This entry is a little different to my usual posts. I was asked to write a short guide to Portugal for an American colleague who wanted to spend some time driving around the north of the country with her husband, eating, drinking and exploring small towns. They didn’t want to stay in Lisbon for very long, that’s why that section is quite sparse (before I’m beaten about the head with a wet bacalhau by any native Lisbonites). They also wanted to pass through some places in Spain, so I added some tips about that too. The small guide became epic and I thought I’d share it with everyone else. Special thanks to all my dear Portuguese friends for their tips and to the Portugeezer for his endless patience.
“…A leading road-safety investigator was quoted as saying the Portuguese ‘drive like car thieves’ and the prime minister described what happens on Portugal’s major highways as ‘civil war…’ ”
The normally polite and mild-mannered Portuguese get in a car and become invincible superheroes. It’s every man for himself out there so expect to be tailgated permanently, whatever speed you’re traveling at. When looking for parking in most towns and cities, you will see random homeless people waving you into any available parking space. For this ‘service’, which no one wants or needs, it’s wise to give the guy a euro for ‘his help’ and for him to ‘watch over your car’. By giving this tip, you will probably return to your car to find that it has not been scratched or had its tyres let down, which is what might happen if you ignore his outstretched and dirty palm.
Almost everyone under thirty speaks enough English to have a proper conversation. In fact, I am usually stunned by the general level of English, which I put down largely to the fact that TV programs are subtitled rather than dubbed. While much of the older generation don’t speak English, they can probably understand some, or will ask a colleague who can speak English to come and help you.
In the more remote places, you might be surprised at the lack of development; things change slowly and at times, you might feel like you’re in a far corner of Eastern Europe, especially the further north you go.
In most places, if you stay away from the extreme tourist areas, you can eat a very decent two-course evening meal, including wine, for less than €9 per person.
You’ll almost always be offered a ‘welcoming’ starter (or find it already on the table), usually cheese, sometimes octopus salad, a bit like a ‘tapa’ in Spain. If you eat it you’ll be charged for it so there’s no shame or insult by saying you don’t want something if they bring it to your table. If it’s already on the table, just don’t touch it and you won’t have to pay for it. These welcoming dishes are usually pretty cheap so if looks good, you might as well take it. Unless you find yourself in the Algarve, the Portuguese are not in the business of ripping anyone off.
Portions are usually big and the food is heavy, loaded with cream or meat. So, it’s also quite common to order a half portion (meia dose) of something – a full ‘dose‘ usually feeds two people. The further north you go, the bigger the portions get so it might be worth asking how big a portion actually is because you can usually share it. We’ve even seen ‘quarter portions’ offered. I’ve never left any eating establishment without being stuffed to bursting. The Portuguese don’t eat as late as the Spanish so in the small towns you’ll find it hard to find something open after around 22:30.
In the cities, the less English-speaking people you see in a restaurant, the better. In fact, if you have a phrase book with you, I’d opt for anything that has the menu in Portuguese only. And if one place is packed with locals and another isn’t, there’s always a reason: stick to the packed one :).
Something that I had to get used to was that most places serve your food on a (fake) silver platter [More like tin, says the Portugeezer]. You’re supposed to then move your food from the platter onto the china plate that they also give you (and not immediately start forking the food into your mouth straight from its silver resting place, which I still have to stop myself from doing).
Side dishes are usually simple salads, potatoes or rice. Try a tomato salad (salada de tomate – slices of the juiciest tomatoes you can imagine mixed with onion in a light vinegar dressing). I’ve ordered more than one dish of this (and nothing else) on several occasions, much to the amusement of the waiter.
Meat (carne) and fish (peixe – the ‘x’ is pronounced as ‘sh’ in Portuguese) feature heavily on all menus… along with not much else. The Portus love their meat, and vegetarianism is not a concept that is greeted with much enthusiasm.
Cod (bacalhau), the national fish dish, is always dried and salted and they cook it a million different ways. If it’s done well, it’s wonderful, but if not, you’ll feel like you’re eating salty leather. Swordfish (espada) and sardines (sardinhas) are also commonplace and there’s no end of seafood (mariscos) available. Octopus (polvo) is also one of the most typical dishes and they eat it grilled, fried, in salad, with rice (arroz de polvo) and any other way they can come up with. Don’t worry about the freshness of the fish if you are anywhere near the coast; it’s probably still moving while you’re deciding which dish you want.
Portugal is a cheese-lover’s paradise and they have a dizzying array of cheeses (queijo). A lot of them are soft and gooey (you can slice off the top and dip your bread into them like a ready-made cheese fondue) and are made with a mix of sheep and cow milk.
They are usually very strong and smell like trench foot but don’t let that put you off. They also love what they call ‘fresh cheese’ (queijo fresco) which is soft, mild cheese with the texture of ricotta. Sprinkle it with salt and eat it with a spoon or mush it up on a piece of bread.
Not being a meat eater, I’ve never tried these, but for traditional Portuguese meaty fare, the Portugeezer of the house – ScrabbleAddict’s guest editor – gets his own special section to recommend the following:
- Rojões: Diced bits of meat with special spices, found mostly in the north. Great stuff!
- Carne de porco à alentejana: Chunks of pork with clams.
- Caldo verde: The most famous Portuguese soup, delicious cabbage with slices of chorizo.
- Cozido à Portuguesa: A generous mix of several kinds of boiled meat, different kinds of sausages and vegetables. This is the quintessential Portuguese dish, but beware, they use all the bits of the animal that we’d normally throw away and you won’t necessarily know which bit you’re eating.
- Iscas: Fried liver.
- Francesinha (literally, ‘Little French’): A bizarre specialty from Porto, it’s a kind of giant layered sandwich made up of bread, ham, sausage, ham, steak, ham, sausage, bread, steak, ham, sausage, cheese and bread, all of it swimming in ‘cafe’ sauce, which is made with beer and mustard. Gotta try it … but only once.
Remember that the Portus don’t waste any part of the animal and it’s common to see gizzards (moela), tripe (tripas/dobrada), pig’s foot (chispe) and pig’s ear (orelha) on menus.
For breakfast, the Portus usually eat thick wedges of buttered toast (torrada), or cheese/ham toasties (tosta) slathered in butter. It’s amazing that they are not all obese, really. They wash this down with freshly squeezed orange juice and coffee.
Coffee in Portugal is some of the strongest in the world, guaranteed to straighten you out after a long day, a short night or a large meal. If you want an espresso, you can order um café in most parts of the country (but in Lisbon you must order a bica and in Porto a cimbalino). A latte is galão, coffee with milk is café com leite and a large cup of weak black coffee is called, appropriately, an Americano. Be careful though, as most people don’t know what the latter is and you’ll run the risk of getting a giant cup of espresso. And then you’ll be in trouble… .
If you’re a tea (chá) drinker, be prepared to a) not find any or b) get puzzled looks when you ask for it unless you’re in specialist tea shop/tearoom. For some reason, they only drink tea when they are feeling sick. The last time I was there I actually purchased a kettle and travelled around with it in the back of the car. Eleven years off of the island cannot rid me of my Englishness.
Cakes and desserts
Some of the sweetest cakes and pastries known to man are produced in Portugal. It amazes me that most people still have their teeth. Go to any cake shop and you’ll be greeted by an overwhelming array of pastéis (pastries), bolinhos (buns), rolls (tortas), tartes (tarts) and bolos (cakes).
The most famous of these are pastéis de nata, little custard tarts in a crispy pastry case sprinkled with cinnamon and, my favourite, chocolate salami (salame de chocolate)- a slice of salami-shaped chocolate, almond and biscuit cake. Slobber!
Arroz doce (rice pudding) is thick and creamy and sprinkled with cinnamon. If you’re looking for something verging on illegally sweet, you should try baba de camelo (literally, camel’s drool), named after, I am assured, the consistency of the camel’s drool rather than any part of the camel that it contains. It’s condensed milk, with about two kilos of sugar thrown in for good measure. If the name doesn’t put you off, try it but watch out for the sugar high afterwards.
Wine, beer and other alcohol fun
It’s difficult to find a bad wine in Portugal and, unless you’re eating at a very posh restaurant, you’ll only have Portuguese labels to choose from. Don’t let the rock-bottom prices fool you into thinking it’s bad stuff; you can get a very good bottle of wine from a supermarket for less than €5. Unfortunately, they ship the crap stuff to us and charge an arm and a leg for it and keep the good stuff for themselves.
In addition to branco (white ) and tinto (red), there’s a third category, verde (green). It’s not literally green of course, but it is young, acidic and slightly sparkling. In my opinion, it tastes like vinegar but I’m not a white wine drinker. Local beer (cerveja) is fresh and bubbly and cheap. The main brands are Sagres and Super Bock.
If you like almonds, try Amarguinha, a sweet, smooth almond liqueur. Almonds, along with cork, are one of Portugal’s biggest exports, so they have plenty left over to distill into alcoholic yumminess. It’s usually served ice cold and they generally squeeze some lemon juice in it. I prefer it without though. It’s great as an after dinner tipple. Moscatel is a sweet wine that’s great with dessert and Licor Beirão has a slight aniseed flavour. Port is of course, ubiquitous, and even the good stuff is cheap.
It’s not customary to tip large amounts. If the service is good, a few euros, between 5-10% is enough for a meal in a restaurant but is not mandatory. And, you won’t have to pay any extra if you sit at a table or stand at the counter (unlike Italy. GRRR).
The further north you go, the cheaper things, including food and accommodation, get, although prices in Porto are comparable with Lisbon.
You can find good value, simple accommodation in most towns. Even though rooms might be basic, they are always spotlessly clean. I think much of the country verges on OCD a lot of the time. We’re anti-planners, so we generally go where the wind blows us and find places to stay on the way. We’ve never had a problem finding a bed for the night so you should be fine if you want some flexibility in your schedule. Aside from hotels in all varieties and grades of luxury, there are:
- Pensão (pension, usually small, family owned, basic but comfortable): ± €20-30 per room (less in more remote places).
- Residencial (slightly more well equipped than a pensao but in reality, there’s not much difference): ± €20-50 per room.
- Hospedaria/casa de hóspedes (very cheap hostels, usually catering to nuns on pilgrimmage, better to spend an extra €10 and go for a pensão/residencial : ± €15-20 per room
- Quartos (rooms in private houses, usually in the tourist areas. Often these are full apartments, or rooms in purpose-built accommodation blocks): Haggle on the price depending on the facilities, especially if it looks empty or you arrive late.
There are also estalagems/albergarias (homely or charming inns), pousadas (government run hotels located in former state buildings), casa rústicas (farm houses), casa antigas (country manors), palácios (palaces) and quintas/herdades (grand farm estate houses). Unless you’re up in the mountains, most places do not have centrally heated rooms and it can get quite cold in the winter months.
Sunsets and beaches
Check out the amazing sunsets anywhere along the coast … with nothing between it and the US, there’s always a beautiful sunset in Portugal.
There’s no such thing as a bad or crowded beach in Portugal. Miles and miles of golden sand, usually completely empty. On the west coast though, the water is usually pretty cold and quite rough which means it’s not really ideal for swimming (but it’s great if you’re a surfer).
If you will not spend much time in Lisbon, I can recommend that you spend a few hours walking the tiny alleyways and cobbled streets of Alfama, Lisbon’s Moorish neighbourhood. You’ll feel like you were suddenly teleported to Morocco. Like San Francisco, there are many more uphills than downhills in Lisbon for some reason, so you could take the trolly, #28, for a scenic, foot-saving journey through the city.
- Pastéis de Belém is unmissable. If you only have a few hours in Lisbon, this should be on the list. It’s the best place in the city to eat pastéis de nata (custard tarts). It may be very busy and packed with tourists and locals alike but it’s seriously worth pushing through the crowd. You can eat in or take away (and you’ll usually have to queue for either):
- Cross over the 25th April Bridge (by car, there’s a toll one way) to see the giant statue of Jesus. There’s an amazing view of the city from there, whether or not you pay to go up to Jesus’ brain. [My Portugeezer has just informed me you can only get as far as his feet and not his brain. Too bad.]
- Eat at Adega do Tagarro, a typical locals’ restaurant, Rua Luz Soriano 21, in the Bairro Alto district. I can highly recommend the Pataniscas de Bacalhau (cod cakes).
- Ginja (pronounced ‘juhn-jow’) is a sticky cherry liqueur. Go to the Ginjinha Bar, Rua das Portas de Santo Antão 7 for a shot of stickiness and to mingle with all the local alcoholics.
I went to Sintra for the first time only a few weeks ago. There’s loads to see here and the Palácio da Pena, with its fairytale turrets and mishmash of moorish and colonial architecture, does not disappoint. Avoid taking the little bus from the entrance to the Palácio unless your legs are suffering (€2 one way!) as it’s an easy and gentle five minute walk. I didn’t stay in Sintra so can’t recommend a hotel but a friend recommended Lawrence’s Restaurant and Seteais. They are both attached to hotels.
Also pop into one of the little cake shops to eat Queijadas de Sintra (Sintra Cheesecake … although they don’t contain any cheese and they don’t look anything like what we know as cheesecake).
If you’re driving toward Lisbon from the north and you have an hour or two to spare, you should really pass through Fátima. One of the great Catholic pilgrimage sights, this place really has to be seen to be believed. It’s a serious sociological study on how religion can get out of hand and is full of more crazy fanatics than the Vatican and possibly one of my favorite Portugal experiences.
To cut a long story short, in 1917, three peasant children (obviously whacked up on moonshine or some other mind-altering illegality) saw a vision of the Virgin Mary one night. The Virgin told them to return six months later and then she’d reveal some secrets to them.
At first the Catholic Church dismissed the story but then began to support it when they realised that a huge crowd of people were planning to accompany the children back to the spot and realised they could be quids in.
Six months later, a huge crowd gathered and looked into the sky. One of the children asked the Virgin to give them a sign and the crowd reported seeing bright swirls and colours in the sky (dismissed by opthamologists and people like me as a normal reaction from looking into direct sunlight). The Virgin revealed one of the Three Secrets of Fátima to one of the peasant children. Read up on the ‘secrets’, and what happened to the children, if you’re interested … the story continues to get better! So, every year, twice a year in May and October, up to 100,000 people gather to remember the event.
In Fátima, you’ll see people, usually old, walking the length of the massive plaza on their knees and then circling around the altar as an act of thanks or penance. And, while some people are crippling themselves in the name of religion, others are buying up countless life-size wax models of body parts from the little stalls surrounding the plaza to throw on the eternal flames. People with kidney problems throw in a wax kidney, or people hoping for a baby throw in a wax baby. I even saw a life size model of an entire human! I really had to resist the urge to ask one of the stall holders if they had any models of genitals. Imagine it: “Bom dia! Do you have a wax vagina?”. Apparently, these very expensive and elaborate wax models send a subliminal message to God to cure their ailments. It’s like something out of a low budget horror movie… .
I wouldn’t stay in Fátima unless you fancy sharing your hotel with hoards of pilgrimaging nuns from the Philippines or paying a small fortune for a mediocre hotel room but it’s definitely well worth passing through for the novelty factor.
Home to the oldest university in the country, Coimbra is definitely a place to see. The students actually walk about in black capes and you will feel like you stumbled onto the set of a Harry Potter movie.
- There are loads of monuments to see, including the famous Baroque Library. Head up to the Universidade Velha (university – best to park the car and go on foot though) where you can wander in and out of the buildings and get great views. You’ll have to pay to get into some sections of the university, such as the library and chapel.
- Although I haven’t been, the Jardim Botânico (Botanical Gardens), is supposed to be great.
- A friend who grew up in Coimbra recommended A Taberna for great value food.
And, as it’s a student town, hearty cheap food can be found all over the place. I can’t recommend a place to stay here because we stayed in a pretty tasteless pension here that I wouldn’t send you to but there are loads of hotels and pensions around so you won’t be bedless for the night.
I like Porto almost as much as Lisbon. Although I think it’s not as pretty, it does have a certain allure, and of course, the fact that there’s more Port than water here increases its appeal.
Head across the river to Vila Nova de Gaia (it’s walkable and essentially just another part of the city) and take a tour at one of the Port distilleries. For about €8 you’ll get shown around and be given FREE samples (although some of them don’t give samples, so shop around). Some Quintas also have high quality restaurants attached, although I haven’t sampled them myself.
There are loads of architectural delights in Porto; a great mix of Baroque and Art Nouveau. To be blasted back to the past, check out the Mercado do Bolhão (market), built in the 19th century, on Rua Formosa. The contemporary art museum is also renowned.
Eat dinner at:
- Abadia – the portions here are huge (definitely to share) at one of Porto’s most famous restaurants
- Capa Negra – go on, try the Francesinha at this low-key place
- Café Majestic – a cool art-deco tea house
Viana do Castelo
North of Porto, Viana do Castelo will always stick in my memory because I ate cod pizza, a bizarre concept that actually works.
- Head up the mountain to the Monte de Santa Luzía, the basilica perched on top of the hill. Don’t bother with the basilica itself – it’s pretty nondescript so I heard – but go up to the very top of the tower- reached via a lift, a few flights of stairs then a tiny, spiral staircase that has a traffic light system attached to it -and marvel at the view.
- Try the cod pizza (if you dare) at Dolce Vita. There’s also Portuguese and Italian fare on offer and it’s pretty good. We stayed in the lovely pension above this place. You’ll have to ask the people in the restaurant about the rooms as there’s no reception or signs indicating it’s even a pension. It’s basic but modern, very cosy and mind blowingly cheap (€20 a night).
- If you feel like staying somewhere more unusual, there’s a war ship converted into a youth hostel with some private rooms. I don’t like bobbing about on the ocean in a tin can while I sleep, but each to their own. There’s also a pousada here.
The main attraction in Braga is the Bom Jesús (Good Jesus), located in the small village of Tenões. The Bom Jesús is another pilgrimmage sight. There’s a chapel, reached by an ornate, zig-zagged, near-vertical Baroque staircase. On each ‘landing’, there are tiny chapels depicting horrifying scenes from the bible.
I had the pleasure of being forced to walk up and down part of (I’m not much of a walker, especially on a hot day). If you are planning to walk up or down the whole thing, it’s a serious climb so make sure you take a lot of water with you.
We did one small section and had to stop for emergency bars of chocolate to alleviate the dizziness of those not used to strenuous exercise, although I think it was more likely caused by port-related-hangover.
- Eat at Velhos Tempos, Rua do Carmo 7, in Braga. This has to be one of the best restaurants I have been to in Portugal. I highly recommend the bacalhau com natas (cod with potato and cream). One portion is enough for two.
- We stayed at Residencial São Marcosa, good value (although slightly out-dated) pension called right in the centre of town. You’ll need to park a few streets away because it is on a pedestrianised street.
For a cute, old, mountain town experience, head to Guarda. Perched 1,000 meters up, it’s the highest town in Portugal. You’ll get endless views into Spain and over Portugal. There’s not much to see here apart from views and, surprise surprise, a cathedral, but it has a lovely atmosphere and some great restaurants. We stayed at the brilliant Residencial Santos – great rooms for a great price
…that I’ve not been to or have only passed through so there’s less detail:
I can’t recommend avoiding the Algarve enough. But, if you really want to go and see fat English people roasting on the beach and eating fish and chips every night, then it’s worth a visit. Prices are three times more in this region than anywhere else and it’s pretty much a package holiday destination. Although it’s pretty and the weather is always good, you’ll get more out of your trip if you avoid the place and spent more time up in the north, where you’ll experience the real Portugal.
Setúbal and Sesimbra
South of Lisbon, these towns are on either end of the Arrábida National Park which is a good place to see a lot of nature and cork trees – it’s the country’s biggest export. Sesimbra is the place to go for fresh fish and seafood. In fact, you probably can’t find anything to eat there unless it swims, scuttles or floats. In Setúbal, eat at Verde e Branco.
We stayed at a great Pousada in Marvão, near the Spanish border, perched at the top of the mountain, just after xmas. There’s not much to do in Marvão and it’s as windy as can be but again, it’s worth a visit for the general ‘nothingness’ and the views.
Eat at Restaurant Fialho
There’s not really much to do in this remote town near the Spanish border, but the mountains north of the town and south of Guarda are a nice drive – there’s a rather smelly sheep cheese that’s the local delicacy around here. The meat to eat is goat and the delicacy is maranhos, rice and a kind of giant chorizo eaten with wet bread. I can’t vouch for any of this being a vegetarian but my good friend from the region says it’s a must.
Ponte de Lima
Is a nice old town with a very old Roman bridge and bizarrely, more opticians and sunglasses shops than I’ve ever seen in one place. No idea why…
There’s not much around here except very old and bizarre stone pigs dotted around. No one quite knows where they came from, but they live happily in harmony with the modern world.
Vila Nova de Foz Coa
This is a tiny, backwards town put on the map only by the relatively recent discovery of a massive collection of Palaeolithic rock art nearby.
Unfortunately, I’ve not seen the main attraction as we got there too late in the afternoon (you have to take a guided tour to see it so it’s best to get there early in the day). It’s also the producer of Portugal’s finest olive oil.
San Sebastian is packed full of American, British and Australian tourists, mostly young, and mostly there for the surf and late night street partying – I recommend finding a place to stay away from the bars/pintxo shops as the noise goes on all night. There are hundreds of places to eat Pintxos (pronounced ‘pinchos’), the Basque Country’s version of Spanish tapas (they are much better). They cost between €2 – 5 euros depending on the ‘topping’ and you’ll have no problem finding them. I would recommend that you don’t go out for a meal – the food is expensive and the quality is hit and miss – just eat pinxtos! And if you go out before about 21:00, most places will be empty. If you get to Bilbao, the Guggenheim is impressive, if occasionally freaky. I still have nightmares about some of the things I saw in there.
If you have time, pass through Logroño, south west of San Sebastian, one of Spain’s finest wine growing region and home to some of the finest tapas in Spain in my opinion. Yes, all we do in Spain is stumble from one eating establishment to the next in search of food. Grab a tumbler of wine for 0,70 cents and wander from one bar to the next sampling the delicious tapas; each bar has its own speciality. If you’re into wine, there are countless vineyards around the town and many do tours and tastings.
Finally, if you head to Santiago from Spain rather than from Portugal, you might want to make a pit stop at Lugo. This was one of my favourite places in northern Spain – an ancient walled town with great food and friendly people.