going to Portugal?

I recently learned about a friend going to Portugal and she asked for tips. I know I’ve written up tidbits for people over the last 3 years (since we went in 2006) but I couldn’t find any of the notes I’ve ever written…so I thought I’d publish what I wrote about our experience for future reference:

We loved it (naturally, since we got engaged there) My husband proposed to me from our hotel in Cascais and we loved much of our stay. We visited in mid-May, so similar time of year–and hence why we didn’t go down south to the beaches. Our 2-week itinerary was:

Lisbon – Belem – Sintra – Cascais – Porto – Braga – Douro Valley – Buscaco Forest – Fatima – Ourem – Lisbon

We covered a lot of ground and loved it. The Douro Valley is gorgeous and will feel like a getaway—so glad to hear you’re going to head out there since it’s true wine country (Porto has all the port wine lodges where you can see the barrels aging, but none of the actual vineyards). I’ll go through each city with top things to see and do.

The heart of Portugal, of course, so there’s a lot to do. Get ready to put on good walking shoes as there are lots of hills in this city! Highlights of things to see and do here:
  • Listen to Fado singers at Café Luso in the Bairro Alto. There are tons of fado restaurants so you don’t necessarily need to go here, but we enjoyed it. We did learn that there tend to be 2 sittings–something like 7pm and 10pm. We went with the later one and were glad we did, because there was a huge group of cruise ship passengers at the earlier show! As a result, we got a much more intimate dinner and show.
  • Ride the Tram #28 through the Alfama district
  • go to “A Ginjinha” and try ginginha with cherries! It’s like a sweet liquer, which is typical of Portugal. I think this bar is in the Rossio district.
  • go to the Castelo de Sao Jorge – the views are amazing. This is a must visit.
  • if you get a chance, go up one of the Elevadors–like the Elevador Santa Justa for another great view of the city
  • take a walk along the Baixa, sit in an outdoor café — get a croissant mixta and a café com leite while people watching.
  • other great neighborhoods to walk around: Bairro Alto (artsy, lots of bars at night) and the Alfama (much older neighborhood, narrow windy streets)
  • if you end up liking the glazed tile art (called azulejos), there is a museum of Azulejos located in the Alfama neighborhood
  • if you go to Belem (can be done in a few hours):
  • visit the Palacio Nacional which is in the heart of Sintra and one of the top reasons to visit, Sintra.
  • definitely visit the Palacio de Pena which is at the top of this hill with GORGEOUS views. The Palace itself is whimsically decorated and there are lots of beautiful picture opportunities
  • I never visited here, but there are old remains of a Moorish castle nearby also that is also popular to visit. If you have limited time, I recommend the national palace and pena palace for sure.
  • Cascais is just a cute seaside town, and not much touristy to see. However, it’s beautiful since it’s along the coast and you can stand there looking out in the ocean. We stayed at and got engaged at this great former fortress called Fortaleza do Guincho (GORGEOUS AND ROMANTIC), which is located next to Guincho Beach, a popular beach for windsurfers.
  • go to Cabo da Roca which is just slightly north of Cascais. We visited it when we were driving from Sintra back to Cascais, but you could do it the other way too. The drive there is great. Anyhow, it’s considered to be the westernmost point of continental Europe and has a beautiful view of the ocean as well.
  • we stayed in a hotel along Cais da Ribeira (Pestana Porto—it’s really old and it’s fun to see old paintings of Oporto that show the hotel), so we stayed primarily in this area
  • the main thing to do in Oporto is to cross the bridge over to Vila Nova Gaia where all the port wine lodges are. The view over there is incredible as you’ll recognize every brand of port you’ve probably ever had. Be sure to check on when the wine lodges are open though as there are days when they are not. My opinion is that there isn’t much to do in Porto except for this, so I’d limit the stay to 2 days at most….so plan accordingly to be there when all the port wine lodges are open. You’ll find that once you go on one tour, all the tours are very similar—so it’s up to you if you want to continue taking tours.
  • the only other thing we did was walk up to the Cathedral (the Se) where the views were quite beautiful
  • we primarily went here, to be honest, because my husband’s mother’s maiden name is Braga and we wanted to visit…but you can totally skip. We only stayed one night. It’s an old Catholic town that’s quaint with a couple of pretty sites, but nothing to go out of your way for.
  • on your way out to the Douro Valley, highly recommend you stop and visit the Bom Jesus do Monte, which is Portugal’s most photographed church with its series of winding steps
  • [sigh] we wished we had stayed out here longer as it was just relaxing and heavenly. We stayed at the Casa de Casal de Loivos, a B&B in Pinhao which was wonderful. The owner, Manuel, is a hoot and the view from here is spectacular. (decently cheap too at 100 euros/night)
  • you can go to the vineyards and take tours–many of them offer self-guided walking tours too.
  • while we didn’t do this, we saw a lot of people take river boat tours. Some people would even leave their cars, take the boat cruise to the Douro Valley, stay a few days and then return. Of course, you’re then limited to where you can walk…and the Douro Valley is definitely more of a driving place to get from one point to another.

we didn’t actually stay here, but on our way back down south from the Douro Valley, we took a tour and decided to drive through the Buçaco Forest and eventually arrived at the Buçaco Palace which is GOR-GEOUS. If anything, the visit here is worthwhile just to see this palace. We had joked that if we had decided to get married in Portugal, this is where we’d do it because the palace and grounds were really beautiful.

We decided to stay in Ourem for a couple of days to rest before heading back to Lisbon. This was probably one of our favorite places we stayed at — the Casa Alta Royal Lodge. It’s literally run by this priest from San Francisco–and while it’s very Catholic in nature, they don’t impose religion to you whatsoever. The rooms are great with beautiful views and it’s a very personal experience.
While there, we got a tour of the area, including going to Fatima, which is fascinating since it’s considered, like, one of the most religious places in the world. I mean, there are people here who will crawl on their knees while doing hail mary’s. It is famous because the Virgin Mary reportedly appeared before 3 young children, who then confided 3 secrets. If anything, the amazing thing to see here is the Shrine and Basilica of Fatima — it’s HUGE!!! It’s one of the largest in the world and thousands of people pilgrimage here yearly.

In the area, we also saw the cathedrals at Batalha and Alcobaca as well as out to Nazare to see the coastline…but these are just bonus places to visit.

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