Portugal has left me speechless. What an amazing country! Read all about my Portuguese experience below:
Is Portugal the best European destination of 2017? Searching a bit online, you will see that many articles say so. Checking a few photos will also increase these beliefs. But what’s with all this hype, that grew bigger and bigger in the past years? I wanted to see it with my own eyes, so I decided to book the plane tickets and plan the trip many months in advance – around six. And oh boy, it ended beautifully.
First question that popped to my mind: how much can I see in one week? Would it be possible to start in Lisbon, include in the itinerary its surroundings, like the marvellous town of Sintra and Cabo da Roca, Europe’s landmass most western point, then go to Porto and finally to Algarve, to spend at least 3 days at the ocean? The answer is yes, it would, but after some documentation, I decided to exclude Porto, because it would have been a bit too much. Spending one day there would have been achievable, but from what I read online, it’s a city that deserves much more time. So I decided to leave it for a future trip.
Here are some interesting facts about Portugal:
- it has had the same borders since the 12th century, making it the oldest nation-state in Europe;
- it established the first colonial empire of the Renaissance, back in the 15th and 16th centuries; do Vasco da Gama or Bartolomeu Dias ring any bells?
- it’s the 3rd most peaceful country in the world;
- it has the longest bridge in Europe (Vasco da Gama Bridge in Lisbon, more than 17 kilometres in length);
- it’s one of the world’s top surf spots, known to have 364 days of surf per year;
- it has the oldest book store in the world (The Bertrand Bookstore), opened in 1732 in Lisbon.
What to eat in Portugal? Fish and seafood! You’re at the ocean, so this is the right answer. Bacalhau (cod fish) is probably the most common type of fish that you will find. Seafood includes fresh sardines, shrimp and prawns, squid, octopus, cuttlefish, crabs. Cataplana is a local seafood stew, very popular in the region of Algarve. The Portuguese are also known for the pork dishes, Carne de Porco à Alentejana being one of the most popular. In Algarve, this dish contains clams and potatoes – sounds a bit strange, right? But in the same time, quite intriguing, I would say. When ordering food, don’t forget to get a glass of the famous Portuguese wine. Some of the best-known types are: Vinho Verde, Vinho do Porto and Vinho da Madeira. Tip: ask your waiter for the one that goes the best with the food you’ve ordered.
When it comes to pastries and desserts, the variety is huge. There are some really nice pastry chain stores in Lisbon that I can recommend, like Fábrica da Nata and A Padaria Portuguesa. Pastel de nata (an egg tart pastry) was first baked by the catholic monks in Belém, way before the 18th century, and it’s nowadays a must try, while in Lisbon. Other popular pastries are: Bola de Berlim, Pão-de-ló, Bolo de Arroz, Pão de Deus, and the list can go on and on.
Last, but not least, the places that I would recommend for going out and trying the Portuguese dishes are: Time Out Market (Av. 24 de Julho 49) in Lisbon, Cantinho Algarvio (Rua Afonso de Almeida 21) in Lagos and Restaurante A Ria (Rua Infante Santo 27) in Ferragudo Lagoa. The truth is that I’ve tested quite a few restaurants, but these are the ones that stuck in my mind.
Accommodation: Airbnb was my “buddy” this time. I’ve used it for the three nights spent in Lisbon and for the three spent in Lagos, Algarve. Each time, I was more than happy with my choices, as the apartments had great location, close to everything important and relevant. Prices were quite cheap, at around €80-85 per night, for four people. That’s actually a bargain, I fully recommend Airbnb for a trip to Portugal.
Friday, 8:30 a.m. The plane just landed, so it was time to order an Uber (the best way to travel longer distances in Lisbon, way cheaper than a cab and even than the tram/metro, when more people are involved) and head to the city center. I had three days planned for Lisbon, but one was almost fully booked for its surroundings: Sintra, Cabo da Roca and Cascais. The two proved to be sufficient to check mark all the “to do things” that were on my list. Let’s begin, this is my guide to Lisbon:
- Alfama is the oldest district of the city, a charming, colorful and lovely area to walk. Sé de Lisboa, the city’s oldest church, started back in the 12th century, is a mix of architectural styles. For a nice, panoramic view of the area, go to Portas do Sol. Tip: take Tram 28 and enjoy the ride through Alfama. A one-way ticket costs €2.90.
- Castelo de São Jorge is one of the main attractions and occupies a nearby hill. It was built by the Moors, almost a millennium ago.
- Lisbon impresses with its squares too. Praça do Comércio, Praça da Figueira, Praça Rossio and Praça Luís de Camões offer some fine examples of buildings dating from the rebuilding of the city, that took place after the big earthquake from 1755. These buildings often host hotels, cafes or shops.
- A stone triumphal arch, Arco da Rua Augusta, was built at the entrance to the Praça do Comércio, to celebrate the end of the reconstruction period.
- Bairro Alto is one of the central districts, that changes dramatically between day and night. Quite peaceful during the day, it transforms at sunset and becomes the center of nightlife. It is a beautiful, bohemian district, with endless restaurants and bars. Tip: São Pedro de Alcântara is a great place to see the lower streets of the city.
- Elevador de Santa Justa is the only remaining vertical lift in the city. Built more than 100 years ago, it is still functional and connects the lower streets with Largo do Carmo. There are two more lifts, but these are actually funicular railways: Ascensor da Bica and Ascensor da Glória.
- It’s time to leave the city center and head northeast, for the Oceanário de Lisboa, the largest indoor aquarium in Europe. For two hours, I was completely hypnotised by the beauty of the sea world. The species that I found the most interesting were the ocean sunfish, the penguins, the sea otters, the rays and the spider crabs. The entrance fee is €18 and it’s totally worth it.
- Belém is another delightful district, to the west of Lisbon, most famous for the Jerónimos Monastery (the tomb of Vasco da Gama can be seen inside its church) and the Tower of Belém, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Ponte 25 de Abril, over the Tejo river, is often compared to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.
Once the Lisbon days were over, it was time to rent a car and head towards the west, to visit Sintra and Cabo da Roca, the western end of continental Europe. Sintra is a picturesque municipality, 30 kilometres away from Lisbon, mainly known for the Castelo dos Mouros and for its Romantic palaces: Palácio da Pena (the colorful castle with tons of pictures online), Palácio Nacional de Sintra, Palácio de Monserrate, Palácio de Queluz and Quinta da Regaleira. Plus, it has a really nice historic center and beautiful gardens and parks. There are three possibilities to reach Palácio da Pena: by car, tuk tuk or on foot, using the Vila Sassetti hiking trail. I chose the last option, the trail is somewhere between easy to medium and the path is well marked and easy to follow. The landscape will help you forget about the actual climb and you will reach the top before you know it.
Less than 20 kilometres to the west, Cabo da Roca is a mixture of sandy beaches and rocky cliffs, offering a spectacular sight. Some cliffs are higher than 100 meters, and the wind is pretty strong. The nearby Praia da Ursa (Bear Beach) is definitely a beach of indescribable beauty. The name comes from a huge rock which, when seen from a specific angle, looks like a bear with a cub on its lap.
Before returning to Lisbon, I made a short stop in Cascais, a coastal resort town, to see Boca do Inferno, a unique seaside cave:
Well, a lot of sightseeing, for the first three days. It was time for relaxation, therefore the last four days were dedicated to discovering the amazing beaches of Algarve. The region can be easily reached by car via the A2 highway, in approximately 3 hours. Have in mind that it’s a toll highway, so you will have to pay around €20.
The third richest region in Portugal, Algarve occupies the southern part of Portugal and had developed into a major tourist destination, in the past 50 years. Some of its major resorts and towns are Faro (the capital of the region), Portimão, Lagos, Lagoa, Olhão and Albufeira. The region is famous for pottery and ceramics, particularly for the hand-painted pottery and for the painted ceramic tiles.
As mentioned, my Algarvian “home” for the four days was a big apartment in Lagos, a beautiful, port town, which kept its historical part almost intact throughout the ages. A historic centre of the Portuguese Age of Discovery, back in the 15th and 16th centuries, it was a frequent home of Henry the Navigator. Nowadays, it’s know for the spectacular, rocky cliffs and grottos from its south (a place named Ponta da Piedade), for its scenic beaches (to name a few: Praia da Batata, Praia da Dona Ana and Praia de Camilo) and for the pumping nightlife and high number of bars and restaurants. It’s a lovely town, where you can definitely enjoy the sun each day and party till dawn each night.
But my plan was not to limit my activity to Lagos and its surroundings. So I checked two more beaches, both iconic for Algarve:
- Praia do Amado is a surfer’s paradise. It’s a regular host for surfing and body-boarding competitions. It’s a long, sandy beach, with large waves all year round, surfboard rentals and different classes, for all levels, at a price of €60. This is the place where I’ve tried surfing for the first time. How did I find it? Cool, exciting, but very energy consuming. Overall, it was one of those fun days, and I’m already looking ahead for my second try.
- Praia da Marinha needs no introduction. It’s one of Portugal’s most emblematic beaches. According to the Michelin Guide, it’s in top 10 most beautiful beaches in Europe. It’s easy to understand why: beautiful, golden sand and picturesque cliffs, rising from the ocean. Tip: rent a kayak (€20 per hour, for two people) and paddle to the nearby Benagil Sea Cave, a place out of this world! You don’t need to be a pro to get there, this was my first time with a kayak and managed to do the trip in under one hour, including a 10 minutes stop inside the cave.
Time for the final words…it’s hard to find them, Portugal was able to surprise me in such a positive way, that I am close to being speechless. I would even go as far as saying that I have a new preferred travel destination. I fell in love with Portugal, with its landscapes, with its beaches and with its food. I felt completely free for a week, which is, in most cases, the absolute feeling.
There are no other words that come to my mind right now in order to convince you to go there. I hope that the story and the photos will (PS: for more photos, check the album).
In my opinion, Portugal is not only the European destination of 2017, but much more. It can be added without questions to a top 3 World destination of this year.