6 reasons to fall in love with Portugal
I have a lot of love for Spain, and few other countries call to me the way Spain does. But I've been something like 3 or 4 times in the past 5 years, and that's not even counting my first trip there while studying abroad in Italy in 2006. It's not that I visit Spain so much, and only Spain - it's just that in many of my vacations from 9-5 life, I have succeeded in finding ways to make little pit stops in the land of flamenco and jamon.
So in the spirit of branching out, I visited Portugal for the first time, spending 2 nights in Porto and then heading to Lisbon for 3. Given that Portugal and Spain share the Iberian peninsula, and that Portugal and Brazil share a common language, I entered the my trip with hopes that Portugal would bear some resemblances to the characteristics I love about Spain and Brazil. In some ways those instincts were right, but in many I was dead wrong.
Here is why I emphatically recommend Portugal to anyone who'll listen:
1. It's inexpensive, especially compared to the rest of Europe
The fact that Portugal is relatively inexpensive to visit as a tourist is certainly the cherry on top of all of the many great reasons to go. The cost of accommodations is a decent barometer for understanding the relative value of your money in each destination. For instance, I booked a very nice Airbnb apartment in Lisbon - the entire apartment, not just a single room - for about $56 a night (including Airbnb's fees) and I could have paid significantly less if I was determined to do so. Same for Porto - I paid $52 a night for a very cute, well equipped Airbnb flat in the center of town. If you're eager to get to Europe but worried about the cost, you should absolutely put Portugal at the top of your list.
2. Portugal is a food lover's paradise
Epicurean values are common throughout Europe, so I was not surprised to find amazing food everywhere I went in Portugal. Here are a few of my favorite dishes and places to eat:
Cervejeria Ramiro in Lisbon. We decided to stop here for dinner on our first night in Lisbon after watching Anthony Bourdain visit the restaurant on his 2012 Lisbon episode of No Reservations. I'm not a huge seafood lover - I like it just fine, but I probably won't make a special effort to seek it out - but I would be if I could eat every seafood meal at Cervejeria Ramiro. This is some of the best seafood I've ever had, and I was shocked at the comical size of the tiger prawns. Order a variety of dishes that appeal to you - they're meant to be shared. A little pricy if you do it right, but worth it.
Francesinha (dish), in Porto. To call this famous Porto dish a sandwich is definitely not giving it the credit it's due, and it also doesn't give tourists a very good idea of what they're about to get into. It contains layers of pork, bacon, smoked sausage, and steak, topped with a fried egg and covered in a thick cheese sauce - then baked and drenched in a tomato-based sauce. The francesinha is the definition of hangover food, so get one for lunch the day after a night out. My favorite was at Cervejeria Brasão. I still dream about that meal.
Time Out Market in Lisbon. I love a good farmer's market - especially the cafeteria-like markets with multiple food stalls and open seating. With the ability to savor a variety of dishes over a beer or glass of wine, while hanging out in a relaxed atmosphere with plenty of great people watching, I could (and did!) happily spend several hours at a place like Time Out Market in Lisbon. Make a point of coming here when you have a lazy afternoon to spend grazing - you won't want to be hurried once you see all of the options that await you.
3. Drinkers, delight! The porto and ginjinha are novel and delicious
Now I love my wine, but it's nice to have a break every now and then. In the small city of Porto, of course, this took the form of porto or port wine. Porto originated because regular wine would often spoil during the long voyages that were so frequent from Porto in its heyday of exploration and colonization. So, they added more alcohol. Boom. I don't drink port wine often, but it was a lovely treat to taste the best of the best there. If you have a sweet tooth following a meal but want something less heavy, it's lovely as a dessert. We spent an afternoon tasting at several cellars, but I remember Taylor's having the best tasting porto I've ever had, so now I'm probably spoiled. I especially loved the experience because now I'm a bit more informed about what kind I like.
Let's take our palate in a stronger, more fruit-forward direction. Have you ever heard of ginjinha? Yeah, I hadn't either. But if you ever head to Lisbon and don't give it a try, you are missing an essential piece of the Lisbon experience. Ginjinha (or ginja for short) is a liqueur made from sour cherries and aguagardente. When sold bottled, it typically contains several whole pitted cherries hanging out at the bottom. But when sold from the tap, you can only order it com or sim (that's with, or without) the cherry fruit. The funniest thing to me about ginjinha is that this should, by all accounts be considered a girly drink by American standards. But every ginjinha stand we visited - which, truly, is just a stand, and you get only a shot at a time - was surrounded by middle aged men, hanging out and laughing with their friends. There couldn't be a manlier drink, it seems.
Now, it has a heavy alcohol content and it tastes like it! But there's something about the cherries that cuts the bitter with a taste of sweet and allows it to go down easy. In its entirety, the experience of loitering around A Ginjinha drinking little shot glasses full of cherry liqueur among manly, shit-talking Portuguese men - this is exactly the kind of laugh-to-yourself moment I travel for.
And of course, Portugal makes amazing wine as well - and it's cheap! Be sure to savor a glass of my favorite Portuguese white, the refreshing and slightly bubbly vinho verde.
4. Art is on every wall and around every corner
Portugal's history in exploration and colonization is rich, but I don't feel they're well represented in current art history textbooks. Nonetheless, everywhere I turned there was beautiful art to behold - often without even having to step inside a building. Yes, the tile is beautiful - but it really is an art form. My breath was taken away multiple times by mosaics both modern and historic - such as the bright yellow folksy pattern seen in Bairro Alto in Lisbon, and the entire train station covered in rich blue mosaics in Porto.
5. The music will haunt you.
To really understand Portugal, you must listen to the mournful, seductive fado music spilling from crowded bars and pubs late at night. The iconic folk music originated in Lisbon and consists of a singer and a guitar, passionately imbuing tales of love lost, hopelessness, and longing. Even if you think you don't like 'sad' music, fado will touch your soul and you will leave inspired by the raw passion and beauty of the music and talent of the performers. For a taste, just listen to this performance and then imagine you're listening to it in a dark, crowded pub surrounded by silent, breathless listeners hanging on every seductive note. You cannot help but be moved by fado cantado when you hear it.
6. The poetic mood will inspire you
Every destination, every country and city has its own distinct identity, and as a visitor this often manifests for me as a palpable mood or emotion. Almost like every inhabitant of a given place has some common cultural belief or attitude about life that pools together and manifests as a collective mood that visitors can feel. Despite a shared language, it's striking to me how different Portugal feels from Brazil in this way. I know these are two vastly different countries for many reasons, but there's something about the way a language can shape a culture - giving life to certain concepts that other languages can't grasp or adequately describe - that made me think they would, on surface level, feel like sisters more than estranged cousins.
Brazil and Portugal are also both economically depressed at the moment, but it seems they deal with this in different ways. Brazilians are famous for their joy for life and deep optimism; no matter what obstacle they face in their lives, they are stubbornly upbeat and happy to be alive. In contrast, there is something much more stoic and poetically melancholic about the atmosphere in Portugal. I know I'm painting with a broad brush here - every dimension of every human experience is shared across every culture; but if Brazil is a feathered, beaded, painted Carnevale dancer shaking buoyantly through the streets in celebration of life, Portugal is an artist, making art, poetry and beauty from pain and loss. Also a celebration of life.
These two countries may share a language, but they are two sides of one coin. Both are beautiful and necessary ways of looking at the world, and both are lovely to behold.
Want to discover more about my trip to Portugal - including practical info like where I stayed and how much I spent? Check out my free PDF below:
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Thinking about a trip to Europe? Find out where I went, where I stayed, what it all cost me (including flights!) - and what I'd do differently next time.