Alex Robinson, who's written extensively on Portugal and Lisbon for DK Eyewitness Travel Guides, answered your questions.
Alex Robinson:Hello Everyone. Greetings from a cold, dark Europe! I'm Alex—I write and photograph for books and magazines in the US and UK and I specialize in Portuguese-speaking countries. It's a pleasure to be here with you to talk about one of my favorite destinations—Europe's hidden treasure, Portugal.
Bloomington, Ind.:Hi, Alex. We were in Lisboa in late fall 2007 and have wanted to return ever since. We are a couple in our fit early 60's and are interested in beautiful cities & towns, historic places, as well as the countryside and natural areas. We like to walk a LOT and that is our main activity. We don't like tours and are good navigators. However, we enjoy hearing about a place from knowledgeable locals. We'd like to meet people if possible. He's a judge and I'm a planner. Questions:
1. Best season to visit Portugal with best weather and prices and least tourists?
2. Where to stay in Lisboa, Evora and... where else to go?
3. How to meet people? Town walking tours?
4. Natural parks for light day hikes.
5. Any other tips? Package companies?
Thanks for your advice.
Alex Robinson:Hi, Bloomington. Well, here are some thoughts:
1. Best season to visit Portugal with best weather and prices and least tourists? The early Spring or Autumn are good times—say March or mid-September. The weather is generally good—with long, warm days and there are fewer tourists.
2. Where to stay in Lisboa, Evora and...where else to go? In Lisboa I'd choose the Bairro Alto Hotel or the Heritage Av Liberadade—a new boutique in a historic town house. Both are close to the centre. The Bairro Alto has a very good restaurant.
3. How to meet people? Town walking tours? It's generally pretty easy to meet people informally in Portugal and many locals speak English. If you want something more organised then companies like Portugal Walks and Walking Europe offer a broad range of walking tours both guided and self-guided.
4. Natural parks for light day hikes. I like the Serra da Estrela in the centre of the country. It's one of the wildest parts of the country yet, as it's bisected by roads, it offers light and short walk as well as longer hikes. The long u-shaped Vale de Zezere valley is particularly pretty in spring—with wild flowers and deep green grass and there's a waterfall nearby, the Poço do Inferno.
5. Any other tips? Package companies? The companies I have listed above will be helpful for what you're looking for. I'd hire a car, buy a Michelin map and a guide (Cadogan are good), and drive inland from Lisbon....
New York City, N.Y.:Is there any particular site, attraction, or event that you would recommend for a family traveling in Portugal with a 16- or 17-year old teenager?
Alex Robinson:Think about going in July and attending the Festas de São João in Porto. Thousands of people of all ages descend on the UNESCO world heritage historic city center to watch a big fireworks display and hit each other over the head with floppy, squeeky plastic hammers. There's nothing quite like it anywhere in Europe. Alternatively you could visit the Azores and go whale-watching and diving. The islands have more species of whales and dolphins passing through than pretty much anywhere else in the world, including Moby Dick himself—the sperm Whale.
Phoenix, Ariz.:Where are some good places in Lisbon for authentic (not for tourists) Fado?
Alex Robinson: There are a huddle of places in the streets around the castle which are unreliably good—depending on who's playing. I agree that it's not fun to feel part of a huge tourist crowd, but for the best quality I'd opt for the middle way. The Clube de Fado is a little touristy but it is always good. It's run by one of the country's great masters of the Portuguese Guitar, Mario Pacheco and the shows there are first rate...choice quality stuff not just a pantomime for visitors....
Santa Barbara, Calif.:We (mother and college-age daughter) want to go to Portugal in the spring. We will get around by train, possibly fly in to Lisbon and out by Madrid. Our total time is close to 3 weeks. Any itinerary suggestions? Is it best to do the open-jaw flight like this? Thank you for your help!
Alex Robinson:Spend ten days in and round Lisbon visiting the city, Sintra and Casacais, the pretty medieval village of Obidos and heading in land to Evora. Return to Lisbon and take the train to Coimbra—one of Europe's oldest university cities. Take the train inland from here to Guarda from where you can organise hikes into the beautiful Serra da Estrela mountains (enquire at the tourist office for local tour operators and buses—on Praça Luís de Camões T271 20 55 30). From Guarda you can catch the train across the border to Salamanca—another beautiful medieval university town in Spain, Avila with its famous castle and then Madrid.
Greenfield, Mass.:I am retired and would like to budget tour Portugal with an eye to spending several months a year there. I can invest 3 or 4 weeks to this project. When would be a good time of year to go? What would be a good rough itinerary?
Alex Robinson: I'd go in spring—say March or April and fly into Faro in the Algarve. Look into flights with TAP via Lisbon and also cheap flights to London and then a return charter airline fare from there (check cheapflights.co.uk or netflights.com or ebookers.com). Faro has good connections to the rest of the Algarve by train and bus. Lagos and Sagres have good cheap hotels and Cabo São Vicente where Henry the Navigator invented caravels and opened the world to discover is spectacular. Trains run from Faro to Lisbon. Head there next and explore the city, Sintra, Obidos and Evora, then gradually head north stopping at Fatima, Tomar (with an incredible castle built by the templars), Coimbra (old university town) and fly home from Porto.
Wichita, Kans.:We will be traveling by Crown Princess cruise ship to Lisbon on Thursday, June 18th. Six are traveling together, all adults ranging in age from 40 to 60. Three husband & wife couples. None of us have visited Lisbon before. We are interested in taking an excursion offered by the cruise line. We'd like to see the best sites on our one day in Lisbon. Would you suggest we see the Jeronimos Monastery, tour Gulbenklan Museum, explore the 7 hills on a tram ride, a guided walking tour of the Moorish quarter, experience Evora, or visit the Medieval Village of Obidos? Those are just some of the trips offered by Princess cruise line. Any information you can give us will be welcomed.
Alex Robinson:Hey, Karen. I'd be inclined to go for Jeronimos, the Gulbenkian and tram ride. The former is a spectacular baroque monastery which is quite the equal of anything in Paris and the best of its kind in Portugal (with the possible exception of Batalha Abbey). The latter one of the world's finest collections of artefacts and objets d'art from Europe and Asia and Lisbon is very pretty—especially by tram....
Silver Spring, Md.:My husband and I (both in our 60s) will be in Lisbon prior to a cruise with Crystal on November 12, 2009. We would like to spend a few days in a comfortable hotel centrally located for sightseeing. Any ideas?
Alex Robinson: The Bairro Alto is perfect—in the heart of the old upper portion of the city center near many of the fine churches and within easy reach of the 18th Century center (by life or cab) and many of the (albeit touristy) fado houses, bars and good restaurants at night time. The hotel restaurant—Flores—is one of Lisbon's best. Take an upper-story room for views.
Burbank, Calif.:In your opinion, what is your favorite place for a holiday on the Algarve?
Alex Robinson:I like the quieter places—not that there are too many. For a different option, why not base yourself in the hills in the pretty, tranquil little town of Caldas de Monchique and visit the beaches rather than vice versa? The coast around Sagres is very dramatic and has some secluded beaches...and Silves has a dramatic Moorish hilltop castle.
DeKalb, Ill.:My husband and I, retired academics, will be in Lisbon in March for 10 days. We're experienced independent travelers and enjoy walking (and using public transportation) in cities. What area of Lisbon would be the best to look for a moderately-priced hotel if we would like to be walking distance to some sights and to restaurants in the evening? Our preference is for smaller locally-owned hotels over large chains.
Alex Robinson: I'd look around the Bairro Alto or Avenida Liberdade just north of the 18th Century city centre (aka the Baixa). I'd suggest the small Heritage hotel group—all are small, quiet, intimate, locally owned and central. My favorite is their Av. Liberdade hotel. The walk from this hotel along Avenida da Liberdade is enchanting—cutting through pracas dotted with traditional Portuguese cafes, taking in many of the beautiful art nouveau buildings and quirky shops, and you can hop on a tram pretty much anywhere.
Philadelphia, Pa.:Hello, Alex. I am planning a trip to Portugal in the spring and would like to know what is the ideal amount of time to spend in Portugal to see the major sites and also relax. Also, how long should I stay in places like Lisbon, Porto, the Algarve, etc.? Do you have any recommendations for hotels which are a great value in these places?
Alex Robinson: Hey, Donna. 3 weeks is a good amount of time. I'd spend a week to ten days around Libson (hotel—Pensão Londres is a good-value, centrally-located cheapie).
The Algarve is really just a package holiday beach destination and not very interesting to my mind—unless you venture inland to towns like the old spa resort of Caldas de Monchique (with its pretty hills and quaint central square) or the castle town of Silves.
If you visit and want to stay on the coast opt for Lagos and allow a few days; and try and visit Cabo Sao Vicente and Sagres—where Europe ends and looks longingly out from barren cliffs over a wild and bottle green Atlantic towards the Americas.
Heading north from Lisbon, Coimbra is a gorgeous historical city and you can visit Tomar along the way—the old Templar knights headquarters—with a dramatic castle and a graveyard covered in occult symbols weirder than anything in the Da Vinci code.
I also love the little towns that lie along the Spanish border—Castelo de Vide, Monsanto, Marvao etc... (allow a week for these).
Porto and the Douro valley (take a boat trip and come back by train) need 2-3 days. The faded Grand hotel de Paris is an OK deal in Porto or you could opt for a hostel like Oporto Poets Hostel on Travessa do Ferra 13. There are a number of others listed on sites like hostelworld.com.
Think about flying into Faro and out of Porto...and as well as asking for deals on TAP Air Portugal make enquiries about a flight via London as it may prove cheaper—esepcially if you use a UK budget airline like Easyjet (though watch the baggage allowance here).
Chicago, Ill.:Does Lisbon have a Red Light district? If so, where is it?
Alex Robinson:Hmmmm, well...I am not sure that there's a city anywhere without one...but I'm no expert on the details. My advice would be to ask a cab driver when you arrive.
Delray Beach, Fla.:Hello. We're looking to head to Portugal for the 2010 New Year. There will be anywhere from 4 to 8 of us. All (crazy) women—all in our 40s (two of them speak Portuguese/Brazilian). Some flying from Miami, others flying from Charlotte, NC. How do the Portuguese celebrate the New Year? What events/festivities should we consider attending?
Alex Robinson:Hi, Ibrey. They certainly do. I'd head to Lisbon which will be buzzing and packed with people—out to watch the huge firework displays in the Baixa (downtown) and cramming the myriad bars and clubs of the Bairro Alto.
As ever when celebrating in Portugal try and be with the locals. A good way to do that is to get in touch with Live a Local Spirit. It's run by Alice Moura. From what you say she'd be perfect for you—she has a very small tour agency that integrates tourists with locals, she is half Portuguese and half Brazilian, speaks perfect English, is very well connected and loves to party.
Detroit Lakes, Minn.:Alex, we are planning a small family reunion trip to Portugal—Lisbon and the Algarve—from Christmas to early January. We understand that this is not the high season for tourism. What can we expect for weather conditions at that time? Will we find restaurants and tourist sites open at that time? What sites in the southern half of Portugal should we be certain to see during our stay?
Alex Robinson:Well it's certainly not the best time to visit. Expect it to be cool (though not cold) and wet; with a combination of grey skies—broken by occasional days of blue sky.
Faro—16 degrees Celsius with an average of 5 hours sunshine and 10 cm of rain.
Lisbon—15 degrees with an average of 5 hours sunshine and 11 cm of rain.
Porto—14 degrees with an average of 4 hours sunshine and 17 cm of rain.
Restaurant and hotels will be open—other than the smaller establishments on the Algarve. All the tourist sites are open. Don't miss Lisbon, Sintra, the dramatic windswept coast near Sagres (Cabo São Vicente). And venture inland to Evora (a beautiful medieval town replete with Roman remains) and the fortified towns and villages of Estremoz, Castelo de Vide and Marvao. The latter is one of the prettiest medieval villages in Europe (far prettier than the far more vaunted Obidos)—with a complete medieval wall, sugar cube houses an imposing castle. There's a very good pousada you can stay in there—in a grand old mansion and with magnificent views out over the Alentejo plains. And there will be no tourists at all.
Forgive me giving temperature in Celcius!
Costa Mesa, Calif.:What do you consider to be the best time of year to go there, and which city do you prefer to start a three-day visit?
Alex Robinson:I'd go in spring—April—before it gets really hot and before the tourist numbers get heavy. For so short a visit stay in Lisbon—with side trips to Sintra and possibly Evora.
Wilmette, Ill.:My wife and I are interested in taking our three-year-old son to Portugal. Do you have any recommendations for a week-long itinerary in June? Thank you for your anticipated response.
Alex Robinson: I don't think the beaches in the Algarve will be anything special for those who have visited Carolina, Florida or California but if you want a child-friendly beach, choose to stay in Albufeira. This site has a list of activities for children on the Algarve.
I'd be inclined to visit Lisbon and Sintra (with its odd fairy-tale castle), Evora and Porto (where you can take an enchanting boat trip on the Douro). Lisbon's Oceanario is great for children of all ages and it's the second largest in the world. The zoo has a little train and the Ciencia Viva museum (the former knowledge pavilion from Expo) has hands-on exhibits for children as young as two.
Morgantown, W.Va.:I am attending a conference in Lisbon in June 2009. How is the bicycling in that city? Where does one rent a bike and how much do rental bikes cost?
Alex Robinson: Lisbon is very hilly and drivers are not as courteous as in the USA or UK. There are also many trams. That said it is possible to cycle here. Bicicletanacidade.blogspot.com is a blog (in Portuguese) devoted to biking in the city. Bikeiberia.com can organise bike rental throughout Spain and Portugal.
Alex Robinson:Thanks so much to all of you for writing in. I am so sorry I didn't have time to reply to everyone!
I also write about Brazil and have a new book coming out early next year with Footprint, so if anyone plans on going there then check my guide out.
All the best and bye bye,