Portugal Norte

A garden of colorful flowers in the middle of the promenade in Braga, Portugal
View of the street of colorful buildings from the balcony

It’s on everyone’s list these days. The European nation smaller than Florida packs a lot to see and do. Lisbon, Porto and Braga are among the most popular destinations in the country, and they each offer a unique blend of history, natural beauty and cuisine.

Lisbon, the capital and largest city of Portugal, is known for its charming streets, colorful houses, and historical landmarks. The city is home to a range of attractions, including the Belem Tower, the Jeronimos Monastery, and the Castelo de São Jorge.

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Having been to Lisbon before, I decided just to stay two nights. Lots has changed including a distinctly touristic feel to the city. I tried the “do it yourself” hotel trent at The Boutique Telhal 89, which gives you a code to check yourself in before arrival. It’s a no-frills kind of stay but accommodations were clean, modern, within easy walking distance to the city center and in a safe area with stores and restaurants nearby. 

Pro-Tip: Municipalities charge a room tax that must be paid in cash by the occupant for all types of stays. It’s typically around 2-4 euros. You just leave it behind.

The city was experiencing unusual rains which kept me in my room most of the first day. Once it subsided, I set out to find a much needed meal. Google Reviews won’t provide many highly rated options in the touristic center but, I did find a local gem in La Vita e Bella. Starving from my day of lockdown, I savored a tasty and much needed and three mushroom flatbread with veggies with a couple of beers. While I stick with cocktails mostly, I enjoy a good European beer, of which Portugal has a few– I would recommend Sagres.

My second meal was at Kule, a local favorite (no al fresco, it’s underground.) But don’t let that stop you. It’s quite spacious and the atmosphere is very hip. Their Portuguese-style tapas including the mini burgers and sweet potato fries were outstanding.  

 

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Indoor view of restaurant in Lisbon with small green tables

On day three, I caught the train to Braga located in the northwest of the country and known for its beautiful churches and cathedrals

Pro-Tip: Portugal’s public transit system is significantly cheaper than scheduled trains and runs the same route on a regular basis. Walk up and buy a ticket for a few euros.  

Braga was by far my favorite city and is somewhat still undiscovered. Being inland, it doesn’t compete with coastal cities and the Algarve. Yet, the wide sidewalks and outdoor gardens are a pleasant surprise. With a growingly younger population, hip vibes and boutique restaurants, Braga is starting to arrive. The number of cranes in the skyline are a sure sign that interest in the area is surging. 

The Bom Jesus do Monte is a worthwhile pilgrimage site 5 kilometers outside of the city center and is the number one tourist destination. It’s said a chapel has occupied that space since the 1300s with the current building being built in 1722. Make your way up by foot or catch the funicular at the base. 

Instead of a hotel, I opted for an adorable flat hosted by a gentleman named Rui. A penthouse one-bedroom unit with full kitchen and living room and fold out couch. The highlight was the patio area with incredible views of the city and a great sunset. 

Flat in Braga with fold out couch and doors opened to a balcony

Pro-Tip: Many of the buildings in Portugal don’t have elevators so check with hosts before booking.

I had several good meals in Braga but two sood out. 

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Close up of a bowl of seafood including mussels and prawns

The first was at La Porta, a highly rated Italian restaurant. I know what you’re thinkin… Italian in Portugal? I enjoyed it so much, I went twice. Seafood is so fresh in Portugal, the squid ink pasta with a mix of freshly caught calamari, lobster and mussels was otherworldly. The second night, I had a seafood risotto and housemade chocolate gelato. La Porta is a must try. 

The chef-run Cante Food & Friends with a limited menu represents the future of Braga. The 30-day aged beef steak was cooked to perfection and served with a cauliflower puree and baby vegetables. This spot is a great example of the up-and-coming culinary scene in Braga being driven by its younger population. The view was also delightful.

Departing Braga somewhat reluctantly, I made my way to Porto famous for its port wine and stunning architecture. While I was looking forward to Porto, I found it to be overrun by tourists and a bit overwhelming at times– especially as new Covid variants were hitting Europe. 

Pro-Tip: Porto is extremely steep in spots. Bring comfortable shoes with a strong grip and be prepared to move uphill at times. 

Nonetheless, Porto is incredibly picturesque. Make sure to cross the bridge to capture the city’s “good side” from across the water. The city is home to the Porto Cathedral, the Palácio da Bolsa and the São Francisco Church, which is known for its ornate Baroque style.

Plate of steak and vegetables

Being so hungry upon arrival, I was pleasantly surprised to find one of my top picks was across the street from my accommodation. Caldeireiros was another great Portuguese style tapas joint. If you’re hungry but looking to snack, I’d recommend the steak sandwich with cheese, cod fritters and padron peppers.

My other meal worth mentioning also served as an escape. I found a break from the crowded streets and restaurants at the rooftop KUG. Located above a hotel with a calm shady atmosphere, rooftop views and far less crowds. The burger was delicious and as was the well-appreciated respite. 

Here, I also opted for a flat stay and had a great location with an open air view of the street. Thankfully, it was mostly quiet late at night except for Friday when the locals like to stay out quite late. 

Sunset view of rooftops in Braga

On my first trip to Portugal, I headed south from Lisbon to the Algarve via rental car. If you enjoy road trips, it’s a great country to get off the highways and take the backroads all the way to your destination. On your way south, don’t miss the up and coming city of Evora. 

For this visit, I traveled to and from Portugal on EasyJet via London. While EasyJet gets a bad wrap, I find it to be quite adequate for a short flight. Planes are fairly new and a few extra euros gets seats with a bit more legroom and priority boarding for first on, first off. I flew into Lisbon and out of Porto and had snacks and cocktails each way, for less than $200 total. 

Overall, I was amazed at how affordable the accommodations and meals were in Portugal– This is a great destination experience without having to spend a ton of money. It’s also hard to find a place where every meal is at least good, but that was generally my experience. Just be prepared for crowds and/or mix in smaller up and coming towns.

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