Porto is where this trip all began; it’s where I had my first taste of Portugal. I instantly fell in love with its shabby chic exterior and was amazed by the friendliness of the people. Little did I know this was just a precursor for what was to come.
Faro is an excellent starting point for exploring the Algarve. There are no actual beaches in the city, you need to take a water taxi or bus to get to them, but it does have a lovely port and impressive old town (Cidade Velha).
Just a little over an hour away from Faro by train is Portimão. This is where I ended up basing myself during my time in the Algarve and where I thoroughly stuffed myself with the most delectable seafood I’ve had in a long time. Out of all the towns I visited in the south, this one felt like it was the most geared towards package holidaymakers. There isn’t much to see in the way of sights but Praia da Rocha, its most popular beach, more than made up for that with its seemingly endless stretch of golden sand.
Forty kilometers away from Portimão is Sagres, the most south-western point in Europe. There are several buses throughout the day that can transport you back and forth but to get out to Cape St. Vincent and some of its beaches, a rented car or taxi is the best way to go. Sagres is the spot in the Algarve where you come to surf and feel small. Peering out over the end of the world, literally on the edge of Europe, was one of the most unforgettable experiences I’ve ever had.
I’m not the first, nor certainly the last to have been won over by Lagos. It’s in between Sagres and Portimão, so also easily accessible by public transportation. Lagos really packs quite a punch for its small size in terms of beautiful beaches and vigorous nightlife. It was definitely my favorite spot in the Algarve and a place I could definitely see myself staying for an entire summer (though not sure how much I would actually get done!).
Out of all the stops I made while in Portugal, Madeira was the one I was surprised by the most. I knew it was an island, but had no idea how much it would feel more like a tropical island somewhere in the Caribbean than southern Europe. Its capital Funchal is quite cosmopolitan for island standards yet take a drive about 30 minutes to the north and you will find yourself in the middle of a UNESCO-protected laurel forest.
Lisbon is one of the sexiest capitals I have visited. Built on seven hills and situated on the Tagus, you can imagine just what kind of gorgeous views you can find around the city at any hour of the day. Taking a ride on Tram 28 is the perfect introduction to Lisboa – just make sure you get on early as these things get packed! I was lucky to have stayed in the heart of Alfama where I managed to acquire a Portuguese grandmother within a period of five days. Though she didn’t speak a word of English nor I Portuguese, I forged some kind of bond with the lady living downstairs from me that I can only hope will be rekindled somewhere down the line.
An easy day trip from Lisbon is over to Sintra – a hilltop town that looks like something straight out of a fairytale. Pena Castle is by far the most attention-grabbing with its pastel colors and dreamlike architecture. Oh, to have been a Portuguese queen!