Can you imagine sailing off into, literally, uncharted waters not knowing who or what you might encounter along the way while carrying the aspirations of your people and your king on your shoulders? I find it hard to wrap my head around, especially the bit about “uncharted waters.” But being in Lisbon, you can’t help but feel the thread, still very much intact, of this spirit of exploration and discovery.
Matt and I first came here a year and a half ago on a discount-airfare-whim. We were planning a visit to Istanbul and in searching found a cheap flight through TAP Portugal with the “catch” that we had to spend 24 hours in Lisbon in route. During that one day, we were blown away by the raw beauty, living history, ease and friendliness of the city. And, by the relative lack of tourists compared to Western Europe’s other capital cities. Locals stopped us on the street to ask if this was our first visit and give us suggestions – where else in the world does that happen? We got the bug and knew we’d be back.
When we began planning a trip to Europe this year, once again the best fares where going into Lisbon making a return visit seem meant to be. During this trip, we have traveled through Portugal, Spain, and Italy culminating with these four days in Lisbon and once again, it hasn’t disappointed.
When we first arrived, I purchased Martin Page’s The World’s First Global Village: How Portugal Changed the World to gain insight into the history and culture. It really is head-spinning the impact this tiny country and city, one of the oldest in the world (older than London, Paris, and Rome,) have had on our modern culture.
Walking the streets of Lisbon you feel like you’re breathing in all that history and spirit of discovery. There’s so much to do and experience from art and history to music and architecture. To avoid being overwhelmed, we decided to focus our trip on journeying through the Age of Discovery. An easy enough goal – it’s rare to take a walk without coming face-to-face with a monument created to honor Prince Henry the Navigator, Vasco de Gama, Bartolomeu Dias, among other luminaires of the age. The city’s strategic location on seven hills that overlook the Tagus River and Atlantic offers expansive views onto the water making it easy to imagine ships setting off on grand adventures. Around every corner and up every hill, there’s another strategic viewing spot making the tangled maze of streets and buildings seem open and light-filled. There’s something about being here, on a hill facing the water, that makes you want to explore.
What kept coming back to me time and again as we talked with long-time residents, went out in the city at night to hear music, and spent days picnicking by the water was a unique spirit of independence and self-awareness that goes hand-in-hand with this thread of curiosity and exploration. Through exploring the world, Lisbon found its own unique identity, open and curious yet resolute and proud. And today, faced with the challenges of the EU, it seems even more determined to remain uniquely itself, back to Europe not in an offensive stance, but simply so it can face the wide open river and sea.
Walking the waterfront from Praca do Comerico, one of the biggest squares in Europe to Belém Tower, another World Heritage Site – This is the area that saw all the action during the exploration era. There are industrial and rail sections in the stretch, but it’s possible to weave your way through and get a good glimpse of a little of what makes Lisbon so unique.
You’ll pass parks that fill with locals picnicking, reading, and lounging and the fancy Mercado da Ribeira (be sure and stop in for a vinho verde,) get to eyeball the Museu do Oriente, have a stunning view of the Ponte 25 de Abril (it’s often compared to the Golden Gate Bridge), and be awed by the approach to Padrao Dos Descobrimentos (a sculpture honoring the discoverers of the Golden Age), ending at the breathtaking Belem Tower. Since this journey is about 7 kms, you’ll want to hop on Tram 15 for the return.
Speaking of trams – Historic Tram 28 is the best way to see the city. It’s cheap, you can hop on and off, and it’s just fun. Every time we’ve taken it, it’s packed full more with locals than tourists, although it is a tourist attraction on its own. We hop on at Estrela Basilica near our home base and marvel at all the sights and viewpoints along the route. It takes you through Baixa, Alfama, and Graca.
Castelo de Sao Jorge – This stunning Moorish castle sits on the highest hill in Lisbon and provides an amazing focal point for the city. There are buses that make the trip up, but it’s much more fun to approach on foot and makes for a good hike.
Mosterio dos Jeronimos – This beautifully ornate structure, a glowing example of Manueline architecture, was built to commemorate Vasco Da Gama’s voyage in search of a route to India and to give thanks to the Virgin Mary for the trip’s success. Da Gama’s tomb is housed here as well as various moments and architectural features reflecting the maritime era. Be sure and get here early, the line wraps around the block in summer. And, don’t forget a hat…the line queues in full sun.
Maritime Museum (Museu de Marinha) – For us this was a must while in Lisbon to get a greater understanding of Portugal’s seafaring history. Seeing the building that houses the museum, a section of Mosterio dos Jeronimos, gives you an idea of its importance to this culture. It is vast and overwhelming but was well worth the brain-ache. Seeing the voyage charts alone was worth the visit. The sheer number of model ships and relics from voyages will make your head spin.
Alfama Neighborhood – Nowhere in the city do you feel the Arab and Berber influence as much as in this compact tangle of streets, the oldest neighborhood in Lisbon. Historic architecture mixes with modern graffiti art to give this area eye-popping charm and appeal.
Azulejo Gazing – One of my favorite activities was simply walking the streets and checking out all of the amazing tilework on the homes. It’s something that is so uniquely Lisbon and absolutely beautiful.
Cervejaria Ramiro – We were told this was Lisbon’s best seafood and we weren’t disappointed. For many the no-reservation policy is a negative, for us…well, we kind of love that – I mean, who can plan far enough in advance while traveling to make reservations? Queuing up in line, cold beer in hand, only added to the anticipation.
This place is all about seafood, the room is casual and bustling and the servers are good-humored and institutions in themselves. Don’t expect sides or veggies, you are here to drink and indulge in the best gambas (shrimp) soaked in garlic sauce, steamed clams, and canhila (a conch like creature.)
Princesa do Castelo – I have to say upfront that we did not eat here, but…we were lucky enough to enjoy a private lunch cooked by the chef of this restaurant and it was oh-so delicious. During the lunch of curried tofu, lentil soup, and peanut spinach salad, we talked with the chef about the restaurant and his menu. If his cooking for us was any indication, the restaurant is definitely worth checking out especially if you are in need of some veggies. I mean, how much sardinha assada can one eat anyway?
Mercado Campo De Ourique – This is a great market up the hill on the tram line from Estrela Basilica. It’s a great place to buy fruits, veggies, cheese, and meat – as well as local crafts – and also to sit for a glass of frizzante rosé and a snack.
Castro Bare & Petiscos – This is a really inspiring little place on Rua de Sao Paulo, great for happy hour. The owner, who we chatted with for a while, has used recycled matters to create a beautiful earthy room oozing with charm. You really can’t imagine the creative uses of wooden pallets, from bars to wall decorations and light fixtures, this place is a pinterest dream world. Oh yeah, and there’s tasty bar snacks.
The House – This stunning B&B created by the warm, open, and funny Francisco Carvalho, was one of the best parts of visiting Lisbon. Located on a quiet street near Estrela Basilica in a residential, tree-lined area of the city, it’s truly a haven. Walking up the street, seeing the non-descript building, you have no clue what is waiting for you five flights above. If there’s a better view of Lisbon, it’s hard to imagine, than from Francisco’s expansive deck open to guests and featuring a handy honor bar.
The attention to detail and enthusiasm for talking with guests and offering suggestions put this place above and beyond almost anywhere we’ve stayed.
As I mentioned above, Lisbon often offers the least expensive flights into Europe from the U.S. Then, once you are on the ground, Portugal is quite a bit cheaper than the rest of Western Europe, so you’re practically making money going to Lisbon. (That’s the reasoning I gave my husband anyway.)
We were surprised to find a direct flight from Charlotte, NC into Lisbon which made for an easy flight schedule for us. The only negative – and it’s a big one – is you have to fly US Air on the worst, oldest, dirtiest aircraft we’ve ever flown internationally. A sure example of “you get what you pay for,” I guess. Be sure to check out the type of aircraft before booking: 7 hours there, 8 on the return, is a long time with no seat back movies, cramped seats, and worse-than-usual plane (and plain) food. De Gama’s crew might have mutinied.