Portugal — The Perfect Staycation!

Portugal is a country blessed with old-world European charm, medieval castles, cobblestone villages, captivating cities, golden beaches, rugged coastline, incredible weather, delicious food, and plentiful wine — recipe for a perfect holiday destination! Portugal has consistently made the top 5 list for the most popular retirement destinations in the world due to good weather, healthcare, and mainly affordability. We’ve read so much about Portugal over the years, and my husband is in the process of getting his Portuguese citizenship, so these were all great reasons for us to make this trip happen. It was truly a magical experience, and we hope to visit again in the near future!

Located on the western coast of the Iberian peninsula, Portugal is one of Europe’s most visited countries due to its idyllic climate, affordable travel costs and exceptional attractions. The richness of Portugal’s heyday, when it used to rule a huge empire from Brazil to China, is something you can definitely see in its architecture. Elegant and drenched in opulence, the buildings of Lisbon and Porto – especially in their Old Towns – reflect the wealth of Portugal’s imperial days.

From friendly locals to world-class wine to sun-soaked beaches, there is a whole lot to love about Portugal. We visited Lisbon, Porto, Sintra and some of the smaller towns in Portugal during this trip, and we barely scratched the surface… There’s so much more to explore in this country such as the Madeira islands, Algarve, Faro, Lagos, etc.

Portugal blends old-world European charm, noteworthy landmarks, and delicious food all at relatively inexpensive prices when compared to nearby countries. If you’ve never been to Portugal, you’re in for a treat. You might even fall a little bit in love, especially if you know what to expect. Are you ready?

By day Lisbon has a naive theatrical quality that enchants and captivates, but by night it is a fairy-tale city, descending over lighted terraces to the sea, like a woman in festive garments going down to meet her dark lover.” — Erich Maria Remarque

We are excited to share the details of our trip and our recommendations with you. Here are suggestions on what to see, where to stay, what to eat and explore! Before we get into the details, here are a few pictures that were taken in the heart of Lisbon!

What to see in Lisbon?

Wandering through the winding cobblestone streets of Portugal’s vibrant capital, it’s easy to fall in love with Lisbon. With a rich history and fascinating culture, you could spend a lifetime discovering the wonders of this unique, red-roofed city. Lisbon is worth spending at least 3-4 days, and I promise you’ll fall in love with the pastel-colored tiled buildings, vintage trams, and cobblestone streets. Old Town Lisbon is built around seven hills, so walking up to one of the many viewpoints, gives you wonderful views of the city. Elevador de Santa Justa is a 19th century industrial age marvel that transports passengers up 45m from the Baixa district to the Largo do Carmo. Rua Nova do Carvalho or Lisbon’s Pink Street is in the Cais do Sodre neighborhood. Cais do Sodre used to be Lisbon’s Red-Light District. Wander the charming labyrinth-like streets of Alfama, lined with cafes and shops selling traditional crafts, before hopping on the Route 28 tram for a wonderfully scenic journey through many of Lisbon’s historic streets. The iconic Tower of Belém is one of the city’s most remarkable landmarks that sits near the mouth of River Tagus. There’s nothing more immersive than soaking in the city’s history through its architecture and old neighborhoods!

What to see in Sintra?

Sintra is a fairytale-like place filled with resplendent palaces — one you definitely shouldn’t miss on your Portugal trip. Portugal’s royalty first set up in Sintra during Medieval times, constructing the Sintra National Palace. The town is shielded by the Sintra Mountains, which trap clouds creating a microclimate. Because Sintra is a bit cooler than Lisbon, it served as a perfect summer sanctuary for the royalty. In and around Sintra you’ll find several beautiful palaces… Pena Palace is the most iconic sight there. Standing atop a hill in the Sintra Mountains, its many red and yellow walls and turrets give this eclectic Romanticist castle the appearance of a majestic gingerbread house. Sintra is pretty easy to get to. It’s just 40 minutes by train from Lisbon, and this would be a perfect day trip!

What to see in Porto?

Portugal’s second-biggest city is rather different from Lisbon… it is a dream destination! The city’s world-famous Port wine is what really put this place on the map. The riverfront quarter of Ribeira is a fascinating place, with its medieval streets, colorful tiled building facades, and charming waterfront restaurants. Above it all looms the spectacular arched Dom Luis I bridge, built in the same period and style as the Eiffel Tower. Situated on the banks of the Duoro River, Porto forever captivates visitors with its maze of narrow cobbled streets next to beautiful plazas, historic churches, and picturesque homes. Your first stop in Porto (if you take the train), is the beautiful São Bento Train Station, where you can marvel at its blue azuelo tile ceilings. Lello Bookstore is one of the oldest and most beautiful bookstores in the world, and rumored to have inspired J.K. Rowling and her Harry Potter books. Vila Nova de Gaia district has many port cellars where we did a wine tour.

Where to stay?

Bustling city streets, sprawling vineyards, fishing villages, rivers, glistening coastlines — Portugal is a land of contrasts, a medley of landscapes and terrains. Finding the right place from where to explore it all is the trick. On this trip, we chose to stay at Airbnb’s in Portugal, so we would have more space and the comfort of a home. We choose our homes based on their location, design, reviews, and superhost status.

  • Elegant luxury apartment in Historical Baixa, Lisbon With gorgeous views of the historic streets, this apartment is literally steps away from the Tagus river, Praca do Commercio, the Santa Justa Elevator, restaurants, cafes and shops. This is a luxury apartment that features an open concept kitchen, new appliances, designer furniture, 2 spacious bedrooms, gorgeous spa bathroom, and large dining/living room.
  • River view apartment in Gaia, Porto Nestled in a secluded spot just across the Douro River, the apartment enjoys a private balcony that offers a scenic river-side view of Porto. It is furnished with modern amenities, fully-equipped kitchen with marble counter-tops that opens up to a spacious living room, marbled bathroom,  dedicated dining room, and 2 bedrooms.

What to eat?

Freshly baked bread, olives, cheese, wine, seafood, meats and Pastel de nata – the Portuguese have perfected the art of cooking simple, delicious meals. Sitting down to table means experiencing the richness of Portugal’s coastline and countryside. Here are a few of the restaurants that we visited during our trip.

  • Pastéis de Nata: You cannot leave Portugal without eating this delicious pastry. The Portuguese do food very well, and the Pastéis de Nata takes the prize for Portugal’s most delicious pastries. Only five people in the entire world know the recipe for these scrumptious egg-cream tarts, so you’ll want to enjoy these authentic treats in Lisbon. You’ll find the best ones at Pastéis de Belém and at Manteigaria.
  • Belcanto: Belcanto is a 2 Michelin star restaurant that has placed consistently in the top 50 restaurants in the world (ranked #42 currently). Saying that it was delicious is an understatement… it was truly an experience we will cherish forever. At Belcanto, chef Jośe Avillez prepares contemporary Portuguese food. Each menu and dish is intended to evoke a unique sensory and gastronomic voyage. The chef sent out so many surprise plates beyond what we had ordered, that it left our bellies plenty satisfied. The restaurant even made us a custom wax sealed letter with the menu items that we enjoyed that day. The Lisbon Menu is a collection of dishes that reflect the city’s transformations through time, with highlights like Tuna Belly Tartare with Oyster Cucumber and Apple Pearl, and Brioche with Cod Liver and Trout Roe.
  • A Cevicheria: Chef Kiko Martins, is a celebrated Portuguese chef who studied at the Cordon Bleu and honed his skills in Michelin-starred kitchens across Europe. He was featured in Gordon Ramsay’s Unchartered show on the National Geographic Channel recently. We saw the show just before our trip, and we had to check it out. The dinner at Chef Kiko’s A Cevicheria was spectacular, and the service truly exceptional!
  • Café Santiago: Porto’s legendary dish, Francesinhas — I’ve been waiting to taste Francesinhas since we arrived in Porto. Francesinha means “Frenchie” in Portuguese. This dish was created by Portuguese emigrants to France. They encountered the french snack, croque monsieur, and decided to take it to a whole new level, making it bigger, better and more delicious! The Francesinha is made with bread, ham, Portuguese sausage, steak, covered with melted cheese, special tomato and beer sauce, with a fried egg on top and french fries that you can dip in the sauce. It’s a messy dish, but a delicious mess!

Best time to visit Portugal?

You can visit this part of Europe pretty much year-round; the weather is much milder than on other parts of the continent in the winter. The summer months are considered to be the high season in Portugal. Streets, beaches, and historical sites are often busy. The best time to visit Portugal is either in spring (March to June) or fall (September to mid-October) when there are fewer crowds, prices are lower, and the temperatures are warm. For the fewest crowds, you’ll want to visit in March-April or October-November. If you are visiting some of the smaller towns in the south during the low season, you may find a lot of places closed.

How to save money?

  • Walk, Walk, Walk… One of the best ways to explore Portugal is on foot. If you enjoy getting lost on purpose then Lisbon is the city for you, as it truly rewards random exploration.
  • Uber is very inexpensive in Lisbon, so if it’s too far, book a ride!
  • Get A Visitor Card – Larger cities like Porto and Lisbon offer visitor cards with unlimited access to public transportation and discounted access to many attractions and museums, such as Lisboa card or Viva Viagem transportation card for Lisbon, and Andante Card for Porto.
  • Go Off Season – As summer approaches, prices go up and availability goes down. To get the best value for your budget, we recommend visiting Portugal in the off season. We planned our trip in November during Thanksgiving. The weather was perfect, and the cost was low.
  • Drink House Wines in a country that produces so much wine.. You can’t go wrong.
  • Book a free walking tour. The guides work for tips, so they are motivated to provide a great experience.
  • Look out over Lisbon for free from a Miradouro. Lisbon is famous for its many miradouros, which are high viewpoints that give gorgeous panoramic views across the city.
  • When visiting Pena Palace in Sintra, use local transport instead of tourist buses! We took a train which was both economical and comfortable.

May we recommend?

Our recommendations for anyone hoping to travel to this spectacular destination:

  • Learn a few Portuguese words — It’s perfectly possible to get by with English in the major tourist areas however, learning a few simple phrases in Portuguese will go a long way and the locals will appreciate it. My husband learned to speak Portuguese using the free Duolingo app, which helped us tremendously!
  • Eat like the locals. Food is a foolproof way into the hearts, homes and history of the places you visit. Talk to the locals, get recommendations, and go where the locals go to eat. You can’t go wrong.
  • Download Google Maps for Offline Use Before you leave the USA, use your Google Maps App to go to the cities you plan to visit in Portugal . Hit the three bars on the top left and select “Offline Areas”. Select “Custom Area” and then “Download”. This will allow you to use Google maps even when you don’t have wifi or cellular service!

“Once a year go some place you’ve never been before.” — Dalai Lama

Let your next adventure take you to this beautiful destination… Medieval castles, cobblestone villages, captivating cities and golden beaches: the Portugal experience can be many things. History, great food and idyllic scenery are just the beginning… The Portuguese tourism slogan “Vá para fora, cá dentro” (take a staycation) has never been more apt. Are you ready to explore everything this country has to offer?

As we always say… Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer!