Armando Franca  /  AP
A tram glides past Lisbon's 12th century cathedral, the city's oldest church.
updated 4/12/2011 2:12:34 PM ET 2011-04-12T18:12:34

Portugal, one of the eurozone's poorest nations, is immersed in debt, barely has a functioning government and is widely expected to receive a Greek-style bailout by June. But travelers willing to jump aboard this economic roller coaster could find bargains in a country small enough to tour in a week's time.

While periodic strikes have disrupted train and subway transportation over the last year as Portugal's financial problems deepened, the work stoppages have always been announced with plenty of notice on when they will start and end. And almost no one is expecting strikes during August because the Portuguese themselves will be on vacation.

One week in Portugal is plenty to sample Lisbon's historic wonders, then travel by train to Porto, another Atlantic Ocean port city, and squeeze in a visit to a winery. Within that period you could do sun and sea at the beaches in southern Algarve province.

Arranging it all is fairly easy online because most websites have English sections, and the Portuguese themselves usually speak decent English — unlike many of their neighbors in Spain. It's part of the legacy from Portugal's historic links with Britain going back centuries, and the fact that all movies and TV programs originally made in English are subtitled and not dubbed.

"Portugal has long been the ideal destination for the U.S. travelers," said British travel writer Simon Calder. "It's the wild western fringe of Europe, with a scattering of Atlantic islands, a fascinating history and superb landscapes. The cuisine is world-class, the climate benign, the welcome warm. And it's the ideal location for any American seeking a European bargain this summer."

Palatial comfort is readily available in a chain of historic buildings called pousadas — country houses and castles converted to luxury hotels where online booking features offers for as little as $108 (75 euros) a night, with a 15 percent discount for those 55 or older. Regular hotels charge less.

For hearty Portuguese meals featuring dishes such as feijoada (bean stew) and cabrito (goat), basic local restaurants called tascas offer up the best lunch bargain across the nation. The menus always feature traditional Portuguese food with plenty of fresh fish out of the Atlantic as well as dried, salted cod (bacalhau) — a Portuguese staple.

Menus posted outside the tascas featuring meals of the day are in Portuguese, but there will usually be a waiter or fellow diner who can help out with a translation. If not, get adventurous and just pick a few choices. Lunch starting at about 1 p.m. goes for about $10 (7 euros) for two courses plus dessert, includes a glass of wine, a beer or bottled water.

An architectural jewel
Lisbon itself is an architectural jewel, with ancient St. George's castle (Castelo de Sao Jorge) and a medieval fortified cathedral overlooking the magnificent estuary of the Tagus, one of Europe's mightiest rivers. Christian soldiers took the castle from its long-standing North African Arab occupiers in the 12th century.

The cathedral is a rare survivor of one of the deadliest earthquakes in history — a massive 1755 temblor and subsequent fire that wrecked the city. As in Japan, a vast tsunami rushed back to engulf the riverside buildings, killing tens of thousands of people and obliterating much of what was then one of Europe's wealthiest cities.

During a recent tour of the castle, Briton Laura Millward, 30, said as far as she's concerned, Portugal and Lisbon deserve to be better known, given their cultural attractions and great food. "Compared to places like Italy, it's not really expensive at all. Even the tourist places aren't that pricey," she said.

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The rebuilt lower quarter of the city, Baixa Pombalina, has an atypical but easy to navigate grid pattern of streets, with decent hotels starting at about $54 a night (38 euros) a night, making it an ideal base to explore the capital of a country the Romans once referred to as Lusitania.

From Lisbon, the 318-kilometer (198-mile) train ride to Porto goes for about $30 (21 euros), and you end up in Portugal's second largest city — declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996. The highlights are its churches, a 14th-century Romanesque wall around the old city and its bridges over the Douro River's estuary.

Wine and dine
There is Port aplenty in Porto, but wine-lovers should consider heading to the actual wine growing region upriver centered in the city of Pinhao.

Trains go direct from Lisbon to Pinhao, but a relaxing and scenic route is by taking the Porto to Pinhao boat ride on the winding river passing by the steep, broken slate slopes where the purple-black grapes used for Port flourish.

The ferry leaves every Saturday at 7:45 a.m., and breakfast, port wine and lunch are served aboard during the voyage that delivers you to the Pinhao quay at 7 p.m. The price is about $151 (105 euros) per person. Children 2 and under travel free; those 3 to 11 get 50 percent off.

Pinhao includes the luxurious Vintage House Hotel in an exquisitely restored 18th-century mansion, which offers special deals of about $125 (86.50 euros) a night. Cheaper accommodation in Pinhao is available for about $74 (51 euros) per night, including breakfast.

A stunning example of the historic buildings to be found is the Mosteiro da Batalha monastery about 150 kilometers (93 miles) north of Lisbon, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Trains and buses head there from Lisbon, and entrance is free for the easy day trip.

In Lisbon, travelers with children, and especially girls, should head to the famed Doll Hospital in Figueira Square, which has been "treating" dolls since 1830. Visitors can see damaged dolls put inside a small elevator that takes them down to a workshop for basic repairs costing about $6 (4 euros). The dolls later emerge fully restored on the elevator. Repairs of antique dolls are also offered.

After taking in so much of Portugal's history, it's time to head to the beach — a spot staked out mainly by British tourists in recent decades. The southern coast of the Algarve is the most popular, where there are plenty of hotels and also basic hostels starting at about $36 (25 euros) a night. Villa rentals abound, and tepees are even available for those who want greater contact with nature.

Getting from Lisbon to the Algarve costs about $24 (16.50 euros) by train.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: A European tour

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  1. Venice, Italy

    Gondolas line the bank near Venice's grand canal with the San Giorgio Maggiore church in the background. (Peter Deilmann Cruises via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Rome, Italy

    The Colosseum is one of the best-known attractions in all of Italy, and is the largest elliptical amphitheater built in the Roman empire. (Tiziana Fabi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. London, England

    The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben clock tower, located along the River Thames, are seen at dusk from Westminster Bridge. (George Rose / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Berlin, Germany

    Tourists take pictures of themselves at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. The memorial, designed by U.S. architect Peter Eisenman and inaugurated in May 2005, is made up of more than 2,700 concrete steles that form a curved landscape in the heart of Germany's capital. (Barbara Sax / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Granada, Spain

    The Alhambra palace in Granada, although one of 21 finalists, missed out on being named one of the new seven wonders of the world. (Jose Luis Roca / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Paris, France

    This bird's-eye view of Paris at dusk, with the Eiffel Tower and L'Hotel des Invalides prominent, show why the capital's nickname is the "City of Light." (Mike Hewitt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Lindos, Greece

    The ancient town of Lindos is famous for its Acropolis, which stands on a 380-foot-high hill overlooking Lindos and the Aegean Sea and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Eyeswideopen / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Dublin, Ireland

    People walk past The Temple Bar, which should not be confused with its neighborhood, also called Temple Bar, in central Dublin. Ireland's capital has been voted one of the top 25 cities of the world to live in. (Chris Jackson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Lisbon, Portugal

    Belém Tower was built in the early 16th century as a ceremonial gateway to the city, and to serve as a defense at the mouth of the Tagus River. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Sebastiano Scattolin / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Barcelona, Spain

    Columns and arches of the Sagrada Familia rise high in this Roman Catholic church, which has been under construction since 1882 and remains incomplete. (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Florence, Italy

    A woman looks over Florence from the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore. Construction on the city's cathedral church began in 1296 and finished in 1462. (Guido Cozzi / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. County Mayo, Ireland

    Ashford Castle, which dates back to the 13th century and sits on 350 acres of manicured gardens and land, now ranks among the finest hotels in Ireland. About a two-hour drive from Dublin, the castle has played host to myriad high-profile events, including actor Pierce Brosnan's wedding. (Tourism Ireland via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Kaag, Netherlands

    A cyclist pedals along rows of tulips near the village of Kaag, outside of Amsterdam, Netherlands. The Dutch often use cycling to get around, and Amsterdam is considered one of the most bike-friendly large cities in the world. (Peter Dejong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Amsterdam, Netherlands

    A tourist smokes at a coffeeshop "de Dampkring," or "Atmosphere," where a part of the "Ocean's Twelve" movie was filmed, in the center of Amsterdam, Netherlands. The city is famous for its nightlife, cultural activities and red-light district. (Peter Dejong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Stockholm, Sweden

    Boats line up on the shoreline in Stockholm, the capital and largest city in Sweden. The city is built on 14 islands connected by 57 bridges. (Olivier Morin / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Krakow, Poland

    The Church of St. Mary of the Assumption in Krakow, Poland, is one of the most well-known tourist spots in the city and noted for its gothic, medieval architecture. However, most people come to Krakow because of its proximity to Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi's concentration camps, which is now a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. (Jon Hicks / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Nice, France

    Hundreds of people enjoy sunbathing on the beach in Nice on the French Riviera. (Valery Hache / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Brussels, Belgium

    The Grand Place in the heart of Old Town in Brussels, Belguim, is marked by many 17th-century buildings and flower markets. (Jean-Pierre Lescourret / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Greek islands

    Oia, on the island of Santorini, Greece, is on a clifftop village filled with white structures and gorgeous sunsets. Santorini offers seaside tavernas, cliffside paths, black volcanic rocks and of course, sunshine and the Aegean Sea. (Saundra Virtanen / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Pamplona, Spain

    Revelers hold up their red scarves during the start of the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona, Spain. The annual festival is best known for its daily running of the bulls. (Susana Vera / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Prague, Czech Republic

    The buildings in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, are constructed in many architectural styles from Romanesque to gothic to art nouveau and modern. (Michal Cizek / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Reykjavik, Iceland

    Tourists stand in the Blue Lagoon outside Reykjavik, Iceland. The Blue Lagoon's waters come from natural hot water springs flowing through rocks of lava. Many also believe the mineral-rich waters may have health benefits. (Olivier Morin / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. St. Petersburg, Russia

    The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul is seen on the bank of the Neva River in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Dmitry Lovetsky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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