Pretty, pretty Portugal is the Destination Du Jour these days. And for good reason. It’s reasonably priced. The weather is a dream – with over 11 hours of sunshine per day, on average, in July – and so are the beaches. Consider it a bonus that more and more airlines are offering direct flights into Lisbon, since you should find a way there no matter the route.
There’s a refreshing grit to Portugal. You won’t see a single modern skyscraper, and some centuries-old buildings stand, barely, in despair. Then turn the corner – on the slippery cobblestone sidewalks, up a hill San Francisco could never prepare you for – to stumble across one Michelin-starred restaurant, followed by another, followed by an unassuming hole-in-the-wall that sells the city’s best pastel de nata. Turn yet another corner to find an elderly woman hanging laundry and acting as neighborhood watch out her third-story apartment window. Each corner, a delight.
That’s why we love Portugal. It is what it is, flaws and charms and cheap vinho and all, despite the recent increase in tourist traffic. So vamos lá – let’s go. Here’s a breakdown of where to stay, where to eat and what to do in Lisbon, Porto, Sintra and the Algarve.
Language: Portuguese, of course. Unfortunately rudimentary Spanish skills will only get you so far, but you’ll find most people speak basic English.
Electric: Type C two-prong plug
Currency: Euro (€). Credit cards are commonly accepted, though take out a modest amount of cash upon arrival for tipping and the occasional cash-only situation.
Tipping: As in most of Europe, tipping isn’t generally expected, but it’s always nice to round up to the nearest euro for drinks or add 10% to dinner.
Weather: Summers get hot and crowded, and air conditioning is hard to find. Spring and fall are how do you say…? Perfeito. March through May and September through October are ideal, with warm weather and fewer crowds. Portugal’s mild winters make for a pleasant time to visit too, though be sure to bring a light jacket, as temperatures drop fast in the evenings and the seaside wind is no joke. Lisbon averages 3,023 hours of sunshine per year, making it one of the sunniest places in Europe.
Getting around: From the airports, take a cab into city center. (Tip: from the Lisbon airport, grab a taxi at the arrivals entrance upstairs, not the departures exit downstairs – there’s no line and cab drivers tend to be more friendly.) Within Lisbon and Porto, you can walk nearly everywhere. You’ll want to rent a car though if you plan to visit the countryside or the Algarve. Some destinations may require a train or cab ride, but they’re quick and inexpensive.
How long to stay: Three to four days in Lisbon, carving out time for a day trip to Sintra; two days in Porto; two to three days in the Algarve.
Where to stay:
Oh, lovely Lisbon! It’s everything you’d expect – tiled buildings, wild cab drivers and €4 glasses of wine. To live like a local, book a stay at Baixa House (above, top), a block of 13 full-service apartment rentals in a historic five-story 1775 Pombalino building, in the center of the historic Baixa (downtown) district. It’s not quite a hotel and it’s more than an Airbnb. Think of it as a home where someone else makes your bed and hangs fresh bread on your door every morning. You’ll feel spoiled with a full kitchen – stocked with breakfast essentials daily, no less! – a washer and dryer and fresh cut flowers in each room.
There’s also Santa Clara 1728 (above, bottom). With just six minimal, modern rooms in a restored 18th-century building, you’ll feel like you stepped into the pages of Cereal magazine. Or for an ultra-luxe stay, book one of the nine suites at Palácio Belmonte; built in 1449, it’s the oldest palace in Lisbon and a damn miracle that anyone is allowed to stay there. Then there are the Dear Lisbon houses, spanning different vibes and neighborhoods, one of which will make you want to move in immediately, guaranteed.
For the design-minded, consider Lisbon’s two Memmo hotels: Memmo Príncipe Real, a glamorous spot tucked away in an unassuming alley, and Memmo Alfama, Lisbon’s first boutique hotel in the historic area. Both boast luxurious rooms, stunning views you’ll have a hard time tearing yourself away from and patios that beg for an afternoon of cocktails.
Where to eat + sip:
Your first stop: Park Bar, the chicest rooftop bar at the top of a parking ramp. You’ll wind up the seven levels of cars first thinking where the hell am I?, followed by I’m never leaving. Over some burrata and a couple of caipirinhas, plot where to have dinner once the sun sets. My first recommendation? Tacos and tequila and don’t forget the tres leches at the lively Pistola y Corazon.
The next morning meander over to Hello, Kristof (above, top), a calming coffee shop with a wall-full of magazines to start your day slow. From there, head to the Time Out Market, where you can get a bite of the best of everything in Lisbon. (Good luck narrowing down what to eat though.) Come dinnertime, decide between A Cevicheria, Tapisco and Prado (above, bottom). And for all your meals in between, consider Amelia Lisboa, Heim Cafe and Fauna & Flora. Just be sure to satiate your pastel de nata craving – once a day, at least, right? – at the famous Pastéis de Belém. Though really, any old school bakery will do.
What to do:
If you buy anything in Lisbon, make it ceramics. Collect as much as you can at Cerâmicas na Linha and Caulino Ceramics. And whether you like eating them or not, a couple of beautifully designed cans of sardines will remind you of your travels long after you land home. Also squeeze in a field trip to Under the Cover, a stunning magazine store that you’ll have a hard time leaving without an armful of reading materials.
If you’re visiting on a Tuesday or Saturday, head to Feira da Ladra, Lisbon’s best flea market, where you can nab artisan goods and antiques to squeeze into your luggage. Every other day wander the halls of Embaixada (above, bottom), a 19th-century palace turned shopping gallery featuring Portuguese brands and makers. (If only all of our shopping centers could be in Arabian palaces…)
If you do absolutely nothing else in Lisbon though, carve out a half-day to visit the LX Factory. If you think it’s not worth the cab ride, think again. A “creative island” housed in an old manufacturing complex, it’s now home to a variety of Lisbon’s coolest art, shops, restaurants and one of the world’s best bookstores, Livraria Ler Devagar. Wander, wonder and stay a while.
Another must-do is a day-trip to Sintra, a quick train trip from Lisbon. If Sintra was good enough for the Portuguese royal family, it’s good enough for us. Forget about taking a car there though. The narrow, winding hilly roads were not built way-back-when for tourist traffic and parking is nearly impossible. Instead, catch a train to Sintra from the Rossio train station in Lisbon; it costs just a couple of euros, runs often and takes only about 40 minutes.
From there, wander around the city center Sintra or visit the National Palace and Quinta da Regaleira. Then grab lunch with a view of the sweeping countryside and take a shot of ginjinha, the Portuguese liqueur of choice, made of ginja berries (sour cherries) and sometimes served in a chocolate shot cup.
Then hop on the 434-tourist bus service that loops from the train station to the city center and into the hills for €5. You’ll need to take this bus to get to Pena Palace (above), the famous red and yellow beauty, and Castle of the Moors, the oldest castle in Sintra, which dates back to the 8th or 9th century, but is now just ruins.
Then the grand finale: Pena Palace. What began as a chapel in the Middle Ages became a small, quiet monastery for monks, which it remained for centuries until it was left for ruins following the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. Decades later it was brought back to life, when it was acquired by a German prince who married into the Portuguese royal family (lucky guy, that Ferdinand II), to serve as the summer residence for the royals. The final queen of Portugal, Amelie of Orleans, spent her final night at Pena, before leaving Portugal and living the rest of her life in exile in France.
What a history, huh? Now it’s available for tours daily, minus major holidays. Leaving the palace (do we have to?) you’re lead into Pena Park, the lush and lavish gardens. King Ferdinand II is to thank for the park too, as he ordered trees from all parts of the world to be planted there. (North American sequoia, magnolia, Chinese ginkgo, Japanese crypt, and ferns from Australia, for starters.) Meander around the lush and lavish gardens surrounding the palace after before catching the 434 and then the train back to Lisbon. A day amongst historic castles is a day well spent.
Where to stay:
Sweet, succinct Porto – just a three-hour drive or even shorter train ride from Lisbon – leaves you with the same cobblestone-street charms and lively downtown area as the capital city, with even cheaper wine and accommodations.
For a step back in time, book a stay at Hotel Teatro, located inside the former Baquet Theatre. The lobby evokes an old fashioned box office – heavy curtains, film roll decorations, dark corridors – and eventually you’ll be lead to Bar Plateia, where you’ll grab a nightcap while black-and-white films are projected on a loop. Another historic spot to stay is Porto A.S. 1829, which brought new life to Papelaria Araújo e Sobrinho, one of Europe’s oldest printing and stationery shop that first opened in 1829 (hence the name). You’ll find printing details, such as vintage typewriters and wooden printer cabinets, throughout.
Where to eat + sip
If you dare, order a francesinha, Porto’s traditional sandwich with ham and sausage and doused in melted cheese and a thick tomato sauce. When in Porto, right?
Start your day at época café, a sunny space to grab seasonal breakfast and lunch fare. Then make dinner reservations at Cantinho do Avillez, a contemporary cantina by renowned chef José Avillez, who serves upscale Portuguese cuisine in a casual atmosphere. Other spots to consider: ODE Porto Winehouse, O Paparico and Adega São Nicolau.
What to do:
Scared of heights? Sorry, but you must walk across the Dom Luis I Bridge, a double-deck arch bridge that crosses the River Douro between Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia. Here’s where you’ll see the classic Porto riverside views. Your treat for walking across the bridge – the longest of its kind when construction ended in 1886 – is a cocktail and fried cod at 360º Terrace Lounge, a rooftop bar at the top of the Porto Cruz building overlooking Porto. The rest of the building is devoted to port wine, so there you can learn about its culture and history over a tasting, then head to the rooftop for sunset.
The wine-minded could venture to the Douro Valley for a day trip, where you can either wind through the scenic views via rental car or take a river cruise. While still in Porto, make a pit stop to admire the São Bento Train Station and Capela Das Almas (above) – Chapel of Souls – famous for its blue and white tiled exterior. Porto is also home to another famous bookstore, Livraria Lello, which is so popular they charge an entrance fee. Worth it. Rumor has it J.K. Rowling, who once taught English in Porto, inspired Hogwarts off of Livraria Lello.
While Lisbon and Porto tend to get all of the tourist attention, the Algarve, the southernmost region of Portugal is a must if you’re looking to slow down your heart rate with some beach time.
Start in Sagres, a small historical village on the southwestern tip of Portugal, just a three-hour drive south from Lisbon. After a winding drive through country roads – pad your timeline to stop at charming tiny towns along the way – arrive at Memmo Baleeira, a dreamy Design Hotels property, where you should spoil yourself with a sweeping oceanside suite. The hardest decision you’ll make at Memmo Baleeira is which heated, ocean-view pool to swim in.
Bounce from beach to beach, Sagres to Lagos to Faro. With over 150 beaches, you could lounge at Praia do Beliche, surf at Praia da Mareta, kayaking through the Benagil Caves or snorkel around Praia do Camilo (above, bottom). At the end of a long, hard day at the beach, wind down at Restaurante O Camilo, then catch the sunset at Cabo de São Vicente lighthouse, the southwesternmost point of Europe. Even on a cloudy day, wow, worth the view.
All of Portugal is worth the view, really. Safe travels, friends!
Megan is a writer, editor, etc.-er who muses about life, design and travel for Domino, Lonny, Hunker and more. Her life rules include, but are not limited to: zipper when merging, tip in cash and contribute to your IRA. Be a pal and subscribe to her newsletter Night Vision.
BY Megan McCarty - January 29, 2019
Thank you for being here. For being open to enjoying life’s simple pleasures and looking inward to understand yourself, your neighbors, and your fellow humans! I’m looking forward to chatting with you.