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If I had made a list of dream places to visit, Portugal wouldn’t have made it. So when my friend said she wanted to take a trip with a small group of loved ones for her milestone birthday, I was surprised to hear the country was at the top of her list.

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Portugal has been an under the radar destination for some time, making it a more affordable option to places like France and Italy. But travel seems to be on the upswing. Over the last two years, I’ve noticed a good many people I follow on social media posting about travel there, with mixed reviews. Some worshipped it, while others felt a deep indifference.

I fell into the former category, happily. But here’s what you need to know: Portugal is not Italy. Italy is easy to love, mainly because she can be aggressively romantic and lusty with her demands for you to love her instantly. (And, I did.) Portugal is its own locale, and it deserves to be judged for what it is. So, as with any new lover, you have to surrender the need for comparison. You have to arrive with no expectations and let Portugal show you why she deserves your love.

Lisbon, where we were based, is a shabby chic town. It is hilly like San Francisco, and much of the city is under construction. But, five minutes wandering through a Lisbon neighborhood charmed me; five days had me in the full bloom of love.

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When I arrived, my friend Dana was already at the hotel and eager to show me around our neighborhood, called Alfama.

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The first thing I discovered is art is everywhere. It is embedded into the fabric of everyday life in Lisbon. We ventured into an area filled with graffiti, where artists were encouraged to create works of art within the landscape. It was magical.

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We stopped in the Palacio Belmonte, an exquisite hotel in Alfama. There was unexpected beauty in every corner.

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When the rest of the group arrived, we took a food tour of Lisbon. Experiencing how people eat is such a great way to know a place. We stopped at the Mercado da Ribera, which has served as Lisbon’s main food market since the 1890s. Today the market is divided in half.

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One half is a traditional market that sells fresh produce, meats and fish to consumers, as well as local restaurants and bars.

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The newer section houses the Time Out market, an awesome food hall with a dizzying array of options.

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We drank copious amounts of vinho verde (or “young wine,” a refreshing white wine as light bodied as water) and sampled many delicious things on our tour…

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…but my favorite was the most famous dessert in Portugal: custard tarts.

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The tarts, also known as pastel de nata, were developed by the nuns who used egg whites to starch their habits, which left them with an abundance of egg yolks. Rather than discard them, they created this heavenly confection. Ours were from Manteigaria, reported to be some of the best in the city. While many bakeries use margarine in their crusts, Manteigaria uses 100% butter. The good news is they are only 120 calories per tart, so when you have more than one (and you will!), there’s no need to feel guilty about it.

The beauty of traveling is you dive deep into life—and eat two or three (okay, four!) pastries—with not one ounce of guilt. You meet yourself in the sweet spot of pleasure, happy to wander for hours on end. I like who I am when I’m traveling. I begin asking myself the big questions of life.

Like, why does my laundry never look this cute?

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I loved the people everywhere we went. Sweetness abounded, and while most people spoke at least a little English—a taxi driver told me the United Kingdom once ruled Portugal, so English is generally taught in schools—they were bowled over if you tried to speak Portuguese, even if only a word or two.

I can confidently say three things: bom dia (good morning), sim (yes), and obrigada (thank you). If you are a man, people were always eager to tell us, then you’d say obrigado.

Also charming were the tiles, or azulejos, we saw everywhere. They are traditionally embedded into the architecture throughout Lisbon.

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But then again, I found mostly everything to be sweetly enchanting.

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After our first cloudy morning, I realized my hotel room faced east. The light chaser that I am, I wondered if I would be able to see the sun rise each morning.

And boy, did I.

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Each morning the sun lit me up with excitement for unexpected pleasures of the day ahead.

I can’t wait to go back.

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Bom dia, with goodness and grace. xo

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