Our Iberian Peninsula road trip wouldn’t have been complete without a brief tour through Portugal. This was Natalie’s first visit and my first return after far too many years.
For those of you who don’t know, my mother is from the island of Terceira, part of the Azores archipelago off the coast of Portugal, I’ve inherited a certain amount of Portuguese pride. This mainly surfaces around World Cup season (don’t even get me started on Cristiano Ronaldo), but I also have a longstanding love of Portuguese cuisine and culture. Lucky for me, our Portuguese itinerary revolved around exploring Portugal’s main cities and eating whenever possible.
Every Portuguese family has a rooster | Porto, Portugal
After a surprisingly long and uncomfortable overnight bus from Salamanca, Spain, Natalie, her parents, and I finally met my sister, Christina, and her husband, Dylan, in Porto.
Portugal’s second largest city has a lot to offer. Located on the Douro river right before it meets the ocean, this very old Roman settlement is the capital and export hub of the famous Portuguese Port wine and has Portugal’s most up-and-coming dinning scene (don’t tell Lisbon). Much like the rest of Portugal, Porto has a unique old world meets new world vibe, that you can only find in a Western European country whose economy didn’t do so well through the 80s and 90s (aka Portugal).
Fishing and drinking beer on the Douro | Porto, Portugal
The city felt a little rundown: buildings falling apart, shattered sidewalks, roads constantly under construction, cracked tile facades, and smells that make you wonder how long “it’s” been dead. But for all its downtrodden-ness Porto also has definite charm, and an impassioned young hipster community that’s making a diehard contribution to Porto’s cultural revival. We did our fair share of exploration through consumption (a technique we use often) and found that Porto has some amazing hidden gems off the beaten track.
Porto is decidedly old, but not always worse for wear | Porto, Portugal
Our not-to-be-missed restaurant recommendation is Miss Opo (also a guest house, but we can’t speak to that). This spot was such a find: a delicious and very cool spot you’d be lucky to find in any city around the world. The decor is beautiful and ultra modern and the two owners are always there. The chef-owner (Miss Opo, herself) works the line entirely by herself and serves up traditional Portuguese flavors in innovative new ways. The menu is ever-changing and is a direct reflection of what the chef finds on her daily market runs. Each day the menu is written in a book passed around the tables as they order. The bartender wrote their first ever English menu for us (we didn’t ask, they just delivered!). We don’t want to hype it too much—as she smoked a cigarette at our table after our meal, the shy chef-owner made it quite clear that she wants to keep her place a “low key establishment”—but if you find yourself in Porto, make finding Miss Opo a priority.
Sleek, beautiful, and damn tasty, Miss Opo is the Porto dinning experience | Porto, Portugal (photo: Shanna Jones)
We managed to squeeze a few classic sightseeing moments into the Porto mix as well. As its name implies, the main industry in Porto is port (and port tourism). We made the most of the ubiquitous free port tastings along the Douro. We even braved the steep hilly assent to tour the famed port caves at Taylor’s.
Taylor’s port aging caves are hundreds of years old | Porto, Portugal
To see where port starts, we took a cruise up the Douro to the port grape growing countryside.
Grape growing terraces | Douro River, Portugal
After gorging ourselves on the traditional and non-traditional flavors of Porto, we headed south to Portugal’s capital, Lisbon. Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in the world, and the oldest city in Western Europe. It predates other modern European capitals such as London, Paris, and Rome by hundreds of years. Today, Lisbon houses over a quarter of Portugal’s permanent residents and has an all-night-till-you-drop party scene that rivals any in Europe.
Fun fact: Lisbon is a sister city to San Francisco | Lisbon, Portugal
Needless to say, we really loved Lisbon and it’s probably because it reminded us a lot of home in San Francisco. Both cities have twin bridges and famously foggy weather. Both are situated on the best natural harbors on the west coast of their respective continents. Both have trolleys rattling up and down their steep hills past characteristic buildings. Not to mention that both have survived horrific earthquakes.
Feeling right at home in the hills | Barrio Alto, Lisbon, Portugal
We Airbnbed in Barrio Alto. Like the name implies, the neighbourhood is on a hill. It’s is jam-packed with restaurants, art galleries, and bars that stay open late and party till the sun comes up, making the hood Lisbon’s biggest party scene. Oddly, bars in this area have almost no indoor infrastructure; no seats, no booths, no place to take a load off and have a relaxed drink with friends, the party in Barrio Alto happens in the streets. It’s a bit like Bourbon Street, minus the hand grenade cocktails and substituting Euro-mullets for overweight midwestern teets.
We took a noteworthy trip to the neighborhood of Cacilhas. A picturesque neighborhood of the banks of the Lisbon bay best known for its cervejarias (traditional beer houses) that offer shellfish, seafood, and all other things from the sea. After a raving recommendation from my tattoo artist, we headed to Farol (lighthouse), one of Cacilhas’ best known cervejarias with instructions to “get the 2 person seafood platter, it will easily feed 3″. We were four and sprang for the 4-person thinking we might not finish it all, but we were hungry, so what the hell.
My sardina tattoo came with a tip on the best place to eat ‘em | Lisbon, Portugal
The Portuguese take seafood seriously. We knew that, but we had no idea that 50% of the remaining oceanic population was about to arrive at our table. Lobster, Crab, 5 different sizes of shrimp, octopus, squid, sardines, you name it, it all kept coming and coming. Every time we thought we were done, another round was right around the corner. We put our egos aside, unbuttoned our pants, and got to work.
Seafood platter for four at Farol | Lisbon, Portugal
On Saturday we checked out the infamous Feria da Ladra, aka the Thieves’ Market.
The market’s spread is massive. In our traveler minds we furnished a whole house with antiques ranging from crystal glasses to old farm tools to beautiful handmade Portuguese plates. Prices seemed reasonable and vendors were nice and willing to negotiate. If you are really into antiques (or you are my fiancée) you could have a (very long) field day here.
Ladra means “woman thief” and ladro is a bug found in antiques. Whatever the origins of the name, thievery is definitely a staple at Feria da Ladra. We were blown away by the flagrancy of thieves and pickpockets “bumping” into people, grabbing wallets as shoppers paid, We saw an elaborate bicycle crash scam that seemed almost too obvious to work, but did. Christina received an absurd bear hug, but was too quick for the culprit to do anything more than open her backpack zipper.
Painful as it is, leaving the camera at home for this one might be a smart move.
Chandelier, record player, gold bag carrier. If it’s portable, you’ll find it at Feria da Ladra. | Lisbon, Portugal
While our stays in Lisbon and Porto were short, they were sweet as our daily pastel de nata. We had a ton of fun folding into each city’s vibes and letting them take us away. We came with no expectations and were impressed urban Portugal’s cool factor. We can’t wait to go back (especially to Lisbon) to explore a bit more.
Pastel de nata | Porto, Portugal