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Articles January, 2008

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A Quick Primer on Visiting Portugal
The Illustrated Guide

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Alentejo   Belém  Braga  Cascais   Douro  Guimarães  Lisbon  Minho  Porto  Sintra


This article is intended to be a quick visual guide (all photos are mine), not a guidebook. It is intended to orient you in the country and suggest possible destinations. In the future, more detailed articles focusing on individual regions will be forthcoming.

A Quick Overview

Portugal is one of the most inviting countries in Europe, not only because of its fine wines and ancient monuments, but because its people are generally welcoming and friendly, and the country tends to be less expensive than better known destinations in Europe from what I've seen. In these days of difficult exchange rates, Americans still have a shot at reasonable prices in Portugal.  For tourism, Portugal offers historic cities like Braga, Guimarães, Sintra, Porto, Évora and Lisbon. For the wine lover, the most important region to visit is the Douro Valley. In the Northeastern corner of Portugal, it is a fairly easy drive from the city of Porto. Depending on where you are going, about 90 minutes should do it. The train will also take you from Porto to main points in the Douro, but it is a fairly slow, milk run train. The train connections between Lisbon and Porto are very good, at least. Also in the North, if time allows, are the regions of Dão, Minho/Vinho Verde, Bairrada,  and the interesting cities of Braga, Guimarães and Ponte de Lima.

Heading South, start with the Lisbon, Portugal's most famous and largest city. The Belém district, sort of a suburb, is a tram ride from central Lisbon. The great "castle city" of Sintra is a short commuter train ride away. Easily accessible from Lisbon are various parts of the Alentejo wine region, anchored by its Northern ("Alto") capital,  Évora, and its Southern ("Baixa") capital, Beja. It is also a short commuter train ride from Lisbon to the beach cities of Estoril and Cascais, although for a real vacation in the sun, you might consider the Algarve area, all the way at Portugal's southernmost tip, and not all that far from Andalusia, Spain.


Let's start with Lisbon, because it's Lisbon, and because everyone does. It is Portugal's most famous and largest city. From Lisbon, easy side trips include Sintra, Cascais and Estoril and the suburb of Belém.

Lisbon ("Lisboa") is an unusual city because much of it is on a hill. On my first visit, I was following the map, trying to walk to the Port Wine Institute's tasting room (Rua São Pedro Alcantara 45, with countless interesting Ports for sale and sampling by the glass, and you can buy bottles if you are wowed by anything) from Avenida da Liberdade, and I was constantly stymied until I realized that the right turn meant "climb"--it was straight up the stairs, or a steep hill. Better yet, use one of  Lisbon's elevadors.

Here's how high up it gets, when near the upper entrance of an elevador

Elevador lost in houses in Bairro Alto

 The Baixa, or lower city, is Lisbon's heart. Its main square, known as "Rossio," connects to the long, main boulevard (Avenida da Liberdade), as well as the "eating street," Rua das Portas de S. Antão, containing a variety of restaurants, from interesting to touristy to basic. Rossio, by the way, also has cheap internet access available from the northwest corner near #68.  Continue North, and the long Avenida da Liberdade connects to Pombal Square in a more business-oriented neighborhood of the City. A lot of conveniently placed hotels are on and just off the Avenida Liberdade, between Pombal and Rossio. South of Rossio is the rest of Lisbon's old downtown, an area that is not as inviting as it sounds. If you keep going South, downtown dead ends at Commerce Square and the waterfront. The best reason to visit Commerce Square is probably the government run wine tasting room featuring wines by the glass from different regions each week (free).

Commerce Square...its wine tasting bureau is close to the city side (near the arch), rather than the waterfront


The central fountain in Rossio

If you like photography, there are lots of good alternatives in shooting the Rossio fountain. Here's another version:



Rossio, from the Carmo Museum area


To Rossio's East and West, are the Alfama and Bairro Alto neighborhoods, which, like lifted wings on a bird, largely exist on hills above the downtown area, and are filled with clubs and restaurants.

You can look over the lower portion of central Lisbon from the hills, as in this photo.

View from Bairro Alto neighborhood


The main sights in Lisbon include the ruined Castle on one of the hills, the great Cathedral, a variety of famous churches like São Roque (also on one of the hills), and the Gulbenkian Museum. The churches in Lisbon are very, very ornate, with lots of gold everywhere.  Look at the interior of São Roque...

In Bairro Alto: São Roque Church, very ornate, as many of Lisboa's churches are

Castle of São Jorge, on the hill, overlooking Rossio

The Gulbenkian is a "don't miss" stop, consisting of the eclectic collection of a wealthy, private collector, from objets d'art to paintings. Great artists represented include Degas and Monet, among others.

Gallery in the Gulbenkian

Lisbon's big Aquarium (Ocenario) is also well worth a stop, with a fine collection and a big, modern building.

Penguin in Lisbon's Ocenario.


A word about restaurants. This is not a restaurant guide (one may yet come), but it  is worth pointing out that Eleven (1 Michelin star) is in Lisbon, and it's been my favorite in Portugal so far. Tel: (351) 21 386 22 11. I've also like O Mattos, (351) 21 848 39 24, Rua Bulhao Pato, 2 a, a bit out of Central Lisbon, but an easy taxi ride. It is an authentic little place with a great wine list. On the previously referenced "eating street," Solar dos Presuntos can be a bit touristy and stodgy, but it is also fun and has a great wine list. The maitre d' is very friendly.  tel: 213.424.253, Rua das Portas de Santo Antão, 150. A final restaurant tip: restaurants often have some interesting items set out when you sit down, sometimes like an amuse bouche, sometimes already there. Don't assume anything's free until you ask.

Most restaurants won't have a wine list THIS good (below), but if you're lucky, you'll find some Portuguese friends.



Cascais and Estoril

These are two small cities, beach towns, that are a hop, skip and a jump from Lisbon by commuter train. It's easy to make a day trip. Relax, tan, go back to Lisbon, if you must. For a serious resort vacation, Portugal's Algarve is THE famous resort area, however.

Main Square, Cascais, with its dizzying patterns



The best things about Lisbon may actually be a little outside of central Lisbon--the nearby town of Sintra and the suburb of Belém. Belém is an easy tram ride from Central Lisbon, just about 3 miles away. Lisbon's taxis are cheap--you could probably take one for less than 10 Euros from central Lisbon. (In fact, the taxis are cheap enough so that it is tempting to take them everywhere--even an airport run is only about 10 Euros-- but note that the Metro is efficient, too.)

Belém was the point of departure for Portugal's explorers during the Age of Discovery. Today, it has some sculptures celebrating discovery, as well as the iconic "Torre" that appears in so many photos. (Below)

Belem's famous old "Torre"--the basic tourist shot.


More importantly, Belém has the 16th century Presidential Palace, a must see, and the famous Monastery of Jerónimos (16th c.), which contains the tomb of explorer Vasco da Gama, and the fascinating Coach Museum. The monastery is vast. The Coach Museum contains a number of famous, old and impressive Coaches.

Presidential Palace, interior shot


Monastery of Jerónimos, taken from the top of the monument celebrating the Age of Discovery


Ornate coaches in the Coach Museum


I think without question my favorite sights in the area were in Sintra, the small town that is about 45 minutes outside of Lisbon by commuter train. Get there early so you can see both famous castles, and make sure they are both open on the day you are going (one closes Mondays, the other Wednesdays).  It is worth it. The National Palace is the oldest surviving Royal residence in Portugal. Nearby, the more modern, less historic, but more spectacular Pena Palace is an eccentric fantasy. You can skip the mundane toy museum.

Pena Palace


On to wine country.....Heading South to Alentejo

There are a lot of wine places relatively near Lisbon (Estremadura, Ribatejo and Setúbal come to mind), but most visitors in the area will probably have Alentejo in mind as a key destination.  Alentejo's two main towns are  Évora (pop. 50,000, roughly) and Beja (pop. 35,000, roughly). It is flat, sparsely populated and bucolic, with lots of pigs, cows, cork trees, sheep and farms--and wineries, over 200 as of this writing. Évora is closer to Lisbon, about 85 miles South.

Estremoz Pousada (on hill),  near the J. Portugal Ramos winery--and Alentejo landscape

Alentejo is a big region--plan your itinerary carefully to reduce driving time. Some wineries are equally accessible from a base in Beja or Évora, but others are much closer to one or the other. The most attractive base is Évora, the old world heritage city, complete with the Pousada dos Lóios, an attraction in its own right. The Pousada itself is beautiful, but the basic rooms, the "cells," are a bit basic for the price. The building itself is spectacular. The Greek Temple of Diana is right in front of the Pousada, and the Cathedral just nearby. (The tolling of the bells at all hours can make the Pousada rather noisy!) There are lots of wineries reasonably convenient to the area, from the boutique Zambujeiro, to the big guys like Herdade do Esporão, Adega de Cartuxa, and J. Portugal Ramos.

Évora Cathedral, right near the Pousada

The Greek Temple of Diana, right next to the Évora Pousada (white building)

Beja, smaller, less attractive and further South, has its own Pousada, which I liked better for the actual rooms than the Pousada in Évora. You can also see the Rainha Dona Leonor museum in Beja, along with other sights, but the main attraction in Beja will certainly be the wineries nearby, like Cortes de Cima, Malhadinha Nova and Herdade dos Grous. The last two are also very attractive small hotels/resorts. It is not unusual in Portugal to find wineries offering bed and breakfast accommodations--or even something a bit more. 

Beja Pousada, main hall--what you get in these grand old hotels

The Douro Valley

The Douro is one of the world's oldest, demarcated wine regions. It is world famous for Port, rustic, remote and simply beautiful. It is Destination #1 for the wine lover in Portugal, as well as the wine loving tourist looking to do something a little different. Things are changing fast in the Douro. Locals are all abuzz with plans for a $1,000 a night hotel at Quinta da Romaneira. Also, DOC, a nice restaurant along the wine route, has opened. I have a feeling that the Douro may be the Next Great Wine Region to visit, and that the locals are gearing up for the onslaught. Yet, at the moment the reality is that the Douro is often more rugged than luxurious, and that this is more of a nature trip than a resort destination. It bears little resemblance to Napa, for instance, where restaurants like DOC are everywhere. In ten years, things may have completely changed. At the moment, though, you are more likely to stay at a bed and breakfast attached to a winery (like Quinta de la Rosa), and you will struggle to navigate the steep roads, trying to figure out where and when to cross the river, and how to get from one place to another with modest signposting. At the moment, tourists are still a bit of an afterthought in the Douro. A big day's activity, other than wine tasting, will be the boat ride along the Douro (which is a "can't miss" activity).

From Lisbon, take the fast train to Porto. From there, you are probably best off getting a rental car and driving, which will take around 90 minutes, depending on where you are going. The train from Porto to the Douro makes many stops, but it is a slow, milk run train. Plus, you'll need a car when you get there anyway. Public transportation consists of either train stops or boat rides. Neither will be enough to let you access all the vineyards unless you have someone waiting for you to drive you around.

Pinhão is a centrally located village in the heart of the Douro, with lots of wineries nearby. Quinta de la Rosa (which has bed and breakfast rooms for rent) is actually in walking distance (although it's a bit of a hike, so not if you have bags to carry). If you take the train, Pinhão's attractive train station is your best bet for a good entry point into wine country. No one base is going to perfect for all parts of the Douro, but to minimize driving time, you are best off staying in the heart of the Douro (Cima Corgo), and the area around Pinhão is an excellent choice in that regard.

Pinhão Train Station

The Douro is famous for its steep hills, with the winding Douro river meandering far down below. Some of the hills are steep enough, with sharp drops to the right or left, to terrify more than a few tourists. If you are heading off the main paths to certain wineries, the steep, narrow roads can get even worse.

Among the famous wineries in the heart of the Douro is Quinta do Crasto, whose pool--I call it the Pool on the Edge of Nowhere--shows off the beautiful hills and scenery. Just don't step the wrong way off of the terrace.

The famous Pool on the edge of nowhere at Quinta do Crasto

Apart from Crasto, there are many wineries easily accessible in the area, including Quinta Vale D. Maria, Niepoort, Domingos Alves de Sousa, Vallado, Ramos Pinto, Symington Family (at Quinta do Bomfim), the previously referenced Quinta de la Rosa, and so on. Smaller, boutique wineries may be accessible with an appointment--but may not. Venturing further afield, in the Douro Superior, you can visit CARM and Vale Meão. Make sure to group your appointments--you sure don't want to be careening from Niepoort to Vale Meão, then from Quinta de la Rosa to CARM. That can be a lot of tough driving.

Signature scenes in the Douro are all about those steep hills, often with the river far below. Here are some examples.

This shot was taken from Quinta de S. José, not far from Pinhão, which offers apartments for tourists, too.

Douro River and vineyards

Douro hills and vineyards

The Douro wineries frequently uses terraced vineyards. There are a variety of other vineyard methods, too, but here's a common one (below):

Terraced vineyards

If you are going to the Douro, go for the wine and relaxation. It's nature and it's the wine. In the broader Tras-os-Montes region, however, there are other things to do as well. You can visit places like the old town of Chaves, or the baroque Mateus Palace. The name at least should be familiar to drinkers of cheap, fizzy rosé--Mateus Rosé was a symbol of Portuguese table wine for a long time--too long.

Mateus Palace


Leaving the Douro, meandering down to Porto, there are other wine regions nearby, like Dão, Bairrada and Vinho Verde, if such is your inclination. However, the beautiful Minho region, which encompasses Vinho Verde, is a tourist's treasure trove even if you don't care a bit about wine. It includes historic, "can't miss" cities like Braga and Guimarães, as well as the bucolic little village of Ponte de Lima (convenient to Quinta do Ameal). Guimarães (about 30 miles Northeast of Porto) is the birthplace of Portugal's first King. The Dukes' Palace is a popular sight, as is the 10th century Castle, with the tiny chapel nearby where Portugal's first King was baptized.  Braga (about 30 miles North of Porto), the city of Churches, is Minho's capital. Apart from the Cathedral and assorted churches, the fabulous Bom Jesús sanctuary and gardens on a hilltop are remarkable, and probably the best sight in Braga.


From the Bom Jesús sanctuary and gardens in Braga, this long staircase leads back to the lower town. Take a cab or a funicular from the lower town, unless you're a masochist--or a pilgrim.


Interior from the Church that is part of the Bom Jesús complex (Braga)

Dukes' Palace, interior, Guimarães


Porto, Portugal's second largest city, is the gateway to Portugal's Northern wine regions, convenient to some (like Vinho Verde) on a day trip, but not to others (it is a lot of driving if you are going to do wine tastings in the Douro). Porto is perhaps most famous to international visitors for what is in Vila Nova de Gaia, the small town on the other side of the waterfront--namely, all the famous Port lodges to which the Douro producers would ship the Port wine. In Porto itself, the waterfront provides scenic views, and, among other places, the Cathedral, S. Francisco Church and the Bolsa Palace are all worth a visit. Many tourists, however, will be coming here mostly for the wine,  to explore the Port lodges (worth doing, but not worth a trip in and of itself) and head on up to wine country. The famous, medieval Old Town is the quarter abutting the waterfront. The facades of its houses are the classic image of Porto's waterfront as seen from Vila Nova de Gaia. The medieval Old Town quarter is somewhat run down, and a bit disappointing in person compared to its reputation. From what I hear, gentrification and restoration projects are under way to preserve the historic Old Town.

Some Port lodges to visit include Ferreira (owned by Sogrape), which has beautiful views over the river at night if you can wangle a visit then, as well as old cellars and equipment; Sandeman, with a little museum; Ramos Pinto and Graham's. You can walk along Vila Nova de Gaia's streets and pop in and out of the lodges. Call ahead for details of what is offered. You can usually tour and taste, but don't expect to get top level Ports by the glass just by walking in as a tourist off the street. The "wine list" offered is often rather basic.

This is the original, in the Ferreira Port Lodge, of the picture that adorns Casa Ferreirinha's Barca Velha label

An overview of the Port Lodges in Vila Nova di Gaia.

Interior of Sandeman Port lodge

The waterfront is The Big Thing in Porto. As previously noted, the old town nearby is not quite as picturesque up close as it seems from afar, but there are still a lot of nice scenes and scenery here, besides the Port lodges. The houses lining Porto's waterfront jointly provide a colorful facade that is captured on a lot of postcards. A closer look shows many of them in need of paint and restoration, but from afar it is still a nice shot.

Looking over to Porto's waterfront from Vila Nova di Gaia, with one of the traditional Port boats in the water

A close-up of Porto's waterfront, with the houses in front, and the monuments above

The city has some charms, too, with its monuments and historic buildings, even if it does not have quite the same allure as the waterfront area.

Porto monuments and facades

The main square in the center of Porto, Praça Liberdade

That's the end of the trip. Back to Lisbon. Get one of those inexpensive 10 Euro cabs to the airport. Head home.

Remember, this is just a quick primer and orientation, not a detailed guide. There will be more to come in the future.





Copyright Mark Squires, © 2008 all rights reserved.


is a registered trademark of Mark Squires