Stef’s Five Faves: Portugal Edition

After fourteen days of intense travels through Portugal, I’ve decided to give an overview of the spots I enjoyed most, aka “Stef’s Five Faves: Portugal Edition!” If you’re planning your itinerary or just want to learn more about what Portugal has to offer, then this is for you! So let’s take a look at the very Best of the West — of the Iberian Peninsula, that is!

First, let me plot the course of our expedition.

Where I Laid My Head

My most-recent Europe trip started in mid-June with five nights in the Portuguese capital of Lisbon. The first two nights I spent on my own doing pre-tour independent explorationsThat was followed by three additional nights in Lisbon as part of a 12-day Rick Steves’ Heart of Portugal tour. Spoiler alert — Lisbon was a fave. More on that in a bit.

After those beautifully busy five days, it was time to say adeus to Lisbon. Our route continued on with a night’s stay in a town the Romans had occupied millennia before us:

Évora!

Praça do Sertório square in Évora
Praça do Sertório square in the heart of Évora

Évora is cute! It’s a whitewashed UNESCO-World-Heritage town with Roman-aqueduct remains.

Évora's old Roman acqueducts
Here I am, single-handedly holding up Évora’s old Roman acqueducts.
You’re welcome, Évora. You’re welcome.

But the spot that gets the most visitors is Évora’s Capela dos Ossos: a Franciscan bone chapel that’s on the macabre end of the spectrum, but fascinating!

In a morbid kind of way.

Capela dos Ossos, Evora
Those Franciscan monks of Capela dos Ossos had a real sense of esprit de corpse.

Capela dos Ossos, Evora
Anyone remember that song — “Make new friends, but keep the old; one is silver and the other is a decorative wall ornament”?

Then it was off to the medieval walled town of Óbidos for two nights, where the cuteness factor skyrocketed.

Óbidos sunset
The sun might never have set on the British Empire, but in Óbidos it sets rather beautifully.

Our next stop was the hip, tradition-rich university city of Coimbra for another two-night visit. Afterwards, my fellow tour members and I sipped our way through the vineyards of the scenic Douro Valley, where we laid our heads for yet another couple nights.  

Douro Valley
Vineyards of the Douro Valley — where the port-wine storks deliver little port-wine baby bottles for port-wine enthusiasts everywhere to enjoy!

Finally, our twelve-day Rick Steves’ tour culminated with our arrival in the edgy and picturesque northern city of Porto! Which was about when I decided I’m relocating. To Porto. 

Here’s a visual of our tour itinerary:

Portugal tour itinerary
Portugal tour itinerary

But our explorations didn’t stop there! No no! Many day-trips and short stopovers were also squeezed into a fortnight’s worth of discovery.

Prefer to skip the intro? Keep scrolling down to get straight to my five faves! 😊

In Rick Steves’ Portugal guidebook, you’ll find in-depth Rick-tested info on Lisbon, the Algarve, Évora, Óbidos, Coimbra, Porto, Sintra, and more:

Portugal Day Tripping!

Pre-tour, I managed to catch a train out to the seaside city of Cascais, where Portuguese go for a beach getaway. 

Cascais, Portugal
Ready for a fun day in the sun?
Cascais beach, Portugal
Then head to Cascais!

Once the tour began, our day-trips and excursions included the monastery of Alcobaça, the coastal city of Nazaré, Batalha (for a visit to yet another impressive monastery), Fátima, the Conímbriga Roman ruins, and — we even got to visit a cork farm to learn about the history, importance, and process of cork farming in Portugal.

Alcobaça Monastery, Portugal
Alcobaça Monastery
Nazaré, Portugal
Nazaré! Known for its striking cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. It’s also known for its ginormous waves that professional surfers try to tame.
Batalha Monastery, Portugal
Looking skyward from within Batalha Monastery
Fátima, Portugal
Fátima — where miracles happen?
Conímbriga Roman Ruins, Portugal
Impressive mosaics of the Conímbriga Roman Ruins
Cork trees, Portugal
Them’s cork trees 0’er yonder! You can see the part of the trunk that’s already been harvested! Traditionally, they are harvested once every seven years!

So as you can see, we managed to experience quite a lot in those two weeks. And before I start listing superlatives, I have to say, each destination was special. Memorable. Enjoyable. Honestly, I’d recommend the whole dang shebang!

But alas, I must choose a top five in order for this to be called — [drum roll, please!] —

Stef’s Five Faves!

Spontaneity in travel can be great. But I think it is a good idea to have some sightseeing priorities in place, especially if your travel time is limited. So without further ado, here are my five faves, Portugal edition!

5. Sintra

Initiation Well
Wait, what? “She hasn’t mentioned Sintra once!” You might be thinking. And you’d be right. That’s because I didn’t visit Sintra this time around. But I’ve been there on a previous trip to Portugal and LOVED it. Therefore, it makes my top five!

Why?

Sintra feels like a real-life fairytale land. Plus it’s just 15 miles northwest of Lisbon, making it the perfect day-trip or linger-longer destination. It’s where blue bloods used to escape to for the summer, so of course they built lots of purdy palaces there. Experiencing Sintra’s colorful castles, its mystic parks and gardens, and its romantic 19th century architecture is a must! 

[Thank you to Stephen Alvarado, for letting me use his picture of the Initiation Well in Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra. Gorgeous! 😊]

4. LisbonLisbon views

Portugal’s capital and main city (Lisbon!) is also a fave. There’s just so much to do and see there: from the medieval tangle of streets that run through Lisbon’s eldest Alfama district, to easy-breezy seaside Belém, to the colorful cafés and foodie haunts of the Bairro Alto. Plus, Lisbon’s arabesque tiles, its quintessential trolleys, its decorative cobblestones all give flair to the shabby-chic cityscape.

Elevador de Santa Justa, Lisbon
Neo-Gothic Elevador de Santa Justa transports passengers from the lower Baixa district 43-feet up to Largo do Carmo for some lovely Lisbon views.

From the hill-top São Jorge Castle, get set to take in a panorama of the Tagus river and estuary, plus a sea of orange-tiled rooftops that speckle the city below. And strolling Lisbon’s lanes and avenues, you might just come face-to-face with Fado — “fate” or “destiny.” Fado is the soulful, impassioned traditional music that will make your ears and heart happy on an evening out in Lisboa.

My Story Hotel Rossio, Lisbon
Decorative “Fado” decor in my hotel room at My Story Hotel Rossio in Lisbon

Have I mentioned food yet? Try the bacalhau (salted cod!), a Portuguese specialty. I sampled this dee-lish fish dish personally at Lisbon’s trendy Mercado da Ribeira foodcourt, and it was pretty dang tasty. For a sweet-goodness finish, don’t forget to sample Belém’s namesake pastry: Pastel de Belém (available gluten-free at Zarzuela cafe near the Chiado district).

3. CoimbraCoimbra, Portugal

I went to Coimbra with zero expectations, which often is the best way to embrace a new place. When you have no expectations, you’re far more likely to leave feeling pleasantly surprised! And that’s exactly what happened to me in Coimbra, a city that feels unscathed by the negative aspects of tourism and maintains its sense of authenticity.

A large part of its real-deal feel comes from Coimbra’s status as a university city. The many traditions and festivities surrounding student life inject old Coimbra with a youthful energy. These traditions date back to the 14th century and have a specific name in Portuguese: Praxe, derived from the Greek word praxis. The practice of Praxe originated at the University of Coimbra, but now takes place in universities across Portugal. 

Students of Coimbra, Portugal
This is not Diagon Alley! These are students of the University of Coimbra.

Praxe has many facets, a main part being the initiation rituals performed on freshmen, as well as the disctinctive school uniforms, which are said to have inspired student attire at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in Scotland. 

Did you know that J. K. Rowling moved to Porto to teach English in 1991? She left Portugal in 1993 with "three chapters of what would become Harry Potter in her suitcase." Seems fair to say that these typically Portuguese university uniforms probably inspired those found at Hogwarts! Or, alternatively, that a memory-charm spell (obliviate) was placed on some Portuguese back in the 1300s, making them forget that the uniforms actually were inspired by witches and wizards! 😉

2. ÓbidosObidos, Portugal

Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, Óbidos – oh how beautifully life goes on here! Desmond did not meet Molly at the Óbidos marketplace, but it sure feels like a place to fall in love. Or to come up with some epic song lyrics, anyway. When you arrive in Óbidos, you’ll want to slow your pace right down.

Because the thing to do, simply, is to wander through the pretty streets, along the medieval walls, and, later, into some quaint café or eatery. The flowers, the churches and squares, the bright yellows and blues painted on slightly decaying, but beautiful, walls or fortifications — it’ll all make your lips curl up pleasantly at the edges. Óbidos is just begging to be explored, but at a nice and easy pace, please. 

Portugal.com tells us of Óbidos: “‘The Wedding Town’ was the traditional bridal gift of the kings of Portugal to their queens, a custom begun in 1282 by Dom Dinis.” And that the town “has hardly changed in appearance since then: its cobbled streets and steep staircases wind up to the ramparts, from where you can gaze across a countryside of windmills and vineyards.” Yep. That pretty much sums it up.

Ramparts of Obidos, Portugal
Exploring the ramparts might have been the thing I enjoyed most about my visit to “The Wedding Town.”

So, Óbidos definitely makes the top-five cut in my book! And now, for my número um, here comes — (another drum roll, please!) —

 1. PortoDouro River in Porto, PortugalSo, have I mentioned yet that I’m moving to Porto?

The decision came after spending just two nights letting the fab city wine and dine me! Or maybe it came earlier. Perhaps when I was standing on these mussel-covered rocks, overlooking the rugged blue Atlantic, watching morning joggers go by, and imagining that I could be one of them, and that this could be my morning jogging route?

Stef in Porto, Portugal
Me imagining my future in Porto! It’s good to keep dreams alive, right? Don’t worry, I’d accept visitors at my little Porto apartment!

I have to say, though, that I was double-lucky this trip: Firstly, to have been in Lisbon for the Feast of Saint Anthony! Then, our fantastic Rick Steves’ Europe tour guide, Cristina Duarte, informed us that we would arrive in Porto on the day of their patron saint’s festivities — the Festival of Saint John! How lucky can a girl get? And if I thought the Feast of Saint Anthony was amazing, the Festival of Saint John blew me away with its quirky greatness! (More on Porto’s Festival of Saint John here!)

Blue-tiled church, Porto, Portugal
One of several blue-tiled churches found in Porto

Porto has often been compared to San Francisco, with its hills and bridges, its wines and trolleys, as well as comparable climates. But Porto has more of that Old World charm, and for now, anyway, less tourists. It’s “outstanding urban landscape” gives medieval Porto UNESCO World-Heritage status.

Yet Porto feels less “discovered” than some other heavy-hitter European destinations. It is, however, becoming increasingly popular as an expat destination. With such beauty, grit, and charm all rolled into one, can you blame the likes of myself and J. K. Rowling for wanting to live there?

Bridge in Porto, Portugal


After having managed to put myself and J. K. Rowling in a sentence together, that wraps up my Portugal coverage! Now it’s time for your feedback! What spots have I missed?

I guess it’s also time for a full disclosure: I’ve never been to Portugal’s Algarve! And I know it’s supposed to be amazing. Also, I haven’t talked about Madeira, which I’ve visited and loved — but it’s been so darn long that I feel I can’t speak about it with any authority. (Except to say that it is gorgeous and I hope to return someday.)

I really would love to hear what you think! Please give us all the juicy details on your Portuguese loves in the comments section! Obrigada for joining me!

Check out and zoom in on my recently updated travel map here! And follow Postcards from Stef on Facebook!

30 thoughts on “Stef’s Five Faves: Portugal Edition”

  1. Happy Blogiversary Stef! Great choice to live in Porto. I have been to most of the towns you mentioned, mainly following RS guides – all are winners and you made a fair (but difficult) ranking. Porto is a great base. And the Portuguese people make this country come alive. I went north to Viana do Castelo this August for the Romaria Sra. D’Agonia. Fantastic! Perhaps the best small town celebration in Europe? And check out the Medieval festival in Óbidos too. Very authentic. Many more cultural events as you noted. Porto feels like a small town in many ways, especially for tourists. I hope it keeps its grit. It will always be beautiful and charming to me, although I will never line up and pay to go into the Livraria Lello, no matter how many times JK Rowling visited there. Too many other interesting experinces and memories to be made in Porto. Viva Porto! (PS – get to Tomar sometime too – in my “top 10”.)

    1. Thanks so much for the blogiversary greeting, Fonzo! 🙂 And now you’ve also just given me more to add to my travel list. I just Googled Viana do Castelo, and I hope I can go check out the festival there sometime! Same goes for the Medieval festival in Óbidos. I’m now a firm believer in Portuguese festivals! Until this past trip, I had no idea how AMAZING they are! Thanks for sharing! And, yes! Definitely Viva Porto! 🙂

  2. When I went to Portugal I fell in love with Porto. It reminded it of my home town. But this was many years ago when there were no digital cameras. I have this romantic picture of the country in my memories now. Hm… Shall I start planning my next trip to Portugal? Your post made me feel quite nostalgic.

    1. Thank you, Daniela! I’m curious as to where your home town is, if Porto reminded you of it! Hope you can return sometime!

  3. I love how much you enjoyed your time in this amazing country! I cannot wait to explore it for myself and hope to save your guide for that time!

    1. Thank you, Maegan! It really was such a treat getting to explore Portugal! Hope you’ll get the chance to go soon too! 🙂

  4. You have some beauuutiful photos! How did I miss capela de ossos when I went to Portugal? Ah, probably becauase i was traveling with my family and my 10-year-old brother.. haha. I don’t blame them for not wanting to go, I’d probably get nightmares too.

  5. Firstly, LOVE your photos! Especially the Batalha Monastery one – amazing composition 🙂 And WOW, you fell in love with Porto that quickly eh? I haven’t quite come across any cities that I could see myself living in right away, you must have really fallen head over heels for it. I don’t blame you though, your photos have captured its stunning old charm. Good luck with the move!

    1. Thanks so much, Aimee! Yep, I fell in love with Porto straight away! The only thing is, I’ve fallen in love with many places — especially in Europe – that I want to move to! 🙂 Thanks again!

  6. ah I love Portugal. I also visited Coimbra and was so impressed by the hike up to the campus… cannot imagine how hard it is to reach class if you are running late in that city… so steep! I also saw the students with their robes, but never put two and two together and realized that inspired JK Rowling! Nice insight 😉

    1. Hi Gabby! Thanks so much for your comments! I also can’t imagine running late to class and having to hike up to the campus in Coimbra! They must stay in pretty good shape! 🙂

  7. We were just in Portugal in July but missed out on visiting Coimbra and Obidos! We loved Sintra and Porto as well though. You should definitely head back to visit the Algarve if you get a chance – it’s beautiful. Our favorite town was Tavira – such a cute hidden gem.

    1. Hi Flo! Thanks so much for the tip on the hidden gem of Tavira! Can’t wait to check it out myself sometime! 🙂

  8. I had never heard of Evora before. Sounds interesting and I love that little aqueduct. Good luck with the move to Porto, it’s a great little city. I considered moving there myself at one point but I went location independent instead. I hope it works out for you. 🙂

    1. Thank you, Andrea! And congrats to you on becoming location independent! That sounds fantastic! Happy travels!

  9. Stefanie! I can’t tell you enough how I love all the pics that you take. Annnnnnnd did you know Madonna lives in Portugal now???

    1. Thanks so much, Dusanka! That means a lot to me! 🙂 And no — I did not know that!!! Too bad I didn’t bump into her while I was there! 😉

  10. I enjoyed Lisbon, Obidos, and Porto as well. Totally recommend the Shiadu hotel locations: we stayed at Casa do Patio in Lisbon and Casa dos Loios in Porto (which is conveniently a block from the train station.) The riverside at Porto is so cozy and picturesque, it’s hard to beat.

    Between Obidos and Porto is the canal-lined town of Aveiro (Hotel Aveiro Center was great) and an adorable beach town just down the road with striped houses called Costa Nova. Seems to be more local tourists there which is nice for a change.

    Roughly an hour north of Porto by car is the river Minho which separates Portugal and Spain. We stayed in the fortified village of Valenca (Portas do Sol is a great lodging option), strategically located on a promontory with fabulous views. We took a day trip and drove up the Minho River to the prosperous and beautiful town of Melgaco. Sadly, the Termas de Melgaco was closed for maintenance, but happily we were lucky to take advantage of the Termas de Moncao Centro Tesal in the town of Moncao!

    1. This is exactly why my travel bucket list never gets any shorter! Every trip I take, I learn about umpteen more places I need to visit! Thank you so much for your comments, Elaine! It all sounds so wonderful (Aveiro, Costa Nova, Minho, Melgaco etc — Sigh — I need a bigger travel fund)! 😉 It would be a dream to make it to some of those spots in the not-to-distant future! Portugal sure has a lot to offer! 🙂

      1. Yeah, we had to skip Nazare due to time constraints – can’t do it all! And I missed the Quinta da Regaleira due to illness that morning. But it’s hard to justify any sulking what with all the other wonders we visited.

        1. So true! I’m just grateful to have been at all! And if I get to go back, now I have a few more places to check out! 🙂 Thanks!

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