Spain and Portugal When You Are Crunched for Time: A 9-day Itinerary
Updated: Feb 7, 2020
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If you are a typical U.S. citizen, and even if you’re not, you may get very little time to vacation. While it is preposterous to think you can do either of these countries any justice whatsoever in 9 days, sometimes that is all we have. There’s so much more I wish I could have done, and even if I spent a month in each of these destinations, I would probably still feel I’m scratching the surface! Sometimes the more you learn about a place, the more you know you are missing.
That being said, if you use the excuse of not having enough time, you’ll never get out and see the world. So my advice is to just GO! There are a lot of bloggers out there who are experts on Spain and experts on Portugal. I will link to a few sites if you are looking for a wider spectrum of things to do if you have more time.
My itinerary is designed for those on a time crunch! My partner and I had the time of our lives, squeezing as much as we could out of our time there. I don’t like to feel like I’m in a massive hurry when I travel so our itinerary was a nice balance of seeing a lot while not over-scheduling ourselves. We had to be careful to prioritize only the most important things we wanted to see, leaving the rest to wandering and chance. It was a beautiful blend, and I would do it all again under the same time constraints!
When we were originally planning our trip, we only planned to visit Portugal. I had heard amazing things about Portugal and I was drawn to the gorgeous beaches, warm weather, cultural experiences, and the fact that it is more budget-friendly than some of its neighbors. I come from Portuguese and Spanish heritage as well, so the allure was there on that level.
In searching for the cheapest flight deals, TAP Portugal ended up being the best bargain out of Boston (closest major hub to where I live). Surprisingly, it was cheaper to fly into Seville, Spain and out of Lisbon than to fly round trip in and out of Lisbon. We said why not? Let’s start in Seville and go from there. Seville is only a couple hours away from the Algarve in Portugal, so it worked out perfectly!
Day 1 and 2: Seville, Spain
Seville was a captivating city; equal parts modern and historic, with the elegance one conjures up when thinking of Spanish charm. The narrow streets and alleyways lined by imposingly tall wonders of architectural beauty, seemed to go on infinitely. It was so easy to get lost, and indeed we did! But this is a city you won’t mind getting lost in, with so much sophistication and beauty at every turn.
Our favorite memory of Seville was actually our long walk from our hostel to the train station when we were on our way out. The sun was just coming up and light cast into the alleyways was dream-like as we meandered our way through. The pleasant air temperature at that hour was a nice reprieve from the blistering hot sun that shines upon the city during most of the day. Waking up early is tough to do since the city forces you to stay up so late, but do it if you can. It was amazing.
Seville embodies the Spanish siesta. I am normally an early to bed, early to rise kinda gal, but kiss that tendency goodbye when you come to Spain! We had to quickly adjust so that we could make the most of our brief time there. Basically, the whole city shuts down between 3 and 8pm, and I can understand why. It is far too hot to do ANYTHING. I don’t mind the heat, but in July, it was pretty bad. Walking around at those hours, almost nothing was open. We were able to go into a mall for some air conditioning, but mostly you’re forced to take it easy during these times, and just try to nap and conserve your energy for the late night marathon that is yet to come.
At night, Seville really comes alive! Starting at 8:30 or 9:00, you can get a bite to eat. Some people don’t get dinner until 11pm! That just baffles me, but when in Rome, right? On the earlier side of the evening, before the sun went down, we ventured across the bridge to find a street festival called La Velá de Santiago y Santa Ana in the neighborhood of Triana. We were lucky enough to catch this week long festival at the end of July. There were vendors in tents all along the river that sold cheap beers and cheap tapas, and the atmosphere was celebratory. The streets in this charming old neighborhood were lined with people, live music was in abundance, and there were even rides set up for the kids. For more festivals in this vibrant city, check out Not Just a Tourist.
Our first night out in Seville consisted of a the Triana festival, and a pub crawl out of our hostel The Oasis Backpacker’s Palace.
We met some really nice travelers on this crawl, including a woman from the Netherlands (we like the Dutch), who we met out for dinner the next night. Much of the night is a blur, thanks to doing too many shots (I recommend you avoid the absinthe), and we definitely got lost on the way home. Pro tip: Make sure you get the name of your hostel correct when you put into your GPS. There’s another hostel by almost the same name, so we got our steps in that night. Forced us to see a little more of the city!
We slept the morning away the next day, nursing our hangovers and recovering from the extremely late night out. We ventured out to take a Hop on Hop Off Bus Tour, scored some local paella, hung out on the rooftop deck of our hostel, returned to Triana for some more exploring, and then went out for dinner with our new friend, naturally at 11pm. For more to do in Seville, check out Nomadic Matt. He goes into a lot more depth on some things you shouldn’t miss if you have a little more time.
Days 3-5: The Algarve
We woke up bright and early on day three, despite our lack of sleep, to enjoy the blissful walk to the train station. We needed to take a quick train ride to where we were meeting our Bla Bla Car drivers who were going to take us to Lagos in the Algarve. There is no quick and easy public transportation between Seville and Lagos, so we decided to take a Bla Bla Car. I had researched that this is one of the cheapest ways to get around Europe while also allowing you to get to know some locals.
Our Bla Bla car experience was fantastic! A young Spanish woman and her boyfriend were also headed to the Algarve on their vacation, and our stop was on their way. They were so friendly and accommodating, driving us right to the street of our Airbnb as we took a snooze in the back seat. I was definitely glad they were Spanish and not Portuguese because I at least speak some Spanish. I’m also really glad I could speak Spanish as they did not seem to speak much English at all.
I highly recommend Bla Bla Car and would definitely use it again. It operates just like Airbnb, but for cars. If someone is driving somewhere, they can enter their trip on the app, and you pay a small fee to help them cover gas if you’re going somewhere along the way. It’s great! You could always message the driver ahead of time to determine their English ability if you are worried about that.
Lagos was something out of a dream. Having been to Brazil and seeing the Portuguese colonial architecture, here it was, starting me right back in the face in its place of origin. Cobblestone streets. Black and white mosaic tiles blanketing the sidewalks. Whitewashed and elaborately tiled buildings in an array of colorful patterns. The sun was beating down. The streets were charming and old, yet modern at the same time. I don’t know if I could ever grow tired of sitting at the cafes, exploring the boutique shops, and walking along the water.
Our Airbnb was spectacular. It was simple and perfect. Two stories plus a roofdeck where we could just bask in the sun, enjoy a cocktail, and look upon the streets below. Everything we needed was walkable, and it was the perfect location to station ourselves to explore the Algarve and easily catch transport to Lisbon when it was time to go.
The Algarve is as spectacular as it looks in pictures. The only deception is the temperature of the water. Portugal is hot in the summer and it never really gets cold. We even had a couple days rise above 100 degrees. Despite that, the water temperature is absolutely frigid. For comparison's sake, it is colder than the beaches in southern Maine in the summertime. Now that’s cold! Great for cooling off on a hot day but hard to swim in if you’re not really hot. Our first full day in Lagos, we took a kayak tour of the rock and cave formations along the coastline. There are tour companies all through town offering all different kinds of tours. Look around and find the best for you. We just did a simple kayak tour and it was amazing. This is a must!
After that, we clocked 13 miles walking around exploring the coastline in the Lagos area. Cliff after cliff. Beach after amazing beach. There are pathways that weave along the coast and each vantage point was more breathtaking than the last. If walking isn’t your thing, it looked easy enough to access these beaches by car, but we enjoyed the exercise.
We topped the night off with an amazing dinner at The Garden. I cannot recommend this restaurant enough. Amazing BBQ seafood and you are literally immersed in floor to ceiling garden. Make a reservation the day before because they fill up fast. We were relieved that people eat dinner at a “normal” hour, and we didn’t have to wait around until 10pm to eat. After dinner, we just meandered down the streets, grabbing drinks at places that looked interesting. We loved the scene. It was definitely touristy but the people watching was fun.
The next day, we rented a car and set off to explore as much of the Algarve as possible. There is SO much to see; we could have been out exploring for days but only had one day. First we headed east. We bought a road map and used it to stake out some beaches we wanted to see. Mainly we just drove down the coast and followed signs for beaches.
We found one with amazing tide pools and rock formations but our favorite stop was Carvalho beach. You enter the beach through a rock tunnel and there’s a path with stairs carved into the cliff where people could climb up and jump into the water. I am not a cliff jumper (scared of heights), but Greg jumped off. We stayed there for a little while because it was so magical.
After this we headed back to the western and southern most point of Europe, called “the end of the world.” The cliffs were breathtaking and you could pay to go to the end of the point where you had views from every side. This place was so impressive and I highly recommend it. We wanted to check out some of the surf beaches further up the western coast but just didn’t have the time. I was quite amazed at how easy it was to find parking everywhere we went in the Algarve, despite it being high season. Additionally, all the parking we encountered was free, something I’m not accustomed to in the United States.
Day 6 and 7: Sintra
We spent most of our 6th day making our way up to Sintra. We took a bus to Lisbon and then hopped a train to Sintra. The subway system was very confusing and we didn’t start to get the hang of it until we were leaving Portugal, but we made it nonetheless. Thankfully, most people could speak English because my Portuguese is horrid and they take offense to attempts at speaking Spanish.
When we arrived in Sintra, I thought Rapunzel was going to jump out of a bush, a fairy fly around our heads with a magic wand, and that we would see a dragon flapping its wings and blowing fire in the distant sky. Sintra is plucked right out of a fairytale. Hills dotted with castles and mansions, architecture from various periods lining the hilly streets. Vibrant greenery at every turn. Beautiful vistas overlooking the ocean. I can’t imagine a visit to Portugal without a stop in Sintra. There are day trips here from Lisbon but I highly recommend staying the night to truly enjoy it.
There is so much to see here. We clocked many miles of walking but tuk tuk is a fun way to get around, and there are buses as well. Our favorite things to do in Sintra were:
Pena Palace. A royal summer residence, it looks like something out of Disney World. It overlooks the ocean, you can explore inside the castle and the extensive grounds weave through the forest bringing you to beautifully landscaped gardens, ponds, and stables.
Castle of the Moors: Another castle to explore that is really more of a fortress where you can climb up the towers and walk along the top of the walls overlooking the ocean and all of Sintra. Absolutely amazing.
Quinta da Regaleira: This was by far our favorite stop in Sintra. It was the strangest, most interesting place I have ever been, and it’s shrouded in mystery. The imposing gothic mansion is only the beginning. The extensive grounds are a wondrous and bizarre playground for adults to explore. At surface level, there are winding paths, intriguing monuments and sculptures, gardens and gazebos. Underground, there is a massive system of tunnels and grottoes connecting to two deep shafts or “wells” that you can climb in and out of by way of stone, spiral staircases. Do yourself a favor and be dazzled by this maze of enchantment!
For our two nights in Sintra, we stayed at Moon Hill Hostel. The staff were a little snobby but the hostel itself was very sleek, modern and clean, and in a great location. The common areas were really nice.
Days 8 and 9: Lisbon
Lisbon and Sintra are a quick train ride away from one another, and we spent our last 2 nights in Lisbon, using the Alfama neighborhood as our home base. The Alfama is home to Fado music, and has an edgier, more unpolished feel than some other areas of the city. It has a very authentic, old, and raw vibe, and you could spend half the day getting lost in the narrow winding cobblestone streets. We found an affordable Airbnb and loved this little spot in the city. If you don’t stay in Alfama, you should definitely visit. If you walk around at night, you will hear the Fado music coming out of some of the clubs. Definitely stop to enjoy this eerily emotional music genre.
From Alfama, you can easily walk or take the subway to any other area of the city. We took a full day to explore. We started our day by lining up to ride the famous and historic Tram 28, one of the trolleys that runs along tracks throughout the city, like a rickety roller coaster ride. The tram begins its journey at Square Martim Moniz in Baixa and costs 3 euro. If you plan to take public transport throughout the day, you can get a better deal by purchasing a day pass at a metro station.
While the lines can be really long for this tram, it is a wonderful way to see parts of the city you might not otherwise see. While locals do use this tram to get around, it is mostly overridden with tourists, and for good reason. It’s a lot of fun. It winds up and down and around the curvy narrow streets, and you can catch glimpses of the ocean. We ended up getting off at a random stop where we had lunch overlooking the sea. If you are concerned about the lengthy lines for the tram, Time Travel Turtle suggests walking the tram line to see the sites at a slower pace.
From our stop, we just allowed ourselves to wander and get lost. We saw major shopping thoroughfares, viewed the golden gate-like bridge along the water, and came across the Elevador de Santa Justa in Baixa, that provided panoramic views of the city. We were so enamored by Lisbon. Each neighborhood was interesting and beautiful in its own way, and we enjoyed the graffiti that seemed to be everywhere, adding character to this incredible city.
At night, we decided to partake in another pub crawl. The bar scene was so much fun, and so different than anything I’ve ever experienced. Most of the bars were very small because you are allowed to buy a drink and wander the streets with it. You didn’t really need to choose a bar to hang out in because the party flooded out into the streets. Masses of people crawled from one location to the next, meeting one another and enjoying each other’s company. We met people from all of over the world and had a blast.
Warning: the end of the pub crawl brought us to a dance club on the water. They give you a card when you enter that tracks your drinks. You don’t pay for anything until you check out to leave and they don’t tell you how much anything costs. If you lose your card, they automatically charge you $100. This was a little crazy so we only bought one drink there and bounced.
Outside of the pub crawl, we did visit a famous speakeasy called the Red Frog located at 5A Rua do Salitre. This place was the definition of sophistication. Picture a dark, dimly lit, cozy space with red velvet seating. ( I actually can't remember if there was red velvet seating, but it feels like there should have been!) There are rules you must follow like men not being allowed to initiate contact with females. The drinks were each a work of art. I highly recommend a stop at this unique bar. Visit Culture Trip for some more interesting nightlife destinations.
While we could have easily spent many more days exploring the city, we decided the walking would be too much on our last day as temps were scheduled to rise above 100 degrees. Lisbon is located very close to some nice beaches, so we hopped a train to a nearby beach for the day, and let the freezing water keep us cool.
For more detailed information on visiting Lisbon, I recommend visiting GoLisbon. For more in depth ideas on visiting Portugal, Nomadic Matt has a really handy website. We absolutely loved Portugal and cannot wait to go back! I know you will love it too.Next time around, I want to make sure I get to Porto and the Azores.