It’s been more than 3 years since I have traveled internationally just for fun. I had some work meetings scheduled in Madrid, and so at the last minute (amongst buying a house, selling our condo and moving), I decided to book a side trip to Portugal.
Because we had been drinking through a firehouse on the home front, I basically had zero time to research anything about Portugal before my trip. It was so unlike me. So I boarded my 11-hour flight with no plan and then flawlessly executed an intense cramming session with Rick Steves over the Atlantic. By the time I landed in Lisbon, I had a solid game plan and was ready to rock this now rare opportunity for exploration.
I only had 3 full days to sightsee, and it was like setting a caged animal lose. Within 30 minutes of de-boarding the plane I had picked up my luggage, gone through customs, located my Airbnb host’s friend to do the key exchange, withdrew local currency, got a map, bought my Lisboa card (which ended up saving me over 50 Euros) and secured my bus ticket into the city. I felt like my old self again (sadly, minus my travel buddy), and it was invigorating.
It was as if Portugal knew I needed a “welcome back” slap on the back to the peculiarities of travel. I should have known it was too good to be true when there were only 2 people in front of me in the immigration line. I thought I would just sail right through! It turns out that those two empty pages in the back of my passport are not for stamps, but rather "endorsements" (whatever the hell that means). The good news is that my passport is officially FULL! Extender pages here I come! It was a lifelong goal realized...in such an unexpected, borderline scornful fashion at the Lisbon airport customs counter.
I spent my 3 precious days in and around the capital city of Lisbon.
Never before have I visited a city where you can pinpoint the EXACT number of days that you should be there. 2 is not enough…4 is too much. My first observation of Lisbon was how much it reminded me of Brazil – primarily due to the sidewalks that lace the city.
They have the same iconic black-and-white mosaic tiles laid in fancy patterns that we saw throughout Rio de Janiero. I guess I always thought this was a Brazilian thing, but now I know better. Portugal founded Brazil in 1500, and so much of my trip was spent in an ah-ha moment realizing that a lot of what I experienced in South America actually originated in Portugal.
I also learned that it works both ways. Lisbon has copied Rio de Janiero’s famous Christ the Redeemer statue. He’s perfectly perched over Lisbon’s river, so it perpetually looks like he’s about to dive off the mountain to go for a swim.
Hilly Lisbon with its cable cars and orangey-red suspension bridge felt like San Francisco and Rio de Janiero had a baby in Europe. In fact there were multiple times when I would walk down the street, catch a glimpse of a fountain adorned with cherubs and think to myself, “This looks like Europe!” I kept mistaking that I was in South America. You can picture Portugal somewhere in-between a poor Europe and a rich Brazil.
Lisbon is colorful and extremely friendly.
Because the city has a lot of hills, it also has an equal amount of miradouros (viewpoints).
I enjoyed hopping from the various overlooks via Lisbon’s many forms of public transportation – old fashion trolley, new age tram, funicular, elevator, escalator, bus and train.
Not to mention good old fashioned pavement pounding. I was surprised at just how out of sightseeing shape I was! Some combination of the hills, the cobblestones, and the sheer amount of miles walked every day in an attempt to see as much as possible caused me to all-out collapse at night. Just ask Steve who graciously watched me fall asleep in the middle of a Skype session.
Lisbon’s old town area is made up of 3 main neighborhoods, and because of the hills, can best be thought of in the shape of a U. At one end of the U sitting up on a hillside is the Alfalma, with its twisting streets and Sao Jorge Castle.
Down in the basin of the U is the grid-patterned Baixa. It’s a classic European juxtaposition of old buildings with modern tenants.
Lisbon – and particularly Baixa – is full of huge squares that don’t really serve a purpose other than to house a line of taxis. My apartment was located a block from one such square, and every day when I walked by, I almost felt sad for it.
On the other end of the U – accessed by various systems of elevators, escalators and funiculars is Barrio Alto / Chiado.
This is where Lisbon’s nightlife is concentrated, and I enjoyed some really nice dinners there. On my first night in the city I went to a great little local place called Bota Alta. Maybe it's because I was traveling by myself (and feeling a little too confident in my newfound traveling freedom) that I decided on their specialty – cod fish fried in a port wine sauce with onions and fried potatoes. I normally avoid unusual fish dishes, but my gut told me to be adventurous while I had the chance. It was salty but delicious!
It also had bones. Me eating bone-in fish must have looked like total amateur hour – it was pretty hard to tell where the fried part of the fish ended and the bones began. There’s really no telling how many bones I might have eaten that night. A rite of passage into Portugal, I suppose.
Cod is to Portugal as the hamburger is to America. They say it can be served a thousand different ways, and so the second way I tried it was called Pastel de Bacalhua. This is basically a cod fish cake with cheese baked inside. These little cakes are made by hand by a girl off to the side of the restaurant. If you've ever been to Old Town in San Diego, think of the tortilla ladies.
They serve the cod cakes with a flute of white port wine (AKA alcoholic syrup) in a nifty little commemorative holder. These things are basically the miniature ice cream baseball helmets of cod fish.
When the Portuguese aren’t in the mood for cod, the traditional alternative is called carne de porco a Alentejana – pork and clams served with a side of french fries.
I liked it so much that I had to two nights in a row. The clams are so comically small that you can barely chew the meat before it just slides down your throat. I kept wondering what would happen if a Portuguese person came to the US and had our standard-sized clams. They would probably be disgusted by how huge they were.
Equally as much fun was sampling Portugal’s many unidentifiable desserts like this one here. I don't know the name of it, so I'll just call it Sugar.
Confeitaria Nacional is the city’s oldest bakery – founded in 1829 – and lucky for me it was only a block and a half from my apartment. I went there 6 times in 4 days.
Their specialty is Bolo Rei or King’s Cake. It’s a sticky bread packed with nuts and dried fruit. So there you have it…in Portugal the king liked fruit cake.
Between trying some Portuguese red wines from the Douro Valley and Sagres Preta (which is their version of dark beer), I also sipped on green wine for the first time ever. It’s like bad white wine that’s ever-so-slightly fizzy. Because you're in Portugal and it's a thing here, your mind tricks you into actually liking it.
Lisbon also has little bars where people stand outside drinking Ginjinha from white plastic shot glasses. It’s a sweet liquor made from the sour cherry-like ginja berry, sugar, cinnamon and brandy, and you can order it with or without berries plopped into your shot glass.
The city’s oldest stand is directly adjacent to the big Church of Sao Domingos, so you can walk out of the church and straight to the liquor stand.
The traditional music of Portugal is called Fado, and in a classic lesson on seeking out authentic travel experiences, I was exposed to it in two very different ways. My first day in Lisbon I visited the disappointing Fado museum, where I (sort of) learned about its history and famous musicians. That evening I found a local’s restaurant in Barrio Alto called Restaurante Adega do Ribatejo where the owner and two alternating women stood and sang Fado along one of the restaurant’s wallpapered walls. I sat at a table next to an older gentleman man who at one point in the meal, stood up unannounced, walked over to the wall, and started singing! After his performance we got to talking and he professed his complete obsession with Fado. He has been coming to this restaurant for years, and it was only after a lot of persistence that the owner allowed him to sing one song. Apparently he was good enough because they now have an unspoken agreement permitting him to sing whenever he dines. He was only at his first restaurant of five for the evening and estimated he would be out until about 5am – he was planning to bar hop all night…sort of like a progressive Fado open night mic night around Lisbon. During one of the breaks we had a lovely conversation about Fado, cod fish, Brazil, California, traveling and the outdoors. And then when the music started up again, he refused to talk over it. He looked at the owner singing his heart out and then looked back at me telling me totally deadpan, "You can say you listened to a great Fado singer". This was not your typical melodramatic, locals-singing-folk-songs-for-tourists kind of trap, and I am eternally grateful for genuine travel experiences like this. As I was finishing my meal of pork and clams, my new little buddy got up to sing another set. It was time for me to leave, and so without being able to say a proper goodbye, I stood up and we waved and smiled at each other while he sang. I’ll never see him again…
Just outside of Lisbon is the town of Belem – this where the current presidential palace is located, but more importantly, it was the epicenter of Portugal’s wildly successful exploration empire. Belem was the send-off point for voyages in Portugal’s Age of Discovery – where explorers would pray the night before their voyage and where they would be heralded upon their return.
I really enjoyed visiting the Monastery of Jeronimos – a massive church and adjoining monastery where Vasco de Gama is buried beneath a captivating labyrinth of stone arches made to look like rope.
Normally churches in Europe are such forgone conclusions. I absolutely loved that this church infused humanity into its architecture. Much of the world was literally founded by people who set sail from this location – a feat so important that architecture was allowed to break tradition and infuse symbols of the sea.
A short walk from the church is the modern Monument to the Discoveries.
A little further down the shoreline is Belem Tower – the launching point of Portgual’s explorers. It was very cool to stand there and think about Bartolomeu Dias, Vasco da Gama, Pedro Cabral, and Ferdinand Magellan all leaving from this exact same point.
Belem is also where the Portuguese royal family has enshrined their enormous collection of carriages at the National Coach Museum.
Sadly this museum is going through a bit of an identity crisis. They recently moved 63 of the 70 coaches from the beautiful former riding school to an ultra-modern, ultra-confusing building across the street. It was weird to see such antique treasures set in such a cold and lifeless building, but the collection was impressive nonetheless.
A 45-minute train ride from Lisbon is the wonderful hodgepodge town of Sintra.
It was the summer escape for the Portuguese royal family, so the temperature is a bit cooler, everything is dripping in moss, and there’s a constant symphony of chirping birds.
I have seen a lot of castles in my heyday, but the Morrish castle in Sintra stands out for its fortress wall hiking and perfectly manicured yet jungle-like atmosphere. Aside from the workers doing extensive leaf blowing (which greatly interfered with the bird chirping), I had the whole place to myself.
Set on an adjacent mountain, Pena Palace could not have been more bi-polar. It’s difficult to walk around it and not accidentally mistake that you are in Disneyland or Las Vegas.
The adjoining park was stunning, and I spent a lot of time exploring (and getting lost in) it.
My favorite section was from the Lake of the Shell through the Queen’s Fern Valley to the Valley of the Lakes. The lakes at the end were dotted with little duck houses that looked like battlements emerging from the water. Throughout my travels I have found some special places that are hard to turn my back on to walk away. This beautiful little place was my favorite in Portugal.
After I saw everything I wanted to see in Sintra there was still about 90 minutes of daylight left, so I eagerly boarded a bus to catch a glimpse of Portugal’s coast – and Europe’s most western point – before sunset.
Cabo da Roca was stunningly beautiful, but alas, there was way too much selfie stick action going on, so I enjoyed it for about 30 minutes and then got out of there.
Unbelievably for January there was still sunlight left in the day, and I was feeling a bit adventurous, so I called an audible and headed for Cascais. It wasn’t exactly the
village bustling metropolis my guidebook made it out to be, so I left
pretty quickly after poking around and retired to Lisbon feeling certain that 3
days is oh so perfect in and around Portugal’s lovely capital city.
Lastly, I need to give a big shout out to Steve (AKA Husband of the Year) for not only agreeing – but encouraging me – to go on this trip. He dutifully stayed with Piper and took care of her for 9 nights, only one week after we moved into a new house and at the height of a major sleep regression she was going through. It takes a fellow (wanderlust drenched, slightly jealous) traveler to understand how important this trip was for me.
It felt so good to be on the road again. Obrigada (thank you), Portugal.