Lisbon, Unexpected Love

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I (Amanda) stopped through Lisbon out of convenience while traveling with a few friends on our way to Morocco and again on the way back from Morocco to the Azores Islands. None of us had planned to love Lisbon as a destination, but all left with the intent to return to this captivating city.  The historic charm of the architecture plus the modern hustle with relaxed beach vibes makes for a great vacation destination.

We arrived in Lisbon around noon and snagged a taxi to our hotel, though Uber operates in the city and was our go-to throughout the rest of our stay. Our accommodation, Brown’s Central, was in a perfect location right between the historic Alfama and more modern Bairro Alto districts; Brown’s Central also has an awesome breakfast buffet and cute rooms with the coziest beds, I would definitely stay here again! We left our backpacks at the desk and set out to explore the city.

We started down Rua Augusta toward the giant arch (Arca da Rua Augusta), stopping along the way at PAUL, one of the many bakeries lining the block, to try the infamous pastel de nata, a custard tart created in Belem, Portugal in the 1700s. These pastries are delicious and a “must try” while in Portugal, I do not want to admit how many I tasted during my brief stay in this country. The Arca da Rua Augusta at the end of the block is a beautiful structure which marks the entrance to the Praca do Comercio, a giant commerce square overlooking the Tagus River. This square is a nice place to sit, relax, and people watch. There are some shipping containers set up as small vendor stalls which looked like fun to browse, though we continued into Alfama due to our time restrictions.

The Alfama district is one of the oldest in Lisbon, eclectically decorated with azulejos (colorful Portuguese tiles), graffiti and street art. The streets are narrow and winding, easy to get lost if you have a destination to reach, but each turn leads to a delightful new scene – we bumped into an art installation on a vacant lot created out of objects the artist found in the streets, quite interesting. We spent hours wandering this area; there are plenty of marked miradours (vantage points), fado music bars (traditional, melancholy music), and street performers. We walked through the Se de Lisboa (Lisbon Cathedral) on our way to the Sao Jorge Castelo. The castle has some great views over the Alfama, the Tagus River and the Ponte 25 de Abril bridge. The bridge is pretty majestic looking and reminiscent of the Golden Gate Bridge due to its color and suspension design; interestingly enough it was built by the same company that built the Oakland Bay Bridge, but not the Golden Gate. We spent about an hour wandering the castle grounds and then set out to find food.

We stopped at many of the miradour points to enjoy the sweeping views over the old rooftops and river before deciding to stop and eat at Le Petit Café. We were initially drawn in by the street side patio with live music, but were very glad to have enjoyed the fresh seafood offerings at this establishment as well. I had a perfectly cooked octopus while others enjoyed sardines, salmon and sea bass. We shared a bottle of Alvarinho wine and all thoroughly enjoyed this meal. We returned to a restaurant-bar we’d passed on our walk boasting live Fado music this evening (I can’t recall the name, but the food there did not look very appealing). We did order a few desserts and digestifs to consume while savoring the local tunes. Fado music is loud and soulful, almost like opera with a guitar, I’d recommend finding a spot to check it out while in Portugal.

The next morning we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at our hotel before calling an Uber to Belem. Belem is about 10 km away from the Bairro Alto/Alfama area of Lisbon, an alternate transportation option would be to take the train which runs along the coast for a nice, scenic ride. We started at Torre de Belem (Belem Tower) which is designated as a UNESCO world heritage monument. The tower was closed when we visited, but we had a pleasant time walking around the structure. We headed east along the coast to the Monument of Discoveries depicting 33 explorers from Portugal’s Age of Discovery, it is possible to ascend to top of the monument where there is a viewing deck, though we opted to move along. Continuing along the coast, we crossed the street to walk through the Jardim da Praca do Imperio and Jardim de Belem; these parks would be a nice place for a picnic, a rest or people watching. Pasteis de Belem is just outside the park and known as the birthplace of the egg custard tarts (pastel de nata), we had to stop in here for an espresso and pastry which we did not regret!

We continued walking along Rua da Junqueira, admiring the azulejos clad structures, stopping in for a gelato on our way to LX Factory. LX Factory is a trendy collection of restaurants, bars, shops, and creative spaces. This spot is great any time of day or night, we returned here for a late dinner when we passed back through Lisbon on our way to the Azores, we dined at 1300 Taberna and loved everything about it – food, service, vibe and décor.

Time Out Market was our destination for dinner this particular night, it’s a food hall type market with 40+ stalls of local fare to choose from, everyone can find something to enjoy here. Codfish is a typical dish of Portugal, so we tried a few variations of it here in the market and, surprise-surprise, we also tried another variation of pastel de nata. There are beer and wine vendors to choose from, plenty of open seating inside and park space to sit and eat outside, you could really spend quite a while snacking in this market.

On our way back to the hotel, we passed by Pink Street which is one of Lisbon’s night life destinations. This street gets jam-packed with bar-goers of all types, many appearing quite intoxicated and care free, maybe a little more than my liking (think 6th Street in Austin, TX). We had also been told that Bairro Alto was a good night life spot so we passed by it quickly, from the small glimpse we got, we really wished we’d made time to check it out more, but it will just have to wait until our next visit to Lisbon!

Some recommendations to get started planning your Lisbon itinerary:

  • Eat pastel de nata (custard tart), probably at a few different bakeries 😊
  • Wander the Alfama district for azulejos and street art
  • Visit Sao Jorge Castle
  • People watch in Bairro Alto district
  • Site see in Belem
  • Find live Fado music, probably in Alfama
  • Try a variety of local fare at Time Out Market food hall
  • Day trip to Sintra (40 min away by car)
  • Take the train to the beach town Cascais (40 min away by train)
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