Portugal always was a place for travelers, I considered, as I stood staring slack-jawed in the white-bright sun at Padrão dos Descobrimentos, the massive monument rising toward the sky before me. The westernmost nation on the mainland of the European continent, Portugal is tucked away on the Iberian Peninsula, its back to big brother Spain, which it borders to the north and east. In the other directions, Portugal faces the sea with what I imagine has always been not only resolution, but also eager, energetic curiosity.
After all, as I was informed by Joao, the Heritage Tours guide on my group’s day excursion through Lisbon, in the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal produced some of the greatest explorers the world would ever see. This little country, just a bit bigger than the state of Maine, was responsible for discovering Brazil, mapping the coasts of Africa and developing trade routes across India and Japan. And many of the men who did those things are on the Monument of Discoveries, which sits in the district of Belem along the Tagus River, one of the waterways from which they once set sail.
“It was built in 1960 to commemorate the 500-year anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator,” Joao said, shading his eyes as he pointed to the memorial. “He was the one who started Portuguese maritime exploration. That’s him at the front of the sculpture, standing at the ship’s prow. There are 16 figures along each side — like Magellan, who led the first expedition around the world.”
One of Lisbon’s biggest attractions, Padrão dos Descobrimentos was the perfect way to end my tour of the city — I’m a bit of a nomad myself, and I can’t help but admire the gumption it must have taken those sailors to head off into the great unknown. But I loved almost everything about Portugal’s capital nearly from the moment I set foot on its cobblestone streets. Lisbon sparkles with a distinctly warm, hospitable spirit that is somehow both relaxed and vital. Groups of travelers, like everyone else it seems, are heartily welcomed.
For better or worse, word is getting out about Portugal’s charms.
“In the last five years, a lot of Europeans have been moving to Portugal because it’s stable,” Joao said. “It’s very safe. Of course, downtown is getting more expensive now. It’s gotten very touristy there, with not-so-good restaurants and overpriced shops, but Lisbon has traditionally been fairly cheap compared to other places in Europe.”
Culturally, the city is rich, a result of the glorious hodgepodge of civilizations that have called Portugal — the oldest nation-state in Europe — home through the millennia. Phoenicians, Celts, Romans, Visigoths, Moors and more all lived in Lisbon at one time or another, leaving their marks upon it. For example, the city’s famed Portuguese pavement, or “calçada portuguesa,” black and white stones hand-laid in mosaic patterns, is believed to have evolved from the Roman days. And “azulejos,” the glorious ceramic tilework that graces so many of Lisbon’s buildings, dates back at least to the 13th century, when the Moors ruled the land. Visiting groups shouldn’t miss out on one of the most exquisite pleasures all this beauty brings: simply wandering and looking at it all.
I recommend doing so for a few hours, at least, in Alfama, Lisbon’s oldest neighborhood, and one of the few to survive the devastating 1755 earthquake that destroyed much of the city. A place of steep, narrow alleys and streets lined with buildings whitewashed or brilliantly hued and crisscrossed with laundry lines hanging haphazardly from wrought-iron balconies, Alfama’s genteel, funky shabbiness is utterly captivating. It’s also where you can find Castelo de São Jorge, a former Moorish citadel that boasts panoramic views of the city, and many of Lisbon’s informal fado establishments.
Fado, popular since the middle of the 19th century, is Portugal’s mostly melancholic traditional music, sung to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument or two, often about lost love. Along with Alfama, there are authentic fado spots in Bairro Alto, Lisbon’s festive nightlife district. My group visited O Faia there, and it was one of my favorite experiences of the trip. Opened in 1947, O Faia is renowned as one of the best places in the city to hear fado and offers a seafoodcentric menu of classic Portuguese cuisine to boot, like the whole, baked octopus I was served that was nearly as big as my head.
But the real draw is the fado music, and from the moment the singer, an older woman clad entirely in black, opened her mouth, I was transfixed. Almost unbearably regal, she sang with a strength and dignity I found powerfully moving. I didn’t need to understand the lyrics. Carmo, the representative from Visit Lisboa who was accompanying us, whispered to me, “Her name is Anita. She was a famous fado singer in the 1960s … She even toured the United States. Isn’t she wonderful?”
She was, but there were so many other group-friendly spots in Lisbon not to be missed. I cut my evening slightly short at O Faia so I could venture out with a few others to Cais do Sodré. Close to the old port, it was once the area where sailors came to meet shady ladies, but now it’s home to Rua Nova do Carvalho, a pink-as-Pepto Bismol street lined with tiny, trendy bars.
I stayed out late enough that I was glad our tour the next day stopped at Time Out Market, which opened in 2016 inside the Mercado da Ribeira, a structure that dates to the 13th century. The food hall has been an unqualified hit with visitors and residents alike, drawing millions annually, thanks to its delicious, inexpensive fare. It’s also a great choice for groups because there are so many menu options. But still groggy from little sleep the night before, I was grateful simply to fuel up with strong coffee and creamy custard tarts, a Portuguese passion.
Time Out Market is one of the places that is helping to cement Lisbon’s international reputation as a city foodies will adore. But the man probably responsible more than any other for its blooming culinary scene is José Avillez, the country’s first Portuguese chef to shepherd a restaurant to two Michelin stars. And as he would tell me after my group visited Bairro do Avillez, his inventive four-in-one restaurant in the Chiado district, Portuguese food’s flair hearkens back to those explorers of old.
“The differentiating aspect of our cuisine has to do with the cultural exchanges that happened in our Age of Discoveries,” Avillez said. “Those ingredients and techniques from other continents influenced and enriched our cuisine. In addition to that, Portugal has a wide variety of landforms, climates and soil types. Moreover, we have a long coastline, we have highlands in the north of Portugal, and the mid-coastal region consists of dunes and pine tree forests. In southern Portugal, more specifically Alentejo, we find plains. Each region has different yet amazing products: wines, cheese varieties, bread types, olive oils, produce, spices, herbs, meat, fish and shellfish. I really believe we have the best fish and shellfish in the world. That is why Portuguese cuisine is incredibly rich and varied.”
Bairro do Avillez, which serves wonders like exploding olives that burst with fermented olive juice when bitten, accepts even the largest groups. Dinner there makes a fine farewell to lovely Lisbon.
The next day, we traveled to Sintra. This day trip destination is just a 30-minute drive from the city, but it is so extraordinary that, as our guide noted, UNESCO designated a new type of heritage site, Cultural Landscape, for its palaces and gardens.
A longtime playground for royals, Sintra was described by the writer Lord Byron, who spent a portion of his youth there, as “maybe the most beautiful village in the world.” It’s distinguished by more castles, palaces, gardens and parks than any 10 Disney movies combined, and it would no doubt take at least that many days to fully explore all of them. My group opted for concentrating on perhaps the most fantastical site in of all Sintra: Quinta da Regaleira.
Acquired in 1893 by Carvalho Monteiro, this estate is as mysterious as it is massive. Rambling grounds contain tunnels, a subterranean tower that descends via a spiral staircase nearly 90 feet into the earth, plus a series of grottos, fountains and an avenue lined with statues of Greek gods and heroes. Everywhere are symbols that are said to relate to alchemy, the Templar Order, the Masons and other mystical matters. Designed by Luigi Manini, an Italian painter and architect who has also created sets for theaters and opera houses such as Milan’s La Scala, Quinta da Regaleira is a dramatic blend of Gothic, Renaissance, Roman and Manueline styles. I found it all incredibly beautiful, a little overwhelming and a great group outing, since we could choose to tour it with a guide or alone, at our own pace.
Sagres, the last stop on our trip, was as uncomplicated as Quinta da Regaleira was intense, a land of open vistas sweeping out to the sea and wide, windy beaches beset by white-capped waves. Located on the western stretch of the Algarve, the seaside southernmost region in Portugal, Sagres is a little village about a three-hour drive from Lisbon. The area around it is largely undeveloped thanks to Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina, a nationally protected slice of coastline covering more than 60 miles that ends at its doorstep.
My group explored on bikes we rented from Algarve Cycling Holidays, a company that also offers electric bicycles for those looking for a less challenging ride. In addition to Sagres, we visited the historic Cabo de São Vicente and Fortaleza de Sagres. According to Algarve Tourism Bureau acting executive director Hugo Nascimento, they played a vital role in the Portuguese Age of Discoveries.
“The area of Sagres and Cape St. Vincent has been known for centuries as Sacrum Promontorium [Holy Promontory] because it was the most western point of the known world,” he said. “And it remained so until Prince Henry the Navigator started sending his sailors from there to explore the African coast and find new trading routes. You can get a glimpse of the past by visiting the fortress of Sagres, which might have been the school for Henry the Navigator’s sailors, and at Cape St. Vincent, where some people still say [that] at sunset, you can observe the sea ‘boiling when the sun touches it.’”
As I boarded my flight the next day, I was still thinking about those ancient explorers and the way such a little country could have so lasting an effect on the world. And how, too, it just might have so a lasting an effect on me.