They 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.
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.
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, where you can have a drink in the bar, sit out on the terrace, and enjoy the view without being a guest).
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.
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, 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, and 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.
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 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.