I have just spent the last 10 days touring with friends. I’ve been fine tuning my itinerary and my “camp mother” tips…
10 days is not enough! You will not be able to see the whole country without wasting large amounts of time travelling. And this is my Tour Golden Rule #1: spend as little time in the car (or other transport) as possible. You should commit yourself to either the north (north of Porto), the south (south of Lisbon) or central Portugal. This is the central Portugal tour. Well, more or less, because I include Braga, because it´s worth the exception.
Tour Golden Rule #2 is to spend lots of time relaxing and eating. Even with your dearest friends or family it can be hard to gauge just how many churches/museums/goats they want to see… but exhaustion is rarely on anyone´s wish list. Don´t rush them, they are trying to chill out.
Keeping visitors well fed and watered is essential, and Portugal makes this task easy provided you keep an eye on the time. Try to start lunch between 1pm-2pm and dinner between 8-9pm. Getting fed during these hours is guaranteed anywhere, outside these hours you can´t make assumptions. Fortunately tostas mistas, pastéis de nata and café are generally available at all times in an emergency. These disciplined meal times allow you space for morning and afternoon tea as pastries and coffee are a cultural obligation.
We start in Porto and finish in Lisbon. Arranging your flights and transport this way conforms with Rule #1. But whether you start with Porto or Lisbon is up to you.
Day One : Porto
I´ve been sworn to secrecy about the best hotel bargain in all of Portugal, suffice to say you can live royally in Porto and blow away your guests with extravagance, for a mere €83 (triple). After this, unfortunately, nothing else compares. Start hunting now… “Castelo” is your keyword.
Porto has too much to do in just one day… but here´s a bunch of the best: Ribeira district, Bolhão market, Palaçio da Bolsa, São Bento train station and Igreja do Carmo for azulejos, Café Majestic and Leitaria Quinta do Paço for refreshment, Porto Paixão for shopping. The top museum is the Museu do Arte Contemporânea, in a modern Alvaro Siza building and surrounded by gardens. And of course, there is port tasting.
For dining, head to the Ribeira district. The many restaurants range from rustic to fine dining. Take a wander and find your own.
Day Two: Braga
My favourite hotel and restaurant in all of Portugal are in Braga. Hotel Francfort is on the main square. I go there for the furniture, not the plumbing, and for €15 a head no one complains.
The restaurant is Taverna Felix and I recommend you book ahead. They are full every night because their food is fantastic. Leave room for dessert.
In Braga you shouldn´t miss Café Brasileira, the cobbled old town, or a glimpse of the cathedral, the oldest in Portugal. But really you come to Braga to see the Bom Jesus do Monte, a crazy baroque staircase located 5 mins out of town. Take the funicular.
Day Three: Coimbra with a stop at the Palaçio do Busaco
A visit to the Palaçio has been a nice diversion in the past but I don´t think I´ll bother again. It´s a stunning piece of architecture, nestled in a national park, but the €5 entry fee to the park and the bad attitude of the hotel staff when we wanted to have afternoon tea has turned me off. I suppose the time has come when the hotel is sick of tourists, and if they can genuinely afford to turn punters away, then good luck to them.
Coimbra´s personality is dominated by the university, one of the oldest in Europe. A walk around the steep maze of streets in the old centre is a must and it´s best at night. It´s dotted with cool bars where you can mix it with the young people until the wee hours. The Baixa area is full of inexpensive restaurants and hotels. The outstanding sight in Coimbra is the Biblioteca Joanina, don´t miss it. Café Santa Cruz is an excellent place for people watching and for free fado on a Friday or Saturday night.
Day Four and Five we spent at my house… so here are some other suggestions because I can´t put you all up. You could stay in Coimbra two nights and visit the roman ruins at Conimbriga. There´s an excellent restaurant at the ruins too, with more spectacular desserts, mark my words. Suggestion two is Tomar, or Santarem. If the people like Batalha (see next) then you could also take them to Alcobaça, and Leiria is also good for a feed, or a shop or another castle. If you need a nature fix, go to Lousã, where you can stay at the excellent youth hostel or the adorable palaçio, or a least eat at A Condessa. From Lousã you can walk in the mountains and visit the Aldeias do Xisto. Only two days to fill, and too many suggestions.
Day Six: Nazaré with a stop in Batalha
“A Giant Hairy Spider” is how I describe the UNESCO-listed monastery known as Batalha. There is nothing else to do here, but with a monument this awesome, you need no distractions. The best café is located perpendicular to the cathedral towards the man on the horse.
The best part of Nazaré, apart from the beach, is O Sitio. Hang around near the cliff walk and you´ll be approached to rent rooms, hopefully by Dona Berta, as we were. One knockout bargain two bed apartment (€70) with views, thank you very much. For unforgettable garlic prawns head for Vista A Mar, the first restaurant on the way to the lighthouse (Farol).
Still in O Sitio, visit the tiny chapel called Hermida da Memoria, and then take the funicular down to the beach. Past the restaurant strip at right angles to the sea there are impressive pastelarias. The beach has very photogenic tents in the summer and a large fish drying camp, with some very tolerant local oldies waiting.
We were loving Nazaré, with our enviable apartment and gorgeous weather, so we stayed another night and on the second day did a day trip to Obidos. Obidos is more touristy than most places in Portugal, but it is very cute nonetheless. Get off the main path and you can avoid the bus tour groups. Up on the miradouro is a quiet, leafy and groovy bar.
Day Eight: Caldas da Rainha.
I love Caldas, where the daily main-square market, the park, the Bordalo Pinheiro museum and factory shop are on the agenda. In Caldas I love the Residencial Central and Café Central.
Day Nine: Lisboa to stay, with stops in Sintra and Mafra
The Palaçio Naçional de Mafra showcases the obscene spending of Dom João V. It´s a massive place with some lovely baroque living quarters, an interesting hospital and kitchen for the monks and a stunning royal library. But don´t miss the town of Mafra itself. There are more than a few quality pastelarias and good restaurants.
Then it´s onto Sintra which has a choice of castles to visit. My number one here is the Palaçio de Pena, a mockery of a royal palace designed by the royals themselves who clearly had a sense of humour. It´s camp, disney and delightful but I hope the €12 entry fee doesn´t turn you off. It´s doubled in price in 3 years. I´m all for a tourism-led-economic-recovery but… eek.
Day Ten: Lisboa
Again, it´s difficult to fit this great city into just a day. Three days might start to do it justice. Time to make the visitors commit to a return visit…
Driving around Lisbon will make you swear. Dump the car asap if you have one. Stay in a hotel that has a deal with a carpark.
For an impressive bargain hotel you need to book at least a week ahead. Try the Lisbon Lounge Hostel or look at others in Alfama, the Baixa or Bairro Alto so you´ll have atmosphere at your doorstep.
Things I call must dos: Confeitaria Naçional: coffee and pastries are the priority, naturally. Tram 28 is in all the guide books, but note that the good bit is between Estrela and Alfama. As it doesn´t pass through Praça Figueira anymore then perhaps the short round trip of the 12E is more convenient.
The 15E tram from Praça Figueira will conveniently take you to Belem, where you can have a famous pastel, see Jerónimos for free, visit the Berardo Modern Art Museum and check out the Torre de Belem.
While still on transport, I´ve always wanted to take the ferry from Cais do Sodré to Cacilhas. A relaxing 20 minutes each way and great views of Lisbon. And for more transport-for-fun, take one of the four elevadores in Lisbon and the Santa Justa lift.
I think the Gulbenkian Museum has one of best collections in the world: Calouste Gulbenkian was a fascinating person, the collection is varied, not too big and ends with a stunning Lalique jewellery collection. Or if there are 8 yr olds to impress, go to the Museu dos Coches, (coaches, as in cinderella) which, they say, is the most visited museum in Portugal.
In Lisbon you have a chance to show off some amazing interiors over dinner. We went to Casa do Alentejo and Galeto, which in my mind is the grooviest restaurant in the world. Bairro Alto is the perfect place to window shop for restaurants and bars. Alfama too is dotted with tiny authentic places, and you can’t really go too wrong.
Yeah I know, it´s all over too soon. A month next time. A year. Or the rest of your life…