Discover caves, cities, beaches and castles! One week in Portugal

PORTUGAL (Lisbon/Algarve/Sintra)

Overview

This trip was the second part of our two week European vacation. The first week we spent in Lithuania (my home country) where we celebrated my mom getting married to a wonderful man. The week in Portugal was sort of a family-moon for my mom and her new husband. At the same time it allowed us all to enjoy each other’s company and explore a new country. None of us have been to Portugal before, so it was great to discover it all together.

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Only later looking at the picture someone pointed out that we all (except Sean) are wearing white shirts :)! It was awesome to get the seats in the same isle!

We arrived to Lisbon in the evening on Sunday and explored it for a bit that night. The next day we toured it from morning until 7pm, when we picked up the rental cars and drove 2.5 hours to Albufeira- the town in Algarve, southern coast of Portugal.  Five nights and four days we roamed the coast (with a brief drive to Huelva, Spain!) and Saturday came back to Lisbon with a few hours stop in Sintra to visit the incredible castles. Last night in Lisbon was just to relax and regroup before we all had to take our flights back home on Sunday.

As you can see it was a very intense one week itinerary, not much sleep there, but if you follow my blog, you might already know that we don’t travel to sleep 🙂 . I will go over the trip in more detail in the following order- Lisbon, Algarve (beaches then cities) and Sintra. I hope you enjoy it!

LISBON

We only had 24 hrs in this beautiful city, so we wasted no time and started exploring it as soon as we arrived and dropped our bags at the hotel. Some of the bags did not make the connection in Warsaw. Luckily my brother- in- law Cosimo had some clothes packed in the carry-on suitcase to hold him over for the next couple days! Sean and I usually mix our clothes between the two suitcases as I am always scared of the lost bags scenario.

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We chose Hotel da Baixa due to it’s very convenient location. It’s a brand new hotel, opened less than a year ago and we loved our stay there. The staff was super helpful, rooms were nice and the complimentary pastries in the lobby were a nice touch.

Lisbon at night

It was getting late and we wanted to see some of the nightlife in Lisbon as well as have dinner, so we headed to a well rated steak place Cabaças. We underestimated the fact that it’s six of us and the place is VERY small. Initially we were told it will be about 30-45 min wait. So we walked around and waited… and waited…

As we were checking in with the host, we kept being told that it’s not our turn yet. Mom and Alius at this point were too tired and not hungry, so they went back to the hotel. We changed the table to four, but still had to wait. It was 1.5 hrs later that we got seated and another 35-40 minutes before the raw meat was delivered on the hot stones and we cooked our steaks. It’s certainly a place to go when you are not starving and have plenty of time.

It is a pretty cool experience, but I don’t know if it’s worth such a long wait. Sean’s thin cut meat tasted soft and tender, while mine was a big chunk and was a bit chewy. We left full, but still aggravated of the wait and the time lost standing around. It was past midnight when we finished eating and decided to get a nightcap a famous bar Pavilhao Chines in Principe Real district. The place is hard to describe, you just have to see it. You have to ring a bell at the red door to be let in. You need to purchase a drink before you can take pictures. It’s worth a visit.

Pavilhao Chines is a former grocery store, now converted to a bar/museum. Decorations are all over the walls, ceiling, built-in shelves. World War I and World War II theme with a mix of other random items. It’s five rooms, so get your camera ready.

At this point it has been a long day of travels and we had a lot planned for tomorrow. We went back to the hotel without many stops along the way. We walked through Barrio Alto– the nightlife district of Lisbon. Even late on a Sunday night, the city looked lively, bars were open and lots of people were hanging out in the streets. As much as we would have liked to party with them, we wanted to be rested for Lisbon in the morning.

A day in Lisbon

We started the tour of Lisbon by taking a tuk-tuk (new and becoming very popular transportation in this hilly city) to Belem district. One of the destinations was the famous pastry shop- Pasteis de Belem. We needed energy for the busy day ahead, so why not fuel ourselves with the delicious pasteis de nata, donuts and croissants with cream- yes we got ALL of the above.

The shop is big and there are tables in the back, but we did not want to wait for the table service, so purchased our pastries to go and ate them at the nearby park. Now we are ready to sightsee!

Just a few steps from the pastry shop there is a gorgeous Monastery of Jeronimos that is an absolute MUST see. It is closed on Mondays, so we did not get to go inside, but we knew that coming in.

This was the only day in Lisbon that we had, so we were happy to admire it from the outside and would definitely go back if we return to this city.

As you cross the street and go towards the river, you will see the massive monument for the sailors- you simply can’t miss it- Padrao dos Descobrimentos.

As you are in Belem already- totally worth a visit.

Continue up the street along the water for less than 15 minutes and you will reach Belem Tower. Built on the northern bank of the Tagus between 1514 and 1520 as part of the Tagus estuary defence system, the Tower of Belém is classified by UNESCO as “Cultural Heritage of Humanity”.

We did not climb to the top due to time constraints and the very hot weather. But it might be worth it if you have spare time in Lisbon.

This concluded our Belem tour, so we grabbed another tuk-tuk and went back to the center of the city to see more spectacular views!

We planned to see the Sao Jorge Castle so we asked the driver to take us there. We actually got off on the top of the hill at Miradouro da Graca lookout and could see the castle AND the red roofs of the city from there.

To get to the actual castle would have meant to climb up the steep street and stairs- none of us felt up for that, especially knowing that we will be seeing castles in Sintra later on in the trip. Instead, we decided to walk down the charming streets and see the Se Cathedral before going to Alfama district for lunch.

It’s a lot easier to walk down, so we made the right choice by getting the tuk-tuck to bring us up the hill. We followed the Tram 28 tracks to Portas do Sol viewpoint.

Soon after we reached the Se Cathedral. Beautiful inside and out.

By now we have burned through our sweet breakfast and ready to find a spot for lunch. We wandered through the charming streets of Alfama looking for a spot we liked. This district was my favorite in Lisbon, so granted I took many pictures 🙂 .

I especially loved the architecture and the tiled buildings. Each pattern is so colorful and unique! I literally was stopping and taking pics of the building walls 🙂 .

We found the place we liked for lunch- A Muralha Tasca Tipica, but as there was a bit of a  wait, they suggested to wait at a place around the corner (presumably same owner?)- A Muralha Tapas e Vinhos.

We got a bottle of amazing vinho verde, which we were able to bring back to the initial restaurant and finish with our lunch. Food was great and the service fast and pleasant. No disappointment unlike with the experience last night!

Energy levels back and we are off to see more of this beautiful city. Taking in the sights along the way we reached Praça do Comercio – big, modern square near the Tagus river.

Through the Arco do Triunfo (Arco da Rua Augusta) we walked Rua Augusta street, which is lined with various restaurants, shops and bustling with people.

Our tour ended at Santa Justa elevator- the lift that brings crowds of tourists up and down the Carmo district. We had the best intentions to ride it up, but the line was an hour long and we had 2.5 hour drive ahead of us, so decided to skip this attraction. Considering that we only had one day and it was a hot one, we felt pretty accomplished.

We picked up the rental cars near the airport at Drive on Holidays and started our journey across Portugal to the southern region- Algarve. Beautiful beaches, we are coming for you!

ALGARVE

Relatively short 2.5 hours drive from Lisbon got us to Albufeira– the town in Algarve which we made our ‘base’ for exploring the region. We chose this former fishing village, now a busy tourist destination city, solely because of its location. Hotel Aqua Pedra dos Bicos was comfortable, had the pool and a very big unlimited continental breakfast included. That actually was a huge advantage especially considering that it was six of us traveling together.

It saved us a lot of time trying to find a breakfast place every morning and left us more time to see the beautiful beaches. It is located about 40 minutes from Lagos as well as similar distance to Faro. And in between there are endless options for sand, cliffs and the blue water.

BEACHES

Farol da Ponta da Piedade

There are SO many amazing beaches in Algarve. If you don’t like one, just drive 15 minutes and you will find a totally different landscape. We started exploring by driving to the furthest point that we wanted to see- the rock formations at Farol da Ponta da Piedade along the coastline of Lagos. During the busy season parking can be a challenge, but we were able to park along the road and just walked about five minutes.

Absolutely breathtaking views.

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Even though you can go swimming, we did not stay long, as we  had a lot of other beautiful places to see. Next planned stop was Camilo Beach, but there was absolutely no parking available and the beach we were going to go next was only about 5 minutes drive away. We decided to continue and check out Praia Dona Ana instead.

Dona Ana Beach

This place had a lot more parking, and had a very nice view.

Parking lot was still crowded and we did not want to idle to park, so we checked it out and continued on along the coast. Isn’t it nice to have so many options?!

Alvor/Três Irmãos Beach/Prainha

The beach we put in for the GPS was Três Irmãos (three brothers). We arrived to find plenty of parking for 2 Euros per car per day and a sweeping large beach with the most comfortable beds/covers from the sun for rent (12 Euros for 2 ppl or 9 Euros if you come later in the afternoon). IMG_7654Part of this beach is considered Alvor Beach, then it blends into Três Irmãos and continues through the caves into Prainha (little beach).

We loved this whole area the most. I cannot even be 100% sure which of the three beaches we technically laid on/walked around, but there are no lines in the sand marking which one is which, so explore away! Some of us slept the whole time 🙂 , some wandered into the caves nearby. We loved it so much, that after seeing other beaches, decided to return here again a couple of days later.

It’s simply incredible.

To make it even more convenient, there are two restaurants right on the beach- O Luis and Tropico beach bar. We tried them both since we came to this beach on two separate days and liked them both as well. Maybe Tropico I would prefer if I absolutely had to chose.

Praia da Rocha

If you continue driving back towards Albufeira, not too long of the drive away you will reach Portimao and the beautiful wide beach that comes with it- Praia da Rocha. We only came here towards the end of the day as we were slowly making our way towards the hotel.

The beach seemed incredibly big, close to the shops and restaurants right in town. We found a place for dinner online that we wanted to check out- NoSoloAqua Club, so we strolled along the wooden path built right on the beach towards it.

The place was beautiful and quiet, food was good, but the service was veeeerrryy slow. Or maybe it’s just us, used to everything done fast 🙂 ?

Carvoeiro Beach

New day, new beach to visit. This time we did not need to go as far as Lagos, but the furthest point of the day made Carvoeiro Beach. We only drove up the hill, checked out the beach from up high and continued on.

Compared to previous days beaches this one seemed to be too small to settle for the day. Still worth a visit just for this view!

Benagil Beach

As we were driving with two cars and could not stay together, Sean and I ended up parking near Benagil beach, while the others took a different turn and got a spot near Carvalho beach only a short drive away. That was actually a very lucky coincidence, because after Sean and I ran down to check out Benagil, we were mortified of the crowds of people laying nearly on top of each other’s towels and certainly did not want to stay there! IMG_6125I know Benagil is famous for its cave (that was part of the reason we went there), but you cannot access  the cave from the beach, unless you are an extremely brave swimmer. We were not planning on taking that route, so we went back to the car and drove to where the rest of our family was- a lot quieter Carvalho beach. If you want my advice- skip Benagil beach and don’t waste your time with all of the options Algarve has to offer.

Carvalho Beach

This beach is a bit harder to get to than the ones we have visited so far. There are some steps involved and you go down through a little cave tunnel to reach the sand. It’s not big, but the fun part of this beach is the rocks that you can jump off ( we did not do that, I was nearly having a panic attack just walking along the wall and trying to not look down). There were a lot of people jumping and maybe some of us would have done it if the water was warmer.

By the way- the water was FREEZING. I did not expect that coming from cold Boston. It deceiving blue/green shades makes it look Caribbean-like, but it’s not even close. We got in to cool off, but that was it. No swimming around unless you want to turn blue like the said water 🙂 .

We spent a few hours relaxing in the shade provided by the big cliff and had one of the best donuts from a vendor walking by- filled with cream that tastes like nutella, but was light- kind of like white chocolate.

There are no chairs or umbrella rentals on this beach, just in case that’s a must have for you.

Praia da Marinha

Last but not least- one of the most beautiful beaches of Portugal (some claim even the world)- Praia da Marinha. Close to Albufeira (so on the way back to our hotel), parking might be limited during the early hours, but as we got there around 4-5pm, we did not have trouble finding a spot.

To get to the beach you need to take some stairs, but they are well maintained and not steep. It was worth every step. Right on the beach there is a small cafe with surprisingly good crepes and salads! Perfect for a quick late lunch.

We relaxed on the beach, climbed over the rocks to the adjacent beach that was a lot emptier- you can only get to it by boat or climbing over the pretty big rock formation. Great picture opportunities with minimal crowds!

I can see why it was voted one of the most beautiful beaches, but I am also glad we came later in the day to have it more to ourselves. The sand part is not big and I can see it getting very crowded during the day.

After the day of incredible beaches we were driving back towards Albufeira without any specific dinner plans. Next thing you know- Cosimo pulls over and tells us to check out this place on the side of the road. Churrasqueira Sol Nascente– simple dinner/trattoria type of restaurant. The guy has a nose for good food for sure! The parking lot was full of cars and that was the sign what made him pull over. The place was big, with no wait and plenty of seats for our party of six. I have to say it was the BEST and cheapest dinner we had in Algarve.

You could see it was all locals, no touristy crowds, just simple people eating simple and delicious food. We ate SO much, had a good amount of wine too and the final bill was 120 Euros. Oh, and of course we had dessert!

ALGARVE BY BOAT

We have spent quite a bit of time in the car on this trip, so to change it up we booked a boat trip with XDrive company. We made arrangements through our hotel a couple of days ahead and we were very happy with the fun excursion! It took about 2.5 hours and the fast boat left from Albufeira Marina, which was about 15 min drive from our hotel. Marina itself is a nice area with the colorful houses lining up along the water.

The ride was a bit choppy, they tell you in advance to sit towards the back if you have any back issues. Also, for better pictures if you can- sit on the left side of the boat and again towards the back where it’s the least movement.

We saw the big fishing ship followed by seagulls, the dolphin playing in the waves and of course the caves (one of them Benagil) from the ocean side.

You cannot get off the boat while in the caves, so do not expect to enter and walk around Benagil cave taking this trip.

We all loved it. It was a bit like a roller coaster ride and luckily none of us got seasick. There were a few unlucky passengers that spent majority of the trip looking green, but we all made it out ok!

CITIES

We went to Algarve to see the beaches, but eventually started craving some local culture and wanted to see the old Portugal. Lisbon has been amazing, so we were ready for some old charm in Algarve as well.

Albufeira

That’s the city we were staying at and therefore figured we must see from closer up. It’s a former fishing village, now a very busy and popular tourist destination. Had we known HOW busy it is we may have stayed elsewhere. You can tell that the city used to be very charming- there still are pieces of it untouched- white houses, cobblestone streets.

But it has sold its soul to the tourists and we were very sad to see that. Neon signs, flashy commercials, WELCOME TO VEGAS bar?! And this is all in the Old Town Albufeira.

We walked through, found a quiet street and luckily a good food place (thank you, Cosimo once again)- Ristorante Pizzeria La Terraza Del Mare.

This food and the Sailor Ice Cream were the two best things in this town. Talking to the locals working at the restaurant, we asked if there is any place left that is still authentic Portugal in Algarve. They told us about Tavira, which we put on our destination for the next day!

Well, the next day was planned to go to the opposite direction that we have been driving so far and take about a 40 min drive to Faro. However, our adventurous family clearly was not yet sick of driving yet. Some have not been to Spain (mom, Alius and Sean), so it was decided to take a much longer- 1.5 hr one way road trip to the closest town over the border – Huelva, Spain.

Huelva, Spain

Well, I admit- everyone was excited. We are going to another country! Who cares that there are no border passport check 🙂 . It is another language, different atmosphere, different food! Well, it could have been an amazing town had it not been a biggest national holiday- Colombinas and the whole town was shut down during the day!

We strolled around the deserted streets and pictured that this is what it would look like if some apocalypse came down. It did not help that it was scorching heat out either. Luckily we found an open restaurant and had a pretty good food for lunch- nobody spoke English, so we managed to order with our limited Spanish.

Well, I think we can all say we were in Spain now 🙂 . In retrospect, could we have gone without the drive to this town? Yes, definitely. But it was an adventure and we all were in it together.

We did not have too much daylight left, so we got back into the cars and went back to explore more of Portugal cities. Tavira as recommended by the restaurant last night next.

Tavira

Finally! The ambience that we were were looking for! The beautiful, calm, not overly crowded, charming little city. That is what we pictured Old Town Albufeira would be.

No flashy neon signs, no loud bars.

We were in love at first sight and wandered around until dark.

As much as we wanted to stay, it was still a bit of a ways to go back and we really wanted to check out Faro. My friend highly recommended it and it was on the way back to Albufeira, so we HAD to make a stop.

Faro

It was not until 10.30 pm that we reached this city. And we ran into a ‘slight’ problem- parking. The streets were narrow, parking garage full and we drove around aimlessly looking for parking for not one but two cars. From what we saw driving, we REALLY wanted to spend some time here.

We had some slight regret now for going into Spain. So if you have a chance, give yourself time to explore old town Faro. It is beautiful and looked even mystical in the street lights.  We tried to go to the recommended restaurant, but by the time we finally found parking it was 11pm and it had just closed. We settled with some tapas and walked around some more.

It’s gorgeous city and I only wish we had a little more time there.

There is old Portugal after all!

SINTRA

A week in Portugal flew by and it was time to leave Algarve and return to Lisbon for one last night before taking the flights home the following day. We had one more stop to make- beautiful city of Sintra, located just around thirty minutes from Lisbon. Initially we thought we could make more stops along the way, but it being record high temperature day, we decided to go straight to Sintra and explore the castles. It was absolutely the right decision. Give yourself at least 3-4 hours if you want to see the most famous castles without running. It may take even more time- the hot day (car thermometer showed +48C) might have kept some of the tourists away and yet we still had to wait in lines to park and to get the tickets. At the end it was well worth the hassle. We got to see REAL castles and it was one of the highlights of the whole trip.

Pena Palace

Just as beautiful in real life as in the photos, Pena Palace stands tall on a hill to which you have to make an effort to get to. We parked at one of the lower parking lots and took bus 434 up to the gate/ticket booths. The drive is a winding one way road and the bus makes a loop and circles around. At the gate we got the tickets for the three castles- Pena, Castle of the Moors and Sintra National Palace. They are all close in proximity and it was cheaper to get the three tickets together. At the same ticket booth you can also buy a ticket for a shuttle that brings you up the hill from the gate to the Pena Palace. Otherwise you can walk about 10 minutes (Sean and I did that while others took the shuttle).

The Palace looks like out of a fairy tale. Inside there is a restaurant that has air conditioning (it was our saving grace) and they sell simple but delicious Portuguese food. Around 3pm though they were running out pretty much of everything, so I recommend going earlier. The palace consists of the old and the newer parts connected by the corridor. We walked around the old part first and then finished at the newer wing.

The tour of the castle is well marked and we just followed the arrows until we made a loop.

Even if you come to Sintra and see just this palace, it’s still worth it.

Castle of the Moors

Mom and Alius were not feeling up for going to see more castles in the hottest day in Portugal, so they stayed and relaxed at the Pena Palace. The four of us took big bottles of water and set off to explore. It’s only about 15-20 minutes walk from Pena Palace to the Castle of the Moors. The walk is mainly in the shaded area, so it was quite pleasant.

Once you reach the walls though, that’s where the sun is blazing with no cover. But the views are sweeping in all directions and are absolutely worth the sweat!

We walked from one end to the other and admired the amazing landscape.

Exhausted, hot, sweaty and tired we had one more place to visit. Sintra National Palace.

Sintra National Palace

To get there you need to either drive or in our case- take the tuk-tuk. It was 5 Euros per person and got us to the palace just in time to see it before it closed for the day.

In my opinion the first two castles are a lot more impressive, at least from the outside. If you are short on time, I would then skip the Sintra National Palace, but if you have time, then definitely go see it.

The Palace is located in the center of Sintra, so in a way it’s worth coming so you can walk around this charming area.

Last night in Lisbon

We returned the cars and checked into our last hotel, about 12 min away from the airport – Corinthia Hotel. It’s beautiful and knowing that it’s such a short taxi ride in the morning gave us time to relax at the pool and then go out for a late dinner. By the way- hotel is very strict with their pool policy- regardless of how short your hair is, they require to wear swimming caps. And if you don’t have one, they sell one for 5 Euros per cap.

Rooms were very comfortable and newlyweds got a room on the 17th floor with a view.

I have to mention a restaurant that we went for the last night’s dinner, because it was REALLY good- 5 Oceanos. We called to make a reservation and were able to get one for 10pm. Great food, good service- perfect for a last dinner in Portugal!

Conclusion

If you are still reading- thank you! I did not realize how much we saw and did in one short week until I actually had to write about it! It certainly was a very packed vacation, after which we needed a vacation 🙂 . Portugal is a beautiful country and we are lucky to have seen so much of it even on a tight schedule.

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