There aren’t many countries I’d say this about, but you really can’t go wrong with Portugal. Most other countries I love had at least one or two slight pitfalls, such as too busy, expensive, or crappy service. The one idea that keeps popping into my mind about Portugal is that I can’t think of anything I didn’t like about it. So consider 10 days in Portugal a slam-dunk vacation.
I visited Portugal in early October 2019 with my husband Nick and our good friends, Robyn and Craig. The weather was friggin’ perfect. It was sunny and warm every day. I love Europe in October.
10 days in Portugal itinerary – overview and getting around
Our 10 days in Portugal took us to Lisbon, the Algarve, the Douro Valley, and Porto. I wouldn’t have changed a thing, other than adding more time. But we had left our kids in Canada with their wonderful grandparents, and would miss them too much to leave for longer. With an extra few days, I would’ve visited Sintra and spent more time in the Algarve and Porto.
We used cabs and electric scooters to get around Lisbon. Our mode of transportation throughout the rest of the country was a Volvo SUV rented through Avis. I found it on Auto Europe, which has the best deals in Europe in my experience – 250 euros total for a week.
Days 1 and 2 – Lisbon
Lisbon was a pleasant surprise. Although there aren’t a ton of “must see” attractions in Lisbon like in other big cities, it’s got a great vibe with cool neighbourhoods to stroll in and a thriving restaurant scene. For me, visiting Lisbon was also about seeing an iconic European city before it gets insanely busy, like Rome, Paris, Venice, Barcelona, or Amsterdam.
What to do in Lisbon
Don’t miss strolling the steep, narrow streets of the Alfama district. Those who love to wander without a purpose will delight in the colourful buildings and tiles, street art, laundry drying in the wind above, and popping into bars or cafes. Planners may want to schedule a stop at St. George’s Castle, perched on top of a hill with beautiful views of Lisbon, or find out where the expressive and melancholic live Fado music can be found that day (check Mesa de Frades or Clube de Fado).
To the West of Alfama lies Lisbon’s bustling Baixa-Chiado area. It hums with tourists and smooth operators trying to get you into their restaurants. The busy Rua Augusta street ends at the grand Rua Augusta Arch, which opens into Praça do Comércio. This is Lisbon’s pedestrian-only, attractive main square along the river, featuring bright yellow buildings contrasting with even brighter blue skies.
Further West along the Tagus River is the Belém district and Jerónimos Monastery. This gothic monastery is an impressive, UNESCO world heritage listed, 16th century gem to marvel at. Don’t miss the Church of Santa Maria de Belém in the same complex. Further into Belém is the famous Belém Tower and Pasteis de Belém. Sampling the delightful pasteis de nata throughout Portugal (crispy, tasty custard tarts of love) is like regularly gorging on gelato in Italy.
The Oceanario de Lisboa is Europe’s largest aquarium and is always listed in the top things to do in Lisbon. It’s an excellent choice if you’re travelling with kids or need to flee crappy weather.
Where to eat and drink in Lisbon
We may have spent more time eating and drinking in Lisbon than doing anything else, and I’m not ashamed. There are endless good options – here are the places that stand out in my mind:
- Grau Douro Wine Bar in Chiado for a great vibe, tasty food and wine, lovely staff, and live music (if you’re lucky)
- Meat Me in Chiado for an upscale experience with cocktails and a Beef Wellington you won’t soon forget
- Portas do Sol in Alfama for a superior terrace with views to match
- Doca Seis in Alcântara for seafood galore and a patio near the river (get the sea bream, it was fantastic)
- “Pink Street” in Baixa for all-night partying
For more detail, visit my post on 2 days in Lisbon: Portugal’s captivating capital.
*If you have an extra day in Lisbon, plan for a day trip to Sintra. With famous whimsical palaces, we didn’t factor this into our 10 days in Portugal, but would’ve if we had more time. This post on a Day trip from Lisbon to Sintra provides all you need to know.
Days 3-6 – the Algarve
You could spend much longer than three or four days in the Algarve, Portugal’s Southernmost province. But 10 days in Portugal allows for a few days to get a great feel for this dreamy stretch of Atlantic coast. I’ve highlighted my top picks below.
We stayed in Vilamoura, chosen because I arranged a villa for us to stay in with our Home Exchange points (that we received by hosting people at our second property in B.C., Canada). I like Vilamoura, but would choose to stay in Lagos instead if we return to the Algarve.
It’s best to have a rental vehicle in the Algarve to hit up beaches, coastal towns, and other highlights.
Beaches and hiking around Lagos
An epic day trip took us West from Vilamoura. We went to the Benagil Cave, Praia da Marinha, then Lagos and its beautiful beaches.
Praia da Marinha
This was the most spectacular beach we saw in Portugal. If you read multiple travel guides and blogs prior to a trip like I do, you’ll see Praia da Marinha mentioned repeatedly as one of Portugal’s best. It’s easy to see why, with its conical cliffs and islands surrounding deep turquoise waters, backed by that ever-present blue sky.
There’s a trail above Praia da Marinha to walk and take in the views. If you want to swim, suntan, or frolic, take the stairs down and find the perfect spot on this ideal stretch of sand. There aren’t any restaurants or bars on this beach (which makes it even more special), but vendors sell water, pop, and ice cream near the parking lot.
Benagil Cave and deserted beach
Thanks to Instagram, the Benagil Cave has skyrocketed in popularity. It looked pretty damn cool when I Insta-stumbled upon it, so onto the Portugal list it went. It’s well worth it, although adventurous to get there on your own via kayak or stand up paddle board (all part of the fun, right?). You can book a boat tour to see the Benagil cave and coastal surroundings, but you can’t get off the boat to go inside the cave.
Our plan was to rent kayaks to visit it. We arrived at Benagil Beach and were told the waves were too big to kayak that day. Stand up paddleboards (SUPs) were the only option. We rented two SUPs from Taruga Benagil Tours and were told we could go two people per board sitting. Considering they were 30 euros per board per hour, we doubled up for a seiza-style paddle. I’ve tried two adults standing and paddling on a SUP; it’s not pretty.
THANK GOD we rented a waterproof bag to put our iPhones in. Initially, I was over-confident (“I’ve SUPd a lot, I won’t fall in!”). Nick was quick to remind me afterwards that our phones would be ruined if it weren’t for the waterproof bag (at least it was my idea to ask for one). The waves getting in and out of the beaches and cave were large, and it was impossible to get two people on and off the SUP without getting completely soaked. But we are Canadian, so a little cold water doesn’t scare us. I may have even said, “pretty refreshing on a hot day, eh?”
Side note: don’t do impressions of Canadians saying “eh” unless you know how to use it right. I love when people make fun of it (because it’s funny that we say it, and yes, I say it sometimes), but most of the time, the person mocking “eh” doesn’t have a hot clue how to use it properly. It’s annoying, eh?
Falling off the SUPs was worth it, as the deserted beach we paddled to (only about a five-minute SUP ride from Benagil Beach) was, in fact, deserted. This is something you don’t often see these days, with hundreds of travellers flocking to nice beaches.
The next short paddle was in and out of the Benagil Cave. This domed, perfect looking sea cave has two rounded openings allowing aquamarine water to flow in, and a circular hole at the top, so that bright sun can stream in too. The more I travel, the more amazed I am at the sheer volume of stunning natural wonders there are in this world. It’s like God himself chiselled this cave by hand. When you’re inside it, the feeling that you’re somewhere special is palpable.
Lagos and beach/cliff hiking
A few hours in Lagos were enough to realize we’d stay there if we go back to the Algarve. It’s busier than the other towns we visited, but had great character, plus a variety of appealing beaches and dining options. We strolled Lagos’ inviting streets and had a patio lunch at an Italian restaurant.
Next was an incredible hike from Lagos to Ponta da Piedade and back. This coastal cliff walk takes you past multiple gorgeous beaches, rock formations, and views.
We started the approximately six-kilometre hike along the water at the Southern end of Lagos, near the Castelo de Lagos. You’ll walk past tour vendors showing boat trips and tours to beaches. Continue on and turn left once you reach the fire hall. You’ll start to see beach after beach, beginning with Praia da Batata and Praia do Pinhão.
The next beach is Praia Dona Ana, a large, inviting beach. It was so popular they extended it in 2016 (much to the disgust of locals), to accommodate more people. It’s a long, inviting beach with nice water and amenities. We stopped for a much-needed swim here on the way back, which felt great after a sweaty hike in 30 degree weather.
If you’re not beached out yet, Praia do Camilho is next, a smaller stretch of sand before reaching Ponta da Piedade. Jutting out into the Atlantic, Ponta da Piedade has multiple lookout points, craggy rock formations, and cliffs. You could spend an hour walking around and taking photos here (see the photo at the top of this post).
I would’ve loved to see this stretch of coastline we hiked by boat, so if you have more time or prefer a leisurely ride to a caloric burn, a boat tour would be wonderful.
Reminiscent of Palm Springs, California, or other pristine golf resort areas with plenty of seniors, Vilamoura was pleasant, with a lively marina full of bars and restaurants. As mentioned, we stayed in a villa we scored via Home Exchange.
Aside from world-class golf courses, Vilamoura has nice beaches nearby. Praia da Falesia boasts more than six kilometres of golden sand. If you’re travelling with kids, there are multiple water parks nearby, including Aqualand Algarve and Side and Splash.
If I had to pick the best meal we had in our whole 10 days in Portugal, Willie’s Restaurant in Vilamoura would be it. We savoured every bite, exquisite blends of flavours artistically arranged on each plate. With a coveted Michelin star, you know you’ll receive the service and food to match. As a bonus, the prices were more reasonable than other Michelin star restaurants.
Tavira and Cacela Velha
On a quieter stretch of the Algarve, close to the border with Spain, there are multiple towns worth a stop. We explored Tavira, which Lonely Planet described as the Algarve’s “most attractive town.” It was lovely and nice to walk around in, but we didn’t find much to do there.
Further East is the picturesque, quiet town of Cacela Velha. Also a Lonely Planet recommendation, the empty cobblestone streets, coloured houses contrasting with bright flowers, and turquoise sea with swirling sand bars in the distance make this place ooze with charm. There’s a cute restaurant in town called Casa Velha. If you fancy some beach time, walk to Praia de Cacela Velha at low tide or take a quick boat ride at high tide.
Days 7-9 – the Douro Valley
Given I live in the second largest country in the world, it still amazes me that you can drive from one end of a country to another in four or five hours. This is exactly what we did when heading from the Algarve’s South coast to the Douro Valley wine region in Northern Portugal.
The Six Senses Douro Valley
I could rave about this resort all day. If you’re interested in reading about why it’s likely the best place we’ve ever stayed, check out my Douro Valley post.
Here’s the short version: Six Senses spares no detail and really has the wellness factor dialled in. The design, decor, staff, food, rooms, spa, pool, and other amenities are all phenomenal. I especially love the infinity pool overlooking the valley, the contemporary wine library with self-serve tastings, and the multiple steam rooms and saunas. It has the best breakfast EVER, with healthy organic options and yummy indulgences, including the best pasteis de nata I had in Portugal. The property is extensive, with nature trails for walking. They also offer many “Experiences,” from sommelier-guided wine tours, to tree climbing.
Wine and port tasting: visiting four quintas (wineries)
If you love wine or port, you’re in for a treat with this portion of your 10 days in Portugal. Aside from relaxing and enjoying the amenities at the Six Senses, our priority in the Douro Valley was wine and port tasting.
Our first wine tasting took us up a hill above the town of Pinhão, to a winery called Quinta do Jallota. Recommended by a local tour guide we met sitting at a bar in town, he told us it was the quinta with the best views of the valley. Locals know best, and the view was ridiculous – a steep valley covered in terraced vineyards with the jade Douro River casually meandering through it. We enjoyed lovely whites, rosés, reds, ports, and a charcuterie board on a picturesque patio.
The next stop was at Quinta do Panascal for a port tasting. Port aficionados will appreciate the variety, ranging from white ports to vintage ports. It has an inviting tasting room and nice views.
We also visited Quinta da Pacheca, where we took a complimentary one-hour tour of the vineyards and cellars, learned some fun facts about port, and did a tasting at the end. This is a beautiful property and definitely worth a visit.
Our favourite quinta experience-wise was Quinta da Casa Amarela. The owner, Gil, provided us with entertaining stories and interesting facts as we sipped on his smooth reds and ports. The Selection km 16 red blend was one of my favourites I had in Portugal. If you go in September, you must inquire about doing a grape stomping session here. Gil says it’s heavy on wine-drinking and music, AND it’s a good workout… so pretty much reason for Nick and I go to back one day.
I’ve provided more detail on our time in the Douro Valley in my post, Douro Valley road trip + a side of luxury = three perfect days (Portugal).
Day 10 – Porto and back to Lisbon
On our last day in Portugal, we stopped for a half-day in Porto. It would’ve been nice to spend a full day or two in this charming, historical city, but we squeezed a few highlights into our precious time. Our walk started at the Porto Cathedral (which we didn’t take the time to go in, but it was grand from the outside). From there we strolled and shopped our way down towards the Douro River.
The UNESCO-listed, alluring Ribeiro district along the river is a must. It’s a lively combination of colourful old buildings, busy restaurants, and tourists oohing and aahing. We spent a couple of hours walking on each side of the river, stopping for ice cream, lunch on the riverfront patio at Douro Velho (delicious chicken piri piri), and a port tasting from chocolate cups.
We also visited the Church of São Francisco – Porto’s most famous and impressive church – also UNESCO listed. It’s beautiful inside and out, with that painfully detailed architecture and intrinsic passion found in many of Europe’s gothic churches. Be sure to visit the catacombs, a slightly eery yet interesting experience. You will even see piles of human bones through small windows in the floor.
10 days in Portugal: you can’t go wrong
Any variation of this itinerary would still make for a wonderful 10 days in Portugal. If cities are more your jam, spend an extra day in each Lisbon and Porto, and ditch the Douro Valley. Hate busy cities? You can happily spend 10 days in the Algarve and Douro Valley.
I have no problem admitting when places are sketchy, dirty, or too busy. Or if they have too much traffic, unpredictable weather, unenticing food, or abysmal service. None of these generally exist in Portugal. Now that’s reason enough to book your flight ASAP.
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