Ever since my first trip to Europe in 2014, Portugal had been on my mind as a place I wanted to go and I made it a goal try and get there one day. While I never got around to getting there on my first trip, I finally fulfilled my wish this time around after looking for a place to escape from the grey northern European winter. I managed to find a cheap ticket from Paris to Porto and planned out a trip to travel north to south.
Although I had always heard Portugal was a nice place and friends I know who have been there before said they loved it, I never knew the reasons why. People told me, “you just need to go!” So with only that, I really didn’t have very many expectations before going. Little did I know, Portugal would become among my favorite travel destinations to date!
The moment I stepped off the plane in Porto and began wandering around the city, I found myself immediately at ease. It’s a strange feeling to have–I’ve only experienced in a handful of places across the world. The feeling you sometimes get arriving in a place that you’ve never been before, yet somehow you find familiarity as if you were coming back after being away for a long time. This is how I felt about Portugal. Right away, I knew we would get along just fine.
I strongly believe that what makes a country an enjoyable place to visit is its people, and the Portuguese do not shy away from making you feel welcome. Many people I encountered spoke very decent English, some even with little to no accents. From my experience in neighboring Spain and even a bit further away in France, English isn’t so widely spoken so I didn’t imagine Portugal to be so English-friendly considering how isolated it is from the rest of Europe. It took me by surprise, but it made things a lot easier to engage in conversation with the locals and learn more about the way they live and their culture. The slower and more relaxed pace of life and the fact that people take the time out of their day to enjoy a good meal was pretty appealing to me.
Secondly, Portugal is a very cheap place to travel in and is a great deal whether you’re traveling on a budget or not! Whether you’re the kind of traveler that likes to stay in a hotel or the kind that stays in hostels, you still won’t be spending anywhere as much as you would in other parts of Western Europe. Food is inexpensive and there are plenty of places to pick up very cheap and tasty snacks as you tour around for the day. At restaurants, you can get some good seafood and other amazing Portuguese dishes at an inexpensive restaurant with drink for less than 10 euro. A meal at a nicer restaurant for two people can cost 30 euro with wine if you shop around and find the good deals. I found Portuguese food to be really good, it was definitely worth paying that little extra to go out for a nicer meal!
The country is also quite beautiful. Despite its small size (roughly the same as the US state of Indiana), it’s blessed with a diverse landscape and a beautiful coastline with some of the most amazing beaches in Europe. It’s position in southwestern Europe bordering the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea gives it a unique climate where summers are hot with refreshing sea breezes and winters are wet and cool, but not freezing. It’s no wonder why many European come here for their holiday and vacation periods!
Portuguese towns and cities also took me by surprise. One of the few expectations I did have of Portugal was that it would be dirty and underdeveloped, but what I found were clean streets and an attractive mix of both old and modern designs in their buildings. Brightly colored buildings adorned with colorful ceramic tiles and mosaics sprawled about streets and sidewalks everywhere give Portuguese urban areas a unique and appealing look.
Overall, I spent 9 days traveling from north to south. Here’s a brief rundown on the places I went to:
If you’ve read my previous post on Porto, you’ll know I absolutely fell in love with this city. The city is beautifully situated along the Duoro River, with its colorful old buildings hanging along the steep sides of the valley. The city center is quite small in comparison to Lisbon, but that doesn’t mean it has less to offer. Despite its old and somewhat grungy appearance, the crammed center is a maze of hilly cobblestone streets bursting with trendy shops, cafes, restaurants, and bars where you can spend hours exploring and getting lost.
One unique landmark in the city center is the famous Livraria Lello, possibly one of the most beautiful bookstores I’ve ever been to. Farther out from the city center, you can see the city’s more modern side at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where you can also walk through the museum’s beautiful gardens. Of course, no trip to Porto is complete without taking a trip over to Gaia to experience the taste of the city’s prized signature drink, Port wine! One of my favorite spots in the city was on the terrace at Taylor’s–a good place to relax in the sun and enjoy the views of the city over a glass.
While Lisbon is a lot more crowded and touristy than Porto, I still found the country’s capital charming for a big city! A majority of the city rests on several hills, which means you’re going to find plenty of places for some amazing views. While I didn’t really take the time to explore any of the museums or castles, there are plenty of places to explore and learn about the history of the museum. I was happy enough getting lost wandering around and finding places on my own. In fact there are several great free walking tours that take place daily that give you a good orientation to the city and its history, as well as some offbeat facts you otherwise wouldn’t find in a guidebook (shout out to John Doe’s for their amazing walking tour!). There are several big beautiful plazas throughout the city–ideal places for people watching. Some of the plazas are also home to markets on the weekends where you can chill out with some good local food and drinks from various vendors. In the evenings, the neighborhood of Barrio Alto is among the better places to get a meal and have a night out.
Another remarkable part of town worth seeing is in Belém, about a 15 min tram ride west of the city center. Here you can indulge in a staple Portuguese pastry, pastel de nata, at Pasteis de Belém which is famous for their original recipe, before heading out to see the nearby Jeronimos Monastery and nearby monuments decorating the waterfront area.
Located about 45 minutes away to the west of Lisbon is a small village surrounded by several castles. This makes for a great day trip if you’re looking for a reason to get out of the city, especially on a nice day. It was one of my favorite places in Portugal! There are three main castles near the village: the Castle of Moors, Pena National Palace, and Quinta de la Regaleira. It’s possible to access all on foot, but there is also a bus that takes you to the two located high on the hills (about 5 euro round trip). We were feeling lazy that day and opted for the bus, which we were happy about since it would have been a long crazy walk up to the top of the mountain! While we didn’t do Pena, we did see Castle of the Moors (8 euro entry), which is a stone medieval-style castle built during the 8th and 9th centuries. We were lucky to have clear skies that day and had the most incredible 360 degree views of the area.
Afterwards we descended the mountain to Quinta de la Regaleira, an estate designed with Gothic, Egyptian, Moorish, and Renaissance elements to create a really unique looking castle. Aside from the design of the building (which even has a “secret room” on the top floor!), the estate also is known for its gardens and grottoes which maze their way under the hillside. The entry fee here was the cheapest out of all the castles (6 euro entry), but it was easily my favorite as we spent well over an hour and a half here.
Lagos is a fun little seaside town along the country’s southern Algarve Coast. During the summer months it’s a wild party town, but during the other months of the year it has a much quieter and more chilled atmosphere. The big allure here are the beaches and the stunning rugged coastline. I was there in March, just before the busy season started to get going, and the beaches were free of crowds. The best way to see the coast is by taking a kayak tour, but if water isn’t your thing you can also do a nice walk by land that traverses across the tops of the sea cliffs. Unfortunately I only had a two short days here, but could have easily stayed a whole week. It’s much warmer down here than in other parts of Portugal–both in terms of the weather as well as the people. Everyone down here as the “no worries” carefree attitude and are very friendly and smiley. The hostel I stayed at, Olive Hostel, was one of my favorites as it felt more like a home than a hostel thanks to the very welcoming owners and comfy atmosphere. Stay there if you visit Lagos!
Now that I’ve been, I an understand what the hype is all about. I normally don’t like returning to countries I’ve been before, but Portugal is one of those places I would make an exception for. I would love to come back again one day to explore more of the smaller towns and other regions that I missed, as well as revisiting Porto and Lagos again as they’re some of my favorite places in Europe.