Before we get into Lisbon, specifically, a few words on Portugal overall. We chose Portugal as my 40th b-day/our 15-yr Anniversary destination based on the diverse geography (cities/beaches/wine country), well designed hotel options, and good value (from a European standpoint Portugal is a bargain) and it did not disappoint. We stayed for just over 2 weeks and with a rental car, we were able to cover every region of the country at a fairly leisurely pace. English is widely spoken, the locals were extremely friendly, and the country is gorgeous. Since this was a special occasion trip, and we were able to get our airfare for free by using miles, we did include two “splurge” hotels, but even those were a good deal by US standards.
OVERALL TRIP ITINERARY
Lisbon > Alentejo & Algarve regions > Porto > Santa Cruz & Sintra
LISBON (3.5 days)
Each neighborhood has its own unique flavor, from the graffiti-covered party of Bairro Alto to chic Chiado and the crumbling tiles of Alfama—cross a single street or descend one steep staircase and you’re someplace new. We loved the juxtaposition of modern and ancient, all pulled together with classic Portuguese tiles and red roofs. We didn’t do many of the museum/historical building type of sites (with a couple exceptions), opting more for just wandering around the colorful neighborhoods and popping into places as the mood struck. We drank sangria. A lot. And also partook in the delightful cherry-ish liqueur Ginjinha, which is not to be missed.
The location of Gat Rossio was perfect – right in the middle of everything, but tucked away on a quaint cobblestone pedestrian-only street. And with standard double rooms around 100 Euros/night, a bargain. We opted for the Junior Suite so that we’d have a bit more space, which was about 125 Euros/night. Breakfast is included in the price and was delicious, featuring fresh-squeezed OJ and a spread of the traditional meats, cheeses, hard boiled eggs, toast, yogurt, fruit, granola and the not-to-be-missed pasteis de nata (pastries). We loved the modern design of the place and the vibe of the community spaces – particularly the breakfast room and the outdoor terrace. The staff were all super friendly. If we had one suggestion, it would be to add some shelving in the bathroom for toiletry bags and shampoos/soaps, etc. in the shower. But that’s a pretty minor quibble. They also offer a pretty cool app for your phone that comes up with suggested itineraries for your visit based on you ranking your interests in things like shopping, dining, nightlife, museums, etc.
Lunch at Cafe Fabulas
Calçada Nova de São Francisco 14
This adorable cafe is tucked away in the middle of a staircase/sort of alley in the Chiado neighborhood, but worth seeking out. Reviews touted the eclectic artsy museum-like interior, but we opted for the charming ivy-covered courtyard.
Riverfront burgers at Cais de Pedra
Av. Infante Dom Henrique, Cais da Pedra. Armazem B, Loja 9 (right across the street from the train station)
Portugal likes their burger joints, but this one is more on the gourmet side of things. Very cool open-kitchen setting with a really well-designed industrial market kind of ambiance. If Jose Garces opened up a burger joint, it would probably be this place.
Walking through the labyrinth-like Alfama neighborhood, particularly at night, taking in all of the Fado restaurants that spill out onto the sidewalks and courtyards.
Ginjinha Sem Rival
7 Rua Portas de Santo Antao
This tiny little bar/shop was the first to sell the sour cherry liqueur. Many people were getting it in little paper cups to go, but we recommend sipping it right there at the counter while chatting with the very friendly and informative owner.
View from Santa Justa Lift
Skip the line & ticket price and just get the gorgeous panoramic view by entering the catwalk from Carmo square.
Wandering around the Barrio Alto neighborhood
This is the quintessential neighborhood that you probably picture in your mind when you think of Lisbon. Narrow cobblestone streets, the famous tram cars, gritty graffiti, and plenty of shops and restaurants. Apparently it has a great night life, but we only seemed to make it here during the daylight hours.
Lunch at Pharmacia
Rua Marechal Saldanha 1
This pharmacy-themed modern twist on traditional Portuguese cuisine in the Barrio Alto gets rave reviews for the food and interior decor. And while we agree, we loved the front terrace lawn just as much. The fig salad and gazpacho were both as pretty as they were tasty.
Drinks at Park
Calcada Do Combro, 58
You’re not going to stumble on this place unless you know where to look. It’s on the top floor of a parking garage and there really isn’t any signage directing you to it, beyond the Parking Garage sign. You just take the elevator up to the top floor and once you walk up the ramp, BAM, it’s like stepping out into a rooftop bamboo forest with perfect sunset views of the golden city. And there’s ice cold mojitos and sangria. So yeah, pretty much heaven.
The views from Castelo Sao Jorge
We had read that this tourist attraction is a bit overpriced for what you get at 8 Euros per person, because once at the top, other than the bird’s eye view of the city, there’s not much to it other than some very old walls you can climb. But we enjoyed it, not only for the view, but the simple fact that you’d never get to actually climb on something this old with precariously narrow and steep staircases in the States. We’d never allow it. It’s just so European.
We found all the little shops that line the steep hills up and down the road to Castelo Sao Jorge, as well as those in the Barrio Alto neighborhood, to be particularly charming. You’ll find souvenir stores everywhere selling mostly the same items made from cork, but Cork & Co, at 10 Rua Das Salgadeiras, is more of a modern design boutique with reasonable prices for higher end pieces.
Cocktails at Red Frog Speakeasy
Rua do Salitre 5A
Here’s another bar that you have to know is there, because the only signage is a red frog sculpture on the wall just off the Agenda de Liberdade. Ring the doorbell and descend the stairs into a narrow space inspired by prohibition era New York. It’s a dimly lit, yet elegant, underground space, with bartenders who obviously take a lot of pride in their art (the presentation is as much a part of the experience as the flavor). The drinks are a bit pricey by Lisbon standards, more on par with Philly prices, but worth it.
Drinks at Pavilhao Chines
Rua Dom Pedro V, 89/91
We were told we had to get drinks at this museum-like bar by our friend Pete, who is literally a rock star, and spent a good amount of time here during his band’s stint in Lisbon. Given that their hit album, Lisbon, is a tribute to the city, it seemed like advice we should take. This place is a trip. It feels like you’re stepping into the early 1900s, with 5 rooms of glass-encased curios, red-vested waiters and an 82-page cocktail menu. And there’s also tea. Our waiter was super attentive and full of enthusiastic tips on sites we should visit during our stay. Definitely worth the trip to the Principe Real neighborhood. Look for the Chinese lanterns and red door.
Pasteis de nata at Casa de Pasteis de Belem
R. Belém 84-92
You’ll see pasteis de nata all over the city, but this is the place that started it all. Yes, it’s worth the schlep outside center city, and yes it’s worth the wait in the line (the line actually moves pretty quickly). Because once that warm custardy tart hits your mouth, your tastebuds will thank you for the effort.
GETTING THERE & AROUND
We flew USAir non-stop from Philly to Lisbon. It’s about a 7hr flight. We took the Aerobus 2 from the airport to downtown for about 5 Euros, which was a piece of cake and even had wifi. Lisbon is a very walkable city (if you don’t mind steep hills) with lovely tiled sidewalks. There are plenty of trams if you’d rather not huff up the hills, but we liked getting the workout.
After 3 nights in Lisbon, we rented a car for the balance of the trip. Driving was pretty easy. They do drive fast, but everyone is great about getting out of the way to let cars pass and on the 3-lane highways there are even designated speeds for each lane. We opted in for their version of EasyPass with our rental car so we wouldn’t have to deal with toll money, and that was a good choice, as there are a lot of tolls. The roundabouts can be a bit intimidating at first, but after a day or so, we kind of fell in love with them. And we definitely recommend purchasing the TomTom app with Southern Europe maps which allows you to navigate from your phone without using data or needing wifi (more on that here in Tips) or renting a GPS unit.