These days, everyone is talking about things to do in Portugal and why you should go there now. From UNESCO World Heritage Sites, gastronomy, history, architecture, great beaches and whimsical creations and pastries, millennial Portugal most definitely is the new black.
But before you skip on down to the list of things to do in Portugal, take a step back and read a little more about her background. To really enjoy any of these things to do in Portugal, you have to take your time.
Authentic Things To Do in Portugal: Spend Time in Her Three Main Cities
“Portugal,” says Beatrice, pulling apart pasteis de bacalhau, “is a country with a divided soul.”
We’re sat in a small tavern in the not-so-good-after-dark part of town.
The pasteis, a kind of salted cod fishcake, is fresh and warm. The hands that made it only a table away, reaching for homemade olive oil, and then, as part of the same fluid motion, topping up my glass with wine.
Green wine, my second ever taste, from the “vinho verde” region in the northern Portuguese province of Minho.
We’re not in the north, though. We’re more or less around the centre, in Coimbra, the former city of kings.
Coimbra (which sounds like the Aussie Queensborough without the “s”) today functions as a high-flying university town.
In fact, it’s been flying high since 1290, the year Portugal’s oldest university was founded. The country itself had not been around long (around 100 years at most) and the university that started in Lisbon was soon moved to the former capital, Coimbra, in a switcheroo that seems to suited both cities.
Students wear Harry Potter-like gowns (that inspired J.K.Rowling) for graduation photos and raising money from tourists to put towards college life.
This is my second of the day, the first a historic walk through the student campus that also happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Oscar Cumps Ruelle, a Frenchman raised in Brazil and now studying in Coimbra, offered a snapshot of Portugal’s history through the buildings around the steep cobbled lanes.
We see the footprint of the Catholic Church, the legacy of the Jesuits, expelled in 1759, and the block-like starkness of Salazar, Portugal’s military dictator for much of the 20th century.
Oscar is deft with diplomacy and where others would find this terrain prickly, he glides through the controversy with ease.
Beyond that, there’s talk of the university itself. How some students save money by living in “republics,” American frat houses without the pranks.
How a shop ban within the centre leaves students hauling laundry powder and coffee up the “breakback steps.” And how humanities and law students never see to eye to eye.
Some things, it seems, are universal, and I relish, with more than a drop of nostalgia, the youthful rush of philosophy and pettiness found within a university town.
By twilight, I’m with Beatrice, discussing Portugal’s divided soul.
I’m also half way through an assignment with Lonely Planet and G Adventures, a blend of media and ideas.
For 2018, Portugal hit the hot spot and travel company G Adventures launched a trip called “Highlights of Portugal.”
And then I entered the picture, stage left.
We began in Lisbon, of course, a city I’d inexplicably overlooked, zipping from airport or highway to somewhere else more pressing.
That turned out to have been a mistake.
Lisbon is so much more than instagram photos of white flowery dresses next to olde worlde trams.
It’s an historic city, for sure, spread across seven gravity-defying hills. The trams are present, yes, (and pretty) but so is a large modern metro and the current yardstick of modernity: the car-taxi sharing app uber.
Lisbon mashes up UNESCO sights with minimalism, azulejo ceramics with on-trend chrome, and family run tavernas with the ultra-fashionable Time Out Food Market.
Yes, today’s Lisbon is sexy with a sultry kind of s.
But its real charm comes from living in it, with ease and time, from enjoying its different neighbourhoods, relaxing in its parks and, well, falling in love with pastries.
For the uninitiated (that was me) I’m talking about Pastel de Nata.
Woefully under-described as an egg and custard tart, these were a pastry game changer for me.
For the first time, I fell in love with pastry.
Where even Paris and croissants had failed, Lisbon won my heart.
But while Lisbon is a fabulous city that makes me long to return, it has a different aura, or gravitas perhaps, to the European trinity of London, Paris, Rome.
And it’s this thought that brings me back to a small taverna in Coimbra, this time over sardines.
“It was Portugal who first discovered the world,” my friend tells me.
“And now, who else remembers that?”
Or, as my Lisbon based friend explained, “we discovered Brazil because we got lost and didn’t realise it. A storm blew us off course from the Cape in South Africa and now ‘woo-woo-woo’ we discovered South America.”
The Discoveries monument in Belem stares out across the River Tagus, without apology. A stone ship with statues that have become household names.
Vasco da Gama. Magellan.
Still, uncomfortably, more of those names ring no bells at all. And talk of “discovering” places by Europeans is decidedly no longer in vogue.
Yet there’s definitely one aspect of Portugal that’s recognised the world over, even if people don’t always make the connection at first.
Not only is it there in the country’s name, but also in the city that brought it to fame: port from Porto.
This city on the Douro Valley throws an arrival party like nowhere I’ve seen.
One minute, we saw the usual trackside paraphernalia of travel by train. The next, a clifftop view of higgledy-piggledy medieval Ribeira, boats bobbing like giant gondolas below.
The bridge, Dom Luis I, is one of the most famous points in Porto, with buskers and boat tours gathering on either side of the Douro as the sun sets – and, well, for hours and hours before and after dark too.
It’s like Venice, stretched larger, or Cologne with a warmer style, or Paris, mixing in leaf-lined Montmartre, or, well… it’s like nowhere it’s just itself.
Grand, old, young, and beautiful through teetering steep cobbles in Gaia to glass and cement new cool at the Casa da Musica.
Porto, like Lisbon, trades a checklist of “must-sees” for a rich and cultural vibe.
Like Coimbra, it loves its luscious visual literary history (with the Joanina Library in Coimbra as exhibit A and the now insta-famous LivrariaLello as exhibit B.)
In Lonely Planet’s book “Best in Travel 2018” it spends several pages describing why Portugal made the list but one quote in particular stands out:
“What I love about Portugal is its unpolished off-the-radar old-world charm. It manages to remain deeply authentic amid this globalised and heavily trampled world around us.” Kevin Raub
That’s certainly true in Porto, as I nestle into the corner of cosy rough and ready O Buraco, with red chequered tablecloths and the ever present danger of accidentally ordering tripe.
It was true of cosmopolitan Lisbon, through the new venture at Banca de Pau where the owner let our daughter use his daughter’s trike.
And it’s certainly true in Coimbra, where Beatrice tears apart our “tapas” and talks about Portugal’s divided soul.
Facing the Atlantic, facing Europe, facing the past, facing the future.
But whichever way you’re facing, there’s no shortage of things to do.
1 – Taste a delicious pastel de nata in Lisbon.
2 – Visit the cool leafy town of Sintra
3 – Check out the lighthouse in Nazare, holder of the greatest waves surfed in the world
5 – Take a walk along the spectacular Alentejo coast
6 – Give your legs a workout in the narrow streets of Alfama, Lisbon
7 – Listen to Fado, soulful nearly sorrowful music
8 – Take a food tour in Coimbra with Combria’s Best Flavours and learn the history (and gossip) behind the city’s tavernas
9 – Play with children in any number of Lisbon’s green and friendly parks
10 – Spend the afternoon wandering along the riverside in Belem. Buy an ice cream (or another pastel de nata) to enjoy while overlooking the Discoveries Monument
11 – Visit a winery in Porto and learn about how the famous drink is made
12 – Stop for coffee or catch a concert at Rem Koolhaas’ Casa de Musica in Porto (and watch the skateboarders outside.)
13 – Munch a queijada, another top pastry, this time from Sintra with a marzipan-like cheese filling.
14 – Leave the mainland and head to Madeira and the Azores (still on my list!)
15 – Take a photo of a tram. Go on, you know you want to…
16 – Eat a ridiculous amount of strong, sloppy ovelho curado cheese
I spent a few days in Lisbon with my family and then travelled north through Portugal on the Highlights of Portugal tour as part of my work with Lonely Planet and G Adventures. As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like. Otherwise, there’s just no point. For all the pastries in the world.
Some of the other recommendations were hosted, some were not, but all were only included because I like them and would gladly do them again.
Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.
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