This one-week guide offers a well-rounded experience across Portugal, including visits to historical and cultural sights, popular food hotspots, jaw-dropping beaches and amazing nightlife!
EuropePortugal7 days / September 2019
Highs & Lows
Kayaking through secret caves in Lagos!
Porto's weather is known to be cold and rainy. In fact, it rained for most days I was there.
Portugal has seen a massive boom in tourism over the past couple of years and for very good reason!! It's a country that caters to all - from rich history, delicious cuisine, to some very impressive architecture! But it also boasts a warm climate year-round and its geographic position along the Atlantic coastline makes it a popular destination for both nature and water sport lovers.
Personally, Portugal holds a special place in my heart. I visited in the fall of 2019 and it was my first ever solo-travel experience. I visited for just over a month, which allowed me to indulge in a slow-travel lifestyle - where I relished living in Lisbon for some time until later moving on to the south and then all the way up to the country's northern region.
The beauty of Portugal is that it is relatively small in size, making it very easy to move around and experience as much in as little time as possible.
This guide comprises of a thorough one-week guide to Portugal; covering the top cities and attractions from top to bottom. Destinations for visiting include Lisbon, a day-trip to Sintra, Algarve's town of Lagos and the northern city of Porto.
Lisbon is arguably the most visited city in Portugal. It is typically where most people fly in and fly out of due to its central location. It's also a very thriving city with much going on at all times. The best way to see it in my opinion is by neighbourhood, as each has a distinct vibe and feel to it.
Alfama: The city's oldest district. It's home to plenty of historical attractions, but perhaps most well-known for its labyrinth-style alleyways and endless maze of stairs. It's also the city's go-to spot for a traditional Portuguese experience, most notably for classic Fado dining.
Baixa/Chiado: Two neighbouring districts on the lower part of Lisbon (Baixa means 'low' as Lisbon is a very hilly city). These two neighbourhoods are known for their shopping, cafes and restaurants and are extremely popular with tourists.
Bairro Alto: Neighbouring Baixa and Chiado, just at the top of the city. Bairro Alto literally translates to 'high neighbourhood' for its location. It's most well-known for its party and nightlife, however still offers plenty of sightseeing to do during the day.
Belem: Many of Portugal's most iconic monuments live in Lisbon's west-end district of Belem. There is plenty of history to explore in the area and is definitely not to be missed!
Things to do:
Saint George Castle - Popular for its distinct Moorish architecture and offers a 360-degree view of the city.
Praça do Comercio - Lisbon’s most iconic bright yellow square overlooking the Tagus River.
Rua Augusta Arch - Lisbon's famous triumphal arch. It connects Praça do Comercio with Lisbon's famous pedestrian street, Rua Augusta. Take a stroll, grab a coffee and pastries in one of the many street patios and get your shopping on!
Santa Justa Lift - Lisbon’s impressive 47-meter-tall vertical elevator. It offers a great perspective of the city from above!
Jerónimos Monastery - One of the most intricate and decorative buildings I've ever seen!! This giant monastery looks like something straight out of a Harry Potter film! It's also an official UNESCO World Heritage Site!
Belem Tower - Lisbon’s most iconic building and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site! It's a fantastic spot for photography lovers and also offers great views of the city and Tagus River if you wish to climb up!
Take the tram - Take a ride in Lisbon's iconic yellow trams! It's a great way of getting around the hilly city while offering some spectacular views. The most scenic route recommended to take is the 28 E, which passes through various neighbourhoods, including Alfama, Baixa, Chiado and Bairro Alto!
Pink Street - This is Lisbon's most famous party street, filled with lots of bars, clubs and party-goers! However, if partying is not your taste, this pretty pink street is still worth visiting during the day and makes for a great Instagram spot for picture-taking!
Visit Lisbon's famous flea market - Alfama’s Feira de Ladra is the city's oldest and most popular market. It's a great spot for shopping lovers and bargain dealers alike! You can find literally anything here from ornate antiques, Portugal's famous blue-tiled azulejos, to jewellery, art, and second-hand gems! The market is open every Tuesday and Saturday.
Traditional Fado + dining - Most typical of Alfama is the classic Fado dining experience. This encompasses an intimate dinner at a restaurant while being serenaded by a live Fado artist. Fado is Portugal's traditional folk genre of music that is often considered heartfelt and emotional and makes for a unique dining experience like no other! Make sure to try some of Portugal's most famous dishes, like sardines, bacalhau, or Piri Piri chicken!
A taste of the original pastel de nata - A MUST on every foodie’s bucket list should be visiting the one and only… Antiga Confeitaria de Belém! This is the original place of the famous national delicacy- the pastel de nata. Arrive early and ideally during the week to avoid major crowds and line-ups!
Indulge at Time Out Market Lisboa - Time Out Market Lisboa is a modern-concept food hall of over 55 restaurants that create for a unique dining experience and is made up of some of the world's leading chefs! This was personally one of the best highlights from my Lisbon experience... so much so, that I came back not twice, but a total of three times because it was just that good!
Probably one of my biggest highlights of my Portuguese trip was visiting Sintra, a beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site and town. Exploring here felt like escaping reality and landing inside of a fairytale book, surrounded by majestic palaces, castles and monasteries, as well as some of the most picturesque gardens I've ever seen! At only 25 km away from Lisbon, this charming town makes for the perfect day-trip! If you only have a few short days in Portugal, do make sure to squeeze this in - it's worth every second!
How to get there:
Although Sintra is accessible by car, I recommend opting for other options first. This is because the town is pretty small and very, very touristy!!! There isn't much parking space and what little there is, quickly gets packed early in the morning and becomes a nightmare getting around, especially during the summer months. The best way is to take the railway train from Lisbon's Rossio station! It's roughly a quick half-hour ride and leaves you right in town. From there, you can walk to many of the attractions or you can opt to take the popular shuttle buses for further locations. Plus, the train ride is super pocket-friendly at less than 5 Euros round-trip!
This is a list of my personal must-see attractions that are do-able in one day:
Pena Palace - An impressively colourful former monastery. Its iconic bright yellow, red and blue azujelo-tiled facades make it one of the most popular tourist spots in town. For this reason, I recommend starting your day here! Also, lines are super long! I went during off season and still waited nearly an hour to get in!
Moorish Castle OR Monserrate Palace - Moorish Castle is right beside Pena Palace, which can be convenient, while Monserrate Palace is further removed. I recommend choosing which best appeals to your interests.
Moorish Castle is a beautiful national monument and former military fortification. Its ruins can be visited today and offers great lookout points of the surrounding panorama. However, it is very, very similar to Lisbon's Saint George Castle, so with this in mind, I'd personally skip from visiting inside, as I think it's best appreciated from afar. Also, although Moorish Castle is more popular, I've listed it as an option to choose from, because I personally think Monserrate is a beautiful hidden gem that many sleep on.
Monserrate Palace is a stunning architectural building that has surprisingly managed to keep a relatively low profile away from all the tourist crowds. Its Arabian design and intricate botanical gardens atop of the Serra de Sintra hills make this place a top hidden gem!
Quinta da Regaleira - A magical sight to see! This impressive estate consists of a highly elaborate neo-gothic palace and chapel. However, this place is most popular for its majestic gardens. Through our walk, we saw plenty of beautiful greenery, grottoes and hidden caves, and a secret spiral stairway leading into a giant well! If you believe in a mystic fantasy world, then this is the place for you, as it's said to be inhabited by mystical creatures, fairies and gnomes! It's also a UNESCO World Heritage Site!
The Algarve is a destination like no other. This region makes up the south of Portugal and is unique in its landscape, known for its stunning coastline and impressive cliff sides. One town most particularly known for this is Lagos. It's home to some of Portugal's most famous beaches and is also a fantastic destination for hiking and water sport activities.
Must-see beaches & hiking spots:
Thanks to various scenic trails that run along the coastline of Lagos, beach hopping has become a popular activity to do in the area. This was my personal favourite way of accessing the beaches as it offered a more intimate and unique perspective. Along the way, you'll be spoiled with dramatic views of the area's limestone cliffs and huge rock formations rising from the ocean's bright turquoise waters. While down below, you can explore many hidden gems, including stunning caves and grottoes.
Tip: The AllTrails app offers some great trail options. They often start right near the old town centre and are pretty accessible, although some areas require more caution as these are pretty big cliffs! Here is a roundup of the top beaches in Lagos:
Ponta da Piedade - Best viewed from above on the trail.
Praia do Camilo - Ideal for those who'd like to lounge.
Praia Dona Ana - Great for beach lounging. Has an on-site restaurant, shops and showers, making it a great spot for families.
Praia dos Estudantes/ Praia da Batata - Its famous natural rock arch bridge makes this a popular spot with photographers.
Popular water sport activities:
Depending on where exactly you go, some spots are best for kayaking and SUP, while others are better for regular surf and kite surfing. There are also plenty of great spots for snorkelling and even scuba diving!
My personal recommendation - KAYAK! This is the place for it! Many of Lagos' beautiful caves and grottoes are only accessible by water, so kayaking will offer a unique perspective of the landscape that you otherwise wouldn't normally get to see. I joined a 2.5 hour kayaking tour, which guided us along some of the beaches I mentioned above. They took us into the caves and even made a stop at a secluded beach, where we got to swim and snorkel for about 15- 20 minutes before heading back. I highly, highly recommend!!
Explore old town Lagos:
Lagos is not just a pretty face, but there's also lots of depth and history to this old port city. Take a walk through the historic old town, and you'll see it reflect in its ancient Moorish architecture as well as many historic monuments.
Buildings and sights to see:
Santo Antonio Church - A beautiful baroque-style church and one of my favourites in Lagos!
Mercado dos Escravos - Europe's first slave market.
Bandeira Fort - A fortress along the city's waterfront, near Praia da Batata beach.
Markets & shopping - Stroll down Avenida dos Descobrimentos and shop from locals market stalls and vendors.
In addition to its impressive coastal landscapes and charming old town feel, Lagos is also quite well known for its nightlife! Old town is crawling with lively bars and clubs and there's a thriving culture for bar hopping among younger crowds and party hostels. Whatever kind of scene you're into, you'll find a bar for it here in Lagos - from Irish pubs and jazz clubs, pop, rap and R&B, electronic and everything in between. Get ready for a fun night - the venues fill up, people take the parties out on the streets and many clubs stay open until 6 AM!
Popular bars and clubs:
Stevie Ray's Blues Jazz Bar
Although Porto is known to be Lisbon's quieter sister city, this idea has drastically been changing over the past few years, with many even saying they prefer its more modest and humble charm. It's one of those underrated destinations that will quickly win you over with its ornate architecture, azujelo-tiled churches and old buildings overlooking the famous Douro River.
Although each one is unique, Porto is home to plenty of distinctly Portuguese -style azujelo tiled churches, known for their elaborate blue-painted tiles. Some must-see churches are:
Chapel of Souls - Hands-down my favourite church in Porto! This is truly a sight to be seen from the outside!!! Its entire facade is covered with stunning blue hand-painted azujelo tiles, depicting various holy motifs.
Porto Cathedral - A large Romanesque church with stunning azujelo cloisters. This is also a great lookout spot of the city's charming red roofs.
Church of Saint Fransisco - A stunning Gothic church with a lavishly ornate interior, filled with tons and TONS of gold plating, gilded columns and stunning altars.
Church of Saint Ildefonso - Another beautifully painted azujelo-covered church that stands tall and proud atop a hill. It's beautiful for photographing!
Igreja do Carmo - A large church also known for its impressive blue azujelo exterior.
Clérigos Church & Tower - A beautiful Baroque church with a bell tower overlooking the city. A ticket of purchase is required to enter and the flight up the stairs is quite narrow but well worth it!
Other must-see sights and activities:
Get lost wandering the streets of Ribeira - The best way of appreciating Porto's charm is to wander around the beautiful streets of the hilly Ribeira neighbourhood. Ribeira is Porto's old town and is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Start at the top and slowly make your way down the cute cobblestone streets, in the direction of the Douro River. Once by the river, take some time to enjoy the view, both of the landscape and charming brightly painted houses and restaurants. This is a lively and romantic area full of cute cafes, restaurants, merchants and little markets that run all along the riverfront.
Cross the Ponte Luiz bridge - From the riverfront in Ribeira, you can see Porto's most famous bridge - Ponte Luiz. It's easily accessible and very popular to cross over the bridge to the neighbouring city of Vila Nova de Gaia. I highly recommend walking over! Personally, my favourite view of Porto is from over the bridge. I crossed over one evening and walked towards the popular hill right beside. Here, I witnessed the most beautiful sunset fall over Porto's skyline! It was magical and highly recommend this spot for sunset lovers!
Sao Bento - The oldest and perhaps most beautiful train station in Porto! The interior boasts an impressive 20,000 painted azujelo tiles that span from floor to ceiling, each depicting important historical moments! Its grandeur is mesmerizing!
Livraria Lello - Livraria Lello is a stunning book store, said to be one of the oldest and most beautiful in the world! Keep in mind, you must purchase a ticket to visit inside its impressively ornate interior. Also, if it looks really familiar to you, that's because J.K. Rowling drew much inspiration directly from this bookstore (and Porto) when she was writing the Harry Potter books!
Shop in Santa Catarina - Rua Santa Catarina is Porto's main shopping street with tons of cute boutiques, both small and big brands, as well as lots of nice coffee shops. While you're there, make sure to check out Majestic Cafe - a stunning building that's traditionally known for being a popular spot with artists, writers, politicians and elites of the past.
Join a Port wine tour - Porto is most well known for its local wine - Port wine. In fact, Porto sits right in the country's main wine land, the Douro Valley. There are plenty of shops that offer wine tastings or you can try it out with a meal at a restaurant. Or better yet - join a local wine and cellar tour! Wine tours are highly popular here and is basically a tourist staple if you're visiting for the first time!
Q & A
Packing tips?Most important packing tip: bring COMFORTABLE running shoes/ sneakers!! I can't stress this enough! Portugal is literally built on hills, so for each location, you're naturally going to be doing lots of walking up and down. On this topic - ladies, ditch the heels! I normally like bringing a pair or two for nights out but I never used them once on this trip because of all the steep up-climbing. Also, if possible, it's best recommended to pack in a travel backpack rather than a regular rolling luggage. This is because all the cobblestone hills will quickly wear down the wheels of your luggage and tire you out much quicker. Lastly, bring a light rain jacket and umbrella if you can. It tends to rain heavily quite often in Porto, and I personally found that just an umbrella alone did not suffice.
Transportation Tips?Portugal is fairly easy to get around. It is a small country, so it's very doable to do the south to north and everything in between in one trip! If you're travelling with a group, I'd suggest looking into renting a car. Otherwise, my best recommendation is to take the railway or coach buses when moving from one city to another. Main stations in Lisbon are Sete Rios (bus) and Estação do Oriente (train and bus). I personally recommend taking the national coach bus, Rede Expressos. It's cheaper than the train and there's often night schedules available so you can make the most of your time exploring. Tickets from Lisbon to either Lagos or Porto roughly cost the same, at around $20-30 USD one-way.
Any surprises?I was seriously not prepared for Porto's weather. I dressed as if I were in other parts of Portugal, which usually stay much warmer and sunnier. But that's not quite the case in Porto. It's a city known to be slightly cooler and much more rainy than the rest of the country. On my first day there, I had a full-day walking tour prepared, which was a rain-or-shine activity and it literally rained the WHOLE time. The rain made me super cold and it was not the best time because of this. For this reason, plan your activities if possible around the weather that day - it tends to be rainy half the day and then sunshine for the rest so adjust accordingly! Also pack appropriate clothing for the weather!