Beaches, Bridges & Baroque: A Coastal Road Trip In Portugal

When we received an invite to our close friends' destination wedding in the Algarve last year, we didn't hesitate to RSVP with a big, fat 'yes'! Obviously, we were extremely excited to watch our friends tie the knot on a beautiful sun-drenched cliff overlooking the sea, but it was also the perfect excuse to explore more of one of our favourite countries, and we immediately started to plan a two week coastal road trip through Portugal.


Starting with the beautiful beaches of the Algarve, before driving up to the vibrant Lisbon and finishing in historic Porto, we travelled from South to North across 14 days, discovering Portugal's rich heritage, culinary delights and geological masterpieces...


All images © Katy Mason


THE ALGARVE


The Algarve on the southern coast of Portugal is often overlooked as just another tourist destination, but with it's rugged limestone cliffs, golden sand shores and dramatic Atlantic waves, I think it boasts some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. There's a reason they call it the 'Golden Coast'!


We stayed just outside the traditional seaside town of Carvoeiro in the Lagoa region, at the gorgeous cliffside Tivoli Carvoeiro Hotel, which hosted some of the most spectacular views, delicious breakfasts and relaxing rooms. From the hotel, it was a short walk into the town itself which has a good variety of restaurants and bars, as well as quirky seaside shops, a beach and a bustling seafront. There's even a boardwalk along the coast which you can take to wander along the cliffs themselves.


Hiring a car is essential to explore the area properly and experience some of the unique beaches nearby though. Some of my personal favourites include Carvalho (which is accessed through the cliff via a secret smugglers tunnel!), Marinha and Benagil - though it's worth considering what time of day you visit as those magnificent cliffs can start to cover the beach in shade in some places by mid-afternoon. These amazing beaches have some of the best caves, grottos and sea pillars to marvel at, as well as soft golden sands overlooking the azure Atlantic ocean.



Along with sunbathing, drinking cocktails and celebrating the nuptials of our lovely friends, we also made time during our six nights in the Algarve to do a sea kayaking day trip to explore some of the beautiful caves and deserted beaches only accessibly from the water. Booking with Algarve Freedom Kayaks, our tour started from Praia Grande in Ferragudo, a 15 minute drive from where we were staying, and visited some gorgeous spots along the craggy coastline, before stopping for a break on a pristine sandy beach. The water was warm, the views breathtaking and our guide informative and friendly - a brilliant trip all round, which I definitely recommend!


Back on dry land, Praia Grande and it's magnificent medieval fortress, the castle of São João do Arade, is also worth spending some time relaxing on. Facing out to the sea, the fortress dates back to the 16th century and was originally to protect and defend the coastline from attack. More recently, the building was owned by poet Coelho Carvalho and nowadays remains empty, but it still stands pride of place on the headland as a focal point.



As well as it's beaches, the Algarve is also famous for it's hand-painted pottery and there are a range of places you can buy and view some traditional pieces in Porches, just east of Carvoeiro. With some beautiful designs and intricate handiwork, it's well worth visiting one of the many shops in the area to view some of the artwork, even if you don't have space in your suitcase to take any home.


Finally, one of the most beautiful spots for sunset in the Algarve is Algar Seco. Made up of unique rock formations, natural windows, tunnels and balconies, Algar Seco provides some breathtaking views across the ocean. Accessible by the Carvoeiro boardwalk, there's even a stunning cliffside bar - Boneca Bar - where you can enjoy a cocktail or cold beer as the sun goes down. Bliss!



LISBON


From the Algarve, we drove up the coast north towards Lisbon which took approximately 3 and a half hours. Though the faster route would be to travel more in-land, we opted for the scenic route, hugging the coast and driving through some of the beautiful national parks, stopping at the expansive and windswept Praia de Almograve.


Arriving into Lisbon, we left our hire car at the airport and easily got a taxi into the city centre to our second accommodation - a charming AirBnB in the historic Alfama district. Home to the São Jorge Castle and believed to be the birth place of the traditional Fado music scene, Alfama is bursting with character and is perhaps the most authentically Portuguese area of Lisbon, so a brilliant spot to base yourself in.


With it's famous yellow trams, cobbled streets and impressive squares, Lisbon is a special city. Though much of it is walkable, it is quite sprawling and can be very steep, so depending on where you stay and your mobility levels, it is also worth taking advantage of the public transport links and/or cheap taxi services around the city, as well as exploring by foot.


Our first day started by getting familiar with the Alfama district on our doorstep, beginning with the azulejos-clad Miradoura de Santa Luzia. Offering fantastic panoramic views across the district and across the water, this romantic terrace is adorned with fragrant exotic plants and beautifully decorative tiles, with a long wading pool in the centre. The mosaic of blue and white tiles are stunning and it's a really lovely spot to walk around, relax or have a drink. From there, it was a short walk to Lisbon Cathedral. First built in 1147, this magnificent Roman Catholic church has survived numerous earthquakes over the centuries and gone through many renovations and restorations as a result. Due to this, it is a wonderful blend of architectural styles - from Romanesque, Gothic and Modern - and has some intricate stone carvings both inside and out to be admired.



Moving further into the city centre, our next stop was the Praça do Comércio - a geometric plaza bordered by grandiose archways and ornate arcades overlooking the water, which was historically the commercial hub of the Lisbon. In the centre of the square is a statue of King Dom José I, the monarch in power during the devastating earthquake and subsequent tsunami of 1755 which destroyed much of the city. It's an incredibly impressive square and has been immaculately cared for, with numerous restaurants, cafes and attractions now around it's walls. Whilst in the plaza, I recommend spending time in the Lisboa Story Centre, a hugely engaging and immersive museum which takes visitors on a hour-long journey through the history of the city from its early foundations right through to the modern day. We learnt a lot and it was a great way of getting a comprehensive introduction into the background and culture of Lisbon. Entry is €7 for adults, €5 for students and €3 for children.


For lunch, we visited the eclectic and bustling Time Out Market which is home to every kind of food you can think of - from authentic local cuisine to pizza, and fresh seafood to burgers, there is something for everyone here. Though a great experience, it can be quite overwhelming and incredibly busy, especially for anyone who finds making decision difficult (i.e. me!). However, I eventually settled on a thai curry whilst Adam had a steak burger, both of which were very good.



By this point, it was mid-afternoon, so we started heading back towards Alfama to visit the São Jorge Castle. The queues tend to be very long first thing in the morning so my tip would be to either book tickets in advance or wait until later in the day to go in like we did. Dating back to the 8th century BC, the castle stands pride of place above Lisbon, majestically overlooking the cityscape, and does require a bit of a climb to reach it. We chose to do a guided tour which was really insightful and gave a fascinating overview of the site and history of the monument and something I'd definitely recommend if time allows. However, whilst the castle itself is stunning and full of history, it is the views that are really the draw here, and late afternoon was the ideal time to see that glow across the city. We ended the day with a drink on the terrace whilst taking in the panorama - totally worth the climb!


Our second day , we got the tram all the way over to the other side of the city to explore the Belém area, with the first - and arguably most important! - stop being the famous Pastéis de Belém, the home of delicious local delicacy, the pastéis de nata. The best tip we received before arriving in Lisbon was about this place, being told to skip the inevitably long queue (it is a tourist trap!) of people waiting for takeaway orders and go straight in to get a table inside to eat in. No waiting, no crowds and it's a much nicer experience, with tons of room in the beautifully decorated cafe - and the pastries themselves do not disappoint!


Full from sweet treats, we then wandered around the area, visiting the gothic Jerónimos Monastery and magnificent Belém Tower, as well as marvelling at the impressive Padrão dos Descobrimentos monument on the water's edge. Unveiled in 1960 and located at the point where ships would have once set sail for the East, this vast limestone structure sits on a huge map of the world and celebrates the Portuguese Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries.


Returning back to the centre of the city, we headed for a short stop at the gorgeous rooftop bar, Noobai, near Barrio Alto to take in the panoramic views overlooking the old town and 25 de April bridge whilst enjoying a cold glass of sangria. From there, we visited the medieval ruins of the beautiful Carmo Convent, just a 10 minute walk away. Framed by gorgeous lilac flowers from the blossoming Jacaranda trees, this grand, historic convent is a tiny oasis of peace in the bustling city, with it's picturesque gothic arches and alfresco ceilings.



That evening, we treated ourselves to a special meal at Via Graça, a smart and stylish restaurant with spectacular sunset views across the castle, hills and river. Beautifully presented and bursting with flavour, the food was to die for - and particularly luxurious when paired with a refreshing glass of Quinta do Encontro sparking wine!



We spent the final day doing a day trip to the beautiful hill-top town of Sintra which is just a 40 minute train ride from the centre of Lisbon. You can read more about our day in Sintra here.



PORTO


From Lisbon, it's just a 2 and a half hour train ride to the characterful city of Porto. Set on the shores of the Douro River estuary, Porto is made up of steep hills, cobbled streets and dramatic bridges, with its historic centre named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.


My main takeaway from Porto was that it is a city of beautiful architecture and ornate decorative azulejos, with a focus on quality food and drink. There's no escaping the famous dessert wine which Porto gives it's name to, with the names of port distilleries such as Sandeman and Calem clearly branded on the riverfront buildings for all to see.


With this in mind, high up on our list of things to do in Porto was a food and port tasting tour, and so booked an afternoon walking tour around the city with Taste Porto. Hosted by a knowledgeable and friendly local expert, this was a great introduction to the history and gastronomy of the area, and we got to sample some mouth-watering local delicacies - from speciality coffees to flavoursome sardines, and cured deli meats and cheeses to fish fritters - which proved an incredible array of tasty treats. The tour ended with a visit to a port house to try a selection of the all-important fortified wine where we tasted three different types of port, all of which were delicious.



On this first full day in Porto, we also got acquainted with some of the stunning churches and buildings across the city including the Igreja de São Francisco (a beautiful Gothic church completed in the 15th century), Palácio da Bolsa (a grand, neoclassical palace and national monument which was built on the ruins of St Francis Convent) and Sé do Porto (the city's beautiful baroque cathedral, with an impressive cloister built in the 14th century). Around every corner is another magnificent church or ornately tiled building - it really is incredible.


After the food tour, we spent time basking in the sunset on the river's lovely waterfront. Lined with restaurants, bars and cafes, with the iconic Ponte de Dom Luis I bridge at one end, this stretch along the Douro River is the real hub of the city and has a great atmosphere. I also recommend walking across the bridge itself to take in the views from both sides.



Our second day was spent mainly exploring the Baixa district, visiting the Clérigos Tower (the tallest campanile in Portugal with spectacular views across the city and Douro River), Livraria Lello (a characterful, fairytale-style bookshop which is thought to be one of the inspirations for Harry Potter) and Igreja dos Carmelitas (a magnificent 17th century church covered in iconic blue and white azulejos). São Bento train station is also worth a look in - I guarantee it'll be one of the most beautiful stations you've ever seen!


From there, we walked up to the Jardins do Palácio de Cristal to relax and take in the sights. Raised up above the city, this lovely botanical area of green is an oasis of manicured gardens, luscious plants and elaborate fountains which is ideal for wandering, chilling with a book or just marvelling at the views across the Douro River and Porto's amazing bridges.



On our last day, we strolled down the beautiful Rua das Flores and stopped for a light bite at Mercearia das Flores - a rustic deli cafe serving authentic Portuguese petiscos made with organic, regional products. Taking in our last day of sunshine, we reflected on our wonderful time in Portugal with cold beers, sardines and local cheeses. Absolute perfection!

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