They say you just know when you are in love, that this feeling of certainty comes over you as if you two were always destined for each other. While I’ve never been in love, it’s a feeling I’ve experienced before. I remember the moment I walked out of the metro onto Paris’s Champs-Élysées. I knew right there I loved Paris. I could feel it in my bones. I loved Paris and every day I’ve spent there since has only made that feeling grow stronger. Paris and I were destined for each other.
And that’s exactly how I feel about Portugal.
Walking along the streets of Lisbon as I made my way to my friend’s house, I got that feeling all over again. I knew instantly I was in love with Lisbon. But more than that, I knew I was in love with Portugal. I don’t know how I knew, but I did — and as I spent two weeks in Portugal exploring Lisbon, Porto, and the Port wine region of the Douro Valley, I fell madly in love.
Let’s start with the ways I loved Lisbon.
As I made my way up to my friend’s apartment on that initial walk, I couldn’t help but notice the graffiti, and the abandoned buildings everywhere. Half the buildings are broken down with boarded up windows and look as though they would be filled with squatters. Yet unlike the Italian city of Naples, which has that same outward appearance, Lisbon didn’t feel unkempt or unsafe. It didn’t make me feel like I needed a shower. No, it simply felt lived in. There, the run-down feeling is charming and lovable. Lisbon had an aged feel to it rather than one of dirt and grime.
I spent four days traversing the city and every tiny cobblestone street that opened onto a café-lined and church-filled square just made me love it more. Lisbon had history. It had depth. It had a personality.
Since Lisbon is a very hilly city, you can climb these hills with sweeping panoramic views of the city and its classic red roof homes. The old Alfama area is a maze of tiny, meandering streets and if you visit the space between the Museum of Fado and Museum of Portuguese Art, you escape the tourists and come across dimly lit local restaurants and homes where wives sit outside and shave their husbands’ beards, men paint, and grandmothers sit around and chat about the day.
I left Lisbon in awe and headed north to Porto, the famous city on the Douro River known for its Port wine. While I didn’t love Porto the way I loved Lisbon, it was still a fabulous city with very cheap wine and a great riverfront. I think the area around the river is stunning and has some worthwhile panoramic views (try to get across the river and head to The Yeatman hotel. You can have a drink in the bar, sit out on the terrace, and enjoy the view without being a guest), but the rest of the city I can do without.
What I really enjoyed was the surrounding Douro Valley, with its thousand-meter peaks and wineries that I loved. I only got to spend two days in the region but what a beautiful region it is. The wineries are high up on the hills and a bit of a drive along windy roads but it’s like no wine country I’ve ever seen, and sitting up on the patio looking out over this incredible valley.
Not only was the country beautiful, but all the locals I met were super friendly, warm, and welcoming as well. They took the time to help me, explain Portuguese life to me, and show me their culture. I particularly remember a woman who runs a restaurant in Lisbon. It was a tiny place — only 3 tables. I went there for dinner, where she prepared a four-course meal paired with wine. The food was good and the wine great, but her charm and amazing conversation are what I’ll remember. And then there is the amazing staff at Gallery hostel that cooks elaborate 10 course meals and sits down to eat with the guests.
Portugal charmed me, dazzled me, and wooed me. It’s been a while since I traveled to a country and was so taken aback. (Japan did a few months ago but I was already in love with it before I went.) I love most countries I visit but few leave lasting impressions this strong (France, Cambodia, and Sweden come to mind) and in my two weeks in Portugal, I loved what I saw. But I still have more to explore – the Azores, the Algarve, Lagos, Faro, and everything in between.
Portugal is always highly talked about among travelers and after spending time there, I understand why. If you haven’t been yet, I suggest you go visit. You might even run into me while you’re there, because with so much left to see and my undying love, I’ll be back soon.