By Magalí Zaslabsky
I lived in Portugal for a few months during my Erasmus exchange semester. (For those who don’t know, European university students do their study abroad through an initiative called the Erasmus program). I had many personal reasons to choose Portugal as my study abroad destination, but I wasn’t expecting to fall in love with this beautiful country.
Portugal is pretty small. To give you an idea, you can fit four times the area of Portugal into the state of California. And this is great if you plan to visit the entire country in just a few days, because it takes just hours to go from north to south.
The two main cities in Portugal by population and importance are Lisbon, or Lisboa, and Porto. If you are flying to Portugal from outside Europe, you will probably fly to Lisbon, the capital of this Iberian country.
Lisbon and Porto are connected by train (Comboios de Portugal), with a trip as short as 3 hours, as well as by bus (Rede Expressos), both very affordable and practical for getting to know this charming country.
If this is your first time in Portugal, you may want to check this list of things you should know about Portugal and the Portuguese before your trip.
Where to Go
Lisboa is the capital and also an amazing city to visit. Lisboa is a hilly city, full of stairs and miradouros-or terraces where you can enjoy views of the city- that make the city a unique one. One of my favorite things to do there is visit the miradouros at sunset to watch the color of the sky reflected on the city roofs and the ocean. I highly recommend Miradouro de Santa Luzia.
Lisboa also has a Moroccan castle, the Castelo de São Jorge, which not only has incredible views of the city, but also is a great way to learn more about the history of the city.
This city is known for being the place where most expeditions left in the Age of Discovery, including Vasco da Gama’s expedition to India, the explorer who is the namesake of the famous Lisbon bridge Vasco da Gama.
You can feel it. From the Praça do Comércio to the Padrao dos Descobrimentos, Lisbon is clearly a gateway to a whole new world.
If you like visiting historic sites and monuments, the Bélem Tower and the Jerónimos Monastery are also a great option for your visit to Lisbon.
My personal recommendation: get lost! Lisbon is a great city to discover walking (which isn’t easy considering how many hills and stairs it has). Wear comfortable shoes and enjoy the things you can discover in every corner of this city full of history.
Porto is without a doubt, one of my favorite European cities. To know more about what to see and where to eat in Porto, make sure you check my next article.
If you are already in Portugal, and have more than just a few days, I highly recommend you visit different cities and towns. Porto and Lisbon have a lot to offer, but here are some other places that you shouldn’t miss when visiting Portugal:
Google Sintra and you will understand immediately why this town is on the top of my list. I didn’t have the opportunity to visit Sintra when I was living in Portugal, but it is on my bucket list for the next time I go to Lisbon.
Sintra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site situated within the hills of the Serra de Sintra, only 30 km from Lisbon (approximately 18 miles). You can get to it easily by car or public transportation. Trains are always a good idea for tourists, so I recommend the train from Rossio Station to Sintra, which will take you there in 40 minutes and only costs €2,50 each way.
Colorful castles and palaces surrounded by natural landscape make this town unique and almost like a fairy tale. If you visit Sintra, make sure you visit the medieval Castelo dos Mouros, the romanticist Palácio da Pena and the Portuguese Rennaissance Palácio da Vila. Sintra is a perfect day trip from Lisbon and I’m sure you won’t regret seeing this amazing place.
When I was in Portugal, I lived in Coimbra. So, I couldn’t help but include this special city in the list. Coimbra is located exactly in between Porto and Lisbon, in the center of the country. It is easy to access by both train and bus.
Coimbra is well-known for its university. Universidade de Coimbra is a public Portuguese university that was established originally in Lisbon in 1290, but moved to its location in Coimbra in 1537, being the oldest university in continuous operation in Portugal, and one of the oldest in the world. And you can totally feel the history when you visit it!
J.K. Rowling, the author of Harry Potter, was inspired by Portugal when she created Hogwarts. The way students dress (the university capes that are worn by college students all over the country) and the amazing library (Biblioteca Joanina) look like they are taken out of a Harry Potter movie, but in fact, it is the opposite.
Universidade de Coimbra is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you have the opportunity to visit my city, make sure you have time to walk around the university, get lost in the confusing streets, climb the long Escadas Monumentais, and listen to a Fado de Coimbra (and if you don’t know what a fado is, yet, keep reading!). My favorite place for a night of fado and Porto wine (port) is the Café Santa Cruz located next to the Paróquia de Santa Cruz. They usually publish the schedule for their fado evening outside of their main doors. Locals frequently go there to enjoy drinks and music in a very authentic atmosphere. You pay for your drink and enjoy the show.
But if you don’t mind having a more touristy experience or your schedule is limited, Fado ao Centro is also a great option. Plus, the Porto wine is included with the entry and offered at the end of the concert.
Other cities that are worth visiting while in Portugal are:
-Aveiro: located on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, 45 minutes south of Porto. Like many other cities in Portugal, Aveiro is well-connected by train from Coimbra, Porto and Lisbon, which makes it easy to visit.
What makes this city special is that it is full of water canals. Known as the Venice of Portugal, this city is full of color and magic.
-Braga: located in the north of Portugal, Braga has a lot of history and architectural monuments. Braga used to be (and still is) a religious center and a pilgrimage destination.
-Lagos: a beautiful beach town located in the Algarve region, which is known for its beautiful cliffs and beaches. If you are looking for a beach experience in Portugal, make sure you visit Algarve. For both a cultural and very Portuguese experience and wonderful beaches, my recommendation is Lagos.
-Nazaré: this city is known around the world among surfers for having high breaking waves. Located in the center of the country, on the Atlantic coast, this city is also a wonderful beach destination.
What to Eat
Now that you know where you want to go when you visit Portugal, you need to know what you need to try in this wonderful country.
I admit that while I was living in Portugal I didn’t enjoy the local cuisine. Growing up in Spain and with an Italian family, the dishes I enjoy eating and cooking are different to what Portuguese eat. But even I, who have a hard time liking new things, found many tasty things in Portugal that I would like to recommend to you:
- Pastéis de nata
I’m sure you’ve heard about this wonderful pastry before. In general, I liked pastries in Portugal. And pastéis de nata are particularly well-known and iconic. Translated to English as egg tart, this sweet is a must on your visit to Portugal.
This traditional meal is a Portuguese sandwich originally from Porto, that includes many meats, a special sauce and cheese melted on top. Usually served with fries, I recommend you try a Francesinha when you are really hungry, because it’s very filling.
If you want to know my favorite place in Porto to eat Francesinha, click here to read my article about “Things You Need to See in Porto.”
- Porto Wine
Okay, this is not food. But you need to try Porto while in Portugal. Remember that this is not regular wine, it is a dessert wine. Porto is heavy, sweet and is usually 20% alcohol, so it’s higher in alcohol than regular (unfortified) wines.
If you are looking for a good souvenir, in many places in Portugal, especially in the city of Porto, you can buy small bottles of Porto wine that make the perfect gift. This wine was used for the British as an aperitif wine, and specifically developed so that it ships long distances well.
The sardinhas or sardines are served fresh and canned in Portugal. I usually don’t like seafood or fish, so I can’t personally tell you how wonderful they are. But sardinhas are a very Portuguese thing that you need to try when you visit Portugal.
When you enter a Portuguese supermarket, pay attention to the smells. If you notice a strong smell, it’s probably the bacalhau or cod, usually sold as salted cod. This is Portugal’s national dish, and is part of their national cuisine, being the number 1 consumer of cod in the world. If you want to try it, I recommend you don’t try to cook it at home and instead go to a good restaurant. It will be worth it.
If you want to know more things about this wonderful country and the many things that it has to offer, make sure to check our next post for more information. I will be happy to offer recommendations if you want to know more about Portugal in general, or Coimbra specifically.