Opinions on a trip to Portugal.

My wife and I are thinking of taking a trip in November to Portugal. We would have about a week. We were thinking of spening that week in Lisbon, Coimbra and Porto.

We want to do a bit of sightseeing but we really want to relax a bit and not spend the whole time sightseeing. I spent a weekend in Porto about 8 years ago and had a good time but I probably won’t be travelling as on the cheap as I did 8 years ago. I’m interested in visiting a few historical sites. What are some interesting things to see? What are the must see sights? Any cool places to stay? Any things to avoid? What were your experiences when visiting?

When I went to Porto it was summer so it was very warm. I was single and in my early twenties so my friends and I drank quite a bit. This time I want to soak up the local culture a bit, try as much of the local food as I can and maybe see some fado performances.

I loved Portugal, but I started to get wigged out by not speaking the language, so after a week I regretfully fled back to Spain.

I spent a lot of time in Porto just strolling around (also indulging my public transit fetish). It’s a really classy-looking town. The Cathedral is great if you like azulejos. The big sight is the São Francisco church and the Stock Exchange Palace – truly astonishing. The church has so much gilt it’ll blow your eyes inside out, and the decoration inside the palace is marvellous.

In Lisbon, I enjoyed walking around the south end of the Pomballine Downtown - the Terreiro do Paço and such. Unfortunately the monuments in Belém were closed when I got out there (the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos and Torre de Belém), but I hear they’re quite a slice, and I did manage to visit the Paço da Ajuda which was also excellent, as was the Museu da Arte Antiga (Janelas Verdes). I also recommend the Castelo de São Jorge, a wander through the Alfama, and particularly the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum.

Luckily for me, the language won’t be much of an issue since I can speak Portuguese although with a Brazilian accent.

How did you get between cities? My wife wants to rent a car but I would rather use the trains so long as they are practical.

Oh, never get a car in Europe. Especially if you’re going just to the main cities. There’s no point and it’ll be a huge hindrance once you’re in town.

I took the train from A Coruña to Porto (it was a CP route from Vigo to Porto), and then the bus from Porto to Lisbon and from Lisbon to Mérida. It looks like the high-speed Alfa Pendular train from Porto-Campanha to Lisbon-Oriente is €39,50 in first, €27,50 in second. It also serves Coimbra. Sounds good.

The buses are also very inexpensive and offer thorough service.

I’ve heard that the driving there is a nightmare even by European standards and I think a car will be a hassle. We aren’t going to be going outside of any major cities so I don’t see the point of a car.

I’m going to stick with the trains and the buses. My wife wants to book hotels now and I really would rather improvise as I didn’t have any trouble finding a place to stay in Europe even in the summer and its November and not high season. She and I are going to clash on how much planning we need. She wants to plan out the day and I really want to wing it.

When I was in Porto 8 years ago, I enjoyed visiting the various Port Wine lodges and enjoying the samples. I only spent a weekend there and spent most of my month and a half around Madrid.

I don’t drink wine so I can’t advise you about the port, but the major port houses are on the south side of the Douro, right across from downtown Porto. (You can see them from the scenic riverside south of downtown.) I think they pretty much all offer tours with wine-tasting. The tourist bureau can no doubt advise you further.

There is also the Port Wine Institute in the Bairro Alto district of Lisbon (Rua Dom Pedro V, or whatever street it turns into at the corner). Highly recommended if you like port. Try a glass of 30-year old. I would recommend riding the street trams for a good overview of the city. I remember one line will pretty much take you through all of the scenic areas.

Line number 28 takes you through all the old narrow streets and past the castle and cathedral. The tram passes so close to some houses you can look straight into people’s front windows.

We rented a car when we went. It wasn’t so bad. And the area we were in only had an infrequent bus service, that was pretty hellish on the one day we had to rely on it.

Watch your wallet on the Lisbon Metro. Keep your papers and most of your cash in a money belt.

Personally, I was intrigued by Batalha Monastery–a sort of Portuguese Westminster Abbey that’s big and empty and about an hour outside of Lisbon. It has the tomb of Henry the Navigator and the Tomb of the Portuguese Unknown Soldier (you didn’t know there was one, did you?). Manueline architecture is something to behold.

I went to the library and checked out some guide books as well as Jose Saramago’s Journey to Portugal. I’m really looking forward to the trip.

Thanks for the advice. Any good restaurants to try or bars to check out?

While in Lisbon you ought to take a trip out to Sintra. It could easily be done as a daytrip - there’s a convenient train service between the two - though that wouldn’t be enough to see everything around the place. The Pena Palace has an especially gobsmacking location above the town. I’d also particularly recommend Quinta da Regaleira - and recommend taking a torch to explore the tunnels in the garden.

Was taken to lots of good bars and restaurants in Lisbon, but I was being shown round by a local and so I can’t remember any names, though I can second Chefguy’s recommendation of the Port Wine Institute.
While in Belém - and it’d be insane to miss that, particularly if you’re interested in historic sites - make sure to stop by Pasteis de Belém.

Further up this thread I mentioned the number 28 tram that trundles round Lisbon. It so happens that in today’s Sunday Times there is a feature on this very same subject. You can read it here :-

Lisbon Tramcar