When New York City restaurateur Judi Wong was looking for a post-Covid, back-to-Europe (but someplace new) summer getaway with her college-aged son Marley, all signs pointed to Portugal. Here’s what they did on their crash-course around the country.
So, what brought you to Portugal?
It seems like everyone I know has been talking about the beauty, accessibility, and affordability of Portugal. They aren’t wrong. Since we hadn’t been before and wanted a broad overview of the country, we started in Lisbon, then went to Porto and Lagos and back to Lisbon.
What was the best tip you got before you left?
My friends had said that it was inexpensive. It’s true.
How did you get around?
Plane, train, electric scooter, and automobile. The highways around Portugal are pristine and picturesque, and the drivers are polite. We were very lucky and did not have one single travel snafu – no unforeseen lateness, no missed connections, we didn’t buy the wrong train tickets. It was extremely smooth travelling.
What did you do?
We started with three days in Lisbon, flying direct from New York City on Delta; then took a train north for two days in Porto, the historic port town on the Douro River. We flew south to Lagos for four nights in the Algarve region, and finally drove back to Lisbon for one night before returning home. Ten days total.
Because this was our first time to Portugal, we decided before arriving that we would play tourist and walk everywhere and see as many recommended sites as we could.
Through Plum Guide, a sort of curated Airbnb, we booked Custard Tart for three nights. The lofty, spacious two-bedroom apartment was a five-minute walk to the city center. The interior spoke to my attraction to mid-century design with unique yet familiar furnishings and vast selection of design books on the shelf. It had beautiful city views from the back balcony and street views from the front. The master bedroom has its own living room!
These were our highlights:
- Belém Tower, followed by a walk along the waterfront towards the Old City. We hopped on electronic scooters and had a blast.
- We scooted to the MAAT – Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology on the waterfront and were drawn into the current video installation. Highly recommend.
- Eggsellent breakfast at Dear Breakfast, a marble-filled brunch spot.
- We wandered the streets, taking the narrow hilly walkways the long way to a destination — a great way to avoid the crowds. (A few years ago in Venice, we named these side streets “cracks,” and used the label in Portugal.)
- We took the elegant Carmo Lift (the Santa Justa Elevator) up to see the view, but later learned that we could have walked from the street to the top of the lift. Take a pass: We felt jilted.
- National Tile Museum (Museu Nacional do Azulejo) is a must. We fell in love the ornate chapel inside. The tile work made me dizzy with excitement.
- Stop almost anywhere for a beverage and order olives and bread. We became obsessed with noshing on the ripe and deeply tasty tender black and green olives. Soft Portuguese bread cannot be underestimated or ignored, and is so good dipped into the olive oil.
- Fresh oysters and grilled scampi for dinner at Solar 31 in the Alfama neighborhood – very good!
- Touristy but terrific was the day we spent visiting The National Palace of Pena. It’s a day trip to Sintra: You hop a one-hour train, take a bus up the steep hill, get tickets, and wait in line to see the most beautiful castle where Portuguese royalty (and their lucky friends) used to spend summers. Here too, the tile work is stunning.
- Vist Loja das Conservas for its display of tinned sardines. The graphics on the wrapping are as interesting at the sardines packed inside.
- Sea Me was our best meal. The seafood display was brimming with lightly misted fresh fish and shellfish. We splurged and ordered Scarlet Prawn, which was worth the price tag — $10 per bite. The sangria was refreshing and went down easy.
- Luvaria Ulisses is a tiny, old-school glove shop worth a visit. Get fitted for a reasonably priced pair of leather or suede gloves.
- We checked into Rosa Et Al Townhouse and had a charming room with views of Porto. Architect brother and his sister designers and owners of the hotel, along with a stylish boutique and a slow food restaurant that is delightfully healthy, stylish, and approachable. The breakfast at Rosa Et All is worth trying, fresh beautiful and delicious, with strong coffee and sweet orange juice. (The OJ in Portugal is always fresh, always low acid, and always sweet – and perfect at breakfast or as a mid-day pick-me-up.) David at the front desk was a dream — he gave us the best advice about where to eat and what to do.
- David recommended his favorite Mexican restaurant, Frida (as in Khalo), just around the corner from the townhouse. We ate one of the best mole sauces ever with fresh salsa, chips, and guacamole. The service was warm and friendly. Quality Mexican.
- We had one of our best lunches at A Grade on a “crack” street near old town. Mom-and-pop operation, outdoor seating, simple authentic Portuguese menu. Recommended dishes: bacalo, seafood rice (I can still taste it), seafood spaghetti. All so good.
- The 90-minute, six bridges boat tour along the Douro River was packed with tourists but memorable all the same. A few companies offer tours along the river — we just hopped on the first one that was leaving in ten minutes.
- You don’t need to be into Harry Potter to appreciate the interior architecture of the stunning bookstore Livraria Lello. (J.K. Rowling taught at the university and apparently spent many hours in this ornate space.) Book your ticket ahead to skip the lines – they are long. Bonus: A regular ticket costs €5 (which you can subtract toward the price of a book purchase), but if you upgrade to a priority ticket for €15.90, you get priority access and a complimentary classic book. Marly selected and read The Art of War.
- We loved Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art (Fundação de Serralves), which reminded us of a more wooded and compact Storm King in New York. Do not miss. We saw a great Miro exhibit, and the permanent collection is also worth a visit.
- Try batter fried sardines anywhere. We ate them at Meia-Nau in Brasa, So delicious!
- We caught a Ryanair flight from Porto to Farro in the southern region of the Algarve and rented a car from Sixt Rental. The automotive gods were winking at me because upon arrival I was offered an upgrade to a Mercedes sedan, which made the 1.5-hour drive to Lagos extra nice.
- We checked in at the stunning Casa Mãe in Lagos for four luxurious nights. The food at was so good that we often ate at least two meals a day here. The service could be slow, but that can be expected in a warm, friendly coastal community. We caught some live music which was a lovely experience.
- The coast of Lagos can be explored by paddle boat, kayak, or private boat. The hotel recommended a 1.5-hour speed boat tour of the caves. The ocean was crystal-clear, cold, and turquoise blue. The coastline had odd-looking rock formations jutting out into the water. It was surreal and fantastic. A must do.
- One day, we drove to Sagres at the southern point of Portugal to watch surfers and were blown over by the intense wind. We ate a wonderful healthy lunch at Three Little Birds, a sweet spot popular with English-speaking visitors.
- We spent two days wandering up the coast, visiting remote beaches off deserted dirt roads. Here the ocean is fierce and beaches pristine and quiet. The only people we saw were dedicated surfers. We found delicious seafood along the way.
Back in Lisbon
- We stayed at The Lisboans townhouse for one night (but could have stayed much longer). This is close to the city center and old town. Charm, charm, charm. Again, mid-century design details and a perfectly executed kitchen.
- Calouste Gulbenkian Museum was gorgeous. Like Serralves, it was a private a museum with a wandering garden path with terrific points of interest along the way. The tight permanent collection ranges from Ancient Egypt to the present day.
- We made it for a late lunch at the popular, old-school seafood spot Cervejaria Ramiro. We ordered small clams steamed in beer, garlic, and butter served in a copper pot. They were so delicious we ordered another round and used the soft, buttery, grilled garlic bread to slurp up the broth.
What did you know by the last day that you wish you had known on the first?
How easy it would be to traverse this friendly country. In no way did we ever feel out of place or in danger. The ease was remarkable. (It does say something about the current state of life back in New York City.)
This was especially great:
The people, the museums, and the food. I downloaded Duolingo to learn some basic Portuguese but I didn’t need it at all. Everyone understands basic (or better) English.
But this wasn't:
I have to get back to you. It was all great!
What’s the local speciality?
Very fresh seafood. Mosaic tiles. Pastry shops galore. Tinned sardines.
Speed round of favorites.
1. Meal or meals:
Lisbon: Sea Me, Cervejaria Ramiro, Solar 31, Dear Breakfast, and Prado (a favorite though we never got in).
Porto: A Grade, Frida, Rosa Et Al Townhouse Kitchen
Lagos: Casa Mae, Mare (on the water), Three Little Birds (Sagres)
2. Neighborhood to explore:
The historic centers and the old towns.
3. Site/place/thing you did:
For Marly, it was The National Palace of Pena in Sintra for the ornate chapel and the grand tile work).
For me, it was Fundação de Serralves in Porto (for the gardens and the interior architecture) and driving off-road in the Algarve.
4. Cafe/casual hangout:
We weren’t there long enough, but we went twice to Three Little Birds in Sagres, Algarve.
You can’t stop thinking about:
The ancient cities and how well kept and clean they are, the people, and the food.
The Instagram moment:
The tiled facades on the buildings in the historical centers and neighborhoods.
What's the #1 tip you'd give a friend who wanted to go?
If you are like me, every place we stayed was perfect.
Travel Tip at Lisbon Airport
We only had one glitchy moment: We learned the hard way that passport control in Lisbon happens after you go through security and just before you get to the gate. Meaning, you need to go through passport control after spending time in the lounge, which is what we usually do before a flight. Instead of our usual lollygagging stroll to the gate from the lounge, we ended up in a huge hall with several hundred passengers snaking through passport control. We made it, but it was stressful.
Would you go back?
Without a doubt.