Portugal: A Vacation from Your European Vacation
Portugal is like a secret club, only admitting those who have traveled across Europe, still enjoy the continent, but want to get away from the hordes of new travelers flocking to its more famous sights. It seems to realize this role, embraces it, and is better for it.
Portugal, though absolutely stunning in its own right, as we’ll discuss later, doesn’t have a singular competitor to the Colosseum, or to the Eiffel Tower, and that is actually to its benefit. Most “vacations” to Europe, assuming you’re originating from a different continent, play out at some speed near to a whirlwind. With so many new and ancient wonders, world-class art, and deep, illustrious cultures so close together it is simply too irresistible to travel through Europe any other way. When you do arrive back home, you’ve surely had an amazing time, but can’t help but feel as though you need a vacation from your vacation. That’s where Portugal shines. For such a small country, nestled between Spain and the Atlantic Ocean, Portugal hits all of the high points that its European neighbors do, including great food and a rich history, while reaching others that its neighboring countries can’t, such as a slower pace, fabulous coastline, and an overall culture of genuine kindness. It’s why, for my money, I’d go back to Lisbon before I return to Rome, Paris, or Barcelona.
San Francisco has nearly 20 sister cities, and for some inexplicable reason Lisbon isn’t one of them. With historical trolleys shuddering up and down 7 steep hills, a deep sea port, and even its own version of the Golden Gate Bridge in the Ponte 25 de Abril bridge, if you didn’t look twice you might mistake the western coast of the Atlantic Ocean for the Pacific.
Behind all of these similarities and beautiful landmarks is a city undergoing a revival. Prior to its recent growth, Lisbon was considered more a backwater of Europe. Traces of this can still be seen today, if you know where to look. Abandoned buildings, or at least the abandoned upper floors of buildings, can still be seen in its center, but they are fewer and farther between. Cranes and construction areas dot the skyline today, and once dilapidated facades are now shining historical landmarks. Cruise ships now regularly stop during peak tourist season, and the dining scene delivers some of the best seafood anywhere.
Choosing a place to stay in Lisbon can be difficult as each of its neighborhoods have their own unique advantages, which means the disadvantage of each is that you have to choose only one. The three neighborhoods to focus your stay around, which compose the “core” of Lisbon, at least from a visitor’s perspective, are the Alfama, Baixa, and Barrio Alto neighborhoods.
The oldest, most traditional, Lisbon neighborhood, the Alfama is also where to go if you want to enjoy a meal accompanied by traditional fado music. The lamentations of old, lonesome wives or widows of sailors, this music can be found in most small restaurants or bars in this neighborhood’s maze alleys.
For that cool, hipster vibe, complete with trendy restaurants and cafes, the Barrio Alto neighborhood can’t be beat. Built on and around another hill, make it easy on yourself and arrive to your reservation on a historical trolley instead of climbing those steep cobblestone streets in heels.
The newest of the neighborhoods, due to its destruction in the infamous earthquake of 1755, Baixa contains wide, grid patterned streets making for easy walking, and easy shopping. The closest thing to a true “downtown”, it’s also conveniently situated between the hills of the Barrio Alto and the Alfama, and contains the Rossio train station.
We threw our dart at the board of Lisbon apartment rentals and landed at the bottom of the Barrio Alto. This ended up being a great location due to it being flat ground outside our front door, while also being close to the Time Out Market, a world-renowned food hall with top chefs and restaurants from all over Lisbon under one roof. We would end up visiting Time Out Market nearly every day in Lisbon to try a new dish, and never left disappointed.
Further west a few kilometers from the Barrio Alto, just on the other side of the Ponte 25 de Abril bridge (the Golden Gate Bridge’s cousin, in looks if not in name), is the neighborhood of Belem. Though Belem isn’t centrally located around the neighborhoods above, it’s worth a day trip for a few key sights. First, it is home to the famous, or infamous, depending on your current diet, Pastéis de Belém. Nearly 200 years ago this establishment began producing the original Pastéis de Belém, a custard tart topped with powdered sugar and cinnamon, using a secret recipe known to less than 10 people in the world. You can find these tarts throughout Portugal, known as pastel de nata everywhere else, but this place makes the best. Frankly, it’s probably due to the fact that they make so many every day that you are undoubtedly eating one fresh, but the experience is still fun, and at about 1 euro a piece, it’s a cheap thrill.
Pastéis de Belém conveniently sits less than a block away from the other main sight in Belem, the Jerónimos Monastery, meaning you can enjoy a pastel before, and after, you visit. The monastery is famous as being the place Vasco da Gama and his men spent their last night in prayer before embarking on their expedition around Africa to Asia. By opening this trade route, Vasco da Gama established Portugal as a world power, kicking off the Age of Discovery. Today, you can visit Vasco da Gama’s tomb inside the Church of Santa Maria adjacent to the monastery, as well as marvel at the unique ornate Manueline architecture, named after King Manuel I, whose rein during the early 1500’s coincided with the monastery’s development.
Located in the hills just 25 km to the northwest of Lisbon, Sintra has been a forested retreat for generations, complete with beautiful villas, hilltop castles, and over-the-top palaces to gawk at. After a couple days exploring Lisbon, Sintra made for the perfect destination for a quick day trip. Our highlights included the hilltop Moorish Castle, with expansive views over all of Sintra, and Pena Palace, occupying the hilltop across from the Moorish Castle, with eye-catching architecture and colors.
Pena Palace is what you’d get if you asked an 8 year old child to build their dream castle, in the best way possible. Walking its grounds, gazing up at its gaudy exterior, brings out your childish sense of awe and wonder. Bright colors and an ostentatious conglomeration of architectural styles mix for a whimsical, fairy tale experience. If you only have time to visit one sight in Sintra, make it Pena Palace.
The palace was commissioned in the 19th century by King Ferdinand II, who prior to marrying into the Portuguese royal family was known as Ferdinand August Franz Anton from Austria. The palace is said to have inspired King Ludwig II’s fairy tale castle Neuschwanstein, which in turn inspired the castle at Disneyland. Once you visit, it’s easy to see why. Pena Palace combines numerous architectural styles into one, grand, fantastical castle, with a grand view over Sintra.
Occupying the adjacent hilltop, with an equally good view over Sintra, the Moorish Castle makes for an exciting stop to explore. Constructed in the 9th century by the Moors, the castle was abandoned after the Crusaders invaded in the 12th century. Climbing its walls provides for breathtaking views, both due to the beautiful landscape and the steep slope of the hill you’re climbing.
Returning to Lisbon, we would soon be embarking south on a new adventure of our own, one with much less risk than those explorers during the Age of Discovery, but much more relaxation. Picking up a rental car in Lisbon, we packed up and drove south over the Ponte 25 de Abril bridge, with the promise of even more sun, dramatic cliffside beaches, and clear blue waters awaiting us. What we found exceeded even our highest expectations.
If Lisbon and its surrounding sights are still too fast-paced, and have you thinking, “I need a vacation from my vacation,” Lagos is just the place to truly slow down, unwind, and soak up the Algarve sun. A quaint, walkable old town, breathtaking beaches, and most importantly, no agenda, Lagos is not only a perfect escape to recharge before continuing your European whirlwind tour, but deserves to be a destination in its own right.
You can spend a week in Lagos, driving or walking less than 30 minutes to a spectacular beach each day, and never visit the same beach twice. The English language doesn’t have enough beautiful adjectives to describe this stretch of the Algarve coastline. Continuing just beyond Lagos’ marina, Batata, Dona Ana, Camilo and Ponta da Piedade compose the primary beaches for the next 3 to 4 kilometers of coastline extending out on a short peninsula into the sea. There are countless more only accessible by boat, or adventurous swimmers. The fact that these beaches are so close to the cobblestone streets of Lagos’ old town makes for the perfect combination of relaxation, restaurants boasting the day’s catch of fresh seafood, and shopping. And if you were to get the need to venture out, spectacular day trips await: The end of the known world at Sagres to the west, the caves of Benagil to the east, and even Seville, just across the border in Spain.
It wasn’t too long ago that Sagres was thought to be the end of the world. The cruel, rough, mysterious waters of the Atlantic stretched out over the horizon, and tales of sea monsters, strange people, and stranger lands fanned the flames of fear and rumor. It was here, at Fortaleza de Sagres, that Prince Henry the Navigator setup a school to improve seafaring and plan expeditions down the west coast of Africa. Today, it provides sweeping views of the lighthouse of Cabo de São Vicente, the technical southwestern point of Europe and also worth the quick drive from the Fort, and a few sparse remains of Prince Henry’s school.
A small seaside fishing village nestled at the bottom of narrow ravine, Benagil has been thrust into the spotlight recently due to its famous cave, but there is more to enjoy here than a quick boat tour. The beach itself is more than first meets the eye, with the majority of the sand tucked behind the cliffs away from the road. The famous Algar de Benagil cave is itself tucked just further to the left around the first cliff from the beach, but be wary if you think you can swim to it. The currents and tide change here are strong. Better to hire one of the many boat tours, or rent a stand up paddle-board, then to risk swimming with no other support.
While Algar de Benagil is the star, countless caves dot the cliffs, and are worth seeing from both a boat tour as well as from above. From the main parking lot above Benagil’s beach a cliffside trail takes off east, offering spectacular views of the coast, as well as the opportunity to peak down into the sinkholes that created some of the caves. The trail, in total an approximately 30 minute walk, longer if you consider time for pictures and simply enjoying the view, will take you to Marinha beach, with a jaw dropping view of its arches and pinnacles rising from the sea.
Both Benagil and Marinha can be seen in a day, but why limit yourself when there is so much beauty to enjoy? Only a 30 minute drive from Lagos, we spent one day enjoying this stretch of coast from the water, and another hiking the cliffs, each time enjoying a different café in Benagil to cap our day.
For the more adventurous, Seville beckons, just on the other side of Portugal’s border with Spain. There are no customs or immigration checkpoints at the border; both Spain and Portugal are members of the Schengen Area, making for an easy drive between these neighboring countries. Seville sits only a few hours drive from the Algarve, and its citrus-lined streets, seemingly in constant bloom, give the city a wonderful fragrance inviting you to explore its beautiful Cathedral, Alcázar, and Plaza de España.
Seville’s Cathedral, or the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Sea, is the third largest church in the world, and the largest Gothic-style church. Apart from its beautiful neck-straining architecture, you can visit Christopher Columbus’ tomb within its walls. After exiting the Cathedral, it’s a short walk around the corner to the Royal Alcázar of Seville. The palace, most recently undergoing construction for king Peter of Castile, was built on the site of a Muslim fortress destroyed after the Christian conquest of Seville. This mixed history means you can expect some unique, beautiful architecture as you learn about its rich history.
After a long morning exploring Seville’s sights, wander over to the Plaza de España for some people watching and tapas in the sun. Built in 1928, the Plaza has been featured in n major films, including Lawrence of Arabia and Star Wars: Episode II. Even if its history isn’t as rich as other sights in Seville, it is still a beautiful place to enjoy some gelato (and churros con chocolate!), people-watching, and good company.
We are always sad when we have to leave a place, but in this case, we felt an even stronger commitment to return soon. Portugal exceeded our expectations in nearly every way. From its natural beauty to its cuisine, and rich history to its people spilling over with genuine kindness, it is firmly established in our minds as a destination we will return to, and recommend, for years to come.