My wife and I spent two weeks in Portugal on a self-guided road trip for which we had https://www.toursforyou.pt/ arrange our hotels and rental car, suggest sites we might visit and arrange select guided tours, wine tastings and a boat ride along the way.
I call Portugal, Europe’s California because it is west coat, has fine beaches, great wine and food, a diversity of landscapes north to south and very mellow people, most of whom speak English. Portugal is a good deal smaller than California, only about the size of Indiana, and you can see a lot of it in a two week visit.
What, of course, differentiates Portugal from California is a rich history that goes back thousands of years with a native Celtic people who were in turn overrun by Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans and Moors. Portugal fought with Spain for many years to win and keep its independence and was, for a time, a major maritime power with colonies in South America, Africa, India and Asia. It seems as if each major city and almost every small hill town has a castle or castle ruin.
We were able to fly direct from Philadelphia to Lisbon on American. The flight is a bit shorter than most to Europe because, at Europe’s western edge, Portugal is closer to the U.S. than much of the continent. In two weeks we saw a good deal of Portugal, with the notable exception of the southern coast and resort area of the Algarve.
Our itinerary began in Lisbon(3 nights), where we picked up a car and drove southeast through Evora to an excellent hotel near Monsaraz called Sao Lourenco do Barrocal located on a large wine estate and farm that has been in the same family for over 200 years (3 nights). From Monsaraz we turned north traveling to Belmonte where we stayed at a posada hotel created from a former convent – Convento de Belmonte (2 nights). We then continued north to the Douro Valley where we stayed at the Wine House Hotel on a high-quality, small-production wine estate – Quinta da Pacheca (2 nights). From Quinta da Pacheca we drove west along the Douro River and over the mountains to Porto, where we stayed at Flores Village Hotel & Spa (2 nights) before driving south, stopping at Coimbra, and heading back to the Lisbon airport where we stayed one night at Hotel Tryp Aeroporto before catching our flight home. All of our hotels were quite good, with Sao Lourenco do Barrocal and the Wine House Hotel standing out above the rest (See Trip Advisor reviews for more details).
Portugal’s two main cities, Lisbon and Porto are both located on major rivers (the Tejo or Tagus in Lisbon and the Douro in Porto) at the point were they enter the Atlantic Ocean. Lisbon, the capital is a city of about 500,000 people in a metro area with about three million.
Lisbon is a city of hills with enough elevation changes that there are elevators and funiculars to get you from one neighborhood to another.
The center of Lisbon was destroyed by an earthquake and tidal wave in 1755 and was quickly rebuilt with new housing, shops and offices and wider boulevards. While the City center (Baixa) is attractive, the older hillside neighborhoods of Alfama and Barrio Alto retain their smaller scale buildings with whitewashed walls, orange tile roofs and narrow winding streets.
Lisbon has a cathedral, numerous churches, some good museums (notably the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum) and a wide main boulevard with upscale shopping (Avenue Liberidade) but much of its charm is found in the neighborhoods, small shops, some very good restaurants and the surrounding communities of Sintra, Estoril and Cascais, the latter both fronting the Atlantic.
Among the things we most enjoyed in Lisbon were the fanciful Pena Palace in Sintra, the coastal cities and outstanding sea bass we ate near Cabo da Rosa, Europe’s westernmost point, our evening listening to Fado (Portuguese blues) and the Gulbenkian museum. We had a car and driver to take us to Sintra and the coast and for a half day tour of Lisbon but could have used one more day in the city for sight seeing and shopping.
We had our rental car, a Vovo V40 diesel hatchback delivered to our hotel to save us having to come back to pick up our luggage after getting the car. Portugal drives on the right, using standard international road signs and Google Maps on our phone worked well. I order a GPS with the rental car because I read cell phone coverage might not be good in rural Portugal but the Garmin GPS that came with the car was useless outside major cities and cell coverage was fine everywhere. Stick with Google Maps and order enough on your international data plan to cover using your phone as a mapping tool.
Heading southwest from Lisbon we visited Evora, the largest city in the dry and hot Alentejo. We found Evora to be a bit over-hyped and the large free parking lots that reportedly ring the old city to be very poorly marked. We ended up driving into and parking in the old part of the City – just remember to pay the meter. Evora does contain some well preserved Roman features include a temple, a bath being excavated under town hall and an ancient aqueduct. The cathedral and its museum are also worth seeing.
From Evora we continued southwest past the walled town of Monsaraz to Sao Lourenco do Barrocal, an outstanding resort on a large wine estate and farm. Monsaraz is a well preserved walled town and castle with some nice shops, including a very good pottery and painting gallery called Galerie Monsaraz operated by a husband/wife team of local artists. We enjoyed our dinner at Restaurante Sabores de Monsaraz, which is a quirky locally owned restaurant where we had black pork with pearl onions and cod Bacalhau à “Sabores de Monsaraz” (see Trip Advisor for review). While the staff struggles with English and it is a small, authentic Portuguese restaurant, Sabores de Monsaraz does have a slick website on which you can make reservations.
We enjoyed the pool, cafe and restaurant at Sao Lourenco do Barrocal and took day trips to nearby sites such as Monsaraz, Villa Vicosa, where we highly recommend the Ducal Palace, and Sao Pedro do Corval where the locally made pottery is plentiful but pretty mundane.
From Sao Lourenco do Barrocal we traveled north to Belmonte, stopping along the way at Castelo de Vide. Both Castelo de Vide and Belmonte were interesting to us because of their once significant Jewish populations and the history of these communities documented in museums. The Portuguese Inquisition began in 1497, five years later than in Spain. No meaningful Jewish population remains in Castelo de Vide but it features a large former Jewish quarter and what is reported to be the oldest synagogue in Portugal, now housing a small but well done museum. Belmonte also had a large Jewish population. Its Jewish museum was being renovated when we visited in July, 2017 but had some exhibits set up in a nearby storefront. What’s remarkable about Belmonte is its community of Marrano, or secret Jews, that survived from the Inquisition to today, only emerging from secrecy in 1989 and building a modern operating synagogue. We liked our hotel in Belmonte (Convento de Belmonte) which is a wonderful renovation of an historic convent but the hotel seemed a bit understaffed (See Trip Advisor).
Heading north from Belmonte to the Douro Valley we stopped at the now abandoned walled town of Marialva, which we enjoyed but is only worth a visit if you are passing by. As you head north toward to Douro, the land becomes more mountainous and greener and the Douro Valley itself is one of the most attractive landscapes you will see anywhere.
The Douro Valley is all about wine, is the only place you can make port wine according to the EU and is the oldest officially recognized wine region, predating those in France. In the Douro we stayed at the Wine House Hotel on the Quinta de Pacheca wine estate and we highly recommend the hotel, its restaurant and the wine at Quinta de Pacheca. We also enjoyed a boat ride on the Douro by FeelDouro Yaatch Charters and a tour and tasting at Quinta do Seixo, a large commercial wine estate operated by Sandeman. We enjoyed the tour and the wine much more at Quinta da Pacheca.
We traveled from the Douro Valley to Porto by taking small winding roads along the river and over the mountains, a beautiful but somewhat harrowing ride, and the only place I thought Google Maps let us down since there were major highways options. Porto is a wonderful old city of about 215,000 (less than half the population of Lisbon) but with a metro area population of 2.4 million, which is closer to Lisbon’s size. Navigating Porto’s warren of narrow streets is a chore, so you want to get out of your car as quickly as you can. We liked our hotel in Porto, Flores Village Hotel & Spa, in part because it was on a delightful pedestrian only street very near City center. However, that meant after 10 am we had to leave our car in a nearby parking garage and transport our luggage to the hotel.
In Porto, we had a half day guided tour and also time on our own to explore the city and enjoy its character, shops and restaurants. We had two excellent meals in Porto at DPO Porto by chef Rui Paula and Cantinho do Avillez by Michelin star chef Jose Avillez. Porto, like Lisbon, is a very hilly city with some magnificent churches and vistas, particularly the view of Porto from Vila Novo de Gaia, across the Douro.
Before leaving Porto, we took a full day tour to the Minho or Costa Verde, which is the portion of the country north of Porto. This is beautiful country and we particularly enjoyed the ancient city of Guimarães, where Portugal was founded, the magnificent shrine at Bom Jesus do Monte and the city of Braga. If you get to Porto, take at least a day and explore theses areas (See photos).
We return to Lisbon via Coimbra with its university dating from 1290 and a library that looks like it belongs in a Harry Potter novel. The Hotel Tryp Aeroporto is just an airport hotel but did its job with quite good service and surprisingly good food, so I would use it if I needed a stay at the Lisbon airport.
We found Portugal to be an interesting, charming and thoroughly enjoyable vacation spot and would highly recommend it.