Central Portugal – a whistlestop tour

Lisbon tram

Emma from Emma’s House In Portugal offers a whistlestop tour of central Portugal with some tips on where to stay and eat, and what to see.

You will not be able to see the whole country in 10 days so commit yourself to either the north (north of Porto), the south (south of Lisbon) or central Portugal to minimise time in the car. Emma’s 10-day tour of Portugal was in central Portugal, but it included Braga, “because it´s worth the exception”. You can fly in to Porto and out of Lisbon, or vice versa.

Porto

Porto has too much to do in just one day… but here´s a bunch of the best: Ribeira district, Bolhão market, Palaçio da Bolsa, São Bento train station and Igreja do Carmo for azulejos, Café Majestic and Leitaria Quinta do Paço for refreshment, Porto Paixão for shopping. The top museum is the Museu do Arte Contemporânea, in a modern Alvaro Siza building and surrounded by gardens. And of course, there is port wine tasting.

For dining, head to the Ribeira district. The many restaurants range from rustic to fine dining. Take a wander and find your own.

Up to Braga (a comfortable 45 minute drive from Porto)

My favourite hotel and restaurant in all of Portugal are in Braga. Hotel Francfort is on the main square. I go there for the furniture, not the plumbing, and for €15 a head no one complains. The restaurant is Taverna Felix and I recommend you book ahead. They are full every night because their food is fantastic. Leave room for dessert.

Bom Jesus Do Monte, Braga
Bom Jesus Do Monte, Braga

In Braga you shouldn´t miss Café Brasileira, the cobbled old town, or a glimpse of the cathedral, the oldest in Portugal. But really you come to Braga to see the Bom Jesus do Monte, a crazy baroque staircase located 5 mins out of town. Take the funicular.

Coimbra, with a stop at the Palaçio do Busaco (about two hours from Braga)

The Palaçio is a stunning piece of architecture, nestled in a national park, but the €5 entry fee to the park and the bad attitude of the hotel staff when we wanted to have afternoon tea turned me off.

Coimbra´s personality is dominated by the university, one of the oldest in Europe. A walk around the steep maze of streets in the old centre is a must and it´s best at night. It´s dotted with cool bars where you can mix it with the young people until the wee hours. The Baixa area is full of inexpensive restaurants and hotels. The outstanding sight in Coimbra is the Biblioteca Joanina, don´t miss it. Café Santa Cruz is an excellent place for people watching and for free fado on a Friday or Saturday night.

There´s an excellent restaurant at the Roman ruins in Conimbriga (near Coimbra).

Nazaré, with a stop in Batalha

“A Giant Hairy Spider” is how I describe the UNESCO-listed monastery known as Batalha. There is nothing else to do here, but with a monument this awesome, you need no distractions. The best café is located perpendicular to the cathedral towards the man on the horse.

The best part of Nazaré, apart from the beach, is O Sitio. Hang around near the cliff walk and you´ll be approached to rent rooms, hopefully by Dona Berta, as we were. One knockout bargain two bed apartment (€70) with views, thank you very much. For unforgettable garlic prawns head for Vista A Mar, the first restaurant on the way to the lighthouse (Farol).

Still in O Sitio, visit the tiny chapel called Hermida da Memoria, and then take the funicular down to the beach. Past the restaurant strip at right angles to the sea there are impressive pastelarias. The beach has very photogenic tents in the summer and a large fish drying camp, with some very tolerant local oldies waiting.

Coffee shop food in Portugal
Typical coffee shop snacks in Portugal

Obidos

Obidos is more touristy than most places in Portugal, but it is very cute nonetheless. Get off the main path and you can avoid the bus tour groups. Up on the miradouro is a quiet, leafy and groovy bar.

Caldas da Rainha

I love Caldas, where the daily main-square market, the park, the Bordalo Pinheiro museum and factory shop are on the agenda. In Caldas I love the Residencial Central and Café Central.

Sintra and Mafra

The Palaçio Naçional de Mafra showcases the obscene spending of Dom João V. It´s a massive place with some lovely baroque living quarters, an interesting hospital and kitchen for the monks and a stunning royal library. But don´t miss the town of Mafra itself. There are more than a few quality pastelarias and good restaurants.

Then it´s on to Sintra which has a choice of castles to visit. My number one here is the Palaçio de Pena, a mockery of a royal palace designed by the royals themselves who clearly had a sense of humour. It´s camp, disney and delightful but I hope the entry fee doesn´t turn you off.

Lisbon

Lisbon tram

Driving around Lisbon will make you swear. Dump the car asap if you have one. Stay in a hotel that has a deal with a car park.

For an impressive bargain hotel you need to book at least a week ahead. Try the Lisbon Lounge Hostel or look at others in Alfama, the Baixa or Bairro Alto so you´ll have atmosphere at your doorstep.

Things I call must dos: Confeitaria Naçional: coffee and pastries are the priority, naturally. Tram 28 is in all the guide books, but note that the good bit is between Estrela and Alfama. As it doesn´t pass through Praça Figueira anymore then perhaps the short round trip of the 12E is more convenient.

The 15E tram from Praça Figueira will conveniently take you to Belem, where you can have a famous pastel de nata, see Jerónimos for free, visit the Berardo Modern Art Museum and check out the Torre de Belem.

I think the Gulbenkian Museum has one of best collections in the world, or if there are 8 yr olds to impress, go to the Museu dos Coches, (coaches, as in cinderella) which, they say, is the most visited museum in Portugal.

In Lisbon you see some amazing interiors over dinner. We went to Casa do Alentejo and Galeto, which in my mind is the grooviest restaurant in the world. Bairro Alto is the perfect place to window shop for restaurants and bars. Alfama too is dotted with tiny authentic places, and you can’t really go too wrong.

Galeto restaurant
Galeto restaurant in Lisbon

Yeah I know, it´s all over too soon. A month next time. A year. Or the rest of your life…

This article is an edited version of Emma’s original blog post, A 10 Day Tour Of Portugal.

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