Portugal is a land of unexploited adventure, dramatic beaches, unique cuisine and a people with a seemingly limitless supply of compassion and kindness. When we first visited in 2003, I’m not sure if I was more transfixed by the thick, lush green forests, succulent flavorsome vegetables, simple liquid greetings with a glass of Ginja (a local cherry licor), or the numerous castles that dotted the landscape; but whatever the secret potion was, I never stopped coming back to imbibe some more. The country is undoubtedly an exotic world unto itself… and few have taken full advantage of its beauty and cultural flair until now!
European cities can be daunting with their narrow, windy roads, so why not go by electric tram. These are red, white and gold-liveried trams, fitted with conductors that operate the tourist routes, pass through the steep and tortuous streets of the Alfama district from the Praça do Comércio, via Martim Moniz, to Estrela and back. Their interiors have been retro-converted to an approximation of early 20th-century fittings. Lisbon is a city of heights, with incredible views that are especially made for sunsets. You can climb to very top of the city to experience breathtaking views from the Bairro Alto’s Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcantara and Alfama’s Portas do Sol. If, however, you’re more of a water dweller, like myself, you might prefer an afternoon walking along the rippling waters to experience the 11 mile long Vasco de Gama bridge, followed by a cable car ride near the Vasco de Gama tower, the highest building in Lisbon.
If hunger strikes along the way, there is no shortage of places to enjoy a Pico (Portuguese coffee) or sticky pastry. One of the most renowned cafes in all of Portugal to experience a sweet cream and egg filled pastry is at Pasteis de Belem, a worthwhile visit especially paired with a Port wine. With energy renewed, you can keep your ode to Vasco da Gama alive by visiting the World Heritage Site, Jeronimo’s Monastery, Vasco’s resting place built in the 1500′s, known for its beautiful cloisters. Or head out of town to enjoy a day trip to the fairytale castle of Sintra, the quaint fishing town of Cascais - where you can enjoy succulent grilled fish, or the very eery but mesmerizing Chapel of Bones in Evora.
If nature calls, and your desire to explore local vineyards screams vinho!, then take the opportunity to hop on a train to a wide variety of wine tastings or you can stay in the city itself and visit Viniportugal’s Sala Ogival. Here you can try a wide variety of wines by the glass, not to mention speak with experts who can guide you to the best shops, wineries and restaurants depending on which wines you’d love to explore further.
As evening falls, and the moon casts long shadows across tiled buildings, your appetite will surely kick in. Now is the time to tuck into a wide variety of local cheeses, homemade breads or local dishes such as Camarao a Guilho (shrimp in garlic sauce), Frango no Churrasco (chicken on the grill), Cozido á Portuguesa (Portuguese stew) or Sopa da Pedra (Stone Soup), to name a few.
Check here for our Gourmet’s Guide to Lisbon.
Porto, or Oporto to give it its native Portuguese name, is one of the last undiscovered European cities… but this is rapidly changing with an influx of modern architecture and shifting cultural landscape raising its profile and attracting a new wave of tourists. As a UNESCO Heritage site, Oporto is an ancient port teeming with stories of tradition, lineage and heritage. Take its monuments built by famed architects such as Gustave Eiffel’s Ponte Dona Maria, Nicolau Nasoni’s Clerigos Tower, Rem Koolhaas’ Casa da Musica, or Siza Vieira’s Serralves Museum. If you’re a Harry Potter fan, Oporto was the muse that enticed J.K. Rowling into her internationally acclaimed series, most especially the Lello bookstore with its windy wooden staircase and sky high bookshelves. In lieu of soft lines and tiled walls, you can experience some of the most modern design in Porto, including: the Casa da Musica, La Boheme entre Amis Bar or the Vidalgo Palace Spa.
Oporto is also the source of Port wine. Along the river Douro, on Vila Nova de Gaia, you can tour dozens of Porto houses to learn about Ruby, Tawny, Vintage and Colheita Port wines. When you’re finished exploring the underground ‘caves’ (as the Port lodges are called), you can head back across the river to the Oporto side and dip into one of the many river-lined restaurants serving fresh fish and olive-oil-marinated octopus. Or head slightly up the hill to seek out “Tripas à moda do Porto” (a traditional tripe dish), 1,1001 different styles of Bacalhau (salted cod) or a Francesinha (meat on meat on meat sandwich lathered in cheese).
Day trips opportunities are many, but by far our favorite is to take the scenic train along the river Douro to the Douro Valley where you can see the steep, terraced vineyards first hand. It’s a gorgeous trip, worthy of your camera skills. If this is more of a long term stay, you can rent a rural house, or stay in a bed and breakfast, to enjoy a quaint, personal experience. Another worthwhile day trip is to Viana do Castelo. Overlooked by the Hill of Santa Luzia, Viana do Castelo boasts of awe inspiring ambiance on the north bank of the Lima River estuary where many people come to bathe along its sandy shores.
Check here for our Gourmet’s Guide to Porto.
Located in the south of Portugal, the Algarve is renown for its stunning weather, gorgeous beaches and breathtaking scenery. However, what most people don’t know is that it’s also famed for its pottery and ceramics, particularly hand-painted pottery and azulejos or tiles. If you’re keen to participate in a pottery class, head to the main ceramic hubs in the towns of Almancil, Porches and Loulé.
Check out the capital city of Albufeira, a cliff-lined coast of 23+ golden beaches and lively nightlife. If you’re a history buff, then you’ll love the city of Faro, where the old part of the city is still surrounded by the Roman walls dating back to the 9th Century. On the rugged southwest tip of Portugal, is the small historical village of Sagres, where Prince Henry the Navigator lived and planned voyages into the unknown during the 15th century Age of Discovery. Today however, it’s a famous hotspot for surfers keen to catch that killer wave. For a quieter side to the Algarve, point your compass east to the Ria Formosa nature reserve where you’ll find island lagoons, never-ending sandy beaches and the occasional beachside bar, okay, so maybe there’s a lot of those – but partake you will. The Quinta do Marim centre, part of the reserve, is a series of mudflats and dunes and a popular spot for bird watching – look out for spoonbills, turtle doves, Iberian chiffchaffs and the more elusive purple gallinule. It is also home to the distinctive Portuguese water dogs.
Read on for our foodie’s guide to the Algarve region of Portugal.
GUIDED TOURS OF PORTUGAL
Meanwhile click here for a full list of the food and wine tours in Portugal that we recommend, from day trips out of Lisbon to multi-day tours of the region around the Douro Valley and many other great gastronomic experiences.