How to make the most of a trip to this picturesque country that's buzzier than ever right now.

By By Alexa Erickson
July 06, 2018
Photo: Loic Lagarde/Getty Images

A slice of a country with just over 10 million people, Portugal has flown under the radar in comparison to other European countries as a global travel destination. But there's been a noticeable uptick in buzz. In 2017, just over 12.7 million people visited the country-a 12 percent increase from 2016. But why?

First, the number of Americans traveling abroad has increased 8.2 percent each year, according to the National Travel and Tourism Office. So, with this growing desire to prioritize travel, it makes sense that people would search for new places to discover. Portugal generates tourist traffic thanks to its incredible wines, charming and historic cities with bright sunshine year round (did you know Lisbon is said to be Europe's sunniest capital city?), and exquisite beaches with rolling swell for surfers. But while the beaches are magical, Portugal isn't just about the beaches. (Related: How to Stay Healthy While Traveling Without Ruining Your Vacation)

Luckily, because Portugal is small, you can explore the country in its entirety in one trip, if you desire. Start by flying into the Algarve-the southern region, where you'll experience cliffside fishing villages hovering above the sparkling Atlantic-then take a 3.5-hour train to Lisbon, and end with another 2.5-hour train ride to Porto, where all your wine dreams will come true. But really, there's no wrong way to experience Portugal. (Related: Learn How to Plan the Most Epic Adventure Vacation of Your Life)

Here, how to make the most of a trip to Portugal, which is filled with incredible history, culture, and food to explore amidst the narrow cobblestone streets, steep hills, and cliffs.

Lisbon: Portugal's Relaxed Coastal Capital

Lisbon has gained the most hype among tourists, and for good reason. There are endless things to see and do in the country's capital, and it's drop-dead gorgeous, making it a no-brainer pitstop. Thanks to the relaxed vibe, you'll find yourself abandoning plans here, getting wrapped up in conversation with locals, and settling in at a cafe for hours. There's a healthy amount of tourism, and yet no one seems to be begging you to come into their restaurant or purchase their souvenirs.

Explore the city on foot.

Reminiscent of San Francisco, Lisbon is also built on exactly seven hills, comes with colorful cable cars and, perhaps most obviously, boasts a huge golden suspension bridge built by the same construction company. The city is covered in striking tile facades of bright blues, bold yellows, crisp whites, and pastel pinks. You'll want to walk and walk and walk until even your most comfortable shoes aren't so comfortable anymore, and your camera is filled with pictures of historical structures, statues, and colorful walls.

The beauty is so overwhelming that you'd be smart to set up a walking tour with a native. Discover Walks is one option that brings you through steep winding alleys to the best lookout points of the city, up close and personal with hidden landmark churches, and to the best shops and café terraces. (Related: The Best Solo Travel Destinations for Women)

Take in the view.

In search of the best view of the bridge? You'll find Rio Maravilha is hard to beat. Located within the hip hangout known as the LX Factory, the rooftop reveals sultry views of the bridge at sunset, where people gather with cocktails in hand for pictures. You can also head just below to the restaurant to enjoy the sinking sun over tapas and wine.

Hop on the tram.

Tram 28 seems is the popular choice of transportation throughout the city. A stop on this route brings you to the Alfama District, where tiled chapels, grandiose cathedrals, and remnants of old city walls bring you back centuries. The nearby neighborhood of Graça is just as charming with its medieval streets and quaint local markets.

Eat your heart out.

Café de São Bento thrives on the throwback atmosphere-locals tucked into intimate corners, eating a classic Portuguese steak past midnight. Meanwhile, Belcanto is a reminder that Portuguese passion for food welcomes innovation. The team behind José Avillez concept is already working toward their third Michelin star. Carve out your day for a place like this, which offers a tasting menu that will have you holed up in absolute delight for hours. Equally as cosmopolitan is RIB Beef & Wine, boasting bustling street views of the Praça do Comércio. The square was formerly known as the Royal Ribeira Palace until it was destroyed by the great 1755 Lisbon earthquake.

Find your balance.

Lisbon is ideal for those who want a mix of high energy and relaxation. Neighborhoods like Bairro Alto and Príncipe Real are bursting with eclecticism, offering a seamless transition between old and new. Bairro Alto is scenic by day and a nightlife mecca by night, while Príncipe Real is primarily a residential district that boasts gardens, tranquil squares, and vibrant buildings.

And while the relaxation of a beach can feel like the ultimate vacation, luckily your money goes a long way in Portugal, even in Lisbon. This means five-star hotels with city views on quiet streets, including Iberostar and InterContinental, where you can relax in their top-notch spas and pools. (Related: Boozy Spa Treatments from Around the World)

Porto: Portugal's Photogenic "Second City"

The second-largest city in Portugal, Porto is inundated with beauty thanks to its blend of history, tradition, and modern Portuguese culture, but also because of its combination of the ancient town with beautiful beaches. Plus, as the name would have it, a Port production industry that has tourists swarming to the city for a cultured and tasty holiday destination. You'll also find dozens of restaurants, bars, and craft shops here, offering a taste of traditional Portugal.

Explore the history.

Start by exploring the historic Ribeira Square-a designated World Heritage by UNESCO and one of the oldest and most visited places in the city. You'll find major landmarks like the Luis I Bridge and Casa do Infante. The grand plazas of the Avenida dos Aliados are also worthy of exploring for a taste of rich history. (Related: Why You Should Consider Booking a Fitness-Meets-Volunteering Trip)

Try the incredible wine.

There is no lack of wine in Portugal. In fact, the country has more than 200 indigenous grapes, only a few of which have made it outside the country's borders. This means you have the ability to try wines you've never come across. Wine lists are filled with various wines by region including full-bodied and high tannin red wines, beeswax-driven sparkling wines, and of course, Port. Wine connoisseurs should tour a Port wine lodge, sampling the product of wine aged for years. (Pst: The Best Rosé Wines You Can Buy for Less Than $20)

Check out the local food and music scene.

Hidden gems for foodies exist everywhere throughout the city, including ODE Porto Winehouse, which is tucked down a side street. Colorful yet simple plates of Portuguese dishes, made with locally-sourced ingredients, make for an authentic and organic experience.

Music isn't remiss in this country, nor in Porto itself. With cellars abound offering an intimate and sultry experience, it makes sense that places like Cálem offer a place to taste Port while experiencing a memorable Fado show. Fado will take you out of your comfort zone of musical choices, and into a world of mournful yet soulful folk music.

Take a boat tour.

Exploring downtown Porto by foot will keep you busy, but it can also be physically exhausting thanks to its hilly topography. Get off your feet for a while and take one of the "Six Bridges" cruises that leave from the Ribeira riverfront. They're a one-hour cruise up and down the Douro River, providing you a different vantage point of the city, including the architectural beauty of Ponte Dona Maria Pia.

If you can't get enough of the coast, opt for a room at Pestana Vintage Porto, which overlooks the river and the historic square.

Algarve: Portugal's Beach Cities

It would be an injustice not to discuss the special southern region of Portugal called the Algarve. You can certainly grab a beach towel and lay on the sand for the day, but even here, the beaches come only second to what else there is to offer. Lagos is one of the most popular towns in the region.

Seek out wellness retreats.

The Algarve has become a wellness retreat hub, offering solitude atop cliffs where mind and body regeneration come together. And while you can certainly take advantage of such planned retreats, there are plenty of opportunities to include the wellness aspect into your own vacation. (Related: These Wellness Retreats Will Make You Feel Like a New Person In Just a Few Days)

Check into Boutique Hotel Vivenda Miranda for the peace and quiet, with nothing but the sound of chirping birds and a slight breeze moving through the trees. Morning yoga classes on a lush lawn and the vegetarian, vegan and raw cuisine available make for a cleansing experience. Forget a beach run when you can go for a cliff run up and down steep terrain that has you overlooking the Atlantic.

Get lost in the bustling alleys.

From Vivenda Miranda, a 10-minute walk has you in downtown Lagos, with around-the-clock bustling life much different than the boutique hotels' quiet enclosure. Cobblestone narrow streets hug hillside restaurants, bars, and boutiques, while wider streets are filled with rustic tables for al fresco dining. (Opt to travel by foot so you don't miss all of the hidden treasures!) It's hard to find a poor dining option here, but if you thrive on suggestions, cozy up at a rustic table inside dimly-lit Mullens.

Explore the city vibes by the beach.

Another popular town in the Algarve region is Portimaõ. Atop the cliffs you'll find a funky street that feels much more authentic than the restaurants and shops on the sand below. If there is one place that reigns supreme, it would certainly be Bela Vista Hotel & Spa. Built in 1934, the hotel boasts many of its original features, including the stunning stained-glass windows, painted wooden ceilings, and the wall tiles. The palace-like complex is also home to Michelin star restaurant Vista Restaurante, where the chef ensures a dining experience that is creative without being overpowering. NoSoloÁgua Club is another must-visit spot. (If a restaurant in Ibiza and a pool party in Las Vegas had a baby, it might look something like this place.)