Travel advisor Victoria Wykoff just got back from Portugal and Spain and declared it a "bucket list trip," because it really should be on everyone's list. Over the course of 10 days, she stayed at two properties in Portugal, Vila Joya and the Olissippo Lapa Palace, and one in Spain, the Mandarin Oriental Barcelona, and can't wait to return, especially to Portugal, which she now considers Europe's hidden gem.
Insider's Tip: When staying at Mandarin Oriental Barcelona make sure to confirm a room with a view of Passeig de Gràcia, one of the major avenues in the city. The Spanish love to have a spontaneous fiesta, and it's wonderful to watch the people pass on this main roadway through the city center. We had no idea we were going to be there on the national day of Spain. We were able to watch a spectacular parade of Hispanic culture right out our window. It really would have been a shame to miss that moment!
Overall impressions: In Portugal, Vila Joya in the Algarve was the most spectacular place I've ever visited — hands down. You don't feel like the guest of a luxury property but instead a guest in someone's beautifully adorned beachfront guesthouse. Every intricate detail of this family-owned and -operated property is thoughtfully designed to create the feeling of home. They really understand the meaning of leisure and comfort!
Favorite moment: Our in-Jacuzzi meal service at Vila Joya. The mantra of this hotel is "Welcome to Paradise!" and they really mean it. The staff is dedicated to making your time with them the stay of your dreams.
You can’t stop thinking about: The fantastic in-room breakfasts we enjoyed nearly every morning. With the sun shining and beautiful terraces to enjoy, it was difficult for us to motivate ourselves to head down to the restaurant!
Favorite meals: The six-course tasting menu with wine accompaniment at Vila Joya's two-star Michelin restaurant was our hands-down favorite. The chef, Dieter Koschina, is celebrating 25 years at the property this year. I swear the man must never sleep. He prepares a completely new menu every day! As a guest, you could dine at the property for 10 consecutive days and not taste the same dish twice. It's a true foodie's heaven.
Where or what to drink: Sangria tinto in Spain, and be sure to sample the local wines of Portugal. The country does little exporting of its wines, and it's such a privilege to be able to experience them.
Neighborhood to explore: Lapa in Lisbon for the beautiful architecture that epitomizes the city. Bairro Alto is a famous spot in Lisbon, but I didn't take to it as much as Lapa. I found it a bit dirty and very touristy.
Day-trip suggestions: While staying in Lisbon, a day-trip to Sintra, Portugal, is a must. The Moorish castles and Pena Palace are must-sees for anyone traveling to Portugal. In particular, Pena Palace offered insight to a royal life unlike that seen at other grand castles within Europe. While visiting the Algarve, I recommend a day-trip to Lagos, Portugal. Take a small boat and weave in and out of the beautiful grotto. Or for the more adventurous, see the grotto by kayak.
Surprising fact or tidbit: Portugal is among the world's safest countries, and the Portuguese study English in school from a young age, making this country very easy to navigate for Western travelers.
What to pack: Lots of layers if traveling in the fall. Daytime temperatures often reached the low 80s; however, there was a drastic swing into the mid-50s in the evenings. Also, it's much cooler in the mountain regions of Portugal than in the city centers.
Anything else? Most people think of Spain and Portugal as being summertime destinations, but I found the fall an excellent time to visit. The blazing heat of summer and the massive crowds have gone, which made daily sightseeing very enjoyable.