As someone new to the travel industry, I knew little about Portugal and what I would discover there. I was looking forward to the trip—very much so—but was also a little nervous about traveling to another country alone for the first time. I was meeting up with other travel professionals at the hotel, albeit no one I already knew, so I certainly wouldn’t call this a ‘solo’ excursion. Still, I was excited about journeying there myself, meeting new colleagues and travel pros and experiencing a place I had little preconceptions about.

When I landed in the Lisbon airport at about 5:30 in the morning, I walked off the plane and into a hub of cultures and languages. Sure, an airport is a melting pot of passersby, but I hadn’t been overseas in years, so it was both new, exciting and overwhelming at once. I could overhear conversations happening from every group walking by, people speaking in French, Portuguese, Spanish, Japanese. I felt autonomous and out of my comfort zone at the same time, which is partly what travel is about, right?

After another flight to Porto, Portugal’s northwest city seated on the coast, I arrived at the hotel and did the thing you’re not supposed to do in order to battle jetlag—nap! Only for an hour or two, though, because we had a double-decker bus tour of the city scheduled.

I was surprised at how amazing the views were from the top of the bus. Porto is over 900 years old, steeped in historic architecture and laden with sharp hills. The lovely, vertical houses and buildings are built close together and appear as if they’re cascading down the hills. We drove along the Duoro River and saw the oldest buildings in the city. There were many cafes and bars we passed, and watching the Portuguese enjoy a leisurely Sunday was lovely—they seemed so carefree and laidback.

I found the bridges over the water to be enormous and stunning. The Ponte Dom Luís is now a pedestrian bridge and from that vantage point you can see nearly the entire city unfold beneath you.

The next day was Valentine’s Day, and before going to dinner with a few other travelers from my trip we decided to walk the Cais da Ribeira Waterfront. If you visit Porto, exploring this area is a must! Along this wide cobblestone street, there are small unique shops, tiny bars, outdoor dining and street buskers. Many young people were out and enjoying meals with their feet hanging over the wharf as they chatted in groups. There was a local school choir performing in black robes, too. Bright rabelo boats floated by. The atmosphere, partnered with the guitars and melodies of local singers by the waterside, made for the perfect evening.

I was only in Porto for two days, which seemed like a fever dream! Then, we were off to Lisbon for another couple days of exploring the country’s capital. Just like Porto, I knew little about the area and was looking forward to it telling me its own story.

We had a leisurely lunch at a beautiful bistro in the heart of downtown—La Brasserie. One thing about the Portuguese is they don’t skimp on wine! We enjoyed a lovely lunch with carafes of red wine from the Duoro Valley and steak frites with a gorgeous pepper sauce—this was definitely a French-inspired restaurant!

Our lunch lasted nearly two hours, with several courses and aperitifs. This is something I appreciate about European culture: lunch is a time to enjoy friends, colleagues, whoever you’re with and without interruption. They prioritize company and rest instead of hurrying back to work immediately. There were lots of local Portuguese people dining just as long as us, seemingly on break from work, wrapped up in their conversations and espressos.

Our walking tour of the city was stunning! The streets are made out of limestone squares and, similar to Porto, the city is hilly. Small trolleys roll up catenaries so people can skip the hike up on foot. Lisbon is a busy, buzzing city, with lots of shops, historic buildings and bakeries. I definitely recommend trying a pastel de nata, Portugal’s signature custard tart.

One of my favorite parts of the trip was our fado dinner. Fado is traditional Portuguese music that dates back to the 19th century. It’s melancholic in nature, with themes usually surrounding loss, love, nostalgia. It’s characterized by ‘saudade,’ which, I learned, is a Portuguese word for which we have no English equivalent. It means deep longing or nostalgia.

We sat at a long rectangular table in a small cramped room. The walls were murals made of azulejos, signature Portuguese blue hand-painted tiles. There were other groups in the room, too, and we were almost brushing shoulders with those behind us, it was so tight.

As we were served fresh fish and egg yolks with sugar—you have to try it!—a young woman rose at the front of the room accompanied by two guitarists. She sang solemnly and brilliantly. Of course, I didn’t understand the language, but that’s the beauty of fado: you don’t have to in order to understand the nuances and soul of the ballad. The room was completely quiet while she sang, and it was truly mesmerizing.

After a few songs, the group sat down, and they continued to sing throughout the night as we had various courses and port wine, of course!

If you’d like to hear a sample of Fado for yourself, here’s a link to some traditional songs. And, if you’re feeling inspired by Emily’s recent trip, browse our fully-customizable Portugal itinerary below!

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