I have a confession to make: I have more fun than I have the energy (or time) to write about on this blog. It’s why last year I had a blast wrapping up my favourite trips across Portugal with a short summary – so I thought I’d do the same this year.
From the far north to the south to the mountains, I love being able to travel deeper in Portugal. To attend loads of events, go further off the beaten track with each trip. My journey to discover the weird and wild, beautiful and unique parts of this country continues!
To reflect on this great year, I’m diving into 10 of my favourite short trips around Portugal from 2023.
1. A February weekend in Coimbra
Back in February, we dashed off to Coimbra, Portugal’s medieval capital, for a weekend away. It’s such a gorgeous city and easy to explore in a small amount of time, so I wrote a wrap covering the best things to do with 36 hours in Coimbra, which I think is the perfect amount of time in the small student city.
We stayed in a really cool heritage hotel, the Hotel Astoria, which would have been the hippest place in town when it opened in 1926.
2. Cork masks, a burning effigy and plenty of wine: the traditional Schist Villages carnival
I have to thank my friend Kayla for dragging us into the hills for a wild weekend experiencing one of Portugal’s many ancient carnival traditions. After a huge, four-night group trip to Podence last year, a few of us decided to continue the tradition. The fun kicked off in Aigra Nova, a tiny one-resident schist village near Coimbra, at 8.30am on a sunny winter Sunday.
We’d signed up for the village rally, paying a total of €11 for a multi-course lunch and to follow a haphazard procession through the mountains in a mini bus.
Read the full write-up on this wild carnival event here, and discover Portugal’s other carnival traditions with this wrap-up.
3. Coastal spring escape to Vila Nova de Milfontes
The beauty of Vila Nova de Milfontes never escapes me. While the town itself is nothing too special on the eye, its location at the mouth of the River Mira is remarkable. I could perch on a bench at the lookout near Forte de São Clemente and watch the tides here forever. With the ebb and flow a little ferry shuffles passengers across to the far side, and people wander down the boardwalk in front. There’s no rush this far from the city.
We’d previously visited this beach town, located on the Alentejo coast, two-hours south of Lisbon, and were here on a mini-city escape with some of our best mates from Australia. The little old house (pictured) we stayed in, Casa Ocre, was really cute and had a fireplace too.
4. Eating our way across Serra da Estrela
Have you ever driven 3.5 hours one-way for lunch? Across all of 2023 one of Portugal’s top chefs explored regional cuisine with a series of pop-up weekend lunches and cultural experiences. Each month chef João Rodrigues explored the gastronomic culture of a new Portuguese destination, inviting diners along for the ride. We joined him in April for the chapter at Serra da Estrela, mainland Portugal’s highest mountains, for the more casual farm lunch.
Our regret? Not splurging on the fancy meal in the old Ecolã factory. But alongside those delicious meals with guest chefs, we spent the weekend meeting producers and shepherds, visited farms and took goat selfies.
I also used it as a chance to visit Burel, one of my favourite Portuguese brands. Still using some traditional looms from the 19th century, this wool brand creates the most beautiful blankets, scarves, and wool products. Touring the factory floor was epic. As was the €4 sandwich at Ti Branquinho, stuffed with gooey Serra da Estrela cheese and Portuguese presunto ham.
5. Party in Porto: São João weekend
After experiencing the joy of Lisbon’s June parties each year, I’d always been curious about Porto’s São João. While Lisbon celebrates Santos Populares for the whole month, it turns out Porto turns into a party for just one night – June 23 – each year.
I’ll remember this night every time I hear a squeaky toy. Naturally there’s terrible (yet perfect) music, dancing, street food, and beer, but São João has its own traditions, and one of them is hitting strangers with oversized plastic hammers. It seems you used to tap people on the head with a long leek or garlic stem, and while we saw a few of the garden variety, it seems the cheap made-in-China hammers are the new vogue.
When darkness fell, people started lighting small paper hot air balloons, which drifted into the sky and made the whole city look like something from a fairytale. Close to midnight we ran across the Infante Dom Henrique bridge to gain brilliant views of the fireworks display and took in the city sitting pretty beneath a sky of flickering lights.
We spent the evening just outside of the city in Fontaínhas, a more local clifftop neighbourhood by the river. While Lisbon’s Santos is all about being on the streets and partying, Porto’s São João seems to be more about gathering with friends or family. We noticed private parties set up on local streets, or friends bringing a grill and picnic to the lookouts to create their own fun. This is probably the way to go as São João is nowhere near as commercialised as Lisbon’s Santo António, so getting a beer and food way more of a challenge.
6. A second time at the Festa dos Tabuleiros in Tomar
This isn’t your average small-town Portuguese festival. The Festa dos Tabuleiros happens just once every four years, so after catching the spectacle in 2019 I didn’t expect to see it again – who plans four years ahead, really?
This time a group of girlfriends and I ventured north for the day, descending on Tomar in its festive best. The main event is the parade of hundreds of women carrying 1.5-metre-high towers loaded with 30 bread rolls and delicate paper flowers. It’s a never-ending tide of bread, flowers, colourful sashes and applause as the ladies in white dresses parade for five kilometres around Tomar, making this spectacle more like a marathon and physical feat. As the day wears on, you can see some struggling under the weight of their awkward 16-kilogram-plus burden.
7. Early summer escape to Olhão in the eastern Algarve
Do you ever worry about returning somewhere you hold high in your memories? Perhaps the nostalgia of being there was better than real life. I needn’t have worried while zipping down the highway south to Olhão after a couple of years. This small whitewashed eastern Algarve town is one of my favourites in Portugal, and luckily this gem still matched my expectations.
We stayed in a cute house in the old historic centre, weaving through narrow alleyways of the medina-like streets to reach local restaurants and the huge waterfront market halls. Essentially we spent the better part of a week soaking up sunshine, skipping off to small Algarve villages, and indulging in endless seafood. Bliss.
8. Colour and beauty at Viana do Castelo’s Romaria
Viana do Castelo is famous for its embroidery and filigree jewellery, and if you’ve been reading my blog for some time, you’ll know I’m a fan of artisans and all things made in Portugal. Safe to say I’ve had the town’s annual Romaria de Nossa Senhora d’Agonia on my Portuguese bucket list for some time.
While technically a religious festival that celebrates the patron saint of Viana do Castelo – Nossa Senhora d’Agonia (Our Lady of Sorrows) – these days the August event is a fusion of faith, folklore, and cultural heritage with concerts, parades, processions, folk dancing, and fireworks. The streets come alive with colour and music as locals don traditional costumes adorned with bright embroidery and filigree gold.
The highlight (for me, at least) is the Desfile da Mordomia, a parade where hundreds of local women parade in traditional clothing. Apparently it’s the biggest public display of gold in the world, as they all wear their heirloom jewellery pieces. To witness the pride of 900 women parade through the streets in their glorious costumes was truly wonderful.
9. An adventurous day trip to Arrábida Natural Park
What do you do when four Australian friends visit and you only have a five-seater car? You get creative. With a few summer days in Lisbon, we wanted to take our mates out to explore some of the beauty of the greater region. We settled on Arrábida Natural Park, a lush coastal wonderland south of the city that looks like a Mediterranean forest meets the Caribbean on a bright sunny day.
We took the train to Setúbal, an industrial fishing port that’s home to one of my favourite markets in Portugal. After breakfast oysters and fruit purchases we ventured down to the docks for a high-speed boat to Portinho da Arrábida, a tiny village in the heart of the park. Our long seafood lunch at Farol was fantastic. We lazed on the beach for a couple of hours before booking a Bolt to cross over the mountain range and into Azeitão. We went straight to what’s probably my favourite tile producer, Azulejos do Azeitão, where the kind owner showed our friends the process of making traditional tiles from clay and using various methods to paint them. Then, another Bolt XL back over the bridge to Lisbon.
10. A lazy escape to the Alentejo with friends
Some Lisbon friends and I planned to use the October public holiday for a long weekend in the Alentejo. We booked a cute-looking house that was pet-friendly with a pool, so it was to our delight that the house – Torre da Giesteira – was actually a small palace set around a 15th-century tower. Complete with its own 19th-century convent ruin and cork and olive trees as far as the eye could see. Looking out the windows I’d often spy black pigs or sheep grazing beneath the cork trees, and at night there was not a single light on the horizon in any direction. Torre da Giesteira was the perfect relaxing escape, and only 90 minutes from Lisbon.
Where am I hoping to visit in Portugal in 2024?
Let’s see if I can write down my hopes and manifest these trips in Portugal.
- Alto Alentejo long weekend exploring the medieval village of Marvão
- A weekend hiking between more of the 27 Xiste villages
- Lower Alentejo Coast, around Aljezur and the Costa Vicentina
- Return to Monsaraz, a hilltop medieval walled village that I still dream about
- Somewhere fun (and remote) for carnival, maybe Ilhavo or Ousilhão
- Weekend trips to Evora, Estremoz, Aveiro
- Hire a van for a slow road trip south
- More events, especially anything to do with niche traditional foods – or wine and cheese