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Immersing Myself in Portugal's Culture

What I learned from staying in one location for longer

Portugal as my first overseas journey after three years of being still and I knew I wanted to travel differently. That’s why I decided to choose only one destination and immerse myself in it. I chose Portugal and Lisbon was my base. Here’s the story about all the things I learn about Portugal and this new way of traveling.

By Cathy Ruiz B.


I felt the warm weather once I set foot in Lisbon airport. My trip of 7 weeks in Portugal was just beginning and my heart couldn’t be happier. I changed the winter solstice for the summer one and almost two months of adventure were waiting for me.

And I couldn’t have started better. My stay in Portugal wouldn’t have been the same if I hadn’t crossed paths with Alzira, a Portuguese lady with whom I shared for all the time I was there. I stayed at her home in Alta Lisboa, but even though I was renting her a room in her apartment, I felt like family. For me, it was like a gift from heaven.

She picked me up at the airport not even knowing me, we just have a friend in common, and she treated me as if I was her daughter. Once at her cosy two-bedroom apartment, with a very nice terrace to see the sunsets, she had for lunch one of the most famous dishes in Portuguese cuisine: “Bacalhau a Bras”, a mix of salt cod, potatoes, and eggs into a creamy dish topped with olives and parsley, and for dessert the most amazing Portuguese custard tarts: Pastéis de Nata.

What better way to start my trip? Definitely a good omen.

Less is better

The temptation of jumping from one country to another was there. Being so close to so many dream destinations and friends spread over Europe was an idea that crossed my mind a couple of times. However, I was determined to stay in Portugal and make the most of my time there, and it was the best I could do.

I was applying the principles of Slow Travel, from where I learned that I didn't want to burn myself out trying to visit so many places; for me, less was better. I wanted to really live all the small details of Portugal, give them the attention they deserve and experience them.

In that sense, I could go all over different neighborhoods in Lisbon besides the most touristic ones. As I was staying in Lumiar, in the North of Lisbon, I mainly met local people, and I was able to get a glimpse into their daily lives.

Many of them go to the park Quinta das Conchas after work to go for a run, do some exercise, walk the dogs, or have a coffee at a cafe. Or at lunch time, between 1 and 3 pm I could see the outside tables of the tascas (traditional Portuguese restaurant) on the way to Lumiar metro station, having beers, or snails Portuguese style, which I never even dreamed of trying.

This philosophy of traveling allowed me to get to know in depth the Metropolitan area of Lisbon and visit nearby places like Setubal, a fisherman town, where I stayed for a weekend. There I visited many beaches that aren’t frequented by tourists like Troia Peninsula or the ones in Arrabida.

Also, I decided to choose two destinations outside Lisbon to keep diving into Portugal’s culture. I went to Lagos, in the Algarve region, where I got to go to the most outstanding and beautiful beaches I have ever seen in my life. This is definitely a tourist hot spot but it was one worth going.

And, of course, I couldn’t leave Portugal without visiting Porto, three hours and a half north from Lisbon. There, I saw one of the most outstanding sunsets I can remember. In fact, seeing the sunset was like taking tickets for an opera or a ballet. People gathered in Jardim do Morro and after the sun went down everyone clapped together.

Tasting local life

I couldn’t be more proud when I got my “Navegante” card which allowed me access to various transports operators in the Lisbon Metropolitan area such as the metro, buses, train and ferries by only paying 40€ for a month. To take this card, I had to do the paperwork that is so characteristic of the Portuguese bureaucracy. Even though it wasn't a big deal, I just had to fill in a form, take a passport photo and attach it to the form. I felt like I was living there.

The day I had to collect my card, I waited for almost two hours at the metro station Campo Grande where there was an office. Nevertheless,, the long wait was soon forgotten next to a pasteis de nata and a cup of tea, and a nice conversation with a guy I met there. Needless to say, my unwavering love for Pasteis de Nata made me have one almost everyday, like many other Portuguese do. It is difficult to avoid them, they are everywhere, really.

By staying longer in Lisbon, I had the chance to discover squares and parks in the city, and it was something I really fell in love with. Almost all the green areas you can find have “Quiosques” small huts that serve all kinds of drinks, as well as simple meals and, of course, many different pastries. It is a place of gathering, surrounded by such lovely scenery.

Making rich connections

Once I read that befriending people from other cultures is the lifeblood of travel and I couldn’t agree more. My experience in Portugal wouldn’t have been the same if I hadn’t met all the people I did on my way. And I believe that this journey was all about the connections I made, making my experience much richer.

Lisbon is a place open for new starts and also transitions. And, that characteristic makes the city a perfect place to meet new people. Lisbon is an important hub for Digital Nomads. People from different countries and backgrounds work remotely, so there’s a strong international community that fits very well with the Portuguese. In this city, I felt welcomed and comfortable, like we were in the same tune. I met people that had been living there for a while, while others were just arriving, some about to leave, and then there were people like me, that were having a taste of Portugal.

In Porto, I had the chance to meet a writer and with her, I had one of the best afternoons of my journey. We went to a poetry session, she showed me around and then introduced me to friends of hers with whom I had interesting deep conversations –not at all small talks. And even went to a “secret place” that only as a local you would have been able to find. A kind of social club where people gather to dance one of the traditional folk Portuguese dances. And even though I couldn’t see anyone dancing, just the pictures of the dancers wearing typical customs and in the atmosphere of the place, you could breathe tradition. It was mesmerizing.

Getting in touch with people while you are traveling opens doors and windows to new ways of life, and to parts of their stories.

I shared many moments with Alzira, my Portuguese host. We went to an open cinema at Park Quintas das Conchas, to yoga classes, we went for Indian dinner, to see an orchestra at Sao Jorge Theatre, and even discussed the local television news –with my very poor understanding of Portuguese.

I believe that in these small details is where you can have a real pulse of the culture you are immersed in. You don't need to know everything typical and traditional, but noticing those details of everyday life is what makes the difference.

For me, I can now say that I immersed myself in the daily life of someone living in Portugal, and it was the best experience I could’ve had. A piece of Portugal stayed in my heart, and I know I will definitely come back.


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