6 observations from a week spent in Portugal

What to do with a week to kill in Europe? Considering that for €100 or less you can get just about anywhere within the continent, the options are endless.

This is the situation that I found myself in between a work trip to France and a wedding to attend in Italy. I contemplated a potential visit to London, a return to the motherland of Scandinavia, or even a hop across the Mediterranean to Africa, but after a little thought, I decided that a more practical trip would be a visit to the ancient, tourist friendly cities and wave-rich coast of Portugal. I figured that I could let the waves dictate my trip, heading to the top surf spots if the forecast looked good, or exploring its historic cultural city centers if not. Additionally, I’ve been studying Portuguese on and off for years now and was eager to put what I’ve learned to practical use, to at least see where I stand.

So, Portugal it was, starting off on the shores of the Douro River in the historic northern city of Porto before heading south to the country’s largest city and capital of Lisbon.

Portugal is a small country of only 10 million that, for better or worse, has extended its influence all over the globe through its maritime technology and exploration. An empire that once stretched across continents and oceans, now is a small, peaceful nation that is known for its wine, lust for seafood, and perhaps most famously (at least in the US) for its tactic to fight drug addiction with decriminalization as opposed to mass incarceration (something we should all take note of).

A week in Portugal was definitely a flash of a trip, but during my time there I kept an observant eye on the cities, the people, and the culture. Instead of a step by step recounting of what I did, I thought it would be more interesting and digestible to highlight a few observations I made during my stay.

1. Tiles are everywhere

It takes only a few quick glances around a Portuguese city to see that painted tiles are very popular. They are commonly used on the exterior or interior of buildings as an alternative to paint.

Why is this, one might ask? It has to do with Portugal’s long history of invasions. The Moors, an Islamic, Arabic-speaking people from northern Africa, invaded most of the Iberian peninsula and held power for nearly five centuries. While they were eventually pushed back into Africa by invading Christian crusaders, setting the stage for Portugal as we know it today, their culture persists in the region.

Language aficionados will know that countless words in Spanish and Portuguese have Arabic roots. In Spanish, ojalá (hopefully), ajedrez (chess), álgebra (algebra), and barrio (neighborhood) are just a few examples of words rooted in Arabic.

Another one of these many words is ‘azulejo,’ the word for ’tile’ in Portuguese and Spanish, which literally means ‘polished stone’ in Arabic. This was one of the architectural styles that persisted in Portuguese culture after the expulsion of the Moors.

The Portuguese have taken a great likening to tiles, with uniquely painted tiles adorning the outside of structures, walkways, and monuments across the country.

Tiled building in the narrow streets of Porto, Portugal.
Tiled houses line the winding streets of Porto.
Blue tiles on the side of a building in Porto, Portugal.
Each house has its own unique tile design.
Tile mosaic on the inside of São Bento Railway Station in Porto, Portugal.
São Bento train station in Porto is covered in intricately painted tiles.
Tiles in Sintra, Portugal.
Tile fountain in Sintra outside of Lisbon.
Different styles of Portuguese tiles.
Various tiles found around Portugal.

2. Want to see a movie alone? Go when Portugal has a soccer match… across the street

While in Portugal, I figured that a good way to practice my Portuguese would be to go to a movie. There are no cinemas in the historic center of Porto, so I rode the metro more into the suburbs and found a theatre in a mall.

When I got off the metro, I quickly realized that I may had made a mistake in selecting this location, as a soccer stadium was literally a stone’s throw across the street and Portugal had a national game against Switzerland in that very stadium.

The mall foodcourt was overflowing with fans stuffing up on calories before the game, but the movie theatre was, quite to the contrary, empty. I purchased a ticket for about 6 euros, forcing me to reminisce of a time during my childhood when movie theaters were reasonably priced in California, and entered the theatre right when ‘The Avengers’ was about to start.

There was not another soul in the place. I couldn’t believe it, but knowing how passionate Europeans are about their soccer, at the same time I could believe it. I assume this theory of ‘if you want to do something alone in Portugal, do it during a soccer game’ applies to a wide variety of activities, not just a movie theatre. Portugal’s version of going surfing during the Super Bowl.

Turns out the movie was in English with Portuguese subtitles, but it was still sufficient for a language lesson.

Fun fact I learned, the movies have five minute intermissions in Portugal.

An empty movie theatre in Portugal.
While Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat trick across the street, I watch The Avengers all by myself.

3. JK Rowling frequented and drew inspiration from Porto’s oldest bookstore

The ancient Lello bookstore in Porto is one of the inspirations for the library at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter book series.

Turns out J.K. Rowling was married to a Portuguese man and lived for some time in Porto, frequenting the bookstore and taking inspiration from its unique architecture when writing the renowned Harry Potter stories.

Now the bookstore is more of a tourist attraction than anything. To get in you have to purchase a ticket down the street, which can then be used as credit if purchasing a book. Fair enough.

Lello bookstore in Porto, Portugal.
Navigating the crowds in Lello bookstore. As far as the actual collection of books, I’ve seen better (at least for my taste).

4. Electric scooters: We are not alone

Love it or hate it, electric scooters have taken over the streets of the US, particularly in California’s urban areas. Everyone has their own opinion of these scooters, ranging from people that live or die by their scooter riding to people who light scooters on fire. Well, regardless of how you feel, Europe has not been spared. The streets of Lisbon are filled with competing electric scooter brands. Interestingly enough, I noticed that at popular tourist hot spots they even have employees stationed to collect and organize the scooters, as well as to promote the downloading of their apps.

As annoying as it is to find a pile of scooters blocking your driveway in the morning, I do think that this scooter idea is onto something. The idea of electric, emissions-free transportation that can get you from point A to B, where public transportation may not be as convenient, is innovative. I think once they solve the problem of people leaving piles of scooters in precarious places, or when adults decide to behave themselves and leave them in responsible areas, it could be a sensible solution for transportation.

Scooters line the waterway in Lisbon, Portugal.
I found a Bird in the pile of scooters and saved myself a half mile walk back to the metro station.

5. Portuguese has some funny ways to say ‘breakfast’

I’ve been studying Brazilian Portuguese for practicality reasons and I always thought the phrase they use for breakfast was funny. They call it ‘cafe da manhã’ or literally, ‘morning coffee’, regardless of what you are eating or drinking, even if coffee is not involved.

This phrase doesn’t exist in Portugal the way is does in Brazil. Instead, they call breakfast ‘pequeno almoço’, or literally, ‘small lunch’ (the same goes for French, I believe). It’s an interesting way to view breakfast — just a small lunch. Denny’s and the American Egg Board would surely protest the use of this term in the States. I hypothesize it emphasizes the great importance the Portuguese give to lunch relative to breakfast, a largely European trend.

We love our big breakfasts in the US, and rightfully so we have a unique word for this meal.

6. Portuguese pavement

While walking around the streets of Lisbon, it didn’t take long to notice the intricate stone designs that make up all of the city’s sidewalks and plazas. As I logged miles and miles up and about the hills of Lisbon, all on these stones, I began to become fascinated by 1) the mind-blowing amount of rocks that are embedded in the city and 2) the painstaking amount of work it would take to place them all.

It turns out there is a name for this iconic look to Portugal’s cities called ‘Portuguese pavement’. It’s a distinguishing feature throughout Portugal and its former colonies around the world, such as Brazil and Macau.

The artists who are tasked with creating the art attend a specific trade school in Portugal, but their numbers are declining due to the low wages for such tedious work.

So, next time you are walking around Portugal, take a moment to look down and appreciate the Portuguese pavement below you.

Rossio Square in Lisbon, Portugal.
Mosaic design at Rossio Square in Lisbon.
Tile pavement in Lisbon, Portugal.
Portuguese pavement plaza overlooking Lisbon.
Tile Mosaic designs on the sidewalk in Lisbon, Portugal.
There are miles and miles of intricate sidewalks like this one in Lisbon. I was looking for a figure on exactly how many miles or stones there are, but it seems that info isn’t out there. It would be cool to know.


Certainly with more time in Portugal I could make some more in depth observations, or perhaps even mold the perceptions that I had in one week there, but these are some of the things that caught my eye. I visited some really interesting castles that I was tempted to include, but castles are a dime a dozen in Europe and I was looking for things that are more unique to Portugal.

Speaking Portuguese in Portugal after having learned with Brazilians was quite difficult, but even after a week I was starting to get used to it. I think with a few months I could get a good feel for the language.

Well, hope you learned something new. Feel free to leave your observations in the comments if you’ve been to Portugal. Here are some bonus photos from my trip:

The Douro River of Porto, Portugal.
The Douro River winding through Porto.
Tiled roofs in Porto, Portugal.
Porto from above. My hostel was near that tower on the left.
An old woman stares out her window in Portugal.
A Portuguese grandma taking a break from cooking (see the apron?) .
Streetcars in Lisbon, Portugal.
Cable cars run up and down the hills of Lisbon, similar to San Francisco.
Views of Lisbon, Portugal.
Lisbon as seen from São Jorge castle.
A peacock in Lisbon, Portugal.
São Jorge castle has peacocks freely walking around. I assume they were introduced by humans.
Purple flowers in the streets of Lisbon Portugal.
Colorful flowers in Alfama, one of the oldest districts of Lisbon.
A castle in Sintra, Portugal.
A Moorish castle in Sintra Portugal, with views stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to Lisbon.
Evan Quarnstrom on a castle in Sintra, Portugal.
Palacio Pena in Sintra, Portugal.
Palacio Pena in Sintra.
Windsurfers take to the ocean at Guincho Beach in Portugal.
Bike ride up the coast to Guincho Beach. The headwind wind was absolutely relentless.

2 thoughts on “6 observations from a week spent in Portugal

  1. Evan! Estuviste muy cerca!! Yo soy de Galicia, a dos horas al norte de Porto y de donde soy hay muchísimas similitudes con Portugal, más incluso que con España. Por eso amé tu post! El cómo ves característico o resaltas partes de Portugal que nunca me había parado a pensar.
    Espero que hayas tenido una muy buena experiencia en Europa. Un abrazo!

    Liked by 1 person

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