Sun-drenched days spent soaking up Europe’s sights and sounds is the ultimate way to enjoy summer, which is why a jaunt across the pond is a popular pastime for Canadians. From college students hitting the well-trodden backpacker circuit, to couples unwinding in luxe spots like the French Riviera or a family vacation spent exploring Germany’s historic castles, Europe is a place with unlimited possibilities no matter how many times you go.
I’m lucky enough to have explored 25 European countries during half a dozen visits to the continent, and still feel like I haven’t scratched the surface—there’s just so much to see! So when Air Transat invited me to enjoy one of their many direct flights to Europe, I wasted no time booking our adventure: a 12-day trip to London and Portugal.
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Why there? Well, I’ve wanted to see Portugal since setting off on my first big trip more than a decade ago, when I spent nearly two months crisscrossing the continent. Sadly the logistics didn’t work out and I couldn’t make it there that time, and despite all the years that passed I wasn’t able to shake the image of the Algarve coast with its towering rock formations framed by piercing turquoise water out of my head.
As for London, let’s just say I was kind of getting embarrassed that I’d travelled in obscure places like Brunei and Bolivia, but still hadn’t explored one of the world’s most iconic cities (unless you count the airport, in which case I’ve been to London about 800 times). It also worked out beautifully for timing, since Air Transat has a London flight that leaves Calgary around 6 p.m. on a Friday and touches down on Saturday morning, so you can get a whole workday in before heading to the airport and save those precious vacation days. They also offer easy-to-book multi-destination itineraries, so we were able to fly home from Lisbon—how great is that?
So what’d we get up to on our grand European adventure? Here’s a look at our fun-filled itinerary, including the hits and a few misses:
Days 1-3: London, England
Long-haul flights can be tough, but Air Transat sure knows how to make their guests feel comfortable—mood lighting and all. We opted to upgrade to Option Plus, which makes you feel like a VIP even in economy, and is available to all passengers for a small additional fee.
It got us priority check-in (which came in handy in Lisbon where the airport doesn’t allow online check-in), priority boarding and baggage handling, extra checked bags (because #fashion), perks like extra snacks, headphones and a comfort kit, and advanced seat selection (hello window seat!). In-flight meals are included, or you can spend an extra $25 each and enjoy a gourmet dish prepared by renowned Quebec chef Daniel Vezina, complete with a cheese plate, dessert and reserve wine selections. Bon appétit, indeed!
After touching down, we headed straight to the Westbourne Hyde Park hotel which is just steps from Paddington Station. We absolutely loved it! For less than $200 per night (a steal by London standards) we got a modern room with a kitchenette in one of the city’s fanciest areas, and it was an easy walk to must-see spots like Kensington Gardens and Notting Hill. (Yes, I stopped by the Notting Hill bookstore. No, I did not see Julia Roberts or that cheeky Hugh Grant. Sad face.)
The next couple days were a whirlwind of sightseeing, mostly on foot as London is surprisingly walkable. Aside from obvious landmarks like Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace and the London Eye, we ducked into cute spots like St Luke’s Mews which is the most Instagrammable street of life (Love, Actually was filmed there), and charming Marylebone where a summer fair was underway which is the perfect activity if you’re exploring London with kids.
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The Southbank Centre street market was foodie heaven and a fantastic spot to grab dinner, and we may or may not have spent an outrageous amount of time ducking into the traditional English pubs.
The hit: The weather. London is famously rainy, but when we were there it was nothing but blue skies and sunshine. Come to think of it, I should have bought a lottery ticket.
The miss: We needed more time to explore the city—about three years longer, to be precise. You could live in London your entire life and never see it all, plus there are some fantastic day trips by train.
Days 4-7: Lagos, Portugal
As I’d been fantasizing about visiting the Algarve region for over a decade, my expectations were ridiculously high. And it still managed to blow my mind.
It was a quick flight from London to Faro, Portugal, which is where most vacationers arrive before heading down the coast. We picked up our rental car from Hertz which turned out to be a BMW (don’t you just love Europe for that?), then hit the highway bound for Lagos. Less than an hour later we pulled up to the palm-fringed front gates of a wonderful guesthouse called Holiday Lagos, which is run by a man named David who is Portuguese-Australian and quite possibly the nicest person on the planet. He also gave us two bottles of wine when we arrived, which made him a champ in my books.
The guesthouse is located within walking distance of the nicest beaches in the entire Algarve which is rather convenient, so we spent the next couple days hoofing it along the spectacular coast, snapping approximately four-thousand photos of the rock formations and panoramic views found along the rugged cliffs, then relaxing on the stretches of sparkling sand below. I’ve been to a lot of beaches, and can say without a doubt that Praia do Camilo and Praia da Dona Ana are two of the best I’ve ever been to.
We carved out time to head into Lagos’ historic town centre which is a lively maze of winding cobblestone streets, al fresco dining, buskers and surf shops, and also spent a morning kayaking in and out of secret coves hidden under the towering rock formations. However, nothing could beat the afternoons we spent lazing around on the Algarve’s golden beaches, nestled into a picture-perfect coastline.
The hit: Absolutely everything about Lagos was fantastic, particularly the beaches and scenery.
The miss: Again, time was our enemy. The Algarve is now one of my favourite spots in the world, and we wish we could have stayed longer!
Days 8-9: Cascais, Portugal
While it was tempting to park ourselves in the Algarve for the entire trip, FOMO got the best of us so we decided to head inland to explore more of Portugal. We eased back into it by heading to another beach town about a three hour drive away: Estoril. Located about 15 minutes from Lisbon, it feels a world away from the capital and is a rather ritzy spot built around a massive casino and a few swanky historic hotels.
But…I wish we’d actually stayed in Cascais.
Cascais is a former fishing town, which is so close to Estoril you can actually walk there. It ended up being much more interesting to explore, as the beaches were prettier, there’s a gorgeous town centre with patterned cobblestone streets, a cycling lane along the coast, an art district, chateaus nestled into aqua-marine coves and a well-preserved fortress (which has a luxury hotel built into it, and I’m still kicking myself for not knowing about it ahead of time and booking a room!). We really enjoyed Cascais, and definitely could have spent an extra couple of days in town.
The hit: Boca Inferno, a natural arch nicknamed “Hell’s Mouth” which was chiseled out of the rocky cliffs by pounding ocean waves.
The miss: We weren’t that impressed with Estoril, and wish we would have stayed in Cascais instead.
Day 10: Sintra, Portugal
When I announced I was heading to Portugal, my Facebook page was flooded with recommendations for Sintra—and after visiting myself, I wholeheartedly agree it’s a must-see. The historic town is a short drive from Lisbon, yet has a completely different climate that feels more like a rainforest. The quaint town centre is nestled in a valley below the Serra de Sintra hills, and is home to a blindingly-white gothic-style palace, and the extravagant Quinta da Regaleira estate which has manicured gardens, secret tunnels and waterfalls.
But the real highlight for us was found high up in the hills, where the Pena Palace and Castelo dos Mouros have an envious perch overlooking the entire valley. We loved exploring the flamboyant palace, which is a multi-hued 19th century wonder that drew inspiration from places like Germany and the Middle East. The result is something you’d expect to see in a Disney movie, and visitors are welcome to roam the walls freely—hello turret selfies!
The Moorish castle is a quick walk away, and was equally fun to explore. We scampered up and down the steep stone steps in search of the best panoramic views, feeling a bit like crusaders as the structure has remained essentially untouched despite the centuries that have passed since it was first constructed by the North African Moors. I was also surprised to find a long pathway of bushes bursting with vibrant hydrangeas—talk about photo heaven!
The hit: Pena Palace, which I found so gorgeous that I’m baffled as to why it’s not more iconic.
The miss: Driving in Sintra is literally the worst. The twisty, windy roads leave zero room for error, there are other cars and pedestrians everywhere, and it’s impossible to find a parking spot near the town centre (though we didn’t have an issue getting a spot up on the hill near the palace and castle). I needed an extra pitcher of sangria that night just to get over the stress of it all. (Oh who am I kidding, I would have had the sangria anyway).
Days 11-12: Lisbon, Portugal
Our last stop before heading home was Lisbon, where our calf muscles got a serious workout from climbing so many hills. San Francisco has nothing on this place! Smart people hop on the famous yellow trolleys to get around and see the sights, which in retrospect would have been a good idea except that we didn’t feel like standing in line for an hour in the 30 degree heat to get on #28.
The city is great in the sense that there aren’t a million landmarks that you *need* to see (like when you visit Paris or New York for example), there are plenty of things to do for free in Lisbon and you can mostly just meander through the narrow laneways to get a real sense of the place. With the city being built into a hillside there were viewpoints galore, and we spent hours wandering around the historic districts. However, the highlight for us was heading outside the centre and exploring the Belem district, where standouts include beautiful monuments like Padrão dos Descobrimentos and the Torre de Belem.
We also tracked down an area that’s off the beaten path (in fact, it’s not even on the tourist maps): LX Factory and Village Underground. Formerly industrial areas, they’ve since been transformed into uber-cool, graffiti-covered creative communities with fabulous boutiques, restaurants, bars and what just might be the world’s cutest bookstore.
The hit: We stayed in a lovely studio apartment called Castle Inn Lisbon, which as the name suggests is located right in the castle walls—so cool! We also gorged on pastel de nata, a prized Portugese pastry that’s like a crème brulee in a tart shell. Our favourite places to pick some up were Pastelaria Santo Antonio near the castle, and Pasteis de Belem in Belem.
The miss: As far as capital cities go, Lisbon didn’t stand out to us in terms of having a wow factor. If we’d had a couple more days we would have liked to head north to Porto, which is another major city in Portugal that Air Transat also flies to and gets rave reviews.
If you’ve been to London or Portugal, what were the highlights of your trip? Share in the comments below!
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Globe Guide explored Europe in collaboration with Air Transat.