Looking to embark on a European adventure this summer? While the most visited countries in Europe include France, Italy and the United Kingdom, there is one country that is often overlooked: Portugal. Portugal is a hidden gem that is breathtakingly beautiful, fun and also inexpensive.
Neighboring Spain, Portugal has many different cities that cater to any traveler's wants and needs. From coastal cities like CasCais to the grassy fairytale-like city of Sintra, Portugal has some of the most pleasant cities in Europe. I did as the Portuguese do and even ventured a bit out of Lisbon, Portugal's capital, to see what else the country had to offer, and was pleasantly surprised.
CasCais is a coastal town about 16 miles west of Lisbon. It used to serve as a fishing village, as well as a popular resort spot for the Portuguese Royal Family during the 19th and 20th centuries. I even felt like royalty walking along the cobbled sidewalks in the now cosmopolitan town full of luxury stores, fashion boutiques and restaurants. CasCais is definitely one of the wealthier towns in Portugal, but you don't need money to enjoy it. Feel free to wander along the streets, window-shop, and maybe eat some cheaper cod in town (Portugal is known for their cod and fish). You can also relax at one of the many sandy beaches in and around CasCais, such as Praia dos Pescadores or Praia da Rainha. Enjoy the soft sea breeze while staring at the beautiful and brightly colored buildings in the former fishing village. Bikes are also available and are free to rent for as many hours as you please until the rent center closes. You can leisurely bike down the coast and all throughout town. I recommend the 10-minute ride to what I feel is the most noted part of CasCais: Boca do Inferno. Boca do Inferno, which translated means Hell's Mouth in Portuguese, is a naturally made rift right at the seaside cliffs. I hope to never have to see Hell, but if Hell's Mouth looks anything like Boca do Inferno, it wouldn't be so bad. It is one of the most popular tourist attractions in CasCais, and is surely a sight worth seeing. The seawater from the ocean crashes into this enormous rift, and the view of the ocean by the cliffs is already beautiful enough.
To get from Lisbon to CasCais, simply take the train towards CasCais from the Cais do Sodre station, located at Lisbon's waterfront.
Full of exotic landscaping and castles galore, Sintra was officially deemed a world heritage site by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Sintra is only 15 miles from Lisbon and is definitely worth going for a day trip. Plan ahead to spend the whole day here because the sights are endless. The most prominent of them is Quinta da Regaleira, or the Regaleira Palace and Gardens. This estate serves as one of Sintra's most popular attractions, and is located in the historic center. This enchanted area is full of lakes, tunnels, grottoes, waterfalls, castles and so much more. Bring a flashlight because there are dark and hidden tunnels throughout the gardens for you to explore -if you dare. There are also wells you can climb that will take you to different levels within the garden. The castles are spread throughout, and offer beautiful views of the Sintra valley if you climb the stairs to the top. You can walk through waterfalls, jump on stepping stones on the lake, and I even discovered a stone wall that was actually a secret door. There is also a cat sanctuary ,and I was shocked to spot over 20 cats all surrounding one section of the gardens. However, this area is technically off limits. You can admire the cats from afar ,or simply do what I did and walk past the tiny Portuguese "Keep Out" sign. Release your inner child and frolic in the fantasy land of Sintra, but be sure to bring a map because the place is enormous. You may get lost, but that adds to the fun of it. Other places to see in Sintra include The Royal Palace and Moorish Castle, which are worth seeing but are certainly not as magical as Quinta da Regaleira.
Take the train to Sintra from Lisbon, with direct trains towards Sintra from the city center running every half hour.
And of course, there's Lisbon, Portugal's capital and largest city. The history, nightlife and views make this one of the most popular tourist destinations in Portugal. Many people compare Lisbon to San Francisco, and with their matching bridges and cable cars, it's easy to see why. The Ponte 25 de Abril in Lisbon is actually the sister bridge to the Oakland Bay Bridge in San Francisco, designed by the same architect. The Ponte Vasco da Gama is another bridge in Lisbon, and is the longest bridge in all of Europe, spanning an incredible length of 10.7 miles. There are many neighborhoods worthy of checking out in Lisbon as well. You can experience Lisbon city life in the main square of Rossio or breathe in the historical streets of Chiado. Praca de Comercio is the beginning of Lisbon's downtown area, and is a great area to wander around in. Belem is a historical neighborhood with the famous Belem Tower, a mermaid-looking castle definitely worth the metro ride. It also has one of the most famous bakeries in Lisbon, Pasteis de Belem, a place where the infamous Portuguese egg tart is rumored to have been created. The long line goes by quickly, and once you take a bite out of the warm and perfectly moist egg tart, you will probably want to stand in line again and order about five more.
If you're looking for a great night out, the neighborhood of Bairro Alto is the place to be. Bairro Alto is Lisbon's nightlife spot, and you will see locals and tourists alike drinking and socializing up and down the streets. There are bars and clubs galore in this area, and drinks aren't too expensive either.
If you're looking for a good place to stay, check out Yes! Hostel, located in downtown Lisbon. The staff is friendly, the rooms are cheap and clean, and they even provide you some breakfast in the morning if you're up early enough.
So if you’re traveling abroad this summer, or planning ahead for the fall, stray away from the typical Paris vacation and try something different by traveling to Portugal. You will experience a whole new culture without having to spend a whole lot of money.