Destination: Portugal

Mar 27th, 2015 Cultural Experiences, Destinations, Europe, Popular Destinations

Standing in the shadow of Spain, Portugal is the place to go if you want Mediterranean flavor that’s a bit off the beaten trail. Explore this ancient seafaring nation to try its edible specialties, sip port and discover heritage wonders tucked into a sunny landscape full of sheep, vineyards and olives.

Évora – A City with Ancient Bones


Hop the train in Lisbon and in 90 minutes, you’ll be transported to Évora, known as “The Museum City of Portugal.” This walled city basks in both provincial tradition and ancient treasures. Start by exploring the town’s historic center at the Roman Temple ruins, set on the city’s highest point next to the Cathedral of Évora. Then follow the winding cobbled streets under the towering 16th-century Água de Prata Aqueduct, past houses and shops built directly into the structure’s arches. From there, make your way west of town to the opulent Church of St. Francis.

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Be sure to go inside the macabre 12th-century Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of the Bones), which has an inscription above the entrance that translates as: “We bones lying here await yours.” Since monastic cemeteries took up valuable medieval real estate in 16th-century Evora, Franciscan monks decided to excavate all the bones and bringing them to the chapel. Rather than bury them, the monks used the thousands of bones and skulls to create intricate designs on the walls and ceilings.

Travel across the highway to the mysterious Almendres Cromlech. Hidden down a dirt road on a hillside among olive and cork trees, this mystical megalithic site is made up of over 90 elliptical stones that may have once served as an astronomical observatory. The 7,000-year-old stone circle predates England’s Stonehenge by approx. 2,000 years.

Express buses from Lisbon to Évora are frequent (approx. 20 per day) and depart across from the Sete Rios rail station, while trains make the journey three or four times daily. If you go by rail, you’ll get to cross the lovely 25 de Abril bridge, which could be the twin of San Francisco’s Golden Gate.

Palmela & Azeitão – Day Trips South of Lisbon

In the Setúbal area southeast of Lisbon, you’ll find a medieval castle and village, authentic handicrafts, edible specialties, country estates, vineyards and wine cellars, along with great views of the Portuguese capitol.

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In charming Palmela, explore the 8th-century Moorish castelo (castle) perched on the hill. When you visit, make time to have a drink or lunch at the five-star Pousada de Palmela hotel before strolling through the village. In nearby Arrábida Natural Park, you can walk through ancient pine forests to a secluded 16th-century Franciscan monastery. You can also visit the five round chapels that the monks once used for solitary meditation. Sit in stillness surveying views of the Setúbal Bay, look for wildlife or head down to the stunning Portinho da Arrábida Beach.

A short drive south, Azeitão boasts stellar examples of Portuguese quintas (villas/country estates), including the 15th-century Palácio Quinta da Bacalhoa —a restored Renaissance villa with lovely gardens and a hall adorned with azulejos (Portugal’s famous glazed tiles). Make your way to the Fonseca Winery to tour the manor house and cellars for just 3 euros (approx. $4.10 U.S.). While you’re there, sample some Periquita, the country’s oldest brand of table wine. Made up of 1,200 acres of vineyards, this region is also known for Moscatel de Setúbal—a fortified Muscat wine. When you get hungry, try the Azeitão artisanal cheese —made from raw sheep’s milk—and the area’s most popular dessert, tortas de azeitão.

Alcácer do Sal – Home of the Storks


Rising up a slope from the Sado River, the rustic, red-roofed town of Alcácer do Sal has been a port since the Phoenicians showed up in 1000 B.C. Made up of marshlands fringed by salt pans, the Sado estuary gave the city a formidable salt industry and made it an important site for Celts, Romans, Visigoths and Vikings (who all lived there at one time). The Moors later made it a regional capital, building the fortress on the hilltop and christening the town Alcácer do Sal—the Moorish al-kasr (town) combined with do Sal (of salt). The fortress later turned into a convent and the structure still presides over the ancient town of whitewashed homes.

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When you visit, dine in the historic Pousada de Alcácer do Sal, D. Afonso II, an extension of the fortress, or check in to stay overnight. West of the castle below, a wildlife preserve is a bastion of egrets, dolphins and otters—not to mention the white storks that give the town its notoriety. Nesting atop the tiled rooftops of houses and church towers, the storks help create a scene right out of a Hans Christian Anderson tale. On the other side of the spectrum, the Alcácer do Sal Residences are located north of town. Lisbon architects designed this unique, ultra-modern concept of housing for the elderly, which has won rave reviews and awards.

Alcácer do Sal is a great stop when you head down Highway A2 from Lisbon (approx. 40 minutes) to the Algarve region in southern Portugal. Stretch your legs on the waterfront promenade and stroll to various cafés and restaurants like Hortelã da Ribeira, A Descoberta, which serves innovative traditional Portuguese fare of the Alentejo region. Relax on the terrace and take in the great river view before exploring the town’s charming medieval quarter. Tourists hardly stop here, so it’s a great place to experience classic Portugal.

Santarém – Gothic Wonders, Great Food & The Bulls

The Santarém region is best known for the famous Fátima shrine. But further south on the banks of the Tejo River, you can escape the tourist mainstream. Horses and bulls graze in the region’s flat pasturelands, while the area’s picturesque capital—also named Santarém —is a crown jewel of gothic architecture. One of the most important cities of medieval Portugal, Santarém was the home of several monasteries and a royal palace; the latter is now the Sé Cathedral of Santarém.

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The gothic wonder of Igreja da Graça (Church of Grace) holds the remains of Pedro Alvares Cabral—the explorer who discovered Brazil in 1500. Its unadorned, whitewashed walls are a contrast to the magnificent rose window, carved from a single stone and said to be the largest in Europe. Further wonders await at the Igreja do Santissimo Milagre (Church of the Holy Miracle), which houses the Eucharistic Miracle of Santarém, a holy wafer that was miraculously transformed into blood. It has been kept on display inside a small crystal flask since 1269. If you’re a music fan, check out the local “church crawl,” which includes short organ recitals at six locations in town.

Visit the bustling Mercado Municipal (public market) to see beautiful 19th-century tile panels and experience local life. When you want to eat, the Taberna do Quinzena offers traditional Portuguese fare. Follow that up with a trip to Pastelaria Bijou—the grand dame of coffee shops—for traditional Pampilho cake.

To see the bulls in action, catch the Festa do Colete Encarnado in Vila Franca de Xira (between Lisbon and Santarém). Set during the first weeks of July and October, the “Pamplona of Portugal” comes alive to the sound of thundering bulls running through the streets.

Sintra – Walking in Wonder


The UNESCO World Heritage city of Sintra was called the “most beautiful of all cities” by 19th-century English poet Lord Byron. Nestled in the misty “Mountains of the Moon,” as the Serra da Sintra range was known in pre-Christian times, stunning landscapes merge with splendid Romantic-era architecture. Located approx. 20 miles from Lisbon, it’s an easy trip to unearth exquisite cultural and historic treasures.

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You can stroll through the old town and through palaces, parks, churches and convents, or opt for some more strenuous options in this paradise for walkers. In addition to hiking to the top of Castelo dos Mouros (Palace of the Moors), you can also find some great trails that pass by monuments, chapels, forested hills, villages and coastline in the Sintra-Cascais Park. Walk through shady forests to the humble 16th-century cork monastery of Convento dos Capuchos.

You can also amble through the largely undiscovered village of Almoçageme, making your way down to Praia da Adraga —one of Sintra’s best Atlantic beaches. This quiet, sandy cove is sculpted between tall, jagged cliffs and boasts white sands and a restaurant that serves fantastic fresh grilled fish, crab, clams and fish soup. Walk along the cliff paths that connect Praia Grande (a coastal village and vast stretch of beach frequented by bodyboarders and surfers) to Praia Pequena and Praia das Maçãs. From there, catch an old-fashioned tram back to Sintra to try some travesseiros de Sintra, a specialty dessert of the area.

Find maps at the local tourist office, get walking maps online or book one of the many guided walks available. See our Transport Options Travel Tip to find out the best way to get from Lisbon to Sintra.

Porto – A Golden Sanctuary & Other Cultural Gems

Portugal’s second largest city lies on the northern Atlantic coast and is best known for its port wines. Much smaller than Lisbon, Porto is easy to navigate via the metro system and cable cars that traverse the steep city streets. Of the many churches and a grand cathedral that dot the city, the 15th-century Greja de Santa Clara is a must-see. Hidden from view in a small square behind contemporary buildings, it’s easy to pass by. Don’t miss this captivating jewel of gilded woodwork crafted by the celebrated woodcarvers of Portugal. Since the church is practically deserted, you can wander in solitude. When you step back outside, make your way to Café Majestic, where glistening gilded mirrors and statuettes provide a glamorous Belle-Epoque setting.

Music and architecture aficionados should make time to visit the Casa da Musica. This modern marvel was transformed from a former tram garage into a bastion of music. Its multiple concert halls set the stage for everything from fado and classical to jazz and rock. Try the English-speaking tour and take a break for lunch at the restaurant on top, which boasts wonderful views of Porto.

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Book lovers must stop at the Livrario Lello downtown. Author J.K. Rowling sipped many cups of coffee while scribbling notes in the café upstairs during her residency in Porto. The inspiration for the Harry Potter moving staircases in Hogwarts (the fictional school of magic in Rowling’s famous series), the grand staircase in this small bookshop is just one part of the enchanting interior.

Porto Santo – The Tranquil Oasis of Columbus

Venture off the mainland and head to the Madeira Islands off the Portuguese coast. From the main island of Madeira, you can take a 15-minute flight or catch a two-hour ferry to the small island of Porto Santo, which Christopher Columbus once called home. Here, you’ll find a haven of relaxation where you can kick off your shoes and unwind on six miles of uninterrupted white-sand beach. When you feel restless, hit the greens at the 18-hole Porto Santo Golf Course, which has a stunning ocean backdrop. If golf isn’t your game, try horseback riding, diving, fishing, jeep excursions or hiking—the interior mountain terrain includes some rugged walking trails, all with expansive ocean views. To recuperate, check into one of the island’s spas. Porto Santo’s sand and mineral-rich seawaters have long been claimed to hold therapeutic properties, particularly for rheumatic and orthopedic disorders.
Porto Santo also has great dining options, some of which offer courtesy shuttle service to and from your hotel (ask before calling a cab). To see a gorgeous sunset, go to the Panorama, which sits atop a point and offers great food to match the view. Afterwards, head down to the beach for an evening stroll and settle into a bar or café.

Minho Province – Scenery, Churches, Coffee & Cupcakes

Travel to the far north of Portugal to explore Peneda-Gerês National Park, the country’s only national park. This wild area is peppered with huge granite rocks, megalithic stone tombs, Celtic fortifications, oak forests, bogs and an assortment of roaming mountain goats, cows, wolves, boars, ibex, deer and wild Garrano ponies —ancient natives of the area. Shepherd trails meander through the region for hikers, and a 1st-century Roman road still has ancient mile markers in place. Ride on a domesticated Garrano pony or drive the short distance between Gerês and Campo do Gerez to enjoy the outstanding scenery.

Outside the park, explore Braga, the spiritual center of Portugal—also called “The Portuguese Rome.” In addition to 18th-century manor houses, elaborate gardens, plazas and museums, you’ll find outstanding baroque churches. Pilgrims flock to the Sanctuary of Sameiro (second only to Fátima in visitors) and the hilltop Bom Jesus do Monte, where many still climb the stairways on their knees.

Translating to “green coast,” Braga is a great place to try caldo verde (green soup) paired with a crisp, refreshing glass of regional wine. For dessert, stop at Spirito Cupcakes & Coffee, where baristas whip up frapuccinos, mochaccinos and more to go along with delicious cupcakes and ice cream to enjoy indoors or on the terrace. The stronghold of vinho verde (green wine) grapes, this area also boasts plentiful wine touring.

If you’re interested in souvenirs, look for traditional handicrafts like cavaquinhos (small guitars), linens, embroidery, wicker pieces, forged iron and Farricocos (wooden miniature dolls representing the guards that arrested Jesus Christ).
Fifteen minutes away is Guimaraes, the birthplace of Portugal. If you visit, be sure to check out Praça de Santiago, a medieval square in the historic city center.

Travel Tips - Portugal

Travel Tips: Portugal

To prepare for a summer trip to Portugal, read these tips to find out how to save money, hire a guide, get around and enjoy the best festivals. We’ll also help you decide what to pack, what to eat and what to take home.

What to Wear

Long, hot summers are the norm in Portugal, especially inland where there aren’t any sea breezes. Expect bright sun and temperatures in the 80s°F (mid-20s°C) and higher—so bring your coolest threads. Smart-casual attire is best in the cities. Although old, new, formal and informal all blend together in Lisbon, it’s best to wear revealing clothing only at the beach. If you’re going sleeveless, be respectful and cover your shoulders with a shawl when visiting churches. Lightweight khakis, capris, skirts and dresses are always appropriate for summer touring. Pack lightweight tops you can wear with shorts on the more casual coasts. There’s water everywhere, so pack a swimsuit, hat, sunglasses and a cover-up, as well as a tote to carry it all.
Don’t forget footwear:

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Hire a Guide

A private guide can give you a real taste of a city, taking you off the beaten path to the most-interesting neighborhoods to eat local delicacies, sample hard-to-find port and peruse artisan shops. Unlike large tour-bus operators, private guides have time to answer your questions, tailor the sights to your tastes and travel at your pace. With ToursByLocals, you can find guides throughout Portugal and choose tours by interest. Options include:

  • Walking the Moorish quarter in Lisbon
  • Tasting your way through the vineyards of Coimbra
  • Sailing the seas with a Portuguese fisherman

Lisbon and its surroundings have plenty of private guides, including Lisbon Tour Guides and Around Lisbon. If you have your own vehicle or wish to walk or tour by public transport, you can hire a local like Filipe Alves to escort you. If you want to go inside the National Monuments, you’ll need to use an official licensed guide approved by Turismo de Portugal, I.P.

Saving Money in Lisbon

Big cities can be expensive, but you don’t need to go broke visiting them. Here are some of our favorite ways to save money in Lisbon:

  • Airport Transport: A metro line extends to Lisbon Airport. For only 1.40 euros (approx. $1.92 U.S.), it’s a steal. Taxis waiting at arrivals have been known to overcharge tourists, so book one ahead or go upstairs to departures to get one instead.
  • Sightseeing Sundays: Locals know they can get in free to museums and many other attractions on Sundays before 2 p.m. Tourists can, too.
  • Stay in a pensão: Like a bed & breakfast, a pensão (inn) offers individual rooms at very reasonable prices in great locations. You won’t get as many amenities as you would at a hotel and you may have to share a bathroom, but you’ll get to experience a homier, more classic European experience.
  • The Lisboa Card: With this card, you can ride the city’s metros, buses and trams, plus get free or reduced entry to many major Lisbon area attractions. Order your card (24-hour, 48-hour or 72-hour) online and pick it up at the Lisbon airport or the downtown tourist office.

Transport Options

Driving in Portugal is not for the faint of heart. Fortunately, you can get around easily by train or bus:

  • Lisbon: Although there are plenty of cabs, you’ll get a much better deal on the underground metro (approx. $2 U.S.) for travel beyond downtown. Some buses, trams and elevators double as attractions, such as the hop-on, hop-off Electrico 28 (Tram 28) and the Santa Justa Elevator.
  • Lisbon to Sintra: Buy a combination train/bus ticket to Sintra at the lovely Rossio station in Lisbon for a day of unlimited travel. The journey will take you from train station to train station in just 40 minutes. From there, transfer to bus #434 to get to Sintra’s main attractions. To return a more scenic way, take bus #417 (30 minutes) or #403 (1 hour) via Cabo do Rocha (the westernmost point in continental Europe) to the seaside town of Cascais and board the train to Lisbon.

Festivals of Summer

Experience the country’s nearly 1,000-year history through one of its colorful festivals:

  • Coimbra (July): Festivities of the Holy Queen take place in even-numbered years (like 2014) to celebrate the patron saint Queen Isabel. These include performances, exhibitions, food, handicrafts, competitions and a solemn procession with a one-ton effigy of the queen.
  • Esoteril (July/August): The country’s oldest Handicrafts Fair is staged during the cooler summer evenings with more than 300 artisans, food stands and demonstrations. Traditional dances and fado are performed live every night around 9 p.m.
  • Sintra (June/July): During the Festival of Sintra, music and dance of the Romantic period come to life in the historic palaces, churches, parks and country-manor estates of this UNESCO World Heritage city.
  • Obidos (July/August): Next to the town’s castle, you’ll find costumed locals at the Medieval Market participating in jousting tournaments and serving medieval dinners. Music lovers can attend Obidos International Piano Week in late July and early August.
  • Viana do Castelo (August): The seafaring traditions of Portugal are celebrated in the Romaria Festival, a three-day extravaganza. Watch richly costumed processions on streets adorned with sawdust and floral carpets.

Portuguese, Not Spanish

Although many younger people in Portugal speak English, your efforts to speak Portuguese will be appreciated. Take a phrasebook or download an app to make it easy—the handy Voice Translator for iPhone® and iPad® translates your spoken English into audible Portuguese (or another language).
If you fall back on speaking another language, choose English, not Spanish; it’s considered disrespectful to use that language in Portugal if you aren’t Spanish. With a national identity older than Spain, locals are proud of their heritage and don’t like to be confused with Spaniards. If you’re really having trouble communicating, use hand gestures.

Taking Home a Piece of Portugal

Plenty of handcrafted goods make Portugal ideal for treasure hunters. Azulejos—the lovely glazed ceramic tiles that adorn many of the ancient buildings—are world famous. Find these vibrant tiles at markets, roadside stalls and local shops. A top exporter of cork, Portugal also has an interesting variety of cork products found in stores like Cork & Company in Lisbon. Pottery, copperware, woodwork and marvelous handmade embroidered linens are also Portuguese classics. In the fashion department, look for leather goods such as handbags, jackets, shoes and boots in Lisbon. Jewelry is popular at markets, and if you want unique Portuguese souvenirs, A Vida Portuguesa has two shops in Lisbon and one in Porto. Foodies can stock up on top-quality local wines like port, aged cheese and olive oil.

A Comida (The Food)

Portugal is a haven of Mediterranean flavor, including port, olive oil and spices like cumin, piri-piri (hot, red chili pepper) and cinnamon. Be sure to try some of these local specialties:

  • Bacalhau (dried, salted cod): This national delicacy comes in a myriad of varieties like pastéis de bacalhau (codfish croquettes), bolinhos de bacalhau (deep-fried balls of cod mixed with potatoes, parsley and eggs) and Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá (cod casserole with potatoes and onions)
  • Caldo verde: Green broth of kale and potato spiced with chouriço sausage
  • Cozido à Portuguesa: Rich stew of boiled meat, vegetables and potatoes
  • Gazpacho: Cold soup of tomatoes, onions, cucumber and garlic; served with bread and smoked pork; popular in the Algarve region
  • Leitão: Suckling pig rubbed in spices and slow-roasted; Leitão da Bairradais a must in Portugal’s central region
  • Frango Piri-Piri: Grilled chicken marinated in chili, garlic and olive oil; a classic of the southern Algarve region
  • Pastéis (pastries): The beloved Pastéis de Belém (aka Pastéis de Nata) are small custard cups wrapped in a flaky crust and topped with powdered sugar and cinnamon; the Confeitaria dos Pastéis de Belém in Lisbon was first to produce these delights, handcrafted from a secret recipe handed down from the 19th-century nuns of the adjacent monastery
  • Seafood: Especially mussels, clams, crab and squid; unique items like percebes (goose barnacles) and chocos (cuttlefish); Sardinhas assadas (grilled sardines) served with boiled potatoes are a summer favorite

Ready to Go?

Don’t forget to consult our free packing guides and destination guides before you pack your bags.