Portugal had been on my list of places to visit for many years, and in June, we finally made our way to Lisbon and then down to the coastal Algarve region. In many ways, Portugal feels highly underrated. It’s often a place people choose to go after they’ve already been to other European countries like Spain or Italy, but I have to tell you, we really loved it and would definitely go back. The people, culture, food, and views were so impressive stunning!
For our visit, we began in Lisbon where we spent one full day and two nights. If I were to go again, I’d probably add one additional full day to really experience the city. We stayed at the Palácio Ludovice hotel, a centrally located boutique property that features gorgeous bespoke furniture set inside an elegant, bright interior. It was once a private residence and I loved its unique design elements, like a gorgeous multi-story indoor courtyard that features lush greenery hanging from the ceiling and walls.
Since we had limited time, we opted for a half day guided tour on TukTuk. I’m typically against tours, as I really pride myself on making an itinerary, exploring at our own pace, and trying to be less “touristy,” however, we wanted to make sure we got in all the sights and learned about Lisbon in the short time we had. If you’re interested in a TukTuk tour, I’d recommend our guide, Su, who I found on Instagram. You can reach out to her via the app @SQPortugalTours.
First off, the city is surprisingly hilly! Think San Francisco style hills with trolleys to get you up and down them. It’s also very slippery. Like most European cities, it’s very old and the stone sidewalks are incredibly worn making them super slick. My biggest mistake was not bringing shoes with a good grip. It was like a slip and slide in my Hermès sandals!
I found the tile work and architecture really special. The mosaics were gorgeous and I couldn’t help but take countless photos of the various buildings. I also really enjoyed the vantage points that the upper part of the city offered. There were many lookouts and little parks where you could see great views of the Tagus River and city below you. We really enjoyed wandering through Alfama, Lisbon’s oldest neighborhood, which is a maze of narrow, windy streets with no cars and new things to discover with every turn!
Our favorite meal was at Mini Bar by the well-known Portuguese chef, José Avillez. This dimly lit, tapas-style restaurant is set inside Barrio do Avillez, a gourmet food hall boasting various restaurants, counters, and markets, and was delicious! We loved the creative food presentation that featured fun touches like a palette cleanser atop a rose. Speaking of musts when you are in Lisbon, don’t miss enjoying a pastel de nata, a traditional Portuguese custard tart made with fresh egg custard poured into a flaky, crispy pastry. The pastries also go by the name of pastel de Belém, which is in honor of the original bakery, Pastéis de Belém, where they were invented. At the beginning of the 18th century, the Catholic monks of Jerónimos Monastery at Santa Maria de Belém in Lisbon began baking these treats and made them a staple in Portuguese culture. Pastéis de Belém is still open today and during our tour, we got to cut the line and enjoy one straight from the original bakery, which I’d recommend! We had them at other places during our trip but these were by far the most delectable. It’s estimated the bakery sells 20,000 a day!
After a quick trip to Lisbon, we rented a car to drive an hour and a half south to the Algarve. Since we didn’t need a car in Lisbon, the easiest thing to do was go back to the airport and pick up a rental from there. The drive south is straightforward; it is all highway driving with the option to detour through the countryside for additional exploring. Craving some R&R, we didn’t make any pit stops and headed directly to Porches, Portugal and our hotel, Vila Vita Parc.
As someone who is obsessed with hotels, the one thing about the Algarve, is that it lacks the boutique-style five star hotels that are commonly found in European coastal destinations. Since the Algarve is a vacation retreat for many European families, the majority of the hotels along the southern coast are large resorts. Vila Vita Parc is massive in size, which isn’t always my preference, but its location, service, and views make up for it. The property is absolutely gorgeous! From the natural vegetation and beautiful landscaping to the amazing pools, beach, and countless topnotch restaurants, we could have easily checked in and never left the property for the entire time we were there! Since it’s so large, it’s easy to find little private nooks to relax during the day or a new spot to enjoy a sunset cocktail at night.
While in the Algarve, we had the most amazing lunch at Vila Joya Sea…in fact, we still talk about how delicious it was! Set on the beachfront of the Vila Joya hotel (which, by the way, looked like a gorgeous property!), this open-air restaurant exudes a sleek, beach chic decor that was so appealing. We let the server do his thing and choose the dishes for us, and boy, did he deliver! The seafood was incredible and bursting with fresh flavors…the tuna literally melted in our mouthes! I can’t wait to go back here some day.
We also had a memorable, romantic dinner inside a windmill at the appropriately named The Windmill Restaurant. Located in the city of Albufeira, this four-course tasting menu was delicious and such a unique experience! With two seatings a night and 12 seats, we were thrilled to snag a table in the window just in time for sunset (I reserved a few weeks in advance, which I would recommend, as it is very small). The service was very personal with the server calling us by name and carefully explaining each course and wine pairing.
Beyond relaxing by the pool and on the beach at Vila Vita Parc, we also enjoyed a day on the water. Our hotel had its own fleet of boats and yachts and arranged the outing for us. In late June, the water was surprisingly cold. I had high hopes of swimming in the ocean during our boat day but the temperatures weren’t conducive to jump in, so we opted to stay on board and drink champagne instead…a fair trade off. One of the most spectacular features of the Algarve region is its striking rock formations and the beaches hidden within them. Our captain maneuvered the vessel into the smallest cave openings in order for us to get an amazing view of the inside. The most famous cave is the Benagil Cave. It’s gorgeous, but always very busy with kayakers who make the trip to its hidden beach. We actually enjoyed exploring many of the other lesser known rock formations/caves even more! I would definitely recommend a boat day while visiting the Algarve because there is so much to see and the landscape is so striking.
You can also explore the rock formations and caves by foot. Along the coast between Lagos and Albufeira, there are a number of amazing places to explore. The majority are easily accessible by driving and parking at the top, and if you desire, hiking your way down. The Algar Seco, seen below from the water as well as on foot, was one of our favorites. Walking through the rock to those “windows” was so cool!
I would highly recommend a visit to Portugal and I am already anticipating a return trip.
The A-Lyst is a Boston-based lifestyle blog curating the very best of style, beauty, food, and travel.