Your Next Euro Trip Should Include Portugal

A ton of Millennials have the #wanderlust bug.

From study abroad semesters to frugal backpacking trips, this generation obviously loves to travel (and post it all over on social media). Europe is a must-see, but many skip this tiny little country situated on the Iberian Peninsula: Portugal. With under 11 million people, this country has a population just a tad larger than the Big Apple’s 8.5 million. But Portugal packs a punch with a rich history and culture that I like to describe of being an amazing blend of Western Europe and the Mediterranean.

Well, I might have a bias for my infatuation because my mom is Portuguese and I’ve visited a few times. So to give you some background, its native language is Portuguese and before you ask if it’s “pretty much like Spanish,” I’ll answer with a firm “no.” Both are romance languages so there are similarities in that regard and Spain is east of Portugal, but please bear in mind that these two are still distinct languages, cultures and nations. Luckily for you, you don’t have to be fluent in native tongue to get your way around. Many of its citizens also speak English, French, German and yes, Spanish.

And thanks to its size, it’s fairly easy to travel from border to border and coast to coast to get a taste of the diverse cities and regions. Below are the seven stops you should add for your visit. And don’t worry, I’ve made sure to add in a variety experiences that tap into all of the senses. Boa sorte! Or good luck.

The Capital: Lisbon 

Your international flight will mostly likely land you in Lisbon. For a sweet treat, you have to try pastel de nata, which is a mini tart with an egg custard that has “hints of lemon, cinnamon and vanilla.” This simple and not-too-sweet pastry was first made by nuns and monks when Arabic traders brought over sugar to the continent. The best pastry shop to get this is Antiga Confeitaria de Belém. Be prepared for winding lines to order this dessert. 

Portugal food

Image Credit: Brad Hammonds

After you’ve answered your sweet tooth cravings, the next thing you should do is listen to traditional Fado music during dinner. Fado, or fate, is Portuguese singing that is theatrical and passionate with lyrics about loss. The singers usually expresses both despair and hope. The international star, Mariza, is possibly today’s most famous fado singer; she’s experimented with traditional and more modern sounds of the genre.  

Outside of Lisbon, but still in southern Portugal is the Castelo da Pena, Park and National Palace of Pena in Sintra. Originally meant to be a monastery, it became home for King Ferdinand II in the 19th-century and it’s definitely fit for a royal by being placed at the top of a mountain. The stunning architecture combines Portuguese Manueline (Gothic) and Moorish (Middle Age Muslim) designs. The interior seems like a maze bedrooms, hallways and courtyards that are all ornately decorated. 

Castle in Portugal

Image Credit: Paul Stephenson

Trust me when I say that there are so many castles in Portugal. The Palace of Pena is definitely the most popular, but here are six other beauties.

The Beaches: Algarve, Azores & Cascais

Algarve is the southernmost region of Portugal and its views do not disappoint. I’ve been on multiple cruises in the Caribbean and I’m telling you, those beaches just don’t compare. This city also has a ton of seafood restaurants. Portuguese people pretty much eat more seafood than meats, so they know how to cook this stuff. When eating, be prepared to see the holy trinity of Portuguese ingredients: olive oil, paprika and garlic. Oh and lots of carbs, like carbs with a side of carbs. And thankfully this country loves all types of starches including bread, potatoes and rice.

Next up is the island Azores and it’s only accessible by boat or plane, but it’s worth the trip. I mean just look at the picture below! Also heads up that when you visit a Portuguese beach, don’t be alarmed by the topless women and nude children. Like many other European countries, their culture has a more liberal interpretation of modesty. Buuuut if you’re feeling adventurous, you can also go bare at one of these nude beaches. Hey, when in Rome right?

Portugal Trip

Image Credit: Ville Oksanen

Cascais is a coastal town west of Lisbon and it’s a vacation hotspot, even for the royal family back in the day. Dubbed “The Charm of the Atlantic Coast,” it has crystal clear water and clean white sand. There are beaches with a cosmopolitan feel with bars and restaurants, and there are more isolated beaches with cliffs surrounding them.

Side note, if visiting beaches in warm weather is non-negiotable for your trip, then consider booking your plane ticket in July or August. These are the hot summer months and also when the beaches are most crowded with tourists. The ocean water also isn’t as frigid during this time, but personally I think it’s a stretch to say that it’s ever really warm.

The Wine Regions: Douro and Alentejo 

Say hello to the World Heritage Site Douro. It’s just outside of the city Porto and home of some amazing wines and of course, their worldwide famous ports. People in the Douro valley have been making wine for over 2,000 years and we should feel #blessed that these grapes are still being grown in our presence. You shouldn’t discriminate against red versus white vinho because there are a ton of local grapes to try from.

Even the transportation getting to this wine region is an experience. You can hop on a car, train ride or better yet, take a river cruise down the Douro river where you’ll have a romantic backdrop of lush green mountains and stepped vineyards adorned on the hillsides. If you want to get around like pre-19th century folk, a rabelo boat (pictured below) would be your navigation option.

Portugal Trip Backpacking

Image Credit: Tiago Almeida

After sniffing, swishing and sipping glasses of delicious wine, head over to Porto to immerse yourself in a metropolitan center packed with culinary wonders. I grew up eating Portuguese food and even I didn’t know about the Portuguese style tapas called petiscos. Also there are traditional restaurants with top-notch seafood or you can venture to a restaurant that take a modern twist. Or try both. Yeah, that’s probably best.

Once you’ve checked off northern Portuguese wines, move down south to Alentejo. Most of this agricultural region is less hilly than Douro and instead has seemingly endless plains. It’s also the least populated area and covers about a third of the country. For bottle-popping, there are local vines like the “star grape of the region,” the green Antão Vaz. Yes, Portuguese white wines are called Vinho Verde, or green wine, because of their color. But if you’re more of a red cork connoisseur (cough, me!), then there are strictly local varieties and red blends with imported grapes. One of my favorite things about Portuguese red wines is their rich, dark color and many of these bottles have a dry, oaky taste to them. Cheers with the locals by saying “Saúde!”

The Historical Sites: Braga

Over 80 percent of Portuguese people are Roman Catholic, so it makes sense why there are so many stunning churches, shrines and basilicas. You might also visit during one of the many saints holidays that are celebrated with lively fairs, dancing and of course church bells ringing away throughout the day.

In the northern district Braga, which is my mom’s hometown (hi, mom!), there’s are two pilgrimage sites: Sameiro Sanctuary (pictured below) and Bom Jesus de Monte. If you’re not Catholic, then you should know that they love their Mother Mary and the Sameiro shrine was built in the 19th century in honor of her. The Bom Jesus de Monte sanctuary is on top of a hill with lots and lots of steps leading up to the chapel. This site is even older with a construction date of 1722. Doesn’t European history make the United States’s 200+ years age seem so young?

Holiday in Portugal

Image Credit: Renata F. Oliveira

Also in Braga is yet another Portuguese World Heritage Site: Guimarães. In 2012, this quaint town was named the European Capital of Culture and rightfully so because it’s considered the birthplace of Portugal. In the 12th century, King Afonso Henriques became the nation’s first monarch. With quaint shops, outdoor cafes, and a mountainous landscape, Guimarães is quintessentially European. If you want an Instagram-worthy post, take a cable car ride to get a perfect panoramic shot.

Ready to book your ticket?

I’ve taken you through seven Portuguese cities, regions and beaches that fulfill all of your adventurous vacation needs. Food, wine, music, views and history, this small nation has it all. Everyone pins and plans for Euro trips to Italy, Spain, France, etc. etc., but now you discovered a unique destination that your friends and family will be curious to hear about. So now is the time is change some of your Franklins into Euros, pick up a handy English-to-Portuguese dictionary and explore the hidden European gem that is Portugal. 

Featured Image: wiseguy71

Raquel Nicole DeSouza
I'm a student, storyteller and struggling yogi. The D.C. metro area is my home. Pastimes include searching for recipes and reading 20th century American lit.