Before and after my recent vacation to Portugal, many people asked me "why Portugal?" when they found out where I was going.
My usual answer was, "why not?"
I'm lucky enough to have already visited some of the bigger, cultural cities in Europe: Athens, Rome, Florence, Venice, Prague, Vienna and Budapest. And since my wife and I are saving France for our 10th Anniversary, we settled on Portugal since it's relatively cheap compared to other European countries such as Spain, Germany and Belgium, and can be reached by a direct flight.
And I'll be honest. We picked Portugal for superficial reasons. It's not like we were really interested in the country's culture or history ahead of time. For us, the price sounded good and the country has a good mix of geographical landscapes, meaning we could visit Porto, the home of Port wine, the coastal town of Lagos, and the bustling metropolis of Lisbon all within a week.
Our first stop was Porto, which is located in the northern part of the country. The people who didn't ask "why Portugal?" because they had some previous experience with the country, highly recommended Porto, even saying that we should skip Lisbon if we had to, as long as we made it to Porto.
So did my experience in Porto meet their praise?
Yes, it did. And then some.
Porto has been called "Europe's hidden gem" and I can see why. It's a small city when compared to some of Europe's giants, and very picturesque due to its waterfront, which gives it a cozy feeling. It's cheap -- cheaper than the rest of Portugal -- and the access to wine, especially Port wine, is not to be missed.
1. Arts & Culture -- 7 -- Porto has a very interesting history, having once been settled by the Romans and occupied by the Moors, making for some impressive architecture that was spared by the 1755 earthquake that decimated much of central Portugal. But for me, Porto offered up a jarring contrast of the past in its architecture and the present when the Porto F.C. won the Portuguese Cup our second day there and the town literally exploded into honking car horns and people chanting the fight song through the streets of the city. I listened to Antena 3, an indie rock station, whenever I could. I basically pay Sirius $12 a month to get the same station. I also attended a concert by the American band, The National, while in Porto and it also reminded me how modern this city really is. The crowd was so into the show -- more into any show I have ever attended in the states -- and the band fed off of that energy turning in an awesome live performance. I left Porto impressed for several reasons, key among them being the energy that the city has for the now.
2. Food -- 8 -- Porto's cuisine -- and Portugal's to a larger extent, especially so close to the coast -- predominantly featured pork and seafood. Sometimes the seafood was wrapped in pork. The offerings in Porto were good, but they didn't blow me away, even when we dined at the #1 Trip Advisor rated restaurant. OK, I was blown away by the sandwich in that picture, but I didn't come to Porto to do a "Man Vs. Food" episode. I wanted some really good food. And what I found was solid, but failed to leave a lasting impression. Thankfully, there didn't seem to be many tourist traps in Porto due to the city being a minor tourist city in Europe, so it was a relief to know you could walk into almost any restaurant and get decent food at decent prices. There is something to be said for that. But what earns Porto its score is the Port wine. We made a day out of touring the different port cellars and met a really cool British couple who traveled to Porto for the weekend. Each port cellar offers a tour, which we never took. Just the port, please! And each place we visited was generous with the tastings. So generous, that my wife got drunk and I caught a solid buzz. And if Anton and Sarah are out there, cheers!
3. Mass Transit -- 8 -- For a city its size, Porto has an impressive mass transit system comprised of a light rail "metro", buses and a funicular. The metro got us from the train station to our condo, and to and from dinner one night but Porto has a very walkable city center and after a while, we realized that the bus better served us if we needed to take mass transit at all. The zone system in Porto is confusing, which made purchasing tickets a chore. But the system is very clean, efficient and laid out well.
4. Look & Feel -- 10 -- The feeling you get when you first arrive in a European city can't be matched in America except for maybe New York City. You rise out of the subway and boom -- you're in the middle of all the action. This feeling never ended for me in Porto. I could have wandered around the city for weeks, just taking in the city views, the architecture and the churches covered in azulejos. Down by the river is where one can just sit and take it all in. On one side you have dozens of Port wine cellars seemingly stacked on top of each other, and on the other side, you have restaurants, cafes, shops and the historical center rising above it. Both sides of the river are connected by an iron bridge that gives off a Paris meets Pittsburgh vibe. Up close, the city can be dirty and run down: abandoned houses are next door to brilliantly restored ones. But when viewed from afar, all of that grime disappears.
5. Overall -- 8 -- Porto is a European city you can explore at your own speed. There were no famous landmarks to see, no famous museums to slog through to see that one famous painting by that one painter. All there was in Porto was a ton of great Port wine, wonderful views of the city, and all the time in the world.
Total -- 41/50