Believe it or not, I could speak some Portuguese as a toddler. This was due to my Portuguese nanny, although of course at the time I thought Portugal was an island in the Caribbean and I thought Maria was just speaking Spanish with a funny accent.
After living in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, I got to know the real Portugal– the one that is in fact attached to the rest of the European continent, that has its own flavorful language, that boasts the best cod (“bacalhau”) I can find, and that should not be confused with Spain (or the Caribbean…) for any reason.
The little country’s food and wine rivals the rest of the romantic neighboring countries; however, so do the people, the scenery, the football, the architecture, and the history. Portugal was founded in the year 1143 and today has a population of approximately 10 million people and boasts 15 UNESCO World Heritage Sites . The capital, Lisbon, is one of the oldest cities in the world and is home to Europe’s longest bridge at 17.2km (10.7mi) long.
And with that, I give you my top 5 cities to visit in Portugal:
1. Guimaraes: Portugal’s oldest town, where the country was founded. Enjoy the old architecture and relax in the main square.
2. Sintra: Not far from Lisbon are 19th century, brightly-colored Romantic palaces amidst medieval Moorish castles. It is well worth your time and money to explore as many as possible.
3. Porto: Home of the ‘dessert wine,’ port, Porto sits along a river with cafes and wineries overlooking the water. Make sure to stop by the train station to see incredible blue tile work, and grab dessert at the Parisian cafe across from the station (I know, it sounds strange but it is delicious). You can also visit nearby wine region, Duoro, or the Peneda-Geres National Park with beautiful lush woods and waterfalls.
4. Óbidos: By far the most beautiful and romantic little town in Europe, it is one of the oldest consecutively maintained cities surrounded by a medieval castle wall. Walk around at night and explore the castle grounds to feel as though you are straight out of Dodie Smith’s Castle.
5. Lisbon: You obviously can’t miss the capital, especially when Portugal has a capital this beautiful. It’s easy to enjoy the nightlife, find yourself eating out, visit tourist sights, or simply absorb the atmosphere by walking along rolling roads to find hidden views of the ocean and red-roofed homes. My favorite food was Guida and Stefano’s Clara em Castelo, and my favorite patio to enjoy a bottle of wine and a good view is Restaurante Ponto Final (which is actually across the water in Cacilhas, accessible by ferry).
Bonus: visit the beaches in Algarve or the Azores islands (Madeira if you don’t have time for Azores). With regret I admit that I never made it, but I did venture throughout inland and coastal Portugal instead.