TABLE OF CONTENTS
have to admit that my wife spoils me. I am super lucky to have a person that cares so much about me and the things that I love. Traveling is a passion of mine. I love it. And Ash has jumped right in, going to both England, Ireland, and Quebec City with me (although to be fair, Quebec was their idea, but I agreed with it immediately!). So it was officially their turn to pick our fourth vacation destination: Portugal.
Now, I also need to share that I have a younger sister... quite a lot younger... and I always said that when she graduated high school we would go on a vacation together. Originally we spoke of France, but she has had her fair share of travel these last few years, and France was one of the first few places she visited. Therefore, our vacation plans morphed slightly. Instead of it being me and her in France, it ended up being me, her, our brother, his girlfriend, and our mom in Spain. And Spain ended up being a great choice. Once Ash found out our family was going to Spain, it made their decision to choose Portugal as our vacation destination a simple one.
I would have loved Ash to come to Spain with us, but they had just started a new job and their work schedule (aka available PTO) would not allow a full three weeks. So we made plans to meet in Lisbon after I traveled for 10 days on the east coast of Spain. My family and I hit Barcelona, Ibiza, Valencia, and Malaga, and although these 10 days were incredible, I was really beginning to miss my wife. So when I arrived in Lisbon on July 18, 2019 to their smiling face holding a fresh croissant for me in the middle of the airport, it was pretty much the highlight of my week.
Both of our flights got in early on July 18th, so we were ready to jump on Lisbon's metro and head out to our first place we would call "home" for the next three nights: Cascais. Cascais is a beach town about a half hour west of Lisbon. We chose to start our stay here because we wanted to relax near the ocean rather than begin our trip in a busy, bustling city. After two metro lines, and a quick train ride, we were at our destination.
My first observation of Cascais was that it was a scene right out of a Miyazaki film; Kiki's Delivery Service to be exact (although I came to learn that every city in Portugal reminded me of this movie). The streets were all mosaic with perfectly placed cobble stones that created intricate patterns. People filled the roads and alleyways, running in and out of little shops and restaurants. The pastel covered buildings that made up the town were topped with red-orange terracotta shingles, giving the area a calm, peaceful vibe. And the ocean. The ocean was right there, sandy beach and all. It was beautiful and we were extremely grateful that we had chosen this town as our first stop.
We were really hungry, and our AirBnb wasn't quite ready, so we dropped our backpacks off at a storage spot and grabbed a bite to eat at Paul. Our full stomachs made the next couple of hours much more satisfying. Holding hands we explored the little city; walking in and out of the alleyways, strolling along the beach sidewalks, visiting the nearest lighthouse, before stopping at an Irish pub (I know, right?) for a beer on the patio that overlooked the water. Our first day ended with a little nap, a delicious dinner at Polvo Vadio, and a nightcap at La Bodeguita, a bar we came to love (and visited every day).
In an effort to dive into our July 19th adventures in Sintra with a little more detail (see more about this area under the next heading) I'm skipping to our last full day in Cascais, July 20th. We had been in this beach town for two days and had yet to experience the sensation of jumping into the ocean. So we made it our mission to go to Guincho Beach by bike, about five miles out, and lay in the sand dunes. The forecast said wind that day, but I don't think we realized just how windy they meant. As we rode our bikes northeast to the beach, the wind attacked us head on. It felt like we were riding into a brick wall, but we persisted. With tired legs, and the thirst of a thousand warriors, we made it to Guincho and set up shop in the sand dunes.
Guincho was beautiful. The soft sand and rolling waves created a picturesque scene as we sprawled out on our new beach blanket. Laying there we could feel the wind getting stronger. The sand would whip up around us, leaving a burning sensation on our bodies. When it almost seemed like too much, we decided to leave our blanket and run into the ocean, because you can't visit the beach without going into the Atlantic. The water was freezing, but we dunked ourselves in. Being from Minnesota we are not used to the salt water, so we came out with a new appreciation for all those that swim in the ocean on a regular basis.
We left Guincho just before our skin sunburned and the wind hit its peak, and we hopped on our bikes for the ride home. Biking with the wind at our backs was much more pleasant and we were able to really appreciate the landscape around us. The hills on our left had the most interesting vegetation; a mix of red, yellow, and green foliage we had never seen covered the ground. As we continued our ride, the rocky coastline on our right slowly began to turn back into city coastline. We were about to enter CasCais' city center when we noticed a sign for Boca de Inferno, so we stopped and locked up our bikes.
Boca de Inferno was smaller than I had imagined. It was definitely pretty, and cool, and probably worth seeing, but it wasn't the massive rock structure I had expected. Still, we got some good photos, and then sat out on the patio of one of the little bars in the parking lot and had a beer. This was good. When our drink was finished, we jumped back on the bikes and rode into the center of town to return them. We stopped for one last drink at La Bodeguita, ate a great dinner at Kech, and finished off our last night in Cascais with gelato from Santini.
From day trips to fantastic cuisine our time spent in Cascais was truly amazing. We were slightly bummed to leave this little place, but were excited to see what our next handful of stops had in store for us. (Click #1 on the interactive map to read more about the great places we visited Cascais including restaurants, our AirBnb, different modes of transportation, and more [photo provided by d-maps.com]).
Sintra was the city in the clouds. I don't know if that is what they actually call it, but we were literally right in the middle of the swirling white fog for the majority of the day. We had woke up that morning with a plan to catch the local bus and make our way just outside of Cascais to the city of Sintra. We choose to take the scenic bus on the way out; longer, but with more landscape to take in. What we weren't prepared for is the amount of cloud coverage we experienced as we climbed higher into the mountainous area. So although we didn't see much in the distance, the bus ride gave us a chance to see some beautiful small towns and villages we would have otherwise missed.
It took us just over an hour to get into the center of Sintra's town. The clouds still loomed around us, but it made the experience feel a little more magical. Sintra is cute, and even though you may not notice it when standing in the middle of the city, the area is filled with incredible palaces, gardens, and castles. The town has a handful of bus lines to choose from in order to see all of these wonders, and after Ash and I mapped out our "must-sees," we jumped on the first bus line and headed further up into the wooded hills.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the bus was at an intense, upward angle for most of the ride. The hills were incredibly steep and we felt grateful that we didn't have to walk them in order to get to our first stop; Pena Park and Palace. As we exited the bus, we again found ourselves surrounded by a thick, foggy mist. This made for a beautiful walk around the palace gardens. The lush green foliage was engulfed by a soft white layer that created a fairy tale-like landscape that we completely adored. Though there were many visitors walking the gardens, the area seemed peaceful and quiet. The park was so large, that we could have spent hours exploring it, but because we had a list of things we wanted to see, we only spent an hour or so taking it all in. The Pena Palace sits inside of the park's walls. Ash and I decided not to go inside of it (partly because the line of tourists was probably the longest we have ever seen), but we did hang out near the outer walls, observing the unique architecture and color that the palace was made up of.
Instead of hopping back on the bus, we decided to walk the road a bit to our next stop. It didn't take long before we reached Castelo dos Mouros. This was one of my favorite places our entire trip of Portugal. It could have been climbing the castle walls, or the fact that the clouds swept around us in the most incredible way, I'm not sure. No matter what it was, I felt like this place was special. After entering through the outer walls of the castle, we had to hike the mountain trails a bit to reach the inner walls. Once there, we spent time climbing, then walking them end to end. Though the clouds did prevent views into the distance, the views outside the walls of the cliff's edge were pretty cool- this is definitely a place you could go to in any weather.
We took the bus back down into Sintra's city center, and got onto another bus whose route would take us to Quinta da Regaleira. One of the most iconic shots I saw of Portugal when researching for our trip was the Initiatic Well (shown below), and I felt that it was something I really needed to see if we were going to Sintra. So when we arrived to our destination, this was our first stop. I am totally glad we took the time to do it because it was pretty cool to start at the top of the well and wind our way down the old stone corridors to the bottom. Once there, we found ourselves enclosed within cave walls that eventually brought us to a stepping-stone passage over a small pool of water- our exit back to the grounds of Quinta da Regaleira. The grounds were also home to small castle-like watch towers, beautiful sculptures, and a gorgeous mansion surrounded by the most lush plant-life. We would have liked to spend more time here, but wanted to catch our bus from Sintra back to Cascais in time for dinner reservations we had made the day prior. So we headed back to the town's center and said goodbye to this remarkable place. (Click #2 on the interactive map to read more about our visit in Sintra including deep dives into the places we visited [photo provided by d-maps.com]).
July 21st we left Cascais bright and early in order to catch our train from Lisbon to Porto. From the Lisboa Oriente station it took us just under 3 hours to get to our final destination. After walking over an hour the wrong way... my fault... we called an Uber and made it to our AirBnb. The first day in Porto was spent relaxing. Our AirBnb had a great porch overlooking the Douro River, so we opened a bottle of wine and watched the sun slowly move over the red rooftops.
As the sky grew slightly darker, we walked a block down the road to a small restaurant called Intrigo. The restaurant interior was quaint and opened to an amazing patio that sat on the hillside. There happened to be one outdoor table available, so we grabbed it and watched the sun set while eating a fantastic dinner.
The next morning we woke bright an early for our day trip to the Douro Valley, In an effort to give you more detail about our Douro adventure, we are dedicating a section to this day trip which you can read more about below. For now, we will skip to July 23rd, where we started our day at Majestic Cafe. Tourist trap? Maybe. Worth going? Well, we thought so. When in Porto, right? The interior was decorated in a French style that you might imagine during the time of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. We drank our coffees, ate our pastries, and after a handful of photos we headed out.
Our original plan was to visit both Livraria Lello and Torre dis Clerigos next, but as we walked to both destinations we saw that the lines went on forever. Torn between the urge to visit these iconic places, and not wanting to stand in line for hours, we decided it would be best to talk to the ticketing agents about a better time of day to visit the locations. Both site staff recommended coming back right before the locations closed; Livraria Lello would close around dinner time, and Torre dis Clerigos had the option to view the city at night, so we decided to take their advice and buy our tickets for later that day.
Since our plans had changed slightly and we now had free time to explore other parts of Porto, Ash suggested we pick up the streetcar, line 22, to take a loop around the city. It was cool to see the buildings from a different point of view, especially on a mode of transportation we had not yet tried. We had a great time snapping photos inside, but an even better time watching pedestrians taking photos as quickly as possible when we drove by. What caught us by surprise was that the conductor was able to drive the streetcar from both ends. There was a specific stop where he got off and situated himself at the other end of the car, and all of the riders lifted the backs of their chairs and slid them to the other side of the seat so that they could travel forwards! It was definitely an experience I would recommend to anyone visiting the city.
After completing our loop on the 22, we decided to walk to the Ribeira on the south side of the Douro; this was where all of the wine cellars were located and we wanted have a view of the city from a new angle. We made our way through the beautiful winding streets, stopping to take photos of the city from the top of the hill where the Porto Cathedral was located. Crossing the Luís I Bridge, we found ourselves among street vendors and outdoor patio seating. We had heard about Sandeman's terrace, so we stopped there for a couple of port mixed drinks and a cheese board before ordering another Uber back to our AirBnb.
We freshened up at our AirBnb before walking to Livraria Lello. Livraria Lello is a famous bookstore in Portugal that is said to have inspired J.K. Rowling's library scenes in Harry Potter. The line was still out the door, but much shorter than earlier in the day, and we only had to wait 5 minutes before being let in. As we stepped inside, my eyes were immediately drawn to the central staircase made with dark wood and covered in a soft red carpet. The walls were filled with bookshelves and statues of little heads depicting various authors. We walked through every part of the store possible, admiring the magical interior before purchasing a few books and heading to our next destination.
It was only a couple of blocks to the Torre dis Clerigos, so we walked over and found that there was absolutely no line. As we climbed to the top of the tower, the stairwell got skinnier and skinnier. We were grateful that we had chosen a time to visit when only a few other tourists were scaling the stairs. Once at the top, we had a great panorama of the entire city. The sun was just beginning to fall, so the lighting was perfect for capturing photos. The views made it completely worth the 200-and-something step climb to the top. And bonus: we heard the 8:00pm tower bells ring while up there!
Our night ended with a fantastic dinner at Viva Creative Kitchen, (a small restaurant with no more than 10 tables and INCREDIBLE food), and some gelato. We made some pretty great memories in this city and will always remember Porto fondly. (Click #3 on the interactive map to read more about our visit in Porto including deep dives into the places we visited [photo provided by d-maps.com]).
July 22nd was unbelievable- like straight out of a fairy tale. Ash and I got up early in order for us to meet our tour group by 8:30am in city center Porto, stopping briefly at Fábrica da Nata for coffee and a Portuguese custard tart that we had heard so much about (pro tip: do not pass on these, they are amazing). Now we aren’t usually the group touring types, but we found an experience on AirBnb that was made to take only a handful of people by car and boat to explore the Douro Valley... so went for it.
We were so glad we did.
With 14 travelers from around the world, and two tour guides named Manuel and Antonio, we split into 2 vans. The drive out to the Douro Valley was just over an hour and we could see the landscape changing as we headed east. Porto’s large hills turned into what we as Minnesotans would call small mountains. The scenery got more and more beautiful as we pulled into our first stop, the town of Pinhão. Pinhão gave us two cool opportunities: the first, was a great panoramic view of the valley. The vans parked on the edge of a steep hill that overlooked the Douro River and miles of grapevine rows. We were told that this very stop was rated one of the most beautiful views in the world... although I haven't found literature to confirm that. Even so, the view was breathtaking, and after taking a handful of photographs we piled back into the vans. After a short winding drive down the hillside we stopped for our second opportunity; an incredible Viking boat tour on the Douro River. Manuel and Antonio dropped us off with the boat tour guides for a ride that lasted about an hour. We were given detailed information on grape growing and harvesting, and treated with a delicious snack of cheeses, bread, and port wine. The tour was wonderful and the hour flew by... we could have stayed on the boat much longer... and we were met at the dock by the vans.
Our next stop was Quinta da Roêda's Croft winery (established 1588). The winery consisted of a few gorgeous buildings surrounded by valleys of grapes. This stop was António’s area of expertise as he had worked for Croft previously. He led us through a quick tour of the outdoor area before preparing our vintage tasting of a wine from their cellar. The temperature began to skyrocket, but the scenery was so beautiful, so we sat outside on the terrace to drink our port before packing back up into the cars.
Restaurante Tábua d'Aço was our third stop. A marvelous farm-to-table restaurant that provided us with a multi-course meal. We were served appetizers, salad, a main course, dessert, and 4 different wines. The food was wonderful, but best part of the meal was the ability to bond with all the individuals in our tour group. Travelers from Germany, Australia, Canada, Netherlands, and the U.S. were gathered around the table laughing and sharing stories. It was really an amazing experience to learn about one another as we ate overlooking the valley below.
One of the most amazing stops was our last. Barcos is small, incredible, and one of the oldest wine villages in the Douro with a population of only a couple hundred. We were told that Barcos wasn’t a place that tourists stayed overnight, but because Manuel had connections we were able to visit. Our visited consisted of entry into a 12th/13th century church that still holds services on the weekends; meeting some of the older locals who spoke only Portuguese but welcomed us warmly; and we walking around the winding alleys of the old town. The way of life in this village was simple, but beautiful.
The tour ended after Barcos, and we drove back to Porto happy and grateful for an amazing tour with amazing people. (Click #4 on the interactive map to read more about our Douro Valley tour including deep dives into the places we visited [photo provided by d-maps.com]).
Early on July 24th we left Porto, the place we had called home for the last three days, around 8:30am and headed to the train station. The ride to Lisbon took about 3 hours, so we got to our new AirBnb in the heart of Bairro Alto around 1:15pm.
We had the most wonderful check in with our host. She explained that each neighborhood was basically its own large hill, and that public transportation would be the key in getting to some of the attractions we were planning to see. She also gave us a ton of great information on places we shouldn't miss see while staying in Lisbon. We took her advice, and after lunch at Allchiado (and a quick nap) we walked to Jardim António Nobre, one of the garden areas on the northeast side of Bairro Alto neighborhood. The park offered a beautiful view of the city skyline... and some delicious beers. We sat in two comfy chairs drinking our beverages and watching the sun slowly set before heading back into Bairro Alto where we found an incredible restaurant called O Asiático; Japanese inspired cuisine by Chef Kiko. The interior, food, and service were fantastic and made this spot a win. With full stomachs, we ended the night cruising the neighborhood streets which were very lively for a Wednesday.
We slept well in our little AirBnb, waking up the next morning to our last full day in Lisbon. We knew that we needed to get as much as we could in on July 25th before leaving Portugal, so we went all out. We started the day at Cafe A Brasileira. Similar to Majestic Cafe in Porto, the interior felt very French with intricate details all over the walls. We enjoyed our breakfast coffees and pastries before walking down to the Ribeira to catch the streetcar that would take us to Mosteiros dis Jerónimos.
The monastery was INCREDIBLE. Although we had to wait in line 15-to-20 minutes to to buy our tickets from a machine, it was completely worth it. The architecture was so ornate, and the building facade (inside & out) was extremely detailed. The monastery had multiple levels, each with a handful of rooms that you could walk into and explore. It also had a display set up explaining the history of the site, but we found it confusing to follow, so we continued on with limited historical knowledge while still enjoying the gorgeous architecture of the space. After we had seen all we could, we left the monastery and hopped onto another streetcar heading back east into Lisbon. We got off at the last stop for a quick lunch at Veganapati, and then jumped onto a third streetcar that took us up the hill of the Alfama neighborhood to Castelo de Sao Jorge.
Riding up the steep hill to Alfama, we watched the city scenery slowly change. At first glance, Alfama looked older than some of the other neighborhoods; lots of character but not as flashy or touristy. The closer we got to the top of the hill, the more quaint the apartments and storefronts looked. We began to realize how amazingly beautiful this neighborhood was.
At the top of the hill we found ourselves in a wonderful historic area overlooking the river below. We were in awe. We continued our journey up, through winding cobbled sidewalks, until we were standing at the entrance of Castelo de Sao Jorge. Walking though the gates and into the castle grounds, it felt like we were in a scene from Game of Thrones. We started in a small plaza where everything was made from stone. Large trees exploded from the ground giving shade to people standing near the outer wall looking at the sea below. Smaller interior walls created a maze of walkways that visitors could explore. Ash and I walked the outer wall until we found the castle bridge that led us into the structure. There were numerous rooms and ways to scale the walls, so we climbed as many different places as we could before calling it quits and returning to the ground floor. We left Castelo de Sao Jorge and took an Uber back to our AirBnb in Bairro Alto.
One of our goals in coming to Portugal was to see some traditional Fado music, so two days prior we had made reservations at a restaurant called Povo, located on Lisbon's famous pink street. We spent some time getting ready and then left our AirBnb, heading towards the Ribeira. We arrived at Povo early, so we stopped for some wine at a nearby restaurant called Vicente by Carnalentejana. Vicente's interior looked like a beautiful old wine cellar, but we choose to sit in their incredibly unique outdoor section that served their patrons drinks on the stairway next to the building. They had padded seats and lanterns sporadically placed on top of the stone steps, so Ash and I posted up with a glass of wine each, killing some time until our table was available at Povo.
Arriving at Povo, they seated us in the front of the house. We ordered a plethora of things to eat, and as our food came the lights dimmed and the music began. Traditional Fado music is very emotional; it is not something you talk over during dinner. So we ate silently, taking in each note the musicians played and sang. Every few songs, they would take a break, and we would catch up on conversation. We spent two hours here, enjoying our experience to the fullest, and as we were about to leave the restaurant, the two instrumentalists stopped us and asked if we would like a photo with them- to which we excitedly replied that we would.
We ended our night back in Bairro Alto for one last drink in our AirBnb’s lively neighborhood. After walking around the streets for s bit, we called it a night.
We loved Portugal, and although we missed our fur babies a lot, we really could have used a few more days in this city (if only our pups and Finn the cat were here...we might not come home!). We hope to be back in Portugal someday, but until then we send our love to this place and the awesome people we met here. (Click #5 on the interactive map to read more about our time in Lisbon including deep dives into the places we visited [photo provided by d-maps.com]).
There are a few take-aways from this trip that may be useful for anyone planning to Portugal. The first is public transportation here is wonderful... the locals may not agree with this, but compared to Minnesota, it is incredible. You can get anywhere you want by bus, train, or streetcar. I would recommend buying a multi-day pass if you are planning to stay a few days in each city. Second, follow advice given by your AirBnb hosts. We made a point to visit some of the areas that were recommended to us, and we are so glad we did. They know this area better than anyone, so pick their brains! Lastly, try to stay at least a handful of nights in each town you visit. Ash and I made a point to stay in each spot for two to three nights, and we found that we still felt rushed trying to see everything. Portugal has so much to offer.
I hope you have enjoyed experiencing our trip to Portugal- please check out our other adventures and continue to check in as we add more each year!