Welcome to Portugal, the western little old rectangle of Europe. Full of history, beautiful monuments and castles, good food (better wine), awesome beaches and much more. The good news is that the country itself is small, so the main cities and points of interest are near each other.
First in the tour, the capital Lisbon of course. I suggest to start with a walk, a walk 1000 years back in time, when the Arabs ruled the city. Explore the very old and very narrow and steep streets and stairs of Alfama the oldest neighborhood of town.
Take your time (and take many photos) to go all the way up to St. Jorge castle. On the way up or down, route yourself to Miradouro de Santa Luzia for breathtaking sights, and to Sé Catedral the oldest church in town, and just 50 meters ahead? Another church! St. Anthony church marks the birthplace of the famous matchmaker saint, and he is always there (well his spirit anyway) just to help with every love problem of yours.
Leaving the old town follow the natural city expansion to downtown, this is the part of the city that was rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake, with straight and square streets, open spaces with lots of light, and beautiful architecture.
To give you a power boost, start in Rossio square just like a local drinking a shot of cherry liqueur called ginginha in the very small, yet historic, open-fronted bar A Ginginha. Just in front there is a small monument with the star of David, a tribute (and reminder) to the hundreds of people killed by the inquisition bonfire in the Lisbon massacre.
Take Rua Augusta and enjoy the walk to Praça do Comércio square, one of the big beautiful squares of Europe framed by the Tagus river, the bridge, and the boats. Proceed with the river on your left to Cais do Sodré, a place full of bars and restaurants ready to satisfy your famine and thirst. You should check out Pensao Amor an old brothel converterted into a fancy bar that actually kept some charm.
Beware, Cais do Sodré is just one of those places lost to gentrification. Pink street has too many tourists, few locals. Lots of bars and restaurants with little to no soul. High prices alert!
Time to move up to Chiado the posh neighborhood and the adjacent Bairro Alto the classic nightlife quarter. In Chiado please do take a coffee at A Brasileira with Fernando Pessoa (a famous dead poet) or if it’s the end of the day a drink (and a haircut) at O Purista. Do some shopping, the finest shops in town are in Chiado (and also in Avenida da Liberdade), checkout Livraria Bertrand, the oldest book store in the world, selling knowledge stamped on dead trees since 1732!
Bairro Alto comes alive at night, packed with restaurants, bars and people happily roaming the streets. Close to S. Pedro de Alcantara viewpoint I strongly suggest a drink in Pavilhão Chinês, one of the most beautiful bars in Lisbon. Also in Bairro Alto you will find Tasca do Chico, one of the last strongholds of bummer fado music. You can come in sit down have a glass of red wine and enjoy. Also a very good option to seat down, have a drink, and listen to fado, is Mesa de Frades in Alfama.
Fado nowadays is mostly served in an expensive tourist package sold by the hotels that includes the transportation, fado museum, fine dinner (this and that), and fado presentations. I’m pretty sure that you will eat good and enjoy your time if you choose this option but the bummer fado is way cheaper and perhaps more authentic.
Back to daytime you should visit Belém, still Lisbon just a bit off the city center, this is the district that best symbolizes the portuguese age of exploration and discovery. Easily reachable by train from Cais do Sodré heading to Cascais (just a couple of stops between), there you will find the iconic Belém Tower, a fortification dating back to the fifteen hundreds, the Jerónimos monastery dating back to the sixteen hundreds, also Padrão dos Descobrimentos a beautiful monument dating back to 1960 dedicated to prince Henry the navigator and the portuguese that discovered the roads of the sea.
And of course, for me the main highlight of Belém, and the reason of all the work and hassle of sending boats filled with men across the globe, the Pastéis de Belém factory. So remember and praise all the history behind the moment you dust with cinnamon the delicious egg tart pastry.
And you are done with Lisbon city highlights. But please reserve one more day in town and do the day trip do Sintra, Cabo da Roca and Cascais. You can get to Sintra from Rossio train station (about 1h), from Sintra do Cabo da Roca by bus (about 30m), Cabo da Roca to Cascais by bus (about 20m) and Cascais train back to Cais do Sodré station (about 1h). And I really suggest to do Sintra in daytime, Cabo da Roca end of the day, Cascais at sunset/night.
Sintra is all about palaces, beautiful nature, castles, legends, knights Templar, moors, elves, fairies, and BAD WEATHER, so try to choose a perfect sunshiny day.
Right in the center of the village you will find the Town Palace (the one with two distinctive chimneys) even though is the most visited would strongly advise a skip to this one… because climbing up up up the hill (there are buses available) you will find the much more beautiful Pena Palace, just like a fairy tale construction, sitting proudly on the top of he ridge with breathtaking views and mind blowing gardens. Also would strongly advise a visit to Quinta da Regaleira, and also to the “small” but exquisitely beautiful red domed Monserrate Palace with exotic gardens and strong Moorish influences.
If you have time go to Cabo da Roca, the western point of continental Europe for some cool photos. If you love motorbikes, you definitely should go because there are always lots of cool bikes there so it’s a plus. If you spent to much time in Sintra then proceed straight to Cascais. Once a small fisherman’s village, now the Portuguese riviera, the perfect place to eat, drink and have some fun before returning back to Lisbon (or maybe to stay a couple of days to enjoy the easy going life, party at night, and the sun, surf, and sandy beaches at day) . For more detailed information please refer to this post about the area.
One more thing, when you move around in Lisbon please take a bit of time and do the classic 28 tram line thru the 7 hills. Usually is very crowded, so try to go really soon or late at dinner time. Buy the tickets before in the subway (much cheaper), and pay attention to your wallet (some pickpockets work daily in the trams).
If you are travelling with kids, and / or never went to a massive aquarium, please consider going to Lisbon Oceanarium. Located in the posh neighborhood of Parque das Nações it’s the flagship from 1998 World Fair, is the largest indoor aquarium in Europe, and truth to be told, if you have some kind of affinity with the ocean, it’s just an awesome sight to contemplate the main tank.
Decisions time… if you fell in love with Lisbon, just hang around for the rest of your stay, enjoy time slowing down, the city light and the city night, drink lots of coffee and wine, make friends, explore the less touristic spots. If it’s Summer, and it’s hot, and you are dreaming of a city break, go ahead and take the 3 hour bus to Algarve, beautiful sandy beaches with warm water wait you there, after all the city bustle it’s a well deserved rest.
But if you really want to know the true soul of Portugal you must head North, not just because of monuments and landmarks but mainly because of people, honest, straight forward, with strong values and traditions, are probably the best hosts in the world. Also the food up North… delicious.
Heading North, the best way to do it is with a rented car but you can also do it by bus. Start early in the day, first stop Óbidos a well preserved fortified medieval village with a castle. Several times during the year the village celebrates the middle Ages with parades, markets, and more, so definitively check it out. Next stop, Nazaré – Praia do Norte, home of giant waves and the spot with the world record of biggest wave ever surfed. When conditions are good and surfers are in the water the view from the lighthouse is amazing.
Next stop Batalha monastery, an heritage monument celebrating the 1385 battle of Aljubarrota victory over the Spanish. I invite you to continue in the religious trail and visit the nearby Sanctuary of Fátima, place of many miracles, apparitions, celebrations, and many pilgrims.
Eventually you will arrive at Oporto the second city of Portugal and the capital of the north. It’s not my hometown like Lisbon, so do some research about it. I can strongly suggest is a visit to Vila Nova de Gaia port wine cellars. There are many of them, and it’s a really fun afternoon to visit some of them and tasting the nectar of the gods. For the definitive port wine experience there are several tours up the river Douro into the vineyards with visits, fine dining, and overnight stays in the producers farms.
That’s it folks, my personal suggestions for a week in Portugal.
One more thing, the food… everywhere you can eat really good with reasonable to exceptionally good prices. So, don’t waste your time, money, and body in MacDs or BKs that taste the same shit everywhere.
Some places that you should try:
Verde Minho – Honest old fashion portuguese food. In the center of Lisbon and great prices.
Cervejaria Trindade – in Chiado, old monastery (different and beautiful architecture for a restaurant). Good steaks and “pregos”. Not cheap nor very expensive.
Novo Edmundo – Grilled meat and typical food. Outside the city center, good price quality quantity relation.
Tasca da Esquina – Portuguese fine dining. Gourmet experience. Expensive (for Portuguese standards). Put yourself in the hands of the chef.
Cervejaria Ramiro – if you are into seafood this is the place to go in Lisbon. Lots of tourists and queuing since the late Anthony Bourdain filmed No Reservations here . A bit expensive to very expensive (varies a lot with the seafood you order).
Viveiros do Atlântico – 30 minutes north of Lisbon, in the picturesque surf village of Ericeira the seafood is also great and not so expensive as Ramiro. If it’s full or closed, in 1 kilometer radius around it, there are many other good seafood places.
Nova Casa dos Leitões – Perhaps the best roasted suckling pig in your life… up north in Anadia.