There are so many places in the world I want to see, so I rarely return to a country twice.
But my trip to northern Portugal in 2015 was so incredible that it had me breaking my own rule. I returned to the country the following year for a magical vacation.
Always mindful of my budget, I used frequent-flyer miles to pay for my ticket and stayed at some incredibly interesting (and affordable) Airbnbs along the way.
I have affectionately nicknamed Portugal the "California of Europe" because of its scenic ocean views, plentiful sunshine, delicious farm-to-table food, amazingly affordable wines, and laid-back, warm people. It's the perfect place for budget travelers who enjoy going off the beaten path.
Here are a few of my favorite ways to spend Portugal's idyllic days and calming nights in rugged Alentejo, regal Sintra, romantic Porto, and the breathtaking Duoro Valley.
1. Hiking and Surfing in Alentejo.
The Hike & Surf Lodge in a tiny village called Vila Nova de Milfontes offers group surf lessons at an incredibly reasonable price. From Vila Nova, you can easily access Rota Vicentina—a 400-kilometer hiking route considered to be among the most beautiful coastal areas of southern Europe. During my visit, the wildflowers were in full bloom, adding a dazzling array of color to the seaside vistas.
2. Castle Wandering in Sintra.
Sintra is a fairy-tale town dotted with mansions, palaces, vertical gardens, and lush hills, easily accessible from Lisbon by train. A World Heritage site, Sintra is easily one of the most romantic places in Portugal and deserves several days of exploration. I spent my visit climbing steep hills, wandering the breathtaking palaces and castles, and feasting on local fare.
Through Airbnb, I was able to book a recently renovated villa in Sintra, The Five House, for less than $50 per night!
The fresh cheeses, handpicked berries and figs, and tapas are all spectacular, as are the Portuguese wines, including the renowned vinho verde, a type of young wine with a slightly sparkling effervescence.
3. Wine Tasting in the Duoro Valley.
The Douro Valley is the world's first designated wine region and it's so breathtakingly beautiful that photographs cannot do it justice. The Douro River runs through lush, terraced vineyards carved into mountains with whitewashed quintas, or wine estates, atop granite bluffs.
Since I was traveling without a car, I took the train from Porto to Regua. In Regua, I stayed at the Casa Grande Do Sorrado—an 18th-century home lovingly furnished with antiques and fine linens. The owners are friendly and kind and included personalized tours with the price of the room.
When I was in the valley, I took a relaxing boat ride down the Douro River to Pinhão, another small village that welcomed me with a glass of port and a pastel de nata—Portugal's famous creamy custard tart. The atmosphere was so relaxing and tranquil, and I spent many afternoons drinking decaf espresso and writing—my dream life!
4. Exploring Porto.
Porto is giving Brooklyn a run for its money as my favorite city in the world. Romantic Fado music filled the air in the evenings and the home's owner gave me an insider's guide on the best places to visit, including the Crystal Palace, one of the most lush and romantic gardens in Porto filled with terraced lookouts, peacocks, and fountains, and the Romantic Path, a cobblestone stroll lined with fragrant rose petals.
Through Airbnb, I scored a mini-home there for less than $50 a night. Nestled in the backyard of a renovated townhome in one of the hippest areas of Porto, my tiny yard—surrounded by lemon trees and lavender plants—was a peaceful respite.
Along the Romantic Path, I stumbled upon the best outdoor grilled sardines in all of Portugal. The area's Ribeira district is another foodie destination not to be missed, with its riverside cafes, street musicians, and lighthearted revelry. A short bridge connects the Ribeira to the Gaia waterfront, where you can spend the day drinking port and eating chocolate in the famous underground cellars.