Portugal had been lingering near the top of our list of want-to-go travel destinations for years. But with so many places to go and limited time, it took us a while to get there. It was actually our neighbors’ trip to Portugal last summer that gave us the nudge to make it a priority. While we were on vacation in Greece at the same time, I would pop on social media, see their photos from Lisbon and Cascais, and drool with wanderlust — and we were on a fantastic getaway ourselves. Hearing how much they loved it when we were all back home confirmed it for us: Portugal would be our next big trip.
We decided to go during Spring Break for a few reasons: 1) We already had plans for an Oregon vacation in the summer 2) Airfare and accommodations were less expensive and more plentiful in the spring 3) We wanted to avoid the summer tourism crush and heat. This was an auspicious decision as spring was an ideal time to go . The weather in mid-April was a perfect high 70s and sunny every day, we found flights and stays fairly easily, and the cities we visited weren’t overly crowded, We only had to wait in line for an attraction once (for five minutes), and it generally felt very relaxed and easy to do everything.
I had the best of intentions to write about our travels soon after we returned home, but what can I say, life got in the way. However, the timing of this post now, might be even better for planning a spring break trip to Portugal. You can start monitoring flights and airfare, checking out accommodations, and getting ideas (starting here!) for a great getaway. Of course, if spring doesn’t work, I recommend going any time of year!
So, let’s get to the details…
WHERE WE WENT…AND WHY
We flew direct on TAP Air to Lisbon, and stayed three nights, which included a full day trip to Sintra. From there, we drove about three hours to Lagos in the Algarve region, the southern coast of Portugal, where we spent another three nights. Then, we drove back up to Cascais, a beach town about 20 miles west of Lisbon, where we spent our last day and night before flying home.
Starting our trip in Lisbon was a no-brainer because we flew in there and we were excited to explore Portugal’s capital city that we’d heard and seen so many wonderful things about from a variety of sources, including our above-mentioned neighbors. We contemplated going to Porto, which also looks fantastic, but decided to experience a different kind of area rather than another big city, and opted to go to Lagos instead. Also, we wanted something a little more relaxed and beachy. For our final night, we chose Cascais, because our neighbors had spent several days there and raved about it, plus it was about the same distance from the airport as downtown Lisbon. All in all, it was an excellent mix, though we wish we could have enjoyed longer stays in every place and visited even more destinations.
Accommodations: We stayed at this Airbnb in the Martim Moniz neighborhood, which was pretty centrally located and felt very safe. We had considered several options, including this hotel recommended by our neighbors, but went with our place because it looked really nice, had rave reviews, offered great space — our kids had their own rooms — and just seemed like a better deal than the hotels we looked at. However, after being there and talking to locals about some of the housing issues many Lisboans are facing (more on that below), we might opt for a hotel next time.
There is a lot to see and do in Lisbon, and we knew that we couldn’t fit in everything in three days. But we don’t mind a relaxed approach to exploring, which is to plan ahead for some things we definitely want to do or see, then figure out the rest as we go. It’s nice to wander and take in the whole vibe, rather than rush from site to site without really getting a feel for a place.
That said, we knew we wanted to go to Sintra (more on that below) during our time in Lisbon and see a fútbol match. We’ve tried to catch a soccer game several times before on our European travels, but timing never worked out. Planning for this trip, though, we saw that Sporting CP would be playing while we were there, so we reserved tickets in advance. We went to the match on our second evening, and it was fantastic! The kids both play and love to watch soccer, so it was a real treat for them to spectate in Europe, where fútbol is such a big part of the culture. We all enjoyed the exciting play and stadium traditions — I highly recommend for soccer fans!
As for Lisbon, we did a lot of walking around the Baixa, Chaido, Bairro Alto, and Alfama neighborhoods, which are the main areas with major sights that also seem to be the heart of the city. We went to Castelo de São Jorge, which dates back to 2 BCE and offers a glimpse into Lisbon’s history and impressive views from its location on the highest hill in the city. One of the neatest things about the castle are all the peacocks roaming the grounds that apparently have been there since the 15th century (obviously not those same birds; they aren’t hundreds of years old).
We also took a Tuk Tuk tour around the Alfama, which was a super fun way to see the neighborhood and get extra insight about the area from a local. We saw the second oldest house in Lisbon, peeked in the beautiful Igreja de Santo Estevao church, stopped by some of the most popular Fado (traditional music) spots, and took in the stunning views from Miradoura da Grace and learned about the “hidden” cafe nearby.
Within Lisbon we walked to get around (aside from our Tuk Tuk tour). Lisbon is very walkable, and most of the city’s main attractions were in walking distance from our Airbnb. We also like to walk and see what we might happen upon on the way. Not to mention, some of the streets are very narrow and twisty, and may have been tricky to navigate had we gotten a car. We used Uber to/from the airport as well as for our day trip to Sintra and the Sporting CP match. It was very dependable, safe, and cheaper than in the US.
1) We arrived in Lisbon early in the day and had a few hours’ wait before our Airbnb check-in, so we had looked into places to store our bags ahead of the trip. However, once there, we saw Hotel Mudial across the street from our place, and I popped in and asked about storing our luggage, and they generously let us for a very small fee.
2) There are many miradouros around the city. The terraces facing the Tagus River are situated on seven hilltops across the city and are popular with locals and visitors to hang out, relax, and watch the sunset. Some have cafes there, too.
3) Wear sneakers to walk around. There is a lot of up and down on hills and stairs, and cobblestone streets make some of it very slippery. I wore Birks one day and regretted it as I kept sliding in them.
4) We enjoyed a great dinner at Bairro do Avillez (recommended by our neighbors) and got to try the specialty cod à brás (salt cod, potatoes, onions and eggs).
5) We also had a lovely lunch at Antù, a tucked away spot in the Alfama that we happened upon as we were wandering.
6) Pastelaria Nata Fina, the cafe right next to our Airbnb, has great coffee, Pastel de Nata and more pastries, and the friendliest people working there.
From Lisbon, we took a day trip to Sintra, a fairytale of a town about 30 minutes away by car. There are several major sites to tour, and they are all incredible and worthy of exploring. We, unfortunately, didn’t have time for all of them, but we were able to visit three: The Castelo dos Mouros, a 10th-century Moorish Castle; Quinta da Regaleira, the most beautiful and whimsical garden; and the Pena National Palace, a sprawling, colorful castle built in the 1840’s.
We appreciated each place, but loved the Moorish Castle and Quinta da Regaleira most, both all outdoors and really fun to explore the many different areas of both on our own. Pena Palace was absolutely stunning from the outside, but we found the interior and slow, winding tour in a long line of people to be tiresome — we’ve seen grand rooms like that before — but views from the terraces and the grounds were fantastic, and I loved wandering through the woods as we made or way back to the entrance.
The little town of Sintra is great, too — we enjoyed a nice lunch there, and popped in some of the shops. I really wish we’d had more time to spend there, not just in town, but in all of Sintra. An overnight with two days to see more would have been ideal.
We took an Uber to Sintra from Lisbon, and it was about $40. On the way back, we used a car service that we found in Sintra to get between sites. The driver was great, giving a lot of insight about Sintra, and offering to take us back to Lisbon also for about $40. There is a train that runs between Lisbon (Rossio staton) and Sintra that only costs about $5-6/person round trip, which seems like the obvious choice price-wise, but we always saw a long line waiting for the train and didn’t want to lose time, plus we just like being on our own schedule.
1) In hindsight, there are some things I would have done differently on our Sintra day trip, like the order in which we visited the sights. We started on the mountain, then went down, then back up again because we bought the timed tickets without knowing the locations. This blog post actually suggests a really good itinerary for the day.
2) Buy tickets in advance to ensure you have them and to avoid any possible lines when you’re there — you can buy them for all the major parks on one website.
4) Build in time to spend in town for a bite to eat and to walk around — the town is very cute.
5) Wear comfortable shoes! There is a lot of walking, a lot of it up and down stairs and hills.
We wanted this part of our trip to be a little more relaxing, less go-go-go than Lisbon, so we opted for a resort stay with amenities in line with that. There were a lot of options, but we decided on the The Cascade Resort, about a five minute drive from the Old Town of Lagos, because it looked really nice, the location right on a beautiful cliffside, and we were able to get a spacious two-bedroom apartment for a very reasonable rate. It’s a very family-friendly resort, with three pools, a spa, pretty grounds, a gym, tennis courts and soccer pitch, an on site restaurant, and easy access to hiking trails that extend all along the coastal cliffs (more on that below). It’s about a half-mile walk or few minute drive to the nearest beach where you can hang out, but the walk there was lovely. We also liked this resort that is just steps from the beach, but we read there was construction going on at the time we would be there (it’s likely over by now).
One of the best features of our resort was the location right atop the cliffs edging the shorline and the easy access to hiking trails that run along the Algarve coast. You can walk for miles along the sandy paths and boardwalks as you take in spectacular views of the dramatic coastline. While we hiked them closer to where we stayed, they are accessible further east, too. There are many overlooks that take you out over rocks and areas that would be otherwise perilous. These spots are perfect for watching the incredible sunsets.
On our second day there, we went to Sagres about a 30-minute drive from Lagos, and toured Fortaleza Sagres, a 15th-century fort on a peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic. The main draw for us was the location as the southwestern most point of mainland Europe, called the end of the earth by ancient Romans. And walking around the fort on the cliffs 200 feet above the water and looking into the endless stretch of ocean around us, it really felt like the of world! The fort was interesting to tour with ancient structures, including a compass rose in the ground and a church, displays about the history, flora, and fauna of the area, plus grottos and a maze where you can hear the sounds of the waves crashing below. Also remarkable were the several fisherman standing treacherously (to me, anyway)on the edges of the cliffs with their lines cast into the water below, a glimpse into local, everyday life there.
On our third day, we took a boat tour to explore the many caves, coves, rock formations, and hidden beaches within the towering cliffs along the Algarve coastline. The most famous of them all is the Benagil Cave and numerous outfitters offer trips to see it — by boat and kayak. We opted for a boat tour because you get to see a lot more — it’s a few miles’ trip each way — and cruising along the ocean is so exhilarating. We booked with Benagil Express and had a great experience — I recommend the tour for all ages. Kayaking looks and sounds like a fun experience, too, but you don’t go as far or see as much.
Throughout our time in Lagos, we also enjoyed our resort, especially the pools and lovely grounds. And every evening, we went into the Old Town for dinner and to stroll the pretty tiled paths, pop in shops, and check out mural art around the town. It was a bit sleepy that time of year, but still great to spend time there. It’s apparently much more lively during the summer.
We rented a car in Lisbon and drove the three hours to Lagos and had the car for our whole stay there to get around. There is a train from Lisbon to Lagos, and you can take buses, hotel shuttles, or Uber to get around once there, but I recommend renting a car if you want to explore on your own schedule and just have the convenience and freedom do go wherever and whenever you want.
1) We had the best meal of our trip at Casinha do Petisc in the Old Town. Cataplana, a traditional Portuguese stew, is the region’s famous dish, and it’s apparently the best at this restaurant. It’s very small, so reservations are a good idea.
2) As we researched the Algarve region, Lagos was consistently recommended as one of the best towns for families.
3) The Seven Hanging Valleys Trail looks like a fantastic hike. If we had more time, we would have done this.
4) The Algarve, especially Sagres, is known as a world-class surfing spot. It was fun to watch surfers ride the waves on our day trip there.
We spent our last night in Cascais, since it was the same distance to the airpot as Lisbon, and we had heard wonderful things about the beach town just 30 minutes west of the capital city. We stayed at the amazing Pestana Cidadela Cascais hotel recommended by our neighbors. It’s a bit pricey, but we were able to get a good deal for the night through Priceline. The hotel is gorgeous, built from an old Fort right next to the water with artful elements throughout. Our spacious loft-style room was so comfortable, and there were so many lovely nooks around the hotel, I so wish we could have stayed there longer.
We didn’t have nearly enough time to explore all of Cascais — not only were we there for just a night, it rained (the only time on our whole trip) most of the afternoon. The downpour began as the kids and I went out to stroll around while Levi returned the rental car, so we ducked into Hífen, a small, lively restaurant, where we enjoyed some tasty bites. When the rain stopped we continued our stroll of the lovely, little town and stopped in some shops, saw the picturesque waterfront areas, and savored the casual, beachy vibe. Later we had a great seafood dinner at Sr. Manuel Seafood Bar. I woke early the next morning for another walk around, but by the time everyone else got up, we eally only had time for breakfast at the hotel before we caught our Uber to the airport.
1) Plan for more time, at least three days, than we did! I wish we could have stayed longer in Cascais… we hadn’t even planned on going there at all initially, but decided to switch it up from our final night in Lisbon at the last minute, and I’m so glad we did. Now we know we’ll spend more time there next Portugal trip.
2) I highly recommend the Pestana Cidadela Cascais! Look for a deal through Priceline like we did.
3) If you’re an early riser, get out for a walk…the glow of the morning light is gorgeous.
MORE INSIGHT & TIPS
1) As I discussed in this post about our trip to Greece, we like to use Vlogs for travel research. For Portugal, we watched a lot of these videos to prep for our trip. We found the couple to be funny and honest and the videos well edited.
2) We originally booked this resort in Albufeira for the Algarve portion fo our trip, because it looked awesome in the Vlogs we watched (and probably is a great place). However, about a week before our trip, we happened to see a current video of the downtown area and it was packed with people partying — not really what we were looking for — so we pivoted and planned for Lagos instead. So glad we did. Before we left the Algarve, we stopped in Albufeira, and the town was insanely crowded and not nearly as nice as Lagos.
3) Tinned fish is a thing in Portugal, and there is even a chain store (including in the airport) that sells nothing but that — for outrageous prices. If, like me, you like tinned fish, sardine pâté, and the like, get it at the grocery store, where it’s very inexpensive.
4) Throughout the trip, we talked to several locals about the increased popularity of Portugal as a travel and expat destination. Many of them expressed great frustration about the influx and how it’s affected them. Airbnbs, in particular, have made it more difficult for Lisboans to find affordable housing and others feel that expats have also contributed to that. Some did note, however, that tourism has boosted the country in other ways. But food for thought if you’re deciding between an Airbnb and a hotel. Next time, we will probably opt for all hotels.
5) The New York Times coincidentally published this article about travel in Lisbon just as we were coming home. It has great tips for traveling there and also touches on what I mentioned right above.
MORE SCENES FROM PORTUGAL
Have you been to Portugal? Do you have any good tips and insight? Feel free to share in the comments!