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.
In 2008, I’d visited Lisbon, Portugal with my brother on our way to southern Spain. We explored the lovely, yet unremarkable, capital, then hopped on a bus that traversed the coast before crossing the border. 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’re trying to find that perfect balance: not too far for just one week, good food/wine/weather, beautiful scenery, and relaxing but also just enough exploration that it doesn’t feel like we’re 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. Sunny, not-too-hot days in May before the European tourists descended upon it for the summer season. Seafood, cheese, and wine to our hearts’ content. Small enough to visit multiple locations without spending alldayeveryday in a car. And Portugal is massively inexpensive, not just relative to the rest of Europe, but in absolute terms. The best of Europe, on clearance sale. After some quick Facebook crowdsourcing, we had our itinerary.
Our trip spanned one week in Portugal, flying into Faro and out of Lisbon, but this itinerary could easily be done in reverse, or as a roundtrip in and out of the same airport. We stayed in Albufeira, Lagos, and Sagres in the Algarve and then spent 2 nights in the Portuguese Riviera in Estoril/Cascais. We spent ~ 2 nights in each town. In conclusion, were we to return, 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. We paid ~100 Euro for the week (which includes 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 drove immediately 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. However, 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 most of the week in Lagos and Sagres.
Lagos is a quintessential ancient port city. While its cobblestoned “old town” can be visited in one day (good place for gifts, but otherwise not much), Lagos has great restaurants, bars, and beaches – and with several great resorts and Airbnb options, it’s central enough to unpack there for a few days.
Where to stay: Cascade Wellness and Lifestyle 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: the tapas (black pork and Serpa cheese with pumpkin jam) was something we talked about for weeks afterward.
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.
Where to stay: Memo Baleeira Hotel, incredible location, short walk into town and right on the water. Great views. And inexpensive.
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. Additionally, we went dolphin watching there in a tiny boat w a marine biologist. Dolphins!!!
Where to eat: Eat at Vilha Venha – shrimp in piri piri, drumfish with coriander and garlic. Friends also 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.
The Portuguese Riviera: Estoril, Cascais, and the castles of Sintra
For our final days 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 making them suburbs of the capital, but these coastal towns gained popularity first as the vacation spot for Portuguese royalty in the late 19th century and then as the residences of most royalty-in-exile during WWII. The towns are beautiful – the architecture charmingly 19th century – and the two are connected by 3km beachfront promenade.
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. You won’t know what they’re serving that night until it’s on your plate in front of you, but each dish was better than the one before. 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), it’s worth spending a day in Sintra.
Touring highlights included the Moorish Castle and Pena Palace. Shopping! We found some of our favorite gifts in town. And then we walked around and ate all the foods. 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, there are so many tourists that it is hard to grab a cab outside the main sites of Sintra.
Could not have dreamt up a better first international trip w the boyfriend…which has only served to create a major case of double wanderlust. More trips to follow!