Portugal has a long history of happy tourists who spend their surfing / family / eco / stag night holidays in southern regions like the Algarve. When me and a friend considered travelling in southern Europe for 2 weeks, we quickly decided for the other end of the long, narrow country, hoping that the weather and tourist density would be less extreme… So without further ado, here is how to survive in Porto, Coimbra and the Lisbon area during high season.
The travel route + some background info
After a bit of research and flight comparison, we chose Porto as our first spot on the list. My friend and I also agreed that a couple of days in Portugal’s capital city, Lisbon, are a must when travelling to Portugal so we booked two nights in advance in Porto and the last three nights in Lisbon. Everything else in between was left open as we wanted to be flexible with times and places.
Instead of hopping from one place to another after a day or two, we wanted to take it easy and allow ourselves to settle in a bit, relying on AirBnB (which was a compromise between my wish for flexibility and local living and my friend’s wish for comfort). In the end, our 2-weeks stay in Portugal was spent in three main regions.
As usual, my travel started a bit chaotic. My flight was delayed for 3 hours, I only landed at 1 a.m., the last metro to the city centre was already gone and the next bus would depart in 45 minutes. My friend had arrived earlier that day and was already at our AirBnB place so I stood there alone in the entrance hall of Porto Airport, tired and looking at other people hurrying to the taxi stands. I approached a family of three and asked whether they would share a taxi with me which they did. 20 minutes and 5 EUR later, I arrived.
The next day, Porto welcomed us with fantastic weather, all buildings, streets and the river Douro were shining and bright. They say that Porto makes the money that is later spent in Lisbon and this may or may not be true (I have no statistical data at hand right now) but I could definitely tell that Porto was a well-established commercial town with a long trading history. I thought it looked clean and wealthy.
I don’t know how many churches and cathedrals we saw on that first day – to my disbelief, we managed to walk almost 20km that day, mesmerized by yet another beautiful church and building, most of them from the Baroque period. Even the cemetries looked beautiful! (We thought we would enter a park only to stand in front of a range of little houses that we realized were tombs.)
Our highlight of that first day was one of the many portwine lodges where we wanted to finish the day with a glass of their sweet, liqueur-like wine. The Graham’s Lodge turned out to be a peaceful place up in the hills of Porto where we had a fantastic view on the city. If you ask me, the Graham’s Lodge alone is reason enough to come to Porto. We were so enchanted that we came back the next day for one of their wine tasting tours where we learnt about the long history of British-Portuguese trading, the cultivation and production of portwine and of course about their different wines. (For the record, I preferred the nutty and almost caramel-like Tawny Portwine while my friend was more into the fruity Ruby Portwine).
The next day was the first time I realised that me and my friend had different travel expectations. We wanted to stay for one additional night but most hostels and hotels as well as our AirBnB were already booked. I had expected a situation like this since we agreed on being flexible and on not booking every night in advance – during high season. I personally like to take things as they come, it’s all part of the fun for me: searching for places and tansport, taking on ideas and discarding them only to end up somewhere completely else. My friend on the other hand seemed to be stressed and uncomfortable with looking and settling for places that were, as she later told me, not meeting her comfort standards.
I must admit, our place for the third and last night in Porto was not great but it was home to a yound Italian girl and her boyfriend who were super nice and who joined us for dinner and some drinks. People like them make up for non-ideal places like ours and so we left Porto the next morning with a good feeling, curious to discover more of Portugal.
Coimbra was my choice, I have wanted to visit this place since reading Pascal Marcier’s “Night Train to Lisbon”, a novel where the protagonist explores the life of a Portugese doctor and poet who had studied in Coimbra.
Coimbra lies quite in-between Porto and Lisbon but without access to the sea. It was once the capital of Portugal and later evolved into the country’s cultural centre. It is home to Portugal’s oldest university, the University of Coimbra, which was established in 1290 and until this day attracts many Portuguese as well as international students.
Our AirBnb host told us that the students are very proud of the university’s heritage, its ceremonies and traditions. Many students wear the university black cape day in, day out and they keep alive the traditional university events including the Coimbra Fado serenades. Fado is a music style that dates back to the 1820ies (or earlier), it is performed with a Portugese guitar (see picture above) and often accompanied by a classic acoustic guitar. While the Fado songs in Lisbon are sung by either a male or a female singer, the Coimbra Fado is reserved for male voices (we were told that the men are usually current or former students of the Coimbra University). My friend and I were lucky to attend a Fado concert where we also learnt that Fado is quite a sentimental and “longing” music genre that has been used for expressing romantic feelings and political opinions. The video below shows one of the most popular Coimbra Fado songs.
My friend and I wandered around town after the Fado concert, it was already quite late and not as hot anymore (the temperature reached 40 C° during the day). Coimbra is built around the university hill, literally a hill with the university building on top. The surrounding streets were decorated with colourful crochet objects and while climbing up the narrow streets, we saw several little stores, cafés as well as Coimbra’s old cathedrals. Not knowing what to expect, we approached the university building and where literally blown away by its beauty: the inner courtyard is huge and we felt overwhelmed by the size of the university and by the amount of knowledge and great minds that were formed and trained over the centuries.
Our visit of Coimbra fell into the time of semester break which is why there were not many students (and ergo, not many people in general) around. I liked the tranquility but agreed with my friend that it was almost impossible to enjoy Coimbra for another day as it was simply too hot to do anything until the evening hours. I would love to come back to Coimbra during spring or autumn when the streets are filled with life and Fado music.
After visiting two towns, Porto and Coimbra, we decided that is was time for some days at the beach. Since we had planned to finish our trip in Lisbon, we figured that we could just as well go for one of its close-by beaches. We had heard of the beautiful beaches around the Nature Park of Arrábida (in the south of Lisbon) and decided to go there without yet having a place to stay.
This turned out to be a good and a bad idea at the same time. Long story short: our preferred AirBnB did not answer our request and we ended up in Setúbal (a small city close to the Nature Park) where we had to decide how to continue. My friend was frustrated as she wanted to stay very close to the beach but there was not a single hotel or hostel that was still free (except for two hotels that were more than 400 EUR a night). Setúbal did not impress us either, so we decided to write to an AirBnB that was some 5 or 6 km away from Sesimbra, another small town at the other side of the Nature Park. We were lucky enough that he answered our request within half an hour, took the bus to Sesimbra (a lovely little fishing town) and then another bus to his place inland.
I was amazed when we entered his appartment which looked like a hotel room: clean, tidy, with a seperate bathroom and a balcony. All this for little money and without sharing the place with other people. I was so thrilled, I couldn’t stop smiling. We could even rent our host’s bikes so that we would be at the beach in less than 15 minutes time, riding along the edge of the Nature Park. I thought it was perfect but the face of my friend spoke volumes. She told me how she was close to tears and how she had wanted to be close to the beach, dreaming of only having 5 metres to go until her feet would touch the water. I was confused about her sadness which ended up in us discussing our expectations and different attitudes. Here is the extract:
My friend was a lot more passionate about how and where we travelled. She got all excited when somebody mentioned a specific place or a specific travel route only to become sad or even angry if we did not manage to get there. I, on the other hand, am quite a rational person. I look up places, compare prices and travel routes, the effort and time that it will take and in the end, I settle for what feels good and seems manageable. Whether this is the place or event that I had initially in mind or not, does not matter to me. I am maybe not as attached to certain ideas or places. Which, to my friend, came across as non-passionate and neglectful of her wishes and needs.
Lesson learnt: communicate with your (future) travel companion. I was not aware that we had so different ideas of comfort, being flexible and enjoying foreign places. It was good that we talked about it and and to understand that we are good friends but probably not ideal travel buddies for each other.
Luckily, there is a sweet ending to the story: the beach that our host recommended to us (Praia do Meco) was so wide, we couldn’t see its ends, there were almost no people around and it was literally bordering the Nature Park, meaning that the sandy cliffs blended into dark green forests – it felt magical and I am happy that my friend felt good, too. We even extended our stay, explored Sesimbra and its Moorish Castle (definitely worth the visit!) and enjoyed eating out (the restaurants close to the beach were fantastic).
We went on to Lisbon after 3 days but I must confess that I can not write much about Portugal’s capital city. The reason for this is 1) I felt sick for a day, 2) we spent a day at another beach as we thought that the city was too full and the air too sticky and 3) we used the last day for a bit of shopping. While my friend browsed the clothing stores, I found a small shop for organic goods (organii) with a very knowledgeable assistant and the perfumery Skinfood where I eventually bought my beloved Vetyver. Both shops are close to Baixa-Chiado and I highly recommend them.
After not seeing much of Lisbon, the city joins Coimbra on my list of towns that I would like to visit at another time of the year.
Portugal, I very much enjoyed walking your cities and beaches. You’re incredibly hot (hehe) and the calmness and relaxed way of your people was a pleasant surprise – it felt like life was lived at a comfortable low pace. I am not sure about your meal times though – can’t we settle for a supper before 9 p.m. next time that I’ll visit you? See you soon, M.
I hope you enjoyed my Portugal travel report – what was your recent travel destination and have you had similar experiences with a travel companion?