Lisbon and Porto are both cities in Portugal, but that is where the similarity ends.
On second thought, they do share one thing-- a friendly rivalry. Since they love to engage in some good natured ribbing, I hope they will forgive me for taking sides. Turns out, I enjoyed Portugal more than expected, but I must place the 'Best City' blue ribbon firmly on Porto's lapel. However, I encourage you to go there yourself and prove me wrong or right!
To me, Lisbon is like your grandfather. Traditional, proud, and a bit formal, he is more likely to shake your hand than to give you a hug. Still handsome, but faded, he looks to the past, wanting to share stories about the way things used to be.
Porto comes across like your hipster bachelor uncle-- while he appreciates the old ways, he embraces the future with a youthful, fun-loving spirit. I'm Team Porto all the way, but that doesn't mean Lisbon completely failed to charm me.
We landed in Lisbon after five wonderful weeks in the UK, the last week in the company of Perry's dad, Gary, and wife Peg. We traversed Wales from one end to the other in four days and spent the remaining two days doing a whirlwind tour of London.
Unfortunately for Lisbon, that means we showed up a bit exhausted, and our low energy may have contributed to my initial 'meh' impression of the city as we managed only a few short walks near our apartment. Apparently, we hit up all the monuments.
After a few days of rest, we made up for lost time with some major excursions, which is where things went from lackluster to disappointment.
To be fair, Lisbon is a large city with a long history, and there is plenty to see and do. The past is evident in the pastel buildings and signature decorative tile that are on display everywhere. Normally, I love this sort of thing, and vintage tile hunting ultimately became my focus when walking the city, but the old didn't convey a sense of revelation or mystery, but rather a 'lived-in' feel that is a tad run down and a bit dirty. The Alfama district and nearby Sao Jorge Castle are a great example. The views from from on high are amazing, but up close on the streets, I recommend exploring at dusk when twilight softens the rough edges.
My biggest nitpick with Lisbon is that despite the location on the Tagus River, not far from the Atlantic, the waterfront is woefully underdeveloped.
We discovered this on the day we visited historic Belem. Exploring a city on foot is our favorite thing to do, finding it a great way to get a feel for a place, so Perry and I decided to walk to Belem along the waterfront only to encounter a) no sidewalks, b) multiple construction sites, and c) precious little that is visually stimulating. After two hours, we finally came upon the pedestrian friendly area along the water near Belem, but by the time we got there, we were exasperated.
Luckily, Belem's sights and food made up for the less-than-stellar walk there. After taking in Torre de Belem and Jeronimos Monastery, we enjoyed the BEST sandwiches at Pao Pao Queijo Queijo followed by Portuguese tarts (pastel de nata) at Pasteis de Belem.
Belem (and pastel de nata) ultimately restored our confidence in Lisbon, but if you go, just take the bus.
My biggest regret is that we didn't make it to Sintra. Fifteen miles from Lisbon, this UNESCO World Heritage site is supposed to be a fantastic day trip featuring ancient castles and the glittering Pena National Palace. After our day trip to Belem, we decided to pass. I'm still cringing over it, but I guess that gives me a reason to return to Portugal.
Unfortunately for Lisbon's place in my mental rankings, we also had a less-than-ideal final night after deciding to splurge and have dinner at a Fado restaurant, Clube de Fado. Fado is the national music of Portugal and is characterized by guitars and mournful singing.
I can't blame the musicians because they were flawless. The biggest issue is that our table was behind a large group of noisy German tourists which made it difficult to pay attention to the performance. Normally, the Germans are fabulous, but this group had the attention span of a three-year-old, and kept talking and getting up to go out for a smoke during the show. The final straw was that our food was terrible. With the focus on the music, I didn't expect Michelin star cuisine, but when we paid our €120 bill, this budget traveler was still hungry and livid over the exorbitant cost.
Fado is a worthwhile experience but adjust your expectations accordingly!
The next morning, I was ready to hop the train for Porto.
Porto, in contrast to Lisbon, was a shock of excitement-- its well-preserved historic buildings and tile combined nicely with the developed waterways along the River Douro and Atlantic Ocean. They even have a cable car that delivers you from the top of the Ponte Luis I bridge to the port bars riverfront, which is a fun and inexpensive experience. Long pedestrian boulevards teeming with cafes and people beckon you to sit with a port tonic and admire the hillside architecture and gobsmacking bridges.
On our second day in the city, we did just that.
We stayed in Cedofeita, near the Lapa metro station. Here, we found an affordable neighborhood with a large student population, an abundance of cafes and architecturally significant cultural buildings, which contribute to the fresh and funky Porto attitude.
We didn't eat out much (penance for the Fado splurge), but we did stop by Piolho Cafe to try the famous Franceshina sandwich, a behemoth made with ham, roast beef, and pork sausage, then covered with melted cheese and a tomato/beer sauce, and served with a generous portion of french fries. Definitely not diet food but worth the caloric splurge!
To be clear, the old city (Ribeira) isn't all glossy tourist perfection. It has a lived-in feel like Lisbon, but it is a lot less grubby and more importantly, has an undeniable spirit. I was completely drawn to the exuberance.
In addition to the cool city vibe, there is also plenty of natural beauty. While the oceanfront isn't an airbrushed postcard, it is pedestrian friendly and a lively gathering spot for locals and tourists alike. Throw in the nearby green space Parque de Cidade (City Park), which is filled with walking trails, trees and ponds, and Porto definitely stands out as a fresh and livable city. No wonder the people radiate happiness!
The cherry on top of our Porto sundae, however, was the day cruise we took into the Douro Valley.
October 5th was Republic Day, a public holiday in Portugal that celebrates the forming of the first Portuguese republic in 1910. Being a holiday with a clear forecast, the cruise ship was filled with local Porto residents, which made it feel a bit more special than a regular tourist excursion.
The first oohs and aahs of the day came courtesy of the bridge Ponte Luis I and the sunrise over Ribeira.
Later, as we came into the valley, the famed terraced vineyards offered stunning views.
In addition to the beautiful scenery, they also serve a light breakfast and hearty three course lunch with wine. At €60 per person, I consider this eight-hour excursion excellent value for money. Aboard the bus back to Porto, we were treated to sky high views of the valley.
As I write this, I remember Portugal fondly despite the knocks against Lisbon. It's a country with great history, food and culture. The people are friendly and prices favorable compared to the rest of Western Europe.
In conclusion, you should definitely visit Portugal and when you do, here are my 'can't miss' suggestions.
LISBON THINGS TO SEE/DO
- Visit Jeronimos Monastery & Torre de Belem in Belem
- Take in the views of Castelo de Sao Jorge at sunset
- Admire the Ponte 25 de Abril bridge
- Meander in the historic Alfama district
- Bistro Gato Pardo for tapas and sangria
- Pao Pao Quiejo Quiejo for amazing, affordable sandwiches in Belem
- Pasteis de Belem for the best pastel de nata in Lisbon
PORTO THINGS TO SEE/DO
- Take in the views at the top of Ponte Luis I
- Ride the Teleferica de Gaia cable car from the top of the Ponte Luis I bridge to the riverfront
- Visit Casa de Musica
- Douro Valley River Cruise
- Drinks and people watching on the Cais de Ribeira
- Nature walk in Parque Cidade
- Port tasting along Avenida de Diogo Leite (Sandeman looked good and extremely busy!)
- Port Tonic cocktails along the Cais de Ribeira
- Francesinha Sandwich at any local restaurant
Thanks for reading!
For more photos of Porto, click here.
For more photos of Lisbon, click here.
For some great photos of Portuguese tile, click here.
Next time on Gobsmacked: Eating Well on the Road Part I: Recipes for Budget Travelers