When my parents and I first decided to meet up in Europe over my fall break, they asked me what country would be best. I didn’t hesitate to recommend Portugal, what with its seafood, wine, and friendly residents. With Lisbon a direct flight from both Moscow and Boston, I knew it would suit us just fine. My only request was that our good friends Charlie and Deb join as well. They were game and we started planning.
Between 1400-1600, Portugal underwent an “Age of Discovery”. Prosperous and seafaring, the country sent sailing fleets to all corners of the globe, captained by household names such as Ferdinand Magellan and Vasco da Gama. “By 1560, Portugal’s global empire had peaked. Tiny-but-filthy-rich Portugal claimed (though they didn’t actually occupy) the entire coastline of Africa, Arabia, India, the Philippines, and south China – a continuous stretch from Lisbon to Macao – plus Brazil.” This practice of international exploration yielded exotic spices, agricultural practice, and (horrendously) the beginnings of the slave trade.
Though I’d spent a few days in Lisbon in 2017, I’d missed the chance to go north to Porto, a city that has elicited only smiles and good words from friends and fellow travelers. We decided to start our journey there.
The city of bridges, as it as known, Porto lies at the mouth of a river which runs over a mountain range and into the Douro Valley (the valley of gold), the fertile bed of the port wine industry. Taylor, Calem, and Ferreira all have lodges along the river. With a recommendation from a good friend, we made our way to Graham’s.
Graham’s Port Lodge
Featuring gorgeous hilltop view at the city across the river, Graham’s proved a great starting point in our quest to learn about the history of port. We toured it’s cellars featuring a library of vintage wines (the only wine that can appreciate with age!), some of which were over 150 years old. The atmosphere was perfect and we enjoyed a walk down to the waterfront after our port flight.
São Bento Railway Station
You will seriously earn your steps on the streets of Porto. Staying higher atop the hill, I tried to devise a winding walk that featured mostly downhills. Our first stop was the Sao Bento Railway Station which features over 20,000 hand-painted tiles. The stained glass was gorgeous, too.
Livraria Lello Bookshop
I could not visit Porto without seeing the bookshop which had inspired Hogwarts. Author JK Rowling taught ESL in Porto from 1991-1993 and often stopped into this bookshop. From the art nouveau staircase and dark wood finishes, it is not hard to picture sliding staircases and talking portraits. Neither the lines nor the masses could detract from the magic inside.
On the Water
With a group of five, moving from place to place could be a bit of a challenge. We opted for a hop-on/hop-off bus tour which took us to the outskirts of town. As we drove along the water, we let our stomachs choose our next stop – a fishing hamlet with river views. Fresh cod, hake, and salmon were on offer and paired with cabbage and potatoes made for our most delicious meal yet. The atmosphere came replete with a Portuguese mother directing all the action from the window above. We joked that our meal was probably still swimming that morning and I suspect we were right.
Charlie and Deb had read up on the Ribeira, an area down on the riverbank. Once a dodgy area, the neighborhood is now a fantastic spot for restaurants and music. We opted for a boat ride under the famous Porto bridges but I could easily see returning to Ribeira the next time I’m in town.
I could have called this post “Stairs, stairs, and more stairs” or “Just 10 more minutes walking”. Though we didn’t plan this stop well on our walk down to the riverfront, I would recommend the Cathedral for it’s beautiful tiles and gilded alters. Beautiful views over the city made the climb worth it.
A quick and easy 3-hour train ride found us back in Lisbon, the City of Light. Unlike it’s French counterpart of the same nickname, Lisbon is bathed in golden light after dark, in gorgeous contrast to a typical blue velvet night sky. I had a few nights to myself on either end of the trip and I’ll say at no point did I feel unsafe taking in the streets after dark.
I spent my first two nights in the charmingly local neighborhood of Lapa. I’m told it’s a hub for Lisbon intellectuals – artists and writers abound. If you’re seeking an actual oasis just beyond the street, look no further than this supremely charming garden and private backyard suite. Two of the nicest hosts I’ve stayed with, to boot.
We certainly earned our steps back in Lisbon as well. One of our major treks included a very early bird dinner at Ramiro, a seafood house made famous by Anthony Bourdain during a visit back in 2012. This place surely did not disappoint with crab, shrimp, and clams as tasty as I’ve ever experienced on the shores of Maine and Cape Cod.
Ascensor do Lavra & Jardim do Torel
Lisbon is known for it’s funiculars (ascensor) and we took a lesser known one to the Jardim do Torel lookout. With 270 degree views of the whole city, it was a perfectly quiet spot to watch the sun go down behind one of Lisbon’s many hills. The graffitied cable car was a charming way to travel.
Jerónimos Monastery, Belem
Our last day found us in Belem, a small town just down the river from Lisbon. The monastery was well worth the 10 euro entrance fee and left us marveling at the architectural flare throughout. We enjoyed pasteis de nata in the park and took the slow boat back to Lisbon, which was a perfect choice.
Largo do Carmo & Bellalisa Elevador
Deb had the idea to return to a square we had spied the night before called Largo do Carmo. With quaint tables and umbrellas, we enjoyed our drinks next to the ruins of a convent. There is a famous elevator in Lisbon which has lines for days (literally) but with a little help from a guide, we realized that the Bellalisa Elevador Restaurant would make a perfect spot to cap off our trip together. The drinks were flowing and seafood was top notch. Before we knew it, it was time for the crew to fly back to Boston.
On recommendation from a train seat mate, I spent my last day in Lisbon visiting the Gulbenkian Museum. Soaking up the sunshine in the museum’s gardens and the Turkish artwork inside proved the perfect send-off. I look forward to my chance to return again and will look back at this special trip with fond memories.