tldr; version: Portugal is a great off-season destination with mild weather and few crowds, particularly in Algarve where the beaches are full of people during summer. The landscape, history, art and architecture are spellbinding, and the food is some of the best I’ve found anywhere. Bonus: It’s an inexpensive place to visit.
What follows is a travelogue of sorts. Want to jump ahead to specific topics? Here you go.
- Why Visit Portugal?
- Our Lisbon Itinerary
- Eat, Drink, Stay
- Photos and Map
Why Visit Portugal?
Portugal has been on my radar for years, but it wasn’t until considering and discarding several possible destinations for 2019 that Beth and I committed to visit. Why visit Portugal?
- History: Portugal is the product of African, Asian and European influences, and played a critical role in early exploration of trade routes. And, the 1755 earthquake remade the country–particularly Lisbon–in a significant way. If you’re a history geek like me, this is a draw.
- Culture: Portugal shares a peninsula with its neighbor Spain, but has a distinct culture that’s proudly independent and yet welcoming.
- Food and wine: Portugal is justly famous for its seafood and wine.
- Mild winter weather: After a few cold Decembers in France we were ready for moderate temperatures and little rain.
- No crowds: Portugal can be crowded in summer but during winter people mostly disappear.
- Cost: Portugal is known as an inexpensive destination–even the major cities.
Once we committed to visiting, the big question was where to go within the country.
We had a week-and-a-half, minus an overnight in London on the way home, and wanted to spend time in Lisbon and get out of the city for a while. A lot of poking around in books and on the web led us to the Algarve region in southern Portugal. In the summer, it’s one of the destinations for European beach vacations. In December, it would be quiet. We decided to overnight in Lisbon when we arrived, pick up a car and go south to Algarve for a few days, then return to explore Lisbon.
Beyond that, we didn’t have a particular idea in mind of where in Algarve we would base ourselves. I spent a few weeks combing through maps, looking for a town that offered easy access to the places that were starting to pile up on our visit wish list, where we could rent a suitable apartment, that had good restaurants, and that wouldn’t essentially be closed for the off season. The answer was Olhão, the largest fishing port in Algarve and a perfect gateway to the Ria Formosa natural area. After some searching I located an apartment near the town’s waterfront. The location on a quiet lane, and a rooftop terrace, were selling points.
We flew American Airlines from Raleigh, NC to London Heathrow, then went on to Lisbon on British Airways (an AA oneworld partner). We hadn’t counted on strict security checks when changing planes, so my water bottle and Beth’s hair gel went into the trash. Otherwise, the trip was relatively stress-free. Seven-ish hours to London, 2:45 to Lisbon, a speedy trip through passport control and we were hailing a taxi to go to the center city.
Pro tip: Download the Kapten app before arrival and use it to get around Lisbon. Kapten is a European competitor to Uber; imagine a business that’s doubled down on an economically unsound strategy and recruits legions of taxi-hating drivers to carry out their mission. But Kapten is cheap (seven Euros to return to the airport later in the week versus 45 Euros to take a taxi on arrival; other trips averaged five to six Euros), the drivers are cheerful and full of advice, and it’s easy to get a car anywhere in the city.
A note about languages: Portuguese is the native language, while English is widely spoken. Communication was never an issue for us, even though my Portuguese is “not the worst I’ve ever heard” (said a local).
Our Lisbon Itinerary
Really seeing Lisbon–a city of 600,000 that’s spread across a wide area atop seven hills–was out of the question. We focused on four areas: the neighborhoods of Principe Real, Belém and Alfama, and the riverfront. We were still hard-pressed to see everything we wanted.
Principe Real descends toward the Tagus River past parks (and an organic market on the Saturday we visited), shops, restaurants and bars. It’s the posh part of Lisbon, and if trendy shops and department stores are your thing, this is the place.
Newly arrived, we were focused on getting our bearings and finding a meal. Principe Real was ideal for both; great restaurants were plentiful, and we were able to get a wide view of the city.
Lunch in Lisbon can stretch on into late afternoon and the sun was dropping as we descended toward the waterfront. The area along the Tagus used to be neglected, but after recent development it has become a popular gathering spot. Numerous restaurants and kiosks serving food and drinks dot the waterfront. It’s a great place to people watch or take in the river view.
I mentioned the lack of crowds. This is mostly true, but our first evening in Lisbon coincided with the “Spanish weekend,” which a local described as the time Spaniards visit Lisbon before Christmas. After sundown we wandered through the Christmas market at Praça do Comércio and took a meandering walk back to our hotel. Many streets were so full of vacationers that we had to force our way through the crowds.
One noteworthy thing I’ll mention: From the time we arrived in Lisbon until we returned after our time in Algarve, we never encountered a single American tourist. In Algarve, most locals thought we were French or English, because it’s so unusual for Americans to visit during the off season.
We stayed in Alfama after returning to Lisbon from Algarve. It’s a fascinating neighborhood–a former Jewish quarter that was heavily influenced by the Moors. Because it was the only part of Lisbon that wasn’t destroyed by the 1755 earthquake, it isn’t built on the grid that characterizes the rest of the city. Instead, it retains its narrow, winding streets.
Street cars share narrow lanes with cars, tuk-tuks, cyclists and pedestrians. The famous #28 line travels from near the river to the top of Alfama; cars pass within inches of sidewalks, and in some places the streets are so narrow that vehicles take turns passing each way.
Alfama is incredibly vibrant. I enjoyed walking the streets and shooting photos of people and places, but there are cathedrals, shops (including those specializing in tile), restaurants and bars, street art, public plazas, and other sights to see. A week in Alfama would be time well spent. One evening I followed the tracks of the #28 line all the way to the river; it’s a perfect tour of Alfama.
We enjoyed a couple of memorable meals in the neighborhood, and it’s a great place to find one of Lisbon’s famous rooftop bars and watch the sun set.
Beth’s interest in Lisbon included learning about Portuguese tiles. We picked a rainy day to visit the National Tile Museum, which is housed in a former convent that includes an impressive church. It’s worth visiting; we learned about tile design from the Moorish era through today, and watched conservators restore tiles in the workshop.
The highlight for me was a 75-foot mosaic showing pre-earthquake Lisbon. It’s among the most rare and valuable artifacts in the museum, as it’s one of the few works of art that depicts pre-1755 Lisbon.
Most recommendations of places to see in Lisbon include the Belém Tower. It was typically the last place 15th century explorers saw when leaving Lisbon, and the first thing they saw when returning. We visited at low tide, when we were able to walk around the base of the tower. I had read that the interior of the tower is less than impressive so we passed on that; I loved being able to spend time looking at the exterior from different perspectives.
The Tower’s less well-known neighbor is worth visiting: The Memorial to Overseas Combatants, which includes the tomb of the unknown soldier. This beautiful but somber memorial remembers those who lost their lives in the Portuguese Colonial War, which led to the downfall of Portugal’s fascist government. We wandered around the memorial and spent time looking at the names of soldiers and NGO workers who gave their lives in the “Overseas War.”
Our path through Belém took us from the Tower to Jeronimos Monastery, a UNESCO heritage site with an impressive cathedral.
From there, we took a short walk to Pastéis de Belém for some of their famous pastel de nata and coffee. Refueled, we took a meandering walk past the Presidential Palace and back across the main avenue to the waterfront.
We could have easily burned a couple of days along the river in Belém, where there are numerous museums, including a memorial to Portuguese seafaring exploration, and the striking MAAT, or Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology, as well as a busy marina. Short on time, we wandered while I shot photos.
What We’ll Be Sure to Do Next Visit to Lisbon
We plan to go back to Lisbon, and a few things are already on my itinerary:
- MAAT, the museum of art, architecture and technology along the waterfront. We’ll also visit Central Tejo, the power station that’s part of the MAAT complex.
- LX Factory, a waterfront complex that includes galleries, restaurants and one of most fascinating bookstores in Portugal.
- Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, a significant private collection of historical and contemporary art.
- See current Primeira Liga champion Benfica in action.
- São Jorge Castle, which offers a panoramic view of Lisbon.
What We Chose to Skip
There were a few things we avoided in Lisbon:
- The #28 tram, which winds through Alfama. It’s crowded and a magnet for pickpockets. Plus, the walk that follows the tracks is much better.
- The elevators and funiculars that carry passengers between different street levels. They’re tourist attractions, and lines were long and our time was short.
- Tuk-tuks. They’re everywhere in the city; expect to get a sales pitch on seeing Lisbon from one of these three-wheelers. Again, Lisbon is a great walking city so we opted for that.
- Fado. Not that I’m not a fan of this uniquely Portuguese music, but many performances are part of an expensive dinner service. I was tempted to visit the Fado History Project in Tavira, where artists in residence perform.
After looking at train and bus options to get to Olhão we chose to rent a car and have the additional flexibility it would offer. I picked up our Fiat 500 from the Europ Car office near our guesthouse then we were on our way.
Driving in Portugal is easy, thanks to one of the best road systems in the world. We used Google Maps for navigation; this only let us down once, when we lost cell coverage in a rural area along the coast. No problem–the roads were well-signed and we were able to find our way to our destination.
A straight shot down the A-2 and A-22 would get us to Olhão in under three hours, but once we were out of Lisbon we veered west on the N120 and followed it and secondary roads to travel along the coast. Our route took use through Alentejo, which is a major cork-producing region where stripped tree trunks, numbered by the year of the harvest, are a common sight.
We wound our way through olive and orange groves while looking for a good view of the Atlantic Ocean. We found it in Azenhas do Mar, where a street ended in a small parking lot and restaurant perched atop a cliff. A couple hundred feet below, fishing boats launch behind a breakwater.
We walked along the clifftop, then followed a boardwalk toward an overlook about the boat ramp. I noticed a trail snaking up a nearby hill and discovered a rope hikers use to descend from the road to the trailhead.
Pro tip: Use Auto Europe to book car rentals. They’re an agent for many popular rental companies and allow price comparisons and online booking. In most cases they’ve directed us to rentals from Europ Car, but it’s helpful to be able to compare rates with Avis, Hertz, Sixt and other companies. The majority of rental cars in Europe, and the least expensive, have manual transmissions; you’ll pay a premium for a car with an automatic. In Lisbon, picking up and dropping off the car at a city office saves you a significant airport franchise fee. Tolls are common on major roads; rent an electronic pass to save time.
Pro tip: Technically, it isn’t absolutely necessary but getting an international drivers permit from a local AAA office before traveling overseas is a good idea. It’s not a license, but a multilingual translation of a USA state license that’s valid for six months. While I’ve never had trouble renting a car without one, it might save time if encountering non-English-speaking police or other authorities.
We arrived in Olhão late afternoon, quickly found a parking spot along the main street, and carried our luggage through narrow lanes to our home for the next few days. In central Olhão, homes are mostly multistory and…elevators? Forget it. Climbing the steep steps wasn’t an issue, particularly once we made our way to the fourth level terrace, where we had a stunning view of sunset.
A few thoughts about Olhão: It’s a wonderful city that turned out to be a perfect base for exploring Algarve. The town’s cubist architecture is typical of much of Portugal, and we loved walking the narrow streets in the central part of town. There’s a relaxed vibe, and we were often surprised by small acts of kindness. At one point, Beth and I were trying to figure out how to get to a restaurant; a local woman noticed, came over and introduced herself, and guided us there. The sheer number of wonderful, creative restaurants was overwhelming. I’d love to go back.
Our plan for the next few days started with a trip to Tavira, a few miles along the coast. It’s a small city bisected by the Gilão River. Originally settled by the Phoenicians, then Moors, then Romans, it was mostly destroyed by the 1755 earthquake.
Tavira is a great walking town. Our path took us across the Roman Bridge, which was built on the foundations of a Roman trading road and is now open only to pedestrians. From there, we walked around the central plaza, then headed up a hill toward the Tavira Castle.
The castle sits atop a high point in the city, houses a quiet garden where people picnic, and offers a panoramic view of the city from atop the fortifications. The nearby Camera Obscura was also on our list to see, but was closed for maintenance.
Further along the coast, we stopped at Cacela Velha. It’s easy to miss this tiny town that overlooks the Ria Formosa. There’s a parking lot on its outskirts; stop there and then walk through this village that consists of a fortress wall, a church, a few homes, a couple of restaurants, an art-filled plaza, and a cemetery. This Moorish and Roman-influenced town was one of the most fascinating places we visited.
Below Cacela Velha is Praia do Cabeço. We followed a rural lane to get there, and found parking lots full of campers with off-season beach vacationers. Even with the December “rush,” finding a quiet spot on this gorgeous beach was easy.
The next day, we drove an hour or so west to Portimão, a medium size port city that’s a launching point for tours of the Benagil sea caves. We took a two-hour guided tour along the coast that traveled through several sea caves, and introduced us to some of the more popular beaches in Algarve.
Getting to the caves and many beaches requires a boat, board and kayak. The quick intro to the area was good, but if I returned I’d prefer to rent a boat or paddle a kayak to the caves.
Sagres and its famous fortress were next. We drove an hour to the fortress, which sits inside a natural area overlooking the ocean. It only took a few minutes to see the fortifications and unusual wind compass, before we spent a few hours exploring the grounds, which stretch across the cape. Aside from the foundations of earlier fortifications, there’s a chapel, an art installation that amplifies sound from a grotto, and lovely views of the coast. We watched serveral
Sagres holds an important place in Portuguese history. Henry the Navigator, who supported the opening of new trade routes, established a navigation school at Sagres during the 15th century. These days, it’s become a mecca for surfers. The shape of the cape creates multiple surf breaks, so beginners to pros can find the experience they want.
Our last day in Algarve began early in Faro, with an excellent breakfast and dodging drizzle as we walked around the waterfront and old city. Beth hoped to see the famous ossuary, a chapel made of the bones of monks, but we were denied by another seasonal closure.
Fortunately, the showers cleared before we started our boat tour of the Ria Formosa. The barrier islands near Faro are home to flamingos, egrets, cormorants, ospreys and numerous other birds. The area is also known for its fishery and salt production.
Maybe it was the threat of bad weather, but we lucked out and it was only Beth, me and our guide, Fernando, on the boat. That gave us plenty of time to ask questions, explore different areas while we looked for birds, stop on a beach next to an inlet between the Atlantic and the Ria Formosa, watch kite boarders, and learn about the fishing village that’s slowly disappearing from a barrier island. Though I’m not really a birder, I thoroughly enjoyed the tour and was excited to see one of the few ospreys that live in the area.
Checking a Box: A Couple Hours in Spain
The day we visited Tavira we were only 45 minutes from the Spanish border. Sometimes you just have to check a box, and in this case that box was visiting a new country. We crossed the famous bridge over the Guadiana and went to Ayamonte, where we parked and walked along the Estero de la Rivera (a river with a large marina) for a couple of hours, checking out the Christmas market.
Pro Tip: You’ll see this in many European tourist cities–”entrepreneurs” (sometimes military veterans) will “claim” a free parking lot and direct cars to empty spaces, with the expectation that drivers will tip them for their help. This happened in Ayamonte (as it has in other cities), and I appreciate the assistance finding a spot in a crowded area. A Euro or two is customary, and it’s worth the time and aggravation it saves. You won’t have to find them; they’ll find you.
Eat, Drink, Stay
Magnolia Guesthouse: We spent our first night in Lisbon in this comfortable bed and breakfast in the center of the city that is also a short walk from our car rental office. There are only four rooms, each with a private bath, and cozy communal areas. The proprietor, Raquel, knows the city inside and out and has great suggestions for places to see. Highly recommended.
Dalma Old Town Suites: Our base for part two of our Lisbon stay. Located in Alfama, the old city, where the roads are narrow and wind up and down steep hills. We stayed in the Garage Room located just off the lobby; you might want to avoid this room if you’re averse to having a tiny bathroom with glass walls. Despite the lack of privacy, Beth and I enjoyed our stay and would return. At about $55 a night, it’s a fantastic bargain for a comfortable, well-located inn. And, the restaurant has an excellent breakfast for eight euros a person.
Memmo Alfama: A highly regarded boutique hotel on a side street in Alfama. We looked at staying there but decided it was too pricey compared to other options. However, they have a lovely rooftop bar where we sipped excellent cocktails while looking out over the Tagus River. Despite it being December, the temps weren’t bad and the blankets offered by the server kept us plenty warm. If you visit the terrace at night, watch out for the swimming pool–there’s nothing to prevent you from falling in.
Os Gazeteiros: My favorite meal in Lisbon. They have a fixed tasting menu that’s derived from the ingredients found at market each day. It’s a bargain at 35 Euros per person. We had three main courses followed by two desserts. These were dorado in broth with seaweed; purée of pumpkin with cockles and sesame seeds; polenta, mushrooms and artichoke cream sauce; poached pear with caramelized ginger; and chocolate mousse with matcha crumble. We paired this with a bottle of local orange wine. The staff clearly loves their work, and our interactions with the servers and chef made for a great evening. Highly recommended–be sure to make reservations.
Time Out Market: Think gourmet food court, though that’s selling it short. Many of Lisbon’s best chefs have opened outposts here, and it’s a compelling concept. Grab food that appeals to you and sit at communal tables in the middle of a vast but crowded warehouse. After a drink at the Time Out Bar, Beth got a burger from Ground Burger while I opted for sardines and roasted peppers on toast from Cozinha da Felicidade. Afterwards, we sampled pastel de nata from Manteigaria. Recommended, particularly if your party can’t agree on what to eat. You’ll be spoiled for choices here.
Tapisco: In Principe Real, this was the first place we ate after arriving in Lisbon. We settled into a tiny table and immediately got into a conversation with a local couple who filled us in on the Lisbon scene. Spanish and Portuguese tapas share the menu, along with several excellent wines and a vermouth bar.
Canto Da Vila Bistrô: A nice surprise in Alfama we found while investigating another restaurant. Beth had pasta and I ate bacalhau (cod) and potatoes in cream sauce. We were there for lunch and the place was inexplicably empty. We would have gone again if there weren’t so many other places we wanted to try. The lunch menu at about 13 Euros each is a bargain.
La Campania: Competent Italian food served by old school, taciturn servers. A local told us she got the cold shoulder there until she told them she lived in the neighborhood. There aren’t a lot of options near the Magnolia Guesthouse, and this was the best available. That’s not to say it’s a bad choice, but in a city of great restaurants it’s solid but not a standout.
Pastéis de Belém: There’s a lot of debate about where to find the best pastel de nata, or egg custard tarts, in Lisbon. After sampling several contenders, Beth and I agreed that Pastéis de Belém, where the recipe originated, was our favorite. Just out of the oven, their tarts have a flaky, crunchy shell and warm, not-too-sweet center. Expect crowds–the left door is for diners who want a table, and the right is for take-out.
Conserveira de Lisboa: An entire store devoted to canned fish. I brought home several tins of smoked trout, sardines and cod.
Salt House, Olhão: Our home in Olhão, this beautiful place has a second-floor kitchen and living room, a third-floor bedroom, bathroom and balcony, and a terrace that overlooks the waterfront. There’s no parking on the street, but during the off season it’s easy to find a spot nearby on the main street, and there’s only a short walk to the house. Centrally located, with multiple great restaurants and bakeries within a three-to-five minute walk.
Tapas e Lendas, Olhão: Sometimes you just need to put your foot to the culinary throttle and not let off. We did that here, and asked the kitchen to keep bringing us fantastic tapas (olives, cheeses, marinated peppers, beef, an octopus tentacle that was out of a Jules Verne novel, etc.) along with a couple bottles of wine, dessert, espresso and port wine to finish. You would imagine this would cost a fortune, but it’s Portugal so the price tag was ridiculously low for the amount and quality of food we ordered. Eat here. You won’t regret it.
7imeiowinebar, Olhão: Octopus, black pudding and sweet potato seared in olive oil was the very best thing I ate while in Portugal. I would go back to this place again and again, just to eat that one dish. However, everything we had at this tapas bar was superb, and the service excellent. Highly recommended.
Terra i Mar, Olhão: Here’s a sign of how good the food is in Olhão–my meal (a whole fish) was wonderful, but it was also the least memorable of all the meals I ate. Beth’s steak and gargantuan shrimp were similar in quality. This isn’t to fault this place; it just has some stiff competition from many creative restaurants. The wine list is good, and we had a tasty bottle of vinho verdé (Portuguese green wine).
Saaz Craft Beer House, Olhão: Portugal is wine country, but sometimes you want a beer. This quiet spot, off the beaten path, has a good selection of reasonably-priced craft beers, including a lightly-hopped, tasty regional IPA.
Chelsea–Coffee & Brunch, Faro: You can get tired of eating pastel de nata and bollo de arroz for breakfast, so we opted for brunch in Faro at this roomy, friendly spot. I was happy to see shakshouka on the menu; with a cup of excellent coffee, it made for a great meal.
Portugal Photographs and Map
Our travels home included an overnight in London. Check back for details about that part of our journey.