Updated: Apr 28, 2022
Portugal! The land of Pastel de Nata! And hills.
If leg day every day is not your thing, I would suggest visiting a country that is not Portugal. Lisbon, Sintra, and Porto are like when your parents/grandparents say “in my day I walked to school uphill both ways and in the snow.” Except true (minus the snow). I cannot overstate the amount of hills I climbed in my week in Portugal. After the day in Sintra, my legs were barely functional and we cheated and took the bus up the biggest hill! So you have been warned. On the bright side, this level of calorie burn means you can eat all the pastel de nata you want.
If you have a week to spare for Portugal, it is a colorful and lively country with delicious bread, fish, cheese, wine, and the famous egg custard tart Pastel de Nata. It’s quite a bit cheaper than many other European destinations - hard to imagine that lasts forever, so set your flight alerts now.
Four nights in Lisbon and four in Porto offer time to get acquainted with each city and day trip to nearby sights.
A walking food tour is a great way to start your trip. Inside Lisbon offers 3 hour walking tours centered around Rossio Square and you’ll get to sample bifana, codfish cakes, Portuguese cheese, and several types of Portuguese wines and spirits. As a bonus, it is the flattest three hours of walking you can do while in Lisbon.
Many of Lisbon’s top sights can be covered on foot (or via tuk tuk if you get tired of scaling hills). Convento do Carmo was almost entirely destroyed in the earthquake of 1755 but the exterior walls have been left standing. It is built right on the edge of a cliff that you’ll be able to see from many viewpoints on the street levels below once you realize what you’re looking at. It’s a strange and peaceful place and the bustling square outside offers good options for lunch, likely with live music.
Castelo de S. Jorge provides excellent views of the city AND so. many. peacocks. The peacocks were the highlight of the visit.
You must do a day trip to Sintra during your time in Lisbon.
Eating in Lisbon
Prado - make sure to get a reservation. The butternut squash dish was by far the best butternut squash I’ve ever had, though I suspect they put a butter IV into the squash while it cooked.
Antiga Wine Bar - very small, friendly staff, good cheese board. Great place to get introduced to Portuguese wine regions like Alentejo. If you have time, I’d recommend taking a day trip into the Alentejo wine region. I didn’t get to do this, but I loved every wine I tasted from the region.
Manteigaria - the best pastel de nata. They have several locations throughout Lisbon and Porto.
A Tendinha - right on Rossio square, very cheap, great codfish cakes. It was one of our stops on the Inside Lisbon tour and we went back for lunch our last day in town.
Cafe O’Corvo - very laid back restaurant with a variety of good dishes.
Nicolau Lisboa - had a line for breakfast, but moved quickly and was worth it for the freshness of juices and foods.
Port is the star of Porto. On the Vila Nova de Gaia side of the river, you will find all the Port houses you could possibly want to tour. Sandeman runs a short tour with tasting and their guides dress in the Sandeman “Don,” good for a chuckle. Just across the street, Porto Cruz has a beautiful rooftop terrace should you need a place to grab a drink while waiting for your tour to start.
If you can squeeze in a day in the Douro Valley, it’s about a 2 hour drive from Porto. We took a guided tour that included a stop for a Port tasting, a Douro River cruise, lunch, and a stop at a winery.
If you can’t spare a day for the terraced vineyards of the Douro, Mind the Glass is a fabulous wine bar in the city with dozens of wines from across Portugal on the glass list.
The other thing I bet you didn’t know about Porto is that they have the “world’s most beautiful” everything. McDonald’s. Train Station (Sao Bento). Bookstore (Livraria Lello). Taxi drivers and guides will tell you all about it. For the bookstore, Livraria Lello, you pay 5 euros for entry, but they’ll credit that to a book if you buy one.
Eating in Porto
Almada 331 - tiny restaurant with incredible food and service that was by far our favorite meal in Porto. When I say tiny, I mean five tables tiny, so make a reservation.
By the time I got to Porto, I was ready for something other than cod, cod cakes, and more cod cakes. When you need variety, Porto has good options.
Mood - good sushi, beautiful space.
Mercador Cafe - for breakfast with eggs (and not those in the custard tart form).
NOLA Kitchen - for delicious healthy food, and you can get it for takeout!
Tips for Your Trip
#1: Look for public elevators to help you scale the stories of the city
Google maps aren’t 100% reliable in Lisbon and Porto because sometimes you’ll be walking along and the next street you need to get to is towering four stories above you on another level of the city. You have two options when this happens: look for an elevator or find the nearest hill and walk up.
The Santa Justa elevator, built by the apprentice to the architect of the Eiffel Tower, will take you from two blocks south of Rossio Square up to Convento do Carmo. The lift costs about 5 euros and had a line, so to get to Convento do Carmo we walked behind the elevator and climbed two streets of steep hills. If you rated hill climbs based on how many pasteis you could eat after, I would give this a 2.
When we walked down from Castelo S. Jorge, we ran into the same problem again - we were stuck four stories above the part of the city we needed to be in. We noticed people were walking into a building with public elevators and decided to give it a shot. Sure enough, the elevators took you down four stories back to the central part of the city. I have no idea how many of these elevators exist, but it’s something to look out for.
In Porto, you can ride a gondola up and down the hill on the Port side of the river, but be warned it stops running in high winds.
#2: Read your AirBNB descriptions and reviews carefully
We were on the third floor of a building with no lift in Lisbon and after climbing hills all over the city, the extra three flights of stairs was not appreciated.
#3: Buy tickets online for the sights you want to visit
Almost every sight we wanted to get into had an online ticketing option and if you did that, you got to skip the queue. Sometimes we bought the tickets on our phones while standing in line so it would be quicker. Most aren’t timed entry, but pay attention if they are.