Portugal is among the top destinations for LGBTQs

  • by Charlie Wagner
  • Wednesday October 30, 2019
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The view of Praca do Comericio on Tejo riverfront from Castelo S. Jorge is breathtaking. Photo: Charlie Wagner
The view of Praca do Comericio on Tejo riverfront from Castelo S. Jorge is breathtaking. Photo: Charlie Wagner

My husband and I kept seeing Portugal listed as one of "the places to visit in 2019." The Spartacus Gay Travel Index rated it as tied with Sweden and Canada for the world's most friendly LGBTQ destination. It's full of colorful and ancient buildings. Madonna even has a house there.

Feeling the same curiosity as so many others, we planned our first vacation in Portugal and started in Lisbon, which has the best air connections to the U.S. TAP Portugal airlines recently started nonstop service from San Francisco to both Lisbon and Porto, and its Stopover program (http://www.flytap.com) allows a stopover in either city for up to five nights for no extra charge.

TAP organized a trip for travel writers in June, which included a flight to Lisbon. Our spacious Business Class seats provided for lie-flat sleeping. Our group of writers stayed at the Pestana CR7 Lisboa hotel (www.pestanacr7.com), partially owned by one of Portugal's most famous soccer players. The snug rooms were quiet for sleeping and had effective blackout curtains.

Both were important because one block away was Praca do Comericio, a Tejo riverfront plaza renowned for watching sunsets. I found CR7 so well located that husband, Tom, and I stayed there again in September when we both visited.

Dinner in June was at the Mini Bar gastropub restaurant in the nearby Chiado district, our first exposure to the consistently creative and delicious restaurants of Portugal (www.minibar.pt). The gushy reviews on Trip Advisor are correct, for once.

Chef Jose Avillez has assembled a witty and surprising collection of small plates, ending with what looks like unshelled peanuts on a bed of gravel, but is actually portions of peanut ice cream on a bed of cocoa nibs, adding a crunchy, bitter chocolate garnish to the frozen dairy. Wild!

During our September trip, my husband and I enjoyed an excellent dinner for 55€ (with wine) at the new Marisqueira Azul seafood restaurant, which faces the plaza. In the nearby Mercado da Ribeira, the Time Out publisher has converted part of the covered market to "curated" restaurant stalls, some run by Michelin-starred chefs. Long tables in the center hold happy diners; most dishes are 15€ or less.

We purchased a Lisboa Card (https://www.lisboacard.org/) for free entry into about 45 museums and monuments, a pass for public transportation, and discounts to dozens of other attractions, tours, and stores. Alternatively, a Zapping pass, loaded with money like a Clipper card, covers local buses, elevators, funiculars, the subway, and even some local trains, for a discounted rate.

We visited the Lisbon Story Center (http://www.lisboastorycentre.pt/en) to learn more of the city's history; the show includes a corny, but interesting, animation of the 1755 earthquake and tsunami. That seismic event killed thousands, destroyed most of Lisbon, and is the reason the city has few surviving pre-1755 buildings.

A block from our hotel was the famous Tram E28, which ends at the Cemetario dos Prazeres, started in 1833. The cemetery holds so many famous deceased Portuguese that they print a map for visitors. The tram is extremely popular, so try to take it early or late in the day.

To go uphill to the Chiado district, we took the Gloria funicular to Rua de Alcantara for dinner at the lively Insolito restaurant (http://www.theindependente.pt), where reservations are necessary to enjoy rooftop dining with a spectacular view. Check out the creative desserts like Go Nuts and Cool Sandwich.

After two days in Lisbon, we took the Rede Express bus directly to Portimao in the Algarve, a trip of 3.5 hours. Get tickets in advance; all seats are reserved. The bus passed miles of countryside with vineyards, olive groves, and grazing cows.

Our home in the Algarve was the Mirachoro III (https://en.mirachorohotels.com/hotel-mirachoropraia-in-algarve/). For only 70€ per night in September, the Mirachoro provided an apartment with a kitchen, free parking, and a small pool and snack bar; several supermarkets are nearby and walkable. A free hotel shuttle runs to downtown and the beach, though both are walkable.

To see more of the western Algarve, we rented a car from Algarve Car Hire (http://www.autorent.pt); rates start at 35€ per day for a tiny Fiat Panda.

Portimao is an attractive but congested small city, divided between a compact downtown on the Arade River and a beach section called Praia da Rocha on the Atlantic. The waterfront plaza is the place for strolling, people watching, and arranging boat trips; nearby are the visitor center and several good restaurants.

One of the best is the Dona Barco restaurant (http://www.facebook.com/Dona-Barca-182140968491369), located in Portimao's small restaurant row. We had our first taste of perfectly grilled dourada, similar to sea bass. The menu was almost entirely fish; lunch for two was 50€.

The unexpected treat was sitting at a long table with about a dozen Europeans. Our immediate neighbors were two Portuguese women from Angola, a former Portuguese colony, and a Belgian couple whose husband was eager to show the immense boars he had hunted. Our political discussion was lively and amicable.

Next to that is the Museu de Portimao, usually called the Sardine Museum (http://www.museudeportimao.pt). In a former sardine factory, this fascinating museum depicts the history of the sardine industry, which dominated Portimao since the 1800s.

Rocha is a wide sand beach, with gentle waves, a gradual drop-off, and a comfortable temperature for swimming. Two loungers and an umbrella rented for 12€, but the beach itself is free.

Much of the Algarvian coast is rocky bluffs and we wanted to explore the cliff-top hiking. In about 45 minutes (including getting lost), we drove to Benagil for a tasty lunch of dourada and razor clams at O Litoral restaurant (http://www.facebook.com/RestauranteOLitoral) (60€).

Benagil is a small town with a small beach, popular because sea caves are adjacent to the sandy beach. We followed an easy trail for about 10 minutes to a blowhole, formed when the roof of a sea cave collapses. The sandy area inside the blowhole was full of kayakers and tour boats, all trying to avoid swimmers. An easier walk starts to the west at Carvoeiro, where a boardwalk has been built on the cliff top.

To see the caves from the water, the next day we took the Benagil Express boat tour (http://www.benagilexpress.com/en), which enters some of the larger caves.

That evening back in Portimao, we experienced the most theatrical dining experience of our trip in the beautiful Michelin-starred Vista Restaurant (http://www.vistarestaurante.com/en). We ordered the Chef's Menu (110€) with a wine pairing and a juice pairing. We had never seen a juice pairing before, and it included a delicious, barely-sweet mixture of melon, celery, and coriander.

Before the waiter served the bread, he brought a bowl covered by a clear glass dome filled with smoke. As he lifted the dome, pine-scented smoke wafted away to reveal a cone of pine-flavored goat butter for our house-made bread. The pre-dessert was called "The oranges from the Algarve." Our waiter brought a miniature citrus tree with two miniature oranges, which are actually candies with orange ganache outside and orange mousse inside.

In the center of Portimao is The Loft, one of the few gay bars of the Algarve, open from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. Admission is only 8€, but we did not stay up late enough to visit (http://www.facebook.com/loftportimao).

About 30 minutes away by car is the small town of Silves, famous for its ancient castle. The castle is mostly a shell, but you can walk completely around the ramparts and enjoy views in every direction as well as see the former cistern, designed to be large enough to survive long sieges.

Back in Lisbon we moved to an apartment managed by Fado Flats (www.fadoflats.pt), which has apartments in the Chiado and Alfama districts. Our Chiado 9 apartment had two bedrooms for 120€ per night; the private courtyard garden was especially nice for break days. Fado Flats manager Mario Caldeira's office was across the street; he helped repeatedly with advice, directions, and making reservations.

One block away was the Bairro do Avillez complex (http://www.bairrodoavillez.pt/en). We had two exceptional dinners at the beautiful Pateo, which had smooth service and an extensive menu.

Also nearby is the less expensive seafood restaurant Adega de Sao Roque (www.fullest.pt/en/restaurants/adega-de-sao-roque); we had a savory crab stew over rice and grilled fresh sardines (50€ for two). The sardines we consumed were worlds away from their canned cousins.

Ascensor da Bica is considered Lisbon's most picturesque funicular. Photo: Charlie Wagner  

Late summer parties
From late August to late September, Lisboa Na Rua, or Lisbon on the Streets, (http://www.culturanarua.pt/en) programs dozens of free events all over the city, many enjoyable without knowing Portuguese.

We took a short subway ride to the Estufa Fria de Lisboa, a lattice-roofed outdoor garden with very elaborate water features and 10 temporary art installations throughout the gardens. Out Jazz was a free jazz concert in Parque de Bela Vista, with a guitar soloist and seating on the grass with a view over the city to the Tejo River.

The next morning we visited the Monasterio de los Jeronimos, which has a church and a cloister; our Lisboa Card enabled us to see the cloisters without waiting. The church is free, the ultimate example of Manueline architecture and popular; visit in the early morning to avoid lines.

Manueline architecture is a Portuguese style of Gothic ornamentation popular in the early 1500s, incorporating maritime and even whimsical references to Portuguese discoveries. It was named after monarch Manual I, who reigned from 1495 to 1521, and was largely financed by a surge of wealth from Portugal's spice trade with Africa and India.

Many examples did not survive the 1755 earthquake, but one that did is the proximate Torre de Belem. Down the street from the Monasterio is the famous Pastis de Belem bakery, considered by Lisboans as the originator of the popular egg custards. The lines move fast and you're guaranteed a very fresh pastry.

To take a break from crowds, we spent an afternoon in the Museu Art Antiqua (http://www.museudearteantiga.pt), which holds works by many famous European artists (don't miss Bosch's "Temptation of St. Anthony") plus an extensive collection of decorative arts like furniture, silver, and pottery. Don't miss the inexpensive restaurant behind the museum with a view over the river, with a bridge resembling our Golden Gate Bridge in the background.

One of our favorite museums was the Tile Museum, whose three floors presented tiles from the 15th to the 21st centuries in a former convent. The museum has good labels in English and a simple cafe with an adjacent garden. On the top floor is the spectacular panoramic tile mural showing Lisbon in the early 1700s, before the quake.

Another favorite was the large Calouste Gulbenkian Museum (http://www.gulbenkian.pt/en), founded by a wealthy oil broker and antiquities collector. Highlights are his large carpet collection and Middle Eastern art and tiles. The galleries were beautiful and spacious, and there are English-guided tours on Sunday and Monday. The collection starts with ancient Egypt and continues to the 20th century.

On the recommendation of Fado Flats manager Caldeira, we reserved a table at Fado ao Carmo (http://www.facebook.com/fadoaocarmo), a small Fado restaurant close to our apartment. Fado is the Portuguese musical genre born in the 1820s or earlier, characterized by mournful tunes and lyrics, often expressing a longing for someone or something lost.

We started with pureed fava beans with house-made bread, olive oil "so good you can drink it," and herb butter. Next was a rabbit-filled samosa with marinated parsnip, a codfish croquette with dip of chickpeas, onion and tomatoes, and two mains: an Alentejo-style pork neck and octopus rice served like paella. Dessert was Portuguese flan and chocolate mousse (35€ each including entertainment).

Service paused periodically for singer Ines de Vasconcellos, accompanied by two classical guitars tuned for Fado and one Portuguese guitar.

We wanted to swim in the Atlantic once more, so we again took the advice of Caldeira and caught the 45-minute beach shuttle (5€) from Praca da Figueira to the best beaches near Lisbon: Costa de Caparica. The bus drops you off in front of a series of beach-oriented businesses and restaurants.

The beach train to gay-popular and clothing optional Beach 19 stopped in mid-September, so we wandered into Ona (http://www.instagram.com/we.are.ona), a new restaurant featuring "young chefs, BBQ fish, and real wines." Ona had a sophisticated menu, was reasonably priced, and everything was locally sourced. Our main was manila clams with coriander and garlic, served with toasted house-made sourdough bread to soak up the broth (60€).

Back on the wide, sandy beach after lunch, we enjoyed the warm Atlantic among a scattering of other sunbathers.

At the bottom of the hill from Chiado 9 is the Rossio train station, where the trains for Sintra depart. Less than an hour away, Sintra has castles, palaces, and estates, called quinta, and merits at least a full day. The town is located on steep and heavily wooded hills, so visiting more than two sites a day requires careful planning even though there's a shuttle bus system reaching most sites.

Intrigued by descriptions of the "Harry Potter-esque" features of the Quinta da Regaleira, we chose that as our first stop. Regaleira was designed by an Italian architect and theatrical set designer; it was constructed between 1904 and 1910. The neo-Manueline buildings are worth visiting, but more interesting are the follies, water features, grottoes, caves, and underground passages.

The star attractions are two Wells of Initiation. Entry to the larger is via a rotating stone door, which leads to a spiraling staircase around what looks like a multi-story tower buried in the ground. At the bottom are a series of tunnels, one emerging behind a waterfall pouring into a pond and another leading to the second "well" that you ascend to ground level. Allow at least three hours to see the 10-acre estate.

Boaters, kayakers, and swimmers converge on a popular sea cave near Benagil in the Algarve. Photo: Charlie Wagner  

On a different and rainy day, we returned to visit the National Palace of Sintra, primarily an indoor experience. It's the oldest and most historic structure in Sintra except for the Castelo Mouros. As we walked through the rooms, costumed performers dancing to Renaissance music entertained us. The palace has beautiful old tiles and some original furniture, plus a huge kitchen with 100 foot tall chimneys.

Another easy trip is the 40-minute train ride to Cascais, a wealthy resort with small beaches and attractive, impeccably clean plazas. Bigger beaches are reachable by bus, but are recommended primarily for surfers. We had a very good lunch at the vegetarian House of Wonders restaurant, sitting on the roof deck and enjoying the "farm to table" selections (30€). Close by, the Historia Paula Rego museum has etchings and prints by the provocative surrealist and expressionist artist.

We took a taxi to the ancient Moorish Castelo de Sao Jorge, which looms over central Lisbon. Try to get to the castle soon after it opens at 9 a.m. The massive walls are walkable and provide breathtaking views in all directions.

Our final lunch in Lisbon started with a stroll to Miradouro Santa Catarina; miradouro means "scenic overlook." We passed several river view restaurants on the way to Lapo (www.lapo.pt). Their small plates included Portuguese prosciutto on toast, a salad of Presunto or Portuguese dry-cured ham, and another salad of goat cheese, lettuce, a perfectly ripe pear and fig, and toasted almonds (40€).

Buildings in Lisbon are painted in beautiful shades of blue, green, pink, yellow, orange, and tan. Others have facades covered with bright tiles, either patterned or depicting a scene. It's easy to visit without knowing much Portuguese, but you'll see smiles when you say please or thank you in the local language.

If you want to visit unique sites one day, go swimming the next, and enjoy delicious food all day every day, Portugal is the place to go.