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  • Jennifer

Portugal: From Algarve Beaches to Douro Valley Vineyards, and the Cities In between

On our road trip through Spain, we took advantage of the opportunity to take a detour and visit a country we had heard so much about: Portugal. For our month in Portugal, we started at the southernmost tip of the country and worked our way along the coast to the Douro Valley in the north, stopping at cities and towns along the way.

The Algarve, Portugal

Our Portuguese experience began in the Algarve, a region known for its stunning beaches, clear water, and whitewashed fishing villages along the cliffs. We arrived the first week of September and the weather was perfect, all sun, blue skies, and 80-degree days!

We stayed in an Airbnb in the town of Carvoeiro, a picturesque and traditional Portuguese resort town where we could walk everywhere and see stunning views as we walked along the sandstone sea cliffs.

At the end of the day, our rooftop deck was the perfect place to watch the sunset and enjoy some local wine while we planned the next day's activities, which pretty much included great seafood, pristine beaches, and lots of local nature (there's a coastal walk between Carvoeiro and Praia da Marinha (Marinha beach), it's 12km but the views are vast and amazing as you walk along the cliffs). You can even see the lighthouse along the way!

Speaking of beaches, there are plenty to visit here, and they are all pretty darn perfect. Marinha beach is postcard material, with stone arches and jewel-colored water. Other beaches include Carvalho beach, Vale de Centeanes beach, Vale de Covo beach, Praia do Paraiso, and Praia do Carvoeiro (which is right in town, and you can rent beach lounges for a good day of beach reading, which is exactly what we did). Just pick a beach, you can't go wrong!

We decided to take a boat tour one day to get a view of the coast from the was a trip we won't forget. As soon as we left the beach a huge storm with wild winds and rain came in and the entire boat ride included us hanging on for our lives as our boat was tossed around helplessly. Every wave crashed over the bow and drenched us again and again! Of course, as soon as we returned to the beach, the sun came out and it was as if it never happened, except for our soaking wet clothes. So, we didn't get the beautiful views of the coastline that we were after, but we did get to appreciate dry land again!

One afternoon we decided to visit Quinta dos Santos vineyard, a short drive from town. With three hectares of vines and one hectare of olive trees planted amongst almond and carob trees, we quickly decided to do more here than just enjoy the wine. Although we went for the vineyard, we stayed for the food! The outdoor seating with a beautiful view of the vines in the background was all we needed to decide to have dinner here. The tuna tartare and brandy flambéed prawns finished with a homemade seafood bisque were delicious, but it was the dessertport wine cheesecake with almond crumble and berries—that sealed the deal. Spending time here is a must-do!

We were on the coast, so seafood was definitely on our minds. And everyone we spoke to told us we just had to go to the town of Silves for dinner at Marisqueira Rui. So, we got in the car and drove 20 minutes to see what all the hype was about. We were glad we made a reservation because the line of people waiting for a table was out the door and around the block! Although this place is in demand, it's informal and relaxed with kids running around and large tables of families. There was no shortage of seafood here, with a menu that had everything from prawns and spider crabs to clams and lobster and everything in between. We even saw the strangest thing that Joe just had to try...barnacles!! They looked like little shellfish knuckles. For dessert we tried the molotof, a traditional Portuguese dessert that is made with egg whites, sugar, vanilla, and topped with a caramel sauce. Interesting, but not something we'd order again. All in all, great fish and a taste of some local character!

The Algarve is definitely about rest and relaxation (and food), and after our week here we were excited to change the pace. So, we jumped in the car and left our tiny seaside town for a week in the capital city of Lisbon!

Lisbon, Portugal

Our week in Lisbon was definitely a change from the laid-back beaches of the Algarve. Right away, we were bombarded by the sounds, sights, and smells of the big city (which, in this case, means trolleys on the street, beautiful Portuguese architecture and art, seafood and sweets). Our apartment was in Baixa, Lisbon's historic heart and a great location to visit the sites. Praça do Comércio, Lisbon's most important square was a short walk away, and there were so many restaurants we knew we'd never go hungry.

Of course, we had to take a ride on the storied (It's in all the guidebooks) and historic #28 tram that takes you through the districts of Alfama, Baixa, Estrela, and Graca. Well, that was a half day of our lives we will never get back!! We would not ever do this again, or, if we did, we'd hop off instead of doing the entire route. The line of tourists waiting to board was vast, it was super long, and not super interesting. Live and learn in Lisbon!

While this is the perfect strolling city, with lovely buildings, pedestrian-only streets to leisurely walk, and cafes tempting us to stop and have a bite to eat, there was also a ton we wanted to see, so we got right to it!

The tram is absolutely the best way to get around the city and it's a very easy system to navigate. The hills in Lisbon can be daunting if you're not a walker, so the trolleys are a great option.

It was very easy to take the tram to see Belém Tower (the Tower of Saint Vincent), a 16th-century fortification that seems to float in the water of the Tagus River. After exploring the tower, we continued walking along the water and enjoyed a delicious taco at a little stand beside the Monument of the Discoveries. This huge monument is 56 meters tall and includes 33 figures that represent the prow of a sailing ship, a design intended to commemorate Portuguese explorers.

From there we continued walking to the Monastery of Jerónimos, which is gorgeous and absolutely worth strolling through. Built in the early 1500s, it was constructed near the launch point for Vasco de Gama's first journey, and, when he died, da Gama's remains were moved here. There isn't much to see here except the beautiful architecture, but it is a wonderful spot to visit, especially the two-story cloister (more interesting than the church). It was designated a UNESCO World heritage Site in 1983.

On the walk back to Baixa we passed right by Pastéis de Belém, renowned for their Portuguese pastel de nata, or “cream pastry,” which is an egg tart. This bakery claims to be the inventor of this sweet treat, following an ancient recipe from Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, so we had to stop in and have one (or four), and basically it tastes like a custard tart. There was a long line, but it moved pretty quickly, so if you're in the neighborhood, or visiting Monastery of Jerónimos just down the street, it's worth stopping in to taste this sweet.

Visiting the São Jorge Castle in Lisbon provides a great view of the city and the river, and while we opted to walk there, you can also take a tram. There are also great cafes up top, so it's a great spot to grab lunch while visiting.

The castle dates back to the 8th century BC, with the oldest fortifications on the site dating back to the 2nd century BC. The hill's fortifications have a rich history, and were occupied by everyone from the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Romans to the Moors, before its final conquest by the Portuguese in 1147. While it's basically just a stone fortress, the views of Lisbon below are wonderful and there are even some colorful peacocks wandering around. Definitely worth the trip up there.

Did we mention Lisbon is a very hilly town? It really is, which is why the Santa Justa Lift exists. Basically, it's an elevator that takes you between the Baixa district and the Bairro Alto, but it was designed by a student of Gustave Eiffel so it's a pretty big tourist attraction.

To be honest, though, it's functional but not that exciting. We didn't feel like waiting in line to experience what is, basically, an elevator, so we passed on this.

Absolutely one of the most brilliant things we did in Lisbon was attend a fado concert at a tiny little out of the way restaurant. After a traditional Portuguese meal, the restaurant closed its doors and created a little stage where we listened to fado songs sung by two performers who were accompanied by guitarists. If you've never heard fado, it is incredibly soulful, almost painful, as singers belt out mournful tunes and lyrics about the sea or life of the poor - it's melancholy but beautiful. We also heard fado sung from a balcony one night as we were eating dinner down below, it was like something out of a movie, just a singer accompanied by a guitar on a balcony above us. Very cool.

Finally, we had to visit the Palace of Pena, the crazy colorful castle on the outskirts of Lisbon. We took a quick 40-minute train ride to Sintra to explore this turreted, circus-looking castle that is a must-do. Make sure to get tickets ahead of time for the palace, this place was packed!

While we knew what to expect from the castle, one of the seven wonders of Portugal, we didn't expect the incredible Castle of the Moors just a ten-minute walk from the palace. This was definitely worth the price of admission (10) to walk the walls and get spectacular views all the way out to the ocean. It was so much fun climbing up, up, up this medieval fortress, we could even say that we enjoyed the Castle of the Moors better than the palace, which is basically just a tour of a home (and a very crowded one at that). Walking the gardens on our way back to Sintra was a nice way to get away from the crowds. While you really have to see this completely unique place, it was a one-and-done experience for us.

With Sintra under our belt, we felt like we'd done everything we set out to do in Lisbon. Now it was time to make our way up the coast to Porto and the Douro Valley, with a quick stop in Nazaré and Coimbra.

Nazaré and Coimbra, Portugal

We had a three-hour drive from Lisbon to Porto, so we decided to break up the ride with stops in Nazaré and Coimbra. You probably know the little seaside fishing town of Nazaré without even realizing it. Ever seen those monstrous 70-feet-high surfing waves that look like sure death? That's Nazaré, where, in 2020, German Sebastian Steudtner broke the world record for the biggest wave ever surfed - a behemoth 86-foot-tall wave!

What makes Nazaré a surfer's dream? A deep, underwater canyon (the largest in Europe) intensifies the swell and creates mammoth peaks that attract surfers from all over the world. When we were there, however, it wasn't prime surf time (that's October to March). The beach was lovely, though, and we got to enjoy a great seafood lunch before continuing on to Coimbra.

Coimbra, formerly Portugal's capital, is known for its medieval old town and the historic University of Coimbra. This riverfront city is a great stopover on your Portugal road trip, but for us it will always be the place Joe learned that, when it comes to banging a U-turn, you don't mess with the Coimbra police! He was promptly pulled over, asked for his passport (which was in our hotel room), then was told to wait in the car. Soon four policia officers emerged from the car and ordered him to follow them to the police station. Uh-oh. What awaited him there? Immigration officers? A jail cell? Thankfully, he was greeted by a processing station to immediately extract payment of traffic fines. It was all very organized and professional, with the conclusion being an officer-escorted walk to the ATM conveniently located just a short stroll away from the station. The fine was paid, and a lesson learned. See ya, Coimbra!

Porto, Portugal

Everyone is raving about Porto, so we were interested to see if this city lived up to our expectations.

Porto is the hub of northern Portugal and is half the size of Lisbon, which may be why it still retains an old-world charm. The Douro River runs through the city, with the Ribeira quarter (riverfront) on one side and Vila Nova de Gaia on the other. The architecture is lovely, with colorful tiled buildings perched on hills throughout the city. Like Lisbon, this is a city of lots of ups and downs, so you'll get a workout!

Clérigos Tower is Porto's big thing, so that's where we started, with a climb up the 225 steps to the top (even though, after almost two years of traveling and more towers than we can count, we've pretty much had our fill of climbing the stairs in these sort of monuments).

Still, the panoramic view of Porto was worth it! Even if it's not as exciting as this green screen photo makes it look.

The coolest thing about visiting the tower was the temporary art exhibit in the gallery there by an artist who takes ocean plastic and transforms it into art. It was both incredibly sad to see all the plastic removed from the water, and also quite amazing how the artist turns trash into art. The exhibit alone made it worth the visit to Clérigos.

We headed down to the Ribeira quarter, which was alive with music and people. Porto has tons of street musicians playing all over, so we always enjoyed live music during our al fresco meals - everything from cellos, guitars, and violins to full on five-piece bands!

We crossed over the D. Luís I Bridge to the Vila Nova de Gaia side to explore the port-wine lodges, where you can get a history lesson about port, do a tour, and taste the best ruby, tawny, and white ports around.

What is port, you ask? It's fortified wine, which means that brandy is added to the wine before it has completed the fermentation process. This stops the fermentation, leaving a sweet finish while bolstering the alcohol content. If you've never had it, or don't think you like it, this is the place to change your mind! We spent an afternoon visiting several port lodges, including Sandeman (probably the most famous), Calém, Burmester, and Quinta do Bom Dia, our favorite. Choose the type of experience you want, there are so many, from hands-off tastings to immersive tours. Fortunately, all of the lodges are in the same area, and you can just hop from one to another if you don't find the right one for you.

One of the most famous bookstores in the world is in Porto, Livraria Lello. As a lover of bookstores this was on our list to check out, it's supposed to be gorgeous inside. But an hour-long line to visit a bookstore and 8 admission tickets? No thanks! Still, if bookstores are your thing, go!

We took a boat ride down the Douro River to view the six bridges that cross over the river. We love a good boat ride, so we were looking forward to this, but it really wasn't that great. It was nice to see the city from the water but other than that, the trip is pretty much uneventful, and we'd already seen the bridges from land. In hindsight, we'd probably skip this.

We were celebrating our anniversary in Porto and wanted dinner with a spectacular view, which is how we ended up on the rooftop of Torreao. The sunset over the river was spectacular and dinner was delicious, so we got exactly what we hoped for.

Porto is one of those cities you are meant to stroll and discover, from little restaurants tucked away down small streets, to colorful buildings that seem like a work of art. No pressure here to visit museums, the entire city is a work of art!

After our week in Porto, it was time to leave the river in the city and follow it to the Douro Valley for some time among the vines!

Douro Valley, Portugal

Hands down, our favorite time in Portugal was spent in the Douro Valley, a region named for the meandering Douro River and the steep terraced hillsides it winds through. The Douro Valley is the birthplace of port wine and is demarcated as the only place in the world that can legally produce this wine - it's been produced here for more than 2,000 years!

We stayed at the Lamego Hotel & Life in the town of Lamego, which was a perfect central location to visit vineyards in the area (and to enjoy the pool and incredible views of the hills when we weren't visiting the vineyards).

With more than 80 wineries to choose from, there's no shortage of places to visit for a tasting. That said, there isn't a lot going on here, so if you're not a fan of wine you'll just have to enjoy the gorgeous scenery. You don't come here to rush around, it's all about basking in the sun-dappled hills and surrounding nature. With so many vineyards to choose from, we picked three that were vastly different from one another, starting with Quinta dos Murcas. We earned our visit here by traversing a winding, steep (and super narrow with some white-knuckled driving) road along the Douro River until we finally came upon the vineyard hugging the side of the mountain.

This was a private tour and tasting led by a wonderfully knowledgeable host, Silvia, who took us through the facilities, past bunches of grapes and machines, and, finally, into a large area where we found a group of men thigh-deep in grape juice! Yes, it was a little disconcerting to think about the hygiene of the whole thing, but we just put that aside.

We couldn't believe they were actually stomping grapes with their feet, and when I jokingly asked if we could join them, they said, sure! And that's how we found ourselves covered in grape juice with grape pulp and skins between our toes. It was amazing!!! After our host hosed us off, we proceed to our tasting on the terrace overlooking the river. We had the entire place to ourselves! What a great way to start our visit to the valley!

After our tasting we were hungry, so on the way to our next vineyard (way up on top of a hill, which, again, meant winding, narrow roads) we stopped at a little town for a bite to eat - basically it was that or starve, the pickings were slim. We were the only English-speaking people at a tiny cafe in a one cafe town that pretty much offered one option: ham, ham, and more ham. So, that was lunch!

Then it was on to our next stop, Quinta Seara d'Ordens. This time we were seated around a table with six other people for our tasting, so it was fun hearing where everyone was from and what they were seeing on their travels. This family-owned vineyard is more than 200 years old and is surrounded by rolling fields of farmland with incredible views, our tasting even included olive oil from the trees on the farm, which was fantastic.

At the last vineyard, Quinta da Portela de Baixo, our host Beatriz showed us true hospitality. With every glass of wine, we enjoyed local cheese and bread, all while looking out at the valley below. It was just the three of us, and it felt like sharing a bottle of wine with a friend. Chatting with Beatriz, enjoying the friendly cats who came to say hello, and experiencing fabulous wine was enough to make us never want to leave!

There are so many vineyards to choose from when visiting the Douro, and we felt really fortunate to pick three such welcoming, and different, experiences. We'd highly recommend all of them! There is wonderful dining in the Douro Valley and we had every intention of availing ourselves of the food, but (full disclosure) by the time we'd return back to our hotel after a day of tastings, we just wanted to sit on the terrace of our hotel or relax in the spa, so we never ventured out - we even ordered in pizza one night and just sat in the hotel lounge enjoying even more local wine.

Just 60 miles from Porto, spending time in the Douro Valley feels like a different world - one that we would love to visit again and again. Our time here was a wonderful way to cap off our Portugal adventure. From here we were heading back to Spain for a few nights in Salamanca and Toledo, but our time in Portugal was so varied and enjoyable we finally understood why everyone raves about this country. We left with some bottles of wine, a case of port that we shipped back to the US to enjoy in the future, and memories that will last way longer than either the wine or port!

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Enjoy a taste of our travels with drink recipes on Instagram - Worldwide.Cocktails.

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