This is a very late post on last fall’s trip to Portugal and Spain. We’re on the road again, so I will be posting on Italy very soon.
Portugal has been on my wish list for many years and we finally managed to visit last fall—2013. If you haven’t been to Portugal, I highly recommend it. The weather is mild and pleasant most months of the year. In October, it was still in the mid 70s with sunny skies and an ocean warm enough to swim in. The people are generally friendly and kind—and you find many locals who speak good English. I finally asked how everyone managed to speak so well and found out that American movies and TV programs are not dubbed in Portugal. Instead, they use subtitles and the Portuguese population is hearing English all of the time. This made it easy to travel throughout Portugal and mingle with the people a bit.
Our first stop was the capital city of Lisbon, located on the wide mouth of the Tagus River, just before it empties into the Atlantic Ocean. One of the oldest cities in Europe, Lisbon is very clean and beautiful, with classic architecture, lush parks, historic churches and an abundance of lively plazas and pedestrian friendly streets for shopping and strolling. Transportation is efficient and fun—from the speedy trams that connect the city to the airport, to the old fashioned trolleys that trudge up the steep and narrow hills into the scenic neighborhoods. This city of many levels also has several historic elevators (like the Santa Justa lift) to take you up to the higher neighborhoods and wonderful views of the tiled rooftops and St. George’s Castle in the distance.
Lisbon is a city for strolling. Start down by the port at the beautiful Commercial Plaza. You can stop in at the main Visitor Center for maps and information. You can even do a little shopping in their attractive store. The plaza is surrounded by fun cafes with outdoor seating—perfect for people watching. Start your tour of the city by walking up the wide, pedestrian-only Augusta Street that takes you into the heart of the city. Along the way, there are plenty of shops, restaurants and the Museum of Design.
One of our favorite sites in the Chiado neighborhood was the Carmo Convent, an old church and convent, partially destroyed in the big earthquake of 1755. The Gothic ruins are dramatic and especially lovely when contrasted against Lisbon’s azure blue skies. Next door is a small museum with interesting artifacts from other periods of Portuguese History.
Another fun and funky neighborhood is the Alfama, which is where you can find live Fado music in the evening. It can feel a bit sketchy at night, but we never ran into any problems. We enjoyed exploring the narrow streets and alleyways with artistic graffiti. As you wind down the hill back toward the river, stop at the Fado Museum (Largo do Chafariz de Dentro).
Although it requires a tram ride, (Tram 15), Belém is worth a day’s visit. Located just west of the main downtown, this fun neighborhood has several museums and monuments to see. I suggest getting there early and make your first stop the famous bakery, Pastéis de Belém, Rua de Belém, 84. If you get there before 10 am, you can avoid the tour busses that start unloading their guests who have heard of the delicious Pastel de Beléms (a light custard treat).
Next, take a short walk to the impressive Jerónimos Monastery, a few blocks away. Wander through the Monastery and marvel at the elaborately carved columns and enjoy the peaceful cloisters and garden. Inside the large cathedral you can find the tomb of Vasco da Gama and the poet Luis de Camões. This is a popular destination, so avoid the weekends.
A few blocks west of the monastery is Lisbon’s Berardo Museum of Modern Art, a nice change of pace from the sixteenth century and its elaborate Manueline architecture. The city built an ultra modern cultural center to house Berardo’s impressive collection of works by Warhol, Picasso, Dali, Duchamp, Magritte and many more. Besides the permanent collection, there are always several interesting exhibitions. The cultural center includes some shops and restaurants, as well as special musical events year round.
Leaving the cultural center, head a bit west and towards the water, to find the beautiful Belem Tower, another UNESCO World Heritage site that served as a fortress to guard the entrance to Lisbon’s harbor. Nearby, the Discoveries Monument is a beautifully carved marker built in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator. The carvings depict explorers, crusaders, monks and other important historical figures from Portugal. It also has a small exhibition space and an elevator that takes visitors to the top for some terrific views.
Wherever you choose to explore in Lisbon, it will be easy to find a good meal at a fair price. Portuguese cuisine is simple and fresh, with plenty of excellent specialties for each region. In Lisbon try the Piri Piri Chicken, a spicy specialty. We like Bonjardim on Travessa de S. Antao 11. We also found excellent seafood with a modern twist at Sea Me, on Rua do Loreto 2, in the Chiado area.
Although we allowed six days to visit Lisbon, it wasn’t enough. There are many more museums and art galleries that we missed. And we didn’t make it up to George’s castle. There’s also the option to take a boat ride on the Tagus River. So, after our brief taste of Portugal, we know that we must return again soon. And, when we do, we’ll spend more time in one of Europe’s most charming cities—lovely Lisbon.