It’s Time for Portugal
By Bob Clyatt
Portugal is hot. Twenty million visitors last year, 60 new hotels opening in 2018, and all those Instagram posts mean it will probably be on your vacation list soon. Here’s what we learned from a last-minute trip there this month that might help a first-time visitor.
First off, it was easy and enjoyable, a great week-long getaway. TAP and Delta fly direct to Lisbon from JFK (and TAP also flies direct to Porto) in about six hours, like going to California. Most tourists hit the same four areas: The two major cities, Lisbon and Porto, the Douro wine growing region inland from Porto, and the beach areas of the Algarve in the south.
Overall, we found the food to be uniformly good and affordable, whether in the cities and high-end tourism districts or out in the countryside. But it is worth seeking out the extraordinary: Portuguese chefs are innovating with local ingredients and redefining traditions in some delicious ways. Yelp and your local concierge can guide you to this new culinary elite.
Roads were uniformly excellent – all those problematic EU loans from a few years back seem to have been put to good use on infrastructure. We rented a car and found driving everywhere was easy, with help from Waze or Google Maps which work like a charm on arrival. (Be sure to reserve automatic transmission if you need it.)
The Portuguese were relaxed, friendly, and happy to speak English wherever we went. Real business and industry happen here, of course, but somehow it all seems to unfold at a manageable pace. The landscape reminded me a lot of northern California – dry yet not parched, with eucalyptus and oleanders and always that delightful sun. September and October are particularly good months to visit, with temperatures around 80 degrees (though cool at night) and the summer crowds diminished.
We like contemporary boutique hotels and found strong offerings with modern designs fitted tastefully into historic districts. The Memmo Group properties in Lisbon or the Torel AvantGarde in Porto are good examples, but a full range of well-managed European-style hotels is available.
Here are brief notes on the four main tourist areas.
Lisbon: Baixa, the old historic center, is the heart of the city. The neighborhood of Principe Real on the crest of a hill just above is drawing global designers and the few remaining abandoned buildings will no doubt be snapped up soon by new arrivals like Steve Madden. For now, enjoy stylish Portuguese innovators (Embaixada is a good place to start) and hip new restaurants alongside treasures like the Belle Époque cabinet of curiosities, Pavilhao Chines bar. Walk along the gracious Avenida da Liberdad or down the warren of steep streets and churches to the old harbor area but bring sensible shoes – the marble sidewalks, made of small square stones, have become slick over the centuries and warrant caution. Cascais, an historic town on the Atlantic a half-hour west of Lisbon, can make a nice half-day trip.
Porto: If Lisbon had an almost Epcot-meets-Soho feel, Porto feels more grounded and real. The old-world charm is here, the young people are out in droves, but this feels like an actual working city, an intellectual/professional capital, as well as an atmospheric place to wander. Porto is the gateway to the Douro wine region, which makes not only red and white wines but also the eponymous after-dinner fortified wine. Activity centers in the Ribeira neighborhood stretching down to the stone stone quays and ramparts along the riverfront.
Douro Valley: You’ve probably seen Douro’s terraced vineyards already (they’re on those Viking River Cruises ads on PBS), but they nonetheless will delight. Drive east from Porto about 90 minutes on an excellent new highway (with a four-mile-long tunnel – those EU loans again) and find your way on windy back roads to river towns like Pinhao or Regua. You’ll marvel at the way ancient vineyards cling to seemingly solid-rock hillsides and stretch on for miles in all directions. This is a fun day trip into the Portuguese interior, longer if you stop to fully engage the food and wine offerings, winery tours etc.
Algarve: You’ll need to search hard for old world charm, authenticity and solitude in the Algarve but the natural beauty and weather on Europe’s southwest tip make up for it. Embrace the Euro-style developed beach towns and rows of rented umbrellas and chaises, or else get adventurous and drive, hike or boat to one of the many beautiful remote beaches away from the resort towns. Massive water-carved rock formations and bluffs are the big draw here. Check out postcard-perfect spots like Benagil Cave (accessible only by swimming or boat.) Still when you get there you’ll have plenty of company, not all of whom will be wearing all their clothes. We stayed in the excellent grand dame, Bela Vista on bustling Praia da Rocha in Portimao, and enjoyed the made-for-tourists reclamation of nearby fishing village, Alvor.
Steps down to Praia do Camilo beach in the Algarve
Principe Real Café in Lisbon