Just because you aren’t in school anymore doesn’t mean you can’t take a Spring Break! A week away in March is totally warranted after surviving the long Winter in Chicago. I usually start planning a Spring trip in the Fall, if not earlier. Depending on where you want to go, it pays to book early for better prices and availability of flights and hotels. Portugal has been on my Bucket List for awhile, and I figured the Spring season would be a perfect time to visit.
I booked my flights to Portugal last Fall during United’s Black Friday sale. I secured a round-trip ticket for 35,000 miles, which is almost half the normal rate (usually it’s 60,000 round-trip in economy). Now that’s my kind of shopping deal! :) As the travel date got closer, I re-checked flight options (highly recommend doing this, because new award redemptions can appear) and found a Lufthansa Saver Business class award for 70,000 miles one-way for the outbound flight (ORD - FRA - LIS). With a $50 change fee due to my United Gold Status, I was able to convert my flight and enjoy a Business class ride on the 747-800 (which has also been on my Bucket List for awhile). Flying on the Queen of Skies is an experience not to be missed! Sitting on the top deck was awesome, the service is fabulous, and the food/drink is great! You can catch this plane on daily trips from Chicago to Frankfurt.
Planning the itinerary for Portugal was pretty easy. My Mom and Dad visited Portugal almost 15 years ago and loved every minute of their trip. It was helpful to use their insight to build a shell and then do some research to fill in the details. This was going to be a relatively quick trip (one week total), so I had to prioritize cities to visit. The final itinerary looked something like this:
Day 1 - Flight (ORD - FRA - LIS) - Lufthansa
Day 2 - Arrival to Lisbon
Day 3 - Lisbon
Day 4 - Lisbon to Obidos to Nazaré
Day 5 - Nazaré to Porto
Day 6 - Porto
Day 7 - Porto to Lisbon
Day 8 - Flight (LIS - EWR - ORD) - United
This is the best itinerary (in my opinion) if you have one week for your vacation. If you have a few more days to spare, I would highly recommend adding an additional day to Lisbon (for Sintra and Cascais) and Porto (for more city time). If you have another week to spare, I would add the Algarve region so you can visit the scenic southern part of the country. More on the destinations later.
Driving in Portugal
Portugal is a driving-friendly country, which was perfect for this on-the-move trip. It’s easy to rent a car and their highway system is straightforward. Just make sure to book a rental car through your company policy or buy the insurance required in case of any accidents. Also a good tip to know is that most credit cards offer Auto Rental CDW insurance - check your policy before you rent to understand what coverage you already have, so you don’t over-purchase. Automatic cars will be a bit more expensive, so it’s a good opportunity to use those manual shifting skills if you have them! I scored an upgrade from Hertz for a Mercedes A-Class, which was a super fun car to drive! Quick important note: if you want to leverage Apple CarPlay, be sure to buy a USB-C to Lightning cable. Newer cars are moving away from the standard USB connectors, so this cord is super handy to ensure you aren’t without a charge or a connected phone while you’re driving.
There are many hotel options in Portugal, most of which are quite affordable, but it can be challenging to find the best place. For me, accommodations can make or break a trip, and I really enjoy having a luxury experience. As a Marriott loyalist, I was disappointed (and then excited to find out) there were not many options in Portugal. This became a good opportunity to use my Chase points. After reading Lesley Murphy’s blog post on Portugal, I decided to follow her recommendations for Lisbon and Porto.
Lisbon - Pousada de Lisboa - booked on Chase Ultimate Rewards, Family Twin Deluxe room for 26,000 points per night (52K total). This hotel has an amazing location right on the Praça do Comércio square. Ask for a corner room and enjoy a beautiful, safe, and impeccable oasis. Breakfast was included in the stay, and their interior atrium was a perfect place to start each morning. An overall GREAT hotel!
Porto - Pestana Vintage Porto - booked on Chase Ultimate Rewards, Vintage Grand View Balcony room for 26,000 points per night (52K total). Another gem of a hotel located in the best possible spot in Porto - right along the river. The room was spacious, beautiful, and luxurious - one of the best in my lifetime of travel! The views from this hotel are simply amazing!
Nazaré - Mar Bravo (Mom recommendation FTW!) - booked through direct contact with Hotel, Oceanfront Double room for $82 per night. Request Room 301 (front-facing) or 302 (corner) for simply INCREDIBLE ocean views. Enjoy a sunset cocktail on your balcony - you’ll never want to leave!
If you’re like me, when planning a trip, seeking recommendations from friends and family is the best route to go. If I know that a friend or family member has had an amazing experience somewhere, I will undoubtedly follow suite. So here goes…my BEST recommendations in Portugal:
1. Forno D’Oro; yes, this is an Italian restaurant in Portugal, but it’s run by an Italian family that serves up the most delicious pizza and pasta dishes you can imagine. It’s full of locals, the service is fabulous, and the pizza is top 3 best I’VE EVER HAD. Do not miss this place (and ensure you make a reservation).
2. Castelo de S. Jorge; following my Golden Rule - go to a destination high-up to get a glimpse of the city from above - this is a perfect place to venture on your first day. The views here are fabulous, so either come in the morning or early evening to catch the best photo opportunities.
3. Bike Tour of Lisbon; when you have limited time in a city, it’s best to find an activity that allows you to see the most sights in a short amount of time. This bike tour starts at the top of Lisbon and makes it way downhill the whole trip. You will see all the major parts of the city in 4 hours!
4. Fábrica Sant`Anna; ceramic tile is everywhere in Lisbon, although most is not authentic or hand painted. This place is as authentic as they come and produces tile according to the oldest handcraft techniques. Go early in the afternoon and they will likely be able to provide you a private tour.
1. The small walled-town of Obidos is a great place to stop on your way North from Lisbon for lunch and some exploration. Climb to the top of the wall for the best pictures, enjoy a freshly baked calzone at Capinha d'Óbidos, and stroll around sipping the local Ginjinha (sour cherry liquor).
1. Sitio Nazare; the viewpoint for the highest waves in the world. During the Winter months, the ocean trench just off the coast causes the ocean swells to be magnified 100x. Even if you have a calm day, it’s a gorgeous place to go regardless. Check out this 60 Minutes episode with Anderson Cooper to see the surfers in action.
2. Mirador Lookout; gives you a glance of the city of Nazaré and it’s amazing beach. Ride the tram up the mountain and spend time taking photos, shopping, and relaxing.
1. Douro Valley Day Tour; my favorite adventure of the whole trip. A small tour is the way to go, and this specific company is the best in the biz. You will learn so much about the wine region and see amazing scenery. Their tour is perfectly organized and includes a delicious lunch at DOC, a Michelin star restaurant by Chef Rui Paula right along the Douro River. And you will get to taste many great wines along the way, including all the various types of Port. This experience is not to be missed!
2. Intrigo; a fabulous restaurant with river views in downtown Porto. Come here for a cocktail on their patio to watch sunset and then enjoy an incredible authentic Portuguese feast. Sorry no pics of the food (it was that good). :)
3. Mermaid Beach; a quick 15 minute ride from downtown, this area is worth exploring via car and stopping for lunch on the beach. Just make sure you order a Port Tonic (1 glass full of ice, fill halfway with White Port, fill the rest with Tonic Water, add lemon or lime, and enjoy)! The PERFECT beach drink!
All in all, Portugal was amazing! It is now on my Top 3 list of travel to-date! The cities were full of culture, great eats, and history. The scenery was off the charts everywhere. The locals are genuinely friendly and kind. It’s safe. It’s affordable. And it’s a 6 hour flight from the East Coast of the US. All reasons why you should add Portugal to your Bucket List and plan a trip as soon as possible. You will not regret it! Até a próxima vez!