What to Do and What to See in Portugal in Just a Week
Highlights from a week-long, off-peak tour
Last year we had a debate around what to do for Christmas: spend it in uber-cold Romania, with temperatures dipping to -18C or find a different spot? It was a no-brainer, so we ventured to Spain, far from the madding crowds, staying in Catalonia and Barcelona. We decided to do something similar in 2016 and picked Portugal for a North to South tour in just a week.
We made our way down from Porto to the Algarve, and these are some of the things we experienced and noticed along the way to act as an inspiration and perhaps guide to others.
We didn’t have a lot of time on our hands and we may have missed what others could consider sacred in terms of culture, but without much further ado…
Beginning the tour up north
We landed in Porto just before Christmas. It was exciting to see the hustle and bustle, but a lot of shops were closed between Christmas and New Year. Most people seemed to be out in the streets still frantically buying things last minute, and all the locals were travelling to and from places in the area.
We didn’t stay long enough in Porto to enjoy all the recommended sights, but these are a few of the things we did like:
almadatreze (Almada 13) — a mini “department store” in Invicta, the historic city centre. There are lots of nice products designed and made in Portugal available to buy.
If cork is your material of choice, there’s a lot of cork-based products in Porto. The cork oak tree is apparently Portugal’s national tree, and it shows. Only in Portugal you’ll discover that cork isn’t just for wine bottles and coasters; it can be fashioned into hats, purses, belts, shoes, umbrellas…and who knows what else.
A Vida Portuguesa — a shop that seems to be single-handedly keeping Portuguese traditions alive: with locations in Lisbon and Porto, it features everything from sardines and soaps to textiles and ceramics that make for really unique gifts or souvenirs; that is, if you can think of that one person who’s really into things like cabbage-shaped fruit bowls.
Livraria Lello e Irmão — the famous neo-Gothic library built around 1906 that inspired J.K. Rowling . We paid a visit during off-peak hours because otherwise there’s a huge queue for tickets that cost €5.50 (also available online for those who can’t wait). It’s really beautiful, though it’s the most touristy thing you can do in Porto. One does get the feeling that all the locals are about in the city centre, and all the tourists are gathered here.
- BOP Café — a cute cafe/bar that also boasts an extensive vinyl collection. There’s a set of turntables on which customers can play whatever they like from the collection, should they feel like it.
- The Feeting Room —Not ones to let their manufacturing traditions and heritage get left behind, The Feeting Room is a modern concept store (part shop, part cafe) that celebrates independent clothing and shoe manufactures and also serves a decent flat white.
Travel and getting around
- Be careful with Uber in Porto: we hadn’t realised how big of a sticking point this would be for the locals until the driver who took us to the train station told us he’ll drop us off behind it, near the tracks, as one of the local taxi drivers had smashed his window two weeks prior when he’d stopped in front of the station.
- Don’t bother renting a car if you’re going to the capital. We went to Lisbon via train instead of renting a car. It cost around $55 for two people, lasted about three hours, and we bought the tickets online in advance to save us time. The train operator only allows you to buy tickets about two months before travel, so it’s worth bearing that in mind.
Out in the country: Douro Valley
We planned a few quiet days out in the Douro Valley, and we ended up in two hotels rather than one, as originally planned.
Vidago Palace — we swapped one night at Pedras Salgadas, our original destination, with one at this sister hotel that looks like something out of a fairytale or Wes Anderson set. Originally a palace, not hotel, it was built for the king back in 1910, keen to experience the thermal waters and the 250+ acres of land around it, but apparently never got round to it.
It was refurbished and re-opened in 2010 with a shiny new spa area, a wonderful grand staircase that grabs you as soon as you walk in, as well as hand-made, bespoke rugs and tapestries, mosaic floors and gilded ceilings. Our Christmas Eve dinner was served in what looked like it could have been a ballroom back in the day, only adding to the layers of ‘Magic Mountain’ type fantasies one can entertain while staying here.
We even got a surprise Christmas gift: a hamper full of some locally-made products, including (of course) some cured meats, fortified wine, chestnut purée and balsamic vinegar.
Pedras Salgadas — a few kilometres away, our original destination is a “spa complex”: a set of mini lodges and tree houses set on the grounds of the Pedras Salgadas thermal spa.
You can still get your thermal water treatments like Vichy showers, and they still bottle the naturally carbonated “água das Pedras” water straight from the source. The water has a very distinct taste; it’s rich in iron and with supposedly really good curative properties for your digestive system.
Mid-tour: a stop in the capital city
Lisbon’s temperate climate in December made it a delightful stop. For someone coming from Britain, the balmy 15–18 degrees were a real treat. It did mean it was rather short of locals, whom, I presume, tend to come out and linger late into the night on those hot, sweltering summer days.
There’s something really wonderful about the light in Lisbon: the tiles, the pale-coloured buildings (yellow, pink, oranges and ochres), the narrow alleys and staircases and light glistening on cobblestone give it a charm that’s hard to put into words.
Food and drink
Belcanto: considered to be the best restaurant in Lisbon, awarded 2 Michelin stars by prolific young chef José Avillez, who owns several other restaurants in Portugal. They serve a la carte but there’s a tasting menu called ‘A Taste of Portugal’ that’s definitely worth trying at around €145 per person.
I had a vegetarian version of the tasting menu, and it includes a dish the chef is famous for, called ‘The Garden of the Goose That Laid the Golden Egg’. Their wines and wine pairings are supposed to be good, though we didn’t try them — an English-speaking lady at a table near us was so ecstatic with the wine she’d had she almost hugged the staff.
Smaller but no less interesting cafés and restaurants:
- Fábrica Coffee Roasters — Located not far from the city centre, you can see their roasting machine, they also sell beans — a Christmas blend when we went — and buy some t-shirts, totes and other 3rd wave brewing equipment. There are ubiquitous cakes, a nice seating area outside for when it’s warm but there’s no wifi. Venture far into the place and there isn’t much network coverage either)
- Ground Burger — an American-style burger place near the big El Corte Inglés. They did a great veggie burger too, and staff were fast and friendly.
- Tartine — a worthy mention for some pastries, cake or breakfast close to the city centre. Monocle calls this a good place for mid-day pastries, if you don’t mind the onslaught of pastries while vacationing in Portugal.
- Copenhagen Coffee Lab — if you’re looking for a mellow and friendly English-speaking coffee place to work from or read, far from the crowds, this might be it.
- Wish — Slow Coffee House: Inside LX Factory (mentioned later), Wish serves pour-over coffee and flat whites in one room, acts as a shop in the other.
- The Mill — An Aussie/Portuguese cafe also farther away from the madding crowd in the city centre. We enjoyed the fact that we could have poached eggs and smashed avocado on sourdough and some flat white.
The area of Belém isn’t too far away from the centre but somehow counts as a sort of ‘suburb’ and people say it’s a day trip in itself. We spent an entire day in the area visiting and walking around.
Centro Cultural de Belém (CCB) houses a number of museums and art institutions plus performance venues. We only had time for one art museum (continued below the pictures).
Berardo Collection Museum (Museu Colecçao Berardo) is a free admission museum housing a really impressive private art collection, primarily from the 20th century. The museum can feel a bit vast and lifeless but the upside is that photos are allowed throughout and it’s been excellently curated and explained, by period in historical context.
It takes at least two good hours to explore it all in a somewhat meaningful way but there were some really nice treats and surprises: Alexander Calder, Nam June Paik, Dan Flavin, Gerhard Richter, Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko, Joan Miró, Picasso, to name a few and even Tristan Tzara had some wall space. If you like Tate Modern or Guggenheim, you shouldn’t miss it.
Mosteiros de Jerónimos is a 500-year-old Unesco World Heritage monument with breathtaking architecture. The monastery contains the tombs of kings and queens, Vasco da Gama, and the national poet, Luís de Camões. The cloister and the church (Igreja de Santa Maria de Belém) are recommended sights. If you visit Notre Dame in Paris you’ll can’t not stop here. The entrance fee is 10 euros and you need to buy it in advance to skip the tourist queues. Oh, and get there before 12. Even off-peak.
Belém Tower nearby is a touristy attraction. We didn’t go up the tower, but for people considering it the tickets are included in a combination ticket together with other nearby attractions like the Monastery.
LX Factory on the way to Belém is a creative cultural enclave. It’s hard to describe, but it is pretty much what you’d imagine would happen if young creatives were given license to take over the entire site of a former factory and turn it into their playground. It hosts cafés, book shops, magazine shops, gift and craft shops, co-working spaces and even some offices. It teeters between the commercial (potentially kitschy) and mildly subversive in places. We didn’t have time to visit Village Underground, the Lisbon outpost of the London collective.
Then there’s also the street culture: Portugal is full of huge wall illustrations and other forms of street art. Going on a street art tour of everything would be a separate holiday of its own, but we were happy to spot a few significant ones along the way:
One final note: we didn’t go up the Santa Justa lift. It promises to have ‘spectacular’ views of the city but it was always so crowded, and families of tourists were always arguing angrily with one another, we didn’t feel it was worth it.
Shops, craft, and traditional Portuguese things
From sardines and soaps to cork, textiles and craft Portugal is one country that won’t let its heritage go the way of globalism.
- Paris em Lisboa — a textile shop that makes you think it’s the one-stop-shop for a bride’s trousseau.
- Pequeno Jardim — a quaint little flower shop in the city centre; you can’t miss it.
- Chapeleria Azevedo Rua — Opened in 1886, this is the oldest hat shop in Lisbon. Even if you’re not in the market for a gentleman’s hat or cap, you should have a look around.
- Loja do Burel—If you’re looking for a unique souvenir, this is a good place to stop. Burel is a material made from compacted wool (similar to felt). The shop has a whole host of creative handmade products products made by the people from Serra da Estrela region (Portugal’s highest mountain range). You can find blankets, capes, jackets and bags. It’s a piy we couldn’t fit a blanket in our suitcase. At €70 euros, they’re a bit more accessible than the products coming out of British woollen mills.
Pastel de nata in Lisbon
Of course the pastel (pl. pastéis) merits its own section. This eggy custard pastry is world famous and produced in a number of variations. We bumped into a version of it in Hong Kong, though I can safely say those aren’t the flaky, caramelised delicacies the Portuguese make. We made three big stops in Lisbon:
- Fabrica dos Pastéis de Belém: this is the place where the pastel de nata was invented (at the monastery next door) so it’s as touristy as it will ever get. They say they have 400 seats inside for those who need a rest but most people will be queuing outside. They make around 200 per hour (this wonderful post explains it better, at length if you want to know how they do it). The queue goes pretty fast. Enjoy.
- Fabrica da Nata is where we loaded up on a few more before our road-trip down South. If you’re curious about how they’re made, you have a better chance of seeing the process unfold in front of your eyes here.
- Pasteleria Versailles — farther away from the city centre is a more ‘local’ cafe that looks like it was frozen in time at some point in the early 20th century. Their sweets are good but you’re really walking in here mostly because of the way it looks.
Travel and getting around
- Metro cards are easy to get, relatively harder to top up depending on where you are and how many ticket machines are available. Queues at machines are likely.
- Uber is cheap and more acceptable than in Porto, though traffic is a bit of a nightmare. Assuming you’re only touristing around Lisbon you should be fine. If you don’t like Uber there’s MyTaxi, a fairly popular European option, or even Cabify (both of whom might offer discounts for first time users).
Driving down South
By the time we got to the Algarve we were already exhausted by the people and hustle and bustle from Lisbon. We were looking forward to a break but lo and behold, even in off season our hotel was fully booked. Since sunbathing at the beach wasn’t an option, we searched for alternatives.
Literally meaning “fair lagoon”, Ria Formosa is a system of barrier islands that communicates with the sea through six inlets, and was made a natural park in 1987. It covers a stretch of 60 km from Quinta do Lago (where we stayed) to Cacela Velha. It’s a really beautiful protected area that was called a Natural Wonder of Portugal, and it’s easy to see why. You can certainly walk or hike for portions of it but there are organised boat trips, kayak tours, birdwatching and nature walks accessible from Olhão (near Faro).
Ilha da Culatra (Culatra Island)
The island is divided into three parts, or three villages: Farol, Hângares and Culatra. Farol is sometimes confusingly called Ilha do Farol, which makes you think it’s another island, but actually it is a different part of the same island. The villages are inhabited by around 1,000 people, mostly fishermen (they are indeed mostly men) and are linked to Olhão and Faro by ferry and water taxi. There are no roads or vehicles, but there are wooden walkways throughout. Lovely and remote.
While the ferries were sparse in winter, and the water taxis on the pricier side, we did a 3.5 hour boat tour with one of the operators on the board walk (either near the ‘official’ ferry departure pier or in front of the Real Marina hotel). It cost us €25 and it was a day well spent. The tour operators and villagers are nice, patient and generally speak good English.
These islands are so near from Olhão, yet so far away; it seems like they’re from another world where time slowed down to a halt. With no traffic and few people it’s a strange yet beautifully deserted space with empty beaches, birds and dunes. Time stood still for long enough to forget that it was the 31st of December.
We didn’t stop in Hângares. The guide simply said “we don’t go there” because they don’t have electricity or much infrastructure, and the place is considered a “leftover” from WWI when an aviation centre was built on the island to help defend against submarines during the war.
Ilha de Armona was our last stop; we were told it’s full of holiday homes. We didn’t do much walking here — we felt as though we were intruding a little on people’s lives.
- Praia Quinta do Lago: On the first day of the new year with a balmy 16–18 degree temperature outside we ventured on a 45 minute walk (each way) to the nearest beach to our hotel, wandering between villas, golf courses and luxury hotels presumably all full.
It almost feels as though we went through three different countries because of the difference in topography and temperature in Portugal; while we didn’t explore quite every nook and cranny or hidden gems known only by locals, we felt like we got a really good flavour of the place. Maybe one day we’ll return in even fairer weather.