Portugal has long been on our wish list, so we decided to road trip the country from north to south during a February break from school. While not a popular time to visit, we would argue it was better than high or even shoulder season. We didn’t have crowds but everything was open. The weather was mild and 10-15 degrees warmer than London—a solid win for us!
We journeyed from Porto to Lisbon by way of the Duoro Valley and Cascais. While I’m putting all our favorite, not-to-be-missed spots in one post, we actually visited Portugal twice over a three-week period because we saved Lisbon and Sintra for a meet-up with our dear American friends on their spring break. But in a total of 12 days, these were our top experiences, memories, tastes and sights in the beautiful country on the southwest coast of Europe.
- Portuguese tiles – Walking through the old towns of Lisbon and Porto, you can’t help but crane your neck to revel at the pops of color on apartments, train stations and churches. The tiles are intricate and ornate, giving otherwise plain stucco buildings their own vivid personality. I was obsessed with the tiles and wanted to visit the National Tile Museum in Lisbon, but was sadly outvoted by the kids!
2. Tasting Port – The city of Porto was given its name because of its position at the mouth of the Douro River where the fortified wine was sold or exported to other countries in Europe. I had never given port much thought, but after a tour at Grahams, one of the famous port houses, we became fans of the sweet, after dinner drink.
3. Livraria Lello bookstore – JK Rowling saw this Porto bookstore’s intricate staircases and they became one of her inspirations for Hogwarts. The eclectic, Art Nouveau design is a masterpiece of architecture and detail, worth the wait in line. (FYI these photos crammed with tourists were taken pre-COVID!)
4. Pasteis de Nata – The egg custard tart is the national dessert of Portugal, and we enjoyed the little delights for breakfast, too. Watch them being made and eat a few fresh and warm at Castro in Porto and Manteigaria in Lisbon. Don’t forget to sprinkle on the cinnamon!
5. Train stations and trams – The nostalgic forms of transportation still thrive in Portugal. Many of the train stations are beautifully tiled and designed. Check out Sao Bento in Porto, Pinhao in the Douro Valley and Rossio in Lisbon—worth a visit even if you aren’t catching a train. After days of tackling the city hills of Porto and Lisbon, hopping on a tram is a novel way to rest your legs.
6. Douro Valley views – Make Pinhao your destination for a day or two of tasting in the Duoro Valley. You can take the train from Porto in 2.5 hours to enjoy the views and the wine. The banks of the river rise steeply on both sides where vines are trellised for miles. Reserve your tastings at Quinta de la Rosa, Quinta da Pacheca, Quinta Nova and Sandemans.
7. Cascais – Only half an hour from Lisbon, Cascais is a small coastal town with high-end taste. Don’t miss sunset at Boca do Inferno and a walk through town to the famous, family-run Santinis for ice cream.
8. Cycling from Cascais to Cabo da Roca – Cabo da Roca is the westernmost point in Europe and a beautiful ride from Cascais. We opted for e-bikes to tackle the hills and the view was definitely worth the climb.
9. Sintra’s Pena Palace – Sintra is a town of many castles in the bucolic green hills beyond Lisbon. If you can only choose one, go with Pena Palace. It’s a burst of color and magical architecture with an interesting audio guide painting a picture of royal life in a bygone era.
10. Lisbon’s Belem neighborhood – West of the old town, Lisbon’s Belem neighborhood deserves a day that you can devote to the country’s maritime history. We enjoyed walking along the river from the Belem Tower to the Monument to the Discoveries. After lunch (and a few pasteis de natas) we cooled off in the Maritime Museum.
11. Praca do Comercio – This large open public square is a perfect place for kids to run off their energy while the adults enjoy a beverage. We walked there for sunset and the children dug for treasures in the sand. These slow and simple nights were some of my favorite memories.
12. Walking tours – It’s rare for us to start off in a city without a walking tour, and each of the free tours in Porto, Lisbon and Cascais were helpful as we got our bearings and learned the interesting history and culture of each new city. Whether you hire a local or tip your free guide, it is always a few hours well spent.