Portugal is quite a straightforward country to travel through, thanks to practically all of the major cities and other interesting areas existing on the coastline in a linear fashion. You can start your Portugal itinerary in Faro and head north or begin in Braga and head south, checking off Porto, Lisbon, Coimbra, Aveiro, and plenty of other places in between without having to do any backtracking. Even without my itinerary, you’ll find plenty of things to do on the way.
If I had my time again training it through Portugal, I would make sure I started in Faro instead of Lisbon. I was limited by flight availability, but beginning in Portugal’s capital meant I had to backtrack a little to see everything. Fortunately, this was at the beginning of my trip, so I hadn’t grown tired of trains.
For me, Portugal was all about seeing the coast and the architecture, meeting the people, and seeing the historic sites that had only ever existed on a computer screen. I knew a vibrant culture was about to envelop me and I couldn’t wait to begin that first train ride and reach my first destination: Lisbon.
- Purchased a Eurail Select Pass for 4 bordering countries (Portugal, Spain, France and Italy) for 8 days of travel within 2 months – 338 Euro
Day 1 – Lisbon Landmarks
9am – Lisbon (Arrival)
Landing in Lisbon, I caught the airport shuttle bus into the city; a relatively easy process that proved to be quite cheap. The only issue I had was navigating my way to the hostel, which was definitely not helped by the one dealer who tried to sell me hash (more on that later).
I checked in at the Yes! Lisbon Hostel, having first done a little research and made sure it had a friendly reputation and onsite bar. Some people might be a little put off when they walk in and see the double bed in the common room with the phrase “Make Love Not War” painted on the wall above it, but this was a reflection of the hostel’s style. Not promiscuous, but chilled out. The kind of accommodation where travellers could relax and mingle over organised dinners, movie nights, or a few beverages from the bar.
I took the time to dump my bags on my bunk and headed out onto the streets to explore. It was only then when I realised the prime locale of the hostel – right near the iconic Rua Augusta Arch, which has intricate carvings of mythical characters. Walking right under it proved to be a great way to start my Lisbon experience.
- Diverse Accommodation – Don’t be put off by the dorm-style accommodation of hostels. Most of them have private rooms, which are great if you’re travelling in groups. But if you’re a solo traveller, the dorms make it very easy to mingle and make friends.
- Transport From Lisbon’s Airport – I found the best way to get to downtown Lisbon from the airport was the AEROBUS. It left every 20 minutes and only cost about 1.35 Euro one way.
10:30am – Belem
Using the tram systems I made my way to Belem, the city’s historic district, where there were too many sights for me to visit them all. Looking out from the docks, I could easily see the 25 de Abril Bridge, a twin of the larger Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco.
Padrao dos Descobrimentos
Padrao dos Descobrimentos instantly drew my attention. This towering monument looked like something out of Lord of the Rings, with sculptures of knights, explorers and other famous people in history adorning its base. Stepping inside, I was able to learn who each sculpture was depicting, before taking an elevator to the top for views of Belem, the Tagus River and deeper into Portugal’s city.
Belem doesn’t rest on the laurels of one or two monuments or buildings. I’d already had my eye on Jeronimos Monastery and wandered over to it as soon as I had hit ground level again. If anything demonstrates the wealth of the Portuguese it is this monastery. I made my way around the outside before heading in, a trek that took far longer than expected. Whether or not you appreciate the nuances of sculpture and architecture, the exterior’s elaborate design will make a lasting impression.
Inside, Jeronimos Monastery is a place of peace with similarly breathtaking architecture. However, inside was where I really got to appreciate the height of the ceilings and see the tombs of notable Portuguese figures made famous for artistic and spiritual feats.
I had time for one final stop in Belem and picked the Belem Tower, which wasn’t the largest or the most stunning building in the city, but it did have one hell of a history behind it. It was the kind of storied past that made me wish I could go back and live during its glory days. The 16th-century tower was originally constructed to guard Lisbon from naval attacks. Its ability to do so became quite obvious when I saw the 16 cannons covering all directions of the river. The tower also functioned as a prison, with a dank dungeon on a lower level. I found it to be a great place to garner some war history and gaze out at the Tagas.
5pm – Lisbon’s Waterfront
This time for me was not your typical sightseeing moment, but it remains a special part of the trip. I said nay to the tram as a means of returning to my hostel, deciding to appreciate the afternoon candle glow of the sun on Lisbon’s riverfront. As I walked back to my hostel after hours of satisfying that touring monkey clinging to my backpack, I trudged along the river, weary after much walking.
Often when I visit a country I get so caught up in the sightseeing of it all and fail to truly appreciate the local charisma. Just before turning inland to my hostel, I notice a man and his son casting fishing lines out from the concrete riverbank. They chatted in Portuguese, none of which I understood, but all I needed was the image of them right then. It stood out to me as one of Lisbon’s greatest assets. As much tourism as the city brings in, it is still possible to witness the everyday people who call it home.
However, if you’re not tired and keen to see more of Lisbon, there are some great tours available that will take you to all the famous landmarks lit up at night.
Day 2 – Exploring Sintra
10am – Sintra
I tagged along with some new hostel buddies over to the nearby town of Sintra. Getting to Sintra was a combination of train and bus. I found myself thinking – after taking the direct train from Lisbon’s Rossio station to Sintra’s train station, then the connecting bus to Sintra’s historic centre – that travelling through a foreign country should really be harder than this. It was almost like cheating.
Visiting Sintra took me away from the coast and into Portugal’s mountainous environment. The town exuded a homely and wholesome vibe with centuries-old architecture, locally-run souvenir shops and quaint cafes.
- Getting Into Sintra – There are usually buses waiting at Sintra’s train station, ready to take passengers into the city centre.
- Making Your Way Around Town – Sintra isn’t a big town, but it still helps to have a map of all the bus stops, so you know where you need to disembark at.
12:00pm – Pena National Palace
My first foray into town was only short, as I quickly caught a shuttle bus up to Pena National Palace, one of the most unique palaces I’ve ever had the pleasure of exploring. With the palace sitting atop a hill (at what point does a hill become a mountain, because this one had to be close), I was able to survey all across Sintra and beyond. As beautiful as the view was, my interest was mainly in exploring the many facets of Pena including the various architectural styles and the interior treasures from as far back as the 17th century.
I also explored Pena Park, which is the wooded garden around the palace. There were winding trails that led me through the area, past various historic monuments and statues. My adventurous spirit was too much for my pants when I decided to try to climb some rocks to get a better look at a marble cross. I got my wished-for view, but one fatal step saw my pants rip from the crotch right down to the knee. Sintra wasn’t the kind of place where a clothing store was easy to find, so I had to put up with my underpants in clear view for the rest of my time there.
- Lunching At Pena – If you’re partial to a view with lunch, you might want to grab a bite to eat out on Pena National Palace’s open terrace overlooking Pena Park.
- Walking Or The Bus – You can choose to either walk up to Pena National Palace along medieval walls (plenty of photo ops along the way) or pay a small fee for the shuttle bus from Sintra’s town centre.
3pm – Quinta Da Regaleira
I had noticed the Quinta da Regaleira when I first reached Sintra. How could I not? The palatial estate looked like something out of a Tim Burton film with eccentric Gothic architecture drawing my eyes to the palace and chapel. This was enough to get me through the entrance gate and pay the very cheap price of admission (6 Euro).
Although I enjoyed exploring the buildings and seeing certain rooms like a library with a glass optical illusion that made me think the floor was suspended in air, the highlight of Quinta da Regaleira was the park area. These specially designed gardens were as equally mysterious as they were beautiful, featuring stone pathways weaving through exotic plants from all over the world. Around every corner was a new monument, building or random structure that warranted minutes of admiration.
Then there were the tunnels, a complex labyrinth that, if I so pleased, could take me from one end of the park to the other without making me return to the surface. Why exactly those tunnels were there, I never found out (please let me know if you do), but they weren’t even the most cryptic aspect of Quinta. That award went cleanly to the Initiation Well, a 27-metre-high staircase built up through a cylindrical hole in the ground connecting the surface and underground worlds. I would have loved to have visited the place when it was in use and seen exactly what kinds of people frequented its halls, gardens and labyrinth.
- Staying On Track – Make sure you grab a map of the Quinta da Regaleira’s grounds, because it is easy to get lost and you don’t want to miss any of the best parts.
- Lighting The Way – The underground labrynths can get close to pitching complete darkness; at some points I was using the flash on my camera to see the way. So it might help to have a torch on your phone or some form of light when exploring.
That night I said goodnight to Lisbon for the final time and farewell to the khaki pants that had treated me so admirably during my travels. They were a trooper and I sorely missed the amount of storage space their pockets allowed. But I had my next stop to keep me excited: the coastal city of Faro.
Day 3 – Relaxing in Faro
11am – Faro
It was early (for me) when I boarded the train to Faro. I expected a much longer journey than the 4-hour passage across Portugal’s inland down to one of the southernmost cities in the country. Faro at that time of year (just after summer) was particularly consumed by a local and international crowd. I’d expected this, and designated the day to chilling out on the beaches with nothing else to worry about other than how deeply into my drinks I would drown.
That’s not to say there’s nothing to do in Faro other than drink. The island beaches are a splendid combination of azure water that washes up onto the toes of some of the most beautiful people I’ve ever seen. Not just in appearance. Their joyous nature was contagious and it was almost like there could never be a day worse than fantastic.
If you’re a bit more active than I am, there are plenty of water sports on various beaches in Faro.
I found it reasonably easy to hop from island to island, thanks mainly to the ferries running regularly. You can choose to stay on one island, but with only one day in the city, I preferred to mix the scenery up a little. Faro Island (Ilha de Faro) was one of the most populous beaches, with plenty of shops, hotels and restaurants. I had to swim and bake with quite a large a crowd, but that’s why most people visit that particular beach: to mingle. People were friendly and I got to meet men and women from various countries around the world. In this sense, Faro holds a strong multicultural value.
I did eventually want a bit more of a peaceful vibe, so on the advice of a fellow beach bum, I headed across to Desert Island (Ilha de Deserta). Although the beach part of this island was still quite crowded, I could take a stroll down a nature trail for some natural serenity.
When the sun went down I couldn’t not partake in a bit of the renowned Faro nightlife. With a few clubbing areas, such as the Rua do Prior, and many more bars and nightclubs, I was spoilt for choice on where to find cold drinks and genial conversation. I was visiting on a Thursday night, purely by chance, and didn’t expect much of a crowd. But this was apparently student night in Faro and arguably the biggest night of the week.
After a day of island hopping I found myself doing the same with bars and clubs. Out of the ones I visited, I’d recommend Upa Upa, which won me over with an extensive collection of whisky; Kadoc for that genuine chaotic clubbing experience; and Bar CheSsenta, which was a great night starter with happy hour and some really talented live musicians.
- Getting To The Islands – Faro’s port is the best spot to catch ferries to all the islands.
- When To Party – Faro’s student population means that practically every night provides a good time out on the town.
- Where To Party – Rua do Prior has a generous selection of bars and some clubs, but you may have to head slightly outside the city to reach the biggest dance clubs.
Day 4 – Santarem Stopover
12pm – Santarem
Faro had successfully provided my fix of Portugal’s social and summer highlights, but I felt the need to delve more into the country’s culture. Hence my next stop, Santarem. I already knew I had to double back and head north once more to see beyond Lisbon, but the length of time I would be on trains if I went from Faro to Porto was unseemly.
With all that in mind, I picked Santarem for a nightly stopover, getting into the city at about midday. Although it wasn’t a large city, Santarem had a vibrant historical and spiritual appeal brought on by the numerous churches, public squares and ancient structures. As holy buildings go, the Santissimo Milagre Church and the Marvila Church have that timeless sanctuary feel about them.
With the sun out, I made sure I visited the Jardim das Portas do Sol, a garden within medieval walls. The outside along with walking along walls made from stone older than my home country was enough to blow my mind. Yet on the inside were monuments of regal citizens, green grassy areas and ponds where birds would congregate. It was so peaceful and high above the city, and with the views it had practically everything I could ask in a historic or natural attraction.
Within Santarem my favourite place was easily Sa da Bandeira, the town’s main square where people from all walks were enclosed by centuries of heritage in the surrounding buildings.
- Sleeping In Santarem – There’s not much in the way of accommodation in Santarem and a lot of the hotels are boutique. I’m not one for dropping wads of cash on a bed, so I stuck with one of the two hostels that were in the city. I went with the aptly named Santarem Hostel. I had to share a room with seven other people, but it was very affordable, clean, had a kitchen to make brekkie, and had a bar for socialising.
To see more of Santarem, you can book a local guide to show you around the small town.
Day 5 – Porto
Santarem was a nice break, seeing a different side to Portugal that the major cities can’t provide, but I couldn’t have spent another day there by myself. I was very appreciative of my short stop-over, because it meant I only had a 4.5-hour train ride to Porto.
It was an easy decision to check into the Porto Wine Hostel. Here I was in the city that gave birth to port (fortified wine), so how could I not stay in accommodation inspired by the drink? To be fair I did a bit more research, finding out it was right in the city centre and that its style wasn’t just in the name – port wine tastings right on the premises.
|Porto Hop-On Hop-Off Tour
The easiest way to get around Porto and see all the major attractions is on the hop on hop off bus. With this pass, you will also receive a free map, discount booklet and headsets to listen to the on board commentary.
Port Wine Museum
Although I spent a little bit of time walking around the city and taking in the historical buildings, window shopping and refuelling at a cosy cafe, the first actual attraction I visited was the Port Wine Museum. This museum was housed in an 18th-century warehouse right on the Douro River.
Port is one of the city’s most treasured creations and exports, so the museum wasn’t lacking on history, artefacts and interesting tidbits of knowledge. It was refreshingly cheap to enter and there was enough within its walls to leave me with a much better understanding of port and Porto’s culture. When I was there, it was predominantly look and read exhibits, but they may have added in some interactive ones. Honestly, just learning about how port was made and where it came from was enough for my enjoyment.
Military Museum of Porto
Feeling a bit of the museum mojo, I decided to find some more exhibitions around the city. Going in a completely different direction to the Port Wine Museum, I visited the Military Museum of Porto. From the various exhibits comprised of firearms, vehicles, cannons and miniatures, I was able to discover Portugal’s war history from as far back as the 15th century.
National Museum Soares dos Reis
Next up was the National Museum Soares dos Reis. Although it’s not the flashiest of buildings, as Portugal’s first national museum there’s a certain level of respect surrounding the place. The exhibits were focused on art, with many famous Portuguese artists represented across displays of ceramics, sculptures, paintings, engravings and textiles. However, there were also artisan goods such as furniture and jewellery.
- Snacking While Sightseeing – It can be difficult to find time for eating when you’re packing a lot of sightseeing into one day. I found it best to eat small snacks throughout the day to keep me going, which also meant I didn’t have to spend too long waiting on large meals. Some museums, like the National Museum Soares dos Reis, have their own cafes, which can be handy when you don’t know anywhere nearby to eat.
- Timing Your Attractions – The Military Museum of Porto doesn’t open until early afternoon on the weekend, so you can fill your morning with other attractions nearby or around town.
Day 6 – Last Day In Portugal
I had seen Clerigos Tower rising out from the city during my initial walks around town, so on my last morning in Porto I decided to get a closer view. The Baroque exterior architecture wasn’t anything to scoff at, but I preferred paying the 2 Euro fee to enter and climbing to the top where I could see the coast, the river and the cityscape stretched out in between.
The Livraria Lello & Irmao
Clerigos Tower was a good quick attraction that didn’t take much time, and my decision to see it up close led to me discovering one of my favourite parts of Portugal – The Livraria Lello & Irmao. This was an old bookstore with stained glass on the roof and a red velvet stair case to its upper level. I’m a sucker for writing establishments, but even if you’re not into books, the images this place leaves behind are well worth the visit. Plus, rumour has it J.K Rowling based parts of the Hogwarts library in Harry Potter on this bookstore.
That afternoon I caught the train back to Lisbon with a plan to catch the overnight train to Madrid in Spain, where I would begin the Spanish phase of my trip. Connecting both trains left me a bit of time for some drinks and dinner at a local bar in Lisbon, before leaving Portugal.
What I Learned And You Should Know
- Selling Chocolate – Drug dealers in Lisbon are very forward and I had more than one come up to me trying to sell their wares. They typically open by saying they have some chocolate for sale, before showing a small bag of hash. I found it best to play along with responses like, “I’m allergic to chocolate”, before walking off. It’s best to be firm, because they will follow you and push if they think they can get the sale.
- Making The Most Of Your Time – I spent more time than was necessary travelling around Portugal, because I began my trip in the middle. If I’d started at my northernmost or southernmost destination, I could’ve enjoyed quite a few more hours of sightseeing courtesy of not having to double back.
With the freedom to roam around a lot of the country, I was able to see very different parts to Portugal on my 6 day itinerary. I loved all the variety the country had to offer. I sometimes had to seek it out on my own, but that’s a part of travelling I really enjoy.
There wasn’t anything that spoilt my trip, but I would’ve loved to have seen some more modern attractions. As much as I love seeing and experiencing the history of a country, I do appreciate the occasional sight or activity that makes me marvel at today’s limitlessness. Maybe I just didn’t look hard enough, or was too distracted by the history of it all. So if you know of some modern attractions I should visit next time, please let me know.