Sunset at a beach at Ponte da Piedade in Lagos, Algarve, Portugal

Tips on traveling to Portugal

Tips on traveling to Portugal

Boasting a wealth of cultural sights, a world-class wine region and some of the most remarkable beaches on the planet, Portugal deserves to be at the top of just about everyone’s travel bucket list. Yet compared to some of its European neighbors, it still flies under the radar. This is great news for trailblazers but somewhat frustrating for overplanners like me, because it means there’s criminally little information out there about all of Portugal’s cultural quirks–you know, all those little things you wish someone had told you before you made an utter fool of yourself by counting with your thumb or wandering into a church with a miniskirt on.

(For example, why didn’t any of the guide books mention that the center of Porto is so crowded that you’re basically SOL if you don’t have a Saturday night dinner reservation? That would have been great to know.)

So here I am, filling the void. Without further ado, here are all the things I wish I’d known before landing in Lisbon.

Port glasses at Sandeman in Porto's Ribeira district

Slow it down

If you’re looking for fast-paced food service, you’ve come to the wrong country. Like others in Southern Europe, the Portuguese believe going out to eat isn’t as much about the food as it is about connecting with one another and taking some time to unwind. (They also seem to believe it’s rude to drop off the bill before you’ve asked for it, so don’t expect it to magically appear once the plates are cleared like it does in the U.S.) During our two weeks in Portugal, we often spent one and a half or two hours enjoying lunches and dinners, and we really didn’t mind the languid pace: We used that time to bask in the sun, admire a wonderful view, talk about life or plan out the rest of our day.

Cypress tree at Lisbon's Jardim do Principe Real in the Bairro Alto

Take a hike

If you’re headed to Portugal for a city break, be prepared for hills…LOTS of hills. With many of its popular sights and neighborhoods situated hundreds of feet above the sea-level city center, Lisbon gives San Francisco a run for its money…and Porto isn’t exactly flat, either. Just like in SF, many tourists get around by riding the cities’ adorable historic trolleys, but unless you’re visiting in the dead of winter, those get so crowded that I recommend skipping them altogether and hoofing it if you can. The view’s better anyway–what’s a trip to Lisbon without a glimpse at its many historic staircases and romantic, narrow alleys? Just make sure to wear comfortable, cushioned shoes and be careful on rainy days…those tiled sidewalks can be mighty slippery!

Giant meringues in a pasteleria in Coimbra, Portugal

 

Break out the Lactaid

If you, like us, elect to stay in apartments instead of hotels while you’re in Portugal, you’ll probably end up hitting a pasteleria or two for breakfast. Whether it’s the famous Pastéis de Belém or a nondescript shop around the corner from your temporary home, here’s what you can expect to find: eggs, cream, sugar, eggs…and more eggs. I knew Portugal’s most famous dessert was the pastel de nata–a tiny, delicious and delicate custard tart–but I had no idea its signature pastry was just the beginning of this country’s sugar-and-egg obsession. Almost every takeaway breakfast item you’ll find involves sugar and eggs, whether it’s in the form of a sponge cake, a custard or a giant meringue. Portugal sure has a sweet tooth–but if you don’t, I recommend finding a grocery store when you arrive and stocking up on crusty bread and deli meats, fruit and yogurt or cereal and milk.

Sunset on the boardwalk in Cabanas, Algarve, Portugal

Dine in the dark

Just like their neighbors in Spain, the Portuguese wouldn’t dream of sitting down to dinner before sunset. Even though restaurants in the major tourist centers open for dinner at 7 p.m., you might prefer to embrace the local late-night ways and shoot for a dinnertime of about 9:30. Those who eat later and venture farther from the city center will get a better glimpse of real Portuguese life…and probably better food, too.

Crowds in a well at Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal

Prepare for crowds

I have no idea why, but Americans almost never visit Portugal. When I asked my Facebook friends for advice on where to go, only a tiny handful had information to share. I reasoned that since so few Americans would be there and we were traveling in the off season, we’d see practically no tourists. Um…I would like to take this moment to admonish Past Me for making such America-centic assumptions.

While the Algarve was blessedly quiet and there were more black-caped students than white-sneakered foreigners in Coimbra, both Lisbon and Porto were packed TO THE GILLS with travelers, especially groups from the UK, Germany and France. We were so surprised and overwhelmed by the crowds that we found ourselves skipping out on a handful of major sights just to avoid the constant close proximity with other people. I later found out that the number of annual visitors to Portugal has actually eclipsed the country’s population of 10 million, and it’s only getting worse. Had we known this ahead of time, we might have planned ahead a bit more with dinner reservations and earlier mornings.

Sunset at a beach at Ponte da Piedade in Lagos, Algarve, Portugal

Layer up

I’m from Northern California, where the surfing is great…as long as your wetsuit is thick and you’ve got the neoprene boots to match. So I was thrilled to find out the sea temperature in the Algarve would be around 70 degrees Fahrenheit in October. Room-temperature water is basically like bath water, right? Wrong! While Portugal is known all over Europe as a beachy resort destination–and make no mistake, summers get extremely hot there–you won’t find the sort of tantalizingly warm water that Ibiza or Sicily boasts. While it’s just as far south as its Mediterranean neighbors, the southern coast of Portugal actually lies along the wild, untamed Atlantic Sea, where waves are a lot chillier than in the Med. If you’re sensitive to cold water, consider bringing a rashguard to keep warm, or try kayaking instead of swimming.

What do you wish you’d known before traveling to Portugal? Or, if you’re Portuguese, what do you wish tourists knew before traveling to your home? Share in the comments!

READ NEXT: Seven non-touristy things to do in Lisbon

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Seven Non-Touristy Things to do in Lisbon

Seven Non-Touristy Things to do in Lisbon

Boasting beautiful water views, stunning tile-lined avenues and colorful cobblestoned lanes, every corner of Lisbon begs to be explored…yet most tourists congregate in the same few places. Tired of the crowds? Go off the beaten path and head to these hidden gems instead.

Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara

Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara

Lisbon is famous for its many city viewpoints, called “miradouros.” But while you might find hordes of tourists at more famous panoramic spots near the castle and the Alfama district, you’ll see a nice blend of visitors and young locals at this park, especially at sunset. If you’re visiting over a weekend, this should be your go-to pregaming destination: Funky food stands on the park’s southern edge offer small bites, and you can wash them down with a sangria or a piña colada. Then, you’re ready to head west and explore the Bairro Alto’s many amazing bars and restaurants.

Jardim Botânico Tropical

Tropical Botanical Garden in Lisbon

When you need a breath of fresh air after fighting through the crowds at Pastéis de Belém and the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, hit up this urban garden oasis right next door. It’ll cost you a mere€2 to explore acres of banyan trees, bamboo walls and banana plants, and you’ll probably share the space with more tropical birds than fellow humans. Take advantage of the garden’s many strategically placed benches to give your tired touring feet a much-needed break.

Panteão Nacional

Panteao Nacional Lisbon

Portugal’s pantheon is a lot more modest than the ones you’ll find in, say, Rome or Paris. Some of the famous explorers, writers and poets they’ve chosen to memorialize here aren’t actually buried on the property, which is why many guidebooks don’t consider this sight to be terribly notable. But this is a great place to visit on your first morning in the city, because its expansive roof affords a great view out over the eastern side of Lisbon and the beautiful Tagus River, allowing you to get your bearings and take some great pictures.

Livraria Sá da Costa

Livraria Sa da Costa Lisbon

Guidebooks will advise you to visit Bertrand Books, which calls itself “The Oldest Bookstore in the World.” But hidden in plain sight kitty-corner from this shop is a wonderful rare bookseller that many too often overlook. The bookstore’s grand main room, featuring antique finds in glass cases and first-edition boxed sets, is only the half of it: keep traveling down the hallway and you’ll find a maze of nooks and crannies stuffed with any and every genre. For those who don’t think they can tackle the Portuguese language just yet, there’s even an English language section.

Feira da Ladra

Feira da Ladra Lisbon

While this Tuesday and Saturday flea market isn’t exactly a big secret, it seems to be as popular with locals as it is with tourists–and there’s room enough for everyone. Stretching through Campo Santa Clara and down many more surrounding blocks in Lisbon’s Alfama neighborhood, it’s one of the hugest flea markets you’ll ever see. Almost everything you can fathom is for sale here, from centuries-old painted tiles to hippie-chic harem pants to vintage vinyl to handmade furniture. Fuel up at a nearby cafe and wander around first thing in the morning, or do what we did and stop here just before you return home to pick up gifts for friends and family.

Pharmacia

Pharmacia bar Lisbon

Situated in a garden right outside the city’s health and medicine museum, a hidden gem in itself, is a hilarious pharmacy-themed bar and restaurant. In the early evenings, local twentysomethings swarm the bar’s mismatched lawn chairs to smoke, gossip, gaze out on the Tagus River, and sip on unique cocktails named after drugs. Those who want a bite to eat can enjoy small plates with creative ingredients. If you go, make sure to visit the bathroom just so you can marvel at the beautiful marble lobby inside.

Gulbenkian Park

Gulbenkian Museum Lisbon grounds

If you’re short on time or not big on art, it’s okay to save €25 and skip the visit to the Gulbenkian, one of Portugal’s largest and most famous museums. Instead, spend the money you saved on fancy picnic foods at a nearby grocery store and hang out on the Gulbenkian’s beautiful grounds. All around the museum’s midcentury exterior are winding, pampas-lined paths interspersed with ponds, streams and unique sculptures. Take a romantic stroll, then settle down near the amphitheater for people- and bird-watching.

Have you been to Lisbon? Share your favorite sights in the comments!

 

READ NEXT: FIVE REASONS TO TAKE A SOLO TRIP THIS YEAR