Portugal is one of those countries that’s always been there, but never tickled my curiosity, not as a European, nor as a woman of the world. You could ask me about famous landmarks, the tourist attractions or even just the general landscape, and I’d have no idea what you were talking about. The only (and probably most important) notables (in my book) were the adventurous men who sailed out to conquer the world, the so-called conquistadors of the 15th and 16th century who established the world’s trade routes. Vasco da Gama discovered India; Gaspar Corte-Real was the first to reach Canada; and Pedro Alvares Cabral claimed Brazil. They developed the riches and resources of their far, exotic lands and turned the Portuguese Empire into one of the wealthiest and longest-living global territories.
Even though it lost much of its international status after the independence of Brazil in 1822, and its economy seems to suffer its own cruel conjuncture, Portugal, I found out, is seriously underrated.
Here is why:
1. Let’s start with the architecture, because that surprised me the most. It feels medieval, but the kind you imagine in Sleeping Beauty, not the Dark Ages. The facades of the townhouses are bright and colorful. The rooftops are covered in deep red tiles. And there are more fortresses, castles, mansions and palaces than in any fairytale, all proof that once there were people with substantial dosh. Some parts of Lisbon are simply cute. Other parts, like the area around the Castelo de Sao Jorge impressive and breathtaking. The whole thing is like an enchanted paradise, really.
2. The people are kind, patient, funny and self-depricating. They don’t find themselves interesting and insist to make it known that they are “poor”. It’s not excuse, just an explanation.
3. There are more sights and towns and regions than one can visit in one trip. Each one is different and worth exploring, so I recommend coming back at least a few times. Start with Lisbon, Sintra (more about this in the next Look of the Week) and the beaches on the Atlantic Ocean (there’s amazing surf!). You could also go to Porto and the North and the next time to the Algarve in the South, where the Portuguese vacation.
4) The weather was amazing when I was there. Not a cloud in the sky, the entire time, and a reasonable temperature.
5) The ice cream is just as good as in Italy and Croatia! (Sorry guys…)
I barely scratched the surface of Lisbon but I saw enough to know that I am coming back. Here’s some tips:
1) Stay at the Barrio Alto Hotel, a modern boutique hotel in Barrio Alto, a lively shopping and restaurant neighborhood, or the Pestana Palace in Belem, a little out of the center, for old world glory and history. If you want to stay near the beach I can recommend The Oitavos in Cascais.
2) Go vintage shopping! I found a few very cool stores. A Outra Face de Lua has two locations across the street from each other. One is more expensive; the other has a coffee shop and bar attached. The owner Carla was very generous and knowledgable. As de Espadas has men’s and women’s. El Dorado has been in business for more than three decades but is probably the least fashionable. I also found a tiny store on my way down from the castle: A Loja. The lady who owns it has amazing taste in retro decor. I could have bought the entire store!
3) Eat local and Portuguese. Filipa Gomes, famous TV chef and Muse for this week, recommends Pinoquio – “try the Gamba da Costa (delicious shrimps from our coast) and Ameijoas à Bulhao Pato (kind of clams)” – and Casa de Pasto.
4) Do your morning run along the river Tagus! Depending on your stamina and location you could go as far as the longest suspension bridge in Europe!
5) Take the public train from Lisbon to Cascais. You will drive along the river first, and eventually end up on the cool (but very crowded) beaches of the Atlantic Ocean. If you go further North you will find Praio do Guincho, a fantastic beach where people go kite and wind surfing because it’s breezy.
6) Try Santini‘s ice cream. They’ve been around since 1949 so they know what they’re doing.
7) Visit the market Feira de Ladra on Saturday and find all the Portuguese artisanal goods: Port, cork, linens, soap and the usual flea market suspects.
According to a poll on USA Today, Portgual was just crowned the Best European Country. “Portugal has apparently stolen the hearts of our readers as it secured the lion’s share of votes,” they wrote last week. And I don’t blame the Americans because though not iconic, Portugal offers more than you might be looking for.