Every year-abroader is faced with several options when their ‘official’ semester ends: To work, to travel or to go back home. Well, we all know how indecisive I can be so, naturally, I decided to do all 3 – in that exact order. After a few weeks of au-pairing in Madrid to save some much needed $$$, I recruited a Mexican travel buddy and began to plan a 2 week backpacking adventure around Portugal before my journey back to the UK. From Porto to the Algarve, we managed to see it all in such a short space of time and I wouldn’t have wanted to end this semester in any other way.
Let me just start by saying that I do not speak a word of Portuguese – I just tried to make the name of this post a lot fancier than it needed to be. It actually translates to ‘Portuguese beaches, bridges and pastries’ – which, as you can see, doesn’t exactly have the same ring to it. Don’t get me wrong though, it couldn’t be more accurate – we enjoyed lazy beach days, walked across tons of bridges and ate more pastries than we probably should have. Here’s all the details broken down for you, place by place… enjoy!
STOP 1: PORTO
After a delayed (obviously) Ryanair flight from Madrid to Porto, we were super eager to start exploring but of course, everything went wrong straight away: Where the hell is the metro station? It’s this way. No, it’s this way. I was right, it’s this way. I’m always right. Which ticket do we need? Which zone is our hostel in? How does this machine work? I don’t have cash. It’s okay, I’ll pay with card. ‘This machine only accepts cash payments’. Let’s go back up to the airport and get cash. No, wait I have 5 euros, but where did I put it?…. you know exactly how it goes. The story ends well though… we made it! and although the first night was a little bit cloudy and grey, I was still instantly captivated by the beauty of this ancient city. But c’mon, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site – it was bound to be special!
Our hostel was on the outskirts of the city but we soon figured out that transport wasn’t really a problem. You can walk pretty much everywhere but when you’re feeling lazy the taxis are very student-budget friendly, which is great. However, we decided on a slightly different method of transport for the majority of our trip… the good old hop-on-hop-off sightseeing bus! It’s interesting because Danny is the kind of person who won’t get a map out in public for fear of looking too much like a tourist but for some reason a bus DEDICATED to tourists is totally acceptable… I’m not even going to try and explain how that works.
This was seriously the best start to an even better trip. We got to see so much in such a short time and we made sure to hop off the bus at all the places that looked like they needed to be explored. We ventured around the beaches of Foz, admired the views from the other side of the bridge in Gaia and generally discovered every nook and cranny we could find in Porto. Now this is very unlike me (I can talk and talk and talk for days) but I think this city is best expressed in photos, not words. So here’s a few of my favourite snaps that I think capture the heart of Porto perfectly:
STOP 2: AVEIRO
This was the shortest stop on the itinerary at just 1 night and 2 days; meant more as a way to break up the journey rather than as an actual sightseeing destination. I don’t think we would have needed any longer there but it was great to experience life in a quaint fishing village for a little while.
We stayed in an amazing hostel, spent a lot of time eating pizza, wandered through the side streets, went shopping at the mall, watched a beauty pageant by accident and took a cute boat ride along the river. What more could we have achieved in such a small amount of time?
STOP 3: LISBON
Ah, my favourite stop of the trip… the capital, the centre hub of all the action and, most importantly, the home of the best custard tarts in all of the world: Lisbon. If I was a student of Portuguese, I know I would have wanted to spend my year abroad in this city – there’s just endless amounts to see and do and the vibe is electric! I think I need to use bullet points for this stop because it’s impossible to cover everything in total detail, so I’ll just summarise the best parts instead:
- City centre
Obviously, the first thing to do when arriving in a new city is to drop the maps and get lost in the centre. Lisbon is fascinatingly cool and even though we were there for quite a while I certainly don’t think we managed to cover everything. What we did manage to do, though, was great: watch traditional musicians in the main square, ride the old-school trams, trek to ‘miradors’ by day and night, eat amazing food, get drinks on the waterfront and soak up the atmosphere… it might not sound like much, because I don’t think I’ll ever do it justice in words, but this city is captivating and I would love to go back one day.
- Castelo de São Jorge
Long story short; Danny likes castles a lot, I think they’re okay. Travelling non-solo involves compromise and that compromise involved spending almost an entire day (!) wandering around a castle. The views were nice and there were some interesting facts to be learnt but, generally, if you don’t want to spend money you can view the castle and the city from other equally great places. This is only my opinion – I’m sure if you ask a castle-lover then they’ll tell you it’s a ‘must-see’! All the more reason to visit Portugal for yourself and make your own decision on that one…
If you thought we were done with the castles then you thought wrong. One day we hopped on a train to nearby Sintra which, you guessed it, is jam packed with castles. At first, I was thinking ‘Oh god, kill me now‘ but I actually surprised myself with how much I enjoyed this day. The castles were way cooler than any that I’ve seen before and the whole town had this magical, misty abyss feel going on (by now I’m sure you’re all aware of my burning desire to be a fairy princess), so it turned out to be really interesting for the both of us. I am convinced that Sintra is where the witches and wizards of this world live and I’m pretty sure if you stay there long enough you start to acquire magic powers yourself. Too bad we were on a schedule and didn’t have time to find out…. 😔
You know that bridge you see in all the photos of Lisbon? The one that looks a little bit like Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco? Yeah, well, Almada is the name of the place on the other side of that bridge and it’s also where the world’s 7th tallest statue of Jesus is located. Ok, It may not sound very impressive but it’s only 6.5 ft smaller than the one in Rio and a plane ticket to Lisbon is much cheaper than one to Brazil… just saying.
Our hostel provided us with some (very old and basic) bikes for the day so we followed the path along the waterfront to Belem. The main reason was for custard tarts – of course. No, seriously, they are the proud representatives of the world’s best custard tarts and I’m not exaggerating when I say you should drop everything, book plane tickets to Lisbon and then make your way to Belem purely for these delightful pastries.
There was also an awesome contemporary art museum there – Museu Coleção Berardo – which, I would say, is a must see! Aside from that, Belem generally makes for an awesome hang-out spot with tons of cool parks and monuments to admire – don’t miss it!
STOP 4: LAGOS
After travelling through city, after city, after city, we were desperate for some ‘vitamin sea’. Where better than the world famous Algarve? Known for it’s crazy beautiful scenery, golden beaches and breathtaking cliffs – it would have been ridiculous to visit Portugal and forget to include this stop on our tour. I did about 24 hours of research trying to figure out exactly where in the Algarve to stay but in the end it didn’t even matter because I’d left it so last minute we had no choice. There were no rooms left ANYWHERE but Lagos – so, Lagos it was.
I’m obviously going to be biased and say that we picked the best place but I’ll tell you that the Algarve is the most popular tourist destination in Portugal (a little bit like Spain’s Costa del Sol) so if you’re interested in visiting it’s probably best not to leave your booking until 2 days before…
I have to warn you though… Lagos is crawling with British and American tourists. In fact, I totally forgot I was in Portugal because the only language I could hear anywhere was English. Normally, this would be such a turn-off for me because I prefer to really immerse myself in the culture (says the girl that has been speaking English to all of her Spanish friends…) but I think there was something about Lagos that made the tourist vibe feel totally acceptable. I can’t explain exactly what it was, but yeah, it actually made me feel super comfortable – as if I were at home, almost, but with much better weather!
It’s also very night life oriented, so if you want to party then this is the perfect place to be – the strip is always heaving no matter what day it is. We weren’t exactly there for the pub crawls though so, I guess you’re wondering: what did we get up to?
Aside from the usual beach hang outs, exploring the city on foot and eating ALL of the ice cream there were 2 stand out activities for me: Kayaking and Scuba diving.
For the kayaking we decided to wake up super early and make the first tour of the day. I would TOTALLY recommend this because there are far more people on the afternoon and evening tours and it becomes a lot more rushed and chaotic. That said, I think you could have the worst and busiest tour in the world and still enjoy kayaking in the Algarve because it’s just too beautiful not to. There are so many little coves and cliff formations and the water is a gorgeous colour and really calm, making it a lot easier to manoeuvre through. Not that I actually contributed to us moving – I just kind of sat in the front and occasionally dipped my oar into the water. I’m all for equality but sometimes it’s nice to let the guys do the work 😉
Although we got to experience the kayaking together, we went our separate ways for the second activity. Danny loves surfing and although I learnt to surf back in the day when I was much cooler than I am now, I’d prefer to surf with fellow amateurs rather than an expert (Yeah, yeah I have ego issues). So off he went on a day trip to the West coast leaving me with a whole day free to plan an adventure. At first, I thought about skydiving (it’s a lot cheaper in Europe) but, in the end, our hostel activity organiser convinced me to give scuba diving a go. After all, travelling is all about trying new things! I attended a PADI day course (this means I get a lil’ qualification to say I can scuba dive anywhere in the world without having to go through the training again) for just 90 euros, which was an absolute bargain and I am so glad I took the opportunity!
I was a bit sceptical at first because, as we all know, my lungs are rubbish and I’d had trouble simply snorkelling the day before but luckily, everything turned out to be just fine – I actually found it easier to breathe underwater through an oxygen tank than I sometimes do to breathe in normal air! The company I dived with was called Dive Time Portugal and I would recommend them 110%. Their PADI day course involves a theory session with a little test at the end of it, getting geared up, learning basic breathing skills and signals in shallow water and then heading out into the sea for a few proper dives. There were only 4 of us, so we got a really detailed and personal experience, which I loved.
I’ll always remember this day as one of my favourites – new skills, great company and awesome underwater sights. I am itching to get back out and do it all again somewhere else in the world. Lagos, we loved you!
STOP 5: CASCAIS
Our fifth and final stop involved heading back up north towards Lisbon (purely because that’s where we were catching our return flight from) but we didn’t want to spend any more time in the capital and we were already missing Lagos, so we decided to keep the beach vibes strong and continue enjoying life by the sea.
Cascais, which is actually pronounced kash-kaish, is the cutest, little fishing village about 30 minutes by train from the centre of Lisbon. It attracts tons of tourists, no doubt because of it’s clear blue waters and endless sandy bays, but this means it’s not nearly as quiet as you’d expect for a small seaside town. It’s not just beaches though; there’s tons of great seafood restaurants, museums, lookout points, marinas and old streets to wander through – so there’s absolutely no chance of you getting bored. So, please, if you’re ever in the Lisbon area don’t leave without making a stop-off here!
We decided to bypass the museums and spent most of our time either eating or on the beach (never going to complain about that lifestyle). It was so nice to have some downtime after quite an adventurous and active few days in Lagos and I wouldn’t have wanted to end the trip aaaaannywhere else! We were both very aware that our flights back home to the UK and Mexico were creeping closer and back-to-university woes were really starting to loom over us – so, it was nice to soak up the last few moments of our freedom somewhere as beautiful as this.
We actually stayed just outside of Cascais in a place called Estoril. It’s a little bit more residential than Cascais, which is great because we could escape the tourist trap and also experience some of the more local traditions. Luckily for us, two of the world’s biggest food lovers, there happened to be a food festival in the main square. Tons of small vans with quirky food from all over the globe had set up shop and in the middle there was a stage with music/entertainment. The only catch was that you couldn’t use real money – you could only use tokens, which you had to exchange your euros for at the booths. This is fine, but it means that you end up spending more than you should because it feels like Monopoly money! That said, we have no regrets about eating ALL of the waffles and pizza cones that we could get our hands on and I will remember the evenings snuggled up in my blanket (it was FREEZING), watching the strange entertainment and laughing about how I could possibly have spilt that much chocolate on myself with fondness 😊
Aaaand that’s an entire tour of Portugal covered in one blog post. I’ll tell you a secret… Portugal was never on my bucket list and I had absolutely no intention of visiting when I first moved to Spain, despite it only being an hour away. So, for that reason, I can’t explain how thankful I am for fate and last minute decisions – it is truly one of the coolest countries I’ve ever visited and to see so much of it in a short space of time only made me want to stay longer. Just goes to show, there are hidden gems all over the world and sometimes it’s okay to venture away from your list of ‘must see places’ and say yes to any other opportunities that may arise… well, that’s the lesson I’ve learnt anyway!
Ah, Portugual, what is there left to say? What an end to an awesome semester!
Thanks for the memories ❤