Portugal is a magical place replete with stunning views, colorful landscapes, the warmest people and affordably priced everything. If you love food, wine, views, architecture, history and walking, you really do have to make your way over there stat. I recently spent not-long-enough in Lisbon and Porto, each of which have their own unique vibe that is distinctly Portuguese.
If you’re planning a trip, I’d recommend Porto be your first stop. Here you’ll be immersed in a small, endlessly charming city and spend your days wandering tight streets surrounded by tiled buildings that tower above. When you get to Lisbon, a major city with a whole lot more going on, you’ll be more keen to the idiosyncrasies that make this a distinctly Portugese place.
Porto is all hills and bright colors.
This northern city is home to all production of Port, the sweet fortified dessert wine made with grapes grown in the nearby stunner that is Duoro Valley. In Porto, there are a number of Port Houses you can tour and taste a (emphasis on the tasting part).
Beyond Port, there is a ton of locally produced wine. That abundance and hyper locality means it’s generally very very inexpensive both at shops and restaurants/bars. Portuguese wine is starting to become more regularly imported in the United States, but there is a ton to learn and taste that’ll probably be new to you. Vinho Verde is what Pinot Grigio wishes it was – a super light, slighttttly effervescent, ultra refreshing chugger that goes down like water. Drink as much of it as you can.
Also be on the lookout for Filipa Pato wines. Filipa is a Portuguese winemaker whose bottles tend to lean more on the natty side, but are also really refined. Her sparkling rose is a gamechanger with tiny Champagne-like bubbles and delicate flavor. At three euros a glass at Porto’s adorable former chapel of a wine bar, Capela Incomum, you better believe I had my fill.
You could drink port, vinho verde and maybe even track down some of Filipa’s stuff and you’d be crushing it. But if you care to dive a little deeper, Toriga is a fantastic no-frills wine shop in Porto with a mega selection of tasty bottles. I found my all time favorite wine (ever!) there, Nat Cool. Good news for me, they just started working with a US distributor! Beyond wine, Super Bock is Portugal’s cheap beer, and is a worthy addition to just about any situation.
Within the city, you’ll want to spend as much time walking as possible. The tight, winding cobblestoned streets will take you up steep hills and through sleepy neighborhoods. No matter where you wander, you’ll be surrounded by the iconic tiles, which plaster nearly every building and come together to create mesmerizing geographic patterns. Selfie opportunities abound!
While Port is quaint, Lisbon is a thoroughfare for commerce, fashion and food and is home to an endless supply of adventure.
Located along the water and filled with hills, there’s a ridiculous amount of stunning views here. One of my favorites was in Alfama, one of the oldest parts of the city. Check out Quiosque Portas do Sol, a pretty mediocre cafe at the quintessential viewpoint that is very much worth stopping by for an espresso and family photo.
Much of this hilly city is only accessible by tram, as the streets are so narrow and steep. This network of trams, called Remodelados, has been functioning since 1873. Riding them through Lisbon is an excellent way to cover a lot of ground and have an old-timey experience. That said, they get c-r-o-w-d-e-d, so if this is on your hit list, definitely go early in the morning or at night to avoid a sardine-like seating situation.
Speaking of sardines, Portugal’s seaside locale means fish is bountiful. While you may think of stinky anchovies and Chicken of the Sea when you hear “tin fish,” the quality of these products in Portugal is a whole different thing. Fish preservation is a true art form and you’ll have access to a gazillion varieties while in Portugal. From octopus to horse mackerel to cod and squid, if it swims in the sea, you can find a gourmet canned version here. Though you can find super high quality tins in any grocery store, Loja das Conservas in Lisbon is the holy grail - a museum like tin fish shop where you’ll learn all about the industry and varieties and certainly walk away with some tasty souvenirs.
You could probably subsist on tin fish, cheese (sheep’s milk is big) and baguettes for a while, but save room because the rest of the food situation is lowkey amazing. Portuguese food hasn’t become hugely popular in the United States, but the cuisine is not dissimilar to Spanish. There’s lots of small plates, seafood and cured meats, plus a couple iconic dishes that will make you wish there was a larger movement back home.
Pastel de nata is just about as good as it gets. Essentially an egg tart, these puff pastry shells are filled with rich, silky custard made from egg yolks and sugar. The destination spots, like Fabrica de Nata (a local chain that I highly recommend) get a lot of play, which means they’re constantly churning out fresh, warm pastries. The warmer they are, the more silky the custard will be, so choose accordingly. Each spot has a slightly unique approach, so I’d recommend you try as many as you can handle! The duty free shops in the airport actually sell pastel de natas that hold up just long enough for you to bring some home to friends and co-workers.
Another decadent delicacy to add to your list is francesinha, the Portuguese take on the croque madame. Created in Port (which is probably the only place you should order one), this mega-sandwich is filled with ham, steak and sausage and covered in melted cheese, gravy and a fried egg. It is certainly an experience, but not one you should skip. We didn’t make it there, but Santiago is apparently the best play.
If that’s not enough meat for you, alheria should not be missed. This sausage is made with a bunch of meats (pork, rabbit, chicken, quail, etc. etc.) and bread. It’s usually served deep fried and has a gamey flavor and soft texture. You’ll find it at just about any casual restaurant that serves small plates, and it may be listed as “game sausage” or “bread sausage” on English-translated menus. It’s also got an interesting backstory around Jewish persecution in Portugal, which I’ll kindly guide you to learn more about on Wikipedia.
Okay, okay. Last meat product, I swear. Piri piri chicken is pretty popular in the US at this point, because spit roasted chicken covered in spicy oil is universally delicious. This is actually not that popular in Portugal (at least from my research) but it feels wrong to skip it altogether. Bonjardim in Lisbon has been around since the ‘70s and is a convivial, old school open air restaurant where paper covered tables spill out onto the street. Their piri piri chicken is everything you want: crispy skin, juicy meat and served with plenty of spicy chili oil for dowsing and dipping.
My trip was all too short, but long enough to get a taste of the culture, history, food and wine. In three words, Portugal is aesthetic, delicious and hospitable. If you’re planning a visit of your own, check out my Lisbon and Porto Map below for pinpoints and descriptions of my favorite stops along the way!