It’s no secret that Portugal holds a special place in my heart. The country is somehow still regarded as Spain’s little sister, but that’s far from the truth! Here’s a few tips on what to see and do in one of Europe’s oldest nations: Boa viagem!
When I was 19 years old, I lived in Portugal for about 3 months. Even if my encounter with the country back then was fairly brief, I have loved it ever since, and it was such a thrill to be re-united with ”my old home” – the coastal town of Cascais – a couple of weeks ago. Apparently 10 years go by like the blink of an eye!
For those of you who have never been in Portugal – or in Cascais, which is around 45 minutes drive from Lisbon – there’s nothing else to say than: GO! The country is full of beautiful nature, a thriving food scene and a rough yet incredibly beautiful coast line stretching from Faro in the South to Braga in the North.
Portugal was recently elected as one of Europe’s ‘new’ must-see destinations, but the country has been experiencing an increase in tourism for quite some years. For some reason, it has often been neglected in favour of the neighbouring country of Spain, but this is finally changing. Even though the two countries are closely connected, there’s a world of difference between Spanish and Portuguese culture – something you’ll notice immediately when traveling from one country to another. It’s fair to describe Portuguese people as being laid-back, friendly and patriotic, but don’t mix them up with either Spaniards or Brazilians. They wouldn’t like it.
Back in the days, the Portuguese basically ruled the world, or at last big chunks of it. The Portuguese empire was the first global empire in the history, but it was also the longest one, spanning almost six centuries! This possesion of land obviously made Portugal extremely wealthy, and it’s still reflected in the capital of Lisbon today. Majestic statues compete with grand squares, but nonetheless, the story is a bit different today. The country isn’t as rich as it once was and that’s easy to see when you stroll through the old, cobbled streets; many buildings are not maintained very well, but that’s also part of Lisbon’s charm. Another strong sign of the previous empire status, is the impressive castles scattered around the country. Many of them look like fortresses, and they’re extremely popular for guided tours.
The food scene of Portugal is a chapter of its own. It’s obvious that the country’s location and status as a coastal nation has always had a huge impact on the food traditions. Fish and seafood can therefore be found in most restaurants. In fact, Portugal holds Europes highest fish consumption per capita! My personal favorites are sardinas assadas (grilled sardines) and shellfish in different varieties.
Other must-try’s count the world-famous Pastel de Nata, which is also very popular in the sister country of Brasil, but it was actually invented in Belém (suburb of Lisbon) in 1833. Today, tourists flock to the original bakery in Belém, Pastéis de Belém, in which the original custard pies are still produced. It’s not possible to book a table and there’s often a long line of people waiting to get in, but it’s worth the wait!
Port wine is also a traditional delicacy, which is exclusively produced in the Duoro Valley in Northern Portugal. There are many versions of port wine from all over the world, but only the Portuguese version may be labelled as ’port’ or ’porto’. The dry, sweet wine is typically served with cheese or dessert, but I love it as an aperitif as well.
I do recommend first-time visitors to explore the country by car, as it’s simply the best way to experience it, but the train connections are also fairly good. Portugal is divided into 7 regions: Alentejo, Algarve, Azores, Center, Lisbon, Madeira and Porto & the North, and while my favorite region is Lisbon (this region also comprises Cascais and the other coastal towns, where I used to live…), I must admit that it’s hard to choose! Each region of Portugal offers something new, something magical. But no matter what you do, make sure to surf and gaze at sunsets in Cascais, enjoy a glass of port in Porto, stroll through the streets of Fátima (most important Catholic pilgrimage site in Europe besides Rome and Santiago de Compostela) and live the beach life in Tavira. The list goes on and on, but one thing is for sure: I left a piece of my heart in Portugal almost 10 years ago. I’m sure you’ll do the same ♡
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