Just Back From Portugal: Insider Secrets for Lisbon and the Algarve

Paige Gordon, of Indagare Travel, recently traveled to Lisbon and the Algarve and is back with this report.

Given the prominence of its neighbors, it was my misguided perception that Portugal lacked the draw to be considered a leading European destination—until I visited. What I came to understand in just six short days is that Portugal has a distinct flair that makes it a captivating, unique destination that left me wanting more—and I will certainly be back again. 

The country has a fascinating history with strong maritime roots that made it a leader in Europe’s 15th-century world exploration. In the 20th century, after the dissolution of the monarchy, Portugal entered a period of dictatorship, during which time the country was relatively poorer than other parts of Europe. Another revolution in the late 20th century allowed for the transition to the democracy in place today, while Portugal’s struggling economy and lack of tourists actually preserved its culture and character. Now, alongside olives and wine, tourism is a booming industry there, as it is one of those rare destinations that has aged gracefully into the 21st century, without losing the many touches of history seen just by walking around.

Praça Luís de Camões
Praça Luís de Camões is a historic square in the heart of Lisbon. (Getty Images)

My adventure began with a seamless flight on TAP Air, which, to be transparent, doesn’t have the most user-friendly website, so I had zero expectations for the flight. Luckily, it was much better than anticipated. The TAP team was friendly, the lay-flat seats were comfortable, the food was surprisingly good for airplane standards and the business class teacups were even Vista Alegre, a chic Portuguese porcelain manufacturer—a really nice touch!

Upon arrival, I was braced for long lines at passport control and COVID stops, but within 30 minutes, I was through the lines (or lack thereof) and being picked up by my driver. 

Hotel Valverde
The patio at Hotel Valverde has aswimming pool with heated waterand jets. (Hotel Valverde)

I spent my first two nights in Lisbon at two different hotels, Bairro Alto Hotel and Hotel Valverde, two boutique properties with distinct vibes and both favorites of Indagare members. Night number one was spent at Bairro Alto. When I arrived at the hotel from the airport, it was a bit too early to check-in to my room, but I was not at a loss whatsoever. The lovely Bairro Alto team stored my luggage, and I headed to the spa to kill some time and decompress—the best way to “start” the day after a transatlantic red eye. Just an hour later, I was checking into my room, and my view of the Praça Luís de Camões—a historic square and really the heart of the neighborhood—was the perfect welcome to Lisbon. Waking up at Bairro Alto is an experience in and of itself, as I enjoyed breakfast on the stunning rooftop terrace before stepping out to start my day exploring from the best possible location in Lisbon. 

Herdade da Malhadinha Nova
Adventure lovers are seen ATVing through the beautiful countryside at Herdade da Malhadinha Nova. (Courtesy Paige Gordon)

After checking out of Bairro Alto, I made my way over to the Valverde Hotel, a Relais & Châteaux property, to meet the group I would be traveling with for the next few days, hosted by TempoVip DMC Portugal. Valverde’s facade, reminiscent of an old-world townhouse, is beautiful but subtle, a reflection of the chic and discreet clientele it attracts. The property is located on the luxury shop-studded Avenida da Liberdade, which some say is Lisbon’s version of the Champs-Élysées. After enjoying a decadent lunch by the hotel’s chef, Carla Sousa, we struck out on the town to familiarize ourselves with the city’s magnificent shopping. Accompanied by one the best local guides, we shopped our way around while learning about Lisbon’s captivating history. The highlight had to be the exclusive access to the Leitão e Irmão workshop to see the silver-making process from start to finish. To make a wonderful day even better, we set out on a sailboat to see the city from the Tagus River and then capped the day with an excellent dinner at SUBA, a stylish rooftop restaurant at the Verride Palácio de Santa Catarina Hotel. 

Castro Marim Salt Flowers Pans
A delicious salt tasting at the Castro Marim Salt Pans. (Castro Marim Salt Flowers Pans)

After two quick days in Lisbon, it was time to head south to the Alentejo region. But on our way (well, sort of) we took a short detour 40 minutes north to explore Sintra for the day. Sintra is a magical city, recognized by UNESCO and home to fairytale-like castles such as the Palácio da Pena and Quinta da Regaleira. Typically, Sintra is viewed as a must-do day trip from Lisbon, but if I could do it again, I would stay for a night or two to really soak it all in. I can imagine waking up in the Tivoli Palácio de Seteais, languishing in the stunning infinity pool overlooking the valley and strolling through Alice & Wonderland-like gardens… something to look forward to for next time! Later that afternoon, we were en route to the Alentejo region, just two hours south of Lisbon and were treated to watching the sun set over the seemingly endless landscape of olive groves, vineyards and cork trees. 

Herdade da Malhadinha Nova
Herdade da Malhadinha Nova is a family estate, surrounded by 450 hectares of vineyards and wild fields. (©fredericducoutphotography)

By the time we arrived at Herdade da Malhadinha Nova, a Relais & Châteaux property, our home for the next two days, it was already dark, but first impressions did not disappoint. After checking in at the main building, we hopped into the hotel’s vintage land rovers and were brought to our suites, which were spread across the property’s various “country houses”. Each country house is impeccably restored with a roaring fire in the fireplace to greet you upon arrival, and though you have your own private room or suite, there are common areas in each with a bar and a cozy living room. 

The morning at Herdade da Malhadinha Nova was spectacular and set the tone for our visit. When I stepped outside for the first time in the daylight, I was taken aback by the peace and beauty of my surroundings. I went for a walk around the property as the fog was lifting off the olive groves and surrounding vineyards and was even greeted by the resident free-range sheep—who, as I learned later, have the very important job of naturally fertilizing the land. 

Herdade da Malhadinha Nova
The Casa das Pedras building at Herdade da Malhadinha Nova has four suites, each featuring a private plunge pool and valley views.  (Herdade da Malhadinha Nova)

To recap my two-night stay, Malhadinha is a stunning countryside property with a plethora of activities, warm service, excellent food and great wine. This is a sustainable farm-to-table experience that supports the preservation of the region’s soul. The staff make everyone feel welcome, and the strong family foundation is tangible on property—the owners Rita and Joao even used their kids’ childhood drawings as labels for their wines. There is really something here for everyone—the experience can feel very secluded and romantic if that’s what you are looking for, but there are also many activities that cater to kids (they even have several pools on property).

Breakfast at Herdade da Malhadinha Nova
The breakfast setup at Herdade da Malhadinha Nova, complete with Vista Alegre tableware. (Herdade da Malhadinha Nova)

Last but not least, we made our way down to the Algarve, a beachfront area along the southern coast. Though the Algarve has some large overdeveloped resort areas, the charming Vila Real de Santo António (home to our final accommodation, The Grand House, a Relais & Châteaux property) could not have been more opposite. Here the vibe was more local and authentic than what you might find in some of the busier areas, and the hotel was the cherry on top. It is sophisticated but not stuffy, and the décor pays homage to the history of the building, reminiscent of the roaring 20s.

A river view room at the Grand House Hotel
A quaint river view room at the Grand House Hotel, withviews across the river to Spain.  (Grand House Hotel)

With just 28 rooms and suites, the property is small, but the service is extremely attentive. Since the hotel is riverfront, it does not have direct beach access; however, they do have a lovely beach club just a three-minute drive down the road (you can also take one of the hotel’s bikes). Since we visited in late February, our days in the Algarve were not spent lounging on the beach, but the weather was a perfect 60 degrees.

The Grand Salon Restaurant located at the Grand House Hotel
The Grand Salon Restaurant, located at the Grand House Hotel  (Grand House Hotel)

We had the chance to explore the quaint surrounding towns, visit a local salt producer and even travel to a nearby island to taste some of the best oysters I’ve ever had in my life. Though the beach is the main draw in the summer months, there was never a dull moment even in the off season.

Ilha da Culatra
Walking to the beach on Ilha da Culatra in the Algarve (Ilha da Culatra)

In just six days, I fell in love with Portugal. It is a small country but the regions are rich and diverse—you can have an itinerary with a city element, wine country and beach all within a few hours driving distance, a much more manageable driving experience than in Italy or Spain. The people could not have been friendlier, and the sunny 50 to 60 degree weather was a welcome change from the cold New York City winter. I’ll be back to tackle the north as soon as I have the chance, and in the meantime, I’ll be encouraging everyone to add Portugal to the top of their bucket list. 

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