I’ll admit I knew very little about Portugal prior to accepting an invitation from Viking River Cruises to participate in a press trip on the Douro River. I knew that port wine was made in Portugal and that cork trees grew there. Anything else I might have known was most likely forgotten as soon as I put down the pencil after taking whatever high school history or geography test I had bothered to study for in the first place.

This 10-day adventure afforded me the opportunity to learn Portugal’s history, witness its natural beauty, and experience its culinary treasures. As a result, Portugal is now in the upper echelon of countries I want to visit again and again.

Much of Portugal’s charm lies in its eclectic architecture. Roman, baroque, and Moorish influences are prevalent throughout the county and tell the story of Portugal’s colorful past. The Belém Tower in Lisbon, the Pena Palace in Sintra, the Mateus Palace in Vila Real, and the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Remedies in Lamego are all architecturally stunning and are part of UNESCO World Heritage Sites that are not to be missed.

The Douro River dissects northern Portugal from the eastern border with Spain to the Atlantic Ocean by the city of Porto. The way it meanders through mountains and countryside denotes a relaxed, slower-paced life. Floating past centuries-old medieval structures on hills overlooking the river was like stepping back in time. It was a contemplative experience that left me feeling relaxed and rejuvenated. The old-world villas and steeply terraced hillside vineyards along the Douro River provide a backdrop to some of the most spectacular sunrises and sunsets I have ever witnessed.

Viewfinder Tip: Make your meal an entertaining and cultural experience by making dinner reservations at a restaurant with live fado music.

I never thought of Portugal as a foodie destination until I made the trip. The food was absolutely unforgettable. Since the country borders the Atlantic Ocean, there is a natural abundance and variety of incredible fresh seafood dishes. Fish, squid, octopus, crustaceans, mollusk, and shellfish are prepared any way you can imagine—broiled, grilled, fried, stewed, or roasted. Fresh vegetables, rich stews, cured ham, chorizo, assortments of cheese, and freshly baked bread were staples on almost every menu. My favorite dessert was pastel de nata?, which seemed to be available everywhere. Originally created by 18th-century monks in a Lisbon monastery, these small, custard-filled puff pastries with caramelized tops are absolutely addictive.  

Portugal is famous for its port wine. The Douro Valley is recognized as the world’s first wine appellation region and produces the only grapes in the world that are used to make authentic port wine. Prior to visiting Portugal, I was never a fan of port wines and found them to be too sweet for my liking. But after touring several wineries and sampling numerous wines in Portugal, I’ve become a fan, particularly of some of the white ports, which are lighter and not as sweet as the vintage red ports. Ports aren’t the only wines produced in the region. I thoroughly enjoyed the region’s Vinho Verde—a young “green” wine—and Tempranillo and Alvarinho wines. Sipping wine in the region where it is made can be somewhat of a bonding experience. I now find myself searching for wines from the Douro Valley in grocery stores and wine shops in my hometown.

 

Compared to much of Europe, Portugal is surprisingly affordable. In Lisbon and Porto, Portugal’s largest cities, you can get coffee and a pastry or a glass of fine wine for about €5.00. Four- and five-star hotels can be found for well under €200.00 per night.

Portugal’s quaint villages, opulent castles, crystal-clear rivers, lush green mountains, and stunning coastlines leave you feeling like you’re living inside a postcard. And unlike so many of Europe’s better-known destinations that are overrun with tourists, Portugal provides opportunities for more authentic experiences. So whether you tour historical sites, fish in the Atlantic Ocean, cruise down the Douro River, indulge in the thriving food scenes of Lisbon and Porto, or simply sample the fine wines produced in the Douro Valley, you’re sure to discover why we consider Portugal to be Europe’s best-kept secret and our best destination for 2019.

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