Paris, you’ll always be my favorite European city, but (cover your ears), Lisbon comes in a very close second.
After a canceled trip a few years ago, I finally made it to Lisbon and it was everything that I’d hoped it would be. More, actually. I was a little bit worried that I’d built Lisbon up in my mind so much that I might be let down when I arrived. I’ve been thinking on Lisbon for at least three years…
So, when November came around, it was time to go. I like to travel internationally in November. It’s usually less crowded (read fewer lines at restaurants, museums) and you can get pretty good deals on flights and hotels. If you don’t mind the typical fall drizzle and cooler temperatures, I find November a great month to hop across the pond.
I found the best airfare through Seattle. A bit odd for a European fare, but in any case, I booked a ticket from Seattle through London Heathrow and then into Lisbon on British Airways for about $750. Two flights from Albuquerque to Seattle, a night at a SEATAC hotel and I was on my way – finally. (If you’re into multiple layovers, you could find airfare for $480).
I hadn’t flown British Airways before and it was fine. Nine hours in a smaller than anticipated plane, the legroom was less than I expected in my economy seat, but the flying experience to Lisbon went just fine.
I assume I don’t even have to tell you by now, but I stayed, on points collected from work travels, at the Doubletree Fontana Park in Lisbon. A quick cab ride from the airport, the hotel gets a lot of knocks on TripAdvisor for its decor and room size. The decor was a bit funky (black walls, black carpet, very industrial), but the building had been an iron factory and the staff here is fantastic. The reviews on room size, I assume, come from people that have never stayed in a hotel in Europe. If you’re expecting a grande suite, I suppose you’ll be disappointed. But in reality, the hotel was safe, clean and comfortable.
The hotel was about a 30 minute walk from the historic sites of Lisbon. I like to walk so this was just fine by me. It was also about a 3 minute walk to the nearest Metro station which quickly, cheaply and easily takes you where you want to go. The public transportation in Lisbon is fantastic. More about that later.
Day one in Lisbon:
Opting to walk from my hotel that first day down to historic Lisbon and in particular the Praça do Comércio, I kept mentioning to my friend how much the Avenida da Liberdade reminded me of Paris. (And in truth, maybe that’s why I loved Lisbon in part). As we learned more about the history of the city, there was something to my Parisian feeling. Lisbon is an old city (you can still see a Roman aqueduct here), but in 1755 the city was almost completely destroyed by a major earthquake and subsequent fires and a tsunami. The Marquis of Pombal, or Marques de Pombal, set out to redesign the city of Lisbon. (He’s kind of a big deal in Lisbon for obvious reasons. You’ll see his name and likeness all over. He even has his on Metro stop). The rebuild of the city of Lisbon is pretty interesting for several scientific reasons, but that large street in Lisbon reminded me of Paris for a reason. It was modeled after the Champs Elysées.
Avenida da Liberdade is a major thoroughfare and it’s lined with shops, restaurants,
sidewalk cafes, and outdoor markets. The sidewalks of Lisbon are gorgeous. Now that’s a weird thing to mention, right? Not after you realize that the sidewalks are made of stunning tile mosaics. You’re literally walking on art. I stopped to take photos of the sidewalks a lot. The tile work on the sidewalks and in the plazas is amazing. Nowhere more so than in the Praça do Rossio (formally the Praça Dom Pedro IV) where the tile looks like waves. Located in the Baixa, or downtown area, the plaza is a stunning place to sit and people watch or enjoy a pastry.
A note on the tiles before I get back to the pastries. The tile mosaics, while gorgeous, are uneven and when it rains, are very slick. Here I make my first recommendation to those of you going to Portugal. Wear good shoes. Wear shoes with good tread and good foot and ankle support. Leave your fancy heels and cute flats for another trip. I saw tons of women wearing combat boots, which are back in fashion, and are most probably the best shoe you could wear on these uneven and slippery walks. A good pair of trainers/sneakers/trail shoes, boots or flats with good tread work too. (American sportswear was seen all over the city. Maybe just avoid the all white sneaker trend that screams American on vacation).
Back to the important stuff. The Praça do Rossio was where I ate my first pastel de nata. I ate a large quantity of pastéis de nata while in Lisbon and you should, too. They are delicious. A warm custard tart in the flakiest of crusts, you can find these little gems all over the city. They cost about 1€ and you will see them everywhere. I tried these tarts at pretty much every bakery I passed by and still ended up losing five pounds on vacation due to all the walking you can do in Lisbon. Eat up!
As we wandered further into the historic city, past shops, restaurants, and street performers, we made our way to the Praça do Comércio or Commerce Square on the Tagus River, the square is incredibly beautiful. Pre-earthquake, it was the site of the royal palace. After its remodel, the square had a new importance in housing sites of goverment and economy. The square today also has a beautiful view of the river, several museums and restaurants, sculpture and an open space where you can take in street performers. Strangely, my first day there, a man was dressed up as a polar bear.
While at the square, I popped into the Lisboa Story Center, once of several tourist information spots throughout the city where you can purchase a Lisboa Card. I mentioned that the public transportation in Lisbon is easy to use and you can buy a Viva Viagem card to use for public transportation alone. (The card can be purchased at public transport stations and contains a chip that you scan when you hop on the subway, bus, tram or commuter trains and ferries. You can continue to load money onto the card.) The Lisboa Card contains the benefits of the Viva Viagem card plus gets you free or reduced admission into many of the museums and tourist destinations in Lisbon. The card can be purchased in one, two or three day increments. It becomes active the first time you scan it.
If you are planning to visit any of the sites and if you are planning to use public transporation to get there, the Lisboa Card was a great value for me. Public transport is equipped with scanners. You simply tap your card against the scanner, wait for it to register green and hop on. Subway, trams, buses, commuter trains and ferries – all included. Tourist destinations and museums that grant free admission with a Lisboa Card have a similar scan station at the entrance. Simply scan your card and off you go. A three day card was about $50.
After a quick bite to eat on the square and a quick trip to find a bathroom, we decided to hop the tram to Belém to see the sites. (Plan ahead. There are not a ton of public toilets in Lisbon. Restaurants and museums have them for paying customers and you’ll see them designated as WC).
Belém is about 15 minutes by crowded tram or bus from the Praça do Comércio. You’ll make several stops along the route and the route is crowded as there are many sites popular with visitors to see in Belém. Mind your bags and wallets. Pickpockets frequent the heavily crowded spots. In general, I found Lisbon to be very safe but, as with traveling anywhere, you want to be aware of your surroundings.
On the way to Belém, at the Cais do Sodré stop, you will pass the Time Out Market, a truly amazing food hall. More about that in my next post, but if you’re planning a visit to Lisbon, keep that on your radar.
Our first stop in Belém was the beautiful Igreja de Santa Maria de Belém and the UNESCO heritage site of Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. The Church, Igreja, can be visited for free by visitors. It features soaring ceilings that look like webs and the tombs of explorer, Vasco da Gama, and poet, Luís de Camões. There is no fee, but the number of visitors allowed into the church at one time is monitored. We waited in a short line for about 10 minutes before being allowed in. There is a small fee to visit the sacristy of the church which included a number of beautiful paintings and was well worth it.
Just next door, is the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos or the Monastery of the Hieronymites. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the most visually stunning places I’ve had fortune to visit. The monastery sits at the entrance of the harbor of Lisbon on the Tagus River and was built in the 15th Century. The legacy of exploration and religion are intricately tied together in Lisbon. This site was commissioned by King Manuel I and was donated to the monks. In turn, the monks prayed for the King and the seafaring explorers leaving the shores of Portugal.
Structurally the monastery is just gorgeous. It’s an ornate web of arches in stunning white stone carved in the Manueline style. I spent more than 2 hours here and couldn’t stop taking photographs. Every angle was extraordinary. I couldn’t stop looking at this beautiful place.
There is a fee to visit the monastery. If you purchased a Lisboa Card, your entrance is included. Simply follow the signs for Lisboa Card and scan your card at the designated station.
If you’re up to it, you can make a short walk across a highway to the Tagus River shore to see another stunning monument, the Padrão dos Descobrimentos. The monument celebrates the Portugese explorers from the 15th and 16th Centuries. We forget, but Portugal really led the way in seafaring exploration. The original monument, erected for the Worlds Fair was established in 1940 but was eventually taken down. The current monument, built out of limestone, was constructed in the 1960s. Yhe massive monument pays homage to Portugal’s great explorers. There is no charge to view the monument. You can pay a nominal fee to climb up inside it. I didn’t climb, but my friend did and reported back that it wasn’t really worth her entrance fee.
After touring the monuments, I walked back into Belém to grab a pastel de nata at at Pastéis de Belém. The bakery began making the pastries in 1837 using the ancient recipe from the monks down the road at the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. There is usually a healthy line for a pastry to go, but the staff has the ordering and delivering of pastéis down to a science and you’ll be in and out in no time. You can also queue up in the left hand entrance if you’d rather enjoy your pastry sitting down with a cup of coffee.
On the walk back to the bus stop, I began what is now an obsession with the Portugese tiles that cover many of the older homes in Lisbon: azulejos. These colorful tiles come in so many patterns it’s hard to believe and they render a sense of charm to the Lisbon city streets. I’ve got more photos of azulejos than I do of anything else in Lisbon.