Pretty azulejos native to Portugal. Photo by Diego Garcia
Pretty azulejos native to Portugal. Photo by Diego Garcia

Perfect Portugal

by Genevieve Northup
Stripes Europe

Tucked on the western corner of Europe, Portugal is a dynamic country known for port wine, tiled buildings and some of the best surfing in the world — yet there is so much more to discover. Let this itinerary inspire your travels to see the alluring cities and southern coastline of Portugal in less than a week.

Porto: 2 Days

Porto's colorful skyline 

Fly into Porto (or Oporto), the northernmost destination on the agenda. Wear comfortable shoes to traverse the maze of narrow, hilly cobblestone streets shaded by art-nouveau-era green, blue and burgundy tiled facades.

Must-sees: Named for this coastal city, port is a fortified, distilled dessert wine made with Portuguese grapes. Ride the cable car down to Av. de Ramos Pinto, a riverfront street packed with port houses and restaurants offering wine tastings.

Across the Douro River is the bustling pedestrian-only Cais da Ribeira. On one side, tables and chairs spill out from small cafés. On the other, flat-bottomed, wooden Rabelo boats remain docked as symbols of Porto’s history. For centuries, these vessels transported wine from vineyards to merchants. 

The Portuguese tradition of decorating with painted ceramic tiles (Azulejos) began in the 15th century, after King Manuel I toured the Alhambra palace in Spain. Though tilework is everywhere, do not miss artist Jorge Colaço’s 30,000 hand-painted tiles at the São Bento Railway Station and Church of Saint Ildefonso.

Visitors often overlook the impressive Church of Santa Clara because of its lackluster, tile-less exterior. Once inside, they are awestruck by the bold baroque gilded wood carvings that have earned this house of worship recognition as a national monument.

Where to eat: Even if shared, you will have a food coma after eating a francesinha — a small sacrifice for this layered concoction of bread, ham, and steak smothered in a tomato cream sauce and finished with a fried egg and melted cheese. Most cafés carry this local specialty. For something lighter, order a charcuterie platter at Wine Quay Bar and sit at the built-in outdoor counter overlooking Cais da Ribeira. The nearby Ode Porto Wine House is perfect for a romantic dinner prepared with only Portuguese ingredients.

Lisbon: 1.5 Days

Portugal’s vibrant, affordable capital is three hours south by train or car. Located on the Atlantic, Lisbon gives visitors the flexibility to spend afternoons sunbathing on sandy beaches after morning exploration. 

Must-sees: Built to celebrate the successes of Portugal’s maritime trade, the stone carvings of the Monastery of Jerónimos (Hieronymites) continue to impress today. And while you’ve toured a lot of churches so far, make time for the St. John the Baptist Chapel within the São Roque Church. Decorated with gold, silver, lapis lazuli and highly detailed mosaics, it is rumored to be the most expensive chapel in the world.

OK … there is one more church to tour. The Carmo Convent was destroyed during a devastating earthquake in 1755. The surviving flying buttresses, gargoyles and window frames make this a favorite stop for photographers. 

Get fresh air and feel like a local as you stroll through quiet courtyards and past family-owned shops in Alfama, one of Europe’s oldest neighborhoods. Paying to take an elevator may seem silly, but the freestanding outdoor Santa Justa Lift is another favorite Lisbon attraction that provides fabulous city views.

Heavenly pasteis de nata

Where to eat: For an afternoon snack — or anytime, really — keep a bagful of postres de nata on hand. These bite-sized flaky crusts filled with caramelized cream are found in most bakeries. Foodies will find culinary adventures at Casa da Comida, where tasting menus feature octopus, suckling pig and fabulous finales, like Pudding Insanity and Chocolate TNT. Dinner and entertainment await at O Faia, where guests listen to musicians perform Fado, Lisbon’s sorrowful folk music.

Sintra: Day Trip, 3-4 hours

Slightly out of the way on the journey to the Algarve, Sintra is a necessary side trip. Add 30 minutes to your travel plans to find parking, which is usually scarce and never free.  

Must-sees: The main draw of Sintra is the fairy-tale Quinta da Regaleira estate, commissioned in 1904 by a local businessman. Skip the tour of the mansion and head straight to the grounds. Under a canopy of 100-year-old trees is a mysterious 10-acre garden full of medieval-looking towers, whimsical grottos, hidden underground passageways and homages to secret societies, like a 9-story deep initiation well with an ivy-covered spiral staircase.

Where to eat: Factor in 1.5 hours for a late lunch or early dinner at Incomum by Luís Santos. You can’t go wrong with main courses of sea scallops on a bed of risotto, pork loin with polenta, or sea bass and wild rice.

The Algarve: 1.5-3 days

The Algarve 

Three hours south of Lisbon and Sintra is the 100-mile-wide Algarve waterfront. The region’s major airport is in Faro, but visitors will find more charm in Lagos.

Must-sees: Book a family-friendly sea kayak and snorkeling tour with Kayak Adventures Lagos to navigate the labyrinth of caves dotting the coastline. Pack some sunscreen and head for the Dona Ana, Porto de Mos and Camilo beaches. Watch the sunset from Ponta da Piedade, a famous outcropping of rocks 20 minutes from downtown that can be reached by foot, car or hired boat.

Where to eat: You may need to stay in the Algarve longer just for the food. Reservations are essential for Restaurante dos Artistas. Forget the world beyond the candlelit courtyard as you savor surf ’n turf, cherry crème brulée and the appropriately named Amnesia wine.

What Casa do Pintor lacks in resort-town ambiance, it makes up for with beautifully presented, complex, yet inexpensive French food. Save room for the most mind-blowing chocolate soufflé — served with homemade mint chocolate chip ice cream — you will ever dip a spoon into.

Wait in line with Lagos residents and a handful of fellow tourists for a table at Adega da Marina, a sports-themed beer hall where fair-priced, fresh-from-the-boat grilled seafood is served alongside boiled potatoes and flimsy paper napkins. Finish with a glass of port at the Sommelier Wine Shop, just a few doors down.

Sunshine, sandy beaches, jagged cliffs, amazing food, plentiful wine, lively towns … Portugal really is the perfect destination for your next vacation.

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