Portugal – 6 Captivating Towns & Cities

Beware of Portugal.  She will steal your breath with her beauty, captivate your mind with her melodic language, seduce your heart with sumptuous food and wine, while perched innocently on the sea ever scanning the westward horizon.  Perhaps it was that very view into the vast unknown that first drew her master navigators into the waters of the Atlantic Ocean centuries ago.  Whether in the name of commerce, power, wealth or curiosity the Portuguese love of the sea, the land and adventure then, is still present in its culture now.

I was fortunate enough to visit several cities in this small, power-house of a country, brought on by a Habitat for Humanity Global Village build in 2015.  My tour began Amarante for the build, a day trip to Regua, then to Porto before moving south to Coimbra and finally Lisbon with a day trip to Sintra.  It was just a taste.  But like all things that tempt the palate it’s left me hoping for more.  Any return would be a happy one.

AMARANTE

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The bridge over the Tâmega River at dusk

A town so small and unknown you have no reason to go there.  Allow me to give you a few.

#1 – You can help someone in need by building with Habitat for Humanity Portugal.  “Oh really, your build is in Portugal?” most people would say with surprise when I told them I’d be going to eastern Europe.  But Portugal is still newly democratic.  Under a harsh dictatorship until 1974, many people lived in poverty unaware of what life could be like elsewhere.  Our village was about a 20-minute drive on roads heading into hills with hairpin switchbacks that would bring German auto engineers to their knees!

#2 – The town of Amarante could have been Hans Christian Anderson (or Walt Disney’s) original inspiration.  Seeing the bridge over the Tâmega River for the first time is to feel you’ve entered a real-life fairy tale, slack-jawed, camera lens shuttering.  Everything about the town is charming and yet accessible to foreigners.

#3 – There’s a Michelin starred restaurant waiting for you and you can actually eat there without reserving a table months in advance.  Largo do Paço located in the exquisite Relais & Châteaux hotel Casa da Calçada is a sheer delight.  If you are fortunate enough to be a dinner guest, you won’t be disappointed and you won’t be broke afterward.  The chef prepared a special meal for our group, in a private dining room, at the request of our local coordinator.  Never in my wildest dreams.

There are many other shops, bakeries, restaurants and markets and old churches on cobbled streets to keep your real life fairy tale story moving for several chapters.  Portugal is like that.

Here are a few others in town I can recommend.

  • Confeitaria da Ponte – delicious traditional Portuguese pastries
  • Tasquinha da Ponte – wonderful local fare in a relaxed casual environment
  • Restaurante Principe – nice place especially for a group
  • Adega Regional Quelha – take advantage of the outdoor seating if it’s nice weather and order the poached pears for dessert if they have them!
  • Amaranto Restaurant – terrific regional cuisine, slightly upscale, with a view

[HOT TIP: If you are there with a few people consider ordering the food family style, which our group did nearly every night.  Also note that the Portuguese are a decidedly carnivorous bunch, although it is possible to get vegetarian fare it’s not the star of the show.]

REGUA

Portuguese wine, especially its famous Vinho Verde, which translates ‘young wine’ and has a slight effervescent quality, is delicious.  Although much of the wine comes from Minho in the verdant northwest corner of the country, we visited Portugal’s Duoro Valley, the oldest regulated wine making region in Europe, preceding Bordeaux.  Sorry France.

Wine estates in Portugal are known as Quintas and as our cultural excursion we visited one of the oldest. The bus ride from Amarate to Regua took about an hour and the views of the hills, valleys and towns lining the Duoro River were incredibly beautiful.

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Duoro Valey near Regua.

Quinta da Pacheca has been making wine since 1738 and is one of the first to bottle wine under their own name.  Most of the wines produced in Portugal are a blend of varietals and sold by region not by grape.  But recently Pacheca has produced a single grape varietal wine that has won several medals and plans to expand its market in the US and Brazil.  Right now they export about 70% of their wine to France.  Accolades aside, all of the wine we tasted was delicious.  And we got quite an education in port wine, something new for many of us.

On our wine tour we learned that Pacheca still uses the traditional method of stomping grapes by foot.  Stomping by foot crushes the grapes and allows the skins to begin to macerate and release their color and tannins without crushing the seeds, which would make the wine bitter.  Larger wineries actually use machines with human-foot sized mechanisms coated in silicone to crush their grapes!  We were assured that if we come back in September we can help with the harvest.

Portugal is the birthplace of port, which doesn’t have to be an acquired taste.  All of the ports we tried – white, tawny and vintage, all of various ages, had unique characteristics and were all stunningly complex on the palate.  Some port is aged in the barrel and some in the bottle, but the color and flavors of all port wines change with time.  Chocolate or cheese with port might be my new favorite dessert.

Aside from buying wine at a quinta, visit Douro Gourmet on Rua dos Camilos in Regua in town for cute souvenirs, including my favorite, gourmet, local salt.

PORTO

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Looking down toward the Duoro

If Porto entered the Miss Universe pageant she’d be quite capable of taking the crown. It’s one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen.  Any attempt I made to take a great photo pales in comparison to being there.  Portugal’s second largest city and home of the port wine industry, Oporto, as it’s also known, sits at the mouth of the Duoro River near the county’s northeastern shore.

Simply wandering the steep cobbled streets will allow you admire the many buildings adorned with those gorgeous Portuguese tile mosaics.  Be sure to take in the waterfront during the day for shopping and boat rides and in the evening for music and dining.  Be sure to walk across the Ponte D. Luís I bridge to Vila Nova de Gaia for a tour of one of the many port wine cellars like Calem.

I had a delightful stay at the InPátio Guest House.  Tucked into a courtyard the entrance to this 19th century restored boutique hotel is just off of Rua Mouzinho da Silveira a short walk up from the river.  The innkeepers are superbly hospitable.  Enjoy a glass of port in the evening and a wonderful breakfast in the morning having slept soundly in between.

Restaurants & Shops

On my first night I was able to meet up with some friends at the waterfront for dinner.  As a lover of food I was eager to try Porto’s world famous Francesinha.  If you are gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian or vegan this tasty sandwich will definitely not be to your liking.  There’s no one recipe, but it’s typically made with various types of roasted meat, covered in melted cheese and swimming in a rich tomato-beer sauce.  Yum.

Lunch the following day was at a small restaurant called Tapabento.  The food was absolutely delicious. The hospitality was even better! Prior to my arrival in Porto I was easily able to email in a reservation for a small group I was dining with for lunch.

I shared an excellent dinner with my fellow team members, eleven in all at Cafe Guarany.  We called ahead and a large table was waiting.  The room is gorgeous and the food was good.  Be aware that the Portuguese are a decidedly carnivorous bunch, and most menus reflect their love of seafood and meat.

After a cruise on the river one afternoon as you shop your way through the market lining the street,  stop for lunch at one of the many tavernas with a view, like Café do Cais.  I don’t usually expect much of a place that has a fantastic view, which often compensates for the lackluster food. Not at Cafe do Cais. We enjoyed a lovely lunch with friends on a gorgeous afternoon.

Portugal produces more than half the world’s cork.  I seemed to me Prometeu on Rua de Sao Joao is one of the best places to buy cork products in Portugal.  I bought several gifts there. The prices are fair and in some cases better than other places I saw around Porto or Coimbra or Lisbon.  Having said that, if you head down to the water you’ll find lots of vendors selling jewelry made of cork at the outdoor market.

My friends and I took advantage of Portugal’s railways heading south from Porto.  The Sao Bento Rail Station is worth seeing even if have no plans to take the train.  The trains themselves are easy to book online, clean, efficient (all of our trains ran on time) and this station is so pretty.

COIMBRA

With a well-preserved medieval town center and the historic University of Coimbra and its own unique style of fado with serenading troubadours, Coimbra (pronounced kweem-bra) is a worthy stop on your tour of Portugal.  Built on the Mondego River, the city is small but has enough to captivate you for a few days.  It’s easy to explore on foot.

Hotel Oslo is where my friends and I stayed.  It’s a good value, the breakfast ample, the room clean and adequately appointed, and the location near the center of town, river and train station made it a good place for us on our short visit in Coimbra.  There are a few things you won’t want to miss while visiting.

Cathedral of Coimbra

In the city’s old town be sure to visit the 12th-century Romanesque cathedral Sé Velha, open daily.  It’s been here since over a thousand years, although all that’s left of the original building is the foundation stone.  Rebuilt in 1162 church services have been going on since 1184.  For a small fee you can see the cathedral and the Gothic Cloister.

University of Coimbra

Built on the grounds of a former palace, the university was founded in 1290.  There are several buildings to explore on the campus, the most famed for its baroque library, the Biblioteca Joanina, which is spectacular.  First buy your ticket because the entries are timed.  Sadly, in the old part of the library, which is the most stunning to see, you aren’t allowed to take photographs.

[HOT TIP: Keep your eyes peeled for the bats which protect the old books from all kinds of insects.]

Also worth seeing are the academic prison, the ceremonial hall and St. Michael’s Chapel.  Don’t miss the climb to the top of the university’s 18th-century bell tower.

Fado

For most of us fado will probably be like the opera, either one and done or it leaves you wanting for more.  I saw it several times and treated it as a ‘when in Portugal do as the Portuguese do’ kind of experience.  The Portuguese are very passionate about this unique artform.  I was moved to watch the performers express their deepest emotions although I had no idea what they were saying.  I can only imagine if I actually knew the story!

Even if you have seen fado elsewhere in Portugal, you really should see it in Coimbra. Performed solely by males, the tradition here, uniquely rooted in the University of Coimbra’s tradition, is wonderful. I highly recommend Fado ao Centro.  I made reservations online, then paid for the tickets upon arrival. If you want a good seat, I arrive up to 20 minutes prior to the show start time, so that you can get in line. First come first served. The show is followed by a port tasting in the courtyard outside.

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Traditional Coimbra male led fado at Fado ao Centro

Restaurants

Restaurante O Trovador (Largo da Se Velha) – Recommended to us by a local, this is a wonderful spot to have good Portuguese food. The interior is very charming and quaint and the staff super friendly.

Solar do Bacalhau (Rua da Sota) – From the street you may be wondering, as we were, if this place is any good and it’s actually pretty great! They serve local fare, and great Italian pasta dishes, seafood and steaks. We had a wonderful, relaxing dinner on our last night in Coimbra.

[HOT TIP: Restaurants typically close between lunch and dinner so plan accordingly.]

LISBON

All aboard!  Next stop, Lisbon, or Lisboa (pronounced leej-boa) as the Portuguese would say.  The most westward city in mainland Europe, capital city Lisbon, is known as the city built on seven hills.  True to its title, get ready to do some climbing!  Conquering some of the steepest hills I’ve seen anywhere, just getting from point A to B can leave you huffing and puffing.  Bring comfortable shoes and be prepared for a workout.

 

Located in the popular Bairro Alto neighborhood, I booked rooms at the Independente Hostel and Suites.  Aside from getting great online reviews small boutique hotels are my personal preference not only for their personality but also for their services.  This place was no exception including a delectable breakfast included with your room on the suite side.

The hotel also boasts two restaurants, the Insolito and Decadente, both excellent in their own right.  There’s also the Cobre if it’s drinks and nightlife you’re after.  The Insolito on the roof has a terrific view to the sea.  The staff are all locals and can help you with just about anything.  It’s a lot of bang for the proverbial buck.

Restaurants

Adega Machado (Rua do Norte, n.º 91) – For dinner and Fado

Esperança Ristorante Italiano (Rua do Norte, n.º 95) – For pizza & Italian

Cervejaria Trindade (Rua Nova da Trindade, 20 c) – For beer and a history lesson only

Cooking Class

Learning about culture through food is one of my favorite experiences and these guys are terrific!  My friend and I booked the Market Tour with Cooking Class with Cooking Lisbon, which we booked ahead online.  You can learn so much from shopping the way locals do and I really enjoyed the market tour where we bought many of the ingredients we needed to cook.  In addition to cooking, eating and drinking everything you make, you get all the recipes so you can recreate your Portuguese dinner party at home.  Now if I only had a copy of their music playlist!

 

 

Check out these little buggers!  Snails are eaten all over Portugal.

Here’s a demo of the kale shredding, done by hand, and used in the Caldo Verde recipe, pictured above.

SINTRA

If you have the time seeing Sintra, about an hour train ride (easy and affordable; we went roundtrip from the Rossio station) from Lisbon, is a must.  You may even want to consider spending the night so that you can see the many historic attractions of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.  I recommend prioritizing what you’d like to see if you only have one day.  We ended up seeing three, and I believe we chose well.  You can pick up maps when you pay for your tickets.

[HOT TIP: Consider hiring a driver and saving a lot of time getting from one site to another.  My friends and I were on foot and found the climbs to some of the sites to be the most difficult, even for very fit people.]

National Palace of Pena

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View from the Queen’s Terrace at Pena Palace

Built on rock at the top of the Sintra Mountains, the Palace is one of the finest examples of Romanticism architecture in the world.  Once the home of Portuguese Royals, the castle is still used today for official state business and events.  Having visited Disney World it was hard for me to believe that what I was looking at dated back hundreds of years; it appears as much fantasy land as fortress.  After enduring the climb we took our time seeing everything and had a wee rest at the tea room and bite to eat at the restaurant.  Able to see Lisbon from the top, we were reminded of just how far we’d come.

Moorish Castle

Built by Muslim, Moors, in the 9th century, the castle is a military fort used secure the Atlantic coast waterways and lands to the north.  The green flag with white letters “Sintra” in Arabic, still flies today although the castle was taken by Christian forces after Lisbon’s fall in the 12th century.  By this time your feet will have logged some serious miles, with still so much left to explore.

Quinta da Regaleira

Upon our descent of the mountain we chose the gorgeous, once summer estate, of the Carvalho Monteiro family as our final stop.  In addition to the palace, the property includes a dizzying array of buildings and parks to explore including a chapel, water features and grottos, wells, and secret tunnels.  Throughout my visit scenes ranging from Alice in Wonderland, Knights of the Templar and Ghost Busters came to mind!

Sintra, and all its glorious and varied buildings, is a place where your imagination can run wild, even if your legs have a hard time keeping up.

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