Since we’ve moved to the UK, it isn’t often that we see friends of ours from the States. So when a mine friend told me that she and her sister were making a European stop over on their way back from India, I knew that we were going to meet up. Lisbon, Portugal was chosen as our rendezvous since none of us had visited there.
What we did:
Because of the timing of flights from the UK, and my husband’s work schedule, we arrived Friday evening and left Monday mid-day. Which really only gave us two days of sight seeing in Lisbon, with one of those days out in the country side of Sintra.
So Saturday morning we walked from our apartment in Barrio Alto to Baixa for breakfast at a cafe. The Baixa was the most heavily damaged part of Lisbon in the earthquake of 1755 and it was rebuilt on a modern grid pattern. It is also were Portugal ended it’s monarchy in 1908 when King Carlos I and his eldest son were executed in the Praca do Comercio.
After breakfast we walked through the Alfama on our way to the Sé (Lisbon’s Cathedral). The Alfama is the oldest section of Lisbon, and while it was built after the Christians had reconquered Lisbon from the Moors, its architecture still retains some Moorish influence. The Alfama is also a great area to check out the blue tiled buildings that Portugal is famous for. As far as cathedrals located in European capitals go, the Sé is relatively simply in its architecture. Built in in 1150 to celebrate the defeat of the Moors, the embellishments that were added to the the church later on were knocked off my the earthquake of 1755. So really, the Sé’s true spirit is in its original Romanesque design.
From the Sé we walked to the Castelo de São Jorge. As I’ve mentioned, a lot of Lisbon’s history is connected to the end of Moorish rule, and the Castelo in no different. The original castle was built and used by the Moors to protect the city (I guess that didn’t entirely work) and when the Christians took over they strengthened the fortifications. It also served as the residence to the Portuguese royal family until the 16th century. The Castelo grounds include a small archaeological museum, a cafe, and peacocks! Walking along the ramparts provides an excellent view of Lisbon.
We grabbed lunch in a cafe back in the Baixa and then took the #15 tram from Praca do Comercio to the suburb of Belem. Belem is further west on the river Tejo, and is where Vasco da Gama set sail for India from in 1497. Upon da Gama’s successful return (in which he brought back enough black pepper to pay for his journey sixty times) Dom (King) Manuel built the Mosteiro dos Jéronimos. The monestery kicked off what in Portugal is known as the Manueline style, which is a late-gothic architectural style that incorporates maritime elements. Like the Sé, the main church portion is free to the public, but other portions charge admission. However, just visiting the main portion of the monestery allows you to view da Gama’s thomb, after he was brought back from India where he died on a subsequent voyage.
Upon leaving the monestery, the heat was starting to get to us (it was in the mid-90°s F, which is warm for Lisbon). We walked to see the Padrão (monument) dos Descobrimentos, honoring Portugal as an innovator during the Age of Discovery. But we couldn’t figure out where to cross the street (which had fenced train tracks down the middle) to get a closer look at the monument. When you can’t figure out how to cross a street, it is time to call it a day. Should you have more time in Belem and not suffer from heat exhaustion there are a couple of other locations listed in the guide that look interesting: Torre de Belem & Museu da Marinha, chronicalling Portugal’s ocean voyages to Asia and the Americas.
Before getting a taxi back to our apartment we needed accomplish what we originally came to Belem to do, which was have dessert. Portugese pastry is known for a dessert that is similar to a custard tart in the UK, called pasteis de nata. The pastry is believed to have originated in Belem at the Pasteis de Belem. And this bakery was recommended to my friend by a family member who had lived in Lisbon. Let me tell you they were delicious! On Sunday we picked up these pastries from another bakery and they were good, but not as good as the ones from Pasteis de Belem.
After resting in the apartment we had dinner and then watched England lose to Italy in the World Cup at a bar with what we assume were off duty police officers? (They were in uniform, but drinking.)
On Sunday we took the train 45 minutes west of the city to Sintra, the former summer residence of the former Portugese royal family. The train left from the Rossio station and on Sunday were 30 minutes apart. The train turn-styles will take their fare from the same card that the subway system uses and is about €4. Sintra offers visitors several sites to explore, many of them outside of the town center. A private bus company, Scotturb, runs a tourist loop around Sintra for €5. We saw the the Castelo dos Mouros and the Palacio da Pena, though the Quinta da Regaleira was highly recommended to me as well. Getting to and around Sintra is fairly afforable, but cost of admission to the attractions in Sinta quickly add up, so it is worth researching the attractions ahead of time and deciding which one you would like to see.
The Castelo dos Mouros was built in the 900s by the Moors as an outpost to the city of Lisbon and control tower for the Atlantic Ocean. It was conquered by the Christians in the 12th century. The intricate network of ramparts offer amazing views all the way to Lisbon.
Further up the road (and it is a pretty steep walk from where the bus drops passengers off) is the Palacio da Pena. Built in the 19th century by a German architect and partially modeled after the castles being built in Bavaria, it is over the top kitsch. The palace has been left the same way since 1910 when the royal family fled, and the republic converted it into a museum.
Our last morning in Lisbon was fairly leisurely. Our friends were staying in Lisbon two more days and we helped them more their suitcases from the apartment to their hotel room and then had a leisurely brunch on the hotel’s roof deck, before it was time to say good bye for our flight back to Manchester.
Getting around Lisbon:
Lisbon is a fairy hilly city. Not as bad as San Francisco or Edinburgh, but I’d highly recommend comfortable footwear. Yet at the same time the city is fairly walkable (we only took public transit or taxis to and from the airport and sites outside the city proper).
Lisbon’s subways, trams, and elevators (short inclined railways for when you don’t want to walk up the hill) are all reasonably priced and will take you to the places you’ll want to see in and around the city. And while the same ‘card’ (made out of oak tag and requires a 50 euro cent deposit) can be used on all three, there isn’t a uniform cost per trip on all three so judging how much you’ll need for trips can be difficult. You can top up the cards at train and subway stations but not on trams. Trams will accept coins if you don’t have enough on your card, so it is wise to keep a few on you.
Taxi’s are also fairly affordable, but the standard practice seemed to be to ask how much the journey would cost before you depart and you’ll end up paying that amount. A taxi for two people with luggage from the airport to the Barrio Alto is between 15 and 20 euros. Our taxi back from Belem was 8 euros, which made it cheaper than the four of us taking the (hot) tram back.
Eating and Drinking:
All of our evening meals (which are traditionally eaten in Lisbon no earlier than 8:30, though most restaurants open around 7:30) were in the Barrio Alto where we stayed. The Barrio Alto is a hilly section in the northern part of the city. Several of the streets are semi-pedestrian only with cars traffic being restricted to those who live on those streets and shop delivery vehicles.
It is also the center of Lisbon’s nightlife, so there are plenty of small restaurants and bars to entertain oneself. It is a common practice for restaurants to leave or put food on your table like bread, butter, cheese, and cured meats covered in plastic wrap. These are not complimentary, if you eat them you it will be added on to your bill. It isn’t usually a high price, but unless you ask the staff to take them back it is often hard to resist the food while waiting for your meal. The restaurants are small so there isn’t much room to wait for a table. With the exception of the first night (a Friday and Catholic feast day and the start of the World Cup), we made reservations for dinner on the same afternoon by walking around the neighborhood and seeing which menus looked good (we were generally away from the tourist spots, but it was still common for restaurants to have an English translation.
I really enjoyed our time in Lisbon, it actually exceeded my expectations for things to do and attraction that would make the city unique. I feel that our city day / country day strategy worked out well given the time constraints on our trip. I feel like I saw the sites and got a feel of the city. I don’t feel like a missed anything; yet there still would have been more to see if we had been able to stay an extra day.