above: Hitting the beach at Praia da Ribeira in Cascais – Photo: ©Alexandre Rotenberg – stock.adobe.com
UNLIKE OTHER TRENDY DESTINATIONS OF LATE—WE’RE LOOKING AT YOU, ICELAND—PORTUGAL IS AFFORDABLE AND NOT YET OVER-TOURISTED. HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
While all the millennials are flocking to Lisbon, we suggest visiting the ancient city of Porto a few hours to the north, or the fairy-tale-like Sintra, just nineteen miles to the north and west. Whichever you choose, you’ll see why Portugal was just crowned the “Hottest Travel Destination of 2019” by the World Travel Awards.
STOP 1 / Porto
Porto is the second largest city in Portugal and is more than just home to its namesake after-dinner drink. This riverside town is a heady jumble of Art Nouveau and a hot culinary scene set amidst ancient architecture. The city is a UNESCO Heritage site with cobblestone alleyways laid in the middle ages, but the vibe is decidedly not stale.
There are plenty of daily flights from New York to Lisbon, but you can fly to Porto directly from Newark for about half the price. After a few wine-soaked days exploring the local landscape, you can hop the train to Lisbon. The trip is only two and a half hours, and tickets are around $30.
WHERE TO STAY
The Torel brand of hotels has three luxury properties in Porto—a town of fewer than 300,000 residents—and two were opened within the last year. Torel Avantgarde features edgy rooms named after artists like Warhol, Pollack and Kahlo. Torel 1884 and the new Torel Palace are both housed in former bourgeouis palaces but feel more like the well-decorated homes of your wealthiest jet-set friends. Because 1884 and the Palace are newly opened, they are less expensive than Avantgarde. A Torel Palace room for spring break 2020 is just 120 euros ($132 at current rates).
If you can’t fit in a proper Duoro Valley wine tour (but you really should), walk fifteen minutes across the double decker Dom Luis bridge from the city center to the port wine lodges in Gaia (technically a separate town but is referred to as the Gaia side of Porto). There are many tours and tasting rooms. The one thing they won’t tell you is the secret production process behind the grape-spirit added to wine to make it port. Also look for Vinho Verde, a Portuguese “green wine.” Where port has more alcohol than regular wine, Vinho Verde has less. Stay along the river for a local meal but bring cash; many restaurants don’t take credit cards. We learned this one the hard way.
Portugal is famous for its Pasteis (or Pastel) de Nata, an egg custard tart with an origin that involves monks, as all good origin stories do. Though the treat is ubiquitous and found in every café in the country, you won’t find it almost anywhere else. The other dish that feels like a national treasure is anything made from cod, usually salted cod, or bacalhau. The north Atlantic fish is not local, so it takes a history lesson to understand why it’s on every menu. When the Brits took a liking to port in the 1500s, they began trading cod for barrels of wine. The pervasive presence of this bland fish says a lot about how much the English enjoyed the drink. Bacalhau is so ingrained in the Portuguese culture that it’s the main celebrational meal at Christmas. You’ll find it on every menu in every form you can imagine; try the popular bacalhau à Gomes de Sá (baked with potatoes, onions, boiled egg and olives).
Hit Livraria Lello, the bookshop rumored to have inspired JK Rowling’s depiction of Hogwarts (she taught in Porto in the ‘90s). It still sells books but charges an entrance fee to stem the tide of selfie taking nonreaders.
A fado show. Fado is traditional Portuguese folk music, generally sung by a Fadista with an accompanying guitar. The songs are usually quite sad, not that you can understand the lyrics. The emotion is conveyed by a wailing vocalist. There are a variety of reasons that even the Portuguese aren’t fans. Don’t fall for the “To do in Portugal” lists; a Fado show is a to-don’t.
STOP 2 / Sintra
This tiny mountain village has hosted royalty and aristocrats escaping the Lisbon heat for centuries. The pine covered forests wind up the granite mountains and catch the salty breeze from the nearby ocean. Though it’s often thought of as a day trip from Lisbon, Sintra is a destination in its own right. The poet Lord Byron spent much of his youth in Sintra, and his description of the area as a “glorious Eden” is still accurate.
Sintra is a quick forty-minute train ride from the center of Lisbon and trains leave every half hour. Or come directly from Porto by train or car, travel time is about three hours.
A day in Sintra can be an enchanting escape or a miserable slog of entrance lines to the many palaces and estates. Either stay overnight at one of the stately resorts like the Tivoli Palacio (around $300 per night) or book a proper VIP tour. Scratch that, even if you stay overnight, book the tour; lines are for suckers. There are countless tour options available, but Flamingo Experiences is the only one that will zip you around Sintra in a vintage UMM Jeep (a seriously funky 4X4 built in Portugal that’s no longer in production). The guides are natives and have fabulous stories about the region.
Flamingo offers two VIP tour options. The Cultural Tour includes front-of-line access and a private guide at both Pena Palace and Quinta da Regaleira. The Safari (our favorite) includes front-of-line access to Quinta da Regaleira only, a local lunch, an off-road ride to the coastline to find secret spots and visit beaches (Praia da Adraga and Azenhas do Mar depending on the day). The tour ends with a photo shoot at Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point in Europe, and a drop off at Cascais, the upscale seaside town (think Nice without tiny dogs).
The tour is only $55 per person or book a private tour, $320 for up to five people, and choose which palace (or palaces) you want to explore.
WHERE TO VISIT
Pick a palace, any palace; they’re all amazing examples of romantic architecture. They all have cafés that serve wine, an important feature. Quinta da Regaleira is a favorite, though it was never a palace. The sprawling mansion and surrounding gardens were built in the early twentieth century by an eccentric millionaire. There are underground grottos, hidden walkways, Rapunzel-esque turrets and, most strikingly, an eighty-eight-foot deep “Initiation Well.” What the well was used for nobody knows, but you can circle down the nine platforms of the stairway thought to represent Dante’s nine circles of hell. The well and many of the buildings around the estate have symbolism tied to the Knights Templar and the Freemasons.
The area’s most typical tipple is ginjinha, a sweet, cherry-based liqueur sold in shots. Our favorite was served in a chocolate cup filled with the sweet drink. It tastes a little like cough syrup and a Hershey bar, but oddly pretty good.
Try any one of the fabulous local mom-and-pop restaurants. The goose barnacles, called precebes are a must. Much like truffles, these sea treasures can only be harvested, never cultivated. Divers risk their lives gathering these delicacies that fetch around $50 per pound. They’re impossible to transport, so when you find them on a menu you need to order them. What they lack in beauty (they really do look like the crust gathered on the bottom of a boat), they make up for in extraordinary taste— a tiny salty cross between a lobster and a clam.
Sintra is perched above the coastline. All of the beaches are a part of the Sintra-Cascais National Park and range from hidden coves to vast expanses of sand. Closest to the main square of Cascais is the small Praia da Ribeira, also known as Fisherman’s Beach. Watch the the boats come and go as you lie on the sand. Larger beaches like Conceição and Praia da Duquesa are just up the coast, and it’s easier to find somewhere to lay your towel, though weekends can be packed with Lisbonites escaping the city for some sun and sand.
Did we mention to avoid the lines?