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Road-Trip from Porto to Lisbon

Updated: Jan 19, 2022

(June 16 - 22, 2021)

We left Amsterdam on a 9pm flight Tuesday after work and flew straight to Porto, Portugal! Arriving late, we picked up the rental car and headed to our hotel, the Porto River Aparthotel. The hotel is located on the banks of the Douro River and we woke up to a beautiful view of the Dom Luis I Bridge- the most famous of the bridges in Porto and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The bridge connects the city of Porto to the Villa Nova de Gaia, famous for the many port cellars ("caves") where port wine is aged and stored.

Wednesday morning, we went downstairs to have an amazing breakfast in the hotel's industrial-chic dining room overlooking the river and boardwalk. The friendly staff, coffee and warm and freshly made Portuguese "pastel de nata," was the perfect start to the day! (Pastel de nata is a famous Portuguese custard tart made with puff pastry and filled with egg custard that is baked at a blazingly hot temperature until the tops are scorched golden brown). We took a quick walk over to the top of the Dom Luis I Bridge to take in the view before heading back to the hotel to take care of some work. Satisfied with the view from the temporary office, we opened up the large french doors in our hotel room and listened to a busker on the boardwalk below sing covers of some of our favorite songs. I finished my work before Nick (lol shocking I know) and walked over to the Sé do Porto (Porto Cathedral). I was most impressed by the bright azulejos tile murals which appear to be almost illuminated in contrast to the dark stone gothic cloisters that in-frame them. I continued my solo adventure with a long walk along the boardwalk listening to Rick Steves' audio-Europe on Porto

When Nick finished, we went back over to Gaia and huffed our way up the hill for a tasting and tour at Taylor's Port Cellars. Taylor's is a British-run port distributor and the audio tour guides you through cellars stacked to the rafters with barrels of aging port. You end the tour with a tasting in a lovely English style garden filled with roses, peacocks and roosters! Across the Douro, there are beautiful views looking back on Porto city.

After the tasting, we took a taxi across town for dinner at O Paparico. When we got out of the taxi, it took us a minute to locate the door, the restaurant is in a residential neighborhood and the building looks as if it could have been someone's home. The facade is covered with classic Portuguese tiles and the wooden front door is locked with a tiny sign and small brass 'hand' door-knocker. When the door was opened, we were greeted with smiles and a crackling fireplace, and were completely entranced. The staff could not have been more genuine and made us feel completely welcome and like guests in a home- they take time to talk to you, showcasing how the hospitality and thoughtfulness put into every detail of the experience at this restaurant is a talent in a league of its own!

For dinner, we selected the sharing menu, which is a chef's selection that changes each month. The menu included sea snails, caviar, sea urchins and fish stew, lobster rice cooked to perfection (al dente) not to forget to mention three deserts and a very boozy desert cocktail from Madeira island. The entire experience was one of the best dining experiences I've ever had!

Thursday morning we woke up and ventured out into the Historic Centre of Porto and sat down for coffee at a cafe outside the train station São Bento train station. We listened to an accordion player play classic Portuguese songs as well as songs from The Godfather (@dad). Once venturing inside, we were mesmerized by the impressive azulejo tile murals from floor to ceiling in the station. The station has deservedly been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Next up, we headed to the Livraria Lello book store; famed for being part of JK Rowling's inspiration for Harry Potter. Unfortunately, the line was around the block and with the rain picking up we were satisfied to just peak in the front door. Instead we found some umbrellas at a tourist shop and decided to hunt for more azulejos tiles around the city! One of my favorite things about Porto was the gorgeous facades of the architecture all around. The facade of the Igreja do Carmo (photo to the right) was one of my favorite azulejo murals, probably because we arrived at it unexpectedly, before making our way over to lunch at Cafe Santiago.

Nick, always feeling deeply obligated to try the most local cuisine a city has to offer (and he has a goat-like stomach of steel) sought out Cafe Santiago for their "francesinha" sandwich. (photo to the left) The sandwich's name, translates to "little Frenchie" and was created by Portuguese migrants living in France as an adaptation of the "croque monsier." The sandwich itself is two slices of thick white bread, pork, smoked sausage, bacon, AND medium-rare beefsteak!! Topped off with a fried egg on top and smothered in a thick coat of cheesy sauce. Served warm on top of a plate of french fries! Thinking my mere homo-sapien stomach wouldn't be able to handle the description alone; I opted for a different Portuguese staple, "caldo verde;" a soup made with dark leafy greens and potato. (Nick did share a bit of the francesinha with me, tasty for sure but ... I would not have been okay ... eat at your own risk!)

After lunch, I walked and Nick rolled to our final stop in Porto, the Sao Igreja St Francisco. The church from the outside is typical Gothic style, dark, quite formidable and ominous; however inside every inch of the church is gilded with nearly 100 kg of gold leaf!! It's even more impactful if you start (like we did) in the eery catacombs below the church before reaching the extravagant interior!

The drive to the Douro River Valley was beautiful, if not a bit harrowing as it required reversing down a winding dirt road to let a tractor pass through. However, once we made it to the Casa de Casal de Loivos, a 1658 manor house converted to boutique hotel, we were in heaven!. We were greeted by a charming hostess and shown to our room and gorgeous back terrace for snacks and local wine, not to mention an incredible view over the Douro River and valley below- WOW!! Dinner at the casa is limited and we almost missed out but luckily there was a cancelation at the last second... next time we will definitely book ahead as it was absolutely magnificent. We had red wine that was made in house (Vinha Casal de Loivos Reserva 2016) and amazing "arroz de pato" (Portuguese duck rice) which apparently takes an entire day to prepare and cook.

Waking up to rain on Friday morning, we took our time making our way to breakfast and decided to check out the olive oil farm and museum next door. We made our way to the other side of the Duoro Valley to the manor house of Quinta Nova. I did not want to leave our first hotel, but this one was on another level and has gorgeous hiking paths through expansive fruit orchards vineyards all around the property. Luckily the sun cleared just enough so that we could do the 2 hour walking path around the property- definitely a worthwhile way to spend the afternoon.

After our hike, we got cleaned up and took a tour/tasting of the vineyards of the Quinta Nova vineyards. They quite cleverly end the wine tasting in the gift shop of the hotel - and much like Nick's innate obligation to "eat something local" I cannot miss the opportunity to "buy something local!" Therefore, we are now the proud owners of a ceramic green cabbage made by Rafael Bordallo Pinheiro (currently prominently displayed in our kitchen! @Nick - you can thank me later). Another bonus of the drinks before dinner was that while on the tour we met a young German/Russian couple and decided to have dinner together later that night to continue the merriment!

Waking up earlier than I would have preferred on a Saturday, we packed up and left the beautiful Douro Valley heading off for the charming mountain town of Sintra. On the way, we stopped at a farmer's stand where Nick bought 5 lbs of cherries! (We had so many cherries we actually flew back to Amsterdam with a bag that are now jarred in maraschino liquor in our fridge!) PSA: When we arrived in Sintra we took one wrong turn and ended up having to drive all the way through and around the town as it is all one VERY long one way street - it was a beautiful drive but quite a long detour (30 mins). Once we located our B&B, the Sintra 1012 Boutique Guest House, located right in the middle of the historic downtown, we were surprisingly able to score a parking spot just in front! Most visitors are day-trippers from Lisbon and were starting to clear out, giving us the unique opportunity to explore the town without the usual large crowds, adding to the mystery of the already magical place.

We quickly dropped off our bags and took a beautiful hike up the hills behind us to the Castelo dos Mouros - the ancient ruins of a Moorish castle! The ruins have incredible views of the town and all the way to the sea below as they stand atop a craggy peak (once guarding the entire region). This picturesque ancient fortress is the archetypal medieval fortress that Hollywood, and Game of Thrones seek to capture. To reach the hilltop castle, we took the Vila Sassetti path and felt like we were in an enchanted forest full of ferns, moss and pink, blue and purple hydrangeas! Along the route and hidden within the pine-covered hills are whimsical palaces and extravagant villas. The elaborate mansions are due to the fact that the nobility of Portugal (and later European elite) constructed their summer residences in Sintra to escape the heat of the city.

After seeing the Moorish ruins, we walked over to The Palacio Nacional de Pena . The castle is a real mix of architectural styles and colors, all competing for your attention. "They've" classified it as a "major expression" of Romanticism architecture and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is definitely not to my taste (completely wacky and tacky) but absolutely a must see. The interior has been restored to how it appeared in 1910 - right before the fall of the Portuguese royal family. We finished our visit just before they kicked us out and hiked down the same magical path to Tascantigana restaurant. The festival lights and blue checked table cloths beckoned Nick from afar, and we enjoyed "porto tonicos," Portuguese olives and bacalhau tapas for dinner.

We had another early wake up call on Sunday to ensure time to stop in Belem before dropping off our car on the way to Lisbon. Our very first (and most important?) stop was at Pastéis de Belém to try the "pastel de belem" which is the original "pastel de nata." The recipe (which is still a secret) was created in 1837 by the monks of the Jerónimos Monastery as a use for their extra egg yolks (they were using the egg whites to starch their habits) and is now a national treasure! Fat and happy, we walked over to the Jerónimos Monastery itself to see their famed Portuguese tile murals and then across the street to the Museu Coleção Berardo, contemporary and modern art museum.

Rather than fight traffic, parking, and understandably-annoyed local drivers in the city, we decided to return our car to the Lisbon airport and take a cab to our hotel in the Alfama district of Lisbon. We stayed at the boutique Memmo Alfama Hotel, a converted bakery and shoe-polish factory. The room wasn't anything too special (a little small) but the views and rooftop terrace are phenomenal! We ventured out to explore more of the Alfama district and stopped at Sardinha, a very local and affordable cafe/bar with an adorable owner where we ate some fo the best grilled sardines and "Caracois" (sea snails). From there we headed to the the Praca do Comercio the old port of Lisbon and Europe's largest square where we picked up the Lonely Planet self guided walking tour.

Nick served as narrator and tour guide - guiding us around Lisbon and to the famous yellow tram - route 28E. The 28E is considered the most classic and popular tourist route, rattling through four other districts (at times quite narrowly). Nick didn't follow the "tour to a T" and we ended up a little lost and out of town. Tired from the long day and still full from our late lunch I decided to call it an early night while Nick headed back out to find some dinner and explore the city.

In the morning, we enjoyed a delicious and scenic breakfast on the hotel terrace overlooking the red tile rooftops of Lisbon. I left Nick perched at a very nice "desk" for the day and headed back to the Praca do Comercio to start one of my growing favorites - the Rick Steves walking tour for Lisbon!! As usual, Rick did not disappoint. This tour intentionally started at The Praca but led through the Baixa district on the opposite side of the square from the walk we did the day before. Leading me past a dried cod shop (Bacalhau), Bacalhoria Silva, with whole salted and dried fish covering the shop and stacked neatly on-top of each other. Bacalhau became a Portuguese stable (even though it's not caught in the seas there) during the exploration era of Portugal (14th century) where the dried and salted fish was kept for YEARS on ships and caught in northern seas.

I continued on to the Igreja de São Domingos and to the historic tiny A Ginjinha bar, where I taste Ginja, a cherry liquor from Lisbon. Feeling quite uplifted (and a little bit guilty) from a mid-morning shot of cherry booze! I decided to walk up the hill to the Bairro Alto district, next to rather than on the funicular railway- Elevador da Gloria. The Bairro Alto district overlooks much of Lisbon from atop a hill and the buildings date all the way back to the 1500s! I listened to Rick talk about the Fado bars in the neighborhood while taking in lots of vibrant street art. The Convento do Carmo costs a couple of euros to enter but is entirely worth it! The church and convent was originally constructed in the 14th century and has gone through a long history of earthquakes, fires, repairs and disarray. The current standing structure is entirely magical inside the elaborate gothic facade and arches with no roof above, open to the blue sky! Behind the church is the top of the Elevador de Santa Justa, another lift up to the Bairrio Alto neighborhood from Baixa below. This is a vertical lift (others are trolleys) and was designed by a student of a student of Gustav Eiffel (aka Eiffel Tower architect) and the inspiration is obvious. Rick ended the tour at Cafe A Brasileria, a beautiful and elaborate art deco coffee shop!

I walked over to the Castelo of São Jorge - which I later returned to with Nick. The Castle has a long and impressive history going through the hands of the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Moors, Christians, Spanish and is even named after the patron saint of England! It has served as a palace, citadel, and now museum and has been beautifully restored so you can walk all along the ramparts and atop the walls.

Located just at the foot of the castle was the restaurant Nick discovered the night before and was excited to bring me back to, Claras em Castelo. The food was outstanding but the waitress (sweet aunt to the owner and chef) is what really sealed Nick's affection and loyalty to the place. I ate the "Bacalhau con Nata" cooked with cream and potatoes per Nick's insistence and experience from the night before. While he had bacalhau cooked in tomato sauce and olives. The Portuguese are obsessed with Bacalau and have "over 365 ways of preparing it and 1,000 ways of serving it!" It is incredibly impressive how they rehydrate the fish and cook it so it tastes fresh - basically they take the dried and salted fish, soak it in water for up to 3 days depending on the size of the fish - and by the time it's ready on your plate it tastes like it's been freshly caught- Magic!

We finished dinner before 8 pm so decided to have a drink on the rooftop of the hotel for one last view of the city before hitting the bed early in preparation for our 3 am wake-up and 5 am flight!



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