by Rebecca Holland
After spending two weeks driving through Portugal, I am completely in love with the country. It has beautiful cities, a fascinating history, a gorgeous coastline, great food and wine, and it’s inexpensive. Why don’t more people travel here?
Portugal started building its empire in the 15th century when sailors went out to explore areas along the African Coast. Eventually, they reached the Cape of Good Hope, which led them to Brazil. They also sailed through the Indian Ocean to southern Asia. While colonizing these areas is questionable, I admire the sense of adventure and exploration, two things still palpable today. Every Portuguese person I met was excited to talk about the maritime history and was proud of a past full of curiosity and adventure. I especially appreciated that people seemed to embrace the cultures of the places Portugal colonized, rather than rejecting them. In southern Spain, Moorish architecture and Arab history is everywhere you look, but there’s a sense of dominance from Spaniards. A sort of, yes they were here but we won, and now we have the architecture but reject the culture (at least in my experience). In Porto, a taxi driver proudly told us about the azulejos, or tiled mosaics around the city. The word comes from Arabic and means ‘small polished stone,’ and the tiles date back to when the Moors ruled the area in the 13th century. A Portuguese king visited Seville, and was influential in more tiles being used around Portugal, especially in churches. I liked that Portuguese people embraced the Moorish artwork and didn’t take credit for it.
Food in Portugal also draws on this colonial heritage, including an array of spices from around the world in pork and fish dishes.
Tourism has been growing in Portugal, but it’s still not high on everyone’s list. I cannot understand this. The beaches in the Algarve region are seriously stunning. They’re on par with Greece and Italy, but less crowded. The food is right up there with Italy, France, and Spain, especially if you like seafood. The wine regions are huge and diverse. The cities are ancient and modern at once. Tiny alleys with trendy coffee shops. Majestic castles kitty corner to impressive street art. Sintra is one of the most charming towns you can ever visit, while Porto is overwhelmingly beautiful, the Douro Valley has terraced vineyards unlike most in Europe, the Algarve region has rugged coastline and turquoise water, and Lisbon is a bustling city with world class museums, architecture, and dining.
So, go to Portugal!
I spoke with a woman from the country’s tourism board, who told me that in recent years because of Zika and terrorism, Portugal is becoming more popular. People who might go to Brazil come here instead. People who might go to France come here instead. While I don’t wish other countries to lose tourism, a vital tool for any economy, and especially not over things like mosquitos and ISIS, I am happy people are visiting this magical place.
And follow this guide for your own two-week road trip.
Our time in Portugal started in Sintra, a tiny town straight out of a fairytale. We spent a weekend there, then drove north to Porto.
The first thing that struck me about Porto was the tiled facades. Almost every building is covered in intricately painted tiles, or azulejos. There’s so much detail on any given building that you could walk the streets without ever entering a museum or church, and still see an immense amount of art.
The São Bento Railway Station, something people walk through every day, features more than 20,000 tiles depicting scenes from countrysides to battle.
I love this about Europe. Artifacts and art are so common they’re almost taken for granted. One of my favorite things about living in Rome was walking past ancient monuments and ruins (which are everywhere you look). It’s easy to forget their history, or the fact that some of them are masterpieces, because they’re everywhere.
In much of Europe, beauty is a way of life. Of course the Paris metro stations are stunning, of course Seville is filled with an overwhelming array of colors, and of course tiles adorn every building in Porto. I wish cities and buildings were still designed with beauty in mind.
The point is, Porto is lovely at first sight, and even more charming as you begin to explore.
If you’re driving to Porto from Lisbon or Sintra, stop in Obidos for freshly baked bread, cute bookshops, and whitewashed viewpoints. I especially liked the Church of Santiago, which has been converted into a bookstore.
Closer to Porto, Coimbra is worth a stop as well. The town is famous for it’s university, which is one of the oldest in the world.
More importantly (at least for me), it’s home to the Joanina Library. This is my dream library. From the time I first saw Belle twirl through the Beast’s book collection, I’ve been saying I want a Beauty & the Beast style library of my own. When I walked into the library in Coimbra I was in awe. It was just the type of library I’d always dreamed of.
A week later on the flight home, I watched the latest version of Beauty & the Beast. Imagine my absolute delight when Emma Watson (as such a stunning Belle!) walks into the library and I realize the scene was filmed in the Coimbra library!
Arriving in Porto you’ll find the roads are very small, and in some cases very steep. Lucky me, my boyfriend Nathan was driving (as per usual, since I can’t yet drive stick shift anywhere but a giant parking lot). Later, a taxi driver lamented with us over the narrow roads, pointing out that they were built for horses, not motor vehicles.
We explored Porto like we explore most cities. On foot. Walking, stopping for photos, wandering, eating, walking some more, stopping for drinks, dipping into churches, climbing for viewpoints, and eating some more.
What to see and not see in Porto:
To be honest, the churches in Portugal are not my favorite style. They’re quite heavy feeling, with lots of stone and so much gold it comes across as gaudy. This gilded woodcarving is actually a national treasure, and I wish I liked it more. They’re beautiful in their own way, and if churches are your thing, there are plenty of them.
Make your way to the Miradoura da Vitoria viewpoint. It’s worth the hills.
Do not pay for the Livraria Lello bookstore. This is one of the biggest tourist traps I’ve ever visited. It’s just a bookstore with a kind of cool staircase. If it was a regular bookstore that you stumbled into, fine. It might be nice. But you have to buy tickets to stand in a store with a hundred other people. It’s so crowded photos are impossible, and then to add insult to injury they try to make you actually buy something. Skip the line and drive to the library in Coimbra instead. It’s far more worth your time
The Clerigos Tower has nice views, but the Miradoura da Vitoria has better views and it’s free.
Do make your way across the Dom Luís I Bridge. The bridge itself is beautiful, as are the views across the Douro River.
On the other side you’ll find Vila Nova de Gaia, home to world famous port houses.
Dining in Porto
The food in Porto, as in the rest of the country, was surprising, and I mean that in a good way. I expected bakeries and seafood and traditional restaurants. I didn’t expect the dining scene to feel so modern, or the food to seem so daring. I hate that word in food writing, but here I go using it because I can’t think of anything else to describe a restaurant that serves both sushi and pasta and succeeds, or that serves biryani on a river in wine country. Terra was an excellent meal, eaten in possibly the most comfortable restaurant chairs I’ve ever had the pleasure of dining in. Oficina, which we stumbled into randomly and were lucky enough to get in, was fantastic. Get the braised short ribs. Confeitaria do Bolhao, a bakery with a dizzying array of options, was another highlight.
When it comes to drinks, Porto is much more than port. We drank our way through a local beer festival, had a few summery cocktails, and sipped wine of multiple varieties. Of course, there are port houses aplenty. Visit and you’ll learn about how port ages (if it does at all), the difference between tawny and ruby port, and more, along with tastings.
Make sure to reserve at least a day to get out of the city and visit Douro Valley, Portugal’s prettiest wine region. You can visit by train or river cruise, hire a private driver, or designate someone to not drink very much and use your rental car (our method).
The terraced vineyards make for a picturesque setting and produce native grape varieties like tinta barroca, and touriga franca.
If you’re driving, the more scenic route is worth the extra time. In fact, the N-222 has been called the “world’s best road.”
In the valley, stop for lunch at D.O.C, where you can dine on inventive dishes while overlooking the river. The foie gras was good enough to make you almost cry with happiness, and dessert–chocolate multiple ways with a twist (pop rocks!)–was one of the best, and most surprising, desserts I’ve had.
Road Tripping Portugal’s Southern Coast
From Portugal, we headed south to dramatically different landscape. Rugged coastal cliffs, sandy beaches, eroded rock formations, hidden coves, and colorful fishing villages. The beaches in southern Portugal are incredible. If you’re planning a trip to Greece or southern Italy, consider Portugal instead. The beaches are quieter and everything from accommodation to food is cheaper.
We flew into Faro and drove to Lagos. Faro is quick to walk around, but worth an hour or so of your time. On the way to Lagos we stopped at Praia Marinha. This and Adraga Beach were my favorite in all of Portugal. On other days, we checked out Praia do Camilo, Praia Dona Ana, and numerous smaller beaches. There are so many places to stop! Just wear your swimming suit, pack some snacks, and head out for a day of driving and beach hopping.
In Lagos, we stayed at the Cascade Wellness & Lifestyle Resort, which after more than a week of traveling and walking miles and miles each day was a welcome rejuvenation retreat. The rooms are comfortable and modern, and they honor Portugal’s history around the world. Rooms are decorated in either Asian, African, South American, or European themes. Some rooms have semi-private outdoor areas with lounge chairs, which was great for reading with coffee in the mornings. Large bath tubs, heated bathroom floors, and luxury bath products made for a refreshing and relaxing evening after days at the beach. Private villas are available for groups or families.
There’s a beautiful spa, where you can get massages and other spa treatments, or take advantage of their classes. We learned about pressure points in your neck and head and how to give “self-massages,” something that feels funny at first but has since proved very useful when working for long hours at a computer.
There’s also beach yoga, pilates classes, meditation training, and a nutritionist to help your vacation turn into a health retreat. In another building you’ll find the gym, which is huge and state-of-the-art, not to mention has the most helpful staff I’ve ever met at a hotel.
Not into working out on vacation? No worries. There’s a great pool where you can relax in the sun for days on end.
One of my favorite parts of the resort was the walking path to the Ponta da Piedade lighthouse. Take the walk at sunset for beautiful views over the Atlantic. You can also walk to Dona Ana Beach (Condé Nast ranked it as one of the best beaches in the world) from the hotel.
Even if you’re not staying at the Cascade Wellness & Lifestyle Resort, try to stop in for dinner. We had a long, lovely meal at the Senses Restaurant, which overlooks the water. You can watch chefs prepare fresh, local dishes in the open kitchen, and if you really want to get involved you can take cooking classes with Chef Diogo Pereira. We had a six-course meal, but you can also order a la carte. If you’re feeling indulgent, go for the wine pairings. Our server paired them perfectly with each course, and with a focus on Portuguese wine you’ll probably get to try something you haven’t had before.
Corvina, seaweed, fig
Red mullet fillet, mussels, Cataplana sauce, vegetables
If you feel the need to leave the resort, head into Lagos. We wanted to kayak, and the concierge recommended Kayak Adventures Lagos. What a perfect recommendation! We kayaked through caves and grottos on a two-hour excursion that we couldn’t stop exclaiming over afterward. Every bit of it was so pretty, and I was cursing myself for not buying a waterproof phone case ahead of the trip so I could take photos.
The town of Lagos is small and charming. There are lots of shops and cute spots for coffee and drinks. We got burritos at Beats & Burritos, which was actually a highlight of the trip. If you’ve been living somewhere where burritos don’t exist and you find yourself in Lagos, go here for the best burritos I’ve had in Europe. One night, we had dinner at Restaurante dos Artistas, a romantic spot with a large wine list and wonderful seafood dishes.
The rest of the time was spent relaxing at Cascade before driving to Lisbon. On the drive, do stop at random beaches, and do stop at tiny coffee shops. We had amazing cheese sandwiches at one, an unexpected favorite meal of the trip, and I’m sure you’ll find something similarly delicious on your drive.
A long weekend in Lisbon
Refreshed after Lagos, we were ready to explore Lisbon and Baixa House was the perfect base. The serviced apartments are so cute! Each room had flowered wallpaper I need to find for my own apartment and was filled with design-oriented furniture and Portuguese handicrafts. The apartments are in a refurbished 18th-century house, so you get a feel of old and new.
If you stay here, you’re within walking distance to many attractions and steps from public transport. After breakfast each day, which is supplied by the apartment staff and includes fresh bread, yogurt, fruit, coffee, and more, we set out to explore.
Highlights of Lisbon:
I loved the Jerónimos Monastery and its ornate Gothic details.
Down the street, stop at Pastéis de Belém for Portugal’s most famous dessert.
Walk through the LX Factory, a industrial complex turned hipster area full of shops and restaurants. Here, we found one of the coolest bookstores I’ve ever seen (are you noticing a theme here? I make us stop in pretty much every library and bookstore we come across). This one is housed in an old printing building.
My favorite part of Lisbon was just walking around. There are so many ancient side streets in the Bairro Alto, Alfama, and Mouraria neighborhoods.
We spent hours and hours walking through them and seeking out viewpoints.
Dining in Lisbon:
Eat at A Cevicheria. The restaurant specializes in ceviche (obviously) and creates beautiful dishes of every type of fish you can imagine. Try the tasting menu, where you’ll have six courses including whitefish, salmon, tuna, and so much more, mixed with ingredients like grapefruit, sweet potato puree, and tiger milk. Vinho verde or pisco sours go great with ceviche, or get you through the long wait for a table.
I normally only point out places I enjoy, but I feel obligated to make a note about Cantinho do Avillez. The atmosphere is nice and the menu from Chef Avillez of Belcanto fame looks exciting, but this was the worst meal we had in Portugal. I think we ordered well, and it seemed our server thought so too, but each dish was bland. It was fine, but not outstanding, and with so many great restaurants in Lisbon, it was a disappointment. We were spoiled on this trip with incredible food in every city, so one bad meal wasn’t the end of the world, just surprising, especially from such a highly rated place.
The markets throughout Lisbon, on the other hand, were anything but disappointing.
We walked through several. Make sure to try Serra de Estrela, a famous, creamy cheese made with thistle.
At TimeOut Market we had duck croquettes and a pork dish at Cozinha da Felicidade, which might have been the best dish we had in Lisbon.
One thing I loved about Lisbon was the amount of green space, and how almost every park had a small bar with outdoor seating. Great for refueling during long days exploring.
And did I mention Santini? Get this gelato wherever you can! There are stands all over Porto, Lisbon, and maybe other areas as well. The strawberry is so good!
Our trip ended with one night in Cascais at the Albatroz Hotel. We almost skipped this for one more night in Lisbon, but I am so glad we didn’t. The hotel is housed in a historic mansion, making it feel homey while also evoking an era of glamour. Cozy rooms overlook the beach and feature luxurious amenities and plush bathrobes.
There’s a large porch where we settled in with books and wine in the evening and newspapers and coffee in the morning.
You can pick between the adjacent beach or on-site pool, which feels hidden even though you’re steps from downtown.
Weeks after the trip Nathan and I were recapping, and both agreed this night was one of our favorites. It’s such a lovely hotel and the town is charming too. Like most beach towns, it has plenty of souvenir shops and restaurants. (Don’t tell anyone, but we had Indian food instead of more Portuguese. Some cravings can’t be tamed). I wish we had an extra day at this hotel, and if you have flexibility in your trip, you should plan for one.
With its buzzing cities, cultural history, dozens of beaches, colorful rooftops, winding side streets, endless shops, incredible food, and welcoming people, Portugal won me over within days. I’m so happy we could spend two full weeks, and I can’t wait to come back someday. If you’re looking for an alternative to France, Spain, Italy, or Greece, chances are you can find it in Portugal.
Portugal Travel Essentials