I just came back from two short but full weeks exploring Porto + Lisbon in Portugal, and Amsterdam + surrounds in the Netherlands.
While I was away, I became a little obsessed with writing TripAdvisor reviews, only because I’d found them so helpful when I’d been scouting hotels/restaurants/medieval churches etc. to visit, and I wanted to give back to the community. When you sign up as a TripAdvisor reviewer, you’re meant to pick your ‘Travel Style’ from a list of badges such as ‘Nightlife Seeker’, ‘History Buff’, ‘Foodie’, ‘Eco-tourist’, and so on and so forth. I struggled with this, because I’m kind of just a person who wanted to see beautiful and strange sights and learn some interesting things about the world and its inhabitants. I didn’t have a specialty.
But if I had to pick a specialty, I’d say that I did gravitate towards places that had some kind of literary significance – notable bookstores, spaces writers & artists frequented, attractions that celebrated story or literary culture in some way. Here’s a quick collection of those places, their history and my experiences.
1. Guerra Junqueiro House Museum – Porto, Portugal
This lesser-known attraction is the 18th-century home of a famous Portuguese poet, preserved and turned into a museum that boasts an intimate and impressive collection of Portuguese silverware, ceramics, jewellery, furniture and religious artwork. While the collection isn’t ‘literary’ as such, it seems in line with the poet’s vision of preserving and promoting art and cultural artefacts. You can read Junqueiro’s poem The Digger in English here. The melancholy nature of it seems common in Portuguese art.
(Casa Junqueiro exterior)
2. Livraria Lello Bookstore – Porto, Portugal
Livraria Lello is one of the oldest bookstores in Portugal, and one of the most beautiful in the world, according to sources such as the Guardian, Lonely Planet, myself and now you, once you look up all the photographs. The rich wood, pressed copper and stained glass decor is so gorgeous, you almost forget to stop and look at the books. Luckily there’s a cute little cafe on the top floor where you can sit and have a coffee and admire it all.
(Staircase inside Livraria Lello)
3. The Majestic Cafe – Porto, Portugal
This historic cafe, with its stunning art nouveau decor, has been frequented by significant Portuguese politicians, artists, writers, academics, and other important public figures since its opening in 1921. (Including, apparently, everyone’s favourite J.K. Rowling when she lived in Porto in the 1990s and was penning a little story about a wizard.) We had some fantastic cheeses and glasses of port here. It was quite busy and cramped inside, so I’d say it’s a better place for artistic conversation than artistic meditation these days.
(The Majestic Cafe exterior)
4. Livraria Bertrand – Lisbon, Portugal
This is meant to be the oldest bookstore in the world, founded in 1732. It was destroyed in 1755 by the earthquake that annihilated basically everything in Lisbon (seriously, look it up), but was rebuilt shortly after. The bookstore’s stock and interior now resemble the clean and bright shelves of chain bookstores such as Waterstones or old Borders (R.I.P), but the decor and furnishings hint at its longstanding history. (I picked up a copy of Pessoa’s selected poetry here, as it seemed necessary I check out Portugal’s most celebrated poet when in his home city of Lisbon).
(Livraria Bertrand on Rua Garrett)
5. Lisboa Story Centre – Lisbon, Portugal
This one doesn’t necessarily have literary history attached to it, so much as it’s an example of history presented in a literary way. The Libsoa (the local way of spelling Lisbon) Story Centre is an interactive museum where you’re given an audio guide that leads you through colourful and entertaining exhibits that present Lisbon’s impressive history in chronological order, beginning with the Phoenicians. It’s like walking through a pop-up history book, with a notable segment being ‘the earthquake room’, where you hear and see the story of the 1755 earthquake played out.
(Exhibit at the Lisboa Story Centre)
6. The Anne Frank House – Amsterdam, Netherlands
This is, of course, a must-see for any visitor to Amsterdam, literary significance aside. But as a young writer, I was struck by the experience of walking through the house where Anne and her family had lived in secrecy for all those years, and seeing the physical journals in their glass cases at the end of the tour. Everyone finds a different way to connect to Anne’s story, but for me, it’s a testament to the power of the written word, and the importance of preserving human experiences.
(Anne Frankhuis from across the canal)
7. Efteling – Kaatsheuvel, Netherlands
This is a theme park a little outside of Amsterdam that celebrates all things fantasy, fairy tale and folklore. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to stepping into a different world. The attention to detail in this wonderland is astounding–every inch of it is a work of art. Park highlights include the Droomvlucht – a suspended carriage ride through multiple fantasy settings, and Raveleijn – a live stunt show featuring trained ravens, swordfights, and real horses on fire. The dragon rollercoaster is also a must-do, because it’s a dragon rollercoaster.
(Entrance to the Droomvlucht ‘Dream Flight’ ride at Efteling)
8. The Bench – Amsterdam, Netherlands
I’ll end on a contemporary one. Fans of John Green’s young-adult novel The Fault in Our Stars will know that a part of the book/movie is set in Amsterdam, and you can visit the very bench one of the story’s most heartbreaking scenes takes place on. I found it. I sat on it. I felt sad.
(Hazel and Gus’s bench by the Leidsegracht canal)
I saw other amazing things too, like the still-sturdy walls of Sao Jorge Castle, the dim halls of multiple port cellars, vibrant Porto from the dizzying heights of a cable car, the gorgeous floral universe that is Keukenhopf Gardens, and Sunflowers by Van Gogh IRL. Even the non-literary places were rich in story and personal experiences. I’m glad to have seen it all, and to have brought little pieces of multiple worlds back in my suitcase.
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