Traveling alone: Tips from my experience in Porto, Portugal

I stepped off the airplane and thought, “This is it,” and a surge of power rushed through me as I began my first solo trip.

I’ve read so many articles and heard so many stories about how solo traveling is a necessity to try and offers magnificent moments. I hadn’t planned on traveling to Porto, Portugal alone but because of last minute changes, there I was in a new country all alone. During my three-day trip, I got a taste for the good and bad of traveling solo.

I’ve navigated airports alone before so my independence didn’t really hit me until I arrived in the Porto airport. I felt so free as I decided to go to the bathroom without needing to ask anyone to wait on me or deciding to take a seat in the airport for a few minutes to rest my bag without annoying anyone. The negative was that I had to carry my bags with me whenever I wanted to go anywhere. The pure joy started settling back into a nervous excitement as I had to figure out the metro system and the location of my hostel.

My hostel actually offered several socializing opportunities from free walking tours to group dinners to a pub crawl. Yet, the times I tried to go on the walking tour or eat a group dinner, the events didn’t happen and it suited my desire to be alone. I realized I haven’t been able to be alone in Rabat in a long time. There’s always someone in my house, there’s no where to comfortably go and hang out alone, and besides some brief walks or taxi rides, I’ve constantly been with people and socializing. So not only was I unaccompanied, but I truly wanted to be alone, so I never really engaged with people. I know a big part of traveling alone is the opportunity to meet new people, but I relished in my lack of company.

Porto was a great city for independent travel. I felt safe at all times, especially as a woman, and navigated the city easily. The buildings and river are beautiful; it’s possibly the most beautiful city I’ve ever visited. The attractions were cheap, usually just 3€ to enter, and I ate each meal under 10€. I’m not sure if I could’ve spent much more time in the city, because there’s not a large list of attractions, but I’d definitely go back.

My first day, I just walked through the city, climbed to the top of the clock tower and walked by the river. It was liberating to make my own decisions, not to rely on anyone else and to spend as much or little time as I wanted on a certain attraction. The first time that a depression sunk in happened during my lunch.

I chose a cafe out of extreme hunger from waiting too long to eat. It didn’t have wifi, I didn’t have a book, and I had a hard time smiling during the meal. It was also my two-year anniversary with my boyfriend so all I could think about was how we weren’t together and how the cute couple next to me made me feel sick. Then I couldn’t help but resent not having a companion to distract me. The waiter gave me slow service too as he focused on the large groups at the other tables. I ate my Francesinha, a traditional Portuguese dish, in a hurry and rushed to get walking again.

My first tip for people traveling alone is to gauge your comfort with eating alone. Both times I ate out at a restaurant alone, I struggled to keep myself together, especially since the second time I had a horrible restaurant experience. When I travel alone to Italy in November, I know to bring a book to dinner or find working wifi to help me. And who knows, maybe I’ll enjoy it more. Something else I did that I ended up loving, was a Skype date through dinner. My boyfriend and I each went to a restaurant and then skyped each other during the meal. I got a lot of weird looks, but I had a blast and we were able to celebrate our anniversary. This may not be something for every time, but for the special occasion it certainly was memorable. If ultimately eating out at a restaurant alone always brings the blues, I made my own meal at the hostel the last night I was there and enjoyed it. I eat alone all the time but sometimes the fact that you’re at a restaurant makes it feel worse, so take food to go and eat in a park, or find group dinner options or make your own food.

The next day I went to the famous market, Mercado de Bolhao, and had a blast. I spent over an hour just walking through the fruit and vegetable stalls taking pictures. I wasn’t rushed, I didn’t feel like I was annoying anyone, and I got to focus on taking a variety of shots and experimenting with the angles. I went up to a woman selling piri piri peppers, the hot red peppers, and asked if I could try one. We had a bit of a communication barrier as I spoke Spanish and she replied in Portuguese, but she gave me a pepper warning me of its heat. I took a bite from the tip and chewed, expecting flames to start erupting from my mouth. Yet nothing happened. I liked the taste and said it was good. She started bagging peppers and I felt obliged to buy some, settling for 50 cents worth, which was still far more than I ever needed. Walking away I took another bite and then the flames came.

Porto, Portugal

My eyes watered and my mouth started burning. I frantically grabbed water from my bag but to no avail. The heat wasn’t stopping. I ate some of my pretzels because I had nothing else to sooth the pain. They didn’t help either and I had to just wait it out. If you had been at the market, you would’ve seen a blonde girl waving her hand in front of her face, tears streaming down it, pacing back and forth in a corner with a twisted smile on her face as she laughed at herself. I felt ridiculous. If I had had a companion, I would have be mocked. Yet I suffered my pain and embarrassment alone.

My other tip for traveling alone is to indulge in your passion. This is a time when no one’s there to rush you, criticize you or make you compromise your time. For me, I was able to focus on my photography. If you like drawing, reading every line in a museum or taking hours to shop, make sure to indulge in it. It’s part of the best aspect of traveling alone. I spent an hour in a local music shop deciding which CDs to buy. I sat for a moment at the edge of the river enjoying the sun and the view. I walked at my own pace and walked as far as I wanted. This freedom felt amazing.

That same day I had another moment that gripped my heart and made me wish for someone else. I was visiting the old bookshop in the city that has a beautiful Gothic decor. Inside, a magnificent staircase is centered in the shop. People were taking pictures of their friends and family posing on the steps. As I realized how much I wanted a picture, I felt lonely. So far, selfies had been sufficient and I had gotten one person to take my picture in front of a monument. This was a situation where a selfie would not suffice. I tried getting the attention of several different people, trying “perdon” or “excuse me,” but no one even glance my way. I felt like I didn’t exist. Finally, a nice older man gave me a smile and took my picture. While I really enjoyed the bookshop and stayed as long as I felt like, that moment was really hard and once again reminded me of the struggles of being alone.

Porto, Portugal

The rest of my trip was good. I toured a port wine cellar, the Palacio de Bolsa and the Sao Francisco cathedral. While I didn’t end up liking port wine, I enjoyed my experiences in the town. When I felt lonely walking back to the hostel, I listened to music. When I needed someone’s advice on a dress I was trying on, I found wifi and sent a picture. I could’ve made friends or found traveling companions to fill in the gaps I’ve mentioned, but I truly wanted to be alone and would have rather kept to myself than made the effort to connect with strangers.

As an aspiring journalist, I always get the commentary, “But you’re a journalist,” whenever I express disinterest in talking to people or shyness in approaching strangers. I hate the concept that because I’m a journalist, I’m seen as someone who should always talk with people or who should be the one in the group to engage with a stranger. I’m shy and quiet and while that my seem contradictory to journalism, I like talking when I want to talk or when I have to talk. Of course I love hearing people’s stories and discovering new things, but I don’t want it all the time. Even though it’s my passion, it’s still a job and I don’t need to follow leads during every moment of my life. People were surprised when I said I didn’t socialize or engage with anyone during my trip. Yet for me this was a vacation and if I didn’t want to talk, I didn’t talk.

I think its important when traveling alone to be open to hearing yourself. It’s easy to travel somewhere and find people to replace the loneliness. While part of the beauty is being open to more people than those you chose to travel with, being able to deal with yourself alone is important. By having no one by your side, you’re more open to listening to your body and understanding its needs during a trip. I definitely realized how far I could walk without a break or how long I could go without food. You’re also more open to listening to what you like and don’t like to do. Without my parents with me, I realized I didn’t really care to read the exhibits about the clock tower but instead wanted to take pictures of the view. I discovered I enjoy going to local markets when traveling and packing a lunch to eat at a park. While all these things can be realized with someone else, there’s more focus on you and just you. Sometimes we compromise in our traveling or don’t experience things because of someone else. This is a way to test how you like to travel.

My last tip for people looking to travel alone is to just do it. So often it’s easy, especially as a woman, to think about the safety concerns and scare ourselves out of it. Even the idea of being all alone on a trip is scary and depressing. Yet it’s worth it. While traveling is about discovering new places, traveling alone is also about discovering yourself and how you react to these environments. It’s good not to rely on someone and their interests all the time. Sometimes, it’s OK to be selfish and give yourself the liberty. I think too often people hold back from traveling because they think they need someone with them. While having companionship on a trip is great, don’t let it stop you from going if you don’t have it. You will still have great experiences, just in a different way. I definitely would not travel alone all the time or give up companionship to do it, but I would do it again. And for those who don’t want as much solitude as I had, traveling alone can be a great way to make new friends. I recommend Porto as a place to visit, alone or with someone else. Yet above everything else, I recommend you follow your passion and go on an adventure.

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