As your plane touches down in Portugal, you can gaze out the window at the vast horizon of the seaside Belém district. You might dream of the bravery of intrepid 15th-century Portuguese sailors who explored that sea long ago. Many of those sailors are immortalized in the soaring Monument to the Discoveries, which is one of the must-see spots on your present-day exploration to Lisbon and Porto.
But there’s plenty more to discover beyond that monument, so laceup your shoes and head for the hills. From the center of Lisbon, hop on the number 15 bus and proceed to the pastry capital of Portugal. Belém offers fascinating sites like the Belém Tower as well as the ornate Monastery of Jerónimos, both imbued with Moorish architectural elements. You can’t miss out on Pastéis de Belém bakery’s pastel de nata tarts, which owe their custardy, yolk-based fillings to the tradition of using egg whites to starch liturgical garments. At just under $2 each, it’s a pretty sweet deal indeed.
Myriad other tart iterations are sprinkled throughout the city, and you can learn about some of the best on a Secret Food Tour, which also includes insights on some other indulgences—inexpensive, locally produced Super Bock beer, Ginjinha sour cherry liqueur, cured meats and cheeses and wines for which Portugal’s Douro Valley is renowned. There’s also a little food for thought during a stroll through the historical Mouraria district, with traces of a medieval wall and beautiful tiled facades. But that’s not the only art—Mouraria is also the birthplace of Fado music, and there are plenty of restaurants to catch free performances. Get some context on the tunes at the Museu do Fado in the Alfama district before you see a show.
The oldest district in Lisbon, Alfama’s labyrinth of cobbled streets and ancient homes provides a bit of quieter sanctuary—especially when it comes to boutique hotels like Palácio Belmonte, built on the surrounding walls of Castle São Jorge. The former palace is the oldest in Lisbon, with Roman walls, 18th-century tiles and antique rugs and paintings. With 11 suites, a reservation can be hard to come by (and not cheap), but a trek up to the property affords breathtaking views of the Tagus River and the patio cafe is a great spot for an affordable bite and people-watching. Splurge-worthy meals are a short walk down the hill in Alfama at Chapitô à Mesa, part of a circus-arts school with three concepts: coal-grilled items on the terrace, a snack house and an upscale restaurant. Or you can head to Bairro do Avillez, where Portugal’s celebrity chef José Avillez puts a modern spin on classic Portuguese dishes.
Of course, no meal is complete without wine—or port. During an essential visit to Porto, sip the singular sweet spirit when wandering the Vila Nova de Gaia neighborhood, where for 10-12 euros many of the cellars offer tours with three pours. Croft’s is particularly tasty, and you’ll enjoy generous samples of reserve, 10-year tawny and Pink, the world’s first rosé port wine. The walk up the hill may be a bit challenging, so grab a cab or opt to scoot for some sightseeing around in a tuk-tuk, a small motorized cart that zips and zooms through the city streets and crowds. It’s the most fun golf cart ride you’ll ever have, along with insightful commentary from guides like Fabio Faria, who’ll drive all the way up to Cathedral Square for a bird’s-eye view of the red-roofed city before meandering past Livraria Lello, the bookstore J.K. Rowling used as inspiration for Harry Potter’s Hogwarts library.
But the magic doesn’t have to end there—all-day cruises with Douro Acima offer vineyard views to the wineland district of Regua and back. Those with an afternoon to spare can sail up and down the heart of Porto in a traditional pinhão boat and admire the soaring spans that connect both banks of the river—and spy the teenage boys who take bets and bribes here before a long plunge into the water from the top. You’ll want to take the plunge and get to Portugal, too.
The Monument to the Discoveries pays tribute to Portuguese explorers.
Alfama at Chapitô Mesa, chapito.org; Bairro do Avillez, bairrodoavillez.pt; Belém Tower, torrebelem.gov.pt; Croft, croftport.com; Douro Acima, douroacima.pt; Livraria Lello, livrarialello.pt; Monastery of Jerónimos, mosteirojeronimos.gov.pt; Museu do Fado, museodofado.pt; Palácio Belmonte, palaciobelmonte.com; Pastéis de Belém, pasteisdebelem.pt
- – TAP Air Portugal’s Stopover Program has recently been enhanced to include free longer visits of up to five days in both Lisbon and Porto.
- – Don’t miss a day trip to Sintra and Cascais with Portuguese for a Day. The family-owned business offers small-group excursions to these regions featuring fairy-tale castles, national parks and the seashore.
- – Stay in a UNESCO World Heritage Site at Pestana Vintage Porto, with 18 connected buildings in the heart of the waterfront Ribeira District.