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We think Portugal is truly underrated. We have been multiple times in the last two years and each time, Portugal grows on us a bit more. We did not have any issues getting around by ourselves — transport and roads were easy to navigate and everyone’s fluency of English was good. However, if you need a guide, the vendors that Preethi partnered with may be good options to consider; but of course, it is always best to do the research to make sure the vendors you choose are credible and reliable.
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Move over Spain, it’s time for Portugal! A small country with a big heart, Portugal wowed me from the moment I entered Lisbon. For this trip, I had the pleasure of partnering with Marina, owner of Sparkling Concierge ([email protected]), who patiently worked with me to setup an experiential journey through her hometown this summer. This was my first time using such a service and it really turned my trip into a dream vacation.
You can fly into either Lisbon (Center), Porto (North) or Faro (South). I would recommend flying into Lisbon and then exploring the towns in the north or choosing the southern coastal towns via public transportation or car.
Visas are not necessary for most nationalities. The official language spoken is Portuguese, although English is also fairly common throughout the country. The currency used is the Euro.
There are many ways to get around Lisbon: buses, trams, the Metro, and the funiculars. But the most comfortable way to see Lisbon, especially if you are visiting in the heat of summer, is with Week Break Tours. The tours are always private and customizable. Whether it’s a short city tour or you want to see other parts of Portugal, Week Break is perfect with the least amount of hassle. Getting around to Sintra by train is easy, but if you want to explore the southern coast, do yourself a favor and rent a car for the road trip of a lifetime! Airport rentals include Europcar, Hertz, Avis, and Budget. The average cost for 3-4 days will be approximately $200.
- Alecrim Ao Chiado – Located in the heart of Lisbon’s Chiado district, this boutique hotel is actually an old house, less than 5 minutes walking from some of Lisbon’s main attractions. Rooms come equipped with a tiny balcony, a charming breakfast nook, light and airy décor and a spacious bathroom.
- Quinta Da Penalva – An amazing villa accommodation in Sintra with several bedrooms, an outdoor and indoor swimming pool, tennis courts, private butler and chef. This is perfect for families or for anyone wanting a private retreat as a base from which to sightsee the gorgeous palaces. This was one of my favorite accommodations.
- Memmo Hotel Príncipe Real – This is a charming hotel with a trendy bar and view over Lisbon that you don’t want to miss. A 5-star hotel located right next to Bairro Alto and Chiado, you can’t go wrong with this boutique hotel.
- BECO Cabaret Gourmet – When in Lisbon, don’t miss dining at this wonderful 1920s themed “dinner and a show” restaurant, courtesy of renowned Portuguese chef Jose Avillez. Within the Barrio do Avillez, you will walk down a secret hallway to a door that looks like a bookshelf. If the Master of Ceremonies deems you have a reservation, he will open the “bookshelf” to reveal the interior of BECO as he leads you to one of only 12 tables in this intimate and cozy restaurant. Be prepared to enjoy exquisite creations such as the dessert that looks like a real lipstick or the chocolate chess pieces that have you confused for a brief moment. The show itself is unique and classy and transports you truly to another world reminiscent of the 1920s. I’ve never had anything like the “olive sphere” or a colorful dish such as the “prawn ceviche”.
- Barrio Do Avillez – A more casual environment greets you as soon as you walk into the Barrio Do Avillez, another one of Jose Avillez’s restaurants in Lisbon. I was seated in the Pateo, which is absolutely spectacular and open everyday from 12.30pm to 3pm and 7pm to midnight.
Ah Lisbon. It’s the hilly, coastal capital of Portugal. It’s known as the city of 7 hills and that means 7 beautiful viewpoints! Complete with pretty yellow and red trams and a red colored bridge that bears remarkable resemblance to the Golden Gate Bridge, this city definitely reminds me of my hometown, San Francisco. To really experience Lisbon, I recommend at least three days. I spent a solid day exploring this city by car with Francesco, the owner and tour guide/driver at Week Break Tours and then another day walking the city on my own. Francesco is delightful to tour with as he knows all the ins and outs of this city. You don’t want to miss these highlights on your first day.
Cathedral (Se de Lisboa)
The Lisbon Cathedral is the oldest Roman Catholic Church in the city and has been modified numerous times and survived multiple earthquakes. It is now a mix of different architectural styles. The main chapel was rebuilt in neoclassical and Rococo styles (one of my personal favorites), while the sacristy was built in Baroque style. Tip: this cathedral is located on the main road from Baixa to Alfama and the most picturesque mode of transportation to take here is the yellow tram (route 28) which passes directly in front of the cathedral. Open every day 7:00-19:00, no admission fee to the cathedral, dress suitably. Cloisters open every day from 10:00-1700 with admission fee of €2.00/€1.00 (adult/child).
Belem Tower (Torre de Belem or the Tower of St Vincent)
This is an iconic monument on the banks of the Tagus River and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the important role it played in the Portuguese maritime discoveries of the era of the Age of Discoveries. The tower was designed as a ceremonial gateway to Lisbon and is a great example of the Portuguese Manueline style. It is said the tower was inspired by North African design and the watchtowers are Moorish. €5.00 admission fee
Pasteis de Belem
This is a must visit when in Lisbon and is the home of the delicious custard tart (Pastel de Nata). This is an egg tart pastry available throughout Portugal but if you want the original with the secret recipe, you have to go to Pasteis. Have this tart with powdered sugar or cinnamon and a cup of coffee if you want to do it the local way. The tarts are made using milk, egg, sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla held together in a puff-pastry casing. (Editor’s Note: The TFD’s favorite pastel de nata in Lisbon is found at Manteigaria.)
The Discoveries Monument
I love this monument and think it’s very iconic to Lisbon. It honors the great Portuguese explorers and you can see the incredible lifelike detail on each of the characters on this monument. It’s located on the northern bank of the Tagus River and you can even catch a glimpse of the lovely bridge, which reminds me of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.
This monastery is a wonderful example of the Portuguese Late Gothic Manueline style of architecture and classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The highlight for me is the Neomanueline tomb of famous navigator Vasco da Gama (the first European to establish the sea route to India). The main chapel is free, while the monastery itself is €7 (free for children under 14). Tip: If you wanted to combine sights, E13 will get you into the monastery and the Belem Tower.
For our second day, we decided to explore the Alfama and Bairro Alto/Chiado districts by foot to connect even deeper with the city.
Alfama for me is synonymous with Fado when it comes to Lisbon. Fado is a type of music characterized by mournful tunes and best heard in Alfama or Bairro Alto in the evenings. Don’t miss wandering the narrow, cobbled streets of one of Lisbon’s oldest districts, stopping to eat at a random bakery or at a quiet restaurant tucked into an alley. Views from the Miradouro da Graca terrace are beautiful. When here, do not miss St. Vincent’s Church/Monastery – the view from the top is incredible and the monastery interiors are decadent!
Bairro Alto and Chiado are two other districts in Lisbon that spill into each other in terms of proximity. Chiado is where you want to go if you want to dabble in some shopping, or catch a show at the theatre. There’s also some historic monuments, plenty of cafes and restaurants as well in this area. Bairro Alto is where you want to be post sunset, enjoying the nightlife that Lisbon has to offer. One way to enter the Bairro Alto is to catch the “Elevador da Gloria” funicular from Praca Restauradores up to the Jardim de Sao Pedro de Alcantara viewpoint. A single ticket is priced at €3.60 but is also included in the 24-hour unlimited public transport ticket which is €6.15 and can be purchased at any metro station. Two other funicular routes to try are the Elevador da Gloria, and Elevador da Bica – it’s mainly a tourist transport, but this is a great way to enter the Bairro Alto and Chiado districts. These slow funiculars have been in operation since the 1890’s and are definitely a must when in Lisbon.
Beyond Lisbon, there are tons of lovely villages and towns you can visit. But the most magical of them all, if you have always imagined yourself as a princess in a fairytale, is Sintra. It’s truly the land of palaces. The town is known for its Romanticism style of architecture and you can see some stunning examples of this throughout the forested Sintra hills. My recommendation is to spend at least two days in Sintra to see all that it has to offer, but most people make it a quick day trip from Lisbon.
The Pena Palace:
This gorgeous yellow palace is an absolute must see in Sintra and Portugal. The palace is a delightful mix of different architecture from North African to medieval gothic. When visiting plan to arrive very early to escape the summer crowds as this is a popular tourist attraction or late in the day to escape the heat. I made this trip from Lisbon with Week Break Tours and it was wonderful and relaxing as Francesco zipped me past the crowds to the palace entrance. You can also catch the tourist bus or train from Lisbon as well. An adult entrance ticket will cost you €14.
The Quinta da Regaleira:
This 19th century gothic mansion has some amazing gardens, secret passages and caves. But the best feature of the gardens is the well. I would recommend allocating about two hours to visit. An adult ticket costs €6.
ROAD TRIPPING THROUGH THE ALGARVE
Oh the famed Algarve. I always imagined renting a convertible and speeding down the highways into the famous coastal region of Portugal, my polka dot scarf flying behind me in the wind. And that’s exactly what Marina (from Sparkling Concierge) helped me with this past summer, minus the scarf! I rented a car from the airport in Lisbon and drove about two hours to arrive at my destination, the stunning gem of a beach hotel, the Onyria Palmares Beach Hotel in the coveted beach town of Lagos.
Before arriving into Lagos, I stopped by the little seaside village of Comporta a quick hour away from Lisbon. There’s a single restaurant on the beach offering stellar ocean views and this town is known as the favored weekend getaway. I spent about an hour here before heading out to another seaside town – Odeceixe. The pretty little village of Odeceixe is situated on a hill with super cute houses clumped together. Stroll down the village and you’ll come to this wide long beach that you can relax in complete with lounge chairs. Alteireinhos beach was my next stop. I easily found parking in a gravelly lot close to the beach. It was low tide and the beach was sprinkled with rocks and ponds full of mussels and small shrimps. I lingered here a while but soon decided it was time to head to Lagos and that’s how I ended up at the Onyria Palmares Beach Hotel for a magnificent sunset, red wine in hand!
The Onyria Palmares Beach hotel itself is set amidst the luscious green golf course with a fabulous view of the majestic ocean. The dining room opens out into this beautiful view and a sunset drink is not to be missed in this magical place. The hotel is about 10 minutes away from the town of Lagos, but having a rental turned out to be a boon.
The next day I was thrilled to be kayaking with Sea Bookings as they took us through the magical and epic Benagil cave. The Algarve coastline is known for its rock formations and the Benagil cave is its most popular rock formation. We transferred from a bigger boat into kayaks, and kayaked our way into the cave. You get off the kayak once inside the cave and can hang out on the sandy beach inside the cave, observing how the sunlight hits different parts of the cave. The water is warm enough that you can splash around in it before getting back into the kayak and heading out of the cave to explore more of the grottoes. (Dolphin Watching Center on Rua Infante Santo, 73 Ferragudo. 8am-11am. Wear bathing suits, bring sunscreen and a hat).
The Algarve is all about the coast. So it only made sense then I took the remainder of the day after kayaking to explore the many beaches that make up the Algarve.
Praia Dona Ana: Imagine a beach cove, with tall cliffs and a clear green/blue water. That’s the beautiful but popular Praia Do Ana. From the top before you descend down, you’ll see numerous umbrellas lining the beach. If you go in peak summer like I did, you will definitely need the shade. The water is cold no matter when you go but since the outside temperature in July is scorching you might be able to bear the cold ocean.
Praia do Camilo: This cove is right next to the Praia Dona Ana and there are roughly 200 wooden steps down to another sandy, sheltered cove. Praia do Camilo actually connects to another beach through an artificial tunnel. From the top of Praia do Camilo before descending you’ll notice the beautiful cliffs around the cove and the green color of the water below. Know that it’s a relatively small beach and can get packed in summer. You’ll still find a space but be prepared to be packed like sardines. If you’re staying in Lagos, the beach is a 30 minute walk. There are no beach loungers so bring your own umbrellas/chairs. There is a toilet, but no water sports or showers.
Praia do Marinha: Michelin Guide considers this beach as one of the 10 most beautiful beaches in Europe. And I can see why. This beach has the typical Algarve cove. Clear turquoise waters and orange limestone orms the iconic rock formations that are so characteristic of this region. You have to descend down to the beach via a set of steps – it’s a pretty steep descent but well worth it. There are no facilities on this beach, making this less touristy than some of the other beaches. Staying for sunset is rewarding because the day trippers tend to leave by then and you end up having stretches of the beach to yourself for as long as you want.
Ponta da Piedade:
Before you leave the Algarve, make sure you head to the Ponta da Piedade. The Ponta da Piedade is comprised of sandstone cliffs of different angles and stand out starkly in contrast to the turquoise sea. This region is absolutely stunning. Make sure you head down the steps to take a short boat ride through the grottoes and caves in this region. The trip can cost approximately €15 for a 60-minute ride.
I spent my last day checking out of my fabulous hotel and driving back up to Lisbon. For my last evening in Lisbon I continued to explore Barrio Alto on foot to soak in the night vibes and realized how much Portugal really has to offer. I barely scratched the surface but I’m already looking forward to returning and exploring more of this lovely country that has grabbed a piece of my heart.
About the Author:
Preethi Chandrasekhar is a freelance travel writer/influencer with a passion for sharing her travel stories to inspire people to explore more of this beautiful world. She’s interested in experiential travel and writes frequently about off the beaten path destinations. Follow her on Instagram and her blog, The Eager Traveler, for more of her travel pics and stories!
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