Two visits to Lisbon
We began and ended our Portuguese journey with Lisbon. We started with a few nights to get acclimated and see some sights. Since we wanted to make sure we had enough time to get a COVID test to re-enter the US, we also scheduled our last three nights there. Between the two visits we had almost a week in the area.
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We started our trip in Paço de Arcos, a suburb just south of Lisbon. We chose our hotel at the recommendation of our friends who had visited a couple years’ earlier. The Vila Gale Palacio dos Arcos is a five-star hotel built on the site of an old palace, and it still has the original chapel and a sculpture garden that is open to the public.
We arrived mid-afternoon and took a quick Uber trip from the Lisbon airport. Uber was cheap and drivers were plentiful in Lisbon and we used it several times.
Once we arrived, we had a nice wander around the neighborhood and to the waterfront. Paço de Arcos is on the Tagus River, a huge body of water that feels more like the ocean. The weather was warm and we sat outside a little cafe and tasted our very first Pastel de Nata, the favorite local pastry. We learned quickly that most places in Portugal have a typical pastry and/or regional dessert, and we tried to sample them all.
We had our first real meal in Portugal at an Italian restaurant, Patio Antico, just around the corner of our hotel, and we liked it so much we went back a couple nights later. At least we had Portuguese wine with dinner! Their fresh pasta was delicious and Mark couldn’t resist fresh-shaved truffles.
The train was just a few minutes walk from our hotel and could get us to the center of Lisbon in about 20 minutes. We started our visit with a food tour, something we’ve been doing more often lately. We find it’s a great way to learn about the city and find out what foods are local and in season.
We met our guide, Mariana, at the beautiful Miradouro São Pedro de Alcantara, a park with sweeping views of the city. We saw it on the map and thought it looked like a short walk from our train, but we soon realized it was almost straight up so we grabbed an Uber instead.
Mariana took us to several different spots and we tried some traditional sandwiches, Alentejo sausage, an award winning Pastel de Nata, and for the highlight of the day, I ate a whole grilled sardine. Mariana taught me how to leave the bones intact.
We also stopped at A Ginjinha to taste the famous sweet cherry liquor that originated in Lisbon. You pick up your shots from the little bar that’s been there since 1840. They must get a lot of late night drinkers because the tables and the ground were all very sticky. I’m glad we tried it but we didn’t need to take any home.
Mariana turned out to be a fellow YouTuber (Viajante Sincera) and we probably talked more about that than Lisbon or food. But we had fun and got a nice introduction to the city center.
Lisbon is a beautiful, hilly mix of neighborhoods. We started at the top in the Chiado then made our way back down to the Baixa, the main heart of the town. You can get up and down the hills by foot, by funicular, by Uber or by the touristy Santa Justa Lift. We admired the elevator but didn’t pay the steep price for such a short trip.
We were surprised to learn that most of central Lisbon was destroyed in an earthquake in 1755; so the downtown areas are mostly built after this time and look a lot more modern. The Marquis de Pombal was the governor of Lisbon who drove much of the reconstruction and he’s recognized with a big monument in the center.
After an afternoon nap back at our hotel, we took an old tram up to an eclectic little bar/restaurant in the Alfama neighborhood, one of the oldest in the city. The ride itself was an adventure, climbing up the narrow streets and narrowly missing parked cars and pedestrians.
We loved Loucos de Lisboa na Graça, a former speakeasy with cozy furniture and quirky decor. We made a dinner of delicious appetizers and more Portuguese wine. We especially loved our goat cheese and jam toast and the rice pudding for dessert.
After dinner, we wandered around the neighborhood, checking out the castle, some local graffiti, and the stunning views from the Miradouro das Portas do Sol. There was a group of young college students in their traditional robes, something we would come to see throughout Portugal, enjoying the view along with some adult beverages.
Since mid 2020 we’ve been joining Rick Steves’ Monday Night Travel Zoom broadcast. Every week he and his staff explore a different region or theme accompanied by dinner and drinks. Beyond promoting his books and tv show, Rick had been talking about the joy of hiring local guides and maintains a comprehensive listing on his website for most countries in Europe. I found Cláudia da Costa on that list and we arranged to have her and a driver, João, come and pick us up at our hotel for a day in Sintra.
Sintra was the home to Portugal’s monarchy and since it’s not too far from Lisbon, it makes a popular day trip for tourists and locals alike. We felt so lucky to have Cláudia and João to take us there so we didn’t have to navigate the trains and the TukTuks up a steep hill to get us to Pena Palace, the home of Portugal’s last queen, Maria Amelia. We were there on a weekend and the town was much busier than we expected. Cláudia wasn’t even sure we’d be able to get into the palace without a long line, but as it turned out we barely waited, thanks in part to her guide credentials.
Pena Palace from the outside looks more like a Disney attraction than a European palace. It’s a colorful mishmash of different architectural styles and history of this eccentric couple and it was certainly modern for its time. They installed an elevator and one of the country’s first phones, that the King used to listen to the opera in Lisbon.
We learned so much about the palace and its history walking through with Cláudia – the vast rooms, the carefully curated furniture and the elaborate chapel for the very Catholic Portuguese Royal Family.
After we toured Pena Palace we took a drive out to Cabo da Roca, the Westernmost point in Continental Europe. Since it’s right on the Atlantic Ocean, the point is often socked in with fog but we got lucky with spectacular weather. Mark said he could see the Statue of Liberty in the distance, but I don’t believe him. If one of you saw Mark waiving please let me know.
Before and after we toured the palace we got a real education on Portugal’s more recent history. Until we arrived, we hadn’t realized that Portugal had been ruled by a dictator, Carlos Salazar, until the 1970s and that he had kept the country neutral in World War II, making it a hotbed for spycraft. We even drove by the casino in Estoril that was used in the first James Bond film.
On the way back we drove along the water and saw Cascais, the popular beach town. Even though we didn’t think it was warm enough for swimming in the high 60s, there were plenty of people in the water and wandering around the little town. Maybe we’ll head there the next time we visit the area.
We spent the last few nights of our trip back in Lisbon, this time staying in the heart of the city, just off the Avenida da Liberdade. This bustling, tree-lined boulevard is home to some of the most exclusive shopping I saw during our visit to Portugal. Lucky for us, we were just a couple blocks off this busy street at the amazing Hotel Britania.
Our hotel was built in 1944 and designed by a famous Art Deco architect, Cassiano Branco, and if you squint your eyes and shut off your phone you feel like you are still in the 40s. Imagine a luxury hotel built in Europe during the height of World War II. That’s what happened when your country was neutral.
When we got there, the weather was turning on us and we were happy to stay inside and enjoy the long, luxurious happy hour in the library, with coffee, tea, pastries and complimentary port. The staff were so friendly and welcoming and we had a long chat with Carolina from the front desk who gave us an extensive tour and shared the history of the hotel.
The waiter in the library recommended a small pizza place around the corner for some take out. We liked it so much we went back for dinner the next night.
The next day we caught up on some of the sights we missed on our first time through, specifically Belém and the Jeronimos Monastery. Belém is just outside of Lisbon, ironically closer to Paço de Arcos, and home to lots of the area’s museums.
Belém was originally home to Lisbon’s shipyards and the famous explorers launched their expeditions from here, around Africa and to India and Brazil. The huge Monument of the Discoveries sits on the edge of the Tagus river, with elaborate sculptures of Prince Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama and 31 other figures from Portugal’s history.
The construction began on the monastery in 1501 by King Manuel and was paid for with the taxes from the many trips and riches from the East. The Hieronymite monks who lived in the Monastery were supposed to pray for the King and for the navigators and sailors who traveled from Belem. It took more than 100 years to complete and survived wars with Spain and the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.
We probably should have bought our tickets ahead of time for the monastery but we didn’t, lucky for us there was just a short line to get in. There was a much longer line to visit the chapel than to visit the rest of the building. We spent a couple of hours exploring the detailed architecture, visiting the archaeological wing, and the even more fascinating maritime museum in the west wing.
After our visit, it started to rain and we decided to try to get inside as soon as possible. We didn’t want to miss the famous Pastéis de Belém so we hurried over to the famous shop that was across the park from the monastery. This place has been serving warm egg custard tarts since 1837 so it was definitely on our must visit list.
Since it was raining, there was a long line waiting to sit inside, but the line to buy the yummy tarts to go was shorter, so we bought a sleeve of six tarts and went a couple doors down to the Starbucks. We were able to score a table upstairs so we ate our delicious tarts with fresh coffee and waited out the rainstorm. A great way to end our trip to Belém.
On our last full day in Lisbon, the weather was still cold and rainy, so it was the perfect day to visit a museum. Our hotel offered free passes to the Gulbenkian museum, which houses one of the largest private art collections in Europe.
Armenian oil magnate Calouste Gulbenkian collected artworks from Greek and Roman times to 20th century painters and donated it to Portugal through the foundation, which remains one of the richest in the world with a multi-billion dollar endowment. We loved the museum and the attached park, even though we got a little bit lost trying to get in, which was ok because it was beautiful in itself.
Besides the more famous works, the museum hosted a special exhibit of the works of Herge, the creator of TinTin. I knew something of TinTin but not as much as I thought, and this exhibit covered his story and his integration of scientific and cultural topics throughout his life. I’m glad we were able to see it, thanks to our hotel and to the rainy weather that made a perfect museum day.
Between our two trips we wound up seeing quite a lot of sites in greater Lisbon as well as Belém and Sintra. If we were to return, we’d make sure we got to spend a bit more relaxed time exploring Lisbon’s sites, including the Sao Jorge Castle and the Alfama neighborhood.
Read about our next stop, cycling in paradise near Évora.