There’s something about first arriving in a new country and falling in love with the first city you visit. Rookie mistake? It still happens to me. It’s also mentionable that the first city you visit is often a big one just by virtue that it’s also a transit hub. From my round the world trip in 2008, it wasn’t always the case: Beijing – not my favorite. Some of my lifetime favorites though are Busan (Korea), Marseille (France), and Osaka (Japan).
Something else they all have in common? Port cities! Which brings us to Porto, Portugal. Previously, I had only visited the Azores briefly, which has a completely different vibe than mainland Portugal. Exploring Portugal has been on my “list” for a while. I snagged a ridiculous flight deal in November for $437 roundtrip from Portland to Madrid. That sealed the deal on spending a week exploring, before settling down in Valencia, Spain for a month.
I fell in love with Porto immediately. I was so glad we didn’t bypass the city like so many travel sites and books had inadvertently “recommended” (by saying to only add it as Day 14 if you have 2 weeks etc.) Porto has the kind of windy streets that you could wander for hours (or years). Our lovely Airbnb host recommended her favorite port lodge across the river (Taylor’s), and away we went for the rest of the day – meandering the hilly streets of the city, trying port wine from the Douro Valley, and taking in our first truly sunny spring day.
On our second day in the country we set off for Coimbra – by car. As you can imagine, driving in Portugal is an adventure. We decided to skip the the new-fangled GPS in favor of the old fashioned way of navigating (stars and maps!). Portugal is kind of the birthplace of navigators (well by sea anyway). We made a few wrong turns along the way, but with nowhere to be it added to the adventure. I can imagine this would be a terrible strategy during the height of travel season in the summer though. Coimbra is one of Europe’s oldest college towns and definitely worth a day of your time if you have a week in Portugal.
One of the reasons we decided to rent a car in Portugal was to have the option to see some of the little towns between the big city sights of Lisbon and Porto. You can reach most place by train or bus, but it was fun to be a bit more spontaneous about where to stop. We ended up not making as many stops from our idea list, and settled on Nazare – home of big waves, epic wind, and a quaint market where we found picnic supplies. Our second stop was Óbidos – a walled castle town that has seen the Romans, Moors, and finally Portugal as its occupiers.
After visiting the smaller towns in central Portugal, it felt quite different rolling into Cascais. What was once an old fishing village is most certainly a resort town, even if the Algarve gets more attention these days. In shoulder-season, it was a great budget place to spend the night and not hard to imagine the beaches covered with people come August.
We started the morning at Boca do Inferno (Portuguese for “Mouth of Hell”). Then we drove the coastal loop up to Cabo da Roca, the most western mainland point in Europe. We continued the loop into Sintra to visit the Pena palace and walk the garden grounds. This place is like Disneyland for castle buffs, and I’m glad we decided to just focus on one main sight. We ended the day with a short, but suspenseful drive into Lisbon to return our rental car at the airport. After navigating the metro back into Lisbon, we settled in at our Airbnb flat and went out for a celebratory beer and sunset (yay! We didn’t crash the rental car!)
Our first full day in Lisbon, we spent walking up and down the streets of our neighborhood in Bairro Alto, around Chiado and down to Baixa. Don’t worry, we stopped at least every two hours for a cafe and pastel de nata (a custard tart pastry).
We continued our pastry and coffee routine the following day. Strolling the Alfama neighborhood in the afternoon, then doing a bit of shopping and having a deliciously expensive fresh seafood dinner up the street at Sea Me.
The last day in Portugal, we visited the seafaring part of Lisbon – Belem and spent a deal of time reading and learning more about Portugal’s history. Don’t worry, we took breaks for coffee, pastries, and sampling Portugal’s wine.
Our week in Portugal sped by, and we by no means did it justice with enough time. On my next visit, I want to explore the southern coast of Portugal, spend more time in Porto, and see more of the central region. One thing we did right within our short timeline was having the one night stays at the beginning of the trip, as it was nice to be able to “relax” at the end with three nights in Lisbon. I would recommend two nights in Porto though.
This spring, I’m testing my annual “Live + Work Remotely” goal with an international experiment. Stay tuned for more updates about my time in Portugal and living in Valencia, Spain.