DAO ROAD TRIP: PORTO TO COIMBRA
At Europe's westernmost tip lies a land rich with history, nature, and culture. Portugal keeps close ties to the medieval, Roman and Moorish roots it shares with neighboring Spain. Most tours of this Iberian gem, however, will place you in the heart of capital city Lisbon. While its fado-filled cobblestone streets deserve a spot on any traveler's bucket list, there is far more to the country's charms than Lisbon's old-world urban delights.
Portugal has a well-earned reputation in the world of wine for its sweet, fortified ports, made in the northern city of Porto. Gateway to both the Douro Valley and the central Dao region, Porto boasts a coastal location making it a prime place to enjoy Portugal's famous seafood-heavy cuisine and its viticultural chops. But even a package tour of Porto won't reveal all the country has to offer. With a private car rental from Auto Europe, you can break the city chains for an unforgettable Porto to Coimbra road trip.
Enjoy a few day trips from Porto, Portugal, like relaxing Foz do the Douro, before venturing into the rugged heartland of the country. Medieval Villa Real makes a stunning, historical introduction to Portugal's smaller towns and hamlets. Further inland, the sylvan paradise of Luso lies within the Buçacao Forest, anchored by a turn-of-the-century palace. Travel even deeper into Portugal's forests to scenic Serra da Estrela, before driving south to vibrant university town Coimbra. With this Portugal itinerary in hand and winding Iberian roads ahead, you won't miss those commercialized tours of Portugal a bit.
DAO ROAD TRIP DAY 1: PORTO
PORTO EVENTS AND ATTRACTIONS:
Porto is best known for giving its name to the internationally renowned port wines - sweet, fortified blends that make a perfect after-dinner drink. You can learn all about the city's signature beverage at the Museu do Vinho do Porto, before getting a firsthand taste at a port wine lodge. Taylor's and Graham's are among the top-rated in Porto, and both offer daily tours as well as tastings. Despite the strong wine culture, teetotalers won't be disappointed by the city's offerings. Art lovers can find works from the 19th and 20th centuries on display at the Soares dos Reis National Museum, or modern art at the Museu Arte Contemporanea. The Sé forms an anchor for the town with its varied ornamentation and is regarded as one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the country. Looking for some exercise? Hoof it up the 225 steps of the Torre does Clérigos - a breathtaking view over Porto will be your just reward. Party animals will want to make sure they arrange a summertime visit. From the raucous patron saint day Festa de São João in June to the liberal sprinkling of music and art festivals throughout July and August, there's no shortage of revelry in the warmer months. For some prime R&R, hop in your private Porto rental car and head west for Foz do the Douro. Locals simply adore trekking out to this nearby beach for a quick weekend escape from humdrum workdays.
PORTO RESTAURANTS, BARS, AND NIGHTLIFE:
Porto may be the king of the country's wine regions, but what's wine without food? Gourmands can satisfy their discerning palates at the elegant dining room O Paparico or the delightfully rustic ODE Porto Wine House. Next door neighbor Spain may be better known for the tapas tradition, but Portugal takes part in the small plates fun as well. Enjoy a shared meal with friends and family at Wine Quay Bar, Jimao Tapas e Vinhos, or Portu's.
PORTO HOTELS & LODGING:
If you're all tuckered out from a long day sightseeing, crawl into the lap of luxury at one of Porto's posh contemporary hotels, like the Porto Palacio Congress Hotel & Spa or the Hf Ipanema Park. Honeymooners are best off splurging on Pousada do Porto, a romantic spot with spacious rooms. On a tighter budget? The oceanfront Praiagolfe or the simple Quality Inn Portus Cale both offer comfortable and affordable accommodations. Art lovers who didn't get their aesthetic thirst quenched by Porto's museums will want to book a room at the eclectic Castelo de Santa Catarina, which is brimming with striking stained glasswork and charming old-world décor.
DAO ROAD TRIP DAY 2: VILA REAL
VILA REAL EVENTS AND ATTRACTIONS:
As its name suggests, Vila Real is a northerly town of princely proportions and played host to several members of Portugal's royal family during the Middle Ages. Get a taste of the town's longstanding royal pedigree at the striking 18th-century palace Casa de Mateus. Take a guided tour of the mansion's interior including its stables and chapel, or blaze your own trail through the estate's gardens. Admission may be a bit steep, but this internationally recognized façade should be on any Portugal visitor's bucket list. Casa de Mateus is also famous for its rose wine, so be sure to pick up a bottle at its gift shop as a souvenir to take home - that is, if you can resist enjoying it with a picnic lunch right away. As you explore the rest of the town, be sure to make stops at the incredible baroque Capela Nova. This 17th-century chapel goes by a variety of names - including Igreja dos Clérigos, Igreja de São Pedro Novo, and Igreja de São Paolo - but there is one thing all its visitors agree upon the church's imposing façade, gilded Renaissance-style altar, and traditional blue tilework are fundamental to the fabric of the town. The simultaneously modern and historical Teatro de Vila Real is also worthy of a place on your road trip itinerary.
VILA REAL RESTAURANTS, BARS, AND NIGHTLIFE:
While you're in Vila Real, why not treat yourself to a regal meal? Cais da Villa pairs traditional Portuguese meals with modern sensibilities and a stellar wine selection in a trendy, yet comfortable setting. Chaxoila has a little something for every taste, from pork and tripe to cod and calamari. If you're not one to judge a book by its cover, stride past the unassuming façade of Restaurante Cardoso and dig into satisfying, imaginative national cookery. Or, tuck into traditional dishes amid rustic charm at Terra de Montanha. Got a sweet tooth? Cap off your meal with a pastry from Casa Lapao.
VILA REAL HOTELS & LODGING:
Get breathtaking views of the nearby gorge from a room at Hotel Mira Corgo, a four-star hotel with a more affordable price point. The Estalagem Quinta do Paço is far from a luxurious joint, but its old-fashioned rusticity will appeal to less picky types. Far more impressive than its traditional hotels are Vila Real's B&Bs. Casa Agricola da Levada is teeming with old-world charm and gets brownie points for selling local wine and cheese in its reception area - the perfect addition to a picnic lunch for a sunny afternoon in the town's historic city center. Casa da Quinta de Sao Martinho offers comfortable, intimate lodgings to vacationers.
DAO ROAD TRIP DAY 3: LUSO & SERRA DA ESTRELA
LUSO & SERRA DA ESTRELA EVENTS AND ATTRACTIONS:
Deep inside Portugal's vast center lies a rugged, forested highland, which converges on the charming sylvan village of Luso. This time-tested countryside makes the perfect escape on a Portugal itinerary for busy city slickers and you wouldn't find it on most tours of Portugal. As you drive the winding roads through the Buçaco Forest, be sure to make a stop at the Palace Hotel do Buçaco, even if you won't be dining or staying the night (see below). This Manueline castle is a major landmark in the region, filled with ornate gardens and grotesque gargoyles. For extra R&R, book a treatment at the Maloclinic Spa. If Luso and the Buçaco Forest don't satisfy your lust for verdant views, continue your trail from Porto to Coimbra in picturesque Serra da Estrela. Tucked away in this stunning mountain range is some of the region's best hiking. Packaged Porto tours certainly wouldn't take you this far into the heart of Iberia, so make the most of your car rental in Portugal and explore this breathtaking region to its fullest.
LUSO & SERRA DA ESTRELA RESTAURANTS, BARS, AND NIGHTLIFE:
Whether or not you plan on booking a room at the Palace Hotel do Buçaco (see below), make a point of stopping for lunch at the sprawling turn-of-the-century castle's dining room. Its skilled staff serves up a variety of dishes amid gourmet elegance. For a more modest, but still filling, meal dig into a steak or black pork at Pedra de Sal, or enjoy a leisurely dinner chock-full of traditional Portuguese fare at Restaurante Lourencos. Want an authentic joint that's not packed with other tourists? Head to O Cesteiro.
LUSO & SERRA DA ESTRELA HOTELS & LODGING:
Live your own personal fairy tale at the Palace Hotel do Buçaco. Its storybook setting makes it an especially good choice for honeymooners or other couples looking for a romantic European getaway. Find a smaller bill without sacrificing quality at the charmingly old-world Alegre Hotel. The classic and conveniently located Grande Hotel de Luso also makes a good base for exploring this forested region, as does the quaint, old-fashioned Inatel Luso. To get the most out of Serra da Estrela's natural beauty, pitch a tent at Covão da Ametade, a minimal campground with incredible views, or go "glamping" in the terraced tents of Quinta das Cegonhas. If roughing it just isn't your style, you can find comfortable, affordable lodgings in Serra da Estrela at Residencial Santos.
DAO ROAD TRIP DAY 4: COIMBRA
COIMBRA EVENTS AND ATTRACTIONS:
Your Dao region road trip comes to a close in this lively college town. Velha Universidade, the oldest university in Europe, dates all the way back to the 13th century and still furthers students' education within its grandiose halls today, making Coimbra a dynamic city filled with youthful energy and age-old history. The medieval-era campus is open daily for tours and comes alive when classes let out in May, kicking off the boozy weeklong festival Queima das Fitas. When you tire of this erudite setting, venture out into town to visit the ornate medieval church Igreja da Santa Cruz, complete with royal tombs. Adventurous types can rent a kayak from O Pineiro do Mondego and work in some prime paddling on the Rio Mondego. Coimbra's winding backstreets are riddled with taverns and bars. Kick back at the artsy tearoom Galeria Bar Santa Clara or the hip, student-friendly Feitoconceito. For a more active night out, dance well into the witching hours at Murphy's Irish Pub. History buffs can take a blast into Portugal's Roman past at Conimbriga, a small town of ruins featuring a historical museum about 16 kilometers south of Coimbra. Without a private rental car, you'd have to resort to sitting on a crowded bus to reach this town's striking scenery of mosaic floors and elaborate fountains, so be sure to take full advantage of your freedom in driving.
COIMBRA RESTAURANTS, BARS, AND NIGHTLIFE:
Fill up on traditional Portuguese fare in an eclectic atmosphere at the kookily-decorated Restaurante Zé Manel. Sample a variety of modern tapas, like prawn curry and bruschetta with mushrooms, at Dux Petiscos e Vinhos, or get small plates paired with local wines at A Taberna. For an indulgent, stick-to-your-ribs meal, try the much-lauded francesinha at Compostu Tavern.
COIMBRA HOTELS & LODGING:
For true old-world charm, make your reservation at Hotel Quinta das Lagrimas, a historic mansion packed with cozy common rooms and luxurious amenities, including a sauna and steam bath. If you prefer more modern accommodations, you'll be happier at the sleekly appointed Hotel Vitoria. Vila Gale Coimbra earns its four-star status with stellar service, comfortable rooms, and serene recreational facilities. For a prime location to sightsee around historic Coimbra, book a room at the central Hotel Oslo Coimbra.