Portugal, a sunny southern country on the Atlantic ocean, is currently on a bucket list of many tourists. There are plenty of reasons for its growing popularity – great food, rich cultural heritage, and low prices. We decided to look closely at this real gem and talked to Paola and Sergio, an Italian couple of seasoned travelers who has recently visited Portugal.
Paola, Sergio, thanks for finding time to tell 80 days & counting about your trip! Which part of Portugal did you manage to visit?
We had quite a circular route. We flew from Bergamo to Porto, spent some days there, then grabbed a car and traveled to the southern part of the country, to Lisbon, stopping in small towns. From Lisbon we drew back to Porto and hopped on a plane to get back to Bergamo. Here is the complete route that we have followed:
This sounds pretty awesome. What kind of accommodation did you use?
For this trip we decided to stick with Airbnb. Even in big cities like Porto and Lisbon the prices are more than affordable. As we were four people, we were always booking spacious apartments with two bedrooms.
In Porto, we managed to find a beautiful apartment with a wonderful view in the residential area. Staying in residential zones has a lot of perks, like silence at night, but it makes coming downtown slightly difficult unless you have a car. Alternatively, you can use Uber.
We were also lucky with the accommodation in Lisbon. Although our original booking was canceled without any explanation, the host has then booked for us a flat that we have chosen ourselves. This is how we have ended in an absolutely gorgeous flat with jacuzzi!
So you said you rented a car, right? Why not travel by train?
We wanted to travel loads and we were in four, so what can be a better decision than renting a car? We have done all the arrangements and rented a car in advance – a good big Nissan Qashqai, just to make sure all our baggage fits. The price was quite acceptable – we have paid around 120 euros for 10 days. Not too shabby.
We also ended up having a funny story with the renting – we have arrived at the airport, but we couldn’t find our renting company. How stressful is that? We already started imagining all kinds of scary things, thinking that maybe it was all a scam. Finally, we managed to reach the renting company via phone, and turned out that they have simply left because we didn’t show up on the meeting place. They picked us up in 30 mins with a really nice shuttle and brought to the parking with cars. All’s well that ends well. We even learned some Portuguese from the bus driver!
We heard the weather is crazy in Portugal and really unpredictable. Is that so?
The weather in Portugal is crazy – one minute the sun is shining, a minute after you are already soaking in the rain. If you also plan to travel there in autumn as we did, we strongly advise you to get everything you need to stay warm! Warm clothes, waterproof shoes. Umbrella is useless because of the crazy wind, so grab a raincoat!
The ruthless autumn weather though is a secret of seeing the city without tourists. So if you want to hang out with locals, October-November is your travel time.
Porto was the first city you have visited. What were your impressions?
We spent three days in Porto, and we loved the city!
The first day was the arrival day – we dropped things in our rented flat and went to the city. It started raining right away, but we have still managed to explore the old town. Make sure you get good shoes for walking there! The center is full of stairs, and not all of them are very well maintained and easy to walk on.
One of the days we have dedicated to a special wine district of Porto. It is lovely and gives you an insight into the local wine industry, but it is becoming extremely touristic.
Talking about wine, we also had another thing on our bucket list – a trip along the Douro river. You can travel along it by car, boat or a bus, with specially organized tours. The Douro valley is famous for its wineries and food, and while traveling through it you can stop at the different places to taste local wine and dishes.
Unfortunately, three days that we have planned for Porto were not enough to do this, so we are definitely coming back for it!
One thing that has stunned us in Porto was São Bento railway station – a 20th-century railway station located downtown. It is absolutely unique, as its walls are covered with large panels of azulejo tiles, a form of Portuguese traditional painted tin-glazed ceramic tilework. The panels tell the country’s history and depict the life of the people of various regions.
As the weather wasn’t the finest, we had plenty of excuses to hide in cozy places and taste the local cuisine. On one of the days, we went to dinner to a place downtown called Cantina 32. The place was a bit antique, with dim light, a big common table, and an open kitchen. We ordered pumpkin soup and of course octopus, because what else do you eat when you are in Porto?!
Sounds so tasty! What was your next stop after Porto?
After three days in Porto we have set off in the direction of Lisbon, stopping in smaller towns on the way. One of the must-see on our list was Fatima, home to the Sanctuary of Fátima, a Catholic pilgrimage site.
In Fatima, in 1917 Madonna has appeared to 3 little shepherds and shared her prophecy with them. They say this prophecy shed some light on the future of humanity.
Fatima stuns right upon arrival – in the center of the town you see an enormous, modern, square which is full of pilgrims, and on the side of it – there is a simple church where Madonna has appeared to the shepherd children. Definitely a place to visit if you are interested in history and religion.
Did you go to Lisbon afterward?
Yes, after Fatima we made it to Lisbon, where we spent 4 days. A place you really want to check is Belém Tower – a 16th-century fort that served both as a defensive structure and a ceremonial gate to the city. It also was the starting point of all the big expeditions that Portugal was sending out.
On our way to the tower, we have also discovered a really fine dining place – O Recanto. It is not easy to find, as there are no real signs that can guide you, so make sure you spot it on the map before going there. O Recanto offers amazing things at a great price! Again, we decided to stick with a soup, and we also ate baccala dishes and octopus. In Portugal, they say they have 365 recipes with baccala. It might be true, because, in every place where we went to eat it, they had a different recipe!
Then we hopped on the legendary tram number 28. In Lisbon, they still run original trams with wooden benches inside, awesome! Due to the fresh weather, there were very few tourists, so we could even sit. In summer this tram is stuffed with people like a can full of sardines.
Another must-do in Lisbon is fado clubs. Fado is the typical music of Portugal, born during the period of big explorations. They say this music was created by women who were bidding goodbye to explorers leaving for faraway lands. In Lisbon, there are very few fado clubs, and they are always full. So make sure you book in advance if you want to go!
We loved Lisbon! This city is really lively, very colorful and has a real Meditteranean charm. The people are friendly, a lot of them speak English, and if you get lost, you can always ask them for help.
Sounds like a place to visit! What about Sagres and Faro?
We went there after Lisbon. There are perfect places for the summer and for surfers, but in winter not much is happening there. Sagres was once considered the end of the known world but in fact neither the most westerly or southerly point of Portugal.
We have also stopped in Coimbra – a pretty town famous for its traditions and university. The local university sticks to traditions – a lot of students still dress in black capes, and it looks totally like the Sandeman label!
By the way, if you want to party, go to Coimbra on Thursday – it’s a local student party day!
Last, but not least – what should we buy in Portugal as a souvenir?
Portugal is full of pretty souvenirs and tasty food, so make sure you get additional baggage! Dried baccala, traditional cookies called biscoitos, cheese, cotton table cloths with traditional patterns and even boxes of sardines. These, by the way, you can find in special shops – you can spot them from a long distance, as they are full of colorful toy boxes, in which they pack sardines.