Portugal, with its two biggest cities of Lisbon and Porto, its colorful old villages and quaint seaside towns along the dramatic coastline, all make the country a top travel destination. Add that it is one of the most affordable countries in Western Europe and Portugal tempts travelers to put the country on their travel “bucket list”.
Stand in one of the central squares in Lisbon, walk along the riverside promenade in Porto, climb the steep cobbled streets up to an ancient church, a romantic palace or the ruins of a Moorish fortress in one of the small towns and you will find that the varied architectural styles reveal the history and culture of this fascinating country.
Porto is a hilly town which is divided by the Douro River and has a feel of two different cities. In the modern city center, Liberty Square with beautiful architecture and monuments, restaurants and hotels connects the newer part to the old town with its slopping, cobbled streets lined with blue tile covered buildings. Porto, known for its fortified port wine, has many of its famous port houses lined up along its riverfront. There are lots of bars and restaurants, many with outside patios, where you can enjoy a glass of port wine and try some of the city’s traditional foods. During our visit, we toured the Sandeman’s cellar to learn about and taste their fine ruby and tawny ports.
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Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in the world and was the starting point for dozens of voyages around the world. There was a taxi strike when we visited Lisbon making travel difficult there. We didn’t walk through the city, but instead took a scenic bus trip before heading out to the hillside town Sintra and seaside town of Cascais.
My favorite spot that we visited during our time in Portugal was the fairytale town of Sintra which is only 15 miles outside the city of Lisbon. It is home to many wonderful villas, castles and palaces. On top of a peak in the Sintra hills is the most famous and colorful palace that you can imagine, the Pena Palace which is a destination in itself.
If you had to describe Portugal in one word, I would probably say “colorful” as there is an explosion of colors everywhere you look. There are beautiful ornate churches, brightly painted houses, entire buildings covered with intricate hand painted blue and white Portuguese (azulejos) tile, and town squares and sidewalks paved in patterns of black and white stones, which are art in themselves.
Outside of the towns and villages, the natural beauty of Portugal’s rugged coastline is a big draw. The stunning landscape at Cabo de Roca lighthouse offers some of the most beautiful natural scenery in the country. Perched on a high bluff at the edge of the windswept Atlantic, it is the most western point of mainland Europe. Looking out to sea where the ocean and sky meet, you can easily understand why it was once thought to be the edge of the world.
Not all is perfect with Portugal, there is a faded grandeur that is slowly disappearing as many beautiful buildings have been left to ruin. Explore the hilly back streets and you see reminders of the economic downturn from previous years. Historic ruins are coated in lichen and overgrown with vines. Graffiti decorates the walls of once grand buildings and shops. Dilapidated houses with broken windows have been abandoned and slowly crumble from neglect and time. This is because of Portugal’s strict preservation laws that prevent property owners from altering or destroying the fronts of historic buildings. Many poor property owners have no choice but to let them slowly crumble.
While people have moved out of some of these historic neighborhoods, others continue to live and work in these surroundings as seen by laundry hanging from balconies. Palms and olive trees still grow among the graffitied landscape. On a bright note, with more tourists visiting Portugal, buildings are slowly being bought and renovated and hopefully will bring life back to these once thriving ancient neighborhoods.
The colorful world of Portugal seems to be a land of wonderful contradictions. Dramatic coastlines and tranquil beaches, fairytale palaces rise above small villages. Large churches and monuments can be found in the smallest of towns. As a first time visitor to Portugal, I was pleasantly surprised that the charming cities and towns were not filled with crowds of tourists.
After my brief two day introduction, I can see why Portugal has become a top tourist destination in Europe. I know I would love to return and explore more of the picturesque towns with their interesting architecture and the scenic countryside. It would be wonderful to visit the country’s famous vineyards and perhaps stay in one of the historic Portuguese pousadas in the Douro Valley.