Rico had the opportunity to go to Lisbon, Portugal with work for a Wednesday and Thursday in October, so naturally we decided to go together and stay the long weekend. We had from around 9am Friday morning until our flight at 7pm Sunday evening to explore Portugal’s hilly, but relatively compact capital on our own.
We grabbed a train along the coast from where we had been staying in Estoril to Lisbon’s popular district of Belém. The train system was very straightforward and inexpensive. Belém Tower is a 16th century fortified tower originally built to defend the mouth of the Tagus river. Today, it’s a great example of Portuguese architectural style in the 1500s and offers views eastward of the famous 25th April Bridge (a copy of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge) and the towering Christ the King statue (another copy, this time of Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer). Jerónimos Monastery, the other major attraction in the area, is only a 20-minute walk away. The monastery was built in the same era as Belém Tower and showcases some similar architectural details. We had purchased a combination ticket at the tower which not only saved us a few euros but also allowed us to skip the incredibly long line for the monastery! The cloister and adjacent church are both beautiful and a welcome respite to the chaos outside. We wrapped up our visit to Belém with famous Portuguese pastries pastéis de nata (egg tart pastries invented hundreds of years ago by monks at Jerónimos) and hot chocolate from arguably the most famous producers: Pastéis de Belem. It only took one powdered-sugar-and-cinnamon-covered bite to fall in love with these things!
From Belém we grabbed an Uber to our Airbnb in Alfama, Lisbon’s oldest neighborhood, settled in the 8th century by the Arab Moors. This Arab influence in this district is still evident today. The apartment was strategically located directly above a Fado restaurant (the country’s traditional melancholic music), which you may think an annoyance, but we actually enjoyed opening our windows in the evening for a free show. Once settled, we set off exploring the neighborhood! The winding streets, undulating hills, and worn tiles adorning most of the crumbling buildings all contributed to the unique charm of this place. We made our way up to Miradouro das Portas do Sol, one of the city’s many scenic viewpoints—the beauty of this view drew us back a few times throughout the weekend. Further up into the hills we went, eventually reaching the imposing Moorish Castelo de São Jorge, portions of which were built almost 2,000 years ago. The views from the walls are even more dramatic than from the viewpoint—we’ll let the pictures do the talking. We closed the night out with dinner at Lisboa Tu e Eu, a hole-in-the-wall tucked into the winding streets of Alfama—not only was the food amazing (cod fritters, rice and beans, mixed salad, Portuguese steak, sausage), but the cook and waitress, who run the show all themselves, were extremely friendly and accommodating. This place is a must.
Our second day started with a bus ride to Museu Nacional do Azulejo. Azulejos are the beautiful Arab-influenced tiles that are plastered all over the city and this museum chronicles their history, from the introduction of to the craft to Portugal in the 16th century, through the transformation of the tiles’ style and symbolism, to their production and use today. Some of the tiles are on display like works of art, but some of the rooms in the museum are just tiled from floor to ceiling—it’s a beautiful sight. The museum is relatively small and can be appreciated in a couple of hours. We knew at this point that we wanted to bring one of these tiles back home as our souvenir, so our next stop was Feira da Ladra, one of Lisbon’s largest flea markets. It started to downpour as we arrived to the primarily outdoor market, but we would not be deterred! We eventually found a 17th century blue and white azulejo which we now proudly display in our living room.
After a quick stop at Igreja da São Vicente de Fora, we hopped on tram line 28 to bring us to our next destination. Lisbon’s trams are a symbol of the city, and #28 is the most famous of them all, bringing tourists through the most popular districts of Lisbon. Part of the line’s fame derives from the fact that only the classic trams commissioned in the 1930s are small and nimble enough to handle the route. This is no secret, so expect the trams to be packed with tourists (and beware of pickpockets as they heavily operate on this route)—the tram was so packed when we took it that we were forced to ride in the very front which meant we could watch the driver at work! Once off the tram, we walked by the pink street on the way to lunch at the Time Out Market adjacent to Mercado da Ribeira Nova, where we grabbed pizza, a burger, pastéis de nata, and lemon meringue pie from the Pizza a Pezzi, Honorato, and Arcadia stalls. The day ended with beef tenderloin, fried shrimp, and crème brûlée from Farol de Santa Luzia (another great dinner experience) and a late night snack of pastéis de nata from Ginja de’Alfama.
We started our final day in Baixa, Lisbon’s lower neighborhood. This neighborhood, unlike Alfama and Bairro Alto (which we’ll touch on in a moment), was flattened by the devastating 1755 earthquake and afterward rebuilt in a very orderly and stately grid structure. It was probably our least favorite part of the city, but it was still a pleasure to walk around and there are quite a few sights in a compact area as well as lots of azulejo-covered buildings. We started from Praça do Comércio in the south, went through the Arco da Rua Augusta, walked up Rua Augusta, snaked around some of the smaller streets, visited Paróquia de São Nicolau, appreciated the amazing views from atop the Santa Justa Lift (which is also a convenient way to get up to Bairro Alto), and eventually got to the northern edge of the neighborhood at Praça Dom Pedro IV and Praça da Figueira. Make sure to visit Igreja de São Domingos while you’re in the area—it’s one of the most unique churches we’ve ever been to!
Bairro Alto—literally “high neighborhood”—is, along with Alfama, the other historic, hilly district that flanks Baixa on either side. This is the city’s most popular nightlife spot, but you would never guess that when strolling through during the day. With its unique blend of worn charm, romantic sight lines down narrow cobblestoned streets, and raw authenticity, Bairro Alto ended up being our favorite neighborhood. We wandered our way down from Igreja de São Roque, through pretty much every street in the neighborhood, and finally down to Calçada do Combro, the main east-west street through the area and the beginning of a steep hill that flows southward down to the riverfront. Check out the trams that shuttle people up and down the steep hill on Rua da Bica de Duarte Belo—we sat with a handful of other eager photographers to get one the iconic shot of the tram cresting over the hill on its way up to Bairro Alto. We finished our visit here with more pastéis de nata from Manteigaria Fábrica de Pastéis de Nata (which competes with Pastéis de Belem for title of best in Lisbon), which we enjoyed at Praça Luís de Camões, and lunch from Café Royale (hummus with pita, bread with tomato-garlic sauce, and patatas bravas) before heading back down to Baixa.
We had an hour or so before we had to head to the airport, so we recruited one of the many independent tuk-tuk drivers to take us on a farewell tour around the city. She took us on a loop through some familiar and some new spots (Lisbon Cathedral, Roman Amphitheatre, the viewpoint at Miradouro de Graca) while giving us a local’s perspective on culture and history, which gave us context in which to further appreciate our visit to the city. Lisbon swept us off our feet—the city is beautiful in a raw, authentic way, the people are friendly and proud, the food is amazing, and the weather is [usually] perfect. We will no doubt be back to Portugal someday soon, as the country holds other treasures like Porto and the Algarve, but until then, despedida!