Roam Guide / North to South Portugal
Liz Banfield is a lifestyle photographer and avid traveler based in Minnesota. Since beginning her professional photography career in 1998, she’s flown over a million miles on Delta traveling to assignments around the globe. A foodie and treasure seeker, she especially appreciates a good long vista, whether its the mountains of Switzerland or the crashing surf of the Hamptons. Liz’s work has been featured in national magazines, including Town & Country, Real Simple Family, Martha Stewart Living and People Magazine.
Our family of four, including our children ages 11 and 13, explored Portugal from North to South for 2+ weeks in mid-August. I planned the entire trip from our couch during an epic April blizzard in Minnesota! We nailed down our flights and hotels early, knowing that it would be the high season.
When to go?
Although guidebooks generally advise that you to avoid Europe in August, we experienced reasonable crowds and pleasant weather. As with many countries in this region, the optimal time to visit is late spring through early summer and the first part of fall.
How to get there?
We started our journey with three days in Barcelona, hoping to shake off jet-lag in a city that never sleeps. Then we took a cheap flight on Iberian Air (under $100) to Porto where our Portugal adventures began. After six days immersed in Porto we rented a car and headed east to the Douro Valley for a memorable lazy few days in the mountains of wine country. From there we drove back to the coast and spent a few days meandering south through the Atlantic beach towns or Aviero, Costa Nova, and Nazare. We ended our journey in Cascais, which is midway between the capitol of Lisbon and the castle-rich town of Sintra. We ditched the rental car as soon as we arrived in Cascais / Lisbon (as public transport and Uber are ubiquitous… and the city driving a bit harrowing). We flew back to Minneapolis through Lisbon. If Portugal is your primary destination Lisbon is the best place to arrive and depart.
Where did you stay?
Our Airbnb in Porto had the river view of my dreams. Although humble (I balked initially when my husband shared the listing), it was a total bargain considering its prime location on the historic waterfront neighborhood called Riberia. Each night we wandered around after dinner, enjoying the street performers and people watching on the Douro. Just sitting in the kitchen watching the boats go by was a treat. The host also bent over backwards to help us throughout our stay.
In the Douro Valley,
In the scenic wine country of the Douro Valley we adored staying at a 17th century property nestled in the tiny town of Provensende. Surrounded by vineyards and olive trees, this charming hotel has only eight rooms. The approachable proprietor, Manuel Villas-Boas, is a direct descendant of the original property owners. He personally oversees the house wines, including port, made from the grapes on property that are served to hotel guests with a meal prepared using ingredients from the farm’s garden. Friendly, relaxed, stylishly elegant… this was the ideal retreat after the intensity of navigating urban centers in our previous stops. We played cards among the roses, dipped in the pool surrounded by century’s old stone walls, and sipped wine on the terrace overlooking the vineyard. Truly the perfect escape. Ask nicely and Manuel will give you a tour of the original manor home where he resides.
In the south, we also made the strategic decision to stay in the beach town of Cascais instead of the urban center of Lisbon. Suites Guest House is situated right on the main drag of Cascais and just a few minute’s walk to the train station where you could be in Lisbon in 30 minutes. We had a spacious top floor suite that was super-clean and comfortably fit all four of us (note: it’s a walk up). Cascais had plenty to offer including it’s seasonal Festas do Mar with free nightly concerts, food trucks, vendor stalls, and even a charming carousel. The atmosphere and people watching were as good as it gets. Cascais is also a reasonable taxi ride to the amazing sights of Sintra, which features the country’s most celebrated castles.
What should we do?
Pattern-play is everywhere! Tile-covered churches and buildings, calcada mosaic pedestrian streets, striped fisherman cottages of Costa Nova, and graffiti art everywhere. The maximalisim was a visual feast. My favorite activity was to walk around in search of tile-covered buildings, especially the grand churches with blue and white painted tiles known as “Azulejos.” Porto has many impressive examples but my favorite was the Capela das Almas for it’s edge to edge exuberance. Don’t miss the interior of the São Bento station in Porto, a beautiful example of Portuguese architecture, as well as a half dozen other churches with stunning tile displays. Also, the national tile museum, Museu Nacional Do Azulejos, in Lisbon was incredible.
Take in the incredible vistas —
The steep hills and ocean cliffs of Portugal offers some truly spectacular vistas. In Porto, the views from the Jardins do Palacio de Cristal were decidedly worth the hike. The thundering surf of Nazare, known world-wide for it’s tremendous waves, is framed by majestic cliffs, and the expansive wine country is hard to explain.
Where should we eat?
The Portugese are seafood masters. A delightful rotation of sea bass, grilled octopus, and fish soup made me a very happy traveler.
In Porto, The octopus at A Grade in Porto was particularly fabulous. For an overall superb meal, I loved the steakhouse Reitoria, also in Porto. We ate at the more formal dining room upstairs where the basket of oven-fresh foccacia hinted at just how amazing out food was going to be (in our case, an aged Tomahawk steak and the perfect wine pairing).
Rtip: A Grade is very close to Palácio da Bolsa. This former stock exchange building from the 19th century. Quite young by Portugal standards, yet one of the city’s best known historical gems.
In Lisbon, we had a truly unfforgettable lunch in at Aqui Ha Peixe (which means “There’s Fish In Here”).
Where should we drink?
Down on the riverfront district of Porto, called the Riberia, Wine Quay Bar has an extensive wine list and seating on the ledge overlooking the Douro. If I could do it again, I’d actually take the seats overlooking the river inside instead because the ledge itself is a bit cramped. Prime seating is first come, first served so you’ll want to get there well before prime time.
What is the one can't miss item on your itinerary?
I’d say that popping into bakeries were the highlight for all of us. I have memories of delicious pastries, including the pastel de nata and bola de berlim (a delectible sugar donut with an egg custard filling). Interestingly, egg-heavy pastries are uniquely Portuguese because historically the religious orders used egg whites to starch their vestments, leaving the yolks available for baking applications.
Tell us something we don't know?
The artifacts of Portugal's rich history as a former world power make it an especially compelling destination. And all of it is packed into a country the size of Maine! In preparation I read about the country's complicated political evolution and its (savage!) religious determinism in the book “Conquerors” by Roger Crowley. My middle-school European history lessons really came alive in the pages and later as I experienced the country and culture.
What should we shop for, or bring back with us?
Although I love to shop, I can’t exactly recommend Portugal for it’s shopping. I did however find some unique hand-crafted items at Coracao Alecrim (20 Rua Sant’Ana) in Porto, and all over the country you can find the beautifully packaged Castelbel “Portus Cale” soaps that would make perfect gifts. The beach wraps for sale in Cascais were also quite unique, and if I had spent more time in Lisbon, I would have probably found some incredible tiles to bring home and renovate my kitchen. It takes time, however, to dig through all the mediocre designs made for the masses to find the treasures. Lastly, I really wanted to buy a complete set of Costa Nova stoneware but alas, I don’t need new plates. I still might treat myself some day!
Tell us what' you’d do differently next time?
Next time I would love to spend more time in the charming beach town of Costa Nova. I’d happily sit in the cute striped beach chairs of the Costa Nova Beach Club, where you can order lunch and cold beer is brought to you in it’s own chilled white mugs.
What should we take on the trip?
The hills and cobbled pedestrian streets are a serious footwear challenge so I was grateful for my flat Kork-ease sandals. Also glad I brought a simple dress from Joie to upgrade my look now and then. I never go to a beach without a rashguard. I recommend the soft fabrics and styles from J Crew. As a professional photographer, I won’t compromise on quality sunglasses. I like the form/function equation from Celine. From a tech standpoint my Bestek travel power voltage converter was worth it’s weight in gold (10.6 oz, for the record). Each night it was put to service charging devices and camera batteries for all four of us. Relatedly, my Luxutude portable cell phone charger for boosting my cell phone battery was absolutely essential for making it through the entire day using battery heavy apps like GoogleMaps.
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