Portugal: Notes For a Friend

The basics: I flew in and out of Lisbon. I didn’t know I would be spending the first part of my vacation in Porto, otherwise I would have flown into Porto and flown out of Lisbon. I went directly from the airport to the train station and bought my round trip train ticket to Porto there (it’s about a three hour ride). I didn’t rent a car at any point. I’ve heard that driving to and from Porto / Lisbon is just as long and as expensive as the train because of all the tolls. Both cities are very crowded with narrow streets, often sharing space with the local trams. I wouldn’t recommend renting a car unless it’s needed for something very specific (I imagine trying to find parking anywhere in Porto or Lisbon is a nightmare). The public transportation in Lisbon is quite easy to access (metro stations everywhere) and the ticket booths inside the stations have a British flag icon on the screen to turn the service to English, so navigating buying transportation passes is easy. While it might not have been the most cost effective thing to do, I bought the 6 euro daily pass on days when I needed to use the trams/metros. These passes are good for the local trams and metros. If I remember correctly, there are three types of trains: the local metro trains, the trains for short journeys outside the city (like Sintra or Casais) and the long journey trains (to Porto, the southern coast, etc). Sometimes it’s a little confusing as to where you need to buy tickets to go to towns outside Lisbon, but there were always information booths in the stations and the staff was always helpful as long as you knew the town you were trying to get to. I did not travel to Casais (a beach town), but I know people who have been there and they said it was an awesome day trip from Lisbon. I would guess it’s about an hour away.

The only hotel I stayed in was in Lagos, so I don’t think I can offer any recommendations on places to stay. My go to is booking private rooms in hostels simply because of the social aspect. If I want to socialize, there are easy ways to do that at hostels. I will recommend some neighborhoods though.

In addition, Lisbon and Porto are both very steep, hilly cities. There are steep inclines everywhere, most with staircases to get you from point A to point B. Sometimes there are cable cars, but more often than not, you just have to walk. Just in case you need to mentally or physically prepare for that :)

All pastry shops were delicious. All food was great. A lot of dinner places won’t open till 5 or 6pm, some not even till 7pm, so plan meals accordingly. Any place you find that you really want to go to, it’s a good idea to make a reservation, especially if it’s near the center of Lisbon. Always have cash on you, preferably smaller denominations, as cafes and pastry shops will most likely only take cash.

Porto: I stayed in the Baxia neighborhood, which is where the train station is. This neighborhood is higher up in elevation and is close to some cool dining areas, the Clérigos Tower and some town squares. Porto is split into two distinct areas by the river. I found it quite enjoyable to walk everywhere (I didn’t use transportation once).

Clérigos Tower and the view from the top

The Clérigos Tower is not for the claustrophobic. The staircase is steep and thin, and the same staircase is used for going up and down. I went to get in line about 10 minutes before they open in the morning (I think I was there at 8:50am) and I only had to wait about 15 minutes to buy my ticket and start the trek up. The day before there was a line at least a hundred people long waiting and I can only imagine the experience is not great because the staircase and the ring at the top are quite small.

Around the corner and down the road from this tower is a really cool viewing spot. I can’t seem to find the name of the area as it doesn’t seem to be an official park or lookout area, but I will look again and see if I can find the name. It’s a nice place to watch the sunset. I had a blast just walking around all the tiny streets in the Baxia neighborhood. Going up and down random staircases was really fun. Also right in this area is Livraria Lello, a famous bookstore that is a complete tourist trap. JK Rowling lived in Porto for a while and she used to go to this bookshop. Honestly the store is beautiful and amazing on the inside, but for most people it’s not worth the wait. The first time I went by, there literally had to be like 500+ people in line. I went a few hours before they closed and bought the more expensive VIP ticket that let me in basically right away (I think it was 20 euros). The regular line later in the day was incredibly short compared to right when they opened. Even if you have no interest in going inside, it’s still cool to walk by this place, peek in and see the gigantic line.

Sunset from the spot I can’t find the location of. Will update later :)

The neighborhood down by the river is called Ribeira. There’s lots of cool dining and shopping here. I walked around this area both at night and during the day because I wanted to see it in both lights. Again, just wandering down random streets was fun. I happened to find the Porto Cathedral (Sé do Porto) by accident doing this. This actually happened to me a lot. I had a list of all the sights I wanted to see (churches and town squares), and I just happened to find most of them by accident just wandering around. Porto is really not that big. Access to the bridge is found in the Ribeira neighborhood. The bridge has an upper and lower level. The lower level is for cars and pedestrians and the upper level is for trains and pedestrians. I made the mistake of being at the lower level and taking the staircase up the streets to the upper level and it almost killed me (to be fair, I hadn’t been drinking enough water). You can walk from the Baxia area to the Riberia area in such a way where it puts you at the top, I just didn’t and thought the staircase would be quick, but as someone who used to hike mountains in Colorado, this was pretty intense. On the other side of the river there is a cable car that brings you along the river for a short ride and then right to the top of the bridge and you can walk back to the Riberia side from there. I would suggest this over anything else. I think I ended up walking across the bridge four times total, twice on the lower level and twice on the upper level.

View from the lower level and night and the upper level during the day
Full view of both sides of the river from the upper level

I chose to go the the Calem Wine Celler (Caves Cálem) for my winery tour. There are a few to choose from (they’re all on one side of the river, the side with the cable car — the left side in the photo above). Calem happened to have a tour in English at a convenient time for me, so that sort of made my decision, but it was a great tour. It had a museum like area to wait in before the tour started where you could learn a lot about Port wine. After the tour and tasting (the ticket I got included the tour and two wines — 15 euro I belive), they also gave us a free coupon for one glass of wine at a place called Quinta de Santa Eufemia, which was a quick walk down the road. This place had an informative area downstairs and a wine tasting room upstairs. I wasn’t going to pass up free wine so I went for my one glass and ended up having two more :)

Calem website: https://tour.calem.pt/#en

List of popular wine tours: https://www.tasteporto.com/port-wine-cellars-you-cant-miss-in-porto/

Lisbon: I stayed in the Bairro Alto neighborhood. It was about a 15 minute walk to the city center (down hill). I didn’t really have a plan for Lisbon other than I knew I wanted to go to the São Jorge Castle, do the Santa Justa Lift (Carmo Lift) and walk through the Praça do Comércio (the square in the center with the yellow arches). I also took a day trip to Sintra and a morning trip to Algés. The Alfama neighborhood in Lisbon was my favorite.

The Santa Justa Lift is actually considered public transportation and a ticket for it is included in the 10 euro transportation day pass. Because I bought the 6 euro day pass, I just bought the ticket (cash only) right at the lift, which I actually think was better because it seemed the people with the 10 euro pass had to pay extra money once we got to the top (there are two levels at the top, the lower one was included in the 10 euro pass, but the upper level was not). I did not have to pay extra money to access the upper level (this was also cash only). The line for the lift can be quite long depending on the time of day. But you just jump in line, wait a while, and then when you are close to the lift entrance, you buy the actual ticket.

View from the top of the Santa Junta Lift

I walked from the city center to the São Jorge Castle (very much uphill). My 6 euro pass would have let me take the tram (I believe tram 28 — its a famous one), but the trams were usually always packed whenever they went by, so I just ended up continuing to walk. Honestly this walk was probably one of my favorites I did in the city (besides Alfama). I ended up finding the Lisbon Cathedral this way. The castle is a Moorish castle and I spent a solid three hours here, though I imagine you can still see a lot in an hour and half or two hours, I just happened to explore pretty much every path that was available.

View from São Jorge Castle

The Alfama neighborhood was my favorite because it felt the most authentic. I went specifically to find the Alfama Dolce pastry shop (pastel de nata and Pão de Deusis (God’s bread) are the most famous pastries in Portugal — you’ll find them everywhere). This was a neighborhood I just wandered around in for about an hour, walking up and down the tiny streets.

Alfama neighborhood

Algés: This was a 40 minute train ride from the center. I mainly went here to visit the Belém Tower. I just walked around the area for a few hours. I also saw the Monasterio de Jeronimos and the Padrão dos Descobrimentos monument while here.

Belém Tower and the Monasterio de Jeronimos

Sintra: This was a little over an hour away on the train. I mainly came here to visit the Pena Palace. I walked from the train station to the palace (though I would not suggest this for most people). I missed hiking a lot, and the walk up the hillside/mountain (it was basically a small mountain) and through the small neighborhoods was a good outdoor experience, but I also had access to google maps, making the experience a lot easier for me. This walking journey was more than an hour. Outside the train station there are people with bikes pulling carriages, which is what most people choose as their transportation up. This is also how most people get down (cash is definitely needed…there is no way to get cash once you’re at the top). In addition, I’m sure there are plenty of group tours that leave from Lisbon to Sintra on a bus of some kind. There were plenty of tour busses coming and going from the top of the mountain where the palace is. I spent a good while at the palace, both inside and outside. The whole surrounding area is one giant park and there are paths leading to other things. I chose to wander around the palace gardens, which is a large forested area. I also walked to the Castelo dos Mouros (another Moorish castle) that’s on the grounds, but as it was an additional ticket (cash only) and the weather was not great, I chose not to do that, but I imagine it’s a very good experience. There is also a longer path going to the Cruz Alta (High Cross), which is the highest point in Sintra, but this was a much longer journey, so I chose not to go. One could easily spend all day in Sintra with all the things to do in the park.

Pena Palace
Inside the palace gardens

In Lisbon, there are plenty of pastry shops and steak houses and places to get traditional fish dishes. I would definitely eat the famous pastry, pastel de nata, and bacalhau à bras, a traditional dish made with cod, eggs and olives (many places will have some variation of this). And vinho verde, a green wine, which is famous in Portugal, made in one specific area. I did stumble upon a restaurant called Grapes & Bites, which has over 300 wines and good food. It’s an interesting restaurant as it’s below a hotel/hostel, but it’s my favorite dining establishment I visited in Lisbon. I went for lunch one day, which was great because it seemed like the place didn’t get crowded until dinner time. I had my vihno verde here as well as some port wines that I didn’t get to taste in Porto. I also ate one of their cod dishes, which (I think) was cod with potatoes and cheese and it was delicious.

I ended up at the Time Out Market on a rainy day and spent quite a bit of time here. When I went earlier in the day it wasn’t crowded and I enjoyed wandering around drinking wine, but as it got closer to dinner time, the place was super packed.

Time Out Market, dinner time

And while I know it doesn’t seem like you will be visiting the southern coast, I’ll just leave a few photos from my two days in Lagos. I would definitely go back to the the Algarve region during warmer weather to enjoy the beaches. Even though I went toward the end of fall, the beaches were still amazing and the weather was not too cold.

Beaches of Lagos

Cheers, enjoy your trip and feel free to ask more questions!

Port wine in Porto

Once a developer, now a tech writer. Always a traveler.