Portugal has been trending. Perhaps you’ve been looking at flights to Lisbon or considering a free TAP stopover. Even in this age where we have endless information about “off the beaten track” destinations, I can still escape the tourists by going a block away from the tourist zones. Every day there are the same long queues with visitors who look increasingly bedraggled, disappointed, and worried about their growing credit card bill.
Skip the queue and keep your savings intact without missing out on those things that draw people to Portugal by trading the top ten tourist traps for alternates.
Instead of Sintra
Go for a hike
If you’re in it for the photos, you can enjoy the views from the many walking and hiking trails in Parque Natural de Sintra-Cascais. You can hike around Pena Palace and Sintra’s other estates without paying any admission fees.
Palácio Nacional e Jardins de Queluz
If you want to see state sponsored opulence, skip Palácio Nacional da Pena and go to Queluz instead. They have a canal covered in azulejos in the garden, because how else are you going to demonstrate just how much you don’t care about the well being of the peasants living under your rule?
If you want to take a short train ride from Lisbon to see how the Portuguese elites spend their money, Cascais is an option that’s less chaotic than Sintra. Sure, the beaches of Cascais are packed with sunburnt tourists. The palaces, which boast entry fees that range from half to one-tenth of those of the palaces in Sintra, are quiet.
You can take a quick detour on the way there at Jardins da Real Quinta de Caxias for some bonus whimsical gardens sans entry fee. They’re practically at the Caxias train station.
Instead of Obidos
Castelo de Vide and Castelo de Marvão
These two castle cities are just as well preserved as Obidos. They just happen to be more than an hour from Lisbon, so they’re not inundated with tourists. The bus from Lisbon is four hours, so this is not a day trip. There are many heritage buildings that have been turned into luxury hotels. In Castelo de Vide and Marvão you can find homes for rent that are much more in line with what your life would have been like if you lived within the castle walls: ladder staircases between floors, no proper interior walls, a single window on each floor, a questionable bathroom situation. The way little old ladies pop out of the windows and doors to keep an eye out, gossip, and hang laundry feels very much like the opening scene to Beauty and the Beast.
Neither city (city is a very strong word here) has much in the way of attractions or even basic services. What they do have in abundance are hiking trails and historic things. If you take the trail between the two castles, I suggest you start at Marvão (the higher of the two castles) and bring your own snacks because there is nothing on the way.
If you want a charming medieval city but you don’t want to take a long bus ride to the Alto Alentejo, Guimarães is the perfect alternative. It’s a short train or bus ride from Porto and, unlike Obidos, Castelo de Vide, and Marvão, is also a thriving modern city with lots to do besides just enjoy the views and charm.
Instead of Nazaré
Do you want to go swimming and/or look at a beautiful curved beach? Go to São Martinho do Porto. It’s an easy train ride from Lisbon. Stop to have lunch and buy penis souvenirs in Caldas da Rainha (or get breakfast in Obidos before the bus loads of tourists have arrived).
Do you want to see huge waves? Other surfing spots include Carcavelos, Ferrel (take the bus to Peniche), Figueira da Foz, and Ericeira. All of these are easy to reach from Lisbon.
If you have your own means of transportation or the willingness to go the extra mile, there’s the Costa da Caparica (take Lisbon’s 3710 bus), Sintra’s Praia Grande (take the train to Sintra and then take the 1254 bus), Cascais’s Praia do Guincho (take the train to Cascais and then bus M43, M15, or M05), and Praia São Torpes in Sines (take the Rede Expressos bus to Sines and grab a taxi).
Instead of Museu Nacional do Azulejo
Going into libraries, churches, and other fancy buildings you happen to be walking by
How interested in azulejos are you, really? Do you want to read about them in panels of text on a wall or would you be content to skim the wikipedia article? You can schlep out to the Museu Nacional do Azulejo or you can keep your eyes open and enjoy azulejos in-situ.
Portugal is full of azulejos and luckily for us, many of them are in places that are publicly accessible. Many public libraries, cultural centers, hotels, and restaurants are in former palaces, convents, and other fancy buildings zhuzhed up with the iconic tiles. They’re also in just about every church, most of which you can also just pop into. If the door is open, take a look. If it’s a semi-private space be respectful and stick to what’s open to the public, like the lobby.
If you’re in Portugal, the azulejos are unavoidable. They’re in most of the markets and transit stations, as well as on the outside of many buildings in the city centers.
Instead of Castelo de São Jorge
Looking at the Castle from Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara
Unless Castelo de de São Jorge is hosting one of its many sunset concerts, which are free and a nice way to see the castle without paying the ridiculous entry fee, you should skip it. Seeing the castle from the outside is just as good as seeing it from the inside. Just about any medieval castle in Portugal is just walls. There are plenty of other places where you can go inside of and climb on the castle walls for free.
Other things in the category of not worth paying to go inside: the Torre de Belém, Palácio Nacional de Sintra, and Castelo de Guimarães.
Castelo de Palmela
One of the many Portuguese castles without an entry fee is in Palmela. At the Castelo de Palmela you can meander, enjoy the view, check out the art galleries and historic displays, charge your phone in the church (maybe that’s just me), and get a snack at the cafe.
Take the 4710 bus from Lisbon’s Oriente station to the Palmela terminal. This is conveniently near the start of the Parque Natural da Arrábida. Take the Caminho dos Moinhos (which, contrary to what Google maps shows, is a walking trail and not a road) to the Castro de Chibanes Roman ruins. If you’re really in the mood to walk, you can walk to the Sepulcros do Neolítico.
Instead of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos
Convento do Cristo
Tomar’s Convento do Cristo is just as opulent and just as much about celebrating the start of a new age of exploitation on a global scale. Even better, it was founded as the headquarters of the Order of the Knights Templar.
Instead of the taking Lisbon’s 28 tram
Walk the tram route
Lisbon’s 28 tram is famous for passing loads of famous sites and viewpoints. Do you want to pass a viewpoint in 10 seconds or stop and have a glass of sangria? Do you want to spend an hour standing in line for the tram or spend the day meandering the city along the tram route? It’s going to be crowded either way, but jostling your way to get a clear view at the miradouros is easier than getting a window seat on the tram.
Take a different tram
If you’re in it for the tram, there are two other excellent options.
If you want something like the 28, just less crowded (and with fewer pickpockets), take the 24 from Praça Luis Camões in Bairro Alto to Campolide. I suggest you hop off at Jardim Amoreiras unless you need something at the mall, which is just a little further.
If you want to enjoy the waterfront, the 15 will take you from the Baixa to Alges, passing through Belem.
If you want to make a day of your tram experience, take the train to Sintra so you can enjoy the tram to the Praia das Maçãs. The actual city center of Sintra is quite cute and there are other less popular attractions like the Museu das Artes de Sintra and the Museu de História Natural de Sintra that are free or inexpensive.
Things to skip entirely
Panorâmico de Monsanto
Monsanto and the Panorâmico de Monsanto are a cute spot to walk your dog if you live in Lisbon. It’s not a worthwhile place to visit on your vacation.
I grew up on the Jersey Shore, so I love Albufeira. It’s incredible crassness reminds me of home. Do you love trashy tourist spots like Niagrara Falls and Myrtle Beach? Then you, too, will love Albufeira.
Santuário de Fátima
Unless you’re a devout Catholic or eager to see weird Catholic things, this is a pass.