Some have rumored Portugal to be “the next France” or “the next Spain”. Perhaps that’s the case, but there’s an off-the-beaten path quality to Portugal that I’m hoping can endure for a little longer, and they certainly have a unique culture that’s different from the countries that surround them. It’s sort of like that underground band you hope succeeds while also hoping the success won’t change them too much. I guess what I’m trying to say is this: Portugal is very much its own thing, not the next version of something else, and I hope it never tries to be anything but just that. Because, in my opinion, it is pretty perfect just the way it is.
We spent a week in Portugal at the end of May. We found ourselves in wine country for the first half of the week and at the beach for the other half. We skipped over the cities altogether (other than for our flights in and out of the country). And for me, getting out of the more metropolitan buzz and into the less saturated spots was exactly the right move for a week-long escape (though I do hope to make it to Lisbon and Porto someday).
So, what's my advice for planning an off-the-beaten-path escape to Portugal?
SUNSHINE AND WINE
FIND A FANTASTIC HOME BASE.
We stayed in an unbelievable Airbnb rental. I love a house that enables you to take it all in when you wake up (jetlagged or not), as you’re going to bed, and during any time you spend at the house in between. For example, we arrived in the afternoon, so we were able to jump in the pool upon arrival and spend our first few hours soaking up sunshine (and an unreal view) without leaving the comfort of our new home.
TASTE A LOT OF WINE.
We spent two days touring wineries in the Douro Valley, and the wine was fantastic as promised. Here are our top four can’t-miss stops (a mixture of ambiance, scenery, and wine quality, of course):
Quinta do Seixo — I have to admit, the tour here was a little cheesy as the winery is quite commercial, and they're more known for their port wines (not a favorite in our group). That said, I would absolutely recommend the picnic lunch, which can be arranged in the vineyard, literally amongst the vines. The grounds were beautiful, and lunch was delicious, and we were able to take in the view with the picnic area all to ourselves.
Quinta do Pôpa — This is a smaller production winery, and the wines are really great — so much so that we shipped some back (and let’s be honest, the shipping cost almost more than the wine itself, but it was worth it). I’d recommend the tasting with food pairings that include wine, charcuterie, and olives.
Quinta Vale Dona Maria — This was probably the best wine we tasted, even if the environment was a little less glamorous. And by that I mean, we tasted indoors in a real kitchen, so it felt contrasted with our experiences enjoying the Douro Valley outdoors. Regardless, the wine was all worth sacrificing a few rays of sunshine.
Quinta do Crasto — Come for the wine, stay for the pool. In full disclosure, we got a little lucky with this one. They happened to be overbooked in their tasting room, so we were shown to the pool, accompanied by a few bottles of wine with which to serve ourselves. More on this later, but the practice of poolside tasting did not disappoint.
In my opinion, dinners in the Douro were just OK, which is why I’m talking more about wine than food. The food simply wasn’t my favorite part - lots of cured meats and saltier dishes in general meant that we noshed our way through the day with great cheese, bread, and wine without much culinary want. If you choose to go out to dinner, I would recommend bringing your favorite bottle from wine tasting that day if the restaurant allows. I love doing this when we’re in wine country anywhere in the world because it gives dinner a celebratory tone to top off a great day.
ENJOY THE WATER, WHETHER IT BE THE RIVER OR THE POOL (OR BOTH).
The Douro River runs through wine country and I’d highly recommend renting a boat for a day for the dual purpose of enjoying a ride on the water and transporting the group to and from a few wineries. Rollin’ on the river also adds a little bit of adventure to the day, since wineries will pick you up at the port in an open-air jeep to bring you up the hill to the tasting room (via a series of curvy roads best experienced with the wind blowing through your hair).
Embracing the life aquatic continued for us at the wineries as well: We were lucky enough to land at some vineyards with pools overlooking the valley, and we had packed our swimsuits just in case. Best. Decision. Ever. Few things are better than tasting wine at a private pool perched in the hills of wine country.
Our time in wine country had been meticulously planned, but in the end, we owe a lot to luck and timing. Most spots we visited were quite uncrowded, and for several wineries we visited, we had the place to ourselves, which relaxed the whole vibe of the trip. I’d highly recommend going during shoulder season as we did (end of May), when the weather is great but summer hasn’t officially started.
HIT THE BEACH.
After wine country, we headed to Comporta, an eco-chic beach town about an hour south of Lisbon. Much of Comporta and its surrounding region is a protected nature reserve and estuary, which prevents too much building and commercialization in the area and sets up a more casual, low-key beach experience. Comporta exuded that effortlessly chic style you’d expect from a boho beach town like Tulum or Punta del Este, except with even fewer people. As you might have guessed, we loved it.
EAT ALL THE SEAFOOD.
Fresh-caught seafood is pretty unbeatable in my book. In fact, it’s probably my favorite genre of food. The seafood in Comporta was amazingly fresh and I don’t think we had a single bad dish, from prawns prepared pretty much any way you can imagine to fish to clams to octopus. And since in our group we tend to turn every meal into shareable tapas, we got to taste as many dishes as possible. Using this method, you can always re-order favorites after the first taste, but it's so fun to keep new flavors constantly flowing. I highly recommend Comporta Café: This was our go-to beachside seafood spot for a meal before and after a little time in the ocean.
SHACK UP IN STYLE.
We stayed at Sublime Comporta, an insanely Instagrammable boutique resort with an earthy-modern, beach-meets-safari vibe. Even checking into the room felt like an adventure on the back of a golf cart on a dusty road. It didn't hurt that our party sprang for a two-bedroom villa with a private patio and pool (and we had zero regrets about it).
LAST, BUT NOT LEAST: SOAK UP THE COMPANY.
When we go on friendcations like this one, we always make sure to plan plenty of activities in advance while also leaving enough time for relaxing, socializing, and the occasional unplanned detour. In the end, we want to have the ability to slow down, absorb the atmosphere, and let the every moment sink in. Enjoying beautiful surroundings and also having great friends to share it with—this is the definition of the good life.