If Portugal was a guy, it would be a super nice, smiley, humble, and simple guy that I had heard a lot of good things about for years but kept missing the chance to see him face to face. I was busy chasing other guys like the mysterious Iran who stole my heart and soul, or the wild crazy Georgia who swept me off my feet. I thought Portugal would not stand a chance against these two. But when we finally met, I had a massive crush on him :))
It’s difficult to shortlist the reasons why I love Portugal. So here they all are in no particular order. Gonna be a long list 🙂
1. My friend Nuno is from Portugal. Against all odds, we managed to catch up in his hometown Porto. Seeing him again after so many years was definitely the highlight of the trip.
2. Portuguese foods are amazing. They are really simple yet flavorful home-style comfort foods to be enjoyed with friends and family. And affordable, too. Most dishes don’t use a lot of spices or complicated cooking techniques, but simply let the ingredients shine. You cannot go wrong with foods in Portugal no matter where you go or what you order – prawn, octopus, sardine, clam, chicken, pork, lamb, omelette, pastry, etc. It really doesn’t matter, everything tastes good. I’m totally a fan of Portuguese cuisine now. Below are a few highlights.
Some of the food that we tasted in Portugal
3. If you don’t eat seafood every day in Portugal, there’s something VERY wrong with you!!! (Sorry if you have seafood allergy. Technically speaking, allergy counts as ‘something wrong’ as well). Seafood here is so fresh, affordable, and perfectly cooked.
4. Bacalhau (salted cod fish) is like the national dish of Portugal. Many people say there are 101 ways to prepare cod fish; others say 1,001 ways; some even say 1,000,001 ways. Whatever! In short, there are many ways to cook this ingredient. Depending on the cooking method and the quality of the fish, you can get totally different textures and tastes. My favorite – a thick piece of bacalhau baked with onion, potatoes, crème, cheese and olive oil from a tiny restaurant in Porto. So yummy!
Dried cod fish sold in supermarket. The fish must be soak in plenty of water for a long time before cooking
A collection of bacalhau recipes
5. Pastéis de nata (Portuguese egg tart) is divine. I don’t normally like sweets, but I must admit this tart is super tasty. The rich egg custard melts in your mouth, while the crisp pastry adds contrasting texture and flavor. Add some cinnamon powder, and it’s such a perfect companion to an afternoon tea! Pastéis de Belem in Lisbon is so famous for this little tart that about 20,000 pieces are made and sold at their store every day. But you can find pastéis de nata everywhere in Portugal.
Pastéis de nata
A pastry shop in Lisbon
6. Francesinha (little Frenchie in Portuguese) is the monster baby of Croque Monsieur and a Porto pure-blood carnivore. My friend Nuno calls this sandwich a heart attack on a plate; I call it the tower of sin. Between two slabs of bread are layers upon layers of ham, sausage, steak, and bacon, finished with a thick layer of cheese and a fried egg, drenched in a thick spicy tomato and beer sauce, and served with a mountain of French fries on the side. I struggled to finish half of a franchesinha, even with a glass of beer and some salads. But we saw some groups ordering nothing but a francesinha for each and every person at the table. I really don’t know how they managed to eat it all.
Francesinha – we were so haunted by this culinary experience that we started to notice francesinha in every restaurant’s menu. Weird!
7. Portugal has some of the world’s best extra virgin olive oil. I don’t think we got to taste any of the brands on this list but what we tasted in a small local producer in Douro valley was already way better than what most restaurants offer. Just imagine how the top ones could be like. Btw, have you ever seen such as perfect balsamic vinegar droplet in extra virgin olive oil?
8. Fruits are so cheap. Coming from Singapore where imported fruits carry eye-watering price tags, it was a bit of a shock for me to get a bag of cherry AND a box of strawberry for a little more than EUR 3. Such a bargain!
9. Local breakfast is super cheap. A pastry and a coffee/tea from a local bakery cost less than EUR2.
10. Both Lisbon and Porto are quite hilly, so walking up and down steep cobbled streets made me feel like I definitely deserved all the aforementioned sumptuous feasts, including the sinful franceshinha.
Walking up and down steep streets of Lisbon and Porto is a good workout for your legs
11. Want to feel posh in Porto? Go to Majestic café – ‘an example of what a café should actually be’ according to the columnist André de Moura. The art-deco designs are beautiful, service impeccable, and prices surely matched its ‘noble and luxurious’ name.
12. Libraria Lello is rated as one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world. It’s believed that JK Rowling drew some inspiration for the Harry Potter series while sipping coffee here. The bookshop is now so popular that visitors have to pay a EUR 4 entrance fee, which will be waived with any purchase.
13. Other shops are also beautiful
This particular shop is famous for canned sardines. Some people collect their beautifully designed cans.
14. There are so many outdoor restaurants and bars all over the city. Sitting outside on a summer evening is perfect.
15. Portugal has some of the world’s most beautiful train stations. Lisbon’s Rossio Train Station has a beautiful Neo-Manueline style, while Porto’s Sao Bento is famous for its magnificent 20,000-piece tile panels. If you like modern architecture, Oriente Station in Lisbon features a leaf-like canopy that makes the station airy and bright, and makes passengers leaving Lisbon feeling light-hearted.
Sao Bento station (Porto) covered in magnificent azulejos
16. Whoever owns the metro network in Porto must have an unusually high level of trust in human beings. There are machines for passengers to validate their tickets, but many stations have no barriers, even the ones on street level. I guess we can also think about it as a testament to the honesty and integrity of Portuguese people
17. You can literally have an appetizer in Gaia, main course in downtown Porto, and desert by the sea. Gaia, the twin city of Porto is on the other side of the Douro River and can be reach by metro, car, or a leisure walk across the Dom Luís I Bridge. Hop on Tram 1 at Infante in Old Town Porto, and 15 min later you’ll end up at Foz do Douro, the mouth of Douro River where it meets the Atlantic Ocean.
View of Porto from Tram 1
Foz do Douro
View of Gaia from Tram 1 on the way back to Porto
18. Porto is the city of churches. Apart from Rome, I don’t think I’ve seen any other city with so many churches. Porto must have the highest number of churches per squared km compared to any other city in Portugal. Churches are everywhere, literally.
19. The magnificent panoramic view of Porto’s old town and Gaia makes it all worth it to climbing nearly 250 steps of Torre dos Clérigos (Clerigos Tower).
Porto’s Ribeira and Gaia on the other side of the river
20. Seagulls have invaded Porto. They come out in full forces after dark, circling in the sky taking stock of their human prisoners down below.
21. Crossing a garden in Porto in the afternoon, you’ll be forgiven if you think you’re at an open-air card game tournament for seniors.
22. The city has some grand buildings…
23… but I love the old town. I can easily spend a day or two getting lost in Porto Ribeira’s narrow twisting lanes, craning my neck to look at street lamps of various shapes and shards of blue sky cutting through high walls of various shades – yellow, orange, maroon, pink, etc.
Colorful houses flanking Ribeira Square
Ribeira’s narrow lanes
If you look really hard, you’ll see a woman poking her head our of a window in the shadow. She was so friendly and tried to talk to us in Portuguese. Right there and then, I wished I had a superpower to understand every single language in the world, so that I could have a chat with anyone during my travel.
Beautiful display of colors, shapes, light, and shadows
Getting down to the river, with a magnificent view of Gaia’s cellars
24. Port is essentially embedded in the names of both Porto and Portugal, so port tasting is a must-do in Porto. I find port a touch too sweet for my palette, but the experience itself – whether in a cellar in Gaia overlooking the historic Ribeira, or in a vineyard deep in Douro valley among the vines, olive trees, and rosemary bushes – is worth it.
Beautiful colors of 10-year old tawny and white port. Unlike white wine, white port actually has a marvelous orange color.
25. Sitting by the bank of Douro River at sunset on Gaia’s side, looking at the Ribeira, eating prawns in butter and garlic sauce, sipping wine, and listening to two old men playing jazz on the street is the best way to enjoy life. Even on a cloudy day, the Ribeira looks beautiful.
In the old days, traditional rabelo boats transported wine and port barrels from vineyards in Douro valley down the river to cellars in Gaia. Nowadays, the boats are used as an advertisement tool for cellars.
One of many cruises carrying tourists up and down Douro rivers
26. Walking Dom Luís I Bridge to cross Douro river can be additive. The atmosphere, the colors, light and shadows change as the sun crosses the sky and the city lit up at night. The upper and lower decks of the bridge offer different views. Every time I went, I spotted something new.
Dom Luís I Bridge as viewed from the funicular
View of Ribeira from the bridge’s upper deck
The bridge as viewed from Gaia
Gaia’s cellars in the foreground, Dom Luís I bridge, and the Ribeira on the other side of Douro river (this photo was taken with my iPhone, hence the muted colors)
Huge roofs of Gaia’s cellars
Porto by night