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Road trip along the Coast of Portgual: One Week in the Algarve + Portuguese Riviera

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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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Balkans Road Trip Part 1: Belgrade, Serbia

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Why Belgrade?

It’s not a city known for it’s beauty.  In fact, it is often referred to as one of “Europe’s ugliest capitals.”  But what Belgrade, Serbia lacks in aesthetic, it makes up for in personality.  A city whose most recent history includes its dark role as the capital of former Yugoslavia, Belgrade is one of Europe’s oldest, and most conquered, cities. (Having been settled by Celts and conquered 38 times – by the Romans, Slavs, Byzantines, Frankish Empire, Bulgarian Empire, Ottomans for 500 years, and Hapsburgs.) It was the perfect start to our Balkans Road Trip.

With a handful of delightful pedestrian boulevards (Knez Mihajlova  and the Bohemian Skadarlija in particular) scattered amongst the city’s crumbling Soviet-era cement blocks, Belgrade’s true charm lies in its under-developed tourism (and prices!) and perfectly developed, thriving nightlife.

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With Ari’s Serbian friend Tamara in front of St. Sava church, which has been under construction for 80 years
Remnants from the 1999 NATO Bombing
The iconic Hotel Moskva
The main pedestrian area Knelz Mihailova
Sunset from the public park at the Fortress looking over the Sava and Danube rivers
The famous Victor monument
Knelz Milhailova at night
me & the bro walking around the bohemian Skadarlija street

We arrived for both the largest football match in the city (with riot police lining every street) and the Belgrade marathon (which was drastically different from my favorite day in New York).

What to do in Belgrade:

  • “Walking tour”  There are free walking tours that run daily, or you can do what we did and create your own (click for our map), check out the itinerary below – you can see almost everything in <2 hours.  Best of all, nearly all of Belgrade’s attractions are free (and are local, not tourist, spots)
  • Belgrade Underground – our one paid tourist activity, and glad we did it.  A great (and passive) way to discover the hidden underground places from Belgrade’s 38 times being conquered, including Yugoslavian bunkers, ancient Roman ruins, and Ottoman buried wells. 12 Euro.
  • Serbian Nightlife!  See below – don’t miss it!
Walking through the underground bunkers
Entrance to the Yugoslavian secret bunkers
Looking out from the fortress onto the Danube
Ari in front of the ancient Roman ruins…in what once operated as a club
Military remnants & the military museum
Gov’t buildings at night

Eating, Drinking, and Nightlife in Belgrade:

  • A mix of Eastern European with some Turkish influence, Serbian food is not particularly inspiring.  The highlight was the cheese-filled phyllo dough burek pastries, which we lived on the entire weekend.  Note: Almost all bakeries (pekaras) are closed on Sunday, which we learned the hard way.
  • Nightlife starts late in Belgrade.  Begin with dinner/snacks at 10pm at a kafana traditional tavern.  The best kafanas have live bohemians bands playing Serbian traditional music; increasingly-rowdy tables of guests “order” their favorite sing-alongs.  Make sure to order some rakija, the traditional Serbian brandy shots made from various fruit.  We had apple, pear, plum, and peach, each less palatable than the one before, but all part of the experience.  Reservations for kafanas are required, even if they look empty.
  • Conclude the night with one (or many) of Belgrade’s clubs.  We went to Plastic, which is the most well known in Serbian nightlife.  People don’t start arriving until about midnight; the official party closes at 4 and moves next door to Mint, the after-party club with the same owners.  As the weather warms, people walk from one to the next of the floating clubs along the river, which boast international DJs and impressive parties.  There are no cover fees to enter the clubs, but reservations are required.  Drinks are extremely inexpensive – with Rakija/whiskey costing $2-$4 per drink.  No wonder the nightlife is so impressive!
  • Lastly, I have to mention the homemade wine.  It’s terribly sour…but apparently it’s Serbian custom to mix it with Coca Cola, which forms a saccharine drink they call “bamboo.”  Don’t ask.
The band serenading patrons in the smoke filled kafana
#untzuntz at Plastic
#letustakeaselfie at the club
Sour homemade wine + Coca Cola = bamboo?

Where to stay

  • Luxe: Located in the heart of the old town, Belgrade’s beautifully designed Square Nine Hotel is an award-winning boutique hotel. Price tag ~ $230/night.
  • Budget: At $54/night, our AirBNB rental a few minutes walk from the city center cannot be beat for budget travelers.

Our (approximate) walking tour


1. Tasmajdan park and Church St Marko
2. National Parlament 
3. Terazije Street (with the iconic Hotel Moskva)
4. Trg Republike
5. Skadarlija  – great Kafanas!
7. Studenski Trg 
8. Knez Mihajlova – the main pedestrian thoroughfare 
9. KALEMEGDAN FORTESS – go for sunset, you’ll be glad you did! 
10. Belgrade Port 

For More Balkans Road Trip Inspo:

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