Portugal sits at the western edge of Europe, with Spain along one side and the Atlantic Ocean along the other. With a stunning coastline, beautiful capital city and world-class food and wine, it has all the elements of a perfect European destination. But in the world of travel and tourism, Portugal is almost always overshadowed by its more popular neighbors. Spain and France together attract more than 150 million foreign tourists every year while Portugal only recently surpassed 10 million in 2016.
This is good news for anyone going to Portugal, as we discovered last spring. We enjoyed uncrowded streets and affordable accommodations throughout our trip. We started in Lisbon, where the history is serious but the attitude and terrain feel a lot like San Francisco. The city clings to a hillside overlooking the mouth of the Tagus river. Coming and going from our apartment in the Chiado district, we were always walking uphill or downhill on our way to the next stop.
Through the centuries, Lisbon has succumbed to the control of Berbers, Arabs, Norwegians and Spaniards, as well as the destructive forces of fire and earthquakes. All of these influences are still visible in Lisbon’s architecture, tiles and cracks in the walls.
The city’s location on the Atlantic seems to have influenced its color palette, with all the soft shades of water, sky, sunshine and sunsets applied along every street. The joy in the colors and patterns feels unique to Lisbon. A lot of time and thought has gone into embellishing this city.
Stepping into Palácio Chiado for lunch was unexpectedly cool, not only for the unique dining areas arranged on two floors but also for the contrast of chic and antique interiors among them. Lisbon’s casual style is an eclectic mix of old and new. It never feels constructed or fake, and whether you’re dining at an up-and-coming restaurant of a Michelin-starred chef (Mini Bar; José Avillez; wonderful) or just having an afternoon beer at the Praça de São Paulo (on draft, with service and good people watching), you’re welcomed with genuine hospitality.
With so many hills, Lisbon has lots of viewpoints where you can take in scenic views of the city. A walk up the hill to Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara gave us our first vista across the city toward Castelo de Sao Jorge.
We took a Sunday stroll around the Feira da Ladra, Lisbon’s twice-weekly flea market. Any good traveler knows that market days are the best days to see local color, and the Feira da Ladra was no exception. Locals were out with a million things for sale including clothing, dishes, artwork, antiques, old tiles and Barbie dolls. I picked up a pair of Roy-Bom (Ray-Ban) sunglasses and an old brass plate with an etched design.
Another walk took us up another hill to Miradouro da Nossa Senhora do Monte where we could look west across the whole city to the Ponte 25 de Abril bridge, the largest suspension bridge in the world (and very similar to the Golden Gate).
Back down the hill and around the Castelo de Sao Jorge, we arrived at the edge of the Alfama, Lisbon’s oldest neighborhood. Buildings are packed onto the hillside with narrow walkways leading down to the main street bordering the river. This is the best area in Lisbon to experience Fado, the historic art of singing traditional Portuguese songs with trademark melancholy.
At the Praça do Comércio, the sun finally burned through the haze and brightened up the afternoon. With baton twirlers and bubble blowers around, we sat and rested our feet before continuing on to the Time Out Market.
What would a visit to Portugal be without a little Madeira wine? How amazing to see such a wide range of vintages at the market. We enjoyed a small sample poured from a bottle that was corked in 1972, the year my grandmother was traveling Europe.
The Time Out Market opened in 2014 after renovations to the complex, which has been around for more than a century. It’s a great place to grab a coffee or a gourmet bite to eat after picking up some local produce or flowers at the mercado next door. Kitchens in the market cook Lisbon’s authentic, best food (as tasted and confirmed by local experts), for affordable prices, under one roof. You can also find fresh seafood and really good charcuterie among the many delectable things to eat.
The concept has revived the neighborhood and given tourists and locals a communal place to experience Lisbon’s characteristic cuisine. And this is really at the heart why we found Lisbon so livable and lovable. The city has loads of history and beauty, but the focus really seems to be on enjoying some very basic things in life: a nice view, a good glass of wine and a great meal with friends. Who doesn’t love that?