Follow along with Sarah's recent trip across Portugal and a bit of Spain
After spending the winter planning the trip with her fiancé, Sarah finally made the trip to Portugal happen in June of 2023.
On this particular trip she realized two things: 1. Portugal is currently the hot spot of Canadian travel and 2. It's on everyone's travel list for a reason... It is an absolute must for anyone who hasn't been and it's an absolute must-go-back for anyone who has made the trip.
We're sharing Sarah's top Portugal tips and finds, and also her favourite SMJ pieces that she wore during her travels.
What to know about Transportation in Portugal
It's a bit of a long haul to get to Portugal from Vancouver as there are no direct flights, but once you are there you can decide if you want to spend your vacay in a couple of locations and take the local trains OR if you want to rent a car and travel around. Sarah and her fiancé wanted a more adventurous trip so they rented a car.
Here's Sarah's top tips for renting a car
- Join a Facebook page for Portugal travel tips! There are a bunch. (Find the ones Sarah used at the bottom of this read.) There were a couple of leads that made their trip amazing, like a car rental through AVIS at the Lisbon airport. Instead of paying close to $2000 in car rentals via Expedia, they hooked up with a car for only $300 Euros through a fellow named David at Avis who was part of the a Portugal Facebook group. (Keep scrolling for these contact details!)
- Sarah recommends requesting a small vehicle and packing light... leaving room in your luggage for purchases. There were some amazing finds in the smaller towns.
- Add Google Translate to your phone so you can figure out gas station instructions, also great to do a bit of research on street signs and rules as there are some things you are allowed to do in Canada that you can't do in Europe and it's easy to get confused with the signage.
- Most hotels do not have parking options. Sarah didn't find this to be a huge problem as they booked hotels close to parkades and walked their suitcases over a few blocks. Wear runners on travel days as all of the streets and sidewalks are cobblestone and you will be way more comfortable. Sarah found that most parkades allowed overnight parking, and they were fairly secure.
What to know about the food in Portugal
The food... is everything... specifically Pastel De Nata's.
Sarah has been dreaming about eating authentic Portuguese Nata's for years. If you are visiting a big city like Lisbon or Porto you will see them everywhere! Look for places that serve them hot and fresh. They are all slightly different everywhere but all delicious. Sarah skipped the renowned Pastéis de Belém in Lisbon due to time constraints, but definitely thinks it would be worth the visit since it was the top pick for every visitor.
There's loads of recommended restaurants and eateries in Portugal, instead of searching out the recommended restaurants Sarah & her fiancé decided it would be more fun to just discover their own favourites. The restaurants were all different and usually they were all really good!
If Sarah were to recommend a couple of smaller places that stood out to her, she would recommend this little empanada place she discovered in Lagos, Empanadas & Co. Fresh, inexpensive and delicious (Sarah is always on the lookout for healthy eats and this place did not disappoint!)
In Lisbon, one of the only foodie places Sarah & her partner road tripped to was The Timeout Market. There are mixed reviews for this market but she had no idea why because it was FABULOUS. It was next to impossible to narrow down which food to buy, the options were endless and when they finally made a decision, Sarah was floored by the quality of the food. The concept here is that a mix of high-end restaurants have stalls (sort of like Granville Island's food market - but insanely high quality dishes).
Sarah devoured everything and could have easily done a few more rounds had she known how incredible it was going to be, but she came on a semi-full stomach. It's important to note that the eatery they ended up ordering from was a restaurant right beside their hotel, who's dishes started at €40 and had a lineup every night. In comparison, Sarah spent about €20 at TimeOut and it was a ton of food, this is a must for a delicious foodie experience.
Sarah also stumbled on the most gorgeous cafe in Lisbon on her walk to see Padrao dos Descobrimentos. The cafe was located in the same building as The Museum of Art Architecture and Technology. During her research on Lisbon, this stunning architecture never came up in photos, but a pit-stop here to enjoy a hot coffee and another Pastal Da Nata, while being enveloped in this phenomenal structure was a highlight of their walk.
More foodie tips from Sarah:
- Whenever you can, opt for breakfast at your hotel. European hotel breakfasts are very lavish, depending on where you stay, and have so many delicious offerings to fill you up for a day of sight seeing. Sarah paid between €10-15 per person and was never disappointed.
- If you're thinking of going to Obidos, put Casa Portuguesa do Pastel de Bacalhau on your list! This was one of the most unexpected places that they stumbled upon, in the cutest town with an amazing castle ...a MUST visit if you are road tripping and if you have the time, stay one night and enjoy the peacefulness of this sweet detour.
- Try sampling Portugese Sardines and Codfish Cakes. Sarah's preference was the cakes without cheese ;)
Where Sarah stayed and her top recommendations:
Sarah and José stayed in Lisbon for four nights. She says, "bring flat and comfy shoes with good grips! You can also buy great walking shoes there. The first day we put in over 30,000 steps. The second day we put in almost the same. This is such a phenomenal city to just walk around and explore!"
Traveling to Portugal in late May and early June made for perfect weather. It can be quite hot in the summer, and it's peak travel season - the perfect storm for an uncomfortable temperature & a more expensive trip. Sarah recommends a trip during late Spring or early Fall to have the best weather with reasonable prices.
Sarah found it was worth paying a little more money and staying close to the centre of Lisbon as you can walk virtually everywhere. Her preference was the Rossio Garden Hotel. Be warned! There are two different hotels with almost the exact same name, and Sarah found herself strolling the cobblestone streets at night dragging her luggage. "In fact, Google Maps for walking anywhere in Portugal was a bit disastrous. You've been warned... The app is just as confused as you are!"
A great tip is to look your hotel up on google maps before arriving and take screen shots of the more notable hotels or landmarks that are near your destination so you can easily spot them, it can get quite confusing once you hit a narrow street and everything starts looking the same in the dark.
After leaving the capital city of Portugal, Sarah and her fiancé made their way north to Porto. Along the way, they stayed one night in Coimbra, making a stop in Obidos along the way. Even though they loved their hotel in Coimbra, Sarah regretted not staying a night in Obidos, and said, "I would have stayed one night there if I had known how darn cute it was!"
If you are considering a drive to Porto from Lisbon, they also thought a stop over in Nazare, a well known surfing and beach spot, would be worth mapping out as well. If you consider yourself a beach person, it would be worth the effort to stop and spend time here.
Both photos above are from Sarah and Jose's day trip to Obidos.
In Coimbra, they stayed at The Luggage... This was the boutique hotel of Sarah's dreams. As they had such a long travel day, they missed walking about the University town, but the hotel was adorable and Sarah says, "I could have just stayed there for a day!" Definitely make time to walk around Coimbra as it is one of the oldest Universities and you can walk through parts of the school and the cathedrals. The library inside the University looks like it is straight out of Beauty and the Beast.
The above photos are from the "boutique hotel of Sarah's dreams", also known as The Luggage.
Sarah is all smiles on a rooftop above the beautiful university city of Coimbra.
Sarah and Jose stayed one night in Porto at the Hotel One Shot Aliados Goldsmith 12 - although Porto was not Sarah's personal favorite, this hotel was! Even with massive construction outside their door, this hotel stood out in style. Sarah and Jose booked the top floor with a massive balcony and they spent the evening staring at the view of the city and watching the moon rise.
"Porto for me was not as amazing as Lisbon, but of course there were highlights! I loved seeing the famous tiled train station in person, there was some beautiful architecture and of course sitting river-side for dinner with the sun setting was lovely.
If you have limited time, I personally would recommend skipping this big city in order to see some of the smaller wonderful sites, but of course I think you should go if it intrigues you, most people are 50/50 on this city!"
This city was everything for Sarah and José. This destination became the highlight of the trip for both of them, the city is built on boulders on a mountaintop. It was fascinating to explore and to be in the hilltops while the sun set was magical. Read more about the history here.
"We had this town virtually to ourselves, we wandered to the top of the mountain where there were castle walls and a view of a lifetime (the castle was free to enter with no attendants). We spent three hours just exploring the hillside and castle walls. This incredible structure was only a quick 10-15min walk from their hotel room. We couldn't believe how amazing this site was, especially since we had it to ourselves."
Sarah recommends staying overnight here because getting a castle to yourself is a once in a lifetime experience. While they were rained out by a lighting storm, these two could have stayed for a few more hours just appreciating and exploring the history of this gem. *Fun fact, there was a series filmed at this castle, can you guess which one??
Making their way down from Porto to Lagos and in need of a stop-over, they randomly chose Evora after reading about a bone chapel that peaked their interest. They found this experience could have been a side trip instead of a one-nighter. The amount of amazing things they had seen up to this point trumped Evora, even though the town had some beautiful history and charm. The hotel was a perk though as they managed to book a killer deal in a newly opened Hilton Hotel.
Just across the border, they spent one night in Aracena, Spain at the Hotel Convento Aracena & Spa. Although the room was nothing to write home about, the hotel itself was incredible. A converted convent, the hotel held so much charm that they had a hard time leaving to walk around the town, but thank goodness they did because they had no idea what they were about to see.
"We had read about a Grotto that you could tour. The hype was underplayed as this was by far one of the coolest places I have ever visited, and it will live in my dreams."
Gruta de las Maravillas was a forty five min tour through mind blowing caves... If you are feeling adventurous and want to side-trip to Spain, Sarah highly recommends this stop.
Take care to note that Spain is more expensive than Portugal, and it is next to impossible to eat lunch at off-hours (which is when they arrived hungry!). Everything closes for siesta, including grocery stores. Plan accordingly to eat on Spain's hours, not North America's hours. There is quite a difference!
Lagos and The Algarves
Sarah and Jose spent four nights in Lagos, in the Algarves region. Their hotel of choice, Carvi Beach Hotel, ended up being a great deal considering they were a few steps from the beach and a short ten minute walk from the city centre. Overall, they found the rooms to be clean with air conditioning, and a partial ocean view. For the price and location, it's worth a second stay.
There is so much to explore in this area. Let's break it down with some recommended activities.
Book into a small kayaking group to see the views and caves from a different perspective. You must book these in advance as they book up quickly.
"We saw a bunch of smaller caves than the world famous Benagil Cave. The smaller caves were just our group opposed to seeing the Benagil Cave with hundreds of other people... It was a bit nuts. We really enjoyed going in a smaller group early in the morning.
We needed a car to drive out to a special meeting point... but there are others that meet right in town and they tow your kayak part ways with you in it. The trip is quite long from Lagos, and too far to paddle (especially for a newbie like me!)".
There is an incredible walkway that wraps around the coastline to try out on cloudy/overcast days. Sarah and José drove to Carvoeiro which is the nearest town to the Benagil Caves and walked the hillside around the coast for about an hour. You can easily make an entire day trip out of this and it's mostly flat. It just gets very hot, so be prepared. If you don't have a car, you can access walkways at different points. Sarah was lucky to find an entrance right outside of their hotel as an alternate option.
There are also incredible swimming points everywhere and despite what people say about the water being freezing cold... "As a Canadian I felt it was refreshing and GORGEOUS. Exactly what I want when I'm boiling hot."
The town of Lagos is lovely! Sarah and José spent every night just wandering around. It felt very peaceful and held a lovely, relaxed feeling, plus there were tons of boutiques and restaurants to check out that stay open late. They both really loved this area.
Sarah and José took a day trip to Albufeira on an overcast day. The beach was fabulous but Sarah says, "I wouldn't recommend staying there unless you love a really touristy spot. It was more of a party hot spot than chill Lagos".
Can you feel the relaxing energy radiating from these photos? Oh, Lagos!
The Way Home
"Our flight home was a bit painful with two connecting flights. One was a small stop-over on a nearby Island and the second was a somewhat longer stop in Toronto... Neither airplanes had screens so bring some entertainment! Ideally (and for next time) I would have added one or two days on and flew to a neighboring country like Germany or Amsterdam so that we could take a flight without a stopover."
Amazingly their bags arrived in Vancouver. They asked for priority stickers and it really helped!
All in all, it was an amazing trip! Sarah says, "Go to as many castles as you can (especially when entry is free) and hit the beaches in the Algarves as much as possible! Such a beautiful trip and can't wait for the next adventure!"
Many of you have asked for trip resources that Sarah used for planning her stay in Portugal. Note that none of these links or resources are sponsored, and are shared with the sole intention for your own trip planning.
Use this app instead of a Sim Card! It worked like a gem and you can activate it as soon as you connect your phone to wifi.
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If you are looking to relax with a yoga class or maybe needing to really rev it up with a workout (even though you are about to get plenty of exercise walking the hilly streets of Portugal), Sarah recommends using ClassPass App while you are away.
As an avid ClassPass user here in Vancouver, the app will show you available classes in the area you're staying. Whether you are in Canada or overseas, the app offers a variety of classes and it’s so convenient to use.
ClassPass is giving an exclusive free trial (with 20 bonus credits to you!) available through this link: https://classpass.com/refer/D6485E6319
Facebook groups can be a great way to get local intel on a destination and to find excellent advice from other travelers. These groups were invaluable for travel tips along with a handful of YouTube travel advice. Beware, there are many rabbit holes you can get swallowed up in! Here are some of the groups that Sarah used while planning.
Luckily, José found an amazing contact for a car rental from Avis Car Rental in a Facebook Group. They saved a fair bit on their rental and used it throughout their journey. Note that this information is subject to change.
Travel and Tourism Agent
AVIS Rent a Car Official Agent
IATA Number: 0148816Q
RNAVT: 1054 Portugal Tourism
Contact and Whatsapp: +351 912 057 131
SMJ's picks for this trip
Packing your suitcase isn't always an easy task, though Sarah has some great tips to keep your jewelry collection ready for any look in any destination. If you find yourself reading this and in the planning stages for your next adventure, head over to this read, where Sarah delves into all the SMJ essentials you'll need.
If you're ready to become a full heart-eyed emoji human, keep browsing to these SMJ favourites in beautiful places.
For City Dwellers With Bohemian Hearts
SMJ is known to create statement pieces and iconic looks that can be worn for your every day - not just on special occasions. Much of Sarah's inspiration for designing her pieces comes from both her adventures abroad, and at home.
Keep your eyes open for SMJ's upcoming collections to see if you can spot where some of Sarah's inpiration in these welcoming, wonderful cities of Portugal may come to life in her designs!