Because of its affordability, incredible beauty, and sunny weather almost year-round, Portugal is quickly becoming one of the most popular European destinations. While Lisbon and Porto remain the most visited locations, travelers are also discovering the country’s other fabulous attractions like Pena Palace in Sintra, Benagil Cave in the dramatic Algarve coast, Venice of Portugal – Aveiro, and the most western part of Europe – Cabo da Roca. If you are thinking of visiting this sunny corner of Europe, here is a one week Portugal itinerary I crafted for you.
One Week in Portugal – The Essential Travel Itinerary
I had my eyes on Portugal for a long time, ever since I saw pictures on Benagil Cave a few years ago. I finally took action when I spotted an incredibly well-priced self-drive tour, that I simply could not resist. It was early December, which could be quite rainy in Portugal, therefore a slow season there. My thought was that after my trip to Iceland, a few drops of water in a warm climate were not going to spoil my fun. The deal included a round trip flight, hotels with breakfast, and a car rental – all for less than a discounted round trip to anywhere in Europe. I took my chances and it paid off. Portugal welcomed me with a sunny sky and exceeded my expectations with its irresistible charm.
The itinerary offered by my tour company was missing one of the most beautiful areas of Portugal, Algarve Coast, and its famous Benagil Cave. I needed to correct it so I added two more nights without additional charges for the flights. I arranged my accommodation at $30 per night at a one-bedroom apartment with a balcony and a sea view! (Did I mention that Portugal is very affordable?) I also dropped one night in Porto and added one in Lisbon. This new plan worked better for what I wanted to see.
Seven days to see a country is not much so planning is essential. This one week Portugal itinerary directs you to highlights only, so allow for more days if you want to see the country in more detail.
Portugal Itinerary part 1 : Lisbon, Sintra, and Cabo Da Roca
Stay in one location to visit these three attractions. I suggest Alfama, the heart of Lisbon, with a delightful maze of narrow cobbled streets and ancient houses. For this part of your trip, you do not need a car. Actually, I strongly suggest not to drive into the city. You will get lost, GPS or not. Streets are narrow, hilly, and parking is impossible. If you have a car, stay in suburban hotels or city hotels with designated parking, and take public transportation or taxis.
Day 1 – Lisbon
This district of Lisbon survived the devastation of the 1755 massive earthquake and retained its old structure. The oldest in Lisbon and crowned with the Castle of St Jorge, Alfama delivers labyrinthine streets inaccessible to cars, tiny grocer’s shops, cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops. Here you will meet the locals, who really know each other despite living in the center of a modern capital.
Walking is the best way to take in what Alfama has to offer, but it is time-consuming, especially because you can get lost very easily there. To avoid frustration and maximize my time, I hired a local tour guide to show me around. It was not cheap but worth every penny. He customized his tour according to my liking, which was seeing tiles!
Yes, I wanted to see the tiles. For me, this is what Lisbon is about, its colorful tile art. I admire the walls of old buildings covered with them, decorative scenes in various places of the city, and even a huge wall with modern graffiti-like scenes. They make the streets of the city cheerful and inviting. Learn more about the history of tiles in Portugal here
Monument of the Explorers also Known as The Monument to the Discoveries
On the Tagus River estuary of Lisbon, rises the majestic tribute to the explorers of the Portuguese Age of Exploration. The enormous monument is designed in the shape of a caravel, which was the type of ship used by the early explorers. At the top of the ramp stands a statue of Prince Henry the Navigator, followed by navigators, writers, missionaries, a mathematician, a mapmaker and other figures from the era of the discoveries. As a traveler, I felt somehow related to the theme so I made sure to put this attraction on my list.
Just in one day, you will not be able to see all you want but here is the list Lisbon’s most famous attractions. Choose what interests you the most.
Day 2 – Sintra
Sintra, technically not a part of Lisbon, can easily be reached by taxi or a public transportation. Long the home of Portuguese monarchs, Sintra is a magnificent town of marvelous historic mansion: Palácio Nacional de Sintra, Palácio da Pena, Quinta de Regaleira, the Castelo dos Mouros, and the Palácio de Monserrate.
Put the Pena Palace on top of your list of things to see in Sintra or even entire Portugal. This national monument is considered to be one of the world’s best examples of nineteenth-century Romantic architecture. Its vibrant colors and elaborate architecture resemble a Disney Castle. The palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I recommend good walking shoes, because of the uneven and steep terrain to get the castle and to explore its beautiful gardens.
Palacio Nacional de Sintra
The Palacio Nacional Sintra is the best-preserved medieval royal palace in Portugal. The palace’s long history has been intertwined with the fortunes of Portugal’s ruling nobility, who resided here from the early 15th through to the late 19th century making it Portugal’s most lived-in royal palace. The simple gothic exterior of the palace hides a wonder of decorative staterooms.
The glazed earthenware tiles lining many of the chambers are among the most beautiful in Portugal. The palace is currently undergoing a massive interior reconstruction and I imagine it will take years to complete the project.
After visiting the palace stay around for the meal and shopping. The area around is pedestrian-friendly and very charming.
Day 3 – Cabo da Roca
Hop on a bus or taxi to reach Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point in mainland Europe. Nearly always windy, the cape terrain with cliffs and a charming 18th-century lighthouse are wild and raw. This is a beautiful spot to take photos with nearly 360-degree views along the coast. You will also find a lighthouse, coffee shop and gift shop there.
Portugal Itinerary Part 2: Algarve Coast and Benagil Cave
Devote at least two full days to discover sunny Algarve. Spend the first two nights of your Portugal holidays in Albufeira, conveniently located in the middle of Algarve cost and easy to reach, just off one of the major Portuguese highways, E1.
The town provides stunning beaches, a glorious climate, a vast selection of hotels and restaurants and a buzzing nightlife. Being the largest resort town of the Algarve, Albufeira has an extensive range of activities making the town an ideal holiday destination for families, couples or groups.
Day 4 – Bengali Cave and surroundings coastline
Portugal beaches along the Algarve Coast are breathtaking and best seen from the water. Numerous tours offer scenic boat rides to see the coastline, but visiting Bengali Cave make take some effort, if you actually want to step your foot in there.
How to visit Benagil Cave
Many tours will take you to see the cave, but only from the boat. In order to get inside, you can swim or paddle a short distance from Benagil – a small village nearby. I suggest visiting during the slower season, for lesser crowds and lower prices.
I visited in December which is offseason. All rental facilities were closed so kayaking to the cave was not possible. Renting a boat was my only choice. It took me two days of searching the Internet to find my ride. I arranged it from the States and paid in advance. Luckily the weather cooperated. In the case of a rough sea, there would be no possibility to visit the cave.
Day 5 – Sagres
Overlooking some of the Algarve’s most dramatic scenery, the small village of Sagres has an end-of-the-world feel with its sea carved cliffs and empty, wind-whipped fortress high above the frothing ocean. Walk straight into the fortress for the swiping views of the rugged coastline.
Continue to Cabo de São Vicente (the Cape of Saint Vincent), the most southwesterly extremity of Europe. This wind blasted and storm pounded headland is just what visitors expect, for what was considered, up until the 14th century, the end of the known world.
Portugal Itinerary Part 3: Porto, Aveiro, and Costa Nova
Day 6 – Porto
For this part of your Portugal itinerary, I suggest staying in Porto. If you manage your time well, from there you can even venture to Douro Valley for wine tasting and hiking. I left that region for another visit.
Porto is Portugal’s second-largest metropolis after Lisbon. In my opinion, it has huge potential but requires a lot of conservation work. The old town, centered at Ribeira, was built on the hills overlooking the Douro River. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with the 14th-century São Francisco church remaining its main attraction.
My favorite spot is the São Bento Railway Station, probably the most beautiful railway station in the world. Over 20 thousand tiles covering the walls of the old station illustrate the history of Portugal. Check out 10 Top Attractions in Porto.
Visitors also like the local port wine cellars, located across the river at Vila Nova de Gaia. Port tasting in one of them is a must for your trip, so plan accordingly. Maybe it is different during the peak season, but many wineries were closed on Sunday. I finally ended up at Taylor’s Port Winery dating back to 1692. I love port in general so I truly enjoyed this visit.
Day 7 – Aveiro and Costa Nova
Located next to each other, these two beautiful towns deliver on beauty and romance and can easily be visited from Porto in a day trip.
Colorfully unique Aveiro is a favorite getaway destination for Portuguese locals. Situated near the coast and nicknamed the “Venice of Portugal,” Aveiro will keep you occupied with a maze of canals filled with brightly colored boats. It is one of Portugal’s most romantic destinations.
Most of Portugal was very nicely decorated for the Christmas season, but Aveiro is a destination on its own if you visit during that time. The canal area was stunning.
Costa Nova is famous for its colorful striped houses squashed into a tiny strip of land between the beach and the lagoon. You will find fresh and tasty food in many local restaurants there. Facilities exist for sailing, rowing, motorboats and water skiing.
Costa Nova is such a cheerful place, you will not want to leave. And you should not rush to do so. Stay for a delicious local meal with a view, that will not cost a fortune.
Learn about Portugal in my corresponding post 11 Top Reasons to Visit Portugal.