That Time I Went to Portugal and Fell Madly in Love With It

By Nomadic Matt | Published September 24th, 2012

houses in portoThey 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.

sweeping view of Lisbon, portugal

As I made my way up to my friend’s apartment on that initial walk, I couldn’t help but notice the trash, graffiti, and abandoned buildings everywhere. Half the buildings are broken down with boarded up windows and look as though they would be filled with squatters or drug addicts. Yet unlike the Italian city of Naples that has that same outward appearance, Lisbon didn’t feel gross or unsafe. It didn’t make me feel like I needed a shower. No, it simply felt lived in. I think Naples is a disgusting city, but Lisbon? 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.

cable car and cobblestone street in Lisbon

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.

wine glasses of port in porto

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.

the douro valley portugal

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 4 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.

wineries in the douro valley portugal

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 all 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.

comments 61 Comments

I feel the exact same way about Portugal! It’s such a magical place–particularly the Algarve. Scott and I dream about the day we can own a vacation home there…we first visited in 2006, and I’m stoked I’ll be going back next May finally!

NomadicMatt

Consider myself your first house guest.

My family is from Lisbon yet I’ve never been. It is definetly on my list of destinations that I can’t waittt to visit. You should make your way just outside Lisbon to Cascais which from what I’ve seen and heard have some incredible beaches.

Pieter

I’m glad you enjoyed Portugal. When you want to come to the Algarve send me an email and I’ll give you some tips and a drive around!

Sophia

Hi I am coming to portugal mid may, and I wanted to ask which has better beaches and friendly people, Lagos or albufeira?

Wow! I love the photo of the house in the Douro valley, I missed that on my last trip to Portugal so I’ll have to go back.

I just remember getting to Portugal and feeling like it was really different from anywhere else I’ve been. And that Lisbon reminded me a bit of cities like San Francisco or Valparaiso, Chile- hilly, seaside, grungy and full of charm, seafood and great views.

NomadicMatt

Maybe it was the look alike bride that helped too! :)

Amanda

Good article, I’ve always wanted to visit Lisbon. I find Portugal’s history fascinating and their culture to be very interesting, as well as the landscape just plain beautiful. I particularly enjoyed the description of how a destination can really sweep you off your feet. I haven’t yet had the chance to do much international traveling, but I remember feeling the same way about Seattle–I knew I was going to love it as soon as I stepped off the plane–and it stil remains one of my favorite cities.

Wow look at the hills, stunning. I think it’s high time I visit this country.

I’m heading to Portugal in november for the first time and had no idea about the Douro Valley, I think I will change my itinerary a little bit and spend a day or 2 there… looks amazing

NomadicMatt

Rent a car and drive around. The easiest way to see the area.

WaitingForSpring

If you are visiting around Lisbon, you should definitely visit the town of Sintra. It’s a charming town with a palace (called Palacio de Pena I believe) located on a hill top surrounded by forest. It’s absolutely gorgeous.

Oh yeah there is also a place, in Coimbra, called Quinta das lagrimas. I’ve never been there, but the story surrounding that place is very intriguing and makes me want to visit. Happy travelling!!

Gorgeous photos, Matt. I’ve yet to visit Portugal but with all the buzz generated with TBU delegates, I think I’ll have to go next year, while I’m still in Europe.

NomadicMatt

Definitely don’t miss it! It’s very cheap too!

I totally agree with you! I absolutely LOVED Lisbon when I was there and I cannot wait to go back to explore the rest of Portugal!

Great article Matt… especially photographs. I loved the tram picture with graffiti on wall. Colors gel very well with the tram colors :)

I have not been to Lisbon but hoping to visit it one day. If someone to visit the place then according to you how many days should be allocated during the trip? I mean if someone like me if wants to see it the fullest then recommended maximum days for the trip.

Célia

Hi Matt,
I’m glad you liked my country. But please, next time visit Gerês and not Algarve (it’s just english tourists and beaches, especially Lagos)!

Paul

And that is a bad thing?…

NomadicMatt

I’ll go to both.

Wow – the pictures of the Valley and wine country sold me. Very nice post.

NomadicMatt

See you there then!

Paul

Just to say that it’s my favorite destination. I’ve met so many people there that I keep going back. Love your country guys!

I have met people who were turned off by that rundown appearance of Lisbon’s oldest neighborhoods. It could use some extensive renovation, but you’re absolutely right that this is a city with depth and personality and that is quite rare these days. Visiting Lisbon is more about feeling than seeing. Next time you’re in Portugal, visit the Azores. It’s another rare place — one where pictures never capture what it truly is. In the mainland, don’t miss Sintra and spend some time in Alentejo which feels like it has its own time zone. Go on a tour of the medieval towns: Monsaraz, Marvao, Castelo de Vide, Evora… And go down the Vicentina coast.

NomadicMatt

Thanks for the recommendations!

Yes!!! I had this exact feeling in Nice – South of France. I love the aged, lived-in feel of a European city such as Lisbon – it looks so beautiful and full of stories!

NomadicMatt

Looking forward to heading to Nice next week then!

Tess

Sweden? Why? (its my home country)

I’d love to go to Portugal one day. Ur blog post makes me want to go even more. :-)

NomadicMatt

Jag asklar sverige!

Karen Mullens

My husband and I went to Portugal for the first time last year. We only stayed a few hours at Lisbon before going to Faro and onto Carvoeiro ? At Algave for a week. Stayed at one of those complexes owned mostly by Brits ( family being one of those!
). We thoroughly enjoyed our time there and the day trips checking around the local areas. The beaches were very nice and the walks along the stunning coast line , amazing. Can recommend the area.

“Yet unlike the Italian city of Naples that has that same outward appearance, Lisbon didn’t feel gross or unsafe. It didn’t make me feel like I needed a shower. No, it simply felt lived in. I think Naples is a disgusting city, but Lisbon? There the run-down feeling is charming and lovable. Lisbon had an aged feel to it rather than one of dirt and grime.”

This made me so happy, I just couldn’t agree more. I dislike Naples. But Lisbon’s grittiness is just…cool. And I had a similar experience in a restaurant there-it had more than 4 tables, but couldn’t have been more than 8 or so. The lady paired everything with wine, explained each dish in broken English, gave suggestions for wandering around her city. It was amazing. I’m not quite IN love with Lisbon-(Paris still has my heart, too)-but it’s close. Awesome post, I really enjoyed reading this!

NomadicMatt

Thanks Lauren! My friend I was with felt the same way too. Might be a theme. Then again, I don’t know anyone who likes Naples outside the food (que lots of comments telling me how great Naples is).

I love Lisbon but Paris still has my heart. You never get over your first love.

I love that feeling when you just know you are going to love a place from the moment you arrive. There are some places I love which took a while to grow on me, but the ones I have the biggest soft spot for are the ones I got that gut feeling about right away.

jan

We went to Lisbon for the first time this year and joined the throngs of people who adore it. I was surprised by your photos of the vineyards on the hills near Porto – they look really appealing. I am glad we still have lots to see in Portugal.

Visiting Portugal in the Spring. If not Porto, do you have a recommendation where to stay in the Douro Valley?

Also – any “can’t-miss” experiences in Lisbon??

NomadicMatt

Regua was a nice town. To be honest, I don’t really remember many of the towns. Can’t be of too much help. In Lisbon, dance the Fado, eat the seafood, visit the castle, and head to that restaurant. There are also some nice beaches outside of town too. Also, ride the trolley. It’s fun in it’s cheesiness.

Matt you have “charmed me, dazzled me, and wooed me” into wanting to head to Portugal! And those amazing photos WOW

NomadicMatt

Excellent! My work here is done! :)

Matt, it’s been a while since I’ve been to Portugal, but now I feel the urge to return! Great pictures as well!

I felt exactly how you did when I first saw Paris. And if you’ve felt the same about Portugal, I’m going to get started with planning my Lisbon trip! Thanks for the heads-up Matt!

Hm.. You are the first who said something good about Lisbon. My be I need to visit it to verify all these contradictory opinions :-)

Trang Pham

Currently in Portugal right now… and yes, I’d describe it as a dirty charming city. And hilly, so you get a butt workout for sure!

NomadicMatt

I definitely got my work out in while walking around that city!

Kara Connolly

If you go to Lagos book your bus out of there as soon as you arrive. This town is known for trapping people and I fell right for it, as do most. It is indeed filled with lost binge drinking backpackers but, the Algarve is absolutely so beautiful that they can be forgiven. I was on a 7 week, 10 countries, 25 city European speed trip this summer and the Algarve is definitely my love.

I’m not really a bucket list kind of person, but Portugal is in my top five countries to visit. Maybe someday I’ll get back to mainland Europe. It’s been awhile.

Gabriel

I’ve been to Portugal back in 2010 and loved it as well. It is a truly beautiful place to visit.

A great post as always! Keep up the good work.

I am just planning a trip to Lisbon at the end of November and I am very glad to see mainly enthusiastic reviews all over the web. Does anyone have any suggestions for 4 days in Lisbon? Should we stay within the city or is there also something well worth a day trip nearby (so far I have been considering Sintra, but it seems rather touristy)?

I loved Lisbon!! I went twice and it’s on my list of cities that I’d like to live in.

I never made it to Porto, but I made it to Lagos (twice, again). Lagos is stunning but it was so touristy that I forgot I was in Portugal for a while. It was still pretty awesome walking to a beach, laying out for a few hours, then having to swim back because the tide came in and trapped you in-between those cliff walls. If you go there bring a plastic bag to put all your stuff in, haha.

Chris

I totally agree about Lison’s lived-in quality. One of the most charming (perhaps only for tourists) parts of the city were all the colorful flowers growing out of some of the ruined buidlings, it gives Lisbon an almost ancient character. I’d recommend la Costa Vicentina National Park about 2 hrs south of Lisbon. The beaches are epic, wind-swept, and will have about 5 people on an especially crowded day!

NomadicMatt

Good to know! Thanks for the tip.

We also enjoyed our trip to Portugal. We went to Porto, Lisbon, Tavira, and Faro. We flew into Porto. Then we took the train to Lisbon, and then later to Tavira. We flew out of Faro. This allowed us to sample several areas of Portugal. It was one of our most enjoyable vacations.

Daniel

Portugal is like a huge enchanted forest,very picturesque,nostalgic, misteryous and everything is very detailed.

Im actually from here but i was am emmigrant for 11 years,and i say this not as a travelller but as a native,i abolutely love this place,just about everything about it,truly im in love,i even left my girlfriend,at the time that i moved back :P No regrets what so ever

L.

About Naples: it is the most disruptive city I have ever met and loved. Profound, crazy and dizzy, dirty and everlasting, senselessly and scientifically loved. People, air, coffee, buildings, history. I never understood girls falling for “bad” guys, yet I am totally lost after this “bad” city.

[Someone – I can’t recall but google will tell you better – wrote that Switzerland in 500 years of peace invented the ku-ku clock, Italy in the fight, blood and famine gave birth to da Vinci and Michelangelo’s works. Forgot to mention that someone else – google again – noticed that in fact were the Bavarians inventing the ku-ku clock.

About Lisbon: August 1st?

Heading to Portugal in February on a week long solo trip. Definitely planning on Lisbon for most of my time while taking some day trips to Sintra and Caiscais. Thinking about another 2 days either in Algarve or around Porto, but haven’t decided yet. Very excited though!!!

Mayeli

You took the words right out of mouth with this one!

I felt the exact same way about Lisbon (and Paris) last summer for my solo trip. Sintra and Cascais were amazing as well. I also managed to squeeze in a sunny but very windy beach day to Costa de Caparica by bus (5-6 euro for a round trip I believe.) There were plenty of people around but it never felt too crowded. FYI, your 5-day Paris guide was very helpful for that part of my trip!

Thank you for your blogs!

Thanks Matt for the posts on Portugal!

My family of 5 will be traveling to Portugal come February 2014. I am wondering if you or any others reading this comment might have an idea of what is a better option for traveling with luggage: bus or train?

We’ll have a rental car for part of our stay but I would like to bus or take a train from Lisbon to Lagos and being that my children are quite young a certain amount of luggage will be necessary. Any suggestions on which method of transportation has appropriate space for luggage? Thanks!

Nishant

Matt,
Any food recommendations for vegetarians?

Thanks,
Nishant

NomadicMatt

None off the top of my head!

Paul from New York

Hi all. Great article. We are heading to Portugal for the first time in July. Does anyone have any suggestions for beach areas in Algarve that aren’t super touristy ? Plan was to start in Lisbon and work our way south (now with a possible side trip North after seeing Matt’s post !!!)

NomadicMatt

I haven’t been to that area yet. Sorry.

Matt!

I am travelling to Portugal in a month. It’s my first time travelling and I am heading off solo to backpack. I chose Portugal because half my nationality is Portuguese although i know nothing about the place. I didn’t think I could be more excited but this article has proved me wrong there.
I cannot wait to get there :)

Leonor

Hi!
I’m glad you liked our country :) I hope you come back !!

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