Is it just me, or is Portugal experiencing a Prague season? I don’t mean Prague Spring, the Czech capital’s flicker of liberation during Communist rule in 1968, though many Portuguese still openly relish the demise of their own authoritarian regime 45 years ago. Instead, I’m referring to a groundswell of appreciation for architectural embellishment, artisan alcohol (now Port, then Pilsner) and enticing bargain rates for even the most luxurious experiences. In the mid-1990s, these aspects brought cognoscenti at first, and then the crowds, to Prague. Now it appears to be Portugal’s time to trend.
Most Portuguese journeys start in the country’s capital, which boasts some charmingly familiar aspects for San Franciscans: hilly streets climbed by crayon-hued trolleys, seafood-centric local cuisine and nearby beaches with surf breaks (we’ll skip the epic earthquakes for now). The most striking resemblance is the nearly two-mile-long 25th of April Bridge (Ponte de 25 Abril) over the Tagus River; San Francisco’s Tudor Engineering Company, whose founder also designed the Bay Bridge, built the Golden Gate Bridge lookalike in 1966. On a private sail underneath the ponte, one of several exclusive experiences arranged by travel provider Cox and Kings USA, the setting sun hovered like a ripe blood orange as we passed the ornate museums and broad plazas of the Belem District, itself akin to San Francisco’s Civic Center.
In the Hayes Valley-like Alcantara neighborhood at the foot of the bridge, the repurposed buildings of LX Factory host quirky boutiques and hip restaurants with a decidedly Portuguese flavor. Two renovated historic markets, Mercado de Campo de Ourique and Mercado da Ribeira (also known as Time Out Market, after the magazine that restored it) recall both the Ferry Building Marketplace and Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in a dazzling profusion of dining options and provisions.
Speaking of dazzling, Portugal’s ubiquitous wall tiles, known as azulejos, make cruising nearly any street a kaleidoscopic experience. And the best way to explore the often steep and narrow streets of historic neighborhoods Alfama and Bairro Alto and the chic shopping enclave of Chiado is by vintage sidecar. You may feel a bit like cartoon villains riding below well-versed guides on their motorcycles, but Sidecar Touring Company’s half-day tours literally cover the waterfront, plus hilltop viewpoints such as Edward VII Park (Parque Eduardo VII) and icons such as Cafe A Brasileira, which began pouring Brazilian coffee in 1905.
I ordered an espresso-like bica while standing at the counter — only tourists sit, Sidecar founder Joao Soares advised. He also explained the preponderance of egg yolk pastéis (pastries) as matter of earlier practicality: Centuries ago, nuns used egg whites to starch laundry, while monks employed the whites in fining red wines. The solution for leftover yolks? Add sugar, flour and butter and call it a dia.
My sidecar tour came courtesy of the Four Seasons Hotel Lisbon, which provides its own stunning vistas as well as the most elaborate breakfast and lunch buffets of any I’ve seen. I also enjoyed the panorama and regional wines at the updated Hotel Tivoli’s rooftop Sky Bar, amid the high-end shops of Avenida da Liberdade.
To taste more wine, including fortified Port at its source, head three hours north by car, or two-and-a-half by high-speed train. Like Lisbon, Porto claims enchantingly eclectic architecture, hilly topography and burgeoning luxury hotels, including the sleek new Pestana Porto A Brasileira (home to another outpost of the renowned cafe) and the recently reopened, extravagantly opulent Hotel Infante Sagres. It’s the gateway to the Douro Valley — think Napa, but with a bigger river, taller hills and way less traffic.
While most visitors follow the Douro River inland via a river cruise, a car lets you better experience the region’s vertiginous thrills. Cox and Kings set up a private behind-the-scenes tour of family-owned Quinta da Pacheca, where my companions tried their hand at crushing grapes by foot, as winery workers still do; I was more intrigued by the winery’s unique barrel-shaped cabins. At Sandeman’s aerie-like Quinta do Seixo, we sipped a variety of ports and picnicked while watching a riverboat far below. We agreed we needed to spend more time in Portugal — and to do so before too many others do, too.
TAP Air Portugal, flytap.com, is expected to start nonstop service from San Francisco to Lisbon at a yet-unannounced date in 2019. Currently, Bay Area travelers need to connect via the East Coast or Europe. Note: United Airlines serves Lisbon and Porto from Newark and Washington Dulles.
Cox and Kings USA’s private, customized trips can include flights, transfers, private guides, lodgings and more; coxandkingsusa.com.
JET-SETTERS WEIGH IN
Phil Spiegel (executive VP, Clint Reilly Organization, man-about-town): I was doing the Portuguese Camino de Santiago, so I wasn’t typically staying in nice hotels. But I splurged in Porto and stayed at the Porto A.S. 1829, which used to be an old printing and stationery store and is totally remodeled and very nice. It was in the heart of downtown Porto, very close to Sao Francisco Cathedral and the Rua das Flores. It was a very cute, bordering on romantic, spot.
Lynn Chang (Sr. Manager, JFrog): An hour west of Lisbon, I recommend Hotel Fortaleza do Guincho. The hotel was built as a fortress in the 1700s and it preserved much of the architecture and design from that time. There are fewer than 30 rooms! It’s nearby a popular surfing beach and also has a top-notch restaurant that features locally sourced ingredients and an expansive list of Portuguese wines. Oh, it also happens to have a one Michelin-starred restaurant.
Brian Mullins (VP, Chime): I recommend the coastal town of Cascais, which is very pretty, though probably a better place to visit when it’s warm. I also got to experience Sintra, which is high in the mountains and home to some ancient religious and medieval castles and buildings. But I loved Lisbon the most — it’s like a European San Francisco, with meandering hills and great food.