• Stephanie Hinds

15 Reasons You Should Visit Portugal

Deciding on which country to visit to celebrate my university graduation was a tough choice. Would I eat baguettes in Paris while gazing at the Eiffel Tower? Would I visit the pyramids in Egypt? Or would I follow Alexis Bledel’s character in Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants and be surrounded by Santorini’s traditional white houses in Greece?

Interestingly enough, the answer was none of the above. I wound up in in Europe’s westernmost country: Portugal. And very shortly after landing in the capital, Lisbon, I realized there was no place I’d rather be. Here are 15 things I loved about Portugal, and 15 reasons you should book your ticket.

1. The affordability

With the weakness of the Canadian dollar, any traveller wants to be sure their money will stretch as far as possible. Luckily, flying to Portugal is surprisingly affordable. Our flight cost roughly $600 (CAD). And the bargains don’t end there. I was amazed—and relieved—at the low cost of meals and tourist attractions, and in some cases, hotels. Our hotel for three in Evora came up to $120 euros for two nights—that’s unheard of!

For just a few euros, you can feed yourself and get admission to several museums, churches and towers. No matter your budget, there is always something within reach to keep you entertained and your tummy satisfied.

Tip: If you’re travelling to different cities and planning on doing a lot of sightseeing, look for discount cards that offer reduced or free admission. Only get the card if it will save you money!

2. Food

If you’re like me, food matters even more than accommodations. I can stay in a rundown hotel. But just like the commercial says, I’m not myself when I’m hungry.

In Portugal, there is no shortage of tasty and affordable restaurants, cafes and cafeterias. Most restaurants were made with vegetarians, vegans, and those with other dietary restrictions and preferences in mind.

It’s customary for places to have their menus posted outside for you to browse through before deciding. It’s also typical for restaurants to have some sort of daily special—mostly their fish of the day. If you’re open to trying it, you get a good meal at an even better price.

Tip: Most servers will drop off appetizers such as bread, cheese, olives and olive oil at your table before your meal. Even though you didn’t ask for it, if you eat it, you pay for it. Kindly say no thank you or leave the items untouched and always double check your bill to make sure you haven’t been mistakenly charged.

3. Azulejos (tiles)

In Portugal, you can’t help but notice the traditional and ever-present decorated tiles that can be found throughout neighborhoods and cities and in some of the most well-known and long-standing buildings. Some designs are huge and intricate, often making up larger images that represent anything from historical battles to religious art. Others are smaller, and just used to line houses or buildings.

In Lisbon, there is actually a national museum of azulejos (they’ve got museums for everything!) Have fun with spotting them and don’t forget to pick one up for your own home in a market or artisan shop.

Tip: Visit the Sao Bento train station in Porto for a lovely display of azulejos. You won’t regret it.

National Tile Museum, Lisbon

4. Igrejas (churches)

Nothing made me feel smaller than the churches in Portugal. Historically, Catholicism has been the dominant religion of the country, and nothing indicates that more than the amount of churches in even the smallest towns.

Visit the local historic churches to see just how much work went into creating, building and most importantly, preserving the most important structure in Catholic faith.

Tip: Most churches have a small admission (usually 3 euros). If not, look for a donation box and drop spare change in.

Church of Santa Maria, Lisbon

5. Museums and monasteries

Lisbon had some of the most amazing monasteries. And scattered throughout the country are equally fascinating museums. Before you travel, look up a list of the museums you’d like to visit.

Tip: Pay a visit to Jeronimos Monastery. It’s ranked the second best attraction in Lisbon!

Jeronimos Monastery, Lisbon

6. Hills

Okay, maybe not the hills, but certainly the views. Portugal is a hilly country. No matter where you go, you’re bound to encounter some sort of incline. While the hills were particularly brutal in Alcacer Do Sal and Sintra, it always led to a wonderful sight. Don’t be discouraged. Indulge in the climb. I promise you, the view will always be worth it.

Tip: Wear comfortable shoes. I bought a new pair while I was there just to help deal with the hills.

Views from Sintra

7. Fish

With a bulk of the country’s coast lining the Atlantic Ocean, fresh fish are in abundance. Several of Portugal’s national dishes include fish—bacalhau (salt cod) and sardines, sardines, sardines.

Tip: The salt cod can be very salty. If it’s a bit too much for your taste buds, get some bread on the side. And water. Lots of water. 8. Fado

This is traditional Portuguese music that you will hear in many restaurants, shops and city centres. The word translates to “destiny” or “fate”, and listening to it makes you feel like you’ve found both. It’s very soulful and passionate and is something worthy of being seen performed live. If you miss out on seeing a live performance, visit a local shop and buy some CDs by famous Fado artists such as Amalia Rodrigues, Carminho and Ana Moura. They cost about 10 euros and it’s the next best thing to seeing a live performance.

Tip: Live fado often happens in bars or cafes on Fridays and Saturday nights. If you happen to be in Tavira, visit the Fado com Historia for their daily performances, complete with a brief history of fado music, as well as a traditional 12-string solo. 9. Diversity of the cities

In my 12-day stay, I managed to see six cities. I was amazed at how different they all were. If you’re planning on travelling to Portugal (or anywhere for that matter), do yourself a favour and move around. Don’t stay in one place. Each city had something different to offer, and the wonder of travelling is discovering the uniqueness in each place.

Tip: If you’re not sure which cities to visit, do some research. The Lonely Planet gives great (and accurate) impressions of each culture. Find what you’re looking for and fit it in to your itinerary. 10. Pastries

One of my biggest regrets in life is not eating that last pastel de natabefore coming home. The pastries in Portugal are nothing that can be put into words.

Tip: Throw away the diet while you’re vacationing. You’ll climb plenty of hills to make up for it.

11. Sidewalk patios

One thing I really loved about Portugal was how each restaurant made space outside for people to sit, eat and chat. Whether it was a coffee shop or fine dining, the option is almost always there and people certainly take advantage, so long as the weather permits. You’ll also notice that cell phones are typically out of sight during meal time. Portuguese sidewalk patios remind you of the importance of unplugging—if only for a while—and indulging in the people (and food) around you.

Tip: If you want to sit outside but it’s too hot, restaurants typically leave the door to the restaurant open. You can sit near there and have almost the same experience.

Sidewalk patio in Sintra

12. History

I never thought I’d say this but that course I took last summer on the crusades really came in handy. Portugal is one of the most historically rich countries in Europe, if not the world. As the site of settlements, invasions, and historic battles, there is so much to learn. Pick up a book before going to connect the dots between the Roman ruins and the Arabic influence. Tip: Pick up a book before or during your stay. Be sure to keep an eye out for the Roman ruins.

Roman ruins, Evora

13. The Lisboa card

Perhaps the best purchase of my entire trip (besides the floral wedges that I brought home in my carry-on) was this card that cost about 40 euros. The card allows you discounts to some of Lisbon’s most high-ranked tourist attractions. The card also comes with a book full of coupons that offer anywhere from 10 per cent off to entirely free admission to towers, churches and museums. And if you’re not sold just yet—you can ride the metro for free with this card.

Tip: Other cities have similar cards. Be sure to visit the tourist information booth in each city to find out about good deals and activities.

14. Wine

One thing I looked forward to most about this trip was wine. The best place to buy wine is in Porto. Most places let you taste the wine before buying it. Quinta do Noval had an amazing selection.

Tip: Always double check your allowance for carrying alcohol home and make sure it’s wrapped carefully! 15. Their metro

One of the most daunting things in any type of travel is getting around. But if you’re headed to Portugal, you will find peace knowing that Portugal’s metro in major cities is similar to Toronto’s. They’ve got multicoloured lines, a simple navigation system, and plenty of fare collectors there to help you out if you’re in need.

Tip: Rather than turnstiles, Portugal metro stations use automated hip-length sliding doors that close very quickly. Get through them fast to avoid getting stuck.

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