Sheila Sim at Quinta das Lagrimas, Coimbra

This week’s guest has a house in Portugal so she visits several times a year. She has some great recommendations for trips to central Portugal and for garden lovers.

Note: This interview is part of a series that I conducted with other people who had recently travelled to Portugal, back in 2012-2013)

Hi Sheila, can you tell us a bit about yourself, please?

I’m a garden photographer, based in Edinburgh in Scotland.

When did you last visit / travel in Portugal and how long did you stay?

My husband and I are very fortunate to have a small house in the Beiras region of Portugal, and we visit the country three or four times a year. The last time I was there was summer 2012, but we’re going again in a few weeks’ time.

Do you come for business, pleasure or something else?

We always come for pleasure, though my garden photography also offers business opportunities.

How do you get here?

We tend to fly direct from Edinburgh to Lisbon on Easyjet.

Whereabouts do you stay?

We often start our holiday with a couple of days in Lisbon before heading north to our little house in the hills, in the Serra da Lousã. Our village is called Relva da Mó.

Although we spend a lot of time at our house, whenever we go to Portugal we also try to spend a night or two in a place we haven’t visited before.

And what sort of accommodation do you have?

Our own little house is extremely modest. We love it because we have no TV or radio, no computer/email/internet, and very poor mobile phone reception – it’s quiet and peaceful, a place where we can completely switch off and relax.

stone country house
Sheila and Andy’s house in Relva da Mó, central Portugal

How do you get around while you are here?

We hire a car from Lisbon airport. We have also been known to use local bus services for day trips – which means we can enjoy some vinho verde (young, slightly sparkly white wine) with our lunch 😉

What research, if any, do you do before your trip?

We always do research before our trips, since we like to visit somewhere new every time we come to Portugal. We will search the internet for insider tips on hotels, restaurants and things to see at our chosen destination.

Where do you find the most useful information?

We often start off with the Rough Guide to Portugal, then once we have a general idea of where we want to go we’ll search the internet for other people’s tips on hotels, restaurants and things to see.

What were you most looking forward to doing or seeing in Portugal?

My husband and I have specific interests of our own: he is a keen cyclist, and I am a garden photographer. So he will research the best areas to do road cycling, and I research garden locations! Fortunately, our house in Relva da Mó is quite a good base from which to do all the little trips that keep us both happy.

Of the places you have visited, which would you recommend to other travellers and why?

One of the places that I keep returning to again and again is Tomar. It’s a delightful town, and its highlight is the Convento do Cristo, which is a world heritage site. Photographs of this amazing place don’t do it justice; you have to visit it yourself to really appreciate it.

The Convent and the surrounding gardens are simply wonderful. I’m always astonished that such an incredible place isn’t swarming with tourists; there have been times when I’ve almost had the place to myself.

Convento do Cristo, Tomar
Convento do Cristo, Tomar, central Portugal. I agree with Sheila – it’s well worth repeat visits.

Other places not to be missed are Évora (in the Alentejo region) and Guimarães in the north. Both are stonkingly lovely.

For garden lovers, there are some magnificent gardens attached to hotels. I particularly recommend Casa da Insua near Viseu and Quinta das Lagrimas in Coimbra. The Palácio Hotel do Buçaco near Coimbra also has stunning gardens, though the hotel itself isn’t perfect.

When we want to spend some time at the beach we head for the charming coastal resort of São Pedro de Moel, near Leiria. It’s completely unspoiled by tourism. We stay at the Hotel Mar e Sol, with gorgeous sea views. Best restaurants are the Estrela do Mar (in town) and the Old Beach Club (further along the beach, right on the sand).

Is there anywhere you think people should avoid?

Personally I find the Algarve coast an area to be avoided. Albufeira is particularly bad; it’s devoid of character, and swarming with British tourists. If you’re going to the Algarve, I’d recommend staying inland and visiting small hillside towns like Silves and Alte.

See this article for tips on where to stay in the Algarve.

Did you pick up any practical or money-saving tips for travelling in Portugal that you could share with us?

Never be afraid to eat in small, dingy-looking restaurants off the tourist path. You tend to find that the more modest restaurants are where the locals go to eat; they are cheaper, and the food is often better than the restaurants geared around the tourist trade.

If you’re self-catering, always buy your food in local markets rather than supermarkets. The old ladies who sell their own home-grown produce at the markets are a worthier recipient of your money, and their food is significantly cheaper and tastier.

Also, I’d recommend visiting Portugal out of season. We find that March is a wonderful time to go, because the hotels are cheaper at this time of year, the climate is warm, and it’s great for garden lovers because the camellias and magnolias are in bloom.

gardens at Casa da Ínsua hotel
Beautiful gardens at Casa da Ínsua hotel near Viseu, central Portugal

Is there anywhere or anything that was a letdown? Why?

The Algarve coast, especially Albufeira (see above).

What about the food – did you try any local dishes? Any you’d recommend?

My husband and I adore fish and seafood, and of course these are amongst Portugal’s finest offerings. Ameijoas à Bulhão Pato (clams in white wine with coriander) is one of our favourite dishes. I always enjoy simple grilled bream, while my husband adores bacalhau (salt cod).

Of course, you should also sample any local cheeses that you come across. Mmm…

Insider tip: Read more about tempting Portuguese food here.

Did you buy any souvenirs? What / Why not?

I like pottery, and some of the best selections are to be found at markets. The large market at Barcelos in the north of the country is a great place to go for Portuguese souvenirs such as pottery.

Could sum up your experience of Portugal in a sentence, please?

An under-rated destination, which has immense riches to offer – delicious cuisine, wonderful people, and an incredible cultural heritage.

Would you like to come back to Portugal? If the answer’s yes, where in particular?

I will always keep coming back to Portugal. I would like to get to know the Alentejo region better. In the north, I’d like to visit some of the traditional old villages such as Monsanto and Belmonte.

I can thoroughly recommend checking out more of Sheila’s beautiful photography at Sheila Sim Photo and on Facebook


  1. Like the recommendations re hotels with beautiful gardens and will probably book the Casa da Insua for our return journey this month. Like Susan, we have a place in Portugal, in Tavira,and visit several times a year, driving from the Spanish ferry ports in the summer. I have to say the Algarve is unfairly maligned – especially if you haven’t visited the eastern side: Tavira is a beautiful and historic genuine Portuguese town, with a commendable cultural programme. However, if such comments prevent too many visitors, that’s fine by us!
    Love the blog!

    1. Author

      Hi Caroline, Thanks for taking the time to comment – I’m glad you like the blog 🙂

      I agree with you that the eastern Algarve is beautiful. I spent a week just outside Tavira a few Christmases ago and really enjoyed walking in the area so I can appreciate why you like it so much.

      I’m still more of a fan of the central and northern landscapes, towns and villages in general, though.

      I hope you enjoy Casa da Insua. It’s a beautiful building – if you want a historical bedroom, make sure you specify that when you book. There’s one with a balcony which overlooks the gardens and has its own sitting room. I have no idea how much it is but if you can afford it, it’s rather special.

  2. As always, a well done interview and story. Yet I found myself so completely aligned with Sheila’s observations and comments that it felt as if I were simply talking with a friend. Yes, let’s leave the Algarve to the Brits and enjoy the rest of Portugal ourselves. Explorations of Tomar, Coimbra and the Serra Estrela area are as delightful and special as Sheila noted. We live in Cascais and never plan to leave. Thanks again, Julie, for this little gift of thoughtfulness.

    1. Thank you Susan for taking the time to comment. It’s much appreciated.

      And as you say, there’s so much more to Portugal than the Algarve, which has its merits but isn’t the most interesting part of Portugal for me. That what I hope to show people through this blog and encourage them to explore the rest of the country.

  3. That was a beautiful interview, I earnestly wish to go to Portugal some day, with God’s blessings, Thanks Sheila & Julie

    1. You’re very welcome. I thoroughly enjoyed it and it’s reassuring to know that you did too. I hope you get the opportunity to visit Portugal soon.

      1. Thanks for the wish! Happy Easter 🙂

        On this Easter remembering all those kids who are destined to toil in different parts of this globe for a piece of bread.

        Next time when a chocolate melts in our mouths, when we buy toys / bangles /textiles, when we or our pets comfortably rest on a carpet, remember those little hands that might have worked to make it…

        This is just a humble reminder! Lets remain thankful for all the blessings showered on us !

        I wish you checked this, if possible

Over to you. Please share your thoughts in a comment.