lisbon, portugal

Last month we took advantage of a long weekend off work and headed next door to Portugal for three days.  We met at the airport after school on a Thursday evening, flew to Lisbon, and got to our Airbnb at a decent time - the flight from Madrid to Lisbon is only about an hour.  We'd been eager to see more of Portugal since our trip to Porto nearly a year and a half ago (it was our first trip after moving to Spain and we were full of wonder and awe - we're taking a weekend trip to Portugal!  What is life?!) and while Lisbon had honestly never really been at the top of my list, I figured, well, why not? 

D - While Lisbon may not have been at the top of Shannon's list, I was really excited about it for some reason.  It's probably a mix of the fact that we had a really nice time in Porto, and that I had heard that Lisbon was a lot like San Francisco in many ways.  I've never been to San Francisco, but I really want to go sometime, so I figured Lisbon must be worthy of my desires as well.  Our first couple nights in Lisbon the internet wasn't working at our Airbnb, so I devoured this Top Five Lisbon Book that our host provided for us (pictured below).

On Friday morning we got a good, early start with croissants on our way to the Arco da Rua Augusta and the Praça do Comércio that it opens up to.  The arch and the square really seem to be the heart of Lisbon - most European cities have a central square that may or may not be the oldest but is for one reason or another the city's most important - and this one is Lisbon's.  It's on the river, surrounded on three sides by pretty yellow buildings, and the city's iconic trams run through it. 

While we made our way to the Castelo de São Jorge, we walked through the Alfama neighborhood - the oldest part of Lisbon and one area that survived the devastating 1755 earthquake.  Many blogs that I read in preparation for the trip recommended "wandering and getting lost in the maze of streets of the Alfama."  That sort of advice never sounds all that appealing to me, but we had a bit of trouble finding the Castelo de Sao Jorge and thus got a much better look at the neighborhood than we were intending... ;) 

D - If you're anything like me, you don't know much about Lisbon, or even Portugal in general.  The earthquake is a very important part of Portuguese history.  It (along with the subsequent tsunami and fires that raged through the city for days afterward) destroyed about 85% of the city and was one of the deadliest earthquakes in history.  

The Castelo de São Jorge is a castle, former royal palace, and residential neighborhood, all within a medieval citadel.  Parts were built by the Moors in the 11th century, and while the history of the complex is long, the castle certainly isn't the most impressive we've seen in Europe, so to me the primary reason to visit is for the views over the city.     

I had a bit of an embarrassing public moment after we visited the Lisbon Cathedral, or the Sé.  I was looking at my phone, perhaps putting our next location into Google Maps?, totally oblivious to my surroundings when a tram honked at me.  I wasn't standing in the street, but apparently I was still standing in the way of the tram, and I was a bit embarrassed - here you can see me immediately afterwards.  Danny was taking photos of the church at the time but apparently turned in my direction to see the whole situation unfold and thoughtfully captured the entire thing on camera...

D - Possibly one of my favorite moments from the whole trip.  Shannon was standing on the curb and I think the tram conductor was concerned that he might hit Shannon with the step of the tram unless she moved.  He just kept ringing his glorified bicycle bell at her again and again until I yelled at her to look out.  Classic.  

You won't find toooo many food photos around these parts (except for pastries.  We can't resist those.) but once in awhile we lose control and give in.  We had lunch at a place called Tao in central Lisbon that was great.  The food was simple but wholesome and just really good.  And really cheap!!  Basically I wish every city we visited had a place like Tao - we feel good after eating it (I think I had greens, lentils, and beans with a side of shredded carrots, beets, and sliced tomatoes) and ready to tackle the rest of the day.

We began our afternoon at the Lisbon Story Centre.  I'm usually skeptical of places that market themselves to tourists as a way to understand the city with audio and media - typically I think they're overpriced, not really worth the limited time we have to spend in places, and not really necessary to understand a city.  However, after doing some research on the Lisbon Story Centre, I felt like it would be worth our time and money, so we gave it a shot.  We were there for about an hour, learning about Lisbon's history, and we really liked it!  I thought the parts about the 1755 Lisbon earthquake were particularly interesting, but found the entire experience to be engaging and worthwhile and would definitely recommend it to others visiting the city.

D - I love this next picture with the really cool building.  They just don't make too many buildings like that anymore do they?  Notice the lions with the really fashionable manes.  Also, you can see the typical patterned tiled sidewalks that are all over Lisbon.  Who planned all of these?  How long did it take to lay all of them?  How many tiles are there?  On a side-note, I'm just now recalling that during our time in the city we saw a lot of cobblestone streets that were under construction.  I really wanted to take a cobblestone as a souvenir/gift but Shannon strictly forbade me.  

While we were in the area, we decided to go to the top of Arco da Rua Augusta.  The weather wasn't the best but we were the only ones at the top and I think that the view from the arch might be one of the best in Lisbon.  Because the skies were cloudy, I haven't included loads of photos from our time at the top, but I liked that we were high enough for a good view, but not so high that we couldn't really get a sense for what we were looking at, if that makes sense.  In addition, the arch is kind of in the middle of it all, which is nice too.

D - I touched the foot...

And then, we finally got our paws on our favorite Portuguese treat, pastéis de nata.  These were really nice, and only the first of...well...many...we enjoyed throughout the weekend.  When in Lisbon (their place of origin!), I suppose.

The Carmo Convent was a place that I saw on Instagram prior to our trip and thought, "Wow!  That's in Lisbon?!"  I was surprised to find that it was in the city center, and added it our itinerary immediately.  The convent was Lisbon's largest church at the time of the earthquake in 1755, and although reconstruction began the next year and continued for some time, what's left is far from what once was.  We've seen many a stunning cathedral during our time exploring Europe, but there's something about seeing it sans roof, open to the heavens...

The Elevador de Santa Justa, constructed to connect a low part of the city to a high part of the city (Lisbon is a pretty hilly place) over a century ago, became a tourist attraction almost immediately and now both the general public and tourists use it, although we encountered what seemed like mostly tourists enjoying views of the city.  And - I don't blame them! - they're not half bad on a clear day.  

D - Fun fact for you, the elevator was designed by a student of Gustave Eiffel, who is, of course, most well known for his perfectly coiffed, wonderfully wavy salt and pepper hair.

Nearby is the Igreja de São Roque, a church that on the outside is rather unassuming, but stunningly ornate on the inside.  I love escaping the sometimes hectic city streets for a few minutes to sit and enjoy the beauty of a cathedral and some peace and quiet while visiting a new place.  

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We walked to the Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara for a panoramic view over Lisbon.  If you don't want to pay for the Castelo de São Jorge, the Arco da Rua Augusta, or the Elevador de Santa Justa, this is a great place for a good view at zero cost, plus you could even picnic here, or bring a book, and take your time in a way that you may not be able to at the other places since it's a public space.  Lisbon seems to be all about the views - when I was doing my research beforehand I heard about multiple miradouros, plus the viewpoints we went to, and I'm sure there's others as well - I think that's just how it goes with big cities, especially hilly ones.  So, if you're ever in Lisbon, be sure to check out a few if you're into that kind of thing.

We walked by this building a few times throughout the day and thought, "What a gorgeous building!"  We figured it must be a mall or something since there was a Starbucks out front, but the next day when we were leaving town for the day we realized it was the train station!

The trams of Lisbon are iconic (and old!  they've been around since 1873!), and riding number 28 is especially popular with tourists as the route is takes passes many of Lisbon's most famous sites and goes through its oldest neighborhoods.  Like everyone else, we were determined to take a ride on the 28, even if it meant we had to wait in line for...ever.  It was pretty much worth it though, as the 200 blurry photos (and lucky for you, about ten clear ones) I came away with prove.  No, but really.  After trekking all around the city for most of the day, it was nice to sit down for an hour and feel the cool breeze as we passed most everything we'd seen earlier.

D - We were a bit confused when the tram just seemingly stopped at a random park and the conductor told everyone to get off, though we soon realized that the tram ride was not round trip (because we're so quick and experienced and stuff).  We got on the next tram back and practically ran to the the restaurant where we had dinner reservations.

We ended our day at Restaurante Terra, a vegetarian (with vegan options) buffet.  I was drawn to it initially because of the photos of their terrace - I'm a sucker for beautiful outdoor seating! - and forgot or didn't realize it was a buffet until we got there.  It was 7:30pm, and well, we were hungry and Danny loves buffets, so we stayed.  The food was great, but I never really feel like I get my money's worth at a buffet (plus, okay, I always eat more than I should), so I try to avoid them, but the terrace was gorgeous, even at night...

D - Shannon's right.  Despite the prolonged period of shame and self-loathing that inevitably follows eating at buffets due to my lack of self control when around endless quantities of food, I do love them.  Seriously though, I do.

We spent Saturday in the nearby town of Sintra (see our amazing day here!) but Sunday we were back in Lisbon, ready to see the rest of the city.  We were still on the hunt for croissants like the ones we ate in Porto, so we tried out Fábrica Lisboa for breakfast.  It was good - especially their pain au raisin that you see Danny holding below.  

Good thing we had the memory of the pastries (and I had even saved one of mine because I eat notoriously slow) because we had a bit of trouble reaching our next destination.  We were trying to get to Belém, which is an area of Lisbon that is best reached by public transit, or, I suppose, by car.  For one reason or another, the tram we chose to get on stopped halfway there and we (and about 100+ other tourists) had to get off and look at each other and go "What now?  And where are we?!"  Would have been a nice time to have data on my phone.  So we just decided to walk the rest of the way to Belém.  It was a cool idea because we got to see the Ponte 25 de Abril, a bridge that is often compared to the Golden Gate bridge simply because they're both orange and they're both suspension bridges.

The walk from the bridge to the Padrâo dos Descobrimentos was a bit longer than we had anticipated, but the weather was pleasant and we felt like we were among true Lisboetas, out running and walking their dogs.  I knew it because we were among the only ones taking selfies with the bridge ;)

The Padrâo dos Descobrimentos is a sculpted structure that celebrates Portuguese explorers, crusaders, monks, writers, cartographers, cosmographers, painters, and rulers who played a role in the Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries.  It was opened on the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator in 1960, and as you might guess, is a good place for a view over the Belém area of Lisbon.  

Nearby is the Belém Tower, a place that I had heard we should visit first thing in the morning because of lines that develop later on in the day, but because of how the tram dropped us off about an hour away from the tower, we changed our plans slightly, and thus had to wait in line for quite a while to get in.  So, a little tip: if you ever head to Belém, definitely heed the advice of others and go to the tower first thing when they open.  Not only did we wait in a line to get in, but we also had to wait in lines to go up and down the tower once inside.  All that aside, the Belém Tower is a really gorgeous piece of architecture - it was the starting point for many of the voyages of discovery, the last sight many sailors saw as they left Portugal.   It's now a monument to the Age of Discovery and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Also in Belém (and probably our favorite sight in LIsbon) is the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos.  It's also a UNESCO World Heritage site and connected to Portugal's Age of Discovery - King Manuel I built it to commemorate Vasco da Gama's success in finding a route to India.  It is really impressive, despite the fact that I just really love a good cloister - and this one was two stories!  The adjoining Church of Santa Maria may get a little overlooked after visitors have spent time marveling at the main attraction, but da Gama is actually buried in an ornate tomb there, along with other important people from his time.  

D - This cloister definitely makes my top two.  I would say it's my favorite ever, but we have since visited one in France (which I'm sure we'll post about sometime in the near future) that is also really incredible.  If anyone doesn't know what a cloister is (I'm pretty sure I didn't before very recently) it's basically a church courtyard.  Besides the normal hordes of tourists, these places are really relaxing and serene.  If I was a monk or nun or something back in the heyday of the monastery I'm sure that I would have spent a lot of time thinking, praying, meditating and reflecting here (and presumably also singing like Maria from The Sound of Music).  Also, in case you are wondering, the Lisbon marathon was happening on this day, which was cool to be able to see, and also explains all the people wearing sporting garb below.  

We got lunch nearby at the local favorite, Pão Pão Queijo Queijo, a place with tasty and quick (as long as you're not there on the day of the Lisbon Marathon, which I'm guessing caused the line to be a bit longer than it usually is) sandwiches with something for everyone - I think there must be over 100 options on the menu.  Just a couple of doors down is Pastéis de Belém, a bakery that considers itself to be the original maker of pastéis de nata (or pastéis de belém, depending on who you ask).  We were eager to try theirs to see how they measured up to all the rest - they were served warm and with cinnamon and powdered sugar to sprinkle on top, which in my mind really put them over the top.  Highly recommend trying them from somewhere that serves them this way at some point!

And we wrapped up our time in Belém with a visit to Museu Nacional dos Coches.  Our visit was quick, but the variety and volume of carriages is impressive.  I believe I read somewhere that it's Portugal's most-visited museum, which at first surprised me, but once I thought about it, I realized that Portugal isn't that big of a country, and it's a vast and interesting collection, something unique that may draw people in.

You may have seen a lot of photos of two of us so far in this post, but have you seen one of us with a trunk that makes into a bed?  Didn't think so.  We saw coaches for kings, coaches for queens, coaches for kids, coaches used as public transportation, coaches for every day people, and even a coach used by the pope!

D - If I remember correctly, I was a bit skeptical before coming to this museum.  We even thought it was closed at first and I was saying to Shannon "I'm so sorry," but on the inside I was like... "meh, whatever, let's get some ice cream."  That being said it was actually really cool!  The carriages were so opulent and fairy tale-esque, and like many places we've visited recently (in the off-season) the museum was practically deserted except for us.

For our last Portuguese hurrah, we took the train right outside of the Museu Nacional dos Coches to Cascais, just 30km west of the city on the coast.  Somewhere I'd heard Cascais referred to as the Monte Carlo of Portugal, and since I knew we'd be headed there the following month, I was interested in checking it out, not to mention that neither one of us is keen to turn down a chance to visit the beach when given the opportunity.  

We really only had just under an hour to spend in Cascais before we rode back into Lisbon to collect our luggage from our Airbnb in time for our flight, but I'm glad we made the trip (even though we spent more time on the train than in the town!).  It left us wanting more, and if we ever end up in the area again, we'll be sure to allot more time to Cascais - perhaps next time we'll stay there and just head into Lisbon for an afternoon for a slower paced trip?  It was a lovely town and definitely worth visiting it you have the time while in Lisbon.

What a gorgeous weekend we had in Lisbon.  Blue skies, mild temperatures, not many crowds - I think March is a great time to visit Portugal's capital.  Lisbon may not have a famous sight or two that you think of immediately (London?  Big Ben!  Paris?  Eiffel Tower!  New York?  Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building!) but it does have plenty going for it.  For example, it's incredibly walkable - we only took public transit for fun (tram 28) and to get to far reaches of the city (Belém).  It's also doable in a long weekend (I feel like we saw all that we wanted to in two days) and has great day trips (Sintra and Cascais, for example).  And, while this certainly isn't something we seek out when choosing places to go, for us this is always nice when visiting a new place - we've found that most everyone speaks some English.  It seems to check other boxes too - fair weather year round, reasonably priced food, attractions, and accommodations, it's close to the beach - which makes me think...could Lisbon be an overlooked travel destination?  Maybe.  Just maybe.