Sofie goofing around at the Quinta da Regaleira palace in Sintra

It’s been a while since I interviewed a fellow traveller about their experience of travelling in Portugal but my latest guest has lots to share with us. Having hired a car she managed to pack a lot into a short time, and cope with a heatwave! Read on to discover the highs and lows of Sofie’s trip.

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Well, my name is Sofie and I’m 26. I was born and raised in Belgium and am still living there at the moment. I’m a full time marketing coordinator at an editorial company, so I’m at my job 40 hours per week. Besides that I take dance classes several times a week and spend hours working on my blog. I use almost all of my vacation days and public holidays to travel and find that weekends are just perfect for a small city trip.

When did you travel in Portugal and how long was your trip

We left on June 23, a Sunday, and came back on July 5, a Friday. Now how’s that for being specific? 🙂 I would have loved to stay longer to spend more time in some of the places we visited, but now I have a reason to go back!

Where were you based?

We flew from Brussels to Lisbon and picked up our rental car at the airport there. We then drove immediately to Coimbra, where we stayed for two nights. From there we drove on to the beautiful Douro valley where we stayed one night before heading on to Porto, where we stayed for 4 nights. After that we drove back down south to spend two nights in Sintra. We ended our trip where we started it, in Lisbon, where we stayed for another three nights.

Coimbra by nightfall
Coimbra by nightfall copyright wonderfulwanderings.com

And what sort of accommodation did you have? How was it?

We actually used different types of accommodation throughout our trip. We first stayed at the luxurious Quinta das Lágrimas in Coimbra*, where we had a comfortable double room.

Our most relaxing stay was at Quinta Nova in the Douro Valley, where it was so peaceful and quiet that we automatically started to whisper.

For our stay in Porto we had rented an apartment through Roomorama, which I absolutely loved. It was the first time that I rented an apartment for a holiday and it really made me feel more at home in the city. It was so nice to go out for groceries, have a little breakfast at ‘our’ table and relax a bit in ‘our’ living room before going out to dinner.

From the apartment we moved to the Nice Way Sintra Palace Hostel* in Sintra, where we stayed in a private double ensuite room with great views. I really like staying at hostels because of how easy it is to meet other travelers there, but I always book a private room. Just as much as I like being social, I also want some space to myself when I’m staying somewhere.

You hired a car to travel around Portugal. How did that work out? Any problems or advice you’d like to share?

It actually went great. I used Portugal Auto Rentals, a car broker site, and rented with Avis through them. As there’s an Avis located at the airport we could pick up our car immediately after landing. It all went very smoothly. I’d printed out our coupon, showed it at the Avis counter and they sent me through to the garage where our car was waiting for us. We even got lucky: I normally always book the smallest model but because I had waited a bit too long this time the smallest model (category A) wasn’t available anymore and I had to take a category B car. When we went to pick up our car it turned out that they’d also ran out of category B cars so we got a free upgrade, which meant we could cruise around Portugal in a convertible!

See my tips for renting a car in Portugal.

Now, I’m not that much of a car fan, but with the distance we’ve driven over those 12 days and the temperatures at the time (40°c almost every day), I was so happy that we could let the rooftop down.

I found driving in Portugal very easy, but did make one mistake, though: we always used the toll roads.

When we went to the Basque Country last year we always checked if avoiding the toll roads would costs us a lot of time before we left for somewhere. We didn’t do that this year and paid quite a lot of money on tolls. It’s really deceptive because you always pay like €1,5 and then €0,60 half an hour later and then another €1,2 an hour later… but all those small amounts really add up after a while.
So, my advice would be: check if you can avoid the toll roads.

We also noticed that those toll roads were really calm. Sometimes we could drive for half an hour without passing another car. Someone told me that the toll roads have just gotten too expensive for the locals. I don’t know if that’s the reason, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

Also, there are two ways of paying the toll: either you go to a postal office before you leave the country again to pay everything, or you use an electronic device in your car which charges the toll amounts directly to your credit cards. We had to pay little over a euro extra for the electronic device, but it did really come in handy as we used a lot of toll roads and didn’t feel like looking for a postal office the day before we left.

Oh, one other thing to look out for are the ‘parking helpers’. In some cities there will be people guiding you to free parking spaces, but then when you park there, they expect to be paid for their ‘help’. I haven’t actually experienced this myself as my dad had warned me about them, but we did see them in several places.

What else can I tell you? Well, gas isn’t cheaper in Portugal. It even was a bit more expensive than it is in Belgium, at about €1,6/l.

Parking isn’t hard, though. You’ll have to pay during the day in the bigger cities, but once you get a bit out of the center or into the smaller towns, you can often find a parking spot for free.

(If you want more tips on driving in Portugal, check out this post: 25 essential tips for driving in Portugal without losing your cool)

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

I was really looking forward to staying at Quinta Nova and visiting the Douro valley. The pictures I’d seen online during my research just looked so amazing and the area was even more beautiful in real life. I would definitely recommend everyone to spend at least one day there when visiting the north of Portugal, and of course especially if you’re into port and wine.

Douro Valley
Douro Valley copyright wonderfulwanderings

What were the highlights of your trip in reality?

Luckily the Douro valley met all of my expectations. It definitely was the highlight of my trip! It was also really cool to drive there. We first had to drive a long way alongside the river. Then we had to cross the bridge in Pinhão (famous for its train station) to get to the other side, where Quinta Nova was situated, but before we could get to our hotel we first had to drive another half hour through the hills of the valley. Sometimes we drove rather close to the river, sometimes we almost reached the peaks of the hills.

You have to know that the roads there are pretty narrow and trucks honk each time they approach a turn in case someone is coming from the opposite direction. Why? Because there are several places where two cars (and especially trucks) can’t pass each other.

I have a terrible fear of heights and although the view was spectacular, I did get a little knot in my stomach when we were driving high upon the hills.

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

Lisbon was really disappointing to me. I have a friend who’s been there several times and who’s always very enthusiastic about the city. So I had pretty high expectations for Lisbon.

What didn’t I like about it? Well, it seemed way less ‘cultural’ to me than Porto. I had the impression that there was a lot less to see and on our first day there we had already walked through the entire city center.

On top of that it was super touristy. While in the rest of Porto we hadn’t heard many other languages apart from in our hotels and hostels, we seemed to hear everything but Portuguese (okay, exaggerating a little bit now) in Lisbon.

Also, we couldn’t walk past a restaurant or bar without being hassled and almost dragged inside. You could tell that a lot of places offered horrible food and yes, I know that you should avoid big squares and central places, but what I liked about the rest of the cities we visited was exactly that this wasn’t necessary.

Other people who’d been there told me they hadn’t experienced Lisbon like this, so maybe part of it was due to the fact that we went in high season, but still…

Of the three days we were in Lisbon, we actually spent two days out of the center, visiting Belém and Cascais.

I would love to go back to Porto and I think I could easily spend an entire week there. Lisbon, however, I don’t feel the urge to go back to.

Beautfiul Porto
Beautfiul Porto copyright wonderfulwanderings.com

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

Of course I tried the pasteis de nata! And I had tons of boules de Berlin. I know it might sound weird but they were soooo good everywhere in Portugal! It really is the pastries country. We also had a lot of fish and fish fixe dish, a seafood dish that made me think of the Spanish paella. Oh and Boyfriend had some port.

Did you buy any souvenirs? What / Why not?

No we didn’t. We did go shopping at El Corte Inglés in Lisbon where we bought a pair of shorts and I also bought a top.

I usually don’t like typical souvenir stuff. In my head a souvenir is something you buy to put somewhere at home and never use. I did, however, recently decide to buy a small bracelet in each country I visit. I bought my first one in Los Angeles in September. May there be many more to come!

What would you do differently if you could do this trip over?

I would skip the Lisbon area and spend all of my time in the north of Portugal, and I would definitely spend more time in Porto. I would also maybe go a different time of the year. We kind of hit a heat wave and I’m sure we would have explored certain things further if it hadn’t been that hot. I think the right time to go isn’t easy to choose, though, as it was still raining two weeks before we got there.

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

I’m sure my previous answers have already made it clear that the answer is yessssssssss! I would love to make another city trip to Porto, explore the north some more and I would also love to go to Madeira. Several people have told me it’s really worthwhile.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

If anyone knows of any flight promotions to Portugal, please contact me 😀

More about Sofie:

Sofie is a Belgian chocolate lover and dance aficionada who combines a full-time marketing job with a never-ending wanderlust. She uses her weekends, vacation days and public holidays to travel the world and share her experiences with you on wonderfulwanderings.com, through Twitter and on Facebook.

*These are affiliate links to HotelsCombined.com. Essentially, if you book a stay via these links, you don’t pay any extra and I receive a tiny commission which will help pay for the upkeep of this blog.

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15 Comments

  1. I have been to Portugal many times, and I find that tourists always have their favorite places to visit. I love all of Portugal, even the Azores – so beautiful!
    Unfortunately, Lisbon, is a very touristy City, as you can tell by all the people that visit and never leave.
    People complain that they are always bothered by the restaurant staff when they walk by. Unfortunately due to the economic crisis over there, everyone feels like they need to fight for business.
    But, Portugal is a great country to visit and everyone should go! Heck, I will be going again in March 2014. Tip – Try the Ginginha while you are there.

  2. Great to see a tourist that is so knowledgeable about the place. It’s not that common. I like Lisbon but it is too crowded for me too. And no way I would drive there.

    1. We haven’t actually driven in Lisbon. We had our car with us in Sintra, but then dropped it off at the car rental agency at Lisbon airport before going to our hostel in Lisbon. We figured we couldn’t need a car there as it was easy to get to Cascais and Belem by train and tram.
      Wouldn’t like to drive there either!

    2. Hey Julie,

      I couldn’t reply to your answer about which part of Lisbon would be most interesting for me, so I’m commenting here.
      I just had a look at the map and we definitely did Alfama (which I did like) and Chiado. We didn’t get to the Jardim da Estrela though.
      I know we wanted to see the Jardim Botanico but somehow we couldn’t find the entrance:D

  3. Julie,

    This is becoming a concern. I’m increasingly seeing reports in various forums and blogs that travellers don’t find Lisbon to attractive.

    What to do?

    Chris

    1. Author

      Not sure, Chris. There’s obviously something about the place that’s putting people off but I don’t really understand why. I don’t particularly enjoy running the gauntlet of desperate restaurant tauts but they only operate in certain areas and can easily be avoided. Any ideas?

      1. I can’t really answer as I liked Lisbon the least of all the places I visited while in Portugal, but if the city believes it has a lot to offer, maybe it should bring those things to the public more clearly?

        On another note: we saw drug dealers in several parts of the city who shamelessly offered us marihuana and hash. Apparantly the police has a policy of letting them do their business in certain areas.
        I don’t think there are a lot of tourists who like being approached by drug dealers 5 times in about an hour.

        Maybe it’s the toll it has to pay of being the most popular and known city in Portugal?

        1. Author

          I have been offered drugs in Bairro Alto on several occasions and I agree, I think it’s unpleasant and should be better policed. I’ve never been anywhere else where this happens so openly. I can’t recall being offered them elsewhere in Lisbon so maybe the practice is spreading.

          I hate it when I overhear tourists being directed to some of the least interesting parts of the city (in my opinion) like the Park of Nations and Praça do Comércio, although that’s been revitalised recently and as well as lots of pavement cafés, there’s an attractive riverfront walking path connecting it with Cais do Sodré.

          I do think that Lisbon has a lot to offer, no matter what you’re looking for. If you tell me what sort of things you like, maybe I can give you some pointers for next time.

          1. Well I’m don’t necessarily need great musea or anything special, really. I just love to wander around and discover cool things on the go. I like it when there’s diversity in a city and when there’s enough to see in the streets: architecture, parks, important landmarks, cute shops, special cafes…

          2. Author

            In that case, I’d suggest wandering around Principe Real for shops, cafes, architecture and views from Sao Pedro de Alcantara, Chiado for more shops & cafes and Alfama for the oldest part of the city and stepping into another world. One of my favourite parks is Jardim da Estrela. It has a relaxed family feel to it. Personally, I just love wandering around different parts of the city.

  4. Author

    Hi Valerie. It’s a pity you and Sofie didn’t really enjoy Lisbon. I love it there but as they say, each to their own. I am becoming a huge fan of the north, though, and can’t wait to go back there!

  5. Mmm… I’d love to go back to Portugal, like, right now:-)
    Thanks for having me, Julie!

    1. Author

      It’s a pleasure, Sofie. Come back soon!

  6. I too didn’t think much of Lisbon, but I loved Simtra. I loved Porto and the north coast is spectacular! I ache to go back!

    1. I loved Porto and the rest of the north as well, and I really wish I could have stayed in Sintra an extra day. Maybe even two.
      I’d love to visit the island of Madeira next time I go.

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