Travelling in Portugal this summer - do's and dont's
March 9, 2015 4:45 PM   Subscribe

My wife and I are flying to Portugal this summer (last 2 weeks of July), and plan to travel by car from Faro in the south to Porto in the north. We have a couple of weeks and want to get a feel for the country which we know very little about. Any general or specific ideas on what we should see, what we should avoid, etc.

We are keen hikers and bikers (especially the latter) and would like to throw a little exercise in as well without doing a triathlon each day. We are English-speaking Canadians from the West Coast although my wife is a confident traveler and seems to pick up languages quite easily so I'm interested in any language barriers we might encounter as well. We are open-minded, curious (nude beaches.....not that curious), and like the back roads as much as the bright lights.
posted by RafikiGuy to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
My wife and I spent some time in Portugal a few years ago. We didn't really do any biking so I can't comment on that, but I'll tell you my tidbits.

-We spent the first part of our trip in Lisbon and honestly I would go back there for a week or two if I could. We stayed in the Alfama and walked all over the city... there was enough to do nearby that we only took a bus once. That section of the city is very steep and will certainly give you a nice workout if you want to climb up to the castelo. Breakfast in pastelarias, lots of wandering and a late dinner wherever we found ourselves. The city felt really relaxed and we never really felt like having a hard itinerary.

-If you find yourself near the Jeronimos Monastery and there are just too many tourists, there's an Electricity Museum near there which is basically a power station that has been cut away like a 3D diagram so you can walk through it. It's really cool.

-We did take a train to Sintra which was lovely. Definitely recommend hiking up to the Moorish castle, which has spectacular views, and spending some time wandering around the frankly ridiculous Quinta da Regaleira. (everyone will tell you to go there; go there).

-The second part of our trip was spent in the Douro River valley, in the north. We stayed in a little town called Travanca do Monte (actually at the recommendation of a mefite) and it was wonderful. We drove around the valley for a few days... Amarante just to the south was a nice larger town with a neat art museum, and we had a lovely time in Lamego (which we actually drove to by accident). There's one of those shrines there with an extremely long staircase in case you ate a little too much for lunch.

Anyway, here's my Flickr album from the trip if you want inspiration. Sigh... now I want to go back.
posted by selfnoise at 5:11 PM on March 9, 2015

Avoid biking or hiking in the middle of the day. Sun stroke is not fun.
posted by kjs4 at 11:11 PM on March 9, 2015

Just returned from Portugal a couple of days ago. English is pretty common and when it wasn't folks were super friendly and communication finally worked out in the end. Be sure to ask the car rental for a toll road pass. There are many places where the tolls are registered electronically without any toll booths, so you need the pass or you're supposed to go to a post office and pay.
posted by humboldt32 at 1:49 AM on March 10, 2015

Portugal is wonderful.
Don't miss Sintra and Pena Palace.
posted by Flood at 3:45 AM on March 10, 2015

Ok here's some random tips from me. I married into a Lisbon family so I know the country well.

I'd head north from Faro directly into the deep Alentejo. It is scorching hot, especially in mid-summer but it is sort of the rural heart of Portugal.
I'd hug the Spanish border going up through Mertola and Serpa (famous for its cheese) until you get to Monsaraz (a medieval walled town on top of a hill)

At that point, you're in the magic triangle formed by Monsaraz, Evora and Estremoz. All the little villages here are interesting. Great food and wine is everywhere. (I love Patio de Oliveira in nearby Mourao).
You can see Redondo and Borba and Vila Vicosa for a taste of Alentejo towns. If you want to stay in a rural setting with lots of nature/walking, I recommend staying in this converted convent. But, above all, do not miss Evora. It is simply an amazing place.

From here, you can travel out to Lisbon via Setubal. Lots and lots do in Lisbon. That would be a separate thread. Walking is one of the best ways to get around and to discover hidden corners. Lisbon is hilly so there's a lot of exercise involved.

Leaving Lisbon, take the coastal road to Cascais. Pretty and lots of little seafood places long the coast. Do not miss Sintra. Plenty of hiking and cycling to be done here as well. The Sintra forest is beautiful and full of unexpected palaces.

My favorite restaurant in this area is a seafood restaurant in a little village on the coast, Azenhas do Mar, which hangs over a cliff. Great setting, great food.

Head north and stay on the coast. Stop at Ericeira and keep going to the surf nexus that is Peniche. Gratuitous plug: My brother-in-law runs a hotel here Baleal Spot which can arrange surfing lessons and nearby hikes. You can visit the nearby village of Obidos too. We once stayed in one of the castle towers.

From here, you can go to Santarem or to Alcobaca. But you are also near one of my favorite places in the world - the 13th century Templar Castle of Tomar. What can I say, it is beautiful and magical.

Food recommendation: Chico Elias. Book ahead and arrive hungry.

As you head north, consider the Serra de Estrela for an almost alpine landscape. Or stay on the coast and Figueira da Foz and Coimbra (the university is worth a stop) and Aveiro. If you happen to be by you can do what every portuguese person does when they drive north-south and stop for suckling pig at Pedro dos Leitoes. It is a tradition, after all.
From there to Porto and, after that some time meandering down the Douro river valley.

I have left a lot out. Portugal is a tiny country but with an amazingly varied landscape and the visible remains of thousands of years of history.
posted by vacapinta at 5:04 AM on March 10, 2015 [6 favorites]

At this point I'm just a feeble echo but I wanted to restate how much you should go to Sintra. There's a trail from the city centre up to the castle on the top of the hill which you should do.
posted by quaking fajita at 5:34 AM on March 10, 2015

Definitely go to Sintra and Pena Palace. Don't drive there, take the train from Lisbon. And bring sandwiches from Lisbon if you're on a budget - Sintra is 100% for tourists and while there might be good food there, it is more expensive. 1 long day is enough for Sintra.

Lisbon might need 2-3 days, depending on how many museums/churches/castles you want to go into. Eat as many pasteis de nata as you can!

If you like beach and/or dramatic shore lines, make sure to see some of the Algarve coastline. Lagos has awesome beaches with awesome rock formations. Dona Ana is one beach that has a parking lot right next to the beach - very convenient! - and a sandwich shack right on the beach. Not sure if the parking lot gets overfilled in the summer though. I'm sure there are other beaches with similar beautiful rock formations, that's just the one we ended up at.

Coimbra is an awesome city that has tiny hilly winding streets and is very medieval looking. It will make you feel like you traveled back in time. It might even give you the exercise you need just from walking around. No biking, but we were definitely sore from walking around there for a day.

Obidos is a teeny tiny little town completely surrounded by a castle wall. It has beautiful white washed hobbit-like houses that will make you feel like you're on a Greek island. Except you're on mainland Portugal.

Porto is beautiful (and also soo hilly! We walked up 293 steps at one point to get from one street to another). Give yourselves a couple of days there.

Some general tips/things to think about:

Food: Most people speak enough English to get you into a restaurant, but don't speak enough to answer questions about a menu. Learn some of the main words for steak, chicken, etc. The weird thing about eating in Portugal I had to get used to is that if you order salad, you literally only get lettuce with onions. If you order some kind of steak, you will literally get one piece of steak on your plate - all sides have to be ordered separately, unless it says otherwise. So keep that in mind. If you're on a budget but are not wine snobs, be selective about where you drink wine - a good price is ~2 Euro for a half bottle/bottle. If you're American, you might think 10 Euro is an amazing price for a bottle of wine, but you can get far, far cheaper. Water bottles are SO much cheaper in a little corner store than ordering water in a restaurant, and they look down on you if you order tap water and say that is not possible.

Shoes: Most cities have these teeny tiny tiles that really make your feet exhausted. So wear good shoes with a thicker sole. I would have died of foot pain if I just wore regular sandals.

Driving: You *need* a GPS of some sort. All the street signs are sort of just carved into the buildings, and very faded, and completely don't stand out. If you are looking for street signs as you are driving, you might not find them in time you need to decide where to turn. We bought a Portugal map for our GPS and installed it before we went - much cheaper than renting. You might have a phone with a local SIM card with data, then the GPS shouldn't be an issue. Tolls will get expensive. The roads are really good. Driving in cities is a bit crazy but totally do-able. Think NYC driving. You need to make quick decisions about where to turn, thus the GPS. Driving on highways between cities is awesome - perfect roads, no traffic.

Portugal is beautiful!! You will have a great time. Let me know if you have any questions about my brain dump above, or if you want to see my travel blog where I wrote a bit about our Portugal trip.
posted by at 8:19 AM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh, and as someone mentioned above - get the toll scanner thing (I forget what it's called) from the car rental company. All the tolls are electronic without a manned toll booth, so they will automatically charge your credit card. Much easier this way.
posted by at 8:21 AM on March 10, 2015

Take the usual precautions about safety - for your wife: wear a cross-body purse, hold it close to you in crowded places (especially any public transportation!), don't put your wallet down as you are looking for something else in your purse, etc. We never had an issue, but it doesn't hurt to say this.

In Lisbon, the Alfama neighborhood is kind of sketchy at night - go there during the day.

The metro system in Lisbon is great and very easy to master. Staying somewhere near within a couple of blocks to a metro station is very convenient. Don't drive in Lisbon if you don't have to.
posted by at 8:24 AM on March 10, 2015

Adding a vote for Coimbra. I've been back many times and love it more than Lisbon. It's a medieval university town and has a great student vibe. If you do stop there you MUST go hear Fado at the àCapella cultural center. It's a 14th c. chapel that has been converted into a bar/restaurant, and every night they have guitar-accompanied Coimbra Fado which is amazing.
posted by tractorfeed at 9:36 AM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

All great tips! I appreciate all the responders and the time you took to give my wife and I some ideas. Things we never would have found or thought about.
posted by RafikiGuy at 11:22 AM on March 10, 2015

You can bike the Costa Vicentina or the Grande Rota do Vale do Côa (there's more to the valley), and if you're interested in back roads then definitely go for the historical villages route or the schist villages route (Portuguese version only for the latter, it seems). To appropriately turn this comment into a caldeirada, I'd also recommend a town called Marvão, two waterfalls, Pulo do Lobo plus Fisgas de Ermelo, Buçaco and, to end on a nationalistic disguised as humorous note, Olivença is one of the nicest Portuguese small towns.
posted by khonostrov at 6:01 AM on March 12, 2015

Thanks to everyone for all the very helpful tips. It makes us even more excited about our trip to Portugal this summer.
posted by RafikiGuy at 1:45 PM on April 9, 2015

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