Defined by gorgeous weather, ancient landscapes, and a distinguished history, Portugal is a natural draw for anyone interested in the laid-back lifestyle of sunny southwestern Europe. In 2012, I got the chance to explore this exciting part of the world as part of a larger vacation through the Iberian Peninsula with a friend and her family. We launched our trip in bustling Lisbon and made our way through Sintra and the rustic Portuguese countryside, before moving on into Spain.
Food and Drink
Typical meals in Portugal are hearty, three-course affairs, heavy with dishes like pork and fish. When eating out, it’s local custom to put out appetizers like bread or olives– but these aren’t freebies! Simply don’t eat them if you don’t want to pay for them.
For anyone interested in a fantastic local meal, I was totally blown away by the decadent “hamburguesa especial,” a towering hamburger with grilled onions, ham, and fried egg on a delicious ciabatta roll!
Culture and Fun
Lisbon enjoys a thriving entertainment culture, and the city has countless clubs, music venues, art and history museums, and more. It is also within a short distance of some of Europe’s favorite beaches. For a night out, visitors and locals can head to Alcantara, the rejuvenated historic port district.
With so much history behind it, Lisbon and the surrounding region offer limitless opportunities to take in gorgeous castles, serene countryside, stately monuments, and fascinating museums.
Castelo de Sao Jorge. A quaint “electrico,” or streetcar, takes visitors most of the way up the hill to St. George’s Castle. Perched on one of Lisbon’s seven famous hills, this Moorish fortification offers spectacular views of the city and its many monuments.
Belem. Historic Belem lies to the west of Lisbon’s old port district of Alcantara. It was from here that so many expeditions started off to explore the New World. Impressive monuments and museums in this district commemorate this era of Portugal’s history.
Monastery of Jerónimos. Decorated by beautiful reliefs in maritime designs, the “Mosteiro dos Jerónimos” is an architectural wonder of arches and towers. It is also the burial place of famous explorer Vasco da Gama.
Monument of the Discoveries. A towering structure in gleaming white marble, this impressive monument (“Padrao dos Descombrimentos” in Portuguese) in Belem depicts the nation’s most famous explorers and heroes from the Age of Exploration.
Torre del Belem. This graceful white tower sits on a tiny island in the Tejo River that runs through Lisbon, making it the ideal spot for scenic river views of the old city district. When visiting, we were treated to a fun panpipe performance on the way in.
Museu Nacional dos Coches. The Stagecoach Museum exhibits carriages, wagons, and coaches from throughout history, including many intricately carved and decorated ones.
Sintra. The lush valleys of Sintra have long attracted romantics and creatives such as Lord Byron. Once the playground of Portugal’s aristocracy, Sintra today is still a welcome change from the bustle and modernity of Lisbon.
Palacio Nacional de Sintra. A jumble of historic architectures, the National Palace of Sintra is easily spotted by the two conical white chimneys on its roof.
Castelo dos Mouros. Over a thousand years old, this is simply known as the “Moorish Castle” to the locals. After scrambling among the ruins, we experienced one of the most breath-taking views in Portugal from this castle’s crumbling walls.