. Equestrians can pick their way along attractive country trails. Try the Alentejo Coast Trail in the springtime, where you and your horse will canter past sand dunes, eucalyptus forests, and rice fields—with plenty of opportunities to gallop across the vast terrain. Alentejo also boasts many riding schools, such as the Alter do Chao stud farm, where travelers can admire the imperial Lusitanian horses.
Hang Glide Over the Algarve
The beaches of the Algarve are certainly stunning, and even more so from a bird's eye view. Along the windswept Costa Vicentina, travelers have the rare opportunity to hang-glide over the Atlantic. The landscape below is dotted with carob and almond trees of the Barrocal region, as well as orchards and small vineyards. For those seeking a somewhat less terrifying option in this part of the country, consider booking a hot air balloon ride.
Swimming in Madeira
Madeira is an archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean off the southwest coast of Portugal. Today, it is a popular year-round resort retreat best known for its wine, food, and culture. But one of the best ways to get a feel for Madeira is to dive right in to the surrounding waters. Its volcanic mountains rise to more than 4,000 feet and then tumble to the sea in cascades of streams that are challenging for serious swimmers. During the summer, the streams of the northern slopes are prime, with a heavier and more intense water flow. In the winter the southern slopes are more mild, with gentle currents. At sea level, Porto Santo's 5.5-miles of beach offer excellent diving and snorkeling. Check out the series of sunken ships to the south of Porto de Abrigo.
Whale-watching in the Azores
Portugal's Azores Islands—an archipelago of nine volcanic islands, about 850 miles west of Portugal in the Atlantic—are home to some spectacular creatures. Whale watching here is exceptional, as more than 20 species of cetaceans (including sperm whales, northern bottle nose whales, pilot whales, sowerby's beaked whales, and the occasional orcas) pass by Portugal during their migrations, or call the Azores home. Whale-watching tours are available throughout the entire year, though the weather will be most agreeable (and the whales more abundant) in the warm summer months.