Guide to Portugal, Europe’s Most Ascendant Destination

by Sarah

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.

The steeply terraced Douro Valley is one of the world's oldest demarcated wine regions and a UNESCO world heritage site.

The steeply terraced Douro Valley is one of the world’s oldest demarcated wine regions and a UNESCO world heritage site.

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.

The coast of Portugal is littered with exquisite, charming towns like this one.

The coast of Portugal is littered with exquisite, charming towns like this one.

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!

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.

Lisbon's streets are a mix of modern and old. This walkable city is a must-visit on an Portugal itinerary.

Lisbon’s streets are a mix of modern and old. This walkable city is a must-visit on an Portugal itinerary.

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.

What To Do In Portugal Once You’re There

Lisbon's colorful cityscape is bright even in the cloudy spring weather. Portugal's climate is temperate, but can be windy and rainy at times.

Lisbon’s colorful cityscape is bright even in the cloudy spring weather. Portugal’s climate is temperate, but can be windy and rainy at times.

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.)

Sintra's Pena Palace is a popular day trip from Lisbon. It was inspired by Bavaria's Neuschwanstein Castle, but the colors are much more reminiscent of Spain's Antonio Gaudi.

Sintra’s Pena Palace is a popular day trip from Lisbon. It was inspired by the castles along Germany’s Rhine River, but the colors are much more reminiscent of Spain’s Antonio Gaudi.

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.

Hotels in Lisbon, Portugal run the gamut from five star resorts to hostels. Choose one in the center for easy access to the old quarters, shopping districts, and entertainment.

Hotels in Lisbon, Portugal run the gamut from five star resorts to hostels. Choose one in the center for easy access to the old quarters, shopping districts, and entertainment.

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.

The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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Filipe July 28, 2018 - 3:54 pm

Construction on the Pena Palace having started about 30 years before Neuschwanstein’s, it’s hard to see how the former was inspired by the latter.

Sarah July 28, 2018 - 4:13 pm

Thanks Filipe, I will edit that. I was chatting with my guide while there and it came up … but maybe what he meant was that the architect/engineer was German and inspired by the castles along the Rhine rather than Neuschwanstein in particular. What do you think?

Shelli July 28, 2018 - 5:10 pm

Great article, Sarah, thanks! If any PMTTP readers are coffee drinkers, here are the coffee places I’d recommend in Lisbon,

Sarah July 28, 2018 - 6:50 pm

Thanks Shelli! I love coffee — so excited to check these out on my next trip!

Shelli July 28, 2018 - 10:27 pm

Great, Sarah. I was last there in December and January and didn’t mind the weather one bit. Great un-busy time of year to be there, and very festive too.

George July 28, 2018 - 5:40 pm

I feel so blessed to have live and travelled pretty much all over Portugal during my master’s degree. Portugal was not “THE” place to be, so everything was calm and you would mainly see european tourists traveling with the low cost companies. Right now my friends always tell me about the madness in the most touristic places.
The Azores and Madeira island are also jewels in the Atlantic.

Jay July 28, 2018 - 6:25 pm

So are the popular places now overrun with tourists like the rest of Europe? I just came back from Prague and did not have a great time because the hordes of tourists just ruined the atmosphere. When I visit a place I go there to experience the local culture, and not expecting to be at a huge United Nations convention.

Sarah July 28, 2018 - 8:53 pm

Jay, I can’t say how Portugal is in July/August but this past April it was still nice. You definitely won’t come across the same crowds as in Italy or France at any time of year… I would say put Portugal on your list for the next year or two.

ABC July 28, 2018 - 8:56 pm

Best time to go to southern Europe, including Portugal is September or May.

Sarah July 28, 2018 - 8:59 pm

Yes! Both fantastic times to go to southern Europe (dare I say all of Europe?).

Sarah July 28, 2018 - 8:51 pm

Hi George, I wouldn’t say Portugal is “madness” though certainly in ten years time it might be. I was there in mid-April, and while places like Pena Palace were busy, there were times our group of eight was the only one in a room. It still felt nice and uncrowded.

ghostrider5408 July 28, 2018 - 7:28 pm

Now that was a great post thank you far more informative than the “see me” bloggers.

I will look into a stop off here.

Sarah July 28, 2018 - 8:55 pm

Thank you! Definitely consider it — great as an add-on to Spain or even as a stopover coming from Europe or the Middle East/Asia on your way back to the US.

Geoff July 28, 2018 - 8:45 pm

Great write up. Not a fan of huge crowds but Portugal is at the top of our list.
Btw, TAP is part of SkyTeam?

Sarah July 28, 2018 - 8:57 pm

Oh you are right! Star Alliance – I will edit.

Portugal should be at the top of the list, keep an eye out for more on the country this upcoming week!

Geoff July 29, 2018 - 9:45 am

Looking forward to it.

Maria Portugal July 30, 2018 - 6:37 am

What To Do In Portugal Once You’re There… It is the best part of your article! Thanks a lot!))

Jim August 1, 2018 - 7:31 pm

We have been researching Portugal during planning our trip to Spain in May and this article kind of clinches why we should go. Kind of reminds me of Croatia where Americans are a minority and most of the vacationers are from Europe. Sounds like it is time to hit Portugal before the rest of the world finds out about this magnificent country though it appears many more tourists are coming now than they did even 7 years ago. Will see Lisbon, Porto and Sintra for sure in our 7 days.

Sarah August 2, 2018 - 8:56 am

Hi Jim, yes, definitely a little bit like Croatia. Have a fantastic time!

Kory Choi August 21, 2018 - 8:24 am

Good job! I like your posting))


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