The second half of my 4th of July weekend was spent in Lisbon and Sintra, Portugal. I flew TAP Portugal from Dakar, Senegal to Lisbon, a short 3.5 hours flight. Lisbon has been on my radar for the last year and it seems it has been on everyone’s radar as of recent. Travel sites and magazines have been making a big push and it seemingly has become the hottest European destination for summer 2017. Having now visited for 2 nights, I can see why.
Portugal is the forgotten Western European country. Overshadowed by its large neighbor that it shares the Iberian Peninsula with, Spain and by the other big Western EU hotspots. But I think it is now finding its way out of the shadows and people are realizing this coastal country has so much to offer at very wonderful prices, the cheapest Western EU country you’ll ever visit; glasses of wine for 2-5 Euros?! Sign me up! Not only that but lets be honest with ourselves, the Portuguese were one of the great explorers of their time and even coined the first Western name of my home country of Taiwan, calling it Formosa.
Portugal is still a somewhat cash-dependent society and culture and many museums actually dont accept credit cards so just have enough Euros ready when you arrive. But no worries ATMs are everywhere as well. Most hotels and restaurants however do accept cards. Getting around is also really easy and cheap. You can either uber, take a taxi, take the subway or bus system, hop on the historic Lisbon trams, walk the ups and downs of this hilly city or take a Portuguese “Tuk-tuk” vehicle around town. People are very friendly and most speak English, Spanish can get you some ways a little bit as well. I personally found the people to be friendlier and more English speaking folks than Brazil.
I arrived late evening on Sunday and departed in the morning of a Tuesday. The nice thing about Lisbon airport is that it is close to the city center!
- Arrive in Lisbon, take an Uber to my hotel, Brown’s Downtown Hotel, a very nice, central and attentive boutique hotel.
- Settled in and walked to By The Wine, a wonderful wine bar and restaurant. I sampled some delicious Portuguese wines and had some great cod salad, Portuguese cheese and Portuguese aged Iberico ham.
- Woke up early and had complimentary hotel breakfast.
- Walked to the beautiful and historic Rossio Train Station, got my 2.5Euro ticket for the 40 minute train ride to Sintra, the gorgeous hillside and hilltop city outside of Lisbon famed for its stunning palaces and gardens.
- There are a few options to get around Sintra when you exit the train station. You can purchase an all day pass on the local loop route bus or on one of the open top sightseeing buses, you can take a taxi, take a tuk-tuk, or rent a car. If you have more time and are well equipped, you can hike and walk around but the sun on a clear day is quite intense here.
- I took a tuk-tuk to Quinta da Regaleira, a beautiful palace with even more enchanting gardens and tunnels. Worth taking time to slowly explore and wander around. The best part was the Initiation Wells (the featured image on the left), these underground inverted towers, just remember to start from the top as you can only walk down and not up the tower.
- I then wandered into town searching from the next transportation option to get me to the other sites, decided to get a day pass on a sightseeing bus that so happened to stop in front of me. Price includes headphones for the audio-guide.
- Next stop was Park and National Palace of Pena, an intentional mixture of eclectic styles includes the Neo-Gothic, Neo-Manueline, Neo-Islamic and Neo-Renaissance, and a Clock Tower that was added. Again worth the admissions and time to walk through the interior. Absolutely beautiful.
- Just down the mountain from Pena is Castelo dos Mouros, The Moorish Castle. This palace is all outdoors and has lots of steps but offers spectacular views of Sintra, Lisbon, and the Atlantic coast of Portugal.
- I would say spend a night in Sintra and take you time wandering the various palaces, chalets, museums, and gardens. There is a wide-range of hotels including one inside one of the palaces.
- Returned to the train station for my return train to Lisbon
- Lunch in Lisbon at Tendinha do Rossio, a historic hole in the wall serving local bites facing the Rossio Plaza. I had some Ham croquette, Pastel de bacalhau (Codfish croquette), Bifana (grilled pork sandwich), and Sangres beer, and also tried Ginjinha, the local sweet cherry-based liquor.
- I then walked a couple stores down to Confeitaria Nacional, a historic sweets and pastry shop and got myself some traditional Portuguese sweets, including port wine truffles, almond bites and Ovo (creamy egg yolk paste coated in sugar, delicious).
- I then took an uber 20 minutes outside of the city center to Belem. Here I stopped first at Pasteis de Belem, which if anything should be the one and only thing you do in Lisbon if you have barely any time. At this establishment opened in 1837, they serve the famed Portuguese egg custard tart, and the lines and crowds (both local and tourists) are a testament to this place. The tarts here are unlike any other egg custard tarts I’ve had. Perfectly flaky, layered and crunchy crust, with creamy but not overly sweet egg custard filling that is perfectly caramelized on top. I ordered two at first paired with house port but immediately ordered more because it was simply too good.
- I then walked along the Tagus river and stopped by the Belem Tower and Monument of the Discoveries.
- I then headed to Castelo de San Jorge, a castle rebuilt after the disastrous 1755 earthquake that basically flattened the city (Locals still mourn it). The castle itself isnt much to see, but it is one of the multiple Miradouros (outlook points) in this hilly city that offers sweeping views of the city. On my visit I even stumbled across a free public concert which added to the wonderful ambiance on this clear sky day.
- I then walked down the hill and walked by Wine Bar do Castelo, which has rave reviews about their wine tastings and food, but advanced reservations are required as they were full when I tried to walk-in.
- I then walked across town as the sun began to set and the city starting turning gold. I walked all the way to Time Out’s Mercado da Ribeira, a beautiful food hall. Here I had some Portuguese cuisine, albeit with a slightly fancier/ modern twist.
- I wanted to then grab a drink at a nearby local bar called A Tabacaria, recommended to me by a bartender at By The Wine, but this place was sadly closed on Mondays. Thus I then walked uphill to Solar do Vinho do Porto, to try some Port wine. The bar has a funky 1950s interior, and offers a wide selection of port wines at very great prices. You can get glasses, whole bottles or take home a bottle. Unfortunately, the waiters here are extremely unhelpful and not that friendly, dont bother asking them for a recommendation as I was told “No recommendation, all taste the same.” Which obviously is not the case. Just go with your gut and the menu offers descriptions of each type of port so use that as your guide, or if anything use the pricetag.
- I then slowly meandered my way back to my hotel for a good night’s rest after a very packed day of sightseeing in Lisbon.
- Breakfast at the hotel before ubering to the airport and boarded my nonstop flight to JFK.
Portugal is beautiful, affordable and the food is delicious and pairs with the flavorful selection of local wines and ports. There is so many other places in the country I want to visit, including the northern coast and city of Porto and the wine country. I just hope that, while its great everyone is discovering the last hidden gem in Western Europe, the sudden boom wont ruin the genuine nature and affordability of the country. Some locals are already seeing gentrification and redevelopment happening and also have concerns the country and specifically Lisbon will lose its authenticity. I certainly hope it doesnt.