Portugal is the most overlooked country of Western Europe in terms of travel. The tourism powerhouses of France and Italy continue to top the most visited countries in the world, but there is something just as special on the western edge of the Iberian peninsula, a place with a long history of culture and history, cheap food and wine, and beautiful architecture. As long as the tourists stay away, I’m fine with it. I prefer my destinations to be empty.
My friend J and I had read so much about this beautiful little country that we booked a flight the first chance we got. We went in February, not the best time of the year but certainly better than going in the middle of the hot southern European summer–I prefer not to sweat through my shirts as I take in the sights. I think the time of year also brought the price of our airline tickets down below the $1000 level.
As you’ll see at the end of this point, J and I got bit by bedbugs somehow at the end of trip, but that did not dampen our enthusiasm for the country.
Day 1: We arrived in the early morning after an overnight flight on the world’s biggest passenger plane, the Airbus 380. The plane was so big it even had a staircase leading up to a second floor.
We checked in early to the Hotel Lisboa, a small hotel in a quiet neighborhood within easy walking distance of most of the main tourist sites around Lisbon. It was right off a main thoroughfare called Avenida de la Liberdade, which is served by a steady stream of buses that were easy to get on and navigate around the city. We spent most of the first day exploring the hilly Alfama, the oldest district of Lisbon. The warm winter sun shined down on the white washed, centuries-old buildings as we walked atop the cobblestones of narrow streets.
We meandered up to Sao Jorge Castle, a fortress visible from all around the city, but decided not to go in–we were more interested in the surrounding streets and sweeping vistas of the bay below. The yellow trams traveling up and down the steep and narrow streets of this district were the perfect complement to the historic buildings that covered the hillside.
After lunch we walked down to the Praca do Comercio, a huge square on the downtown waterfront surrounded by public buildings. My friend snapped this picture of me:
We went out that night in the Barrio Alto, a bit west of where we were during the day. This area is filled with bars and restaurants as well, but had more of a gritty feel to it than the tourist and municipal areas of central Lisbon. We went to a few bars before jet lag began tugging at our eyelids.
The next morning, we walked down to Rossio Square, one of Lisbon’s most famous meeting places. It’s lined by restaurants and cafes and served by a metro stop that provided a good way to get around the city.
We hopped on the Lisbon metro and headed towards the Torre de Belem, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The tower was built as part of a defense system for the city of Lisbon in the 1500s.
With the rest of the afternoon free, we crossed the city for the Lisbon Ocenarium, arguably Europe’s finest aquarium. The Oceanarium is on the grounds of the Parque das Nacoes, the site of the World Expo in 1998. It was nice to spend the afternoon checking out the aquarium and the nearby shopping center.
That night, we followed the restaurant recommendation of my friend Mike, who had visited Lisbon a year earlier and raved about the place. It was called Cervejaria Ramiro, a family-run beer and seafood establishment in a bustling area of north central Lisbon. The meal was a little more expensive than our other restaurant experiences in Portugal but the old-school atmosphere and cold beer were enough to burn a pleasant memory into my brain.
We then got after-dinner coffee in the Rossio Square at the Cafe Nicola, a cafe/restaurant in operation since the early 1900s, if I had to guess by the decor and architecture of the space.
Later that night, we bar hopped around the in the Barrio Alto again. The scene was a lot more lively this night as I think it was Carnival. Tons of college kids were out in the streets, and the bars were packed with revelers, some in costumes.
Lisbon is not on the Atlantic Ocean but the River Targus, which is a really large estuary that empties out into the ocean. We took a ferry from Lisbon proper across the River to Calcihas, had lunch, and caught a tour bus up to the Santuario National Cristo de Rei, a tall monument to Catholicism that overlooks the 25th of April Bridge, a spitting image of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Having concluded our tour of one of Europe’s most beautiful capitals, we headed to Porto, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Even if Porto ended up being a complete dud, the trip still would have been worth it overall. After a serene, two-hour train ride north through the rural regions of Portugal, we arrived at Porto, one of the most picturesque and unspoiled cities in all of Europe. This city has it all–a great maritime setting along the River Douro, proximity to vineyards and wineries, excellent food, and old architecture styles including Art Nouveau.
Since we got out at the train station, let me start there. I’ve been into trains and train stations for a long time and always pay attention to the design and style. I’ll let the pictures do the describing this time:
The Porto waterfront was another high point of the trip:
JK Rowling, the author of Harry Potter, spent time in Porto as an English teacher in the early 1990s. Upon reading this fact in my tour book, I began to see certain elements of the movie played out in real life on the streets. Take, for example, the Livraria Lello bookstore, an Art Nouveau-style bookshop that looks a bit like a Harry Potter movie set. I apologize for not getting a great picture–the owners of the bookstore do not allow tourists to take pictures.
The narrow streets around this bookstore echoed with the footsteps of Catholic school students in long black uniforms as they hurried by us on their way to class.
After nightfall, Porto offers exciting photo opportunities. The streets in the older part of town emptied out, providing an eerie setting.
After a nice dinner along the Porto waterfront, we stepped into a McDonalds for ice cream. Even the McDonalds are classy in Porto.
We then headed to our hotel, the Aparthotel Vitoria Village, which had greeted us upon check-in with a bottle of Port wine, the drink that helped make Porto the city that it is. In fact, Port wine is named after Porto, if you haven’t figured that out.
We felt we hadn’t even scratched the surface of this little city so we spent this day wandering around and admiring the architecture and old storefronts.
I happened upon a big market that awakened my hunger two hours before lunch.
We also climbed the main church’s stairs and got a glimpse of what this city looks like from above.
In the afternoon, we toured W&J Grahams winery across the river from the main part of town. Porto’s history is tied closely with English families such as the Grahams, who moved to Portugal to start wine businesses in the 1800s.
We begrudgingly left this remarkable city and boarded a train back to Lisbon, and spent our last day in the country visiting another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sintra. We first saw The Castle of the Moors, which I would recommend for anyone interested in military history and fortifications, and anyone looking to get an good view of the surrounding countryside and even the Atlantic Ocean in the distance.
We spent the early afternoon at Pena National Palace, a Romanticist castle right out of a fairy tale. The surrounding park area leading up to the Palace was a site unto itself, but the Palace was also well worth the visit.
Amazing trip. Three UNESCO sites, excellent food, cheap. A shorter flight to boot. And without the crowds and prices of Paris or Rome.
Food and Wine
Lisbon: Cervejaria Ramiro, a family-run beer and seafood establishment in a bustling area of north central Lisbon. Excellent food and atmosphere, higher prices than the rest of Portgual probably, but well worth it.
Porto: Grahams Port winery. I still retain some of the information about the wine-making process from my tour, and I hold this place partly responsible for my wine habit.
Coffee and Cafes:
Lisbon: Cafe Nicola, a bit of a tourist trap maybe but you can’t beat the location off the main square.
Lisbon: Hotel Lisboa, a small hotel in a quiet neighborhood within easy walking distance of most of the main tourist sites around Lisbon
Porto: Aparthotel Vitoria Village : convenient lodging right off the main downtown area of Porto; provided us with a bottle of Port Wine on check in. May have gotten bedbugs from here, but I’m not sure. This was a nice hote in terms of comfort, style, and price range but that doesn’t mean a place is bedbug free. J and I both came down with them upon returning the U.S. We each about 25-30 welts all over us! I emailed the hotel and, predictably, they denied it in this response:
Hello Mr. Kevin.
We think has not been here in our hotel that you’ve caught the 30 bed bug bites because we have an extreme care in cleaning at the hotel.
Maybe you ate something you did wrong or you caught during your trip to Lisbon.
Anyway, we apologize for the situation.