My years in the travel industry has taken me to many corners of the world, but none of these travels prepared me for the incredible country of Portugal. About the size of Maine or Indiana, this country is not only beautiful but friendly, affordable and unpretentious.
While not typically one of the top Europe bucket list destinations, Portugal has a charm and allure all its own. Hidden away in the extreme southwest corner of Europe to the west of Spain, it’s long been on the shortlist of places that I wanted to visit. My wife and I planned a 10-day trip to Portugal that included the two largest cities, Lisbon and Porto, the Duoro Valley wine region which is less than an hour east of Porto, as well the Atlantic coast between the two cities.
We chose to stay in the centrally located Hotel Convento do Salvador in the heart of the Alfama district of Lisbon, the oldest part of the city. At the top of the hill overlooking Alfama is Castelo da Sao Jorge, a must-see Moorish Castle from the 11th century. Tram 28, a fun and popular mode of transportation, will get you close to the castle but be prepared for steep cobblestone streets and tiled walkways.
Alfama (first settled in the 7th century) is not only a step back in time to centuries ago when Lisbon was newly settled, but part of it was also the “Jewish quarter.” Today it remains the home of Fado, the soul-searching Portuguese music that is heard in many cafes in the evening.
Other highly recommended sights include the UNESCO-listed Mosteiro dos Jeronimos in Belem, the Tower of Belem, and the Praca de Comercio plaza which unofficially serves as the heart of the city. World-class museums also abound, including Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga and Museu Nacional de Azulejo.
The only remaining Jewish temple in Lisbon is the Synagogue Sharee Tikva (Gates of Hope), which opened in 1904, and has a membership of about 300 families. While Jews have been in Portugal since the Middle Ages, in 1497, King Manuel I requested they either convert to Christianity or leave the country, which many did. Current Jews in Lisbon are primarily descendants of Sephardic Jews. Visits to Sharee Tikva must be arranged in advance by contacting the synagogue directly.
And no visit to the Lisbon area is complete without planning a full day in Sintra, just 30 minutes by commuter rail to the west. Sintra is home to the Moorish and Italian Renaissance architectural marvel Palacio Nacional de Sintra, another UNESCO site, as well as the otherworldly Pena Palace, Castle of the Moors and the fascinating Quinta da Regaleira.
After thoroughly falling for Lisbon, we headed north three hours via the punctual national train service to Porto. We were struck by the picturesque setting of this hilly city. With a more laid-back atmosphere than Lisbon, Porto quickly drew us in. From medieval alleys to a slew of restaurants on the picturesque Rio Duoro that flows through the heart of the city, Porto is a one-of-a-kind experience. Renting an apartment just off the central Ribeira neighborhood, we were within walking distance of almost everything we had planned.
Highlights of a visit to Porto should include an evening stroll and dinner along the shop-lined river shores within sight of the iconic, two-level Dom Luis I Bridge (Ponte Dom Luis). Designed by a disciple of Gustav Eiffel (yes, that Eiffel), this railway bridge across the Rio Duoro was completed in 1886. The structure is the Brooklyn Bridge of Porto, known to travelers from around the world. Walking across the upper level gives you beautiful city views.
History aficionados will revel in touring the Se, a hilltop cathedral with a Baroque atmosphere that sits like a fortress overlooking the central city. Additionally, the Igreja de Sao Francisco is a spectacular church from the 15th century with a transformed Baroque interior that is dripping in gold leaf. A sight to be seen!
And perhaps most importantly to Harry Potter fans, a visit to the Livraria Lello bookstore in Porto is a must. Author J.K. Rowling is believed to have based the library in her books on this store where she spent endless hours writing her stories. Be advised that you have to buy a five-euro ticket to get in and there will be a crowd and a wait to enter. But if you’re a Potter fan, it will be well worth it.
Porto also has a synagogue, the Comunidade Israelita Porto (Jewish Community of Porto) tucked away on a quiet residential street. The shul serves around 400 Jewish families who originate from more than 30 countries. Unfortunately, we were unaware that a reservation to visit was required in advance. A full tour of the beautiful synagogue is part of our plan when we return next year.
Wine-Rich Duoro Valley
We hired a private driver and guide to show us the country’s premier wine region, the Duoro Valley. The Valley is home to dozens of vineyards that even today, as in centuries past, are harvested by hand due to steep hillside tiered plantings.
Less than an hour east of Porto, the hilly area is renowned for being the birthplace of “port,” a delicious blend of red wine and brandy. Port continues to be produced today just as it was hundreds of years ago, and white port is now also available. More than a dozen port producers age their product in caves located on the Vila Nova da Gaia side of the Duoro River in Porto, offering tours and, of course, port to take home. Other ways to visit the Duoro wine region from Porto include a river cruise or shoreline train.
Small towns: Aveiro & Nazare
For the return trip to Lisbon, we opted to rent a car in Porto and drive down the coast, stopping in towns along the way. Our first stop was in Aveiro, the quaint and lovely “Venice of Portugal” due to its location on a lagoon. This is a great spot to stop for a bite to eat, or even to spend a night. Truly Portuguese, it is popular with tourists, but also offers a glimpse into life in a small coastal city away from the hustle and bustle.
Our final stop was totally unplanned. We were looking for a lunch spot between Aveiro and Lisbon and came across signs for Nazare, also on the Atlantic coast. Saying “why not?”, we headed into town and discovered a beautiful resort area with stunning cliffs, great restaurants, winding tight roadways, and a totally away-from-the-mainstream feel. Little did we know that this was one of the most popular seaside getaways spots on the Costa da Prata (Silver Coast), known for being home to some of the tallest surfing waves (up to 80 feet!) in the world. This is without question a town worth re-visiting and further exploring.
Plan Your Visit to Portugal
If you’re wondering what’s not enticing about Portugal, we haven’t found that yet. Or maybe it doesn’t exist? From its scenic beauty to the charm of its people, Portugal is a special place. If you like seafood, superb wine, museums, charming large cities and small villages, an endless array of historical sites, and traveling to new welcoming and safe places, this country is for you.
So where are we off to next year? Well, back to Portugal, of course. Next year will take us back to Porto, as well as to Braga in the north, the university city of Coimbra, and who knows where else? For such a small country, there is so much to experience. And we plan to do just that.