City vs. Coast: Exploring the Diverse Little Country of Portugal
Portugal, resting on the western edge of Europe, is unassuming and underrated, its beauty and charm hidden from the typical tourist track. It is what I’ve labeled a “sleeper country.” It’s a place that a lot of people skip over when planning their European vacations, sticking to more popular places like France or Spain, but the little country at the end of the Atlantic is worth a second look.
It has a diverse landscape boasting rolling hills, wineries, bustling cities and breathtaking beaches; Portugal lacks very little. If that isn’t enticing enough, the people are friendly, the food is delicious and the economy has had its fair share of issues so you can add reasonable cost as another reason to visit Portugal. I spent my trip traveling south up the coast and had a difficult time deciding if coastal living or city dwelling was more enjoyable here–they both had so much to offer.
Lisbon is the capital of Portugal and the pulse of the people runs through the streets of this historic, eclectic town. Lisbon is a port town with a rich history in trade and early exploration. The city has some of the best old town streets, and you can get lost exploring the Alfama neighborhood. Go there by night to seek out some of the best Fado music in town. The Belem district reveals the history of the Golden Age of Discovery and Exploration, and be sure to also discover the highlight of the neighborhood by tasting a common Portuguese dessert, the pastel de nata, at the famous Pastéis de Belém.
Keep San Francisco in the back of your mind when you arrive–the similarities are uncanny. Lisbon, like San Francisco, is known for its hills, iconic cable cars and the bright red 25 de Abril Bridge bears a striking resemblance to the Golden Gate Bridge.
Be sure to take a day trip to see another completely different city, Sintra. The buildings here are spectacular and diverse ranging from a medieval fortress on the cliffside to a Moorish style palace atop the hill overlooking the town below. Leave time to walk through all of the beautiful gardens and then take the path back down to town through the woods to have a completely different view of the buildings above.
Porto is the little sister of Lisboa, but don’t let that sibling rivalry fool you–she can hold her own. Porto has a fantastic old town area that runs along the Douro River and as the sun fades it becomes one of the most picturesque spots in the city. This is the region where Port wine got its name and the wine tours here will be sure to keep your glass full of this unique varietal. Wine is plentiful and the cuisine is equally delicious. Hunt through the small side streets in town and you’ll find a little restaurant, Regaleira, said to be the home of the monster sandwich called Francesinha, a famous Portuguese version of a croque-monsieur.
The Algarve Coast is a total stunner, with hues of blues and greens at the water’s edge almost begging you to dive off the sandy beige rocks to the cool, clear ocean below. The region is in the southern tip of the country and there are several beach and resort towns to choose from. My favorite is Lagos, where you can escape some of the large, busy resorts while still having a quaint beach town vibe. Taking a car, exploring the winding roads, and stopping at small towns along the way is the ideal way to see the area. The climate here is perfect and the sun always seems to be shining. The water is calm so it’s an ideal place to go kayaking and paddle boarding.
Peniche, a seaside town north of Lisbon may seem simply like a small fishing village but the waves here are huge making it the location for a surf trip. The vibe here is so relaxed that I stayed a week instead of the few days I had previously planned. This popular surf spot is home to some amazing waves and the famous “Supertubos” has become a destination for pro surf tournaments. If you aren’t skilled on a board there are several places that offer classes, and the beaches are nice enough to just lay back and enjoy the views. Just north of here you can head to another fishing town called Nazare with a picturesque coastline and record-breaking waves.
Relaxing beaches, interesting cities, culinary treats and adventurous activities make Portugal a country that’s hard to leave. With so much to see and do, I recommend getting a taste of both the Portuguese city streets and its seaside landscapes.