Sweeping seaside views, elaborate castles, affordable wines, fresh seafood… Portugal’s countryside including Cascais and Sintra is a travel destination that hasn’t received the publicity it deserves. Located on the southwest tip of Spain, Portugal may be a small country, but its north-south shape allows for diverse geographies and experiences in a small area.
Cascais is a resort town located just outside the capital of Lisbon on the Portuguese Riviera. It has been a haven for royalty since the 1870s when King Luis I of Portugal made it his summer residence. Today, it is one of the wealthiest municipalities in the Iberian Peninsula. It has a distinctly more relaxed, seaside feel from Lisbon, making it a perfect destination on any Portugal vacation.
Getting To Cascais
Fly into Lisbon, then rent a car and drive to Cascais or hop a 40-minute train ride. If you can’t drive stick, you can reserve an automatic car, but do this in advance. As always in Europe, manual rental cars are the standard, so automatics are less readily available and more expensive. In addition, either ensure your car’s GPS is properly programmed for English or get an international phone plan so you can use a GPS app to navigate.
Where to Stay in Cascais
If you choose to stay in the Old Town of Cascais, there are plenty of hotels to choose from. You could easily stay in Old Town without a car and walk or take taxis anywhere you want to go. My group got an Airbnb in the nearby town of Malveira da Serra. This sleepy little surf town was easily accessible from Lisbon, was less than a 10-minute drive to Cascais, and was very quaint and relaxing. If you stay here, however, you will need a car for adventuring to other areas around Cascais.
View this post on Instagram
Exploring Old Town Cascais
The center of Cascais is a charming maze of traditional fisherman’s houses that have been converted into chic shops and restaurants. You can easily spend an afternoon and evening browsing shops, snacking, and sipping.
- Make sure to walk by the main harbor for stunning water views and city views. This area is where you’ll get your best photo ops and be able to really appreciate the beauty of this historic city.
- Stop by the Jardim Visconde da Luz for a scenic park with a small carousel and a few vendors. For about 1 euro, you can purchase a shot of made-in-Portugal Licor Ginja de Obidos, sour cherry liquor. For an extra half a euro, have it served in a chocolate shot glass. Also make sure to check out the stalls with other locally made items spanning cheeses (delicious!), toys, and bath products.
- Also nearby, Mercado da Vila is an open air market with history going back over 70 years. Today, part of the market features open air stalls and part features little shops and restaurants that make for a perfect afternoon of wandering, sipping and sampling the area’s finest products.
Shopping in Old Town Cascais
If you are seeking out snacks for your stay, make sure to pop into Souk Mercado do Mundo. This combination shop and café carries a combination of wine, cheeses, meats and snacks and is very sample friendly. We didn’t have time to sit and snack, but the menu of cheese boards and other goodies also looks perfect for a midday rest.
If you are looking for gifts to bring back home, seek out Cais 16 Craft Gallery, which is packed with locally crafted goodies. I fell in love with some gold filigree earrings as well as a beautiful bracelet cut from cork and painted with metallic silver. Other ladies on my trip took home painted lamps, trivets and gourmet goodies.
Other Cascais boutiques span high end apparel, jewelry, ceramics, cork, and lots of wine.
Dining in Old Town Cascais
Old Town Cascais offers plenty of delicious cuisine, but make sure to avoid some of the more touristy options on the main streets. As with many tourist cities, you’ll often find the best places to eat tucked on side streets. And, don’t be afraid to try ethnic cuisine.
One of my best meals was at Indian Flavour. Yes an Indian restaurant in Portugal! We particularly enjoyed the Tandoori dishes that came out sizzling, the shrimp madras and the papadum at the start of the meal with four different sauces.
Another standout meal was found at Marisco na Praca in Mercado da Vila. Choose your meal from the menu or from a bounty of fresh seafood on ice that’s cooked to order. If you want to try some unique-to-Portugal seafood, this is the place. Also, Marisco na Praca’s Iberico ham was the best I tasted on the entire trip.
What’s on the Menu in Cascais
When dining out in Cascais, most of the meals start with bread, butter and some sort of fish paste—I’m not kidding! At some restaurants we were greeted with a freshly made blend of fish and mayonnaise that tasted kind of like tuna salad and at other places we received a tiny sealed tub almost like butter or margarine. If you like anchovies and sardines, you’ll probably enjoy it. If you’re not a fan, steer clear.
It is also sometimes customary for restaurants to bring out appetizers, put them on your table, and then charge you for them if you eat them. So, if you are presented with food you aren’t interested in, don’t be afraid to tell the servers to take it away.
Many restaurants do offer house wine—I do recommend trying it! Like many European countries, the house wine in Portugal is inexpensive and better than a lot of the more expensive wines you purchase in the United States.
If you are looking for sweets, make sure to stop by Bijou de Cascais. Located right in the city’s main square, the pastry shop offers a full coffee selection as well as a wide variety of baked goods to choose from, including specialty cakes. We chose one to take home for one of the ladies in my group who was also celebrating a birthday. Everyone agreed it tasted delicious.
Malveira da Serra
While this is a sleepy little town, it does possess a nice selection of restaurants and amenities with a relaxed, small-town vibe.
View this post on Instagram
Every day I started my morning with the locals at Panisol. This little coffee shop features a wide range of pastries and coffee drinks—when it’s busy make sure to grab a number and wait your turn to order from one of the sweet little ladies working there. Note, all the coffee varieties come in one size and to-go cups aren’t really a thing, so plan to relax and people watch while you enjoy your breakfast. The selection of pastries runs from sweet to savory—my favorites were ham and cheese buns or the little sweet custard pies that seemed to be popular at all local bakeries. You can never go wrong with a chocolate croissant either.
For dinner, one of the best restaurants in the area is Estrela da Serra. The family-owned restaurant features traditional Portuguese food, spanning steaks, seafood and pasta. We stopped in for lunch on our first day of the trip and fell in love with the cozy, old-school vibe, so we brought the whole crew back for a pull-out-all-the-stops dinner on our last night. Don’t miss varying skewers of meat cooked to delicious perfection for a distinctive dining experience.
Although Malveira da Serra is a small town, there are also plenty of dining choices, spanning pizza, sushi, and a few other mom and pop Portuguese restaurants. You can also find fantastic, affordable Portuguese wine at the grocery store that also features a small takeout café.
Guincho is the beach in Cascais. If you go when it’s warm enough, apparently this is the spot to swim, surf and sunbathe. Unfortunately, we were in town when it was a tad too cool for all of this. However, we did squeeze in a beautiful beachside dinner at Mar do Guincho.
This scenic restaurant features fresh seafood and panoramic views of the sea. It’s also elegant and full service. Our servers fileted several of our dishes tableside, making the occasion feel extra special.
This resort town is a short drive from Cascais or Lisbon and features picturesque shopping, dining, as well as several castles. We took a day trip from Malveira da Serra that started with a visit to Monserrate Palace. The property’s history goes back to the 1500’s and its beauty was mentioned in a Lord Byron poem in 1809. The current palace is one of the best examples of Romantic architecture with Moorish and Neo-Gothic elements. It is absolutely beautiful and is definitely worth exploring along with the gardens.
Next we stopped by the larger Medieval Pena Palace, which is a stunning example of 19th century Romanticism architecture. This castle is grand, sweeping, and more crowded. The two provided a nice contrast and taste of the region’s history and architecture.
Your trip to Sintra isn’t complete unless you spend time browsing in the city center. Like Old Town Cascais, Sintra is a maze of narrow streets packed with shops and restaurants. And, we were hungry after the morning’s walking adventures.
It took some time to find a spot that didn’t look touristy, but we finally stumbled upon Miradouro da Villa. This little bistro offered a great selection of tapas, sangria, free wi-fi, and the friendliest owner who went out of his way to ensure we were happy. There were also beautiful Sintra views just outside. Some of my favorite dishes were the grilled sausage, the anchovies, and the melon and ham. I think you could make a feast out of many of the menu selections.
In terms of shopping, I picked up some adorable little rooster plates from a ceramics shop. We only had a few hours to browse, but I would have loved to have spent a day here wandering the streets snacking and shopping. We also passed some adorable hotels outside the city limits such as Tivoli Sintra Hotel. It is definitely on my list for a return visit.