In the interests of research (a tough job we know), Travel Curator’s head of global business development Roberto Paniagua embarked on an Iberian road trip, leaving from magnificent Madrid and journeying through Spain and onto Porto, via the breathtaking Douro Valley before arriving in the beautiful historic Lisbon. Needless to say, along the way he stopped to take in the spectacular scenery, marvel at the architecture, get his fill of tapas and fresh seafood and check into some of the most epic hotels on the planet. Come along for the ride as he shares his culinary, culture-filled, castle-staying adventures on the road.
Day 1: Madrid
Before hitting the road Rob spent a few days exploring Madrid, a city known for its rich history, monumental architecture, hip culture, and incredible gastronomy. Here he stayed at The Principal Hotel, a unique property located on the legendary Gran Via in the heart of the city, with a buzzy atmosphere, chic decor, and spectacular views. After checking in, Rob, who has a second home in Madrid, headed out to some of his favorite spots.
Lunch: Fatigas del Querer
This traditional tapas place might have had several ownership changes through the years but it has always maintained its quintessential Spanish-tavern style. Here I enjoyed croquetas, chistorra (Basque sausage), grilled sepia (cuttlefish), and a refreshing Cerveza.
Explore: Plaza Mayor
After lunch, I headed to Plaza Mayor, where the atmosphere is always lively and vibrant. A Madrid must-see, there are a few tourist traps, but it’s always great just walking around the area. Right next to it you will find Mercado de San Miguel, the perfect place to stop and refuel with a cup of “cortado” coffee and some fancy pastries.
Dinner: Casa Julian de Tolosa
The setting for tonight’s dinner was a modern upscale Basque restaurant located in a 19th-century building. The menu at Casa Julian de Tolosa is short and simple and the food is unforgettable. I started with baked boletus mushrooms and lettuce hearts, followed by their specialty (which I always order when here), Chuleton de Buey, thick-cut bone-in rib steak with a side of piquillo peppers. A taste of heaven, if you like your steak. If red meat is not your jam, go for the Merluza (hake fish) which is also superb. Unlike their menu, their wine list is very extensive and impressive. The foodie in me satisfied, I took the nice long walk back to the hotel, where along the way you get to see all sorts of eclectic shops, activities, and the passionate people of Madrid out enjoying life.
Stay: The Principal Hotel
An incredible example of the historic art nouveau and art deco façades that line Gran Via, The Principal Madrid is housed in a 1917 Spanish Renaissance-style building. Step beyond its impressive facade into the charm and elegance of a boutique hotel with interiors that pay homage to its heritage with high ceilings, huge windows, iron railings, and columns, and guest rooms with balconies overlooking Grand Via and the city as well as a beautiful terrace lined with olive trees, cypresses, and water fountains. Back at the hotel, I went for a nightcap in the hotel’s lobby bar and then headed up to the rooftop terrace where the views are just unreal, the location in the heart of the city is unbeatable. As is The Atico restaurant and cocktail bar home to avant-garde cuisine and top-notch mixologists.
Day 2: Madrid ➞ Coca ➞ Ciudad Rodrigo
Drive time: 3 hrs, 51 mins
It was hard to say goodbye to Madrid but the perfect send-off was having breakfast at the Principal Hotel, before hitting the road. The food, fresh ingredients, and service are amazing, and as previously mentioned the setting, atmosphere, and opulence of it all make for an amazing experience.
Explore: Coca Castle
After picking up the rental car I drove north to Coca, a very small town that I had always wanted to visit but for some reason never had in my countless trips around Spain. It was well worth the pit stop just to see the XV century medieval castle, so majestic.
I grabbed a quick bite at a local taverna and hit the road towards Ciudad Rodrigo, a two-hour drive.
Stay: Parador de Ciudad Rodrigo
My home for the night was the very quaint town close to the border of Portugal. Here I checked into Parador de Ciudad Rodrigo, a XIV century castle that is a marvel of Roman and Medieval architecture. Beyond its architectural beauty, it is set atop the highest point of the city overlooking the famed Douro River, so the views were truly epic.
The hotel’s restaurant is also a sight for sore eyes with its stone arches and views over the wall to remind you that you are indeed dining in a real castle. Their menu offers local dishes made with fresh locally sourced ingredients which they rotate depending on the time of the year. You really can’t go wrong with anything that you order here.
Day 3: Ciudad Rodrigo (Spain) ➞ Douro Valley (Portugal)
Drive time: 2 hrs, 15 mins
After a quick breakfast at a small coffee shop in the main square, I got back behind the wheel, Portugal bound. The drive to Douro Valley is very picturesque with endless green, hills, valleys, and of course the scenic Douro River. You realize you have arrived in the beautiful, breathtaking Douro Valley once you see the grapevine terraces on both sides of the road for miles and miles. The last stretch that would take me to the truly epic Six Senses Douro Valley is a windy, narrow uphill road that overlooks the river and vineyard terraces. And then there it is.
Stay: Six Senses Douro Valley
You can’t miss the sight of this amazing 19th-century manor house, set high in the hills of one of Portugal’s best wine regions, surrounded by lush gardens, woodlands, and the flowing river. The beautiful boutique hotel, which offers panoramic views of the vineyards is truly a delight for nature lovers, history buffs, and wine aficionados (like me), it has its own wine library and hosts on and offsite tastings. The property’s interiors are a great contrast to the bicentennial locale, with modern, colorful discord and guest rooms with oak flooring, glass-walled bathrooms, and of course more stunning views of the river and hill-perched vineyards.
Immersing yourself in the grounds in and around the hotel is an experience all in itself. Some of the hotel rooms have wooden bridges that lead out to secret gardens. There are also hidden hiking trails in the adjacent forest along the Douro River that you have to explore, either on foot or by kayak down the river. Be sure to pay a visit to the luxury spa where the treatment menu draws on the surrounding nature and Portuguese traditions to promote relaxation and rejuvenation.
Dining is an experience to remember. The hotel has three signature restaurants including one on an outdoor terrace with vineyard views. And as expected the cuisine is top-notch—created with locally grown ingredients the dishes are sophisticated without losing the traditional Portuguese style. The wine options are of course endless, from reds, whites, and greens to their own Porto wines.
Day 4: Six Senses Douro Valley
Today’s itinerary included breakfast, a spa session, and more exploration of this magnificent property. It is definitely worth staying two days to really experience all of its glory.
After last night’s unbelievable dinner, it was hard to imagine that breakfast would contend but everyone insisted breakfast is a highlight and it totally delivered. The open kitchen setting is warm and inviting, from the moment you walk into the restaurant you can see the wood-fired oven where they bake their bread, many gas ranges, and grills, countertops brimming with seasonal ingredients straight from their organic garden, and of course, the chef and team at work preparing the food.
Indulging in a spa session is not normally how I roll, but considering it’s one of the best in Europe, I guess there is a first time for everything. My session kicked off with a wellness screening and analysis to determine what treatment was best for me, it’s all about personalization. Before or after your treatment you can also enjoy the indoor pool with underwater sound. This was a very unique and surreal experience. It is palatial and at the same time rural which may sound like an oxymoron but somehow they were able to create this unforgettable wellness concept.
Day 5: Douro Valley ➞ Porto
Drive time: 1 hr, 20 mins
It wasn’t easy saying goodbye to the Douro Valley but this is a road trip so it’s off to the next stop, Porto.
The historic city of Porto is full of incredible treasures. Don’t miss São Bento station, an 1800s train station with interiors that are out of this world — just the walls, decorated with the famous and unmistakable Portuguese tile (azulejos) are enough to impress. Next stop: The two-tower cathedral, Se do Porto, a 12th-century building that combines various styles but the dominant ones are Gothic and Romanesque. The inside of the cathedral is decorated with baroque azulejos which is a great juxtaposition with the Gothic elements around them.
Trying out petiscos (Portuguese for tapas) is a must while exploring Porto. Caldeireiros is the place to taste some of the best Portuguese fare you can find in the city. I highly recommend getting a Porto Tonico to accompany your meal.
Later I headed across the river to the scenic Yeatman Hotel for drinks and petiscos. As advertised, its amazing views were breathtaking, to say the least. With a top-notch mixologist in-house, take your cocktail out onto the expansive terrace to lap up the striking views of the city from the other side of the Douro River. Their extensive wine selection is heaven for wine lovers (yes I know, there’s a theme here), offering a taste from all of the local wine regions. I can highly recommend their vinho Verde (green wine), something you rarely find outside of Portugal.
Stay: Le Monumental Palace, Porto
My home for the night was the luxurious Le Monumental Palace Hotel, centrally located in the heart of Porto and housed in a 1920’s neoclassical building, with exquisite interiors and decor. The lavish bedrooms are spacious and regal. Within easy walking distance from the city’s best cultural and shopping sites, it’s the perfect place to stay in Porto. Also worth mentioning is the unbelievable Spa which has an indoor pool— it’s hard to imagine you can find such luxury in a historic building like this.
More indulgence was waiting at Yakuza, located on the ground floor of the hotel with a lovely outdoor sitting area. Here Chef Olivier Da Costa fuses traditional Japanese dishes with exotic Brazilian ingredients and flavors, the result: An explosion of unique, exquisite flavors in your mouth. The cherry on top of this eclectic foodie experience was their fantastic Sakerinha cocktail made with sake, fresh tamarind, and yuzu.
Day 6: Porto ➞ Obidos
Drive time: 2 hrs, 20 mins
After a morning swim and a revitalizing treatment at Le Monumental Nuxe Spa (what can I say, they had me at spa treatment), it was back on the road to my next stop, the medieval town of Obidos.
Set on a hilltop, it is hard to miss the fairytale city of Obidos from the highway. The uphill road to the castle is narrow and windy, with no traffic signs nor lane dividers, just a road.
A medieval walled town like something out of the Monty Python & The Holy Grail’s movie, it’s unbelievable how they have preserved this tiny town for over a thousand years. Arriving in Obidos is like being transported in a time machine.
You can walk this tiny town encircled by its historic fortified wall in its entirety. Walking on that wall was an experience in itself. The surface is uneven and there are no safety railings whatsoever but if you are feeling daring and not afraid of heights, it’s totally worth it for the breathtaking panoramic views of the village and the countryside surrounding it.
There are not many options as far as eating and drinking in the town, however I did stumble across a few bakeries with a great (and delicious) offering of local pastries. I also discovered plenty of quaint little stores where you can pick up local products and souvenirs like Ginjinha liqueur made locally from wild cherries and schnapps and served in an edible chocolate cup.
Stay: Pousada Castelo de Obidos
Tonight’s digs was Castelo de Obidos, a 9th-century castle (yep another one) that immerses you in a medieval journey. From the moment you check-in, you are treated like royalty. All the common areas and restaurants are worth spending some time in to take all that historic charm in and the spacious rooms are of course fit for a king.
The dinner menu at the castle is filled with regional dishes and petiscos, all made with fresh and local ingredients. The winner: Octopus and cuttlefish over sweet potato brandade, simply divine.
Day 7: Obidos ➞ Lisbon
Drive time: 1 hr, 10 mins
Breakfast at the castle didn’t disappoint either and on top of that, our table overlooked the wall and the countryside beyond it. Onwards I went to Lisbon. The drive into Portugal’s capital is beyond picturesque. You drive through waterways, narrow cobblestone streets, past colorful buildings and tram tracks. It wasn’t easy to find a parking garage close to our hotel but it was worth getting lost in this stunning city.
Explore: Bairro Alto
Given the hilly topography of Lisbon, there is a tram system in place which most people take to head to Bairro Alto. A very colorful, vibrant, and charming neighborhood at the top of a very steep hill, exploring Bairro Alto is a must when visiting Lisbon. Instead of the tram I opted to do it by foot, which took 20 minutes instead of five. But it was worth it to see all the dining options, cafes, art galleries, museums, along the way. Once at the top I headed to Park’s Rooftop Bar to enjoy the striking city views, traditional petiscos, and craft cocktails.
Dinner: Maria Catita and Maria da Mouraria
Lisbon’s burgeoning foodie scene is on the rise and this hip, trend restaurant is the perfect example. Just a block away from Praça do Comercio, it specializes in traditional Portuguese cuisine and exceptional service. Seafood is king in most of Lisbon and this wasn’t the exception. Be hungry when visiting this place. And thirsty. The restaurant’s wine menu isn’t as extensive as other places but the wines were outstanding.
Lisbon’s vibrant nightlife offers endless choices on every corner, from laid-back Fado music joints to edgy nightclubs and everything in between. After dinner I kept that party going at Maria da Mouraria, an understated locale, and bar that has a relaxed atmosphere, amazing petiscos, and of course, where you can listen to fantastic live Fado music, the traditional music of Lisbon. This was one of those experiences you can only have in Lisbon.
Stay: Pousada de Lisboa
Located in the city center is the Pousada de Lisboa is a hotel for those that love to be right in the midst of things. A historic hotel transformed into a luxury urban property, it’s killer location just steps from the hottest places in Lisbon makes it a must-stay.
Day 8: Lisbon
All good things must come to an end and on the last day of the trip, I couldn’t stop reflecting on this incredible, life-affirming journey full of culture, landscapes, flavors, colors and all those castles.
After a great breakfast at Pousada de Lisboa, I headed to Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, just 30 minutes from Lisbon by car. A stunning setting surrounded by wooded hills and lush gardens, Sintra used to be a summer retreat for the kings of Portugal. Sintra’s National Palace is one of the best-preserved palaces in Portugal. It has two iconic conical chimneys, Moorish architecture, and lavishly decorated interiors which are a total delight to explore.
I then headed to the highest peak of Sintra where the spectacular Pena Palace sits. You will never see a more colorful and majestic palace like this one (and trust me I’d see a few). The style and architecture of this fantasy palace are heavily influenced by European Romanticism. It took 45 years to build and the interiors have been preserved to their early 1900s origin. The sumptuous stone rooms are filled with fascinating artifacts, regal furniture and as you’d expect, some feature the staple Portuguese tiling.
Dinner: LX Factory
I may have just saved the best eats for last. LX Factory is an 1800s industrial textile complex that has turned into the hottest spot in Lisbon with dozens of restaurants, bars, cafes, shops, and art galleries. A very quaint setting right under the 25 de Abril Bridge, which resembles the Golden Gate — not entirely surprising since it was built by the same company. After a delightful walk on its cobbled streets, exploring the shops, and finding a few local souvenirs, I went for lunch at 1300 Taberna. The decor is very eclectic and hip with a warehouse-y feel to it. My final foodie recommendations: The fish soup, the fresh wild mushroom pasta with black truffle, and for dessert, the oven-baked cheesecake made with Azeitão cheese and homemade quince marmalade. Again, a slice of heaven in your mouth.
And so this ends my Iberian adventure that started in magnificent Madrid and took me through some of my favorite and the most beautiful parts of Europe to Lisbon. Do yourself a favor, get behind the wheel and follow in my footsteps.