Someone once told me to pay attention when I kept hearing about a destination from multiple people. Over the last year, that destination has been Portugal. From the sunny beach-strewn Algarve and the hilly, colorful streets of Lisbon, to the rugged northern hill towns and the steeply terraced Douro Valley, Portugal beckons.
One of the coolest parts of my job as a luxury travel advisor is actually going places to learn about them. Back in April 2018, I joined seven other Virtuoso travel advisors on a fam (familiarization) trip to Portugal. Upon returning, my clients flooded me with requests for trips to this spectacular coastal country.
Tourism In Portugal and Why It’s a Hot Spot
So, why is Portugal so incredible, and what can you do once you’re there? International tourism to Portugal spiked over the last ten years. In 2006, only 7 million foreign tourists visited, while in 2017 that number jumped to over 20 million! The majority of international visitors are European (British, Spanish, German); the US accounts for only 685,000. One of our local guides likened Portugal to Iceland: both had economic crises, recovered, and landed themselves on Lonely Planet’s list of best places to visit.
Tourism has grown steadily since 2011, pumping money back into the Portuguese economy. In the last three years, over 100 hotels opened (mostly four and five star) and others began extensive renovations. Between Lisbon and Porto alone, new hotel openings added nearly 5,000 rooms. There are nineteen Virtuoso hotels in Portugal – five in Lisbon alone – including a Six Senses (Douro Valley), Belmond (Madeira), Ritz Carlton (Cascais), Four Seasons (Lisbon), and InterContinental (Estoril and Porto). For such a small country with a burgeoning tourism industry, that is pretty exceptional!
- What are some of the other up and coming destinations? I recently wrote about where you probably want to go soon
Despite being on the euro, Portugal has some of the lowest prices in Western Europe, so the value is unbeatable. The weather remains mild year-round, making it a wonderful outdoor destination even over the winter months. And its a very safe country.
How To Get To Portugal
Portugal is super easy to get to. United flies direct from Washington Dulles, Chicago O’Hare, and Newark to Lisbon, and seasonally from Charlotte and Philadelphia. Delta flies a seasonal direct route from Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson to Lisbon and New York’s JFK to the Azores, and Portugal’s national carrier TAP (a Star Alliance member) flies from nine US cities. If you plan to combine Portugal with another European destination, TAP serves numerous airports.
- Find out more about travel rewards credit cards to help you travel to Portugal for free.
- Read up on the perks of the Gold Delta SkyMiles card from American Express.
What To Do In Portugal Once You’re There
Travelers flying direct from the US arrive into Lisbon, which is a great jumping off point. From Lisbon, you can head south to the Algarve or north into the rugged hill towns. Follow the pilgrims route through Fatima, Coimbra, and Tomar or settle into a leisurely three-hour lunch at a winery in the Douro Valley. River cruises also take to the water, exploring the Douro River into Spain.
Over the next few days, I’ll be sharing the best of the best of Portugal so you can easily decide what to do when you’re there. From day trips to longer jaunts into Portugal’s best regions, there is so much to see and do in Portugal, Europe’s best kept secret.
Lisbon And Surroundings
Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, is a beautiful city set at the mouth of the Tagus River on the central Portuguese coast. Its wide bay, red suspension bridge, and steep hills lined with historic streetcars is reminiscent of San Francisco.
The historic quarters of Chiado, Baixa, Bairro Alto, and Alfama are filled with winding streets, tumble-down buildings with colorful art, tiny courtyards festooned with remnants of street festivals, Fado bars, and more. It’s a lively city.
Belem, a newer neighborhood along the river near the 25 de Abril bridge, is home to Jeronimos Monastery and the Torre de Belem, a fortified tower on a small island in the river. The National Tile Museum is also nearby, and well worth a visit, as is the famous Coach Museum. (Which is not about the luxury brand but rather the once-ubiquitous form of transportation.)
Where To Stay In Lisbon, Portugal
As I already mentioned, the booming tourism in Portugal led to hundreds of new hotels as well as newly renovated ones. The luxury hotel sector expanded from 2015 to present day and continues to grow quickly, while the mid-range and budget market grows steadily.
In Lisbon, travelers with Marriott Rewards can choose the Lisbon Marriott, located near the hospital, or the Fontecruz Lisboa, an Autograph Collection hotel. The Marriott is not very near to the main attractions but would be a great choice for business travelers who might need to be outside of the city proper.
The Fontecruz Lisboa is located along Avenida de Liberdade within walking distance to both the old quarters and the luxury shops.
Starwood Preferred Guest choices include the Sheraton Lisboa Hotel and Spa, near the Four Seasons, or the Memmo Principe Real Lisbon, a Design Hotels member near the Bairro Alto.
There are five Virtuoso hotels in Lisbon; I stayed at the Four Seasons which is about a mile north of the Fontecruz. The Four Seasons is next to the InterContinental, for those of you with IHG Rewards points. Boutique hotels reign supreme here in Lisbon though, so I suggest the Bairro Alto Hotel, the Pousada de Lisboa, or the Valverde. These three have a chic design and warm hospitality, and you’ll feel like you’re definitely in Lisbon!
Hotels Outside of Lisbon
If you prefer to stay outside of the city, head for Sintra or Cascais to be near enough to get into Lisbon, or Evora to explore the southern Portugal wine region. Staying in Cascais, Sintra, or even Evora has its rewards.
The Ritz-Carlton Penha Longha in Cascais and the InterContinental Estoril are true resorts, perfect if you want to unwind after a week of touring the vineyards. In Sintra, the Tivoli Palacio de Seteais (in one of the many former palaces of Sintra) sits below the famous, colorful Pena Palace. And in Evora, you can stay in a former convent, now a vinotourism hotel.
Day Trips From Lisbon
I often arrange itineraries so my clients have a few days in Lisbon and then a day excursion or two out to some of the surrounding areas.
Popular day trip destinations include Evora and Sintra. Evora is a beautifully preserved Roman and medieval town about two hours from Lisbon. Sintra, just forty minutes, is home to numerous palaces and castles.
Cascais and Estoril, along the coast near Lisbon, are popular luxury resort towns and former fishing villages. They are wonderful places to stay if staying in Lisbon proper doesn’t appeal to you – however, you will need a car.
As Portugal continues its rise into tourism fame, demand is going to skyrocket. But while Portugal remains still off the beaten track for most Americans heading to Europe, it’s a fantastic getaways for a fraction of the cost.
Do you have a destination you would love me to write about? Email me, your resident destinations expert Sarah, and let me know!
Sarah is a luxury travel advisor and avid traveller. When she isn’t writing for Point Me To The Plane you can find her crafting custom itineraries for clients or exploring the far reaches of our wonderful planet. Read more about her adventures at The Girl With the Map Tattoo.