One of the best places to visit in Europe right now is a unique blend of old world charm and modern convenience. It’s also extremely affordable. What country is that? It’s Portugal!
Portugal offers the European experience at Latin American prices, and it’s the perfect destination to get the best of both worlds.
Despite its small size, Portugal has a little bit of everything. Whether you have a week or 3 months, you won’t run out of things to do. We spent more than 2 months visiting Portugal’s vibrant cities and beautiful coastlines, and we can’t wait to return!
Here’s a taste of our experience to help you plan your itinerary.
How We Got to Portugal
We flew Space-A of course! Our voyage began in Japan, and our plan was to fly commercial or take a train from wherever we landed in Europe to Valencia, Spain.
Our Space-A journey brought us to Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany. From there, we made our way to Ramstein Air Base, where we spent a few days planning our next steps.
Due to the Easter holiday and Las Fallas festival, which takes place every March in Valencia, we found little availability and much higher prices than expected for short-term apartments.
Also, flights from Frankfurt to Valencia were rather expensive. The cheapest fares were on TAP Air Portugal, Portugal’s national airline, and included a stopover in Lisbon.
We decided to simply visit Portugal for a couple weeks and wait out the Spanish holidays. We flew to Porto ($110 per person) and quickly realized that two weeks in Portugal would not be enough!
From “Military-Style” to “Local Style” Travel
After leaving Ramstein AB, we switched to “local style” travel, which is how we spend most of our time when traveling overseas. Our focus is on experiencing what it’s like to live in the places we visit, so we stay almost exclusively in short-term apartments using Airbnb.
We seldom visit more than a couple major tourist attractions in an area, because we prefer to simply enjoy day-to-day living.
Here are the places we visited and a few highlights from each location. At the end, you will find more details about the logistics of travel in Portugal.
I am also including links to our Airbnb apartments in each city. Please note that the price you see when you first click on the link is likely not the same price you will see when you enter travel dates. Airbnb rentals are usually cheaper the longer you stay.
First Stop: Porto
Although Portugal is quite small by American standards (you could drive the length of the entire country from north to south in about 6 hours), Porto is considered “Northern Portugal.” Indeed, it has different weather and a completely different vibe from Lisbon and Algarve, the other main areas we visited.
We arrived in mid-March and were quite lucky with the weather; virtually every single day was bright sunshine. Normally, we were told, March is rainy season, and Porto is known for its frequent morning fog.
We spent our first week in an Airbnb right on the famous Douro river, very close to many of the popular sites in the “old city.”
As we often do when visiting a city for the first time, we took an open-top bus tour to get the lay of the land. The tour helped us identify places we wanted to spend more time.
The top place that caught our attention was the beautiful, rugged coastline and beaches in the neighborhood called Foz do Douro. Within a couple days of arriving in Porto, we decided to extend our stay so we could spend time in that neighborhood by the beach, and we found a fantastic deal on this Airbnb apartment.
In total, our stay in Porto was almost 2 weeks, and it was divided into two distinct phases. During our first week, we were much more ambitious with our touring, and we explored the city daily.
Once we moved to Foz, we mostly enjoyed the coastline and the neighborhood. It has a much more “local” feel than the old city of Porto and is less crowded.
Things to Do in Porto
Here are a few things to see and do in Porto that we recommend:
Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus Tour
This tour gives you a great overview of the entire Porto area. The two-day pass is a good deal, because you don’t have to rush. If you get off and want to spend a few hours in one spot (a wine cellar, for example!), you can pick up where you left off the next day.
This local landmark tops many lists of the world’s most beautiful bookstores. It’s famous for its architecture and décor. Livraria Lello is also said to be the inspiration for the Harry Potter series (author J.K. Rowling lived in Porto for several years).
If you visit, I recommend going on a weekday as soon as the store opens to avoid the crowds. You must purchase a voucher for €5 to enter the store, but the amount is credited to your purchase if you buy a book.
A visit to Porto would not be complete without tasting port wine, and Ferreira is one of the many wineries in the area. We did their English tour through the cellars and tasted three of their delicious wines. Of course, we also bought a couple bottles!
One of our most memorable experiences in Porto was at this winery, restaurant, and museum. We stumbled upon it while waiting for Ferreira to open. My husband saw the words “cigar club” and wanted to check it out, and we were glad we did!
They not only have a great cigar lounge, where you can order small plates of food and drinks, but the restaurant is top notch, especially for the price. The chef makes very creative dishes that are delicious and beautifully-presented.
They offer many choices for wines and port, so pairing drinks with your food is a snap.
Parque da Cidade do Porto
The largest urban park in Portugal is located at the western end of Porto. It’s full of small lakes and winding, shady trails, making it the perfect place to exercise, stroll, or picnic.
The park has multiple entrances, one of which connects to the oceanfront path.
This restaurant was around the corner from our Airbnb in Foz, and it was one of our favorite restaurants in Portugal. They had an interesting mix of food that was far different from what we saw on most menus, and everything we tried was delicious.
Casa Vasco is definitely a “locals” place and a great find if you’re in the neighborhood.
Next Stop: Lisbon/Costa da Caparica
In recent years, Lisbon has become one of the most popular cities in Europe, and with good reason. Picture a much less expensive version of San Francisco, but with more sun! It even has a bridge, Ponte 25 de Abril, that is almost an exact replica of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Besides the resemblance to San Fran, Lisbon boasts all the charm of a major European city: many museums, castles, and historic sites; tons of cafes and restaurants representing cuisines from around the world, and dozens of small neighborhoods, each with its own character and vibe.
We spent four nights in the city center. We purposely chose an Airbnb in a residential area outside of the main tourist neighborhoods to get the local feel. Buying groceries at the supermarket, hanging out in a local pastelaria, and doing our morning workout in the nearby park were some of the fun ways we got a window into life in Lisbon.
From there, we were in search of fewer crowds and more beach, so we moved to a little town called Costa da Caparica. We had never heard of it until we spotted it on the map.
Caparica is across the river from Lisbon and only about a 20-minute ride by car, but it feels like a world away. It’s primarily a surf town, and the main appeals of Caparica are its waves and its 15-mile stretch of wide, flat, uninterrupted beach.
We loved our little Airbnb apartment, which was a block from the beach and very affordable, so we hunkered down in Caparica for more than a month!
Day Trips from the Lisbon Area
We took numerous day trips while staying in the Lisbon area, and here are a few I recommend:
This gorgeous resort town is about 30 minutes outside of Lisbon. It has quaint beaches, stunning scenery, and myriad shops and restaurants. The train from downtown Lisbon (€2.25) runs along the coastline with breathtaking views the entire way!
A laid-back town known primarily for surfing, Peniche is about 75 minutes north of Lisbon along the coast. Even if you don’t surf, visit Peniche for the incredible views and fresh seafood.
Vinhos Cortém Winery
Our visit to this winery was one of our favorite days in Portugal. We enjoyed an incredible tasting featuring 10 wines paired with delicious cheese, olives, and homemade appetizers.
The tasting was conducted in the winery’s lovely dining room, where we sat for more than 3 hours enjoying stories about the wine and vineyard while chatting with other guests.
The owners of this small winery – Christopher Price, an Englishman, and his German wife, Helga – made the experience magical, and Helga’s cooking was amazing! We were astonished that the price of this tasting was only €18 per person!
Ribeira do Cavalo
This secluded beach is in the town of Sesimbre, about 45 minutes south of Lisbon. It requires a 30-minute hike down a rocky cliff to get there, but it’s well worth the effort! Wear good hiking shoes (no flip-flops) and arrive in the morning when there are few other people.
Afterwards, have lunch at Tasca do Isaías, a locals’ favorite where you choose your meal from the list of freshly-caught fish on their daily menu. They cook it on their outdoor grill, and you eat at the communal tables in their small, bustling restaurant.
Final Stop: Quarteira (Algarve)
We spent our last week in Portugal in Quarteira, a beach town in the famous Algarve region. Our Airbnb apartment was one of our all-time favorites, and we spent much of our time relaxing on the terrace, enjoying the incredible view.
Thing to Do in Algarve
Here are a couple highlights from our time in Algarve:
Ponta da Piedade
The dramatic cliffs and caves of Ponta da Piedade, located in the town of Lagos, are a must-see. Our 75-minute small boat tour of the caves and grottos was one of the highlights of our visit to Algarve.
There are dozens of other amazing tours you can take to explore Algarve, whether you want to kayak, snorkel, or search for dolphins. With more time, we would have done several other excursions. Take your pick and book in advance with no fees!
The Cape of St. Vincent
This is the southwestern-most point in Europe and was once thought to be the edge of the world. It’s well worth a visit to see the stunning views and crystal blue water. Bring your camera and a windbreaker!
Portugal Travel Tips
Based on our 2+ months in Portugal, here’s what you should know before you go.
Free WiFi is everywhere in Portugal. You don’t need to worry about purchasing a SIM card or using your cell phone carrier’s international plan while you’re here. You can communicate using WhatsApp, Skype, or other free apps.
It’s easy, because most restaurants, cafes, and even many stores have their own WiFi network and supply the password to customers. Make sure you use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to secure your connection and protect your privacy!
Money & Banking
You may use cash more often in Portugal than in other Western European countries, especially when you’re outside of Lisbon. Many smaller restaurants and stores don’t accept foreign credit cards.
Plan ahead and withdraw cash from a bank ATM. You can find them in many grocery stores, train stations, shopping centers, and of course, attached to a bank itself.
Avoid Euronet ATMs, which are very prevalent, but charge a high fee. If you must use one of these ATMs, don’t accept their offer to convert your transaction to USD. They will give you a bad exchange rate, and the conversion has no benefit to you.
Many restaurants have one or more appetizers on the table when you sit down. Some have only bread and butter, while others offer more substantial dishes, such as calamari or cod fritters.
Those appetizers are not free, and if you eat anything, you will see the charge on your bill. When you sit down, tell the server to remove whatever you don’t want.
Tipping waitstaff is not customary in Portugal. If you particularly enjoyed the meal or service, leave a few coins, but anything more is unnecessary.
Public Transportation Within Portugal
We traveled by train from Porto to Lisbon and by bus from Lisbon to Algarve. Both modes of transport were clean, efficient, and relatively inexpensive, although prices may vary, depending on how early you book.
The bus is a good option when traveling to smaller cities, because it has many different routes and may drop you closer to your destination.
Use Omio to search both train and bus schedules and to purchase tickets.
Renting a Car in Portugal
Having a rental car makes it much easier to explore smaller towns within a region. We rented cars for several days to visit places within the Lisbon area and during our week in Algarve. We paid between $9 and $15/day.
We found the best deals simply by doing a Google search for rental cars at the nearest airport. In contrast to how rental car prices work in the U.S., Portuguese rental cars are typically cheaper near the airport than in city centers.
Warning: they use high-pressure sales techniques to convince you to buy their collision damage waiver (CDW), which often costs more than the daily rental rate. If you have other insurance (ours was through our credit card), decline the CDW, regardless of the fear tactics they use.
Portuguese rental car companies may require written proof of other coverage, and they may still place a very large hold on your credit card. Both time we rented a car, the companies removed the hold even before we returned the vehicle.
If you decline the CDW, do a very thorough inspection of the vehicle and take pictures of any damage before you sign off on the contract.
Flying Space-A to Portugal
If you fly Space-A into Rota, you will be less than 3 hours from the border of southern Portugal. In that case, renting a car is a great way to explore the country.
If you land at another base in Europe, you can easily fly commercial into Lisbon or one of the smaller cities in Portugal. In our experience, TAP Air Portugal offers great service (including a substantial snack, even in Economy) with very competitive prices.
Ready to Go to Portugal?
After staying more than 2 months, we still didn’t see everything that Portugal has to offer, and we will definitely be back! There are many vineyards, mountains, fishing villages, and beaches yet to be explored.
No matter what you seek in a destination, Portugal has something for you at a great price. Don’t forget to write and tell us about your adventure!
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