I’ve always wanted to travel Portugal from South to North. It was late summer in the south of Spain, and I found myself looking at my Eurail map and wondering where to head to next. Portugal, running along much of Spain’s western border, seemed like the obvious decision. The capital, Lisbon, regularly features in travel guides and travel bucket lists. I’d also heard positive reports of Porto further north.
The Algarve, which was just an hour or two away from me, sounded like the perfect combination of laid-back and scenic. Despite there being no train routes between the south of Spain and Portugal, there are plenty of cost-effective bus connections. So just two days later I found myself in Faro – in the far south of the country – ready to explore the country from south to north.
Portugal from South to North by Train
A weekend in Faro
Faro in the off-season isn’t exactly brimming with life. Miraculously, or terrifyingly, I found a room in the center of town for just €1 a night. When I walked the deserted streets I realised why. Hotels, hostels, restaurants, and tourist stores were all but abandoned in anticipation of the approaching winter months.
Still, there was a quaint historical seaside charm to the town. Vast lagoons spread out all around it, and the quiet cobbled streets were perfect for quiet walks. A few days in the Algarve would’ve been ideal. But the reason I’d chosen Faro as my starting point to Portugal, was because it has a perfectly-positioned train station. Though you’ll need to pay a nominal reservation fee at the station, regular trains can whisk you from Faro all the way to the capital in approximately three hours.
Living the good life in Lisbon
The most obvious stop from Faro is Lisbon. It’s a beautiful, vibrant capital city near the Rio Tejo. Regal buildings, vast museums, and muted pastel colours define the built environment. The city is also set on several hills, allowing spectacular panoramic views of the city below, the swirling river, and the distant horizon.
On my first evening in the city I took the receptionist’s advice and headed up Miradouro do Castelo. I made it up just in time to watch the sky turn an array of chalky pinks, before the sun slipped behind the horizon and the city lights started to twinkle below.
There are many great attractions in Lisbon, as well as a number of day trips you can take by train. On one day there I hopped aboard the train that runs out to Cascais – a small fishing village due west of the city. A stop in Belém, primarily to pick up a famous pastel de nata and visit the famous monastery there, is an easy inclusion in the itinerary. On another day I took a train to Sintra – a fairytale playground of mansions, gardens, and castles.
Of course the nights in Lisbon are as long as the days. There are few better places for a rooftop drink and an all night party than the Portuguese capital.
Taking the train to nowhere
When I stepped off the train at Obidos I had a sinking feeling I’d alighted at the wrong station. No other passengers got off, and the station was little more than a deserted platform. Worse still, I’d counted on WiFi at the station to find my pre-booked accommodation. There wasn’t even running water, or a ticket counter, so finding internet was out of the question. Fortunately, I stumbled across the AirBnb a few minutes later. It was the only habitable building for miles, and I immediately felt vindicated by my decision to stop in the medieval town.
The regional train ride from Lisbon is quick, easy, and scenic. Obidos is a beautiful walled town that can easily occupy a few days on your Portuguese rail itinerary. It’s beautifully preserved and fascinating to explore, particularly after dark when the day visitors have departed. There are also several nearby towns and villages that you can visit on foot, bicycle, bus or train.
Returning to civilisation
After a few days of relaxation in accessible, rural Portugal, I decided to return to civilisation in Porto. The train ride between Obidos and Porto is quite lengthy and requires a few changes along the way. But the journey is scenic and charming and is doable with only one seat reservation.
Porto is the perfect city in which to arrive by rail, for two key reasons. Firstly, the final approach over the Douro River, with views over the Ribeira district, is nothing short of spectacular. The second reason waits for you on the vestibule walls of São Bento train station. They’re adorned with beautiful blue and white tiles that depict the history of Portugal.
The rest of the city is equally captivating, and there are dozens of things to see and do in Porto. As the home of Port wine, there are several cellars open for tasting tours. The atmosphere along the river is thoroughly charming. The bridges that run high above it are beautiful from below, and thrilling from above.
Fans of rail travel are also in for a treat. There’s a wooden tram that runs the length of the riverfront all the way to Passeio Alegre. From there, you have great views of the Douro river mouth. You also have easy access to gardens, and are just a short walk away from Farol de Felgueiras – an iconic lighthouse.
Porto is the kind of city you could spend a month in and not get tired of its views, people or activities. Unfortunately, it was to be the last stop on my Portuguese rail journey. In three weeks I felt as if I’d just scraped the surface of this beautiful, welcoming country. But it’s so perfect for exploration by rail that I knew one thing for sure – it wouldn’t be long before I’d return.
Inspired to travel Portugal from South to North? Continue reading:
- How To Spend 2 Weeks In Portugal By Rail
- 8 Things To Do In Porto, Portugal For First-Timers
- Your Guide To Train Travel In Portugal
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