Nestled along Portugal's hilly coast is its vibrant capital city, Lisbon. Full of stunning architecture, colourful streets, delicious food, and friendly people, it is on my list of places I want to visit again to spend much more time. Lisbon is hilly (VERY hilly) but easy to navigate. We found we could walk almost everywhere from our location but we also used the local bus system with ease. We found that the tourist sites and restaurants provided service in English. We felt very safe following our usual precautions regarding pickpockets and ignored the drug dealers. They usually gave up after 5-6 attempts.
The main plazas buzz with energy as tourists and locals mix. The architecture is an intriguing mix of ancient Visigoth, Roman, and Moorish style buildings as well as some amazing Art Nouveau design. The maritime connection is woven into anything deemed worthy of decor, from street lamps to sidewalk surfaces.
We arrived in Lisbon in late afternoon and from Liberdade Avenue, we followed the tram route up an incredible hill & stairs to our pensão (hostel). Once we hauled ourselves and bags up the hill and walked back and forth a few times across road construction we finally found the address. There was nothing that impressed us much about the place but it was in a good location, we had a private room, and it was clean. Fortunately, we soon discovered other routes to get to our digs that were much easier.
After settling in, it was time to find some dinner. We found an amazing little restaurant, Restaurant Destino where we parked ourselves for the evening. As in many European locations, dinner is taken slow and patrons are expected to linger.
Marques do Pombal Square The Marques do Pombal Plaza is a roundabout in Lisbon between two enormous parks. In the center of the roundabout is a massive statue of the Marques who was an important figure in the 1700s.
Campo Pequeno is the bullfighting arena. I never want to see an actual bullfight but I am very interested in the architecture. There are shows every Thursday night, for those who are interested. Portuguese bullfighting differs from Spanish bullfighting because it is against the law to kill the bulls here.
When the building reopened after extensive renovations in the early 2000s, it became much more than a bullring. It now includes restaurants, concert hall, movie theatre and a shopping mall! It also provides a stunning view of the city from the top.
Doca de Bom Successo Doca de Bom Successo is a former Portuguese Navy port. This is the area where the iconic Torre de Belém and the immense Praça do Império and gardens are found.
Torre de Belém
The Complex at Belém has two important sites – UNESCO site Belém Tower and Jerónimos Monastery. built during the Age of Discovery. King Emmanuel I began construction in 1504. It was intended both as a defensive tower and a celebration of national power and Portuguese exploration. There is often a very long line, so try to buy a skip-the-line ticket. (More on Belém Tower in a future post)
The intimidating architecture and gorgeous ornamentation is evident all around. You'll see cannons, a basement prison, and incredible rooms. At the top you’ll get wonderful views of Belém and the Tagus River.
The Jerónimos Monastery (also know as the Hieronymites Monastery) looks over the Tagus River. It was built here for sailors to offer their final prayers before heading out on the waters. Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer famous for finding the first sea route to Asia, prayed here before that voyage.
We didn't enter the monastery but enjoyed strolling around the garden. The Pasteis de Belem (beside the monastery) sell egg tart pastries (pasteis de nata). The pastries were created before the 18th century by Catholic monks at the Jerónimos Monastery. These monks were originally based in France where the pastries could be found in local bakeries. I am allergic to eggs but judging from the sounds around me, they are delicious. Expect long lines.
Padrao dos Descobrimentos
The Padrao dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries) is the massive monument not far from Belem Tower, depicting the maritime history of Portugal and especially Vasco da Gama. This monument needs to be seen to really understand its immense size. It's possible to ride an elevator to the top and get a stunning view of the area. The viewing area at the top is surrounded by fairly tall walls which was a viewing challenge for us short women!
During tourist season, it can get incredibly busy and crowded. We (and everyone around us) were yelled at by some random dude for ruining his photo and spent the rest of the day giggling remembering the expressions on everyone's faces. Be careful to watch for pickpockets.
Fado is a musical style that some say originated in Lisbon. A visit to Lisbon should include an evening of Fado. Fado songs are renowned for their melancholy and expressiveness. We may not have understood the lyrics but it was clear that they were very emotional and heart-wrenching. Enjoy an evening of traditional good food and song at any of the little clubs. We found a charming place down a side street that was full of locals.
Castelo Sao Jorge
Way up at the top of a hill (as is everything in Lisbon), Castelo Sao Jorge overlooks the city. We prepared ourselves for plenty of stairs and walking on the ramparts. Originally built by the Visigoths during the 5th century as a small fortress it was later enlarged by the Moors. More on the Castle will be published in a couple of weeks (depending on when you're reading this... check this link, it might be live!)
Most of the building's relics are intact, including canons, underground chambers and 18 towers. There is also an archaeological museum, and a restaurant on-site, as well as gardens with wandering peacock. The peacocks are obviously used to being hand fed by tourists, despite the signs posted around the seating area.
There are some incredible views and scrambling about on the ramparts was thoroughly enjoyable. The garden terrace outside the restaurant was very pleasant and is a great people-watching location.
One of our favourite stops every day was the local coffee shop/bar on the same street where we stayed. It was a little mom-and-pop operation and by the second day, we were greeted as friends. On those very hot days when we couldn't make the last 100m, we enjoyed an evening glass of wine and some brined beans... which were surprisingly tasty
The weather and variety of landscapes ensure that a visit to Portugal is sunny, interesting and active. Porto brims with soulful old-world charm. Outside the cities are expansive olive orchards, farms and national parks ideal for hiking. The wine country to the north is lush and serene. The coastlines are rugged and dramatic. Lisbon, with its steep hills, yellow trams and blue-and-white tiles, is a vibrant treat for the eyes. It should definitely go on your travel shortlist.
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