I went on a three-week road trip across the west coast of Portugal. This was a scouting trip to see where I might want to buy a property for a retreat center. Portugal isn’t that big, but I feel like I just barely scratched the surface. It’s a lovely country, with beauty everywhere you turn, lush landscapes, rolling mountains, interesting architecture and town squares, kind and friendly people, and some of the most affordable vegan food options in Europe. It definitely won me over in a short amount of time! I started writing this blog thinking I would get everything into one post, but it really needs to be broken into two parts. So we will cut Portugal in half, and every place I visited north of Coimbra will be in this post. Then we’ll do the south in part two. And honestly, all the great food I ate needs its very own post so you’ll find that here. Enjoy!
My first stop was in Porto, the second-largest city in Portugal. It’s located in the north on the west coast, and you either fly into Lisbon or Porto when you visit Portugal. Lisbon tends to get all the recommendations if you ask a travel group on Facebook to choose between the two cities, but Porto gets a lot of love from its locals and travelers in the know. For my only full day in Porto, I went on a free walking tour and learned about its rich history. Let’s just say, it’s complicated! Portugal has been through A LOT. Porto in more recent years overcame a dictatorship and then had a serious heroin epidemic that left the city in shambles. No one wanted to visit. It’s come a long way since then. And Portugal is now the 3rd safest country in the world!
Portugal is known for the colorful tiles that are on the surface of nearly every building in Porto. There are many beautiful churches that tell stories with the tiles. Even the train station is filled with epic scenes of Porto’s history, and it’s kind of the most beautiful train station because of this. Of all the cities I visited in Portugal, Porto had the best architecture and buildings with cool tiles.
Since Porto is one of the larger cities in Portugal, it has all the benefits that come along with that. Like hipster coffeeshops and really nice vegan food. Some highlights are the gorgeous toast featured above from Bird of Passage Coffee. And I was happy to discover the vegan chain DaTerra, which has branches across Portugal with affordable vegan buffets (around 8.50€ for lunch). I did not have enough days in Porto to explore many options and ate twice at DeTerra!
After two nights in Porto, I picked up my rental car and headed to Guimarães. This would be my base for the next three days while I explored more of the Minho valley. This cute little village is known as the birthplace of Portugal because it is here where the most beloved first king was born. In 2011, Guimarães became a UNESCO World Heritage Site for being an “exceptionally well-preserved and authentic example of the evolution of a medieval settlement into a modern town” in Europe.
The one thing I noticed the most is the many adorable squares found all over the city. I’d wander down its tiny streets and would come upon a square like the one above, or a smaller one with cute cafes or artwork. It was my favorite thing about the city, next to the very kind and friendly people. You’ll find a beautiful castle, many churches, and other sites for your viewing pleasure and everything can be discovered by foot. Definitely stop here or consider it your base for exploring the north of Portugal.
There are a few vegetarian or vegan restaurants but they are only open for lunch so I couldn’t try them all sadly. Since I was only eating breakfast and dinner there, I found one restaurant that has a separate vegan menu called Xisko, and one burger place called Dan’s that has two vegan burgers on their menu and it was pretty tasty.
I took a day trip to Braga, and I was glad I did! It is bigger than Guimarães, has many beautiful squares, buildings, lush parks and churches (of course, Portugal has a TON of churches) and some great vegan food, too. One of the biggest attractions just right outside of Braga is Bom Jesus do Monte, a religious site with impressive gardens and hundreds of stairs leading up to a beautiful church. It’s a must-see.
I did a walking tour here as well, but since no one signed up for the English tour, I took the Spanish tour. The guide translated a bit for me and I could understand about half of what he was saying in Spanish. It wasn’t the best tour but he did take us to some lovely spots like the Garden of Santa Barbara above and told us the story behind the Arco da Porta Nova. There’s more to see, but I generally like to just wander around and then have a planned itinerary.
I had lunch in Braga at Hibiscus, which has a vegan buffet with different size plates to choose from that comes with soup and tea. The food is healthy and plant-based and a great deal. There are a few other nice options for vegan food so if you are spending a day or two here you’ll be fine!
I started to head south because I was on a mission to see as much of the west coast as possible. Now that I’m back reminiscing about my trip, I want to spend more time in certain areas and I’ll need to visit even more places. One town that was kind of overrated in my opinion was Aveiro. Maybe I was let down because it is hyped up so much – the “Venice of Portugal” it is called. Maybe it was the mobs of tourists taking little boats around the tiny channel. I wasn’t impressed but I did only spend an afternoon there. But I had two cool experiences happen. The first was at the saltwater lagoon nearby. I came upon a flock of flamingos hanging out and supposedly there are all kinds of wildlife here and nearby. Also, my Airbnb host and I hit it off because she teaches vegetarian cooking classes and is a great cook! Small world.
There is a wonderful little vegan cafe called A Mulata (NOW CLOSED) that has the best coffee and pastries. I ate the one pictured above in the middle, called a “Berlin ball”. Since I live in Berlin, I found it curious as to why this pastry is called that because I’ve never seen it or had one in Germany. I guess the Berlin ones are filled with jam or icing. Whatever you want to call it, it’s tasty af. Then I ate another vegan buffet at DaTerra, which was the best meal I had at this chain so far. Mmmm it’s just so awesome to have this available (though the one in Lisbon wasn’t that great).
I had read good things about Costa Nova beach so I drove through to check it out. I didn’t stay here so don’t have much to say except the beach looked gorgeous and I love the well-known striped houses along the coastline.
Even though I wasn’t able to see all of north Portugal, what I saw was beautiful and people were just so nice. I definitely plan to spend more time exploring though I think it rains too much for me to call this area my future home. Stay tuned for Part 2 of my three week road trip.
Have you been to Northern Portugal? What was your favorite city? Tell me in the comments!