Quick guide to Portugal
If you had mere week to 10 days vacation and wanted a taste of Portugal that would include a few days at the beach, the following is a short summary of where to go and what to see in Portugal. Needless to say, others may suggest differently but here is what I recommend.
I traveled to Portugal by train from San Sebastian via Burgos, Valladolid and Salamanca to Coimbra. I chose to arrive in Portugal by train and picked Coimbra for a reason. Although Coimbra is Portugal’s third largest city it is not its size but its location in the center of the country that makes it a perfect hub from which to take day trips around the country before heading down south to the Algarve beaches. Unlike Lisbon and Porto, the two largest towns in Portugal, Coimbra is not a port. It is situated on the main north-south train line between Lisbon and Porto and thus it’s convenient to visit them both by train. The nearest beach to Coimbra is in Figueira da Foz, just an hour from Coimbra by train, hence this could easily be your first out of town day trip.
But Coimbra does not just have a suitable location in the center of Portugal. Coimbra is a pleasant historical city with a 13-century university and scores of wonderful sites and is a pleasure to navigate on foot on both sides of the Rio Mondego, a scenic river that dissects it in half. Wonder the Old Quarter around the 700-year-old university, and then stroll to the other side of the river and walk up to the Santa Clara Convent for wonderful views of the city.
Porto is definitely a must-see destination on your brief tour of Portugal. Most of the key attractions of Porto are located in the ancient Ribeira district between Rio Douro and the Praca Liberdade. From Coimbra you will arrive at the Sao Bento train station, and your sightseeing will begin as soon as you get off the train. The walls of the main hall of this station are decorated with some of the finest examples of Portugal’s famous azuelejos, an art form of painted ceramic tiles. From Sao Bento it is a hop to Praca Liberdade and from there to Torre de Clerigos, the Tower of Clerics, Porto’s granite bell tower and its tallest landmark. From here you will enjoy the stroll down the winding streets of Ribeira toward the Douro riverfront.
Once at the river you certainly should not pass up venturing across the river on Ponte Dom Luis to the Vila Nova de Gaia, where the famous wine cellars are located. Here you will have the opportunity to taste the best PORT, Porto’s celebrated wine, a blend of stiff-proof brandy added to the fermenting grape juice.
Following the Douro river east out of Porto is something that you will not have time for on a short trip which ultimate goal is the beach but you should put it on your list of journeys to make in the future, especially if you are a cyclist. The Douro Valley offers one of Portugal’s most scenic journeys at the end of which, in its upper reaches, you will find the hillsides covered in port-wine vineyards.
Now onto your next must-see destinations in Portugal, Lisbon. Arriving from Coimbra you shall arrive to Lisbon’s Santa Apolonia station, suitably located to begin your day of sightseeing. A single day may not do justice to this splendid city but if that’s all you have than make sure you see the 16thcentury Jeronimos Monastery and the Tower of Belem, located in a district of Lisbon west of Rossio, Lisbon’s heart.
To sample the more modern side of Lisbon, visit the Discoveries Monument. Worth a drive or at least seeing it from a distance is the Expo ’98 17-kilometers long bridge of Vasco de Gama, an amazing accomplishment of engineering and the longest one in Europe.
The ancient areas of Lisbon that you should not miss are the Moorish quarters of Alfama and Castelo with their narrow, winding cobblestone streets. You do need to walk as much as possible to savor this part of town but should you get tired one of the best ways to get a glimpse of Lisbon is by taking a ride on its vintage trams, most of them from the 1920’s, whose rails snake all over town, meandering within inches of parked cars, climbing steep hills and from the upper town offering fine views of the city down below.
Also don’t miss the Freira da Ladra flea market on the Campo de Santa Clara. Best way to get there is right from the Santa Apolonia station, past Igreja Santa Engracia. From Campo Santa Clara you can then continue via a stop at Igreja Sao Vincente to the Castelo de Sao Jorge, one of key highlights of your day in Lisbon.
Should you decide to travel to the Algarve from Lisbon by train, you will need to get to Praca do Commercio at the waterfront of Lisbon first. From here you take a 30-minute ferry ride across the Tagus River to get to the Barreiro train station, a departure point for trains from Lisbon to the Algarve and the south.
The capital of Algarve is Faro. The Ria Formosa lagoon on which Faro is situated has attracted humans for well over two thousand years but it was during the Roman occupation that Faro first grew in importance. Then with the arrival of Moorish rule in the 8th century the settlement has become recognized as the most important population center in the south-west corner of the Iberian Peninsula.
But it has been namely in the last few decades that Faro has become the service center for the whole of Algarve. And it became a tourist hub of the south when an international airport was built in 1965. With its rich artistic heritage and many museums, hotels and restaurants, from the long beaches of Faro and Farol beach on Culatra Island, to the important Roman ruins at Milreu, Faro is the undisputed center of Algarve’s prolific tourism. While finding one of the is a convenient option how to arrive in Algarve from many parts of Europe, should you be touring north of Portugal first keep in mind it takes about five hours to reach the Algarve from Lisbon.
From Faro you can chose to explore the west of Algarve via Lagos, its western-end main transportation hub. For a taste of what the Algarve was before tourists descended upon it, though tourists and timeshare condos are here as well, check out Salema just west of Lagos. Beyond continue to the craggy southwest tip of Europe at Cape Sagres.
In the opposite direction from Faro, heading east, a town that is absolutely the best choice for exploring this side of Algarve is Tavira. This gem of a small town promises to catch your attention right away with its colorful architecture on account of the facades of the houses which abound in the traditional plait bands – borders painted with geometrical or floral motifs that frame walls, windows and doorways, many of which are masterpieces of mortar work. Another unique architectural trait of Tavira is the influence of the Art Nouveau decorative style which is particularly apparent in Tavira’s ornate chimneys.
But if the beach is what you are coming here for, then it is a short boat ride away, with a pier just a few minutes from the heart of Tavira. Once across the scenic Parque Natural da Ria Formosa, a de facto wetland, there lies the sprawling Ilha de Tavira sandbar island with all the seaside sand you may want!