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Across, Around, and Up in Portugal: A Quirky Adventure by Car and Train

Most often, my blog shares my journey and experience as a Special Education Teacher and University Instructor. But, every now and then, I like to combine this role with other learning experiences - experiential learning examples that connect with my passion wether it be running, food, or travel. I do this in a way that my students (and families) see an example of different ways to share and showcase learning (video, text, images).

Join me on a whimsical journey through Portugal, where each destination weaves its own unique story. Here’s a detailed itinerary of our trip, blending my personal experiences and anecdotes with practical tips for each location, including our accommodations.


Day 1-4: Lisbon - The City That Stole Our Hearts

Accommodation: Lisbon Airbnb

Lisbon wasn't just a city; it felt like a living, breathing storybook. Our Airbnb was a cozy nook, perfect for resting after days filled with exploration. The Museum of Natural History and the Botanical Gardens were like stepping into a different era. We lost ourselves in Alfama's winding streets and found joy in the vegan delights at every corner. The evenings were spent jogging along the Tagus River, dreaming of a life in this vibrant city.


  • Efficient Airport Transit: The train and subway system from Lisbon Airport to the city center is remarkably efficient and user-friendly. It's a cost-effective and convenient way to start your Lisbon adventure right after landing.

  • Tram 28: Riding the iconic Tram 28 is a must-do in Lisbon. This vintage yellow tram weaves through the city's most historic neighborhoods, offering a picturesque journey through Alfama, Baixa, and Graça.

  • Jerónimos Monastery: This UNESCO World Heritage site in Belém is a masterpiece of Manueline architecture. The monastery is a symbol of Portugal's Age of Discovery and is closely linked to early explorers like Vasco da Gama.

  • Belém Tower: Also in Belém and near the Jerónimos Monastery, the Belém Tower is an iconic symbol of Lisbon's maritime history. It offers stunning views of the Tagus River and is a great spot for photography. Although, we did go there, we found the park above the tower much nicer and free. Our opinion is to skip the tower!

  • Lisbon's Miradouros: The city is famous for its miradouros (viewpoints). Miradouro da Senhora do Monte and Miradouro de Santa Luzia offer breathtaking views of the city, especially at sunset.

  • Castelo de São Jorge: Perched atop one of Lisbon's highest hills, this historic castle offers panoramic views of the city and a glimpse into Lisbon's rich history, dating back to Moorish times. We went here when we stayed in Sintra – but you can do a day trip from Lisbon and I would HIGHLY recommend it.

  • Time Out Market: A food lover's paradise, this market in the Cais do Sodré district brings together some of Lisbon's best food in one place. It's a great spot to sample a variety of dishes and local specialties. It was CRAZY BUSY and expensive.This was about 100 meters from where we were staying by the “Pink Street”.

  • Bairro Alto and Chiado: These two districts are the heart of Lisbon's nightlife and shopping. Bairro Alto, with its bohemian vibe, is full of bars and restaurants, while Chiado offers more upscale shopping and theaters.

  • LX Factory: Once an industrial complex, LX Factory has been transformed into a trendy hub of creativity. It's filled with unique shops, restaurants, and art spaces, making it a must-visit for a taste of Lisbon's contemporary culture


Day 5-7: Porto - A Blend of Beauty and Tradition

Accommodation: Porto Airbnb

Getting There and Staying Safe Porto is easily accessible by train from Lisbon, but a word of caution: be vigilant about your belongings. We spoke to a couple who unfortunately had their phones stolen on the train. Always keep your valuables secure and stay aware of your surroundingsPorto was a mix of tradition and modernity.


Porto, a city where tradition and modernity blend seamlessly, is a must-visit on any Portuguese itinerary. While we found two days sufficient to experience its charm, it's worth noting that the city can get incredibly crowded, making reservations essential. Here's a guide to five activities in Porto, combining popular spots and hidden gems.


Stroll Along the Ribeira Our Airbnb here was a quaint reflection of the city itself. The iconic Luís I Bridge offered a view so stunning that I accidentally spilled my sangria in awe! The city, while charming, had a touristy vibe, but the beauty of the Douro River and the historic Ribeira District was undeniable. Tip: Book your meals in advance to avoid the long waits.

The Ribeira, Porto's riverside area, is postcard-perfect with its colorful houses and lively atmosphere. Walking along the Douro River, you'll find numerous cafes and restaurants. The views of the Dom Luís I Bridge are breathtaking, especially at sunset. However, be prepared for crowds and consider booking a table in advance to avoid the hassle we faced trying to find a dinner spot.

·      Livraria Lello: A Book Lover's Dream

·      One of the world's most beautiful bookstores, Livraria Lello, is a must-visit. Its stunning staircase and unique architecture have drawn visitors from all over. Be aware, though, that it can get crowded, and there's usually an entrance fee. It's a small price to pay for the experience of stepping into a literary wonderland.

·      Palácio de Cristal Gardens

·      Escape the city's hustle and bustle in the serene Palácio de Cristal Gardens. With magnificent views of the Douro and free entry, it's a peaceful retreat. The gardens are less frequented by tourists, making them a perfect spot for a leisurely stroll.

Two days in this enchanting city can give you a taste of its magic, but like any good port wine, you might find yourself savoring every moment and wishing for a little more time.


Day 8-9: Monsanto - A Step into a Fairy Tale

Accommodation: Monsanto Airbnb

Monsanto was like walking into a fantasy. Our Airbnb was nestled among ancient boulders, and the views were straight out of 'Game of Thrones'. The hike to the castle ruins was surreal, making Monsanto my favorite spot in the world. It's a must-visit for anyone seeking a blend of history and natural beauty.


Nestled in the heart of Portugal, Monsanto is a hidden gem that exudes an almost magical charm. Often referred to as the "most Portuguese village of Portugal," it's a place where time seems to stand still, and modern life gently intertwines with ancient traditions. Here are a few highlights from our enchanting two-day stay in Monsanto, a place so captivating that I longed to stay longer.


1. A Village Carved into Rocks

Monsanto is unique for its houses and streets that are seamlessly integrated into the giant boulders scattered around the landscape. This integration of natural elements into architecture gives the village an otherworldly feel, as if it sprang up from the pages of a fantasy novel.

2. Historical Significance

The village's history is rich and deep, dating back to the Roman occupation. Monsanto has seen various rulers and cultures, each leaving their mark. The most prominent historical site is the Monsanto Castle, perched high above the village. Its ruins offer not only a glimpse into the past but also breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside.

3. Game of Thrones Filming Location

Adding to its allure, Monsanto was chosen as a filming location for the epic series "Game of Thrones." Walking through its narrow, cobbled streets and past ancient buildings, it's easy to see why. The village's medieval atmosphere perfectly captures the essence of the fantasy world depicted in the series.

4. Stargazing at the Castle

One of our most memorable experiences was taking our flashlights and trekking up to the Monsanto Castle at night. The lack of light pollution in the area makes it an ideal spot for stargazing. Lying there, under the vast, starry sky, surrounded by centuries of history, was both humbling and exhilarating.

5. The Timeless Beauty of Monsanto

Every corner of Monsanto is a testament to its enduring beauty. From the traditional schist houses to the stunning landscapes that surround the village, it's a place that captivates the heart and imagination. The tranquility and beauty of Monsanto made our two-day stay feel like a brief moment in time, leaving a lasting impression that beckons for a longer visit.


Monsanto is more than just a destination; it's an experience that transports you to another era. Its historical significance, coupled with its natural beauty and unique architecture, makes it a must-visit for anyone traveling to Portugal. Whether you're a history enthusiast, a nature lover, or a fan of "Game of Thrones," Monsanto offers a serene escape into a world that feels untouched by time.


Day 10: Mertola - A Quiet Escape

Accommodation: Morena Airbnb

Mertola offered a peaceful interlude in our journey. Our stay in a secluded village Airbnb was unique, though the isolation felt a bit eerie. The castle was a window into Portugal's past, making our short stay here memorable.


Historical Significance

Mértola's history is deeply layered, having been a crucial trading port during the Roman era and later transformed under Islamic rule in the 8th century. This blend of cultures is evident in its architecture and archaeological sites. The town's most notable landmark is the Castle of Mértola, originally a Roman fortress, later converted into a mosque, and then transformed into a church after the Christian Reconquista. This remarkable transformation makes Mértola an intriguing destination for history buffs.


Why Visit Mértola

  1. Cultural Melting Pot: Mértola offers a unique glimpse into the confluence of Christian, Islamic, and Roman influences. The town's museum complex, spread across various historical sites, provides an insightful look into its past.

  2. Natural Beauty: Situated on the banks of the Guadiana River, Mértola boasts stunning natural scenery. The surrounding natural park offers opportunities for hiking and bird-watching, making it a great spot for nature lovers.

  3. Tranquil Atmosphere: Unlike the bustling tourist spots of Lisbon or Porto, Mértola offers a peaceful retreat. Its quiet, cobblestone streets and the gentle flow of the Guadiana River create a serene environment, perfect for those looking to unwind.

  4. Authentic Portuguese Experience: Mértola provides a more authentic and unspoiled glimpse of Portuguese life, away from the typical tourist trails.

Staying in Morena

During our visit, we stayed about 5 km from Mértola in a tiny, quaint locality called Morena. This small settlement, which might barely qualify as a town, offered an even more intimate experience of the serene Portuguese countryside. Staying in Morena allowed us to immerse ourselves in the local culture and enjoy the tranquility of rural Portugal, all while being a short drive from the historical wonders of Mértola.


Mértola, with its rich history and serene beauty, is a destination for those who seek to delve deeper into Portugal's past and enjoy the quiet charm of its countryside. It's a place where you can step back in time and appreciate the slower pace of life, making it a perfect stop for anyone looking to explore beyond the well-trodden tourist paths of Portugal.



Day 11: Olhão - Authentic Algarve (about a 2 hour drive from Morena)

Accommodation: Olhão Airbnb

Olhão was a refreshing change with its bustling seafood market and charming old town. Our simple yet comfortable Airbnb captured the town's authentic vibe. Although we skipped the ferry to the beach due to long lines, Olhão was a delightful experience.


Olhão, a charming town in the Algarve region of Portugal, offers a unique experience that combines historical significance with natural allure. Known for its traditional fish market and close proximity to some of Portugal's most beautiful beaches, Olhão is a destination that caters to a variety of interests.


Historical Significance

Olhão has a rich history, primarily as a significant fishing port. It played a crucial role in the 1808 uprising against the French occupation, which is commemorated by a monument in the town. The town's architecture, with its white-washed houses and unique rooftop terraces, reflects its Moorish influence and fishing village heritage.

Why Visit Olhão

  1. Access to Famous Beaches: Olhão is the gateway to the Ria Formosa Natural Park, a series of barrier islands. From here, you can take a ferry to some of the Algarve's most stunning beaches, such as Ilha da Culatra and Ilha da Armona. These islands offer pristine sandy beaches and clear waters, perfect for a day trip.

  2. Traditional Fish Market: The town's fish market, located along the waterfront, is a bustling hub of activity. It's a great place to experience the local culture and sample fresh seafood.

  3. Architectural Charm: The old part of Olhão is a maze of narrow streets and alleys, lined with traditional houses. This area provides a glimpse into the town's past and is ideal for leisurely exploration.


Our Experience in Olhão

During our visit, we found that the crowds and lines for the ferry to the beaches were overwhelming, leading us to skip this part of the experience. As vegans, we also faced challenges with the local cuisine, which heavily features the famous Portuguese grilled toast sandwiches. However, we were pleasantly surprised to find a fantastic Indian restaurant that catered to our dietary preferences.

A memorable moment in Olhão was when the power went out in the entire town. It was an unexpected twist, leaving us in complete darkness. This unexpected event added a touch of adventure to our stay, reminding us of the unpredictability of travel.


Olhão, with its historical roots and natural beauty, is a destination worth visiting for those who appreciate traditional Portuguese culture and the allure of the Algarve coast. While it may present some challenges for vegan travelers, it offers a glimpse into the authentic Algarvian lifestyle. The opportunity to explore nearby islands and experience the local market life makes Olhão a noteworthy stop in any Portuguese itinerary.



Day 12: Albufeira: A Vibrant Blend of Beaches and Bustle in the Algarve


Accommodation: Stayed in a local hotel - EXPEDIA LINK

Albufeira was our least favorite, but it offered a glimpse into the Algarve's lively side. It's perfect for those who enjoy vibrant nightlife and busy beaches, though it felt like a beach town in Florida, not quite our style.

Albufeira, nestled in the heart of Portugal's Algarve region, is a destination known for its lively atmosphere and stunning beaches. While it was our least favorite stop due to its tourist-centric vibe and the challenges of navigating through crowds and traffic, it's a place that might appeal to certain travelers. Here's an overview of Albufeira and what it offers to visitors.

Why Visit Albufeira

  1. Stunning Beaches: Albufeira's primary allure is its beautiful beaches. The coastline here is truly spectacular, with golden sands and crystal-clear waters. The beaches are well-maintained and perfect for sunbathing, swimming, and a variety of water sports.

  2. Vibrant Nightlife: For those who enjoy a bustling nightlife, Albufeira offers a plethora of options. The town is filled with bars, clubs, and restaurants that come alive as the sun sets, offering entertainment late into the night.

  3. Family-Friendly Attractions: Beyond the beaches, Albufeira has several attractions that cater to families, including theme parks and water parks. These can provide a fun day out for visitors of all ages.


Our Experience in Albufeira

Our time in Albufeira was a mix of enjoyment and challenges. The beach was undoubtedly a highlight, offering a relaxing and picturesque environment. However, the main town presented a stark contrast, with its overtly touristy atmosphere. The streets were crowded, and the presence of numerous cars made navigation and parking quite difficult.

One aspect that stood out was the stark difference between the serene beach experience and the bustling town center. This contrast might appeal to those looking for a lively holiday destination, but for us, it detracted from the charm that we found in other parts of Portugal.

Albufeira is a destination that offers a lot, especially for those seeking a beach holiday combined with a vibrant nightlife. However, it's important to be aware of its highly tourist-oriented nature and the potential for crowded spaces.

For travelers looking for a quieter, more authentic Portuguese experience, other towns in the Algarve might be more appealing. Nonetheless, Albufeira's beautiful beaches are a strong draw and can provide a delightful escape for sun-seekers and ocean lovers.



Day 13-15: Arrifana: A Hidden Paradise in Portugal's Algarve Region


Accommodation: Arrifina Airbnb

Arrifina was a dream. Our Airbnb was fantastic, a stone's throw away from the beach. The laid-back surf vibe and the amazing restaurants made it easy to imagine staying here long-term. It was our second favorite spot, offering a perfect blend of relaxation and adventure.


Arrifana, a small yet captivating coastal village in the Algarve region of Portugal, quickly became one of our favorite destinations. Known for its stunning natural beauty, historical sites, and vibrant surf culture, Arrifana offers a unique blend of adventure and relaxation.

Historical Significance

The most notable historical landmark is the fortress ruin, known as the Fortaleza de Arrifana, perched dramatically on the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic. This fortress, dating back to the 17th century, served as a lookout and defense against pirate invasions. Today, it stands as a testament to Portugal's maritime history and offers breathtaking views of the coastline.

Why Visit Arrifana

  1. Spectacular Beaches: Arrifana is renowned for its beautiful beaches, with Praia da Arrifana being the most famous. The beach is a stunning crescent of sand, flanked by dramatic cliffs, offering a perfect spot for sunbathing and relaxation. However, be prepared for the water temperature – the Atlantic can be surprisingly cold, even in the warmer months.

  2. Surfing Haven: The area is a surfer's paradise, known for its consistent surf conditions. There are several surf camps where beginners can learn surfing and more experienced surfers can improve their skills. The welcoming surf community adds to the charm of this place.

  3. Scenic Hiking Trails: For those who love hiking, the cliffs around Arrifana offer some of the most scenic trails in the Algarve. The routes provide stunning views of the ocean and the chance to explore the natural beauty of the region.

  4. Delicious Cuisine and Friendly Locals: Arrifana boasts a variety of amazing restaurants, many of which specialize in fresh seafood. The hospitality of the people in Arrifana is heartwarming, making dining experiences here all the more enjoyable.

  5. Tranquil Atmosphere: Unlike some of the more tourist-heavy destinations in the Algarve, Arrifana offers a more peaceful and authentic experience. It's a perfect place for those looking to escape the hustle and bustle of busier towns.

Our Experience in Arrifana

Arrifana captivated us with its blend of natural beauty, historical richness, and the laid-back surf culture. The fortress ruins were a highlight, offering not just a glimpse into the past but also an incredible vantage point over the Atlantic. The cold water of the beaches was a refreshing surprise, invigorating after a day spent in the sun. The surf camps were a hub of activity, adding a vibrant energy to the village. And the food, combined with the warmth of the locals, made our stay in Arrifana truly memorable.

 Arrifana is a gem in the Algarve, perfect for those seeking a mix of historical exploration, outdoor activities, and relaxation by the sea. Its stunning landscapes, friendly atmosphere, and excellent surf conditions make it a destination that shouldn't be missed by anyone traveling to Portugal. Whether you're a history enthusiast, a nature lover, or a surf aficionado, Arrifana has something special to offer.


Day 16-17: Sintra - A Fairy-Tale Town Steeped in History and Enchantment

Sintra was a fairy tale come to life. The Storytellers Villas were luxurious, and the vegan breakfast was the best we had on our trip. The castle hike was enchanting, a must-do for anyone visiting.


Sintra, a picturesque town nestled in the foothills of Portugal's Sintra Mountains, near Lisbon, is like stepping into a fairy-tale world. Renowned for its romantic 19th-century architecture, lush landscapes, and significant historical sites, Sintra offers a captivating experience for any traveler.


Historical Significance

Sintra's history is rich and varied, having been a favorite with Portuguese nobility and elite for centuries. This is reflected in its extravagant palaces, lush gardens, and decorative mansions. The town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, recognized for its cultural landscape filled with stunning monuments that blend seamlessly with its natural surroundings.


Why Visit Sintra

  1. Palácio Nacional de Sintra: The National Palace of Sintra, with its iconic twin chimneys, is a primary landmark in the town. It's a beautiful example of Portuguese architecture, featuring a mix of Moorish, Gothic, and Manueline styles.

  2. Palácio da Pena: Perched atop a hill in the Sintra Mountains, the Pena Palace is a Romanticist masterpiece. Its vibrant colors and elaborate decorations make it one of Portugal's most visited monuments.

  3. Moorish Castle: The Castelo dos Mouros, or Moorish Castle, offers a glimpse into Portugal's Islamic past. The castle's ramparts provide stunning views of the surrounding area, including the Atlantic Ocean.

  4. Quinta da Regaleira: This estate is a wonderland of hidden tunnels, enchanting gardens, and ornate structures. The Initiation Well, resembling an underground tower lined with stairs, is particularly mesmerizing.

  5. Mystical and Lush Landscapes: The forests and gardens of Sintra are as enchanting as its buildings. The town is surrounded by natural parks and trails, offering a peaceful escape into nature.


Our Experience in Sintra

We stayed at the delightful Storytellers Villas, which provided a comfortable and charming base from which to explore the town. Walking through the old town of Sintra was like wandering through a living museum, with each turn revealing another piece of architectural or natural beauty.

However, outside the old town, we found the traffic to be quite overwhelming. For those coming from Lisbon, I would recommend using a tour bus or other public transport options to avoid the stress of driving and parking in the busy streets.


Sintra is a must-visit for anyone traveling to Portugal. Its blend of historical significance, architectural wonders, and natural beauty makes it a unique and unforgettable destination. While the town can get busy, especially in peak tourist season, its charm and allure are undeniable. Whether you're exploring its grand palaces, wandering through its mystical gardens, or simply enjoying the old town's ambiance, Sintra is sure to leave a lasting impression.



Day 18-19: Lisbon -A Convenient and Comfortable Stay Near the Airport


We concluded our journey with a comfortable stay at the Hotel Star Inn near Lisbon Airport, reflecting on the amazing experiences and the diverse tapestry of culture, history, and natural beauty that Portugal offered.


Hotel Star Inn Lisbon: A Convenient and Comfortable Stay Near the Airport

For travelers seeking convenience and comfort near Lisbon Airport, Hotel Star Inn Lisbon is an excellent choice. This hotel offers the perfect solution for those in transit or for a brief stay in Lisbon. We had the opportunity to stay at Hotel Star Inn Lisbon twice and found it to be an ideal choice for its proximity to the airport and overall amenities.



The standout feature of Hotel Star Inn Lisbon is undoubtedly its location. Situated within walking distance of Lisbon Airport, it offers unparalleled convenience for travelers. This proximity means you can easily walk to and from the airport, saving time and the hassle of arranging transportation.


The rooms at Hotel Star Inn Lisbon are clean and comfortable, providing a peaceful retreat after a day of travel or exploring the city. The modern decor and amenities ensure a pleasant stay, whether you're there for a night or an extended layover.

The hotel offers breakfast, which we found to be satisfactory, though not particularly extensive for vegan or vegetarian diets. While the options may be limited in this regard, the convenience of having a meal on-site is a plus for those with early flights or busy schedules.


One of the advantages of staying at Hotel Star Inn Lisbon is the ease of accessing Lisbon's city center. The subway system is easily reachable from the hotel, making it a breeze to venture into town for sightseeing, dining, or shopping. The nearby malls and restaurants provide a variety of options for those looking to explore Lisbon's culinary scene or do some shopping.


During our stays, we appreciated the hotel's cleanliness, comfort, and the professionalism of the staff. Although the breakfast options were somewhat limited for our vegan preferences, the overall experience was very positive. The convenience of being so close to the airport, coupled with the ease of getting into the city, made our stay both efficient and enjoyable.



Travel Tips:

  • Lisbon and Porto are best explored on foot, so pack comfortable shoes.

  • Advance restaurant bookings in Porto are a lifesaver.

  • Monsanto and Mertola are perfect for history lovers and those seeking tranquility.

  • Arrifina is ideal for surf enthusiasts and beach lovers.

  • Start early in Sintra to avoid crowds at the castles.


Portugal was a journey through a spectrum of experiences, from urban exploration to serene natural landscapes. Each destination had its unique flavour, making this trip an unforgettable chapter in my travel diary. Whether you're a history buff, a nature enthusiast, or a culture seeker, Portugal promises a rich and diverse adventure.


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