Porto, Coimbra and Lisbon are cities which effortlessly seduce. The country's rich, adventurous, history oozes from the azulejos (elaborately decorated tiles) on their elegant town houses, Gothic churches and opulent palaces. Additionally, every fascinating bairro (neighbourhood) pulsates to the infectious beat of its own particular rhythm, lending each city multi-personalities.
Some attractions are on the travel tick list of most visitors who tread their cobbled pavements; others remain off radar, attracting more locals than tourists.
During a sizzling summer we explored the three cities, regularly straying away from the most popular sights to find a few surprises, and then smugly toasting our discoveries with something deliciously local afterwards.
Parklife in Porto
A couple of kilometres west of Porto's bustling riverside scene are the Jardins do Palácio de Cristal, created by Berliner Émile David between 1839 and 1873. The Crystal Palace no longer exists, replaced by the eye-catching blue dome of the Sports Pavilion in 1952, but it is the shady gardens themselves which are the main attraction. Some themed areas feature Italianesque landscaping; others, scented by roses and camellias, could be the grounds of an English country house; contrastingly, a row of Washingtonia robusta palms towering above the river lends another section a laid-back Californian air. This eclectic blend of styles spills over into the garden's artistic features. Classical sculptures mingle seamlessly with contemporary creations such as paper birds, suspended from trees, which flutter happily in the gentle breeze. These are gardens to be enjoyed at leisure, randomly following paths which invariably lead to secret corners with evocative names (Jardim dos Sentimentos, Museu Romântico) which delight and occasionally wow, such as a mini tower whose spiral staircase leads to panoramic views of the Douro.
The tipple: When the sun is shining, the drink to be seen sipping is a Porto Tónico. This refreshing concoction consists of one part white port and two parts tonic water given a zesty boost by the addition of a slice of lemon and a sprig of mint. Pallet benches at the garden's lakeside café provide suitably bohemian seating on which to lounge and enjoy a chilled Porto Tónico in surroundings which have sated the eyes of princesses and kings.
The combination of the museums, cathedrals, libraries and courtyards within Coimbra's hilltop University district is the magnet which draws visitors to this learned city. Most climb the winding, narrow streets of the Old Town to get there. However, there is a more unusual way to arrive in some style which requires less effort. Beside the city's Municipal Market (worth a browse before aspiring to academic highs) is a glass lift (elevador). Press the button to summon it, hand over your money to the operator (€1.60 when we visited) and watch the pastel façades of the old houses opposite recede beneath your feet. The lift is only a taster. At a second level a short, covered walkway connects the elevador with a funicular which trundles quietly upwards towards the University, the views across Coimbra's orange-tiled rooftops unravelling with every metre gained.
The tipple: After learning about bookworm-eating bats at the Joanine Library and seeing how the world looks through a fly's multiple eyes in the Science and Chemistry Museum, a glass of locally brewed ale slips down very nicely. Passaporte Lounge below the University buildings serves Praxis craft cervejas from a micro-brewery just across the river. There are four flavoursome beers to deliberate – amber, dunkel, weiss and pilsener – accompanied by equally tasty views from Passaporte's terrace overlooking the Mondego River.
Banking on Lisbon
We almost took a rain check on the Banco de Portugal's Money Museum as we spend enough time queuing in banks without choosing to visit one for leisure purposes. I'm eternally glad we didn't. This interactive museum on picturesque and quiet Praça do Municipio, a stone's throw from Praça do Comércio, is fascinating, fun and surprisingly relaxed about people touching its gold bars. Focussing on the relationship between money and society through history, the fun bits include stepping through the door of a gold vault (the type seen in many a heist movie) or seeing your face on a banknote. The educational exhibits include illustrating how what's on a country's notes reveals much about its culture – from flora and famous people to monuments and natural landmarks. The thought-provoking side of the museum shows the harsh realities of life at a Brazilian gold mine. It is all beautifully and imaginatively packaged, and entrance is free.
The tipple: After learning about the filthy lucre in our pockets, a hit of something alcoholic was required. In Lisbon that means one thing – ginjinha, a sour cherry liqueur. The most atmospheric ginjinha bars (i.e. having floors your shoes stick to) are just off Praça Rossio and a bit of a trek away. Closer and quirkier are the female ginjinha sellers of Alfama who sit at tables outside their houses in the bairro's maze of streets selling the sweet drink at around €1 a shot.