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An indulgent week of wine, cheese, fresh seafood, and coastline, at clearance sale prices…and only a short flight from the US.  Sound like a dream vacation?  Read on for our itinerary for a road trip through Portugal.

Ponta de Piedad, Lagos

The Inspiration

In 2008, I’d visited Lisbon, Portugal with my brother on our way to southern Spain.  After exploring the lovely, yet unremarkable, capital, we traversed the coast by bus, eventually crossing the border into Spain.  The views were breathtaking.  Watching the sun set from the bus window, I promised myself I’d return to explore the Algarve coastline.

Fast forward 9 years: Boyfriend and I are brainstorming week-long vacation locations.  We were attempting the impossible:

  • not too far for just one week
  • good food/wine/weather
  • beautiful scenery
  • A balance a relaxing and refreshing: so as not to feel as if we were just going down a Fodor’s checklist. 
  • Oh, and our first international vacation together.  Ante upped.

I offered up the idea of a road trip through Portugal. 

  • Quick, inexpensive flights from NYC. Check.
  • Sunny, not-too-hot days in May. Check.
  • Avoid the summer season descent of European tourists.  Check.
  • Seafood, cheese, and wine to our hearts’ content. Check.
  •  Small enough to visit multiple locations without spending alldayeveryday in a car.  Check
  • Oh, and Portugal is seriously inexpensive. The best of Europe, on clearance sale. 

After some quick Facebook crowdsourcing, we had our itinerary.

The Itinerary

Our road trip spanned one week in Portugal, flying into Faro and out of Lisbon; this itinerary could easily be done in reverse, or as a roundtrip in and out of the same airport.   In the Alrgarve, we stayed in Albufeira, Lagos, and Sagres; we finished our trip with two nights in the Portuguese Riviera (Estoril/Cascais). We spent ~ 2 nights in each town.  If we were to do this again, we would spend more nights in our favorite towns and just add in day trips to other places – which is what I’ll recommend below.

PRO TIP: If you know how to drive a manual car, rent that for your road trip.  We paid ~100 Euro for the week (which included the “one-way fee”), instead of 4x that for an automatic car.  If you don’t know how to drive stick shift: learn.  For Portugal and for life. And if you don’t know how to navigate a roundabout…don’t worry you’ll get plenty of practice on this trip.

Cliff Beaches: Albufeira, Portimao, Praia de Rocha, Falesia

We flew into Faro and began our Portugal road trip with a quick drive to Albufeira, ~45 minutes away from the airport. Albufeira served as our base for our first few days to explore the cute fishing village of Portimao, the beach resorts of Praia de Rocha, and the dramatic “Cliff” beaches of Falesia. We would recommend driving the extra hour on day one and base-camping in Lagos.  All of the sights can be visited as quick day trips from there.  Must: eat at Os Arcos in Portimao.  You’ll need a reservation.  And you’ll need to get the seabass and the garlic shrimp.  You can thank us later.

Our recommendation:  Spend the majority of your Portugal road trip in Lagos and Sagres as your base-camps and take day trips from there East/West.

Lagos

 Lagos is a quintessential ancient port city with a small, cobblestoned “old town,” which is great for gift-buying. Lagos’s central location, great restaurants, bars, beaches and abundance of resorts & Airbnb options make it a perfect base-camp for your Portgual road trip.

Where to stay: Cascade Wellness Resort.  Out of the center of town (quick drive), beautiful pools and great food. Or – lots of great Airbnb options for houses with pools!

What to do: DO NOT MISS: sunset at Ponta de Piedade.  Rent bikes from Praia Dona Anna and bike to Ponta de Piedade, which we would’ve done with more time.  Go on a boat and explore the caves (we did this elsewhere).

Where to eat: Get the fish of the day at Dom Sebastiao, which is an old-school restaurant in town. At Cascade: order the tapas (black pork and Serpa cheese with pumpkin jam); we’ve talked about this dish for years.

Sagres

Sagres, sits on the end of the continent.  At the tip of the continent of Europe, surrounded by sawgrass, is the tiny Portuguese surfer village of Sagres.  It feels like the end of the earth in the most delightful way.  A real highlight of Portugal and our road trip.

Where to stay: Memmo Baleeira Hotel, incredible location, short walk into town and right on the water.  Great views.  Value pricing.

What to do: Spend part of the day at Cape St. Vincent, aka end of the continent. Watching the waves crash against the giant cliffs is simply breathtaking. Did I mention we took a tiny boat + a marine biologist for dolphin watching. Dolphins!!!

Where to eat: Eat at Vilha Venha – shrimp in piri piri, drumfish with coriander and garlic. Our friends have raved about Carlos, which is across the street.   Our personal favorite: the local grocery store, which had insanely good wine and cheese; we bought some and climbed the hill next to the hotel – which overlooks the port – to watch sunset there.  According to our hotel’s concierge, the views are just as good as those from the fort (which we skipped).  It did not disappoint.

End of the Continent, views from Cape St. Vincent, Sagres
Dophin cruiser!

The Portuguese Riviera: Estoril, Cascais, and the castles of Sintra

For the final days of our road trip in Portugal, we drove up the coast and explored the Portuguese Riveria resort towns of Estoril and Cascais and the UNESCO world heritage center of Sintra. 

Estoril and Cascais are located about 25 minutes outside Lisbon. Technically, this makes them suburbs of the capital. These coastal towns first gained popularity in the late 19th century as vacation spots for Portuguese royalty; during WWII, they became the residences of European royalty-in-exile.  The towns are beautiful – the architecture charmingly 19th century – and the two are connected by 3km beachfront promenade.

Walking along the promenade that connects Estoril & Cascais

What to eat: try a pastil de nata custard pastry (we had several!).  MUST: Get reservations at Conceito Food Store, one of the best meals we had in Portugal.  It’s a creative, curated tasting menu and experience, based on Portuguese cuisine. Epic meal.  Advanced reservations are a must.

If you have friends who have visited Portugal, chances are you’ve seen photos of Sintra.  Known for its Romantic architecture, photos of places like the multi-colored cake-topper known as Pena Palace have been the constant subject of Instagram photos.  Located in the Sintra Mountains/Sintra-Cascais Nature Park, a winding 20-minute drive from Estoril/Cascais (car sickness is essentially guaranteed), Sintra should be a must on your road trip itinerary.

Touring highlights included the Moorish Castle and Pena Palace. Shopping! We found some of our favorite gifts in Sintra.  We shopped and we walked and we ate. Recommendations include Cantinho Gourmet (16 euro for a to-die-for cheese and meat board, see photo!), chocolate shot glasses filled with sour cherry liqueur (found in every chocolate shop in town) and Port tasting in the wine store across from the Nacional Palace.

Pro tip: hire a driver for the day; Sintra is packed with tourists, making it hard to grab a cab outside the main sites

Could not have dreamt up a better itinerary for the first international trip w the boyfriend…which has only served to create a major case of double wanderlust.  More trips and itineraries to follow!

For other European Road Trip Ideas, check out our Balkan Road Trip through Belgrade (Serbia), Sarajevo (Bosnia), Mostar (Herzegovina), and Montenegro.

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