Photo by Tanai Milgram
Photo by Tanai Milgram
The greatest part about spending a vacation in Portugal is how easy and affordable it is to rent a car and wander about on your own terms. Without a strict schedule controlling where you have to be at all times, or when you have to be there, there’s room for exploration off the beaten path, discovering enchanting towns you never read about in all those guidebooks or enjoying regional cuisines or wines. Best of all, Portugal is a small country with well-kept roads, so it's easy to go from one town to the next without getting hopelessly lost or exhausted from driving.
If you’re up for the challenge and want to travel through Portugal behind the wheel, here is an easy-going seven-day itinerary you can follow to your own degree, getting the best out of your drive. This guide allows for the perfect balance between sightseeing and relaxing.
Day 1-3: Évora
Once you pick up your rental car at the Lisbon airport, drive out to the small town of Évora, located roughly 80 miles east in the Alentejo region. The ancient streets and fortified walls of this World Heritage Site will take you back in time to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries — Portugal’s golden years. A visit to Évora is very laid-back, so you can spread out the sights you want to see between two days, with some relax time in between. Take a walk around the cobblestone streets and stop by the Roman temple, the Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones), the Se Cathedral, and the aqueduct that surrounds the city. On the second day, take a short drive to the Cartuxa Winery where you can enjoy their daily tour and wine tastings.
Day 3: Conimbriga and Coimbra
You’ll want to wake up early so you can make stops on the way, because the drive takes you through beautiful towns that look as if they're straight from a postcard.Stop at Conímbriga, the best-preserved Roman site in Portugal. Then continue on to Coimbra for an ultimate old-school university experience. Walk up the hill to see the university, St. Michael’s Chapel, and the incredible Biblioteca Joanina, which holds books that go back as far as the sixteenth century. Make sure to get a good spot at one of the terrace cafés to watch the sunset, and then end the day with a live fado performance, featuring Coimbra's unique interpretation of this traditional Portuguese musical form.
Day 4: Lisbon
Pack your bags and drive down to Lisbon, where you’ll be staying for the rest of your trip. On the first day, check out some of the most important historical monuments in the city and take on an afternoon shopping spree in some of the best stores in Europe. A fun way to explore the city is by taking the tram 28, one of the city’s vintage trams, still a major part of the public transportation system. A few of the sights you shouldn't miss include the Praça do Comércio, the largest plaza in Lisbon; the Se Cathedral; the Castelo São Jorge; and Saint Anthony's Church.
In the late afternoon, ride up the Elevador de Santa Justa, a century-old elevator that takes you up to a platform for a breath-taking 360-degree view of the city. For dinner, explore the massive Time Out market to taste the food and desserts of some of the best restaurants in Portugal.
Day 5: Sintra
Many will agree when I say that you cannot leave Portugal without a day trip to Sintra, a town only a short drive away from Lisbon that looks like a real-life Disneyland with exotic gardens and beautiful castles. There is no right way of exploring the city; whether you want to take your time and walk from one palace to the next or make the best of your time with a hop-on, hop-off tour you’ll have a time well spent regardless. The must see attractions are the Palace of Sintra, the Moorish Castle, the Pena Palace and the Quinta da Regaleira.
Make sure to stop by one of their bakeries and try the queijadas de Sintra, cheesecake-like pastries, and travesseiros, pastries filled with egg and almond cream. For a traditional Portuguese sit-down meal, eat with the locals at the Restaurante Apeadeiro.
Day 6: Cascais and Belém
With the ocean on one side and picturesque homes on the other, the roughly two-hour drive over to Belém and Cascais from Lisbon is absolutely breathtaking. Belém has a few different sights to check out, like the Belém National Palace, the Jerónimos Monastery, and the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Discoveries Monument). My favorite sight was the Belém Tower, a fort that was used to guard Lisbon from attacks.
Before you leave, stop by the famous Pastéis de Belém pastry shop for a pastel de nata. In the afternoon, spend some time walking around the coastal town of Cascais and have an afternoon snack and coffee. Then grab your camera and head to the Boca do Inferno, or “Hell’s Mouth,” a unique cliff formation where you can enjoy an incredible view of the sunset as the water vigorously strikes the rocky walls of the cliffs.
Day 7: Lisbon
On your last day in Lisbon, visit the LX Factory, where an abandoned manufacturing complex was transformed into a trendy a modern market that is now home to start-up businesses, cute cafés, funky restaurants, and art galleries. If you happen to go on a Sunday, there's a flea market along the main street where vendors put out vintage and designer clothes, handmade jewelry, and quirky art pieces. If you’re a fan of chocolate cake, the Landeau Chocolate Café has the most decadent and rich chocolate cake I have ever tried.