Best of Portugal in 7 days itinerary on the road
The first road trip I ever did in Europe was a 7 days itinerary of Portugal, driving from Porto to Lisbon and back (to reduce the drop-off costs of the rental car and get cheaper flights from/to Porto than Lisbon 🙂
A good friend of Miles had told us about his exciting road trip in Portugal raising in us the curiosity towards this Country. Back in 2011, Portugal was also an inexpensive destination to travel to, so we booked a week vacation including a small rental car and pension or guesthouse-style accommodation along the itinerary.
We found out mid-September was a perfect season to travel thanks to mild temperatures and beautiful colors of the vineyards in the Douro Valley.
We were also pleasantly surprised by the food, not much for its variety, but because the local dish “bacalhau” (stockfish), which I used to dislike, really impressed me in its many different variations especially the Bacalhau à Gomes de Sà cooked with milk and potatoes.
Porto or Lisbon: which one is your favourite city in Portugal?
Porto or Lisbon? Big dilemma. First stop of our 7 days itinerary Portugal on the road was Porto where we spent two days. At the beginning we found it a bit dodgy and run down, “typical of a mercantile harbor town” we thought. Still we enjoyed very much walking down to Cais da Ribeira, the picturesque waterfront offering many bars and restaurants. On the southbank area of Vila Nova de Gaia we visited the Offley wine cellar for an introduction to Porto wine.
We like to explore cities both on foot and, when available, from panoramic lookouts so we first walked on the iconic Dom Luis I bridge to take some pictures and then decided to relax on a short boat trip on the Douro river from where we could appreciate the pastel-color façades.
Porto is also a city full of history, boasting medieval walls, Baroque churches, historic buildings like the Livraria Lello & Irmao, bookstore dating back to 1906.
We particularly loved the azulejos, characteristic Portuguese decorative tiles, predominantly in white and blue colors, but also green or yellow. You can see many examples around the city, we spotted beautiful artworks at the Sao Bento Train Station and Sé Catedral do Porto, but also at the Buçaco palace, another stop of our 7 days itinerary Portugal on the road.
Half way through our road trip we got to Lisbon where we stayed for 2 nights, a city we had heard so many good feedbacks about. As it often happens when you have high expectations, you risk to get disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, Lisbon is a beautiful city, we particularly loved the Belem district with its characteristic Belem Tower on the Tegus River and the Padrao dos Descobrimentos , monument celebrating the Portuguese world discoveries, from where you can enjoy a lookout onto the 50m wide Compass Rose adorning the underneath square.
Also, just 30-minute drive outside the city, we visited the Unesco world heritage town of Sintra, with its Palàcio National da Sintra, featuring two impressive 33m-tall chimneys and offering a good overview on the history of Portugal, and the popular fairytale Palàcio National da Pena, characterized by vivid colors and a 1900’s Romantic style achitecture, surrounded by 200 hectares park.
Not far from Sintra is Cabo da Roca, the most westernside point on mainland in Europe, a windy rocky cliff raising 150 from the sea.
Back to Lisbon, we found the city centre more like a standard European capital, with the main street lined with international chain shops. That’s why we have re-evaluated Porto that, in our experience, felt more characteristic and authentic.
Still, both Porto and Lisbon are worth visiting!
Porto is not from Porto: the story of the sweet fortified wine and the Douro Valley
The sweet fortified wine called Porto is neither produced in Porto nor consumed by Portugese people.
The origin of this product dates back to 17th century, when Portugal moved its main wine production from Viana do Castelo (70km north of Porto) to the Douro Valley, looking for grapes able to produce a sweeter wine that could please the English, the main trading partners for Portugal. That’s when the wine started to be “fortified” adding a small amount of brandy to increase the alcohol percentage and prevent the product to go off during the long transportation.
There are more than a dozen historic Porto wine warehouses you can visit, all located on the southbank of the Douro River called Vila Nova de Gaia. We chose the Offley cellar founded in 1737 simply because it was a commercial brand we already knew.
Here, we have learnt about Porto production, the difference between ruby (produced with red grapes and ages for several years, characterised by a sweet and fruity flavor), tawny (aged in oak barrels for longer than the ruby wine), vintage (produced only with the best harvests and aged in oak barrels first and 15-100 years in bottle).
However, despite its name, Porto wine is not produced in Porto but in the Douro Valley, a vast area of 8,700 hectares located 2 hr drive inland from the city where, since the Roman Age, wine was produced and then transported by “rabelo” boats to the city of Porto. Here, the wine aged in cool cellars before being shipped overseas, mainly to England and Scotland. The valley is divided into 3 areas of production – Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo and Superior Douro, we visited the latter, where you can choose among a dozen historic quintas (wine estates) to do wine tasting, some also offer accommodation and activities such as taking part to the harvest.
In our 7 days itinerary Portugal on the road we spent two days at Quinta de La Rosa, a lovely family-run winery overlooking the river approximately 1 kilometer from the village of Pinhao.
port shippers, the family bought the Quinta at the beginning of the
1900s. Today the estate covers 55 hectares of vineyards that produce
50,000 litres of high quality Porto wine.
Unfortunately, the year we visited they had an early harvest so we missed for just one week the traditional foot-trodden press of the grapes. Still, we loved the Douro valley landscape painted with yellow and red shades, and of course the Porto wine!
Off the beaten path destinations you cannot miss on a 7 days itinerary Portugal on the road
If you are driving from Porto to Lisbon on a 7 days itinerary Portugal on the road we highly recommend you to visit Buçaco, Coimbra and Tomar.
The national forest Serra do Buçaco, a botanical garden boasting 700 different species, planted by the carmelitans monks who lived here from the 1600s to 1800s, is located 1 hr 30 min drive south of Porto. The ancient convent was mainly destroyed and only portions of its cloister and cells have become part of the Buçaco Palace, a 1800s palace built by the Portuguese Royal Family, today turned into a luxury hotel (though we didnt stayed here :).
Not far from Buçaco is Coimbra, a pretty town featuring one of the oldest universities in the world, dating back to 1290, that attracts thousands of students from all over the Country. Here, we visited the gorgeous Biblioteca Joanina , a 3-storey library built in the 1700s in typical Baroque style and hosting more than 300,000 historic books.
One of the sights that impressed us the most on our 7 days itinerary Portugal on the road was definetely the Convento de Cristo in Tomar, a massive hilltop complex built in 1160 by the Templar Knights as a castle and later turned into a monastery, connected to the village centre through a series of secret tunnels. Templar knights were in Portugal particularly powerful becoming also navigators and explorers. The 7-century-long history of this complex resulted in the presence of different styles from romanesque to gothic, manueline and renaissance. You can visit the cloister, the various courtyards, monk cells and kitchen. The most stunning of all is the Charola, a circular templar church that left us speechless.
On the way back from Lisbon to Porto, we stopped at Avieiro, a small version of Venice with canals and colorful gondolas, popular in the past for its salines.
Last stop of our 7 days itinerary Portugal on the road was Obidos, a lovely fortified medieval village protected by 1,5 km long walls. The main street is lined with artisanal shops and characteristic white houses bordered with yellow and light blue.
Portugal has so much more to see than just its two main cities and we found driving around easy and convenient, just bear in mind the toll system as it is electronic! So if you are renting a car you can either ask a Via Verde device to the rental company so that your toll expenses are registered and you can pay when you return the vehicle, or you can pay at any Post Office in the Country within 5 days just providing the rental car plate number. If you are driving to Portugal with your own foreign car you have various payment methods that you can check on Portugal Tolls website.