Lisbon, Portugal: The City Of Seven Hills

Seems like Lisbon has been everywhere lately.  It was even named one of the top 10 cities in the world to visit. So, one long weekend, Chad and I decided to take a trip over to Lisbon and see what all the hype was about.

Lisbon is the second oldest capital city in the world, the first being Athens, Greece. It is also built on seven hills, and trust me, after a weekend of walking around the city, you will feel each and every one of them in your calves! Lisbon is divided into six main districts, but the most popular districts in Lisbon are: the Baixa District, which is the heart of Lisbon; the Alfama District, which is a maze of beautiful streets and seems to be the artistic district;  the Belem District, which has many of the popular tourists attractions and for which you need to visit via transportation; and Bairro Alto & Chiado, which has all the nightlife and shopping.

BELEM DISTRICT

We started our trip with a visit to Belem.  Belem is west of central Lisbon, and is worthy of a half day visit. You can get here by taxi or by tram from central Lisbon.  We started our visit at the Monumento aos Combatentes do Ultramar, to watch the changing of the guard.  This war memorial honors Portuguese soldiers who died during the African independence uprisings of the 1960-1970s. The name of each soldier who died is inscribed in the walls that surround the memorial.  This monument is en route to Belem Tower.

Just a few feet away is Belem Tower. The tower is the ceremonial gateway to Lisbon.  It was commissioned by King John II to be part of a defense system at the mouth of the Tagus river.  It also played a significant role in the Portuguese maritime discoveries of the era of the Age of Discoveries. There is typically a line to get in, but we got lucky and had no line! The cost of the entrance ticket was 6 Euro per person.

A short walk along the promenade brings you to a beautiful monument called Padrão dos Descobrimentos, or the Discoveries Monument.  The monument is dedicated to the adventurers and explores who helped establish Portugal as a 14th century superpower.  For 5 Euro per person, you can  climb up to the top of it and get some great views!

Just behind the monument is a large marble map of the old world.

We did not climb up because one of us is scared of heights, but if you did, Mr. Google says that this is what you would see:

Across the street from this monument is a neighborhood where we came upon a little gem called Descobre.  It is not only a restaurant, but also a wine shop.  Even though they weren’t open yet, the owner welcomed us in and did an impromptu port wine tasting for us!

By this time, we were ready for a little snack break. So, we headed to Pasteis de Belem, the most famous bakery in all of Portugal to try a Portuguese classic– Pastel de Nata, an egg tart pastry.  These tarts were created by Catholic monks at the Jerónimos Monastery, which is just down the street from the bakery. Apparently, the convents and monasteries used large quantities of egg-whites for starching clothes and had a bunch of yolks leftover, so they created this warm egg custard party in your mouth! This is probably the first time that something amazing is credited to the chore of laundry! If you do just one thing in Belem (hell, in Lisbon!), then make that one thing a visit to this place to try this pastry.  Do not let the hoards of people out front scare you away.  Go inside and sit down for service.  The place is HUGE with many dining rooms.  You can enjoy lunch here or just pastries.  We ordered a bunch of snacks and pastries.

After eating such a dreamy little custard, we couldn’t not visit the monastery that invented them, so it was off to Jerónimos Monastery we went.  The monastery has a beautiful courtyard.  It is also the resting place for Vasco da Gama.  In fact Vasco da Gama spent his last night here before his voyage to the Far East.

The cost to visit the monastery is 7 Euro per person.  While the line to enter the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos is very long, there is rarely a line to visit just the church, plus there is no entrance fee! We had pre-bought tickets thanks to Diogo, our fantastic guide from Sintra Magik, so we did not wait in line at all.

Our next stop was to Lisbon’s greatest food hall at the Time Out Market at Ribeira Market.  This food hall has a collection of Lisbon’s best chefs with both traditional and modern dishes. It is top chef stands at low-cost prices with communal tables.  This was also the first place that we would try Santini ice cream, what some call the best ice cream in the world.

The only sites we didn’t see in Belem was the pink Belem Palace, which you can only see from the outside anyway, but which also has a changing of the guard ceremony, and Jardim da Praça do Império, which is one of Europe’s largest plazas and close to the monastery.

BAIXA, CHIADO, AND BARRIO ALTO DISTRICTS

Up next, we explored the Baixa District and parts of the Chiado District.  Our first stop was to Igreja de São Domingos.  This church has been destroyed by two earthquakes and one massive fire, yet it still stands.

Outside of the church, we had the most unusual encounter that we have ever had in any country.  As our guide was telling us the history of the church, a young man came up to us in broad daylight with a Ziploc bag full of oregano and wanted to know if we wanted to buy hashish, marijuana, or cocaine, which he assured us “very nice” and “very good price.” I had many questions, like who actually though that gigantic bag was real weed for 10 Euro and why did they feel so comfortable just openly soliciting us to buy drugs? Apparently, intent to sell is not illegal in Portugal, so if the cops stopped them and the drugs are not real, there is no problem.  We would be approached to buy drugs two more times during our stay. Here’s the moral of that story: 1) don’t be surprised if this happens to you in Lisbon (that is the only place we experienced this in Portugal), and 2) the drugs aren’t real, so if you are into that kind of thing, don’t waste your money.

Anyway, our next stop was just around the corner of this church to a little spot called A Ginjinha. This is a small walk-up bar in the theater district that is home to the traditional Ginja liqueur. Ginja is a sweet cherry liqueur that originated in Lisbon.  It is a fortified wine infused with Ginja cherries and a whole lot of sugar. There are two ways to drink Ginja: with or without cherries inside.  The cherries are sour and give the already strong drink and extra kick! Also, you can get your drink served in a chocolate cup, and I highly recommend you opt for that! Since this place was the first to sell the Portuguese favorite, there is usually a line to get a taste.

Just across the plaza from A Ginjinha is another ginja bar called Ginjinha Sem Rival.  Some say that this is the better of the two, so Chad tried both. We both liked the second one better. Also, at this bar you can get another drink called Eduardino, which is actually sweeter than ginjinha. Eduardino can only be found here.  It is made from herbs, fruit, and aniseed.

Right next to the bar was a small traditional shop that sold salted cod and sardines.  Both are a favorite and staple in Portuguese cuisine, especially for the dish Bacalao.

Our next stop was to the beautiful Rossio Square. The dizzying tile work makes this square so unique.  It was my favorite square in the city!

But the best views of the square, ans the whole city really, are from the Santa Justa Lift. The lift takes you from the steep hill of the Baixa district to the Largo do Carmo and the ruins of the Carmo Convent.

This is a very popular attraction and this is what the lines look like on a good day:

But, I don’t like lines, so I have a little secret for you.  The better way to do this is to start from Largo do Carmo. Just behind the Carmo Convent (pictured below) is an entrance to get to the platform that takes you to the view point that all these people are waiting in line to visit.  See the left hand, bottom corner of the picture below to see the walkway to which I am referring.

Once at the platform, you pay 1.50 Euro per person to climb this winding staircase:

Which leads to a platform that has these views:

Then, instead of paying 5 Euro per person for a return ride on the elevator, you just ride it down to the street level.  In other words, do the opposite of what the crowds are doing and save time and money!  You’re welcome!  This also put us in the perfect location to walk down Rua Augusta, which is lined with shops and restaurants.  At the end is Arco Da Rua Augusta, which leads to Praça do Comércio.

You can actually visit the top of this arch by taking an elevator nearly to the top, and then a steep spiral staircase to reach the terrace.  We did not do this, but Mr. Google says the views from the top are as follows:

From Praça do Comércio, you can walk along the waterside and see some artists at work, like the guy behind me who constructs massive sand statues and then charges people to take photos of it. I mean, who doesn’t love a sand puppy!

Or the rock sculpture garden that stretches for quite some way.

Our day ended with a stroll through the Chiado District to do a little shopping before dinner.

And that is where we came upon Sant’Anna, a ceramic factory dream come true! Their factory is actually in Belem, and you can arrange a visit there if you call ahead.

Lisbon is pretty much an outdoor tile museum, but there is actually a National Tile Museum that we did not get to visit.  It is definitely on my list for next time, because it looks amazingly beautiful, and I am OBSESSED with tiles.

We also visited  A Vida Portuguesa, which is a small boutique that sells authentic Portuguese products.  I bought the most divine hand and body creams as gifts for myself and for others! We ended the day at one of Lisbon’s best, Belcanto, in the Barrio Alto District.

For dinner, we reserved Belcanto.  The restaurant,  by chef José Avillez, has two Michelin stars and is considered the best gourmet experience in Portugal. The mulit-course menus are modern takes on classic Portuguese dishes, including barnacles, a Portuguese delicacy.

After dinner, all I wanted to do was visit Pink Street, but considering we hadn’t slept in two days, had just gotten off a transatlantic flight, had spent the entire day touring the city, and had to get up early to do it all again the next day, we retired to our hotel and crashed.  But, in case you are interested, here is what pink street looks like, I found this photo online:

ALFAMA DISTRICT

Alfama is one of the oldest districts of Lisbon.  It is a maze of narrow cobbled streets and ancient houses.  It also has a very boho, artsy vibe. The best thing to do is to take the famous number 28 tram, which costs just under 3 Euro per person and runs all over the city. You can take the tram to Alfama and spend an afternoon wandering the neighborhood streets and admiring all the tile and street art.

Just make sure that at around sunset, you make your way over to Miradouro de Santa Luzia, a beautiful terrace next to the church of Santa Luzia to catch the beautiful sunset from the terrace and see the gorgeous views of Alfama.

You might just catch some local musicians playing Fado, a traditional folk music genre unique to Portugal and which got its start in Lisbon. You can also opt for a famous Fado dinner where you can hear and watch a live music performance while enjoying dinner. The most famous places for such an experience are Clube De Fado and Sr. Fado de Alfama, both in the Alfama district.

After our short little weekend trip to Portugal, I can say that I agree with the hype.  Lisbon is an overlooked city in Europe; but, it is indeed one of the most unique and charming, and provides one of the best bangs for your travel buck! Lisbon is very affordable.  The food and wine are fantastic, and at a fraction of the cost of other European cities.  It is also easy to navigate (by walking or using trams, tuk tuks, and Uber), it is clean and safe, accommodations are affordable, and there are a lot of free or low cost attractions to visit. Take my advice and at it to your list of European destinations. You will be so glad that you did!

Porto, Portugal: Tiles and Wine and Other Things Fine

If you have a thing for tiles on the walls and on the floors, love Port wine, or are a foodie, then this is the place for you. Porto, or Oporto as the locals call it, is a modern city with iconic building facades and dynamic gastronomy.

It is like the San Francisco of Portugal and the Douro Valley is its Napa. As a matter of fact, Porto’s historic area was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. In 2001, its wine region, the Alto Douro Wine Region, was also declared a UNESCO World Heritage.

Port wine, that sweet, red dessert wine, is a fortified wine produced exclusively in the Douro Valley. It is the literal reason why most people come to Porto. The Douro Wine Region Valley is the oldest demarcated wine region in the world.

Unfortunately, we only had one day to spend in Porto. We woke up early in the morning and took a 30 minute flight from Lisbon to Porto (you can also take a 2.5 to 3 hour train from Lisbon). Because of our tight time frame, we did not have a chance to visit the Douro Valley.  If you have more time, I recommend an overnight in Porto so that you have at least one full day to visit the city and an overnight in the Douro Valley so that you have another full day to visit the region and do proper wine tastings.

We were met by Sara of Oporto & Douro Moments who would be out guide for a whirlwind of a day in Porto. Sara specializes in the Douro Valley and is native to Porto.

Despite that we would not have a chance to visit Douro with her, Sara made sure that we still experienced the heart of Porto – Port Wine. So, our first stop was Vila Nova de Gaia (or Gaia as it is locally know), which is just across the river from Porto, over the Dom Luís I Bridge, a bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel, you know, the Eiffel Tower guy. In Gaia is where most of the Port wineries have set up shop outside of the Douro Valley. We visited Pocas Junior.

We took a private tour and learned all about the history and tradition of port wine.They still use the traditional method of cleaning their wine storage units, which means that someone who is small enough to fit in this hole, climbs in and cleans by hand.  They have one dedicated employee for this task! They also have one dedicated employee who hand-makes their wine barrels at this on-site workshop.

Um, are these not the literal largest wine barrels you have ever seen in your entire life?  Apparently, at their Douro Valley location, they have even bigger ones! After tasting several varieties of port, including a port rose (there is such a thing and it is splendid!), we were in need of some food, so we headed back over the bridge to sink our teeth into a sandwich for which Porto is famous: the Francesinha (the Little Frenchie).

There is NOTHING little about this sandwich. The name is kind of comical, actually. One sandwich is enough for two people. Oh, and don’t even bother putting this one in your calories app.  I am pretty sure you will break the damn thing. Just know that you are going to need to up your steps after this one, which is fine because Porto is all hills anyway and calories don’t count on vacation.

Okay, back to the sandwich that gave me a mini panic attack: in between two very thick slices of white bread, you will find cured ham, two different kinds of sausage,  and steak. The sandwich is then covered with melted cheese and a hot thick tomato and beer sauce. And, because there isn’t enough protein in the sandwich, it is topped with a fried egg.  And served with french fries. Take that McDonald’s! I see your Big Mac and raise you the Little Frenchie!

So. Much. Meat.

Okay, so after all that eating, it was time to walk. We walked all over the city admiring the amazing tiled buildings. We even went to a tile museum, kind of.  This place is a government owned and operated tile cooperative. While it does display all of Porto’s traditional tiles, it also supplies tile. So, if you have building that has traditional tile, and you are missing a few pieces, you come in, they verify that you are legit (as in you own the building and you are restoring it), and then they just give you the tile. As in, for free. They will also take tile if you are remodeling and getting rid of the tile (why you would ever do that is beyond me). They will not, however, sell you tile (trust me, I tried). We also visited some of Porto’s most famous food shops. These are legit shops that sell traditional Portuguese products. The most famous among them is A Perola Do Bolhao, open since 1917, and Comer e Chorar Por Mais, also in operation for over 100 years.

Now, if you are a Harry Potter fan, you are going to want to come to Porto. It is in Porto where the author, J.K. Rowling, got inspiration for her series. She apparently split her time between a little cafe, Café Majestic, and the oldest and most beautiful bookstore in the world, the Lello Bookstore, also known as Livraria Lello & Irmão.  Rowling frequented the bookstore when she taught English in Porto. The Lello Bookstore was built in 1906 by the Lello Brothers.

This was her cafe of choice:

And this is the bookstore.  The photo of the facade is mine, but the photos of the inside are courtesy of Mr. Google because there is a huge line to get in. This bookstore has become so popular that they actually charges 4 Euro per person to enter; but, if you buy a book, that is credited towards your purchase.

After all that walking in the heat, it was time for a little treat: Portugal’s famous Santini gelato! Some call it the best in the world.  It has been a staple in Portugal for more than 60 years, ever since an Italian named Attilio Santini set up shop in Estoril, Portugal.  With over 50 flavors made fresh daily, you are going to want to make more than one stop here!Alas, our day in Porto was coming to an end. We headed back to the airport with full bellies and achy feet; but it was worth every minute (and every calorie)!