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Portugal: Not for the faint of heart or easily sunburned

I found my drug of choice in Lisbon: the smell of fresh-baked croissants floating through my open Airbnb window from the bakery below. If that doesn’t compel you to jump out of bed and run downstairs before you can remember you are in your pjs and not wearing any shoes, honestly, I don’t know what will.


In hindsight, the Barcelona-Portugal trip was a lot of bopping around. And when I say bopping around, I mean running ourselves near-ragged. Once Sammy and I flew into Portugal, it was city to city to city. I would recommend limiting yourself to one or two in six days, not four, nevertheless, we found ourselves in Lisbon, Lagos, and Sintra, with a final stop in Porto.

Lisbon was my favorite of the bunch - talk about a place to get lost. We stayed in the Alfama District, the ancient area of steep, tiny cobblestone streets so small that you legitimately have to press your backs against the wall when the historic no. 28 tram squeezes by. Between the colorful tiled buildings and winding streets, I think I took 400 photos in an evening and could’ve taken 4,000 more. Walking, sweating, window shopping, and finding the best gelato I’ve ever had was how I spent the end of my first full day in Lisbon while Sammy recouped at the Airbnb.

For Day Two, if I may recommend a good time, there’s nothing like getting dolled up to go exploring only to find yourself stuck in a downpour not 20 minutes out the door. Lucky for us, the rain storms were short and the air hot. We dried off under alley breezeways and while eating crêpes, the only way to escape a flash storm if you ask me.

After recovering from the rain, we took a cab down to the LX Factory, an industrial complex of shops, restaurants, and all kinds of art displays. From there it was a short hop over to Jerónimos Monastery and Belém Tower, which I admit I had to look up afterwards to find out was a 16th-century fortress and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Both the tower and monastery are examples of Portuguese Late Gothic Manueline style of architecture. We did not tour or climb either, but both served, alongside a stunning blue sky, as the perfect backdrop for a late lunch in the shade.

The day ended in a most preferable fashion - sunset on our Airbnb terrace and letting Sammy in on my gelato discovery. Speaking of, the next time you're in Lisbon, remember gelado artesanal at the corner of rua da oliverinha and rua dos remedios.

Saturday morning (Lisbon Day Three) was devoted to the largest flea market I’ve ever been to - honestly, the square footage of a shopping mall. If I had to pick one other favorite part of traveling in addition to wandering aimlessly, it’s sifting through tables and piles of junk at a flea market. I get it from my mama. You never know what you’re going to find. In fact, I picked up four early 20th-century tiles as souvenirs and haggled over the price of a gold dish that I ultimately did not get. What can I say, it‘s fun to play the game.

More picture-taking, wandering, coffee and sweet treats later, we made our way to the train station to catch our ride to Lagos. I won’t bore you with the full story, but let’s just say we didn’t quite get the hang of navigating the Portuguese train system as quickly as we would’ve liked. We got lucky a couple times and unlucky some others. Crucial tip: don't book tickets on Rail Europe. Look up the local train system, download their app, and go straight there for tickets and trip reservations.

We were in and out of Lagos in less than 24 hours, but it was stunning. We situated ourselves at a hostel nearest what we had read was the most beautiful beach (Praia Dona Ana), got up early, and planted ourselves on the sand and in the frigid water until it was time to head back to the train station yet again. In the name of brevity, I'm going to skim over the story of the awful hostel that smelled, was dirty, and had no hot water or towels so I had to dry off from my shower with a skirt. They did have a house dog, though, so that was a trade-off...

After Lagos, we popped back up to Lisbon for another day and a half, which we spent, you guessed it, wandering and daytripping to Sintra, west of Lisbon, which was a delightful stop. We took a tuk tuk (an auto rickshaw with three wheels that won't tilt) tour up the mountain, pausing to see the sights and hear our guide’s stories. (Stopping midway to take a spill and smash your phone screen is optional - whoops...)

Palace of Sintra

Pena Palace

By the time we were moving on to Porto, we had the train thing down, snacks at the ready, seats reserved, and it was a breeze. The Airbnb we rented was by far the chicest spot we snagged all trip. If I ever settle down in Europe, I want my flat to be a carbon copy of this. [scroll below]

Tip #1: always listen to locals when they recommend dishes to try. Especially if one of them is called a “Francesinha” ("little French") and comes smothered in cheese and drenched in the establishment’s secret beer or tomato sauce. Tip #2: always buy the half bottle of wine when it is only 5€. Tip #3: get two entrées apiece because why not.

For Porto Day Two, I offer you non-negotiable tip #4: a port wine tasting. Sammy’s a cheap drunk, so she was content taking single sips of all my tastings, and we tried five different wines in all. I picked up a version of my favorite at the airport on the way back (a Ruby).

And lastly, my final tip for a trip to Portugal: do not religiously apply sunscreen every day just to forget it on your last day that you will inevitably spend in the raging sunshine with nary a pocket of shade all day long. Then again, the blinding sun and sparkling water make for some good photos, so, do what you will.

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