Today we have a guest post from a good friend of ours and fellow traveler, Adriana Sibaja. She and her husband, Edgar, recently took an amazing trip to Morocco and Portugal, and in this post Adriana tells us how they were able to have a fabulous European experience while in Portugal for surprisingly little money.
Spending a wonderful, culture-filled vacation in Europe doesn’t necessarily mean you have to postpone your retirement for a year.
While spending a couple of weeks in most of Europe can break the bank, there has never been a better time to visit Portugal. This culturally and gastronomically-rich country has been
rocked by the European debt crisis, an the tourist industry has significantly dropped prices in recent months. Not to mention that even without a crisis, you can usually get more bang for your buck almost anywhere in Portugal.
Portugal’s high season runs from mid-June to mid-September; low season, from late November to mid February; and the shoulder season runs from late September to mid-November and from late February to early June. This information is really helpful for the thrifty travelers, as the shoulder seasons provide a good mix of lower prices, fewer crowds, and pleasant weather, ideal for sightseeing. Autumn brings warm and sunny days, with particularly pleasant weather at the beginning of November that is referred to as “St. Martin’s summer” (El verano de San Martín), which occurs around the saint’s day on November 11).
My husband Edgar and I travelled to Portugal during the shoulder season as a side trip coming from Morocco. Portugal, enjoying less fame than Morocco or Spain, is often skipped by most tourists—and that is a real shame. Portugal has an impressive history, partially shared with Spain, and an endless line of navigators and discoverers who eventually shaped our world.
In a nutshell, here is why there has never been a better time to visit Portugal:
Bargain accommodations: Average hotel rates are about $120, with apartment rates through websites like airbnb.com as low as $50 per night in the shoulder/low season. For our stay in Lisbon, we booked a really well-appointed apartment in the old neighborhood of Alfama (the working class neighborhood where Fado music was born) for just $70 per night. We got to be with the locals, eat with the locals and hang our freshly washed clothes Alfama-
style with the locals. We were greeted with a bottle of wine and fruit, and even got a cell phone for local calls and to get a hold of the owner in case we needed any tips or had any questions. For our Porto stay, we also booked an apartment through airbnb.com for $55 per night. The location was superb, and the place was just gorgeous. The owner greeted us with a small bottle of Porto, chocolate cake, maps and guides.
One of the best things you can do to save in accommodations is to slow-travel: spend at least 3 to 5 nights in a city before you move on, get to know it, its people, its food. And because you are slow-travelling and staying in a city for more than 3 days, you can more easily book an apartment through aribnb.com or a similar service (most apartment rentals have a 3-day minimum and discounts for weekly stays). This will save you tons of money vs. staying at a hotel, allowing you to mingle with the locals, shop at their neighborhood supermarkets, have a place to cook, wash your clothes, not to mention a place to really call home during your visit.
Affordable drinks: The average price of a glass of beer is $2.50-$3.00. The average price of a glass of gorgeous house wine is $2.00-$2.50. An entire jarra (a 1-liter pitcher) of local
wine is included in most fixed-price meals at cafés and neighborhood restaurants. In Lisbon, a shot of the famous ginjinha (sweet fortified cherry liquor) is about $1.40 and it will warm you up at any hour of the day. In Porto, porto wine is king, and you can enjoy great wine tasting experiences in all the major porto wineries without having to pay for their expensive tours (which include seeing the porto-making process, a little history of the winery and a tasting at the end.) It is great to do this once, but in order to visit the rest of the wineries, just enter directly to their tasting rooms, usually not through the main entrance, but on an entrance to the side. Another great alternative for just tasting sans a winery tour is to pick one of the tasting rooms alongside the Douro River that belong to the smaller, lesser-known wineries.
It’s cheap to get around: Taxis: A two-mile taxi ride if you want to go where the metro can’t take you is $5.50. Do get a taxi to visit surrounding sites/cities you are interested in. Distances are short and taxi fares are low and well-worth the expense—if you are travelling with more people, it is cheaper than riding a tram. Additionally, taxi drivers in Portugal are, in our experience, honest and helpful. We had a few who were so proud of their heritage they literally went out of their way to show us how to go about a certain area, where to eat, what to
see. Walking: Avoid paying for that hop on, hop off bus. I know there are many fans of these buses out there, and we get it. They can be a great help getting around, but the two largest Portuguese cities, Lisbon and Porto, are very walkable. And even though the streets are steep, there is no better way to know these cities than walking. Hoping on and off will make you miss gorgeous hidden streets, not to mention you will waste valuable time standing in line waiting for the next bus. Plus, the cities are so compact the price of the bus is not worth it, at least not to us. Metro: Now, if you do not want or cannot walk long distances or steep streets, take the metro. (Lisbon, for example, has extremely steep streets, so a great option is to take the metro to the highest points and then walk back “downhill”). Both Lisbon and Porto have excellent tram systems. Lisbon, has the famous Tram 28 for tourists, which although pricey (about US$3.50) does give you a scenic ride through the city. For an even cheaper ride take the “regular” trams for half the price. A couple of lines connect to Belém (Belém Tower/Jerónimos Monastery) and other vicinities. Train: For moving between cities and towns, nothing beats the train. And there is no need to pay for first class, as second class seats are perfectly OK. Lisbon lifts: There are a couple of lifts and funiculars in Lisbon that connect the lower parts of the city with higher points. We found these to be pricey (approximately $5.00) and with extremely long lines, so we opted out and decided to sometimes hike up and others take the metro to the to of the hill. Do however take the time to find the gorgeous Elevador de Santa Justa, if only to admire it.
Low-price museums: Average price for museums/attractions is $6.00, with many being free. We decided against the city card pass in Lisbon. That said, it does offer free entrance to main attractions and museums as well as free trams and lifts, but the daily pass price just was not worth it to us for this particular city and our style of travelling. We like walking, got on the tram only once, and the museum prices are so low, it would have been more expensive for us to purchase the card, plus how many museums can you visit in a day?
Enjoy $3-dollar breakfasts everyday: Stop at one of the many Portuguese padarias (bakeries) or pastelarias (confectionaries) and order um cafe (oong kaFEY), which in Lisbon would be um bica (oong beekuh) and in Porto um cimbalinho (oong simbalEENyo), and then add an exquisite pastel de nata (egg tart pastry) or any of their amazing pastries for that matter! This should keep you full for at least a couple of hours while you sightsee and wait for lunch time, all for under $3 bucks.
Dinners and lunches for under $10: You can cheaply eat your way through Portugal by avoiding main dishes and simply ordering the cheaper petiscos, smaller platters similar to the Spanish tapas. Another way to eat great food on the cheap is to stay clear of the main squares and tourist areas and pick small local restaurantes where owners double as cooks and waiters (most have fixed menus for under $10, a pitcher of wine included) and out-of the-way cervejarias (like the outstanding Cervejaria Ramiro in Lisbon with seafood like you’ve never had it before).
Tips are not expected: You can skip them altogether or just leave whatever pocket change you have—but do leave a little more if the service was outstanding.
You can have a great fado experience on the cheap: Booking a fado experience in Lisbon can be pricy and have a touristy feeling. You are usually required to book an expensive early 8-9 o’clock dinner and then continue ordering food/drinks well into the night before the good fado singers perform, but the good fado singers won’t come out until well after 10:00/11:00pm. Instead, walk the streets o Alfama at night and listen to the fado singers as you pass by. Decide on a place and then show up late, at around 11pm and ask if you can get in to have a drink. Because the show is almost over, they will most likely let you in for the price of a beer or a pitcher of wine and you can enjoy a little fado for a good hour or more.
Beyond these two cities, Portugal has so much more to offer, from sandy beaches to medieval villages, steep mountains and arid plains, and as one of the most affordable countries in Europe, we will be coming back for more.