Hit the road in Portugal and whether you head southwest from Lisbon to the Algarve on the western edge of Europe or traverse its pastoral Alentejo area, you’ll see the landscape studded with thousands of cork oak trees. Make a pit stop on a roadside to get an up-close look at tree trunks that have been stripped of their honeycomb-like outer bark, which is used for flooring, handicrafts, wallets and yes, capping bottles of wine and other beverages.
Go deeper: According to the Rainforest Alliance, harvesting cork is a sustainable process since the trees aren’t cut down. The cork is harvest on average, every nine to 10 years. A healthy tree may yield cork for up to 200 years, though it takes about 25 years before a tree is truly profitable.
Painted pottery: An authentic souvenir
Rusty-red glazed pottery dishes are staples in Portuguese homes. You’ll see functional terracotta pieces in restaurants all over the country, filled with sizzling sausages, chickpea-and-cod salads and salty olives. If you can want to avoid touristy souvenir shops, find roadside stands in areas like Monchique on the mountainous outskirts of the Algarve’s buzzing cities. Find authentic clay pieces in the signature spare style, as well pretty plates and bowls handpainted with flowers and fruits.
Insider tip: An oval terracotta dish with strips across the top is called assador de barre and it has a specific function: grilling. Chouriço sausages are propped on the strips, liquor (usually aguardente) is poured on top and set alight, barbecuing the sausage with Portuguese flair.
Ginjinha bars: After-supper sipping
It’s no surprise that port is the beverage of choice on the lips of both visitors and locals, who often drink the fortified wine in a quaffable cocktail: the Port Tonic. Come nighttime though, you’ll see people strolling into Lisbon’s historic Ginjinha bars to drink a quick shot (or two or three) of sweet liqueur before ambling on their way. Don’t let the name fool you—there’s no gin in ginjinha—but it’s plenty boozy. The liqueur is made with tart Morello cherries soaked in alcohol and drunk in small glasses. For an authentic experience, drop into A Ginjinha, a tiny joint on Largo Sao Domingos near Rossio Square. If that’s too gritty, wander over to the sleeker Ginginha do Carmo. Here, you can sip Ginjinha in a tiny chocolate cup.
Insider tip: Not up on your Portuguese? Listen for the words “com” (with) and “sem” (without). If you order your Ginjinha “com” you’ll get a real cherry (or two) in your drink, pit included.
Custard tarts: A sweet staple
To the unstudied eye, the dark and wrinkled tops of the famed pasteis de nata (custard tarts) might look a little overdone, but that golden crown is a sign of authenticity. The age-old egg pastry that’s on everybody’s plate—for breakfast, midday snack, dessert—has been a Lisbon staple since the early 1800s. The Antiga Confeitaria de Belém (better known as Pasteis de Belém) on the outskirts of the city lays claim to it origins in 1837. As the story goes, nuns used scores of egg whites to bleach their habits and the leftover yolks were made into pastries. This was an enterprising way to earn extra income after convents and monasteries were shut down because of the liberal revolution in 1820. The recipe, of course, remains a secret, but the tarts are still handmade according to its origins.
Insider tip: Don’t have time to take the train to Belém? Head to famed 1905 Café A Brasileira, in the heart of Lisbon’s chic Chiado district, for an impressive take on the classic pastry.
Azulejos: Tiles are elemental in architecture
Portuguese azulejos or tiles tell colourful stories throughout the country, but walkable Lisbon lends itself well to tile-spotting. Geometric shapes grace the walls of Metro stations, carefully laid out patterns swirl on streets like Rua Augusta and the Art Nouveau facades of buildings are covered in motifs of leaves, people and animals. Wander the cobbled lanes and you’ll see old edifices where azulejos seem to be the only thing keeping the buildings from crumbling altogether alongside more modern installations such as hand-painted house numbers. Keep your eyes open for the blue-and-white designs that flourished in the 17th century. They were influenced by Ming Dynasty porcelain in China.
Go deeper: Visit Lisbon’s tile museum, Museu Nacional Do Azulejo, housed inside the 1509 Convent of Madre de Deus. Permanent collections trace the colourful history of Portuguese tiles from the 16th century to present day.
Sardines: A symbol of the city
Ah, sardines. The diminutive fish that’s shunned by so many is revered in Portugal, especially in Lisbon, where it has become a symbol of the city. Find sardine-shaped flags floating in the sky, emblazoned on tote bags and crafted into objets of art. Pick up a tin of fish in one of the local shops, where artfully decorated cans are often on display in pop-art style. But to truly appreciate this seafood staple, order some freshly grilled fish, then roll up your sleeves.
Go deeper: If you’re visiting Lisbon on the eve of June 12, celebrate the sardine during Festas de Lisboa, the annual Feast of St. Anthony, patron saint of Lisbon. Or check out the action by exploring at #festasdelisboa on Instagram.
Trams: Old-fashioned electric transit
Lisbon is a city built on seven hills, which gives Portugal’s capital spell-binding views from its many miradouros (viewpoints), especially its imposing Moorish castle looking toward the 25 de Abril Bridge that stretches across the Tejo River. When the city’s narrow staircases and steep streets start to lose their charm, hop on board one of the 1930s-era electric trams that rattle up and down the roads. Riding the wooden vehicles lets you rest your weary legs and get a good orientation to the city’s topsy-turvy neighbourhoods draped over its hills.
Go deeper: Tram E28 hits the hot spots, winding its way into the medieval Alfama neighbourhood and passing by the famed Santa Luzia miradouro overlooking the red rooftops. Hop off to take in the sites and get back on when you’re ready to explore more. But beware: this particular tram route can be prime hunting ground for pickpockets.
Explore the charming country of Portugal, where tradition and modernity come together in perfect harmony
Every country has its icons, whether beloved building, ancient recipe or revered writers. Ask an outsider to pin down Portugal’s stalwart symbols and they’ll likely rattle off names of explorers such as Vasco da Gama and Prince Henry the Navigator; mention port, its signature fortified wine; and name the classic dish, bacalhau, or salted cod. But more can be gleaned about Europe’s westernmost country from delving deeper into seven other symbols of its culture and heritage.
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Janet Gyenes is a writer, editor, beverage columnist and co-founder of 70 magazine, an online travel publication. She has co-authored two travel guidebooks on Vancouver and has put her insatiable curiosity to work in words and photos, covering topics such as tasting sherry in Spain, mule-riding in Molokai, and tracking textile trends in Turkey. She regularly writes for BCLiving about food, beverage, design and more.