I am going to let you in on a little secret, are you ready? Portugal is my favorite place in the whole world. I know, I know- but there are so many other amazing places, right? Paris? London? The Maldives? Yes, also true and I have been to many of them. But I must say, it is still my favorite. But shhhhh, let’s not let that secret get too big. One of the reasons I love it so much is that it’s still a hidden little gem. Part of me almost hopes you don’t believe me, so we can keep it that way…but I still think you should go. I know, I am conflicted too!
Anyway, let’s go…
It will be impossible and entirely too long to write all about Portugal in one blog, so let’s have our journey begin in Lisbon. This is where we began our last trip and stayed a few days, right in the heart of the city. We flew from New York on a red eye to Lisbon, nobody really slept, but we hit the ground running when we arrived the next morning- which is what you must do! Try to make it straight through the day and go to bed at their nighttime, let your body be violently thrust into the new time zone. That first day was fuzzy but I think it was fine? We mostly wandered around and indulged in copious amounts of espresso. It’s just better in Europe. And it was like a dollar. Yes please, I’ll have another.
We stayed in a beautiful home that we found on vrbo, right down the street from Time Out Market. This was a great location; very European city vibes and I highly recommend looking around this area. Our house was nestled tightly among buildings on a very narrow cobblestone road and parking was very tricky. We always rent a car when we travel and we were going to be in Portugal for a few weeks, but if you’re just staying in Lisbon, you shouldn’t need a car. If you are renting, be warned that most cars are manual! We could easily walk to countless great restaurants, bars, shops, and the bus & train stations. Time Out is a must see/eat, go grab a meal and a glass of wine there. But be prepared- it is very overwhelming with so many vendors, options, and people! We went a little late in the afternoon so perhaps try going earlier.
On our first fully awake day we drove our rental car over to the Lisbon Oceanarium. We love aquariums and we seek them out whenever we travel. And this one did not disappoint. After spending a few hours wandering among the school field trip kids, otters, penguins, and octopi we made our way to the sky ride tucked away behind the aquarium. That experience was unique and a great way to see Lisbon from above. You can get off on the other side or take a round trip back where you began. We got off on the other side so we could find a nice place for lunch, explore, and do a little sightseeing and shopping. It was a lovely low-key way to start the trip.
You will also want to enjoy a meal or drink on Lisbon’s umbrella street. The umbrella lined rooftops & streets make for an enchanting experience, especially when the sun is up high, and the lights are filtering through. We came here several times at different times of the day, often ending our nights here. There are bars and music that come alive at dark. Another reason I love Portugal is that everything is open late, and you can enjoy delicious food at all times of the day/night with low hums of music playing everywhere.
A few of my absolute favorite dishes are: Bacalhau à Brás, a shredded cod with finely shredded potatoes, Pastel de Nata, which is a tart like pastry and anything in Piri Piri sauce. You’ll also find sardines everywhere, which doesn’t sound appetizing at all- but oh, it so is. Especially when they’re smoked and grilled. Yum. There is also an abundance of fresh octopus, clams, fish, rice, cheeses, fresh breads, and the most delicious fresh melons you’ll ever taste. And of course, to wash it all down, a nice crisp cold Vinho Verdo. I am salivating all over my keyboard. Order it all. You’ll also quickly find that at most restaurants, you will be served fresh warm breads with various butters or dips and olives. They aren’t completely complimentary and usually only cost a few (well worth it) dollars. But you can always send those items away if you don’t wish to add them to your bill. They will also look at you a little crazy when you order tap water, but their water is very clean and safe to drink. There was a time that it wasn’t, so many locals still stick with the no tap water habit. And ice is hard to come by, like in most of Europe. Sometimes they’ll have a cube to spare but get used to nice tepid water.
Another highlight was when we took the train to Cascais, about an hour ride from Lisbon, which is one of the most beautiful towns in all of Portugal. The roads are colorful and made of porcelain and stones, the buildings are picturesque and flowing with greenery and the shops are charming. The beaches are beautiful here as well, it would be a wonderful town to spend a few nights in, but we just did a day trip. We took leisurely strolls around the town, popping in shops, stopping for glasses of Vinho Verde (my absolute favorite white wine), got popsicles and candies for the kids, walked along the sandy beaches, and dipped our toes in the ocean while admiring the cliff lined coast. We returned late in the day from the train ride home and ate dinner alfresco on the deck of our rental and drank wine until the stars came out. It was divine.
We also took a day trip (drove) to the town of Sintra, which is about 40 minutes from Lisbon, and toured the grounds and castle Quinta da Regaleira, which was stunning. The little town was adorable, and we grabbed a lovely lunch along one of the many cobblestone roads. The grounds around the castle were sprawling and expansive and the structures were grand and historic. There are so many nooks, crannies, paths, caves, and stone steps that you’ll want to keep a close eye on any little ones. We spent hours roaming and our kids never got bored.
Another notable trip was when we spent a few hours in the adorable Venice-like town of Aveiro on our way to Porto (which we’ll visit next time). There are dozens of colorful river boats lining the canals in Aveiro and you can take your pick. It’s a lovely little cruise up and down the canals where you can view the town, restaurants, homes, and marinas. It was a very relaxing way to spend some time together. There are also a ton of great shops in town, and we had a great time buying souvenirs, sunglasses, and oddities. We also stumbled across a beautiful courtyard where some lovely senior ladies were doing a choreographed dance to festive music while the locals and crowds clapped along. Again, the roads and buildings were so picturesque you’ll find yourselves taking dozens of pictures around every turn.
Let’s wrap this blog up before I can 100% guarantee you won’t read this entire thing. And next time, I’ll see you in Porto! For now, enjoy my top 10 list…
10 things to pack for your Portugal visit:
- Pre exchanged money. If you can, grab some euros from your bank ahead of time. It’s always nice to have some cash on you and the ATM fees are high.
- Comfortable walking shoes. You will be walking…a lot. So don’t be impractical.
- Layers. Warm days and cool evenings will call for layers.
- Sandals/flip flops for the beach that you don’t mind getting sandy or wet.
- Bathing suits.
- Wetsuits, if you plan to do some surfing. The water is cold (but refreshing!).
- Sun hats & face sunscreen. It’s expensive there.
- Travel backpack (water bottles, etc.), you’ll need a nice travel bag and water bottles for the hikes and day trips you’ll want to do.
- Portable games & cards, to enjoy with your family in the evenings.
- Waterproof camera/phone case.