By: Connie Kwan-Wong
Where Fairy Tales Come True
Travel with the Publisher to
Photography by Célia Abreu
I had the good fortune, recently, to travel to Portugal and spend two wonderful weeks in the fabled country, one of the oldest in Europe. Located on the Iberian Peninsula in Southwestern Europe, Portugal is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and Spain. Wherever I went, I was met with breathtaking scenery and historical vistas as well as unique cultural opportunities and the chance to sample fine food.
It was so easy to get there. My trip from Houston to Lisbon was under 10 hours in total. It was such a wonderful trip, I wanted to share it with you and include helpful tips in case you decide to visit.
Once there, I traveled along the coastline to the Alentejo Region, continued to the Algarve Region, then went on to Lisbon and Guimarães, with stops in between. If you have the opportunity, I recommend enlisting the services of a private tour guide, at least for part of your trip. I did, and found the expertise of Leonel from Portugal Premium Tours to be invaluable.
The Alentejo Region
After landing in Lisbon, I traveled along the coast through the Alentejo Region to Lagos, a three-hour trip by car. Along the way, I stopped at three beautiful villages: Sines, Porto Covo, and Vila Nova de Milfontes. I especially fell in love with the latter, a charming village full of narrow streets and surrounded by rugged coastline. It was calm and relaxing and the perfect spot for a little meditation.
Located in the Algarve Region, Lagos, whose origin dates as far back as 1000 BC, is a vibrant town filled with cobbled streets, historic landmarks, and gorgeous views. While in Lagos, I stayed at the Cascade Wellness & Lifestyle Resort, which is perched on a clifftop overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Accommodations at the luxury five-star resort include elegant rooms, suites, apartments, and holiday villas. One of its most enjoyable features is a pool with a natural sand bottom.
As a refreshing treat, I began my first day at the Tainai Spa, which offers a variety of holistic experiences, spa programs, and signature therapies. I also tried the wellness menu, prepared by executive chef Diogo Pereira, and inspired by a healthy and balanced cuisine. There are even vegetarian and gluten options. Because I was feeling daring, I tried the cuttlefish eggs. They were really tasty with a texture similar to scallops.
There was lots to do in Lagos, like soaking up the sun at the Doña Ana beach, one of the most picturesque beaches in the region, and exploring the town itself, especially its historic sites. One of my favorite expeditions was a boat tour on the Ponta da Piedade, which features natural caves and rock formations resembling various shapes like elephants and camels. There is even a cave of love and a phantom cave. If you prefer to explore this scenic area by paddle boarding, kayaking, or snorkeling, you have that option.
I also really enjoyed Cape St. Vincent at Sagres, which isn’t far from Lagos. It is the most southwesterly extremity of Europe, and, until the 14th century, was considered the end of the known world. Windswept, with dramatic cliffs, Cape St. Vincent features one of Europe’s brightest lighthouses and is a popular spot for surfers.
From Lagos, I traveled to Lisbon, the second oldest capital in Europe. An exotic city built on a series of hills and surrounded by the sea, Lisbon is noted for its historical and cultural treasures and neighborhoods that resemble medieval villages.
While there, I stayed at the Olissippo Lapa Palace, located in the diplomatic area only a short drive from the city’s center. Dating back to the 19th century, this exquisite landmark was originally built as a house and later converted into a palace by the Count of Valença. With the assistance of many of the leading artists of the day, the palace interiors were decorated with fine paintings, tiles, ceramics, and furniture.
Converted into a hotel in 1988, the Lapa Palace has become renowned for its exceptional service and stunning rooms. With three wings to choose from: the Palace wing, the Garden wing, and the Villa Lapa, as well as a variety of deluxe suites, including the Royal Suite and the Tower Suite, there is something for every taste. I fell in love with the Royal Suite. The furnishings, draperies, and fixtures were exquisite, and the moment I stepped over the threshold I felt like nobility.
Since its conversion, the Lapa Palace has welcomed celebrities, heads of state, and members of royalty like Bruce Springsteen, Barbara Streisand, President George Bush, Crown Prince Haakon of Norway, and Queen Sofia of Spain. You never know who you might pass while walking through the magnificent lobby.
While touring the city, I was fascinated by the Tuk-Tuk, a three-wheeled auto rickshaw, which I spotted everywhere. The name comes from the sound the vehicle’s engine makes. Riding in one is
lots of fun, but it can be a bit uncomfortable due to the cobbled streets.
Lisbon has a lot to offer, and I experienced as much of it as I could. One of my favorite locations was the elaborate 16th century Jerónimos Monastery built to honor Vasco da Gama’s historic trip to India in 1498. It’s located in the beautiful Belém neighborhood and has a number of fascinating features, including the Manueline cloister. I also enjoyed Belém Tower situated near the mouth of the Tagus River. One of Lisbon’s most iconic landmarks, the tower is a symbol of Portugal’s Age of Discovery. Crossing the Tagus River, I visited the commanding Christ Statue (Cristo Rei). From atop a high pedestal, the form of Christ, with arms outstretched, appears to be blessing the city. It’s quite a sight to behold. Other standout landmarks I visited included Lisbon Cathedral (sé Catedral de Lisboa), the Church of St. Anthony (Igreja Santo Antonio), Saint George’s Castle (Castelo de São Jorge), and the Miradouro da Senhora do Monte viewpoint. Each one had its own remarkable features to recommend it.
I also endorse spending time in the Chiado, an elegant district filled with theaters, shopping, restaurants, old-style cafes, and quaint bookshops, as well as attending a Fado show. Fado, traditional Portuguese folk music, can be experienced in restaurants, museums, and on many tours.
Lisbon has a number of notable museums. Two of my favorites were the National Coach Museum (Museu Nacional dos Coches) and the Ajuda National Palace (Palacio Nacional da Ajuda). One of Lisbon’s most popular and visited sites, the National Coach Museum took my breath away with its displays of ornate coaches that once transported the Portuguese elite on their daily outings. Opened to the public as a museum in 1968, The Ajuda National Palace impressed me with its displays of decorative arts that date from
the 15th century to the 20th century.
As you would expect, Lisbon is home to many fine restaurants, and I sampled quite a few of them, one of my favorites being the Michelin rated Belcanto. Here you can experience Portuguese cuisine that takes you from the past to the future in a sophisticated and exclusive atmosphere set with only ten tables. From the two offered tasting menus, I chose The Discoveries menu, and especially enjoyed the grilled red giant shrimp with rosemary ashes and mandarin. The exquisite food, artfully prepared and presented by Chef José Avillez, and incomparable service made for an unforgettable dining experience.
Another excellent culinary spot to visit in Lisbon is Pasteis de Belém, in the Belém district, noted for its egg custard tarts. These delicious morsels, inspired by an ancient recipe from the Jerónimos Monastery, have been delighting palates since 1837.
While staying in Lisbon, I also visited a couple of nearby towns. Cascais, a coastal town less than 20 miles west of Lisbon, is a charming spot that offers a mix of history, gorgeous beaches, and stunning natural beauty.
Sintra, a popular day trip from Lisbon, is filled with exquisite palaces, regal residences, and intricate gardens constructed by Portuguese elite and nobility drawn to the spot by its cooler weather. Pena Palace, located in the Sintra Hills, is an exceptional example of 19th-century Romanticism and shouldn’t be missed. It sits in a gorgeous forested park full of lush gardens and is visible from every section of the park.
Óbidos, Bussaco, and Aveiro
On my journey from Lisbon to Porto I made some delightful stops along the way.
The first was Óbidos, a beautiful, fortified, medieval village known for its shopping; chocolate festival; ginger liqueur, which can be purchased in and drunk from a chocolate cup; colorful houses; and abundance of flowers. If you’re lucky enough to visit in December, you can witness a magical transformation. From December 07 until January 02, a spectacular Christmas village that will delight children and adults alike is set up around the beautiful Castle of Óbidos.
My next stop was the Bussaco Palace Hotel, an actual fairy-tale castle in the heart of Bussaco National Park. If you have time, I recommend you stop there for lunch.
Last, but certainly not least, I visited Aveiro, a hidden gem of a city. It is known as the Venice of Portugal because of its many canals and gondola-like boats. Here I sampled Ovos Moles de Aveiro, Portuguese egg yolk sweets, and experienced sea salt being harvested.
All of these locations were a delight, and I’m glad I took the time to enjoy them.
In Porto, I stayed at the InterContinental Porto Palacio das Cardosas, housed in a stately 18th century palace in the heart of the city with lots of gorgeous rooms and suites to choose from. Within walking distance of many of Porto’s attractions, the hotel is perfectly positioned for sightseeing. One of my favorite spots to visit was Livraria Lello Porto, a famous bookshop that has inspired many world-renowned authors, including J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series. I also enjoyed Clérigos Tower, an imposing example of Baroque architecture that seems to watch over the city. If you follow the 240 steps to the top, it’s the perfect place for an aerial view. Another piece of architecture that shouldn’t be missed is the Ponte de D. Luís I, a metal arched bridge with a double deck spanning the Douro River.
For sightseeing at its best, be sure to take full advantage of the Cais da Ribeira district, Porto’s heart and soul, laced with narrow medieval streets and alleyways and populated with old homes decked out in various colors. When the sun sets, it comes alive with night spots, cafés, and bars. And don’t forget to visit the Palácio da Bolsa, a grand monument that honors Porto’s past and present money merchants. Its glass-domed entrance and intricately detailed rooms are beyond compare.
The Douro Valley is the world’s first officially designated wine region. To learn more about its wines, I visited Sandeman’s Quinta do Seixo Wine Centre, which overlooks the Douro Valley and the center’s impressive terraced vineyards. It was a pleasure to attend a guided tour of the grounds, learn about the wine-making process, and enjoy a picnic of traditional food accompanied by specially selected wines.
It’s also important to note that Porto is where port wine, a fortified wine, comes from. You can book tours to different cellars and enjoy delightful wine tastings pairing the selections with artisanal cheese or chocolate under the guidance of a knowledgeable sommelier.
Speaking of wine, I also visited an amazing wine shop in Porto called Garage Wines, owned by Ivone Ribeiro. It’s the perfect location for finding limited varieties as the wines are produced in small amounts in small plants called garages. The setting is as intimate as the wine itself greeting customers with a warm minimalist style.
While in Porto, I also went to Capela do Senhor da Pedra, the Chapel in the Sea, located in nearby Miramar. Perched atop a rock on the shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean, this lovely petite building has withstood over 350 years of crashing ocean waves with little or no damage. It’s a wonderful spot to visit.
The last thing I did was take a day trip to Guimarães, which is considered the birthplace of Portugal because the country’s first independent king was born there. Although I went by car, direct train service from the São Bento Railway Station in central Porto will get you there inexpensively in just over an hour. Most tourists divide their sightseeing in this lovely medieval city into
three areas: the charming city center, focused around the Largo da Oliveira, the Largo Republica do Brasil, and the Largo do Toural; Largo Hill, which is home to many of the city’s important monuments; and Penha hill, which provides amazing views of the city and pleasant walking tours. If you tour Guimarães this way, you won’t miss anything.
While in Portugal, look for Portuguese filigrana, or filigree, jewelry. The art of making this delicate jewelry, created by weaving together fine strands of precious metals, has existed for centuries. Predating the Roman period, filigrana is one of the oldest jewelry-making techniques on record. Fine delicate designs made in Portugal are some of the best examples of the work in the world. One of the most iconic designs in Portugal is the Viana heart, a symbol of love, and it is often used to create beautiful distinctive pieces of filigrana. Recently, modern designers have revolutionized the technique making it bolder while still finding inspiration in the tradition’s heritage. You can find examples of both traditional and modern filigrana to treat yourself to in jewelry stores throughout the country.
I fell in love with the food in Portugal. The fish and seafood are especially fresh and delightful to the palate. I recommend trying dishes that include octopus, squid, sardines, and cod. And remember those cuttlefish eggs I mentioned earlier? They are still among my favorite dishes. Food here is prepared simply using fresh ingredients to heighten flavors producing robust memorable dishes. Dried salted cod, the signature dish of Portugal, is actually imported from countries like Iceland, Canada, and Norway. When cod is salted, it’s sweeter, and Portugal has an abundance of recipes for this favorite ingredient.
If you’re interested in something even sweeter, there are lots of enjoyable options for snacking or providing that finishing touch after a fabulous meal. As a matter of fact, sweets are so revered in Portugal, they are sometimes offered as meals for breakfast, lunch, or an easy afternoon indulgence. The egg custard
tarts I mentioned earlier, were delicacies I could experience over and over again. Cinnamon is a favorite flavoring, as are almond paste and honey. Fresh figs are also found in abundance and the perfect remedy for your sweet tooth. You can eat them plain or drizzled with a bit of Portuguese honey. Adding a little requeijão, the Portuguese version of ricotta cheese, also makes a tantalizing treat for your taste buds.
If you plan on using a hairdryer or other appliance, take an adapter with you. Portugal has 220-volt electricity.
Bring your sunglasses! Portugal has more hours of sunshine per year than many other countries, and the quality of the light is impressive. It will dazzle you, so make sure to protect your eyes with the proper eyewear.
The best times to visit Portugal are spring and fall. It’s lovely and warm at both these times of year, but not too hot, and the crowds are less than they are in the summer.
Make sure you try the coffee; it’s excellent and inexpensive.
Traveling with a private tour guide really does make your trip better. Mine was flexible and gave me great guidance regarding the best places to visit and the most authentic restaurants to eat at.
Did I mention I hired a local photographer to help record my journey? I did, and it was one of the best decisions I made. I chose Célia Abreu from Porto, who did an amazing job. Thanks to her, I have professional pictures capturing the best moments of my trip to look back on for years to come.
I also recommend taking a hydrating mask with you to use on the plane. Its benefits will have you looking and feeling refreshed after your long flight.
Above all, get out, walk around, take day trips, eat, drink, and enjoy all the beautiful, magical, and historical moments this amazing country has to offer.
Portugal is close to being the ideal country to visit. Its climate is temperate with hot summers made cooler by Atlantic breezes and mild winters. I enjoyed almost perfect weather while I was there. The Algarve region is especially noted for its beautiful weather and it didn’t disappoint. Being in the country sometimes felt like having stepped into a fairy tale with its castles, monuments to heroic and historical times, sumptuous food, and medieval surroundings, not to mention the grand vistas of topaz ocean, the sandy beaches, and the rugged hills many of the cities are built on. It’s understandable why so many famous authors have looked to Portugal for their inspiration. I also felt safe while in the country and well looked after wherever I went. Although every city I visited had remarkable amenities to offer, my favorites were Lisbon, Largos, and Porto.
I’d like to leave you with some final words that I hope will make your trip to Portugal go even more smoothly and be as enjoyable as possible. Here
Street corner near
"Cholon" in Saigon where I was born
You learn to live in the moment
This dish is called "Mi Xao Don" in Saigon, Vietnam