Loving Lisboa (Portugal)
Back in 2017, D and I took advantage of SWISS's First of August deals and bought tickets to Lisbon for CHF 99. At the beginning of March, it was finally time for our extended weekend and we were very excited. Lisbon had been at the top of my travel list for a while and we'd heard such wonderful things from friends, we couldn't wait to check it out for ourselves.
We arrived Friday afternoon and after getting the keys to our Airbnb, we started walking to discover what shops and cafes surrounded our temporary home away from home. The following day is when we really got started. About halfway through the morning, D asked me about my first impressions of the city. In 2016, we went to Brazil for my cousin's wedding and after the celebrations, we traveled to Salvador for a few days. I liked the city and felt like it had the potential to be amazing and beautiful, but we felt unsafe as soon as the sun set and our hotel receptionist explicitly told us NOT to go beyond the street to the side of the hotel because it wasn't a good place for tourists. It ruined the experience for me. I told D that Lisbon reminded me of Salvador - the way it looked, the way it lived, the tiles. I was happy that I could relive Salvador and explore Lisbon and feel safe.
Literally two minutes later, I felt a tug on my backpack and turned around to find a strange man all up in my personal space trying to get into my backpack.
A quick note about traveler safety: D and I have been to a lot of different countries and cities and this is the closest we've come to being pickpocketed (there was a time in Salvador, but the bad guys didn't get this close). [Thanks mom, for putting the situation into perspective.] At first, I felt stupid that something like this almost happened, but D was quick to point out that we are smart, savvy travelers - we're aware of our surroundings, we pack consciously, we don't overpack when we're out and about, we look out for each other.
And those whole 10 minutes pretty much sum up my experience in Lisbon: for every beautiful building, there was one falling apart. For every eye-catching tile, there was one that was chipped or sprayed over. For every friendly waitress, there was one who could have been a bit nicer.
Now, while we were there, the weather was pretty terrible and I have it from a good source that the city is completely different in the sunshine - all those crumbling, boarded-up buildings are part of the city's charm just as much as the polished, colorful tiles. For that reason, I will give Lisbon another chance someday.
That being said, we did do discover some great restaurants across the city and had fun discovering the city's seven hills, the coast and an all-inclusive sporting event.
The cultural highlight
We bought tickets to see Benfica, a very popular local soccer team, play against another Portuguese team at their home stadium in Lisbon. We got their early and watched the stadium fill up (there were over 52,000 spectators at the game) and bought some snacks from the vendor. When the game started, the fans stood up, belted their team anthem with their scarves held high and proud, an actual EAGLE flew around the field, and with every goal, everyone got up and swung their scarves around and high-fived and hugged their seat neighbors. I loved it! It was team spirit at its maximum. I sat next to a grandfather who was at the game with his grandson and when he ordered popcorn ("pipocas" - like peep-oh-caw), he looked at me and said the word as if to offer me a quick, free language lesson in stadium food. I repeated after him and we bonded. He asked where we were from and then told me that he lived in Germany for some time, his two daughters were born there; now he and one daughter live in Lisbon and the other daughter works at Zermatt in Switzerland. Ahh, the world is small and so very big at the same time.
Where to eat in Lisbon
Cafe / breakfast / brunch:
O Ninho is a cute little cafe that was a bit of a "room of requirement" thing. After The Pickpocketing Incident, we continued to São Jorge's Castle. The rain was POURING down and I heard the loudest clap of thunder of my life. My Converse sneakers were soaked through (bad poor choice?), my jacket was leaking, my elbow was stiff from holding the umbrella... I just wanted to go inside! And then, all of a sudden there was this cute little cafe and a table had just become available. The owners are French and you see the influence on the menu. We both drank a piping hot detox tea and indulged in a carrot cake that was so good I forgot about my cold, wet feet. I still regret not ordering my own piece of cake. Don't make the same mistake I did!
Fábrica Coffee Roasters is stylish and cozy and made a mean soy latte. It was quite a ways down from our Airbnb so we didn't discover it until our last day in Lisbon. They have this apple-pistachio-honey croissant that is drool-worthy, the baristas were friendly and had great taste in music. Bonus tip: if you're a coffee fan and you fall in love with their home-roasted coffee, you can buy it and bring it home.
On Day 2, another ridiculously rainy day, we went to Belém where we feasted (read: did not order enough... again) Pastéis de Belém. And then we walked, and walked, and walked because we wanted to explore LX Factory, an industrial, up-and-coming area that our Airbnb host told us about. (We recorded 32,917 steps on Day 2 in Lisbon.) My socks were wet, again. My jacket was leaking, again. There were plenty of cafes to choose from, but all of them were already full, so we popped into Central da Avenida, a tapas and wine bar with the motto "A meal without wine is breakfast." I can get behind that! The tapas were tasty and their wine and port selection was very impressive.
Taberna Santa Marta was just down the street from our Airbnb and we spotted on our first tour of the area after we arrived. We were excited to give it a try, and it got bonus points because it was close to home and so we didn't have to go out of our way for a sit-down dinner. We split the T-bone steak, which came by recommendation of our waiter, and it was served with polenta fries which I would have loved to order four more times and bring home. The restaurant also doubles as a flower shop!
There is where we got a little creative: We thought it was hard to find a traditional Portuguese restaurant that didn't look like a tourist trap. We're also a bit picky when it comes to seafood. BUT, Lisbon was full of cafes and restaurants that had certain themes. We considered these to be, in their own unique way, a part of the city's culture and so we didn't feel bad for eating food from a different country while we were already someplace we were unfamiliar with.
We passed this Lebanese restaurant on our first day and after being turned away from another restaurant (we didn't make a reservation...), we came across it again. Muito Bey presents itself as a "modern Lebanese kitchen" that combines Portuguese tastes with Lebanese meals. I thought the menu was particularly neat because it included a cool story of the inspiration behind the restaurant. We ordered the "try everything" menu for two and dove in. The service was great and incredibly friendly! Would go again!
And on our last night, we went for Russian. We actually wanted to try another restaurant that our Airbnb host recommended, but it looked very closed, so we went down a few doors to Stanislav Avenida and we were in for an awesome surprise. Okay, first, the entire design and decorations are adorable and every detail fits perfectly. And then, we ordered their homemade lemonade and it was literally the BEST LEMONADE I HAVE EVER HAD! They infuse it with this "coffee syrup" that is made by their sister cafe, Fábrica (see above). The food was crazy yum and totally hit the spot. It's not Portuguese, but definitely worth a shot when you're in Lisbon and looking for something warm and hearty.
What to see in Lisbon
São Jorge Castle
One of Lisbon's main tourist sites, São Jorge Castle sits on top of one of the city's hills and overlooks the historic city center and the Tagus River. D is a sucker for look-outs and he could gaze down upon a city's rooftops for hours - we probably would have stayed longer if it wasn't for all the rain. I can imagine that on a sunny day, the view is incredible. We visited the castle on one of our first days, but we recommend hitting it up at the end of your trip so you can see all the areas you explored. Looking down on a city is like looking at a map that's come alive. (**This is where The Pickpocket Incident happened, and while we were waiting to get our ticket, we heard another tourist talking to a police officer because his entire bag + camera was stolen. Be careful in this area.)
Yes, another castle. We were hesitant too, and we actually only signed up for this trip because we wanted to go to the coast. But we were pleasantly surprised by Pena Palace in Sintra (outside of Lisbon, reachable by train, car or tour bus). The storm was passing when we visited, and the combination of the dramatic sky and pastel colors was amazing. Pena Palace has an interesting story - it looks like a castle from a Disney movie, but also makes use of lovely ceramic tiles. It features a "romantic" design and many, many decorative embellishments. We got a guided tour - always more interesting than looking at things and reading plaques - and then had some free time at the end to walk along the side of the castle, which offered beautiful views of the expansive park below and a peak of the ocean. Go here if you want to see something new, and a different kind of castle.
The Most Western Point of Continental Europe
I honestly didn't think we would make it here on our trip. A friend recommended that we see the sunset at a Cabo da Roca, but I had a hard time believing the weather would make it possible. But we went anyways! We booked a tour with Yellow Bus Tours and this was one of the stops on their "Pena Palace and Sintra" option. I love ocean views as much as D loves look-out points (read: A LOT). There is a lighthouse, which is not as impressive as the ocean below, and plenty of space to snap some pics and gaze. Fun fact: This point is on the same latitude line as the White House, a site that I'm not too upset to have missed. For souvenir collectors, you can get a certificate from the tourist office that says you were officially at The Most Western Point of Continental Europe, or you can take a picture (zero dollars!) of the landmark point which says pretty much the same thing. We missed the sunset, but I liked this place so much that I would go back to Lisbon just to catch the view again.
What to do in Lisbon
Yellow bus Tour
On pretty much any city trip that we take, we organize some kind of tour. If it's rainy, we do a hop-on-hop-off bus thing to get a lay of the land (like in Hamburg), if the weather is nice, we'll go on a walking tour (like we did in Athens). This time, we joined a Yellow Bus Tour. Compared to another option we say in Lisbon, this was better priced and included more stops. We were a bit apprehensive at first because the woman manning the kiosk station at Praça do Comércio was rude (to guests and her coworkers), but it was great and after walking a kazillion steps over the previous day, I was happy to be chauffeured around. The group was small and we had enough time at all of our stops, and the information that the tour guide shared was interesting, never boring and never too much. Justttt riiiight.
Indulge in Pasteis
I wrote earlier that we didn't really dine at "traditional Portuguese" restaurants. But we did stuff our faces with traditional Portuguese pastries called "pastéis." They are small egg custard tarts that go just as well with a coffee as they do with a glass of port wine. Locals sprinkle cinnamon and powdered sugar over the custard, but we were always too excited to dig in to get that far. So I've got two recommendations for you. In Lisbon, just off Avenida da Liberdade, right by Restauradores Square, you'll find Fábrica da Nata, which our Airbnb host recommended. You can get the pastéis for super cheap here and they also have different menu options - like a coffee or glass of port wine. Then, by recommendation of just about everyone else who has ever been there, there is Pastéis de Belém. The tarts here are better and warmer and totally worth the wait in line (don't worry, they're speedy when you get inside). If you're lucky, you can get a table and enjoy your tarts there, or you can get them to go. This shop is in Belém (reachable by bus and has its own tourist sights) and is easy to find because it's a hotspot on Google maps.
Attend a soccer game
And finally, you should try to catch a soccer game. There are two local teams: Benfica and Sporting. Check the schedule when you're in town and see if they have a home game. For the Benfica game, we got our tickets from the stadium ticket window about two hours before the game started. Prices were very reasonable and we also got great seats. D and I decided that from now on, seeing a local sports team is one of the things we'd like to do when we visit a new city. Sports and sports teams are a very lively part of a city's or country's culture, and especially in a place like Lisbon where sports fans are die-hard fans for life, it was exciting to see such a fevered, spirited part of "local life."