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 explorations. That 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 is cute! It’s a whitewashed UNESCO-World-Heritage town with Roman-aqueduct remains.
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.
Then it was off to the medieval walled town of Óbidos for two nights, where the cuteness factor skyrocketed.
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.
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:
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! 😊
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.
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.
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!
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!
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! 😊]
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.
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.
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).
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.
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! 😉
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.
So, Óbidos definitely makes the top-five cut in my book! And now, for my número um, here comes — (another drum roll, please!) —
1. PortoSo, 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?
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!)
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?
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!
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