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  • Writer's pictureRachel Ogilby

10 Days in Portugal: A Traveler's Guide

Portugal is one of the most beautiful countries I’ve been to. During a walking tour, we learned that the Portugeuese are known as “the travelling people” because they tend to move or travel around Europe. However, I found myself frequently wondering how anyone could ever move away from such a beautiful place!

The people were friendly, the food (fish every day!) was amazing, their cost of living is low, and the nature is… incredible. We were lucky to have 10 days there, and we tried to get to some of the best spots in the country. This is written like a journal entry, but things to see/do/eat are in bold!

Ten Day Itinerary:

Two nights in Porto

Two nights in Douro Valley

One night (24 hours) in Lisbon

Four nights (five days) in Sao Miguel (this portion not covered in this post - coming soon)

Two Nights in Porto

We started our journey in Porto, just a two and half hour flight from Paris. From the airport, we took the metro all the way to downtown Porto (15 stops!). When we arrived, we still had about twenty minutes or so of walking to our Airbnb. We dropped off our luggage and freshened up. We only had a few hours in Porto before it was dark out, so we made the most of it by going to Jardins do Palacio de Cristal (Crystal Palace Park).

The name of the park comes from a previous structure made from glass and iron, but was replaced with a domed pavilion in 1956. The park also contains a Romantic Museum, a winery (Solar do Vinho do Porto), many exotic plants, fountains, and statues, and beautiful views of the Douro River.

We were pleasantly surprised to see that there was a book festival taking place within the park, and a great place to get food as well (similar to food truck style eating). Chris ordered a traditional Portuguese Sandwich called a Francesinha – it’s plenty of meat stuffed into a sandwich with cheese melted over it. We later learned that this is a common dish to eat before a night of drinking (“to layer the stomach”). We could see why!

We enjoyed amazing sangria and walked around the park, enjoying all the (Portuguese) books. We bought a few as gifts for our Portuguese-speaking friends (and my incredible trilingual sister), and enjoyed the sunset.

On our way back to our Airbnb, we stopped into a cute wine shop and bought a few bottles that had been recommended to us by a friend from Portugal, including Vallado and Papa Figos.

We also stopped at Carmelitas and Carmo Church. Carmelitas was built in the 17th century and Carmo in the 18th, and they are separated by what some say in the narrowest house in the world – 1 meter in width (my mom says they must sleep standing up!).

We learned that churches are not allowed to be built right next to each other, so this tiny house in-between satisfied the churches. Our walking tour guide shared a mischievous tale of nuns living in one church and monks living in the other, with the house in between being a “meeting” place… but it seemed to be a joke that the locals like to say for a laugh.

The following day we walked to Bolsa Palace to book an English tour (you can’t do it online!) and then walked to the statue of Vimara Peres, the meeting place for our walking tour.

Walking tours are some of our favorite ways to get to know a city, and if we can, we prefer to do them early in our trip to get a feel for the history and the monuments that we’ll walk by the rest of our time. There’s usually plenty of free ones, but we found a reasonably priced one on Trip Advisor (this one).

The whole city was filled with beautifully tiled buildings, and each seemed to have a different pattern. Our first stop was at The Porto Cathedral. We couldn’t enter it at the time, but we did learn that at one point where conquerors were coming to Portugal (partially to steal silver), the church painted plaster over the silvery alter to trick the burglars. It worked – the alter was not stolen! But the church decided not to remove the plaster from the silver, so to this day the altar still appears to be plaster.

Following this stop we entered the Sao Bento Railway Station. This station used to be a monastery. At some point it was decided that a train station would be built there instead, but only after getting the approval of the monastery; they required waiting for the last nun to die to build, and they waited 50 years!

Every tile inside (more than 150) are hand painted, and it took eleven years to complete the paint job. The history of Portugal is shown on the tiles, including the marriage of the king of Portugal and the queen of the UK (one of the oldest country partnerships ever). An amusing fact is that the railway station builders forgot to plan for a ticket booth in the architectural plans – so a ticket booth was awkwardly placed at the side of the building.

We stopped for a café and a traditional dessert – a pastel de nata, which is a custard tart in a pastry shell. Delicious!

Next we walked past Majestic Café, the oldest café in Porto that has been restored. We didn’t go inside – there’s a cover charge – and an espresso is about 5 euros (unheard of in Portugal, and expensive for Europe!). The inside is mirrored and filled with chandeliers and looked beautiful.

The next stop was one of my favorite parts of Porto – Livrarioa Lello. This is a bookstore made famous by its extraordinary architectural and historical value – it has a split staircase that is said to have inspired the moving staircases in JK Rowling's Harry Potter books, and the author also started her first Harry Potter book while living in Porto.

Many other similarities to Harry Potter are found within Porto – for instance, students in this city wear black outfits with wool capes. A fountain with lions outside the Carmelitas and Carmo church is said to inspired Griffindor, and the house of Slytherin is said to be based on the past dictator of Portugal, Salazar. The bookstore required a ticket to get in, so we just passed by, but we later purchased a ticket and returned. We bought two Harry Potter books while inside!

Our next stop was past the Torre dos Clergios, a tall tower where an Italian architect (and designer of many Portuguese monuments) is buried. We planned to go up the tower the next day, but it was too cloudy to be worth the 225 step climb to the top (plus a ticket).

This area was known as the “Lice” area, due to a signal created to identify a warning. The warner would scratch their head, alerting the speaker that a person in favor of dictatorship was listening in. We next walked around União das Freguesias de Cedofeita, past restaurants and along the Douro River.

Once our tour concluded, we stopped at a restaurant recommended to us for lunch. We had INCREDIBLE food, including octopus and fish – and our little one charmed all the fellow customers with his eating ability and his happy demeanor.

Next we walked to Bolsa Palace. The only way to visit is by booking a 30 minute tour. Bolsa Palace, the “Stock Exchange Building”, was built in the 19th century to house Porto traders. It was opened to the public in 1910 when the Republic was implemented. The first room contained seals of each of the countries they did business with, and each room seemed to get more and more beautiful.

Many of the floors were made by Italian artisans and put together like a puzzle (called marquetry). Another room appeared to be almost all wood, but we learned much of it was actually plaster (cheaper than wood) and was made to look like wood by using the tail of codfish to paint the plaster!

We finally entered the infamous Arabian room, which took 18 years to complete and contains 18kg of gold leaf. The room is rented out now for concerts, weddings, and other prestigious events.

As our tours of Porto came to an end, we ventured to something a little less dazzling, yet still glamourous – the “most beautiful McDonalds in the world”. A giant eagle rests over the restaurant name, and inside is filled with mirrors, chandeliers, and some mosaics. Fancy!

We attempted going to one of the bars/cafes that our guide had recommended (“Galleries of Paris”) and discovered that they were going to have live Fado music shortly after we arrived. Fado is a Portuguese style of music where the artist sings “sad songs” about missing home life or your home people. We were told to never talk when someone is signing Fado because “they are pouring their heart out!”. We ended up leaving before it began because we were unsure how our little one would do with the live music.

Another favorite part of Porto was visiting Base Porto, green space with a bar, tables, and lots of space for children to play or couples to sit and enjoy a glass of sangria. We spent over an hour there playing with Carter and letting him crawl around in the grass.

We squeezed in our visit to the bookstore, then found a sports bar (can’t remember the last time I said that) for dinner. This may have been the only time we weren’t super impressed with the food while in Portugal, but we had excellent white port (that we later learned was rare to find!).

The next day we packed up and began our walk to the car rental agency, walking through the Jardin da Rotunda da Boavista along the way.

Two Nights in Douro Valley

We picked up our rental car and began the many hours of driving we had planned to get to Douro Valley and to sight see along the way. The drive is on Route 222 (N222) and is known for being one of the most romantic roads in the world (in fact, there were signs all along the route that said “romantic road” in Portuguese).

Our first stop was in Resende, a small town I had heard was worth visiting but had completely forgotten to read about. We weren’t sure if we were going to stop, but since we were ahead of schedule, we decided to stretch our legs after about an hour and a half of driving. It was about time for lunch and we saw a large patio packed with people (and the only restaurant we saw around) so we walked there after enjoying a beautiful view.

This was one of our most favorite parts of our entire trip, because our whole experience was so unexpected. We hadn’t really planned to stop and didn’t know what we’d do in this town, but we had what we believe was our best meal for the lowest price in a very, very long time (and maybe ever!).

We enjoyed a half rack of lamb, potatoes and rice, a soup starter and mixed greens, two seltzer waters and a half liter of white wine (the server said “Don’t worry, many people drink this whole carafe by themselves, the wine is soft [low-alcohol]”), two desserts, and a café (espresso) for the low, low price of 28 euros (dollars) total. Wow!

We discovered that we definitely eat like the French now when it comes to length of time we eat a meal – we were there for quite a long time and many of the other patrons had left by the time we were leaving. As we left, we discovered something wonderful – the servers were all having a big meal together, and it was obvious they were family members.

We drove another 30 minutes to a look out area, Miradouro de São Silvestre. This viewpoint included a swing (no doubt for incredible pictures as well as incredible views!) and a small church.

We drove to a winery next, Quinta Seara d'Ordens. Here, we learned that some of the giant big barrels hold 7,000 liter of port! The smaller wine barrels are used for wine for 2-3 years, then used for 20-30 years to age port. They are then sold to whiskey companies. The winery we visited sells them to Jameson in Ireland!

There are three different types of port. White port is an aperitif and typically served chilled. Ruby is fruity, not as sweet, and is drank at the end of the day or during meals. Tawny is the traditional Portuguese port and is drank at the end of the day. Port should be served in bigger glasses than you usually see in restaurants- smaller glasses make them taste more “alcoholic”.

One of the white wines we drank was like none I had ever had before. It was a white wine that tasted like red wine! I said this out loud and the tour guide told us they sometimes do blind tastings for this reason. Many people assume it’s red!

Many places in the world use France as a template for the type of grapes that are used in their wines. Typically wineries use 5-6 grape varieties maximum. However, this vineyard uses 30 different grapes (!). Many Portuguese wineries do this (there’s 120 varieties of grapes in Portugal) because there is such varied temperatures and climates here (beach, heat, snow, mountains, etc.).

Another tidbit that we found interesting was that wine that says it’s 20 years old it might be anywhere from 21-29 years old… but since it’s not 30 years old, it must say that it’s 20 years old.

That evening we saw one more lookout called São Leonardo da Galafura. It is known for being one of the most beautiful places to see among route N222. We were in one of the most beautiful places we have ever seen.

It reminded us of other beautiful places we’ve been, such as the rolling hills of Provence, tea plantations in India and even the rolling hills or Ireland. We are amazed by how well they use the land to plant vineyards – some of the vines seemed to be planted at a 90 degree angle with some of the steep hills!

The next day was HOT! We drove to another look out point and then to the train station in Pinhoa. It was small but well-known for it’s hand painted tiles and had a little café and wine shop attached. We then checked out a place for lunch (we were ravenous) and found a terrace with good fresh fish and yummy white wine.

Afterwards we walked down to the water to enjoy an hour long boat ride on the Douro Valley!

We went to Quinta do Tedo next for another port tasting. The coolest thing about the winery was that we got to watch them harvest the grapes – there were big buckets of grapes fed into a machine which shook the grapes off the vines and spit out the branches – and then a big vacuum sucked the grapes into a large area where they waited to be stomped on!

We stopped into a grocery store on the way home to pick up some picnic items for dinner (we’ve never seen so much seafood in a store!) and had rotisserie chicken, rice, and some fruit and bread for dinner. We had bought a local cheese, but we found it too stinky (Chris tried it, but I couldn't), so we gave it to the next door neighbors.

The next morning we took advantage of the pool located on the property, as every night we hoped to be home in time to use it (but were too late)!

We drove back to Porto to drop off our rental car and hop on the train to Lisbon. We realized that they are much more punctual in France than they are in Portugal – we were surprised that our train left a few minutes late, but even more surprised when it arrived in Lisbon 30 minutes late. Our flights later also claimed to be on time but left (and arrived) late! It didn’t matter to us, but it was interesting.

24 Hours in Lisbon

We arrived in Lisbon in the afternoon with just enough time to get a few hours of exploring.

Portugal is known for its cork production and is one of the biggest producers of wine works. Cork is very durable and ecologically friendly. It is harvested from a tree; the tree is then left to grow for another 7 – 9 years and the cork is harvested again. It’s sold all over Portugal but Lisbon had an especially abundant amount of expert-made crafts for sell made of cork.

Our journey after checking into the Airbnb started at the National Pantheon. It was a beautiful building with high ceilings and impressive tile work with famous people buried inside (one, notably, was a famous soccer player). However, the most impressive part of the building were the views from the terrace on the top of the building!

From there we walked to the Church of our Lady of Grace (passing a large open-air market with plenty of colorful dresses, artwork, and cork purses along the way), which I had read was a beautifully tiled church – but it was closed when we got there. We still enjoyed walking past it, as there was a café/bar situated right next to it with a great lookout of the city.

Our next few stops were based on an article we found in The New York Times that gave many of recommendations! It included Alcoa, a patisserie (we bought 4 or 5 sweets to bring home, including the classic pastel de nata (and even a dessert made with spaghetti squash!), and Cork and Co (a store with skillfully made cork products, including dishes, lamps, bags, hats, etc.). We bought 6 placemats to bring home!

On our way there we walked through a few different squares, including Rossio square. There was a large fair set up with typical Portuguese food (such as meat boards and meat sandwiches), cork products, and lots of sangria! We were hungry and decided to make our way back there for the evening. We also grabbed a large slice of pizza on that walk there because it looked amazing (it tasted just as good!).

We enjoyed our time at the outdoor fair! We each got a sangria (one made with red port, one with white). Chris got a sandwich, and afterwards we walked around and enjoyed looking at the handmade items, including jewelry, clothing, and all the beautiful cork purses!

We walked back towards our apartment but were still very hungry, so we popped into an empanada place that we had spied earlier in the day.

The next morning we only had a few hours before we had to get to the airport, so we walked to a coffee spot we had read about in the New York Times (Fabrica Coffee Roasters) where I got a delicious dirty chai.

We walked from there to a park in Principe Real, and enjoyed a wonderful view of the city – and from there, we could see a fort (maybe Castelo de S Jorge?) across the way – the same one we had visited in 2013 when we had a long layover in Lisbon on our way to Germany!

We went back to the Airbnb, finished packing, and grabbed a quick Uber to the airport.

Our next stop was Sao Miguel, one of the most beautiful places we've ever been! More to come!

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