What to do with one week in Portugal? What to see during a week in Portugal? How to visit Portugal on a budget?

 

Sintra Portugal Pena Palace
Revel in the architectural beauty of palaces in Portugal

How do you travel for free, and to such awesome places I’m often asked….well, here’s one recent example. I just came back from a fantastic and cheap, inexpensive if you prefer, one week visit to pretty Portugal this summer.

We only “paid” 44,0000 miles each for our round-trip ticket from Boston to Lisbon, on Delta. (TAP is not the only airline who offers direct, non-stop service to Lisbon). Sometimes Delta even offers reduced miles fares on sale, a great deal, far less than the usual 60,000+ miles needed for a round trip economy ticket from the US to Europe.  I had gotten their American Express card last year that came with a TON of bonus points, but right now their best offer is lousy- only 30k miles. Be patient, usually in the fall, before the holidays, they have offers of 60,000-70,000 bonus miles.

Lisbon hotel: So for our first weekend in Lisbon, we stayed for free two nights at the Intercontinental Lisbon hotel, thanks to the IHG Premier Travel Credit Card by Chase anniversary nights, one from my account, and one from my husband’s….The hotel is very nice, and it is in an excellent and pretty location, just off of the Avenida Liberdade, which is basically the Champs Élysées of Lisbon, a wide tree-lined avenue with gorgeously paved cobblestone sidewalks, and a pedestrian park in the center that you can stroll through for what feels like miles. From the hotel all the way to the center of the city it’s a gentle downhill slope, easy and pleasant to walk.

What to do on a weekend in Lisbon: We would usually set out on foot in the morning, and then take either the metro or an Uber or a taxi back.  We did a walking tour of the Alfama District, with some beautiful panoramic views, and we also did one of the Chiado district; again interesting, informative, and full of beauty. We also visited the Jerónimos Monastery, the Belem Tower, the coastal Praça do Comercio, many churches and cathedrals, and of course the castle.

We ate delicious grilled fresh fish every single day of our stay, and we enjoyed all of our interactions with people from Lisbon. Everyone was friendly and helpful. We looked forward to returning to Lisbon after our brief visit up north.

grilled Sea bass Porto portugal
Robalo! Local sea bass, fresh and delish. Once a day….

How to get to Porto? What to do in Porto? On Monday morning, we took an Uber from our hotel to the Santa Apolonia train station, where we boarded our train north from Lisbon (Lisboa) to Porto. A few months earlier I had gone to the website to buy tickets for trains in Portugal and purchased first class tickets for only €53 round-trip per person. Had I bought them a little bit earlier I could’ve gotten them for 38 euros round-trip. The price difference between second class and first class is not very big, and first class is much more comfortable. There’s also the advantage of being seated in one of the first cars of the long train, so it isn’t necessary to walk far down the platform to board the train, which has Wi-Fi, and even a system to lock your luggage in place. Very smart!

A nice bonus is that our train tickets to Porto were free, too, thanks to the rewards bonus on our Capital One Venture Rewards credit card that reimbursed our fare because we had more than enough reward points. And the same goes for our excellent hotel there, reservation made through booking.com, Castelo Santa Catarina, $103 (including taxes) per night, reimbursable! We liked this hotel a lot, and recommend it, provided that you don’t mind walking up several sets of stairs. We stayed in the tower part of the castle where there was no elevator.  And we would do it again! Our room was not huge, but it was only a “standard” room by our choice- we were hardly ever in the room, and it came with a delicious and varied breakfast, which was served in a lovely setting.

Porto Castelo Santa Catarina breakfast
Very pretty breakfast room, Castelo Santa Catarina hotel, where here you only see their baked goods, but in another room, the fresh fruit, hot food and drinks were served.

Right now that Capital One Venture Rewards credit card is offering a terrific bonus of 50,000 points, which is worth $500 of free travel! Thank you, Capital One.

Our first day there we strolled around the city, enjoyed an excellent walking tour, visited the beautiful Ribeira section by the waterfront just before, during and after sunset, and then had an excellent dinner at Adega Sao Nicolau. 

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Superb Porto free walking tour with Sandeman’s best English-speaking guide, Catherine Hubbard. Thanks for the views!

The following morning we got up early for our long but worthwhile day-trip through the Douro River Valley, which included visits to a couple of excellent vineyards that offered wine tasting and olive oil tasting, where we learned a lot and enjoyed sampling the local specialties as well. Our tour also included a one hour boat ride on the Douro River and although it didn’t really offer any views different from those we enjoyed on the road, it was extremely pleasant and I do recommend it.

Douro River Valley Portugal near Porto
What beautiful vistas along the Douro River Valley, and wonderful vineyards…

The next day in Porto we rented a car to drive to Guimaraes, yet another pretty little medieval city in Portugal, and also because we wanted to enjoy a magnificent multi-course meal at the Michelin starred A Cozinha restaurant there.  We did! It was excellent and well worth it.  Muito obrigada…

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An absolutely multiple moanworthy first course of foie gras ganache, beet ice cream, marinated strawberries and more

 After we returned our rental car to Hertz, we walked around Porto for another couple of hours, enjoyed another nice (lighter) dinner, and then hopped on the train back to Lisbon.

This time we would be spending four nights at the Holiday Inn Express Avenida Liberdade, also an IHG property, also for free using points from our Chase IHG credit cards, and also in an excellent location, just off of that wonderful Avenida, but this time we did not love the hotel. It was far inferior compared to the Intercontinental. And it was not as nice as other Holiday Inn Express hotels we have stayed in.  I will say this because I do not want to be completely negative and I am grateful that we stayed there for free: yes, we did get a great night’s sleep every night, the beds are perfect, and it was nice to open the window and let in that cool, fresh, fall-is-coming air! And the breakfast buffet that was included, was also very good and much appreciated.

Since our train had arrived close to midnight the previous night, our first morning back in Lisbon we slept in, knowing well that we would take advantage of another beautiful afternoon on the horizon, to visit precious little Obidos.

How to get from Lisbon to Óbidos on your own, DIY style? It’s very simple and inexpensive, too! Simply take the Metro to the Campo Grande stop, exit the main door, walk to the right, come to the first corner, turn right again, walk barely one small block, cross the street, find the glass covered bus stop, and then take the one hour long ride with the Rapida Verde line. You must pay 8 euros cash each way on the bus. They run about once an hour.

By the way, the Pastelaria and coffee shop/restaurant to the left, a one minute walk from the bus stop is excellent! It’s a great place to grab a drink or a snack before your ride.

When you arrive in Obidos, cross the street, walk up the stairs not even two minutes and then enter that little wonderland, and enjoy!

Obidos Portugal
Oh, Óbidos, where color and charm abound. What a little gem in the crown of Portuguese villages!

We walked around for a few hours, and even shopped a little before our late lunch. I am someone who hates to wear clothing made of polyester or acrylic, so I was thrilled to find beautiful 100% wool and 100% percent cotton sweaters for only €25-€30 each in Obidos. This was a very nice surprise! So I bought two. I also bought a cute, small ceramic bowl with an iconic rooster on it. And that was only five euros. And while I did not purchase anything there this time, I absolutely loved visiting the Pano Rosa boutique in Obidos, both floors, admiring their incredibly pretty clothes for sale.

We had another nice meal of delicious olives to start, fresh grilled fish, yummy vegetables and potatoes, and then hopped back on the bus to Lisbon. They run once or twice an hour during the early evening. We enjoyed a quiet night reading back in the room because we were resting before our big day trip that would begin early the next morning.

The plan was to visit Cascais and Sintra, and enjoy yet another Michelin meal in between! That’s right, we very decadently treated ourselves to two meals in Michelin starred restaurants within three days!  Why not?! Our flights were free, our hotels were free, and we figured since it was probably four years since our last one, in Sicily, that we deserved it.

Although there are lots of good tours offering visits to these beautiful towns, and it is easy enough to take the train and go on your own and get around by bus, we decided the weather was perfect to rent a motorbike.

Cascais and Sintra by motorbike: The best shop we found, according to the reviews we were reading online, is Scooteria, on Rua Grémio Lusitano. We visited in person, and were very impressed with the services offered, the prices, and the quality of their bikes. We ended up with one of the largest and most comfortable and stable: a Honda PC 125, highly recommended by Martim the owner. Incidentally, we learned that it is his 88-year-old grandmother who is featured on his business card, and that she only very recently downsized to driving a 50 cc bike, imagine!

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The Honda cost €43 for 24 hours, and we loved riding on the coast and inland, too.  It was easy and convenient to get around, and parking was also a cinch.

Our first stop was Cascais.  They have a pretty downtown area and of course their beautiful marina and fishing village.  Then, on to the Guincho part of the beach.

Fortaleza do Guincho, Portugal
Beautiful view from the dining room at the Fortaleza do Guincho, Portugal

Just a few kilometers away was our amazing lunch at the Fortaleza do Guincho. The view is gorgeous, the service was excellent, and the food was fantastic.  Although we usually get the set menu, we wanted a little bit more freedom this time, so we shared an appetizer, we both got main courses, and we shared a dessert. But the reality is that our meal was not that simple or limited! I couldn’t count how many bonuses they brought us- before, during, and at the end of the meal. So many extra little amuse bouche type snacks, appetizers, palate cleansers, and additional desserts. Wow! Totally worth the approximate €75 per person that we spent. A great value deal for a Michelin star meal.

great value deal for a Michelin star meal in Portugal
My marvelous monkfish main course at the Fortaleza do Guincho, Portugal

From here, onward to Sintra, where we did the standard tourist fare, visiting the National Palace, the Pena Palace, and enjoying the surrounding forest views. The ride back to Lisboa at sunset was spectacular!

National Palace Sintra Portugal
Enjoy the splendor of the National Palace in Sintra.

Don’t you just love to travel? All the beautiful experiences and memories to be made…


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