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

houses in portoThey say you just know when you’re 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’d 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, rather than dirty and grimy, feel to it.

I spent four days traversing the city, and every tiny, cobblestoned 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).

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 winding roads, but it’s like no wine country I’ve ever seen, and sitting up on the patio looking out over this incredible valley was jaw dropping.

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 three 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’s 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 a country took me aback so much. (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 talked highly of among travelers, and after spending time there, I understand why. If you haven’t been yet, I suggest you go. 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.

  1. 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!

  2. Kyle

    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.

  3. 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?

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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

    • 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!!

  7. 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.

  8. 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)!

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. “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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

      • Daniela Costa

        Hello everyone!
        I am sorry, but I was reading the comments and read this “Dance the Fado” 😀 you need to know that you can’t dance the Fado 😀 It’s funny because Fado is that type if music you can do almost everything while listening to it between crying and laughing but it’s impossible to dance to! If you wanna dance there are lots of traditional religious festivities with lots of folklore and dancing..every little town is a dancing hall during the summer :)

        I live in a little village between Viseu and Aveiro, and I have got to suggest you come visit Aveiro! Known as the “Portuguese Venice”, Aveiro is surrounded by salt-flats, beaches and lagoons. The city is crossed by canals, which give it quite an individual character. The sea food is the best!
        It’s a city that you won’t forget, there is no other like it…

        Tell me if you need infos!

  15. 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!

  16. 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!

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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)?

  20. 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.

  21. 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!

  22. 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.

  23. 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 😛 No regrets what so ever

  24. 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?

  25. 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!!!

  26. 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!

  27. 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!

      • 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 !!!)

        • Paul are you already in Portugal? Most of Algarve will always be super touristy but you can check Manta Rota. I think the most beautiful beaches are still on the Vicentina coast. I have a special liking to Odeceixe :)

        • Luigi

          Burgau on the west side of Algarve is a funny little village with not a lot of tourists.
          There you will be at around 30km from the most beautiful beach in Portugal (on the North side of the beach you will see no one).
          Cacela Velha is also quite nice and is on the East side of Algarve.
          In between those cities being in Algarve or South Spain is almost the same. No really portuguese culture

      • Inês

        I don’t know if you’re already here but nevertheless, if you want less touristy beaches try Praia do Vau (Portimão), Praia Verde (Castro Marim), Manta Rota (Vila Real de Sto Antonio). The first one has quite a lot of people but there are a lot of Portuguese there, so although you’ll hear English, Spanish and German quite a lot, you’ll also hear Portuguese often. Besides, it is a safe beach, where everyone is at their leisure and with a very chill vibe: no screaming and bad ambiance.
        As for the last two, they are more “evasive”. Not a lot of people and in the most expensive regions of Algarve. Praia Verde is my favorite beach ever, it has the most amazing restaurant right on top of the beach, it is a very secluded zone that has a small village around the beach. Also, the water is quite warm and the sand is beautifully white. Besides, there are the typicall cake sellers that walk up and down the beach selling the best Bolas de Berlim (Berliners) ever, they are better than any other Berliner I’ve ever tried!!!
        Manta Rota is secluded as well, not as dazzling in my opinion, but very, very beautiful too.

        If you aren’t there yet, check these ones out! If you are, well, do it too and if you already left then all the more reason to come back!!!

  28. 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 :)

  29. So glad you enjoyed my city :)
    If you ever find yourself in Portugal again, be sure to do two things:
    1) Visit Sintra, you’ll adore it.
    2) Rent a car and drive down “Costa Vicentina”, Portugal’s west coast between Lisboa and Algarve – just look it up on google and you’ll see what I mean. It is THE most amazing trip ever!

  30. Hi, I’m an American artist currently living in Taiwan. I’m considering traveling to Portugal, trying to find a good home base for my art. Would love to know if there are artists painting outdoors, selling work (like in Italy), any helpful tips would be great. Thanks!

  31. I live in the Middle East and don’t knock it before you try it. I fell in love in Coimbra, Portugal where I spent a whole year or nine months to be exact and I know what you mean about that coup de foudre about the country. Interestingly, my husband had the same response about Tavira in the Algarve and his cousin about the capital, Lissboa pronounced without the r. That musical language adds to the allure and unique atmosphere!

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