I didn’t fall in love with Portugal when I spent two weeks there last summer. The country is gorgeous and varied with lots to see and do. But for some reason, I just didn’t connect with it. I didn’t leave feeling like, “oh, I LOVE Portugal,” except toward the end, when my paramour and I rode along the Tagus river by train after our rental car broke down and saw some landscapes that were truly stunning. But besides that, it just didn’t leave a huge impression. I mean, I was into Portugal, but just not that into it. I guess, like people, you can’t choose which countries you fall in love with. That said, however, it’s not like I didn’t have a good time driving through the country’s plains and mountains and visiting its cities and villages. Here’s how we spent two-week road tripping through Portugal.
- Three Days in Porto
- Two Days-ish in a Palace in Luso
- Two Days in Lisbon
- A Day Trip to Sintra
- Three Days in Vila Viçosa
- Two days in an Asylum in the Mountains
- A Last Night in Porto
Our Two Week Portugal Itinerary
Road tripping in Portugal is like road tripping anywhere else. Get a good rental, a good playlist, snacks and a plan. Rentals are pretty affordable; ours ran us about €200 for the two weeks (and then a few hundred more because the car had to be towed back to Porto,? more on that later).
We essentially drove in a rectangle while in Portugal, starting the journey in Porto, heading down to Lisbon with a stop at a palace along the way. Lisbon was the furthest South we traveled because we heard the South was too hot and wasn’t that great in the summer (although I regret not checking it out anyway). From Lisbon, we went east, quite close to Spain, to a small village called Vila Viçosa in The Alentejo, the region of Portugal beyond the Tagus River. We got a hit of mountain life staying at an asylum-turned-hotel in Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela, in Covilhã. From there we made our way back to Porto with a pretty big hiccup along the way.
(Actually, I’m lying. We didn’t drive in a rectangle. We should have, but we didn’t. We did Vila Viçosa before Lisbon instead of after, but I’m going to pretend that we did because the route makes more sense that way. ?)
We spent about two to three days in each location and probably didn’t drive more than four hours on any given driving day.
- Porto – 3 Days
- Luso – 2 Days
- Lisbon/Sintra – 3 days
- Vila Viçosa – 3 days
- Covilhã – 2 days
- Porto – 1 night
Three Days in Porto
Porto is quickly becoming known as a foodie city. Thus the best thing to do there is to eat, drink port and walk around its various neighborhoods. It’s a good walking city because it’s not as busy as Lisbon, so it feels more conducive for strolling. Plus, with all the eating you’ll be doing, you’ll want to burn some extra calories.
Things to Do in Porto
- Take a long walk (even though Uber is cheap in Portugal). We followed most of The Tipsy Gipsies’ off-the-beaten-path guide and got to see a decent amount of Porto on foot, exploring both sides of the Duoro river. Head’s up: the Bairro Herculano is worth skipping, although you’ll feel accomplished if you manage to find it.
- Grab a drink and browse through vintage products at Armazem.
- Get another drink and take in the view at the Yeatman; it’s expensive though, but #Yolo.
- And of course you have to drink port. I ended one of our evenings with a flight of port at a place in the center called Prova. The flight didn’t have as much alcohol as I would’ve liked it too, but that’s only a problem if you’re a lush.
- Head’s up: if you want to go to the “Harry Potter” library AKA the Livraria Lello, be prepared to wait in line for hours. We ended up skipping it once we saw the line wrapped around the block.
Restaurants in Porto Worth Mentioning:
- Em Carne Viva – Don’t let the name fool you; Em Carne Viva is a vegetarian restaurant. I remember the food being okay. I had a tempeh dish that would have been good, but it just had a bit too much tempeh. I remember whatever we had as a starter was really good. Nevertheless, what’s nice about this place is its ladies-who-lunch decor and its proximity to the Casa da Música, which, if you have an appreciation for architecture, is worth checking out.
- Restaurante LSD – Don’t let this name fool you either. It stands for the street it’s on: Largo São Domingos. We happened upon this restaurant in the city center when the one we wanted to go to was booked. If you’re looking to have dinner in this area, I strongly recommend making reservations. The Google reviews of this restaurant are a bit lower than what they should be. We really enjoyed the food here and the ambiance.
- There was also this random French place we found on The Fork that was sooo good, but I can’t remember the name to save my life. But it was a year ago, so can you blame me. (I’ll update the post if I remember).
- If you want to go to any of Porto’s Michelin starred restaurants, make reservations in advance, like at least a week in advance. We weren’t able to go to places like Wish and Flow because they were all booked up.
Two Days-ish in a Palace
Okay, so one of the stand-out moments of the trip was staying at the Palace Hotel do Bussaco in Luso, a little over an hour south of Porto. I’ve stayed at chateaus in France before, but NEVER in a palace. One of the things I have to give the Portuguese credit for is how distinct their architecture is from the rest of Europe. I by no means have a trained eye for architecture, so cities across Europe tend to feel the same to me. But the places we visited in Portugal, did feel quite distinct, particularly this palace.
We only spent one night and two (half) days in the palace, but there’s quite a lot to enjoy, starting with its grandiosity and the use of curves in the building’s embellishments, which gives it a quite surrealist feel. And then there’s the garden, perfect for reading a book or taking selfies. And if you’re someone that likes hiking, the Palace is smack dab in the middle of the National Forest of Bussaco with plenty of surrounding hiking trails and little abandon homes that used to belong to monks.
Even though it was great to feel royal for a couple of days and night, I was kind of glad we didn’t stay longer at the hotel for two reasons. The palace itself is great, but the rooms are a couple steps up from a motel, #noshade. Just don’t stay there expecting The Ritz. “Rustic” might be a good word to describe the rooms or just plain old. For example, I remember there being quite a bit of mold in the bathroom. But the terrace adjoined to our room was HUGE and had a great view of the garden. The second reason why the palace makes a good pit stop versus stop-stop is the restaurant. Believe the negative Yelp reviews about the restaurant, the staff can be mean. I won’t even go into the details of our experience, just believe the reviews ??.
Pit Stop: Convent of Christ
Leaving Luso, heading further south to Lisbon, we stopped at the Convent of Christ in Tomar, a UNESCO World Heritage site and former Templar stronghold. I don’t know why I liked this place so much. I think it was the architecture here too. There are parts of it (ruins) that are super ancient, parts that are pristine and manicured, and parts that are straight up creepy. And it’s one of those tourists spots that’s actually enjoyable because it’s not overrun with other tourists (*cough* Sintra *cough*).
Two Days in Lisbon
First of all, it was so great to drive toward Lisbon and be greeted by a familiar American sight: the Golden Gate bridge, but not really. The Ponte 25 de Abril bares a striking resemblance to its American counterpart (#twinsies) but wasn’t even designed by the same company. It’s one of Lisbon’s must-see landmarks, and it’s actually quite easy to see from various points in the hilly city.
Things to Do in Lisbon
Lisbon is a proper city, so we did proper city stuff while we were there. We visited the MAAT (Museum of Art, Architecture, and Technology) a great attraction not just for what’s inside but because it’s near other tourist spots, like the Botanical Gardens, the Monument to the Discoveries, Torre de Belém and Pastéis de Belém. After eating Portugal’s famous tarts the whole time I was in Portugal, I can say Pastéis de Belém for sure has the best ones in the country (and it makes sense because they claim to follow the heavily guarded original recipe).
More things we did in Lisbon:
- We visited the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, mainly because it was near where we were staying but also because it had a good collection of old and new art and artifacts. (I won’t mention the scary pigeon garden you have to cross to get from one collection to the next).
- We attempted to ride the famous Tram 28 but it looked like a nightmare, too many people crammed into a tiny box on a hot summer day. Nope, nope, noooo. Same goes for the Santa Justa Lift. It was worth walking by but we weren’t pressed to go in.
- We drank at hipstery bars and ate at hipstery restaurants, 1300 Taberna at Lx Factory being our favorite restaurant mainly because of the decor, vibe, and location.
- We did do the Time Out Market. It’s a good place for lunch. The food is good there (we tried a surf and turf spot) but the branding ruins the experience. The Time Out logo is everywhere—on forks, plates, napkins. After a while, you just want to say, OKAY we get it this is the Time Out Market.
- Oh, and let’s not forget getting a taste of Africa in Portugal. We had lunch on one of the days we were there at Cantinho do Aziz, a tucked away little eatery. I don’t remember what kind of African cuisine it was (I don’t think they said). Chances are it was Angolan (definitely not Nigerian). But I do remember it was good.
- Don’t go to the Old Pharmacy unless you like kitsch and bad wine.
One of the things that stood out to me about Lisbon is that here’s where you can really feel the country’s history of exploration. I think it’s because of all the monuments dispersed throughout the city. They brought back memories of learning about Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan in middle school.
A Day Trip to Sintra
Being in Lisbon, we had to do Sintra, the city with the colorful castle just 30 minutes to an hour (depending on traffic) away from Lisbon. Sintra was just okay for me. Given, we didn’t go inside the castle; we just did the gardens and walked to the entryway of the castle, but the whole thing just looked and felt a little too Disney for me, complete with feeling like cattle trying to see this thing that hundreds of other people are trying to see at the same time. The surrounding area of the castle felt nice but it too felt quite crowded. If you’ve rented a car, here’s where you’d want to leave it behind for a day and go to Sintra by bus. We spent a ridiculous amount of time looking for parking. We managed to escape the crowds and had dinner at The Ritz, which was nice and tranquil, but the crowd is just a little on the older side, which might not be your thing.
Three Days in Vila Viçosa
After Lisbon, we rounded out our trip by relaxing in The Alentejo. Our first stop was Vila Viçosa, a small municipality quite close to Spain. It kind of felt like a ghost town, maybe because it was summer and everyone went elsewhere. It’s a beautiful little village nonetheless. There are a couple of historical sites, but the main thing to do here is to enjoy the spa at whatever hotel you’re staying in. We stayed at the Alentejo Marmoris Hotel & Spa where I learned the hard way that you’re supposed to keep some clothing on when you go into a sauna ??♀. Besides the sauna there was lots to appreciate about the hotel; we got a kick out of the TV in our room that projected through a golden-framed mirror; we also enjoyed the kitschy greek-inspired black and gold uniforms they make the staff wear, and the fact that there’s marble everywhere, which is explained by the fact that marble is one of the area’s main exports.
The food at the hotel was delicious! I forget how many courses we did but each course was bomb.com. In fact, we had three great meals in Vila Viçosa. The second night we were there we ate at this nondescript little restaurant, Restaurante Ouro Branco, a few feet from the hotel. It was very mom and pop and very tasty. I ate what I’d been eating during most of the trip—grilled fish.
The third great meal we had there was at the Pousada Convento Vila Viçosa, a former convent turned hotel. We got to sit in their gorgeous orange-tree-lined cloister, which made the dinner more of an experience than just a dinner.
Two days in an Asylum in the Mountains
We left the plains of Vila Viçosa and headed to the mountains where we stayed at the Pousada Serra da Estrela located in the national park in Covilhã. The Pousadas are a chain of luxury hotels that were converted from historical buildings, like the Parador chain of hotels in Spain. This particular Pousada was a former asylum, lol. If I remember the fliers in the hotel correctly, they positioned it as a place people would come to heal through the fresh air on the mountaintops. We didn’t do much during our stay at the PSDE besides enjoy the hotel’s amenities, a little reading, a little yoga, and taking in views of the surrounding area and burning forest fires at night.
Getting Back to Porto
Our trip came to an end late at night in Porto. We were supposed to have spent one last day in Porto but because of a “mix up” at the gas station, our rental ended up breaking down in a town called Castle Branco. Let me tell you: putting diesel in these newer cars is death to the car. Somehow it affected the car’s electrical system, so pumping out the diesel didn’t help. We spent most of the day at a mechanic (which was fortunately nearby), then at a mall. We took a train back to Porto from Castle Branco, during which we got to see some silencing views of Portugal’s landscape along the Tagus River. On top of that, the forest fires had put so much black smoke in the air, that at one point during the train ride it seemed like it was evening. We had to remind ourselves it was only late afternoon and every now and then we could see the sun’s rays streaming through the clouds, creating a heaven-meets-hell vibe.
We made it back to Porto late night the day before our flight back to France, with enough time to order room service and curl up in a plush bathrobe.
Okay, so I take it back. Portugal left an impression, now that I think of it. I didn’t gag over it the way I did Tuscany or the Canaries, but it did make for a pretty good trip. I think the size of the country allows you to see a lot of it, so you can really get a feel of how it’s diverse and what it has to offer. You can get a hit of city life when you feel like being exposed to art and a little bit of hustle and bustle; you can live like a Portuguese princess for a day or two, then escape to the countryside and get some almost-completely-alone time. Portugal has a lot to offer in a relatively small bit of space. So, even though I didn’t fall in love with it, I did strongly like it.