For lots of people, a destination with a lot of “heat” around it is a red flag. Why would I go where everyone else is going? It’s a recipe for overpriced flights & hotels, plus crowds that will strip the place of its inherent charm. Those lots of people have a good point. Sometimes though, a popular destination still has a lot to offer. And if you step off the beaten path it can be a place of wonders.
For me, that’s Portugal – specifically the Portuguese urban centres of Lisbon and Porto. They are both fantastic places to visit. Porto in particular has become one of my favourite places in the world. More on that later.
From Canada, Portugal is best reached via AirTransat (direct), TAP (direct and connecting) or Azores Airlines (connecting). Nothing against Air Canada which I fly all the time. There’s just not any additional value to justify the higher price. If you fly in to Lisbon, you can connect to downtown via a fast and inexpensive subway. Just pick up reusable transit card at the kiosk, tap on and ride. I recommend putting extra money on the card at the airport, as you can use those cards to ride the popular trams downtown at a substantial discount. I stayed in a rental apartment near the Praça das Flores, which has easy access to both the Barrio Alto and the waterfront – which if you’re in for a short visit will be about all you’ll have time to see. I recommend the apartment stay/AirBnb option in Lisbon, where the popularity of the town has really driven up hotel prices. My private apartment was only about $70 a night.
The waterfront from Praça do Comércio all the way up to Restauradores is touristy, crowded, crowded and also crowded. It is definitely attractive and worth a brief visit, but I’d rather highlight a few other fun things to do in and around town. The first is to try and live like a local. One of the coolest experiences of my visit was sipping a beer in the public park on R. de Santa Catarina, which overlooks the harbour below. There’s a kiosk selling drinks and snacks, and on this particular evening a band assembled piece by piece – a duo becoming a trio becoming a quartet and so on. They gave a free concert for a local crowd of families and friends, watching the sunset and enjoying the perfect weather.
Lisbon by night is stunning. The cobbled streets of the Barrio Alto become a giant nightclub, and around every corner is another outdoor restaurant/cafe serving traditional Lisbon fare. The view down Calçada do Duque, looking from the Barrio Alto down the hill (or across to the citadel) epitomizes for me the very best of Europe. Gorgeous and historic, yet brimming with life.
A quick side note: Lisbon is, obviously, quite hilly. There’s a good reason for all those trams and funiculars. Just be ready to embrace this and to wear comfortable shoes. You will get all of your cardio here. You can counterbalance that exercise by eating your fill of Portuguese custard tarts, which you absolutely will do. The traditional place to buy these is in Belėm, but I had some amazing tarts in the Time Out market. No hyperbole here. The tarts I had were so good that I got a bit choked up.
There is a castle/citadel in Lisbon. But if like me castles are your thing I recommend a day trip to Sintra – home of the summer palace and castles going back to the Moorish period and before. You arrive in Sintra by train, from where you can either grab a tourist bus or tuk-tuk into town. I walked, and the views are worth it. You’ll also come across of a long stretch of craft vendors – some of which are tourist tat, but many of which are quite beautiful – like a live Etsy. It was fun to pause for a while and watch the craftspeople work.
At the top of the mountain in Sintra is the old Moorish fortress. You can walk up if you’re super-fit, have a lot of time, and/or are insane. I recommend taking a tuk-tuk to the top, visiting the castle, and then walking DOWN. The fortress is magnificent as are the views. The path down is lovely and manageable, though the directional signage is occasionally quite subtle. It really is a fantastically beautiful place, so I highly recommend it as a great and affordable visit.
About three hours North of Lisbon by train is the charming and comparatively relaxed city of Porto. You can also fly directly there, and from the airport take a tram downtown. It’s not the fastest way, but it’s cheap and simple. Like its cousin to the south, the action centres on the old port, and from there everything is a climb. Seriously, if you thought Lisbon was hilly…
The Old Port is the centre of tourism, with most visitors concentrating their time on the banks of the Duoro river. On the North side you’ll find the cobbled alleys, outdoor restaurants and souvenir shops. Across the Ponte Luis I, you’ll find all the famous Port wine lodges where you can sample, tour and buy buy buy! Fortunately, it only takes a few minutes to walk out of the chaos and find the real Porto. Up, up, up the hill you go as you find yourself in wonderful narrow cobbled streets that seem to have sprung directly from another age. That’s because Porto is still gentrifying, and somewhat slowly. One by one the dilapidated old stone houses are being gutted and renewed while preserving their facades and character. The government has enforced humane development policies which allow the many aging residents to stay in their homes until they choose to go, or can no longer live independently. This has kept Porto from looking like one big construction site.
Once you’ve climbed out of the port, you enter a city of neighbourhoods. One of my favourite neighbourhoods is the Praça de Carlos Alberto. It features a frequent craft market, outdoor restaurants and a community vibe. It stands at the foot of a pedestrianized R. de Cetofeita, which serves mostly local needs and is a great place to eat more cheaply than in the port.
A word about beer. I love it. And Portugal (and Porto in particular) has a great craft beer scene. You can start on the R. de Cetofeita at Catraio Craft Beer Market. It’s a small family-run place specializing in local beer and hospitality. The owners are fantastic and friendly, and served as my guides for finding restaurants and other recommendations. I go back there again and again, and each time I enter feel a bit like Norm from Cheers. Closer to the tourist heart, and not far from the pedestrianized Rua de Santa Catarina, you’ll find the Letra Craft Beer Garden. This is a brewery outlet which also features the beers of its many competitors. When you enter you’ll find just a tiny bar, but head downstairs and out the back door to enjoy their large and beautiful beer garden.
For the culinary adventurers, Porto residents are nicknamed Tripeiros – or Tripe Eaters. They mostly do eat this as a traditional stew with sausage, beans, potatoes, etc. It’s delicious. Or maybe you’ll hate it. But try it.
West of the centre, the city of Porto buts up against the Atlantic Ocean. Take a tram up to the old fish market (so that you can be hilariously insulted by the fishwives) and then start walking down the coast. First you’ll come to a neighbourhood full of restaurants with outdoor grilles. There you can order off a menu, or ask them to prepare your freshly caught (or bought) fish. The smell of this street is not to be believed – in a good way. From there walk south and you’ll encounter mile after mile of gorgeous Atlantic beaches, plus an old fort or two. Despite its beauty and immensity, these beaches seem to be invisible to the foreign tourist crowd. On a sunny warm day in September, while the old port was jumping, I felt like I had the ocean to myself.
So Porto is beautiful. But why do I keep coming back? Is it the warm, friendly people? Is it the beer? Am I a masochist about hill climbing? It’s all of these things. Though maybe it’s just a thing I have for second cities – the big cities, but not the biggest. They always strike me as being more vibrant and more authentic. Cities like Porto, Chicago, Manchester, and Hamburg. Maybe they’re not as caught up in themselves. I don’t know. I just feel both excited by the unknown, yet strangely at home. Maybe you will too. And if you stop in at Catraio, bring them a can of Canadian craft beer and tell them I sent you.
When to visit: Porto has a unique micro-climate, making it comfortable in the blistering heat of a Portuguese summer, and curiously warm for most of the winter. I have been in May, September and December and never needed more than a light jacket. Hotels away from the port are cheap here, and AirBnbs even cheaper. On my most recent off-season visit I rented a spacious one-bedroom apartment for about $60/night.