Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

Sure, the water isn’t as clear and warm as it is in the Maldives. True, the sand isn’t as white and powdery as it is in the Caribbean. But you’d be hard pressed to find a sight more magnificent than the beaches of Lagos.

While planning our honeymoon, my husband and I struggled to figure out which Algarve destination was right for us. We’d read that major destinations such as Lagos and Albufeira attracted loud, hard-partying spring-breaker types and were built up so densely with resorts that they’d lost a lot of their charm. By contrast, the eastern coast was still relatively quiet, attracting mostly families and older couples in search of lazy beach days and bird-watching.

Given that this was the one and only relaxing leg of our trip, finding the perfect quiet beach was our number one priority. If I’m being honest, avoiding drunken college kids was priority number two. I knew in my gut that the towns east of Faro would be best, but my heart ached at the thought of missing the western Algarve’s stunning sandstone cliffs.

Sandstone cliffs of Lagos, Portugal

So we came up with a compromise. Instead of traveling to just one place for five days, we split up our coastal time into three parts: three days of beach-bumming in sleepy Cabanas, one day kayaking in scenic Lagos, and one day sightseeing in Faro, where we’d catch a direct train to Lisbon the next morning.

Let me tell you something you’ve probably already figured out: One day in Lagos is not enough! I mean, how was I supposed to tear my eyes away from this view after less than 24 hours?

Sunset at Ponte da Piedade, Lagos, Portugal

Because our time here was limited, we thought we’d make the most of the town’s best feature–those gorgeous cliffs–by getting out on the open water. And what better way to do so than on a kayak?

Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

A three-hour kayak and snorkel tour with Kayak Adventures Lagos was pretty much the only activity we booked in advance of our trip. Typically, we like to play things by ear, sketching out a tentative itinerary and adjusting according to the weather, our mood and other factors. But we West Coast natives were desperate for some paddling action, and we knew these tours booked up weeks in advance, even in shoulder season–so we took the leap.

Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

After a windswept walk from the Lagos train station to our simple Airbnb rental, we headed down to the small but hopping Praia Batata (literally “potato beach” in English), where Kayak Adventures gave us some preliminary instructions and two kayak paddles. We stuffed everything we had in the shared drybag they provided, keeping only the adorable waterproof disposable camera we’d received as a wedding gift. (Yep, that’s why most of these pictures look oddly vintagey.)

Once our group of about a dozen had all arrived, our British guide greeted us with a few funny icebreakers and gave a short lesson on paddling for the newbies. Even though I’d kayaked before, I was grateful for the refresher; My only paddling experience was in a one-person, sit-inside kayak on a relatively calm lake, and this was going to be my first time negotiating the open ocean on an open-faced, two-person kayak.

Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

It was slow going for about five minutes after our guide pushed us off the beach as the two of us tried to get our bearings and get our paddling in sync. But the guide seemed unconcerned, and once I saw that most of the other couples with us lagged behind and tried in vain to face the right direction, I felt much better about my own struggles.

Things went smoother once we had all left the beach and reached the seawall, at the end of which was perched a stately red lighthouse. Around the corner, we glimpsed the cliffs I’d only seen in pictures thus far, and my heart skipped a beat.

Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

The next hour and a half flew by. As our guide described the geological phenomenon that eroded the sandstone cliffside into the shapes of natural bridges and narrow columns and explained the way the tide etched ribbons of red and orange across the face of the cliffs, we glided slack-jawed through archways, caves and grottoes.

We traveled all the way to Ponte da Piedade, where the cliffs turn from red to white, before turning around. When it was time for a snack break, our guide led us to the impossibly beautiful Camilo Beach–so named, she told us, for a camel-shaped rock formation in the cliffside. Once the two of us had had a bite to eat, we grabbed the masks and snorkels on offer and swam out from the beach. Unfortunately, the water was pretty cloudy and colder than we’d expected, so our quest didn’t last long…but the ocean made a great backdrop for a photoshoot with the last few frames our camera had left!

Swimming at Praia do Camilo in Lagos, Portugal

Swimming at Praia do Camilo in Lagos, Portugal

…aaaand that’s when the film ran out.

We spent the last few minutes of our break exploring nearby caves and ducking through archways that led to adjoining beaches. Then, we hauled our damp selves back into the kayaks and onto the water for another half hour of ocean paddling and basking in the warm Algarve sun.

Three hours later, saltwater-soaked and happy, we arrived back on Batata Beach, thanked the guide and turned in our paddles. The sun had begun to set, and it was time for a well-earned beer back at our apartment and a sunset walk to the cliff’s edge.

Sunset at Ponte da Piedade, Lagos, Portugal

For anyone who’d like to follow in our footsteps, I highly recommend booking the kayak and snorkel tour with Kayak Adventures. As you’ll see when you arrive at Batata Beach, Kayak Adventures has a lot of competitors–but it’s one of the longest-standing and highest-rated companies out there, so you really can’t go wrong with them.

If you go on a sunny day, make sure to bring tons of water and sunscreen. If you’re especially sensitive to sun, wear a hat and UV-protective clothing over your swimsuit. No matter the weather, I recommend you bring as little as possible with you to the beach; take some snacks, some money and your keys, and leave phones and non-waterproof electronics at the hotel.

READ NEXT: TIPS ON TRAVELING TO PORTUGAL

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

Azulejos and calçadas: The story behind Portugal’s tile art

Here in the U.S., our cities have transportation departments, building commissioners and art endowments–three separate but equally important entities. But in beautiful Portugal, things work a little differently…because the roads and buildings are art.

Photo by Ian Bishop

I’d read extensively about the azulejos we’d see in Portugal, but I thought I’d only see tile work on a few major churches and monuments. I also thought, as the “azul” in azulejo seemed to indicate, that they’d all be blue and white. Instead, what I found was a multicolored visual feast around every corner, whether I looked down at my feet or three stories above me.

Tiles decorating the facade of Pena Palace in Sintra

Tile decorations and mosaic designs are simply inescapable in Portugal–and thank goodness for that, because there’s no more satisfying diversion from a long day of walking than stopping to inspect a breathtaking mural on the side of a confeitaria or looking down at your feet to discover an intricate flower pattern on the sidewalk. It’s clear that the country’s handiwork with ceramic tiles, basalt and limestone is what really separates it visually from the rest of Western Europe.

From the moment we arrived in Lisbon, we saw tiles everywhere. They fit together in elaborate, hand-painted murals narrating Lisbon’s maritime history in the city’s metro stations. They adorned the face of seemingly every building from the northern wine country all the way down to the sun-drenched, beachy Algarve. Tiny black and white stones fit together to form the whole country’s sidewalks. They were by turns weather-worn, ornate, beautiful, ugly, geometric, slippery and three-dimensional. Portugal didn’t seem to discriminate. Rather, it seemed to say, “If it’s covered in tiles, any tiles, it’s Portuguese.”

After a while, I wondered why tile art was so pervasive in Portugal but nowhere else in Europe…so I did some research. It turns out the Portuguese term for tiles, azulejos, has nothing to do with azul, the word for blue, like I thought. Instead, it’s actually derived from the Arabic word al-zulayj, which means “polished stone.” Whoever named them must have been paying respect to Egypt, the birthplace of tiles. But despite Portugal’s deep connection with Northern Africa–Moors controlled the Iberian peninsula for 700 years until Catholic conquerors wrested the land away in 1492–the tiles we see today were mostly inspired by the Alhambra in Spain. Legend has it that the king, Dom Manuel I, saw those wondrous Moorish tiles In Granada and used them as inspiration when designing his palace in Évora. All his tiles were imported from Seville and featured nothing more than abstract geometric patterns, in keeping with an Islamic law that condemns idolatry.

Dom Manuel I made tiny Portugal a conqueror of far-flung lands and a major global power, and for that he was revered. The clergy and the nobility hastened to follow his artistic example. In an architectural style they dubbed Manueline, they built churches, government seats and private estates with nods to his influence–intricate designs carved out of limestone, maritime symbols…and, of course, tiles. It wasn’t long until tile fever took over.

Tiles in Lisbon

Photos by Ian Bishop

The history of Portugal’s calçadas, or tiled sidewalks, is less documented–perhaps because, unlike azulejos, there isn’t an entire museum devoted to them! We know the first intricate mosaics in Portugal were designed by the Romans 2,000 years ago–in fact, you can still ooh and aah at them today at an archaeological site just outside Coimbra. But they never would have returned were it not for Dom Joao II, who in 1498 issued a decree that Portugal’s dirt roads were to be paved with limestone. (It’s said that he did this not for the good of the people but so that he could march in a dirt-free street parade in his honor…alongside a white rhino. You can’t make this stuff up!)

That takes us to 1755, the year of the earthquake that so devastated Lisbon that almost no building in the city survived. In a hasty attempt to rebuild, road workers gathered together the shards of limestone and basalt that once graced Lisbon’s roads and formed its handsome buildings and turned them into mosaic sidewalks, taking inspiration from their Roman ancestors.

The signature star-shaped tiles in Sintra, Portugal

The technique, once a necessity, transformed into an art and spread all over the country in the mid-19th century. Even Portugal’s former colonies boast artistic calçadas, from delicate geometric patterns in Maputo, Mozambique, to a giant wave-patterned esplanade at Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro.

If you travel all over Portugal, pay close attention to the sidewalks and sides of buildings: They’ll often tell you a lot about the local heritage. Travel to Pinhão, a town sitting on the banks of the Douro River, and you’ll see its history of grape-growing and wine-making told in tile murals at the train station. Look down while you’re walking around Lagos and you’ll see mosaics in the shape of crabs, fish and octopuses, a testament to the Algarve region’s strong fishing industry and close connection to the ocean. In Sintra the sidewalk mosaics are star-shaped, a nod to the fact that the town name means “bright star” in a now-defunct Indo-European language.

The University of Coimbra’s seal…in tiles

If you visit Portugal, don’t forget to pad your itinerary with lots of “Wait, I need another look at this amazing tile/mosaic!” time. With all the steep hills you’ll be climbing, you’ll need a break anyway.

READ NEXT: SEVEN NON-TOURISTY THINGS TO DO IN LISBON

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