By Cheryl Spainhour
May in Portugal entices travelers with its pleasant weather and uncrowded beaches, castles, museums and outdoor feasting on fresh seafood. Over 10 days, we drove a thousand miles in a rented Fiat 500, exploring Portugal’s cities, countryside and coastline.
But you don’t need to wait until May to visit this captivating country. Lisbon resident Barry Hatton, author of two must-reads books on Portugal’s provocative past, recommends visiting in October or November as well. “We have a delightful Indian summer called St. Martin’s Summer around Nov. 11,” he says.
Lisbon is welcoming and walkable. You’ll find inviting, narrow cobblestone streets and buildings covered in azulejos – glazed, painted ceramic tile. Get acquainted with the country’s largest and one of Europe’s oldest cities, and take the vintage yellow tram (28E). It winds you through the hills for a street-side view. You can hop off to explore the church and convent of Graca or the St. George’s Castle. There, you can also take in panoramic views from the city’s highest hill.
There are plenty of places to see in the country’s capital for culture lovers. One of our favorite areas to wander through was the Bairro Alto (“high district”). It survived the earthquake of 1755 that leveled much of Lisbon. There, we visited the Church of Sao Roque, an ornate 16thcentury Jesuit church and its attached museum of sacred paintings and sculptures. We also enjoyed eating fresh seafood outdoors at reasonably-priced restaurants. Be sure to sample ginja, a Portuguese liqueur. Take time to listen to live fado music, the heart-breaking, beautiful ballads sung by sad-eyed men and women.
Spending more than a few days and nights in Lisbon? Consider visiting Sintra’s dreamy Pena National Palace and gardens and the nearby Moorish castle ruins, just 30 minutes away. We also enjoyed a few enchanting hours walking the cobbled streets of Obidos. It’s a walled village with a medieval castle (turned into a posh hotel) gifted by King D. Dinis to Queen Santa Isabel as a wedding present in 1281.
The Algarve region offers secluded beaches as well as swinging city life. In the 15thcentury, Henry the Navigator oversaw the launching of many ships from Portugal’s southernmost coastline at the beginning of the Age of Exploration.
May means mild (80 degree) cloudless days on broad beaches. Praia da Dona Ana, one of many picturesque beach coves on the coast, is just south of Lagos, a city with a busy marina where you can take hour- or day-long boat expeditions to sail or motor through the sea caves and coastal cliffs. Lagos has a metro vibe – great seafood restaurants with outdoor seating – cataplana, swordfish, octopus salad – and a lively nightlife in the old, walled part of the city where we stayed.
You can slow down – way, way down – by taking a 30-minute drive down a two-lane coastal road to Sagres, at Europe’s southwestern tip. We chose Salema, situated between the two places, taking up quarters for a night and a day in the tranquil little fishing village with a few restaurants and beach bars and a wide beach, crowd-free on the cusp of the busy tourism season ahead.
(photos: Cheryl Spainhour; stock images)
(Go Magazine Sept/Oct 2019)