Last Updated on
Easily overlooked by travelers to western Europe, what makes Portugal such an attractive destination is that it is here that you find that great European vacation so many tourists search for elsewhere. While beautiful beaches and historic city centers in neighboring countries are often packed with hordes of tourists, in Portugal there is still an element of discovery to be had.
Rather than ‘doing’ Europe in a month, consider heading straight to Portugal and staying there. We suggest planning around these three main regions and leaving a few extra days to let spontaneity take over.
Lisbon – Portugal’s capital and the city that stole my heart
Built on seven hills that look out over the Tegus river and beyond, you can easily spend three to five days exploring Lisbon and still not see it all. We spent a month falling in love with this city and will always want to go back for more. Of the 33 things we named that we love in this city the highlights are the yellow trams, the ‘green wine’ or Vinho Verde, cheap espressos, stunning sculptures and gritty street art throughout this multicultural city. Around every corner you might find a creative cafe or quirky shop and the higher you climb, the better the views of the river and the beaches beyond.
While you are in town there are plenty of day trips to be taken from Lisbon as well. Visit Sintra – a gorgeous historical hilltop town famous for the Castle of the Moors and Quinta da Regaleira, and stay for coffee or lunch before heading back to Lisbon for the night. Make sure to cross the 25 de April suspension bridge (the Golden Gate Bridge’s twin) and spend the day on the 40+ miles of beaches in the Almada province across the river. Our favorite escape is to take the coastal train out to Cascais, a small fishing village that gained fame as the resort for the country’s royal family in the 19th century. Here you could easily spend a night or two and soak up the sun as well and if you surf, head to Estoril for some of Europe’s best surfing.
Porto – You know the wine, now get to know the city
Rent a car or take the train to the northern region of Portugal and base yourself in Porto to start exploring. Traditionally famous for its Port wine, Porto has become a major tourist destination in its own right and its downtown is a UNESCO world heritage site. When you stroll past the grand architecture, it won’t be hard to understand why. But Porto is home to a great contrast of modern and historic areas, and there is a growing creative scene starting to rival Berlin or Paris, plus great new bars and restaurants and even wine-themed hotels to stay in.
Get your bearings by hopping on tram line 1 for a quick 20-minute tour of the city which will leave you in the seaside district of Foz do Douro. Back in town, the Mercado do Bolhão is a majestic market whose vendors are as old as this dilapidated structure built in 1914. You can buy everything from fish to pig hooves to live roosters, cured meat or just go for the people watching and ascending and descending the grand staircases. In complete contrast to this historic building is the Casa da Música, a futuristic architectural masterpiece and home to the city’s music scene. If you’re looking for nightlife, the streets in the Clérigos neighborhood (a warehouse district formerly known for its fabric shops) are packed with people of all ages and backgrounds drinking the night away.
Take a river cruise up the Duoro River, choose a wine tour in this enotec’s paradise and do a self-guided walking tour up and down the hilly streets of the city, and on the stairs that runs up and down along the cliff face. When you have tired of walking, you can take the Funicular dos Guindais, the cable railway system, to avoid climbing the steep streets (and for more views of River Duoro). If you are a football fan, scoring tickets to FC Porto might be the highlight of your trip. The population of Porto itself isn’t very large, 300,000 roughly, but the metro area connects a total 2.5 million inhabitants across several smaller cities.
The Algarve – Rest, Relax, Rejuvenate
After constantly climbing hills and taking in the sights of Portugal’s two major cities you are going to need a break. But you don’t need to head over to Spain for that. Portugal’s Algarve region offers over 200 miles of fresh, clean beaches with something for everyone. While you are in Lisbon, you will be constantly reminded of the great world explorers the Portguese were in the 15th and 16th centuries, and it was from here on the beach so the Algarve that these grand expeditions began. Today it’s easy to see why people from around the world flock here instead. The climate here is mild and sunny all year round.
There is a mix of Iberian and Arab cultures found in cosmopolitan towns like Portimão and Albufeira. Faro is the regional capital and a popular stop in the region, and while it does have a beautiful historic center, do your own research and choose the right town to base your beach getaway portion of your Portugal experience. Lagos has a beautiful inner city within its city walls with winding, narrow streets, shops and restaurants, but you can also consider top spots like Vilamoura, Carvoeiro or Tavira and make sure to visit Silves, the red stone castle set on a winding rural road – a perfect day trip away from the beach.
Don’t just lay on the beach all day or get pampered in the spas in the area. Work off some of that wine and cheese cycling in the Algarve. Cycling trails here are of excellent quality, such as the Algarve Way – which is inland – or the Vincente Route that runs 150miles through several of the beach front towns along the coast.
Because Portugal is roughly the size of Indiana or Maine, getting back to Lisbon to catch your train or flight out of the country is quick and painless.