We are planning a trip in May, flying in to Lisbon and spending the weekend there. We could take 2 days starting on Monday and head south. We have reservations in Porto on Wednesday, and fly out of there to Barcelona on Friday. After reading Rick's descriptions, we think a few days in the Algarve would be nice. We were thinking about leaving Lisbon on Monday to head to Salema. We would leave there on Wednesday for Porto. Trains/buses to Porto seem do-able, but maybe not if we include Salema. Does it make more sense to rent a car for the whole thing? Just for the southern part? Would we better to spend the time in Lisbon and skip the Algarve altogether?
I spent 16 days in Portugal in October. When planning, I found that going to the Algarve by public transportation was doable but not convenient. Off season, the public transportation gets limited. May might be off season. You can find the buss and train schedules online to plan ahead.
Instead we did not go south but planned a couple nights in Nazaré for our coast time. The beach there was excellent with a good hike and great vistas from the cliff above the city. The people there were great. Alcobaça was a short bus if you want to pack in a half-day easy side trip from there. We then took a bus to Coimbra for a couple days and went to Porto from there by train. As I recall, you need to do something similar to get from Nazaré to Porto even if you did not stay in Coimbra. Coimbra is the university town and it was alive with student festivities as the new class was going through its rite of passage in the fall. In May you might hit graduation which I hear is a wonderful sight.
With most any ground transportation north to south, you go back through Lisbon. Hence to go from Algarve to Porto you will pass through Lisbon again. The time waste is large.
We stayed seven nights in Lisbon; three on the front end when we flew in and four before flying out. We could not find a reasonable way to open-jaw from our location to Portugal. We stayed in a B&B owned by a smart traveling native who also owned a place in the Algarve. We told him we were disappointed that we could not fit the Algarve into our plans. He laughed and said we saved ourself a waste of time unless you wanted a beach and the party crowd, then the Algarve is the place, otherwise you can visit what he considered Portugal. We cannot judge because we did not see the Algarve ourselves.
If a coastal town like Nazaré is not your thing, consider Évora, good, quick train connection with Lisbon and a different climate and atmosphere. We recommend the megalith tour done by an outstanding young archeologist. The city has interesting Roman sites, great cuisine and the bone chapel. Two nights in Évora was not too much. Then again the Lisbon area can keep you busy. We loved Sintra, especially the Pena Palace and if it is a clear day get the bus ticket from Sintra to Cabo de Roca for photo time on the coast later in the day. That is a full day in itself. Stay in the Chiado District of Lisbon and you can be a block or two from the train station to Sintra (Rossio) and by great street restaurants up on the hill near the station.
We found the Portuguese people to be the greatest. Been through much of Europe and Portugal is my favorite. I would spend less time traveling through it and more time enjoying it. it worked for us.
Thank you so much for such a detailed response! The more we thought about things, the more we figured we should just go north and skip the southern beach areas. My husband definitely would like some beach time, so Nazeré may be the answer. But you have intrigued me with Évora. We are working really hard to enjoy Portugal and not just travel through it. I have a feeling that we will need to return to Portugal, if everything I've been hearing and reading is correct!
In the short amount of time you have, Nazare is your best bet. Evora will take you away from Porto and although the Algarve has many small and interesting villages, you really don't have the time for it. We have been to Portugal many times and love all the places you mention, but as you said, you may have to return to Portugal. You might do well to rent a car. The freeways will take you from Lisbon to Nazare in about 1.5 hours giving you more time to enjoy Nazare and nearby sights. Nazare is close to the walled town of Obidos, the beautiful monastery of Alcobaca, the Roman ruins of Conimbriga, and Coimbra with one of the oldest universities in Europe, to mention just a few of the historic sights. These sights are from 30 minutes to 1 hour. You could stop to visit Obidos on your way to Nazare to save time. Whichever towns you choose, you really can't go wrong!