Planning Your Time
Planning Your Time
Portugal is one of Europe's smaller countries—you could drive from one end to the other in seven hours. However, it's also one of one of Europe's more diverse, and to appreciate land and people you will need to take things slowly.
The main population centers cluster along the coast, above all Lisbon and Porto. Though Porto was never the national capital, it has sought to rival Lisbon for centuries. The centralizing tendencies of the modern era have sapped the northern city's influence, but it remains a vibrant cultural center.
Each city has a different feel. If you can, you should overnight in both (they're only some 3 hours apart by car or train). But if you're in Portugal for less than a week, it may be best to focus on one and, if you have time, explore the surrounding region from there.
The culture of Lisbon is firmly rooted in the south. Moorish traces remain in the layout of the older quarters, in lifestyle, and even food (northerners profess to be disgusted by the snails served in Lisbon snack bars). It was from this city that the first ships set out to ply the sea routes to India and the East Indies, and to Brazil. Many—though by no means all—came back, bringing spices, gold, and other plunder, including slaves. These riches funded the building of many monuments, while the culture absorbed myriad influences. Despite its grand sights, Lisbon is also a fine city for aimless wandering, so allow for a day or two of exploring its nooks and corners.
Near Lisbon, Sintra is the only must-see. Indeed, many visitors find it so delightful—and restful—that they make it their regional base. Romantics swoon over its castles and palaces, gardeners love the mixture of indigenous and exotic flowers and other plants to be found in its gardens, and walkers make the most of marked trails of varying difficulty in the surrounding hills.
A worthwhile stop on the rail line or highway from Lisbon is Queluz, with its Baroque palace set in charming formal gardens. Beyond Sintra are aristocratic follies and pretty villages, spectacular beaches, and a looming cape that is Europe's westernmost point.
Porto, the beating heart of the industrial north, also thrived on international trade, though booming mainly thanks to exports to northern Europe, particularly Britain. The port wine industry based here—and whose cellars you can visit—still accounts for a large slice of Portugal's exports. Porto's setting, on the steep banks of the River Douro, is if anything even more stunning than Lisbon's, and there are sights enough to fill three or four days.
As in Lisbon, there are beaches to hand north and south of the city; from Porto you can also take scenic boat or rail trips up the Douro.
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