A love letter to… Portugal

Travel inspiration

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Where incredible beauty meets rebellious pride

Portugal spent centuries ruling large parts of the world, and its personal history has been one of oppression and uprising too, almost until the very end of the 20th century in fact. However that’s not what people think of, and quite rightly. Portugal is wild coastlines, fabulous food, cultured cities and untouched countryside, so here’s why you should love it as much as we do.

Stunning cities

Dom Luís I Bridge, Douro river, and Ribeira in Porto, PortugalDom Luís I Bridge, Douro river, and Ribeira in Porto, Portugal — Shutterstock

City-wise, Portugal’s two big hitters are Lisbon, the capital, and Porto. You’ll know them. Lisbon: yellow trams up tight streets; Porto: big bridge. I think we can do better than that though.

As a contrast to the tiny, tram-filled streets of the Belém district, Lisbon does ‘grand’ very well indeed. The Jardim da Praça do Império, for example, is the biggest plaza in Europe, and the Museu dos Coches (Museum of Coaches, as you could probably have guessed) holds the largest collection of royal coaches in the world.

When you’re done with might and splendor, head to either Rua de São Bento or Rua de São José and browse the antique shops. There are also more laid-back, flea market-style affairs around the city, including the Sunday market at LX Factory, an old warehouse now home to traders and vintage shops selling everything from shoes to candles, with coffee carts and pastries to sustain you while you hunt.

 

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Head up one of the seven hills that surround the city for a wonderful view over the cathedrals, alleyways, and ruins that make up the city as it cascades in a jumble of humanity down to the sea. With a cup of coffee or a glass of sangria in your hand, there are few more satisfying sights in Europe.

Porto’s breathtaking views come from that bridge. It’s called the Ponte Dom Luís I, and you’ll want to walk above where the Metro goes, not below in the fug of cars. From the bridge, you have a view of the Ribeira (the Porto Riviera) and the Old Town on the north bank of the Douro river, while to the south you can make out the Maia district. There’s a little garden on the hill called Jardim do Morro, from where you can get a great view over the river, the bridge itself, and Ribeira. There’s always live music, small pop-up bars, and it’s where all the students hang out at sunset.

Otherwise, it pays to simply see what you can discover.  Livraria Lello is a delightful bookstore in Old Porto, which apparently inspired the moving stairs at Hogwarts; Foz do Douro is a lighthouse high on the cliffs with a view of the Atlantic and its terrifyingly beautiful waves hurling themselves onto the rocks below, and Piscinas das Marés in Foz/Matosinhos is a saltwater pool in the middle of the cliffs. Whatever you find, you’ll have an amazing time.

Rebellion and pride

Architecture in the Old Town of Lisbon, Portugal Architecture in the Old Town of Lisbon, Portugal — Shutterstock

The Portuguese have a deep-seated pride in their history and origins, extending way back to their varied ethnic roots, and how they all came together to make a people and a nation that spent centuries as one of the most powerful on earth. That historic jingoism has slowly been replaced by a fierce love of the arts, family life, cuisine, and sport, subjects that have been close to the heart of the nation for just as long.

Lyric and literature had their proper birth in Portugal around the 12th century with people like “the Poet King” Dom Denis, while some of the greatest works appeared around 400 years later through the writings of Luís Vaz de Camões, a composer of epic poetry that stands alongside the finest of Shakespeare or Homer as timelessly beautiful.

 

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The amount of art and literature produced is all the more impressive considering the rampant degree of censorship that runs through Portuguese history. From 1451 and the first records of books being burned by the Portuguese monarchy, all the way through to the Carnation Revolution of 1974, Portugal was subject to laws limiting freedom of expression.

Using all of its money to fight wars and maintain colonies overseas while persecuting its own penniless citizens at home led to a fierce need for people to make their voices heard, despite the fact that doing so would, for around 400 years, be punishable by imprisonment of a very public death. This pride in rebellion through literature and art went hand-in-hand with the view that Portuguese integration into Europe was the way forward, putting their own house in order and giving colonies back their independence. This all came to a head with the aforementioned Carnation Revolution, a bloodless coup that marked the end of Portugal’s Estado Novo regime and the beginning of a new — uncensored — chapter in the history of the nation.

Natural beauty

Covão dos Conchos is a waterfall hole in a lake in Serra da Estrela National Park, at PortugalCovão dos Conchos is a waterfall hole in a lake in Serra da Estrela National Park, at Portugal — Shutterstock

The countryside in Portugal is incredible. The coastline is obviously well-known for its beaches, swimming, sunbathing, and chances to surf on wild Atlantic waves. But if you go to the interior of the country, you’ll come across incredible mountains and woods. Not something you’d probably think of, right?

Let’s take the Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela as an example. This is the only place in Portugal where it snows and, amazingly, you can even ski! There are 3,000m high mountains which are as beautiful as they are unexpected. It’s becoming more touristy, but not so much that you feel constantly surrounded.

All those hills and an ocean to drain into means scores of spectacular waterfalls and dreamlike natural pools and lagoons. There’s also an unusual natural phenomenon that’s only been discovered recently (remember how I said people never seem to think of Portugal as having an interior!) which is a lagoon with a waterfall inside that leads to… who knows?

The highest point of mainland Portugal is in Serra da Estrela The highest point of mainland Portugal is in Serra da Estrela — Shutterstock

In the Vila Real region, you can visit the Parque Natural do Alvão. Again it’s basically untouched; it feels incredibly remote (nothing as bourgeois as a phone signal here!), just lots of waterfalls and hiking routes, sharing your space with sheep, cows, and other animals that roam free in the hills.

Beach-wise you’ve got thousands to choose from, but recommendations include the district of Viana do Castelo, around an hour north of Porto, where the coast is a series of coves hidden by dunes. Look for Praia Forte do Paço, an 800m stretch of sand that takes its name from the ruined fortress nearby. In the Aveiro district lie the dunes of São Jacinto, 8km of untouched white sand, protected by its status as a nature reserve. Otherwise, around half an hour from Lisbon are the Sintra hills, rocky, forested outcrops hiding castles with views out to sea. The cliffs drop away to the crashing waves and sandy beaches below, and you may find yourself at Cabo da Roca, at which point you’ll be standing on the westernmost point of mainland Europe.

Beach bay called Portinho da Arrábida in Arrábida National Park, Portugal Beach bay called Portinho da Arrábida in Arrábida National Park, Portugal — Shutterstock

If the waters of the north are too cold, head south of Lisbon to Arrábida, a national park with lots of hidden bays and turquoise water. Even further south, along the Costa Vicentina in the Alentejo region, the beaches are very calm, warm, and beautiful, and not as crowded as in the Algarve.

Local treasures

Water Canal in the city of Aveiro, the Venice of Portugal Water Canal in the city of Aveiro, the Venice of Portugal — Shutterstock

You don’t have to stay in Porto or Lisbon though. Head further afield and find yourself in one of the smaller towns or cities to see a less touristy side of the country.

Aveiro, or the “Venice of Portugal” can, admittedly, get busy, but with very good reason. A grand town built on a network of canals, you can walk the embankments and promenades and watch the barcos moliceiros — the colorful boats traditionally used to harvest seaweed — drift past. Like Venice, it also boasts some fantastic galleries and museums, almost all housed in buildings dating back around 500 years.

Guimarães is known as the birthplace of Portugal, for it is generally believed to be where Afonso Henriques, the first King of Portugal, was born. It’s also close to the site of the Battle of São Mamede, an 1128 battle that ensured Portuguese independence. It dates back as far as the 9th century, and this stunning medieval city is one of the best-preserved places in the country.

Bom Jesus church in Braga, Portugal Bom Jesus church in Braga, Portugal — Shutterstock

In the very north of Portugal, and known for its centuries of religious heritage, lies the city of Braga. Site of the oldest archdiocese in the country and an important stop on the Portuguese Way (the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail that begins in Portugal), it’s also, conversely, a lively city. European Youth Capital in 2012 and home to a number of universities, its church-lined streets and squares are often crowded with students enjoying themselves in the evening sun. The nearby Parque Natural da Peneda-Gerês is another excellent place to experience more of the country’s fabulous nature, with lakes, waterfalls, and ancient stone bridges crossing crystal-clear rivers cascading between the hills.

Port and more!

Landscape in Douro Valley, Portugal Landscape in Douro Valley, Portugal — Shutterstock

It’s small, undiscovered places like those mentioned above (particularly slightly further inland) that will furnish you with some of the most delicious food Portugal has to offer. If you spot one, stop at one of the little stands on the side of the road that sell homemade goat’s cheese and presunto (smoked ham) direct from local farmers. Trust us: if you love cheese, one taste of that goat’s cheese and your life will never be the same.

The Douro Valley is probably the most famous region when it comes to port. Head by train from Porto to Peso da Régua or by car along the N222 and stop along the way. That particular road has been officially designated a scenic route, winding as it does between hills, streams, meadows, and vineyards. Stop along the way for a circular walk, to swim in natural pools, or to visit a vineyard for a tour.

Portrait of young and caucasian woman enjoying amazing sunset on Cabo da Roca, Portugal. She is looking somewhere far away.Sunset on Cabo da Roca, Portugal — Shutterstock

The classic Portuguese treats of pastel de nata are, of course, pretty ubiquitous (but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat them!), but otherwise restaurants and bars will generally serve simple, traditional food-based around grilled fish, meat, olive oil, incredible breads, tomatoes, herbs and spices. Bom apetite!

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