Portuguese Vacation Travel Tips

Last week, I spent eight days in Portugal. I had only spent a weekend in Lisbon prior, which ended up consisting of a bus ride for more time than spent in the actual city. Upon departure, I knew there were many things I’d missed out on and needed to come back to experience it in full. Miraculously, I managed to convince my dad to meet me there for a week and explore the coast.

Our plan was to meet in Lisbon from the jump. Being the largest city in Portugal and (more or less) centrally located, Lisbon serves as a great starting point. Initially we were toying around the idea of wanting to explore north of Lisbon or south, both having very different things to offer. The deciding factor was when a family friend of ours warned us of the flood of tourists in southern Portugal. Being home to some of the most picturesque beaches (so I’ve been told) this wasn’t a surprise to me, but I was still a little bummed. My dad and I prefer to get off the beaten path while traveling, so the decision was set.

We wound up with this itinerary:

3 nights in Lisbon with a day trip to Sintra, 2 nights in Porto with a day trip to Duoro, and 2 nights in Vigo (Galicia, Spain) with a day trip to Cies Island. Here are some notes about each individual place.

Lisbon:

        Being the biggest tourist destination in the country, there are definitely some parts of Lisbon heaving with cameras and foreigners. Some might feel like the charm is lost, but I beg to differ- although I really despise being approached by venders. The key to escaping the crowds is impressively simple in Lisbon: go one street over. There’s a complete shift in energy when you leave one of the main streets in the city centre and distance yourself from tourist traps. The shift is really distinct. The streets get quieter, you find yourself surrounded by locals, and it’s as if you’ve entered a different city.

Every since I left, I’ve been dreaming about the food in Lisbon. Portuguese food is in its own category of awesomeness. From the rich flavors to the fresh seafood, ugh- I’m too hungry right now to be writing about it. I highly recommend trying the bacalau, also known as codfish. It’s a Portuguese staple, though ironically is one of the only fish on every menu not caught off the shores of Portugal. Apparently the Portuguese became well known for their codfish because of the creative way they cook it, typically in shredded form. Might I recommend the codfish cakes!

Fresh lobster in Lisbon, Portugal

Sintra is definitely worth the visit, though I suggest you either commit to learning about all that it has to offer or the latter. Because we only spent a few hours in Sintra, we didn’t get a chance to delve into the history of the medieval castles. So in short, Sintra was a fantastic photo opportunity, but the Pena Palace was a bit crowded for my liking. However, it’s definitely worth the visit for the panoramic views. I met a couple friends who toured the Moorish Castle and raved about the experience. Although I didn’t do it firsthand, if I ever go back, that’s definitely on my list. Also, try the chocolate liqueur shots in Sintra! Very, very, very tasty. And the perfect recipe for a hangover.

Porto:

            Ah, Porto. My only regret on this trip is not spending enough time here. However, I wouldn’t have known where else to sacrifice time because every place we explored was truly that enjoyable. Porto has a similar vibe to Lisbon, but is a little more spread out and in my experience, hippie-dippy (which is an awesome bonus in my book). On the day that we got a chance to walk around Porto, we made our way to this eclectic antique market and bar. There are few things I enjoy more in than thrifting, so you can imagine how excited I was to find this place. If you like vintage treasures, I highly recommend! Our navigation took us down these winding roads off the beaten path and that was half the fun; once again, escaping the influx of tourists and souvenir shops. For food in Porto, we stumbled upon this delicious tapas bar ran by a single man. At first, we were deterred because the place was desolate, but the owner was friendly and soccer was playing on the tv, so we took our seats. It was here that I drank the best sangria (or three) of my life, and tasted every local (heart-attack-ensuing) Portuguese dish. If you're looking for genuine Portuguese food, walk down a random street and find a hole in the wall restaurant. This technique is infallibly authentic.

Here’s another thing about traveling in Portugal, and advice that my dad read online before. On your Portuguese vacation, you cannot diet. The food is too deliciously cheesy and flavored to think twice about what exactly it’s made of. Being a health nut myself, this was a little easier said than done at times, but well worth every calorie.

Did you know port wine is not actually from Porto? Because I definitely didn’t. It’s from Duoro Valley, this stunningly beautiful array of vineyards an hour and a half east of Porto. We did a wine-tasting day trip, and I would recommend looking into one if it works within your budget. Port wine is always a good call, especially paired with dark chocolate or cheese.

Beautiful Duoro Valley

Vigo:

       Although we ventured out of Portugal for this last destination, I need to let you in on it. Vigo is a hidden gem in a Galicia, Spain. Only a couple hours north of Porto, this was a perfect alternative to some of the crowded beaches of southern Portugal, since I just needed to get my beach time. We visited the Playa de Vao, which was nuzzled nicely in a crevice between the city and countryside. The water was excruciatingly blue, the view was beautiful, and it wasn't overcrowded even on a weekend. The city of Vigo is a little bit quiet but refreshingly non-touristy, with fantastic restaurants and fresh seafood galore. I've lived in Spain for the last few months and I'm a total sucker for Spanish tapas, and Vigo did not disappoint.

But the best part about Vigo is its easy access to the Galician Islands, which I didn't even know existed beforehand. Trust me when I tell you... go here, and go now. Cies Island had some of the most beautiful and impressive beaches I've seen in my life. Also trust me when I say I'm a fairly critical beach-goer. I'll let you in on some of the reasons Cies is so incredible. The circumference of the island is within walking distance, so you can imagine it might get pretty packed. Right? Wrong. The ferries only allow 2200 people on the island per day, which makes for a charming and annoyance-free day at the beach (aside from crying kids, but that's inescapable.) Cies Island is also a natural reserve and it definitely shows. The island is in pristine condition, with absolutely no development aside from two restaurants, an outhouse, and a lighthouse. It's truly a natural beauty. There is a hike to the lighthouse marked at 3.5 km, and for some reason it's ranked as "moderate" online. Don't let this deter you from hiking it, as it is actually very mild. This hike gave way to some breathtaking panoramic views and is something that should not be missed. 

Little ol' me in front of one of the many panoramic views from the lighthouse hike on Cies Island

Little ol' me in front of one of the many panoramic views from the lighthouse hike on Cies Island

Needless to say, this was a fantastic trip filled to the brim with activities and new experiences. I highly recommend considering this route because I truly felt like we received every facet of Portugal, even with a little bit of Spain thrown into the mix. We experienced the pulse of Lisbon, the dynamism of Porto, and the beautiful white sand beaches of Galicia. Altogether, there isn't anything I would have changed and am already looking forward to the next time I'll be back.

With light and love,

KASEY