Our love of Portugal has been a surprise to us. Ou previous visits to scooter the ins and outs of Lisbon and explore the romance of Porto blew us away. Before moving to Europe, Portugal had never been high on our list, but after spending weekends in Porto and Lisbon last year, we were hooked on the big sunny skies, shockingly good food and wine, rugged coastline and colorful, intricate architecture. We booked a 6 day open jaw trip, flying in to Lisbon and out of Porto, to fully explore the northern half of the country, with plans to explore the southern beaches in the summer.
Day 1: Sintra and Dream Hotel
We started our day with a 4am wakeup, a 15 minute drive to Lux airport, and a 2 and a half hour flight to Lisbon. Erin was asleep again before takeoff, catching up on rest for the big day ahead. We touched down in Lisbon, picked up our Audi rental car, and headed to Sintra, a longtime royal sanctuary outside of town that is dotted with palaces and castles throughout misty, rainforest-like nature. We checked out Sintra last time, but only had time to visit two of the famous estates - this time we decided to check out Quinta da Regaleira and the Monserrate Palace.
At the Quinta, we first explored the expansive grounds, taking advantage of the sunny morning. The property features lakes, grottoes, wells, benches, fountains, and a series of ornate wells and secret passages - we explored these and then enjoyed a Euro breakfast (croissants, smoked salmon and fresh orange juice) before exploring the Romantic era chapel and residence. The palace is also known as "The Palace of Monteiro the Millionaire", which is based on the nickname of its best known former owner - the ornate interiors lived up to the name.
On our way to Monserrate Palace, we sprinted to escape a rainstorm in the Moorish, neo-Gothic villa. We took in the ornate interiors as the rain past, and then spent time climbing around the crumbling old chapel and stone stable structures, which were overgrown with roots and vines, giving them a temple-like feel.
After getting our fill of Sintra, we continued up the coast of Portugal along the Atlantic Ocean to the surf beach Praia Santa Cruz, where we explored the massive, empty beaches being pounded with giant winter waves. We walked along the beach to Restaurante Noah, a wood and glass structure sitting right on the beach just beyond the reach of the waves at high tide. We watched the waves come in while feasting on homemade bread with local olive oil, fresh-caught garlic shrimp and tuna, washed down with Sangria and local beer.
Areias Do Seixo
By this time, we were feeling the 6am flight, so we drove a few miles down the coast to our hotel, Areias Do Seixo. Erin fell in love with this hotel from the moment she found it online - the glass, concrete and wood modern architecture along with the eclectic interiors exactly met her aesthetic. We sat on interior swings over an indoor/outdoor stream while checking in, then enjoyed local bola pastries and tea from the herb garden while our room was being prepared. The entire hotel felt like we were surrounded by the pages of Architectural Digest, and our room didn't disappoint - we had a giant sunken tub in the bedroom, looking out onto our private deck which faced the sand dunes and sea. Erin immediately passed out on the outdoor bed, while Dave finished up an article for work.
We spent the rest of the night exploring the grounds (complete with fruit, herb and vegetable gardens, a greenhouse, a bonfire pit and a winding path through the sand dunes to a private cliff-side beach. We toured the hammam and breezed through a seafood-based 10 course tasting menu with local wine pairings. Usually, this sort of thing is a little formal and over-the-top for our sensibilities, but the food was out of this world good, prompting Dave to say "this puree is insane". We also got to taste foods that we otherwise wouldn't typically order - after dinner it felt like we ate every type of sea creature in the Atlantic. We retired to our room and slept with the door open to hear the crashing of the waves all night.
Day 2: Surf Mecca to Wine Country
We took our time at our new favorite hotel the following morning, making plans to come back and bring as many people as possible to this isolated, magic spot. We enjoyed a delicious breakfast of fresh juices, breads, cakes, cheeses and fish, and then drove further up the coast to Nazare - known for the largest waves in the world. In 2011, a surfer caught a 78 foot wave at the famous Praia do Norte, and in 2013, pro-surfer Carlos Burle surfed another wave at the spot that is currently thought of as the biggest wave ever surfed in the world. On top of being the big wave surfing holy spot, Nazare features an ornately tiled church, cliffside views overlooking the old town, some of the biggest sandy beaches along the Atlantic and old women wearing babushkas selling warm roasted nuts. We giddily hiked down to the fort turned surf museum on the coast to see the giant monster waves up close.
We watched giant dark clouds roll in over the bay towards the city and Dave gentlemanly ran uphill to get the car, only to have the storm pass within a few minutes. We picked up some roasted nuts and a local pastry, and hit the road again, heading for Figueira da Foz, where we walked along the expansive beach and Dave practiced his backflips to a chorus of cheers from high school students on lunch break. From there, we headed to Costa Nova beach near Aveiro, where we enjoyed veggie burgers and sangria and watched the afternoon sun reflect on the waves.
By this time, we were pretty exhausted, so Dave gunned it for an hour's drive inland to our next stop, Quinta do Vallado, one of the best wineries in Portugal and our home for the next two nights. The winery hotel is set into the terraced vineyards overlooking the famous Douro River valley, and features a chic 70s vibe. Too tired for a formal dinner, we lounged in the living room on soft, broken-in vintage sofas, enjoying tuna tapas, beer and a lot of wine, which would come back to haunt Dave the following day.
Day 3: Douro Valley and Chill
Dave woke up with a massive headache from the previous evening's indulgences, so we started our morning at the hotel spa, which was reserved for us exclusively for an hour in the morning. We walked in our bathrobes through the chilly morning air, past the original residence of the winery owner, through a grove of orange trees to a clean, modern glass structure. We spent the next our rotating among the hot tub, sauna and steam room, detoxing and taking in the views through the fruit trees down to the river valley. We followed up with breakfast, which was simple but delicious. Observation: the food in Portugal is insanely good - the ingredients seem so simple and basic, but each item has so much flavor and is so fresh - perhaps more than anywhere else in Europe.
After breakfast, we headed out in search of a viewpoint overlooking the entire Douro Valley, which is famous throughout Europe for its wines (especially Port) and groves of olives and almonds. Because Dave still wasn't feeling his best, Erin promised that they could keep the day simple, and just visit the viewpoint before returning to the hotel to rest in the afternoon. What was supposed to be a few mile drive to the lookout ended up being a harrowing, winding cliffside drive - Erin is notorious for underestimating the time it will take to get somewhere, and her 'guestimate' on this occasion wasn't great, but once we reached the Miradouro Sao Leonardo de Galafura, we were both glad we made the trek. The views of the whole valley, terraced with grapevines, reminded us both of Vietnam - we had the whole place to ourselves, and we climbed around on the boulders trying to scope the majestic valley from every angle.
To Dave's relief, we headed back for an afternoon rest at the hotel, but, of course, Erin had more plans. Since the Quinto do Vallado is one of the best wineries in Europe, we simply could not stay there without having a private tour of the vineyard and learning more about the uniquely Portuguese wine making process. A zombie-like Dave chivalrously accompanied Erin on a very lengthy and informational walk through the vineyards, through the grape collection area, along the basins where the grapes are foot-stomped each August, around the giant vats where the wine is fermented, and underground to where the wines are stored in massive barrels. Erin loves learning this type of thing, and Dave was looking around for a dog or cat to play with. We finished our wine tour with a six wine tasting. Dave politely smelled each wine, and then when the guide turned to fetch the next bottle, dumped the full glass in the tasting pot. We chose a bottle to purchase and headed back to the hotel for another round of rest.
It was approaching late evening, and we had only eaten breakfast and drank wine all day, so, once again, Dave was a trooper and drove us into a nearby town for dinner at a 6-table restaurant called Tasca da Quinta. We ordered a simple salad of lettuce, tomatoes and onions along with a side of vegetable soup for 2 Euros, and were both blown away by how good everything tasted, especially for the price. Dave even asked the waiter if we could buy the salad dressing, and it embarrassingly turned out to just be local olive oil and vinegar - so basic but so great. We also ordered a cod, egg and potato dish and a local white bean stew, and pre-ordered the restaurant's famous mousse, made with local raspberries.
Day 4: Bom Jesus and Best Dinner Ever
After both getting our fill of wine for what felt like a lifetime, we made a few breakfast sandwiches and headed northwest to check out Bom Jesus do Monte, a sanctuary and pilgrimage site outside of Braga dating from the 1700s, which features a baroque stairway leading up to the church of Bom Jesus. To get to the site, we drove high up into the hills, through charred forests scarred from the recent wildfires, which gave the grey misty morning an eerie vibe. We reached the sanctuary by navigating through a forest path.
The design of Bom Jesus is set up for pilgrims to make a spiritual ascent to the church. Starting at the base of the hill, as the pilgrims climbed the stairs, they encountered a theological story of the Passion of the Christ, told via statues and chapels along the way. The culmination of the effort was the temple of God - the church on the top of the hill. Experiencing religious art in such an interactive way was totally new for us, and the architecture alone made our drive to Braga worth the effort. Once we climbed down and back up the stairs, we entered the church, where a ray of light was piercing through the famous Bom Jesus statue, set in front of a three dimensional altar piece (that resembled the Agro Crag from the GUTS tv show). A group of senior citizens began singing religious songs and we watched silently until Erin tripped over a stair and ruined the spiritual vibe.
As the rain came, we headed back out of Braga toward the coast, dropped our car off at the Porto airport, and took a taxi into town, just in time for the sun to come out in full, illuminating one of our favorite small cities in Europe. We checked in to our hotel, both feeling like a nap, but we felt too guilty due to the beautiful weather, so we hit the streets. Once again, Erin had grand ideas about checking out some sites and a new lunch spot, so we walked and walked for what felt like hours only to find a line out the door of our chosen restaurant. At this point, Dave was in a near zombie state again, so we picked up a couple of slices of pizza and ate in the park, surrounded by birds and budding spring flowers. We headed back to rest before dinner at what may just be our favorite restaurant in Europe.
We first ate at Tapabento on our last trip to Porto, and were stunned by the simple Portuguese version of tapas they offered, set in a cramped but character-filled, two story building around the corner from the train station. This time, Erin reviewed the menu in advance, and immediately once we sat down, ordered a tapas feast of sparkling sangria, vegetable soup, bruschetta, avocado tuna toast, potato and onion tortilla, seared tuna and dessert of a chocolate brownie and peanut butter mousse. On their face, these tapas don't sound too out of the ordinary, but with the first bite we were completely hooked. Every ingredient is like the best version of itself - on the bruschetta, the tomatoes were perfectly ripe, the bread was warm, chewy and crispy, and the olive oil was divine. We savoured every bite of the dinner, including the peanut butter mouse dessert, which was heavenly and worthy of the trip to Portugal on its own.
Day 5: Brunch, Work and Aerial Yoga
We started our fifth day in Portugal by taking the long walk to the brunch spot we couldn't get into the previous day. Living in Luxembourg, we miss fresh, healthy, modern brunch spots with items like green smoothies and acai bowls. Whenever we can find this type of spot in Europe (they are rare), we seek them out. We made it to Zenith just at opening, and made it in without waiting. We enjoyed matcha lattes, shakshouka and vegan pancakes, and took to the streets to walk it off. We explored a bit of the city we hadn't seen on our last trip, and spent most of the day working on our laptops, escaping for an hour to walk across the river to a food market.
In the evening, we tried our first aerial yoga class at a small studio, taught by an American expat. We enjoyed using the silk-like hammock to modify our yoga flows and had fun learning to rest and flip in inverted poses. After a good workout, we stopped by a vegan buffet for dinner. Seeing the informal setup, Erin sat down at a table only to be lectured by a grumpy waiter that "In Portugal, when you enter a restaurant, you wait by the door to be seated". Annoyed by his characterisation of us as dumb American tourists, Dave wanted to throw down, but we held it together and enjoyed a variety of simple but delicious healthy dishes before calling it a night over a decadent slice of chocolate cake.
Day 6: Fish Market Lunch and Airport Lounge
We started our final day in Portugal with a good session of work from our hotel, and headed out for lunch to the Bolhao market, an historic but grungy produce and fish market across town. We navigated through the market stalls to the center, where two tiny restaurants have plastic tables set up. We checked the chalkboard and each ordered fish (bacalao and tuna) and the chef walked a few steps over to the fish market salesman to pick out the ingredients to cook on the spot. We enjoyed a simple and delicious meal of salad, fish and steamed potatoes, washed down with sangria.
After lunch, we did a nice walk through down, picked up our bags at the hotel and headed to the airport early. We recently enrolled in the Priority Pass program, where we get access to airport lounges. With all the traveling we do, we thought it would be nice and practical to be able to work, eat and chill when we are spending time in airports. We spent the next couple of ours excitedly living like kings in the airport lounge overlooking the main terminal. As a violinist and pianist played classics, we worked, read, drank wine and ate tapas as we waited for our flight - a very European and civilized experience, which we completely appreciate. We hopped on our delayed EasyJet flight and made it back to freezing, snowy Luxembourg late in the evening.
We packed a ton in to our 6 days in Northern Portugal, but despite the varied landscapes, the constants were sunny skies and delicious food and wine. We highly recommend Portugal to anyone looking for something a bit more off the beaten path in Europe (compared to often visited cities like Prague and Paris). Next up, Edinburgh and the Isle of Skye in Scotland for Easter.
Check out our Portugal Roadtrip travel edit
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