Like falling in love for the first time, there’s something so spellbinding about Portugal, it’s almost indescribable.
The infatuation begins on final approach to Humberto Delgado Airport, when Lisbon first comes into sight.
Hugging the Tagus River, it’s a sprawling expanse of red-roofed, pastel buildings by day; a carpet of twinkling lights by night.
Rising from the river, the Golden Gate Bridge stands watch over the city, connecting Lisbon with neighboring municipality Almada.
It’s not actually the Golden Gate, but the Ponte 25 de Abril (The 25th of April Bridge) bears such a striking resemblance to the San Francisco landmark that you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference.
Named in honor of the day that Portugal’s fascist government was overthrown in 1974, the massive structure draws scores of tourists who come to take pictures and drink in the breathtaking view.
It’s just one of many attractions in a city that once took a backseat to some of Europe’s higher-profile destinations.
No more. Lisbon and its home country are quickly gaining traction as global hotspots, with Portugal being named as the Leading World Destination at the 2018 World Travel Awards.
Cosmopolitan and vibrant with a lively nightlife, Lisbon is a cleaner, friendlier and less expensive version of Paris.
The city’s prolific graffiti, visible pretty much everywhere, can initially be off-putting and haters of street art might want to consider booking a trip to Wisconsin instead.
For everyone else, it’s nothing short of an outdoor art exhibition, with painted scenes expressing everything from political opinions to historical scenes and figures.
There’s plenty of ordinary graffiti too. But somehow it’s seems less offensive and more of a passion-inspired expression than an act of defacement.
Vast, hilly, with breathtaking architecture and tile-covered buildings, Lisbon begs to be explored and there are any number of ways to get around.
Tourists often choose to ride on the city’s iconic Tram 28, a bright yellow tram that takes passengers through some of the city’s most popular areas.
Images of the famous tram, which serves as an unofficial mascot, are emblazoned on everything from posters and trinkets to T-shirts, bags and even cell phone covers.
That said, unless it’s a bucket-list thing, skip it, especially on hot summer days when hordes of sweaty people are crammed into every free inch of space.
Instead, consider taking a Tuk-Tuk tour. Having exploded onto Lisbon’s tourism scene about five years ago, the motorized rickshaws are everywhere and are an ideal and fun way to navigate the city’s narrow maze of streets.
Eco Tuk Tours (offers a “Follow the 28” tour, which takes passengers on a two-hour tour that travels along the same route as the tram, without the crowds.
For 95 euros (roughly $108 USD), a single Tuk-Tuk accommodates up to six people and comes with a knowledgeable driver who provides information on various landmarks and monuments.
Highlights of the tour include sightseeing through some of Lisbon’s most fascinating neighborhoods and ascending scenic vistas, including Senhora do Monte Belvedere, one of the highest points in Lisbon.
Offering dizzying views of the city, it’s also an excellent vantage point for viewing the 25 de Abril bridge.
One of the best ways to learn about any culture is to experience its cuisine. Taste of Lisboa Food Tours is a food experience that familiarizes visitors with many of Portugal’s traditional dishes, while explaining the history behind them.
Included in the four-hour walking tour are stops at seven local shops and restaurants serving up a variety of culinary delights like cod cakes, to-die-for African meat samosas and Portugal’s traditional dessert, pastel de nata, a delicious egg custard baked in a flaky tart.
A stop at a tiny neighborhood bar is also included and provides shots of Ginja, a cherry liqueur that tastes a lot like Robitussin. It’s pretty terrible, but worth trying as it’s a favorite among the locals.
Tours start at around 70 euros ($80) and bring some extra cash to tip your tour guide.
Forty-five minutes outside of Lisbon by train is the town of Sintra.
Part of the Portuguese Riviera, it’s a UNESCO world heritage site once dubbed a “glorious Eden” by former resident and poet Lord Byron.
Without a doubt, Byron was referencing the picturesque town’s hilltop location, lush forests, ocean views and romantic estates.
Among them is the distinctive yellow and red, Palace of Pena and park.
Set high atop a rocky peak, the former monastery was converted into a castle by Portugal’s King Ferdinand II in the 1800s, and is considered one of the best examples of 19th-century romanticism in Portugal.
The best way to see it is to hop aboard the Sintra 434 tourist bus. While not always reliable, it’s one of the easiest options, leaving directly from the Sintra Train Station and costing around 7 euros ($8).
The palace is also walkable, but it’s a long hike, and the steep terrain can be a challenge for anyone unprepared for it.
Just outside of town is Quinta da Regaleira, a luscious estate built in the last days of the Portuguese monarchy. There’s much to see including a palace, chapel, gardens and fountains.
Perhaps most compelling, however, is the mysterious and oft-photographed Initiation Well.
Spiraling down nearly 89 feet, the inverted tunnel was once used for initiation ceremonies, and more than one person is said to have been tossed into its unforgiving abyss.
Visitors can tour the well from either top down or bottom up. It’s a demanding walk in either direction, so anyone with accessibly concerns will want to keep that in mind.
Beyond palaces, Sintra is also a bounty of outdoor restaurants, quaint shops and pop-up vendors selling art and jewelry. It’s easily worth a day, if not longer, to see its many sites and wander along its winding roads, taking in the gorgeous scenery.
Rivaling Lisbon for the distinction of being one of Europe’s hottest destinations is the seaside city of Porto.
Three hours north of Lisbon by train, Porto dates back to around 300 BC, and its history can be felt throughout the city’s architecture and prolific stone walls.
Bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and the River Douro, Porto’s idyllic setting and colorfully stacked buildings make it visually spectacular.
The centerpiece is the Dom Luís I Bridge. The double-decker metal bridge serves as a magnet for tourists, as well as locals who are more than happy to leap from it into the Douro for the price of just a few euros.
Renowned for exporting port wine from the Douro valley vineyards (hence the name “Port”), Porto is wildly charismatic, blending Old World charm with a contemporary pulse.
Like Lisbon, a food tour is a useful introduction to Porto’s thriving culture and will help you get acclimated with its geography.
Featured on Anthony Bourdain’s “Part’s Unknown,” The Vintage Food Tour costs around 70 euros and offers 10 tastings throughout Porto’s historic downtown area.
Led by a knowledgeable local guide, the three-and-a-half hour tour includes interesting history along with some sightseeing before wrapping up with a port wine lesson and tasting.
A word to the wise: Don’t eat before you go, and you probably won’t need to eat again afterward.
However, with so many amazing restaurants and local dishes to try, you will anyway, especially if you can get your hands on a Francesinha.
Folklore has it that some restaurant owners will sell patrons this Porto-invented sandwich ― loosely translated as “Little Frenchie” ― only once a month for fear of it will cause cardiac arrest.
Made with a bounty of ingredients including ham, sausage, beef, port wine and lots and lots of cheese, before being smothered in gravy and served with fries, it’s a complete cholesterol nightmare.
That said, it’s Oh-My-God good and worth every single calorie and subsequent angioplasty.
Finally, among Porto’s many cultural and visual riches (we could be here all day) is Lello & Irmão Bookstore.
Built in 1906, it’s ranked among the most beautiful bookstores in the world.
Beyond its stunning aesthetics, it’s also said to be the inspiration for several famous locations in the “Harry Potter” series.
An English teacher in Porto in the early ‘90s, author J.K. Rowling frequently visited the bookshop and the store’s incredible wood staircase is said to resemble that of Hogwarts. And its towering bookshelves, the inspiration for Flourish & Blott’s bookseller in Diagon Alley.
If you hope to visit, go early. Very early. There’s always a line down the block and a fee to get in.
Rowling fans will also be interested to note that the author also was likely inspired by the long, black emblemed capes worn by students of the University of Coimbra, 90 minutes south of Porto.
It’s not uncommon to find the students, outfitted in their Harry Potter-esqe capes, playing music and singing traditional Portuguese love songs along Porto’s streets and in local restaurants, making what already feels cinematic, seem positively dreamy.
If not before, it’s then you likely will realize that without even knowing what hit you, you’ve fallen head over heels.