My (May) birthday treat came late this year but it was worth the wait. The G-Force gifted me flights to Lisbon in Portugal for a five-day city break with our friends Vicky and David “The Boy”. We have previously visited Barcelona and discovered that we enjoy short city breaks together – and can muddle along as a small group in an easy-going fashion.
I had few expectations of the Portuguese capital and had done very little research before flying there with Easyjet from Edinburgh. We arrived at our lovely and well-located two-bedroom apartment in the city enclave of Graca (found through AirB&B) via a taxi with driver Joaquim from WIIGO (Tel: +351 966 632 348.)
Here are some of the things that we discovered during our stay in Lisbon.
AirB&B is superb: This was our first experience of the booking website and despite my dad telling me all about the AirB&B scams he has read in The Telegraph we found it to offer a brilliant service. I took careful note of the reviews and chose our apartment based also on location, photos and price. It all added up to an accurate representation of the flat.
The host, Carlota, met us at the apartment and offered a wealth of useful information and advice. She was contactable throughout our stay and she also arranged our taxi and the storing of our luggage before we could check in. I would highly recommend her apartment in Graca and also AirB&B.
Lisbon is easy to explore: There is a huge amount to see and it is easy to explore without need for a car. We walked miles and used an impressive network of trams, buses, trains, tuk-tuks and taxis.
Choose electric: If you can, choose electric tuk-tuks rather than petrol. Many city dwellers are worried about the polution created by non-electric tuk-tuks.
Wonderful wandering: Like so many cities, there is a fabulous old town area in Lisbon called Alfama where the streets offer a higgledy piggledy maze of intrigue and sights. You can stroll and wander from the River Tejo estuary up hill to Lisbon Castle discovering all kinds of attractions en route including Sé Cathedral, the National Pantheon and Saint Anthony’s Church, as well as a flea market (Saturday and Tuesday mornings), bars, restaurants and lots of small shops.
Getting lost is very easy to do: Lisbon is built on seven hills and has myriad streets that wind up and down and all look the same. We frequently found ourselves lost but there was fun to be had in the “getting lost adventures” (except when we were tired at the end of a long day and needed to walk uphill to our apartment).
Running is popular: I went for a few morning runs along the waterfront and passed many other people doing the same. The flat river bank offered an easy going running arena. The only problem was finding my way back uphill to our apartment. I ended up getting lost each time and running far more uphill than was required but it did help me to suss out the city roads (in the end!).
Take five days not three: A city break of five days was about right for discovering a wealth of attractions, including churches, monuments, castles, markets, cafes, bars, food halls, art galleries, artist studios and more. A week would be even better if you want to explore further along the nearby coastline.
Tram 28 is old and slow… But a real must-do. These trams connect the district of Graça with Baixa and pass through the streets of Alfama. The narrow and undulating tram route is unsuitable for modern trams, so Remodelado trams dating from the 1930s do the job perfectly.
There are many several reasons for taking Tram 28. 1) It takes the aches out of your muscles from walking uphill in the old town areas of Alfama and Baixa. 2) It offers a must-do tour of the old town area of Lisbon. 3) To ride some of Lisbon’s oldest trams. These trams have been following the same route since the 1930s and are far more traditional (and “rickety”) than the modern trams.
Lisbon has sooo many tiles: The traditional way to decorate the facade of the buildings is with tiles. Almost every building front had a different pattern of tiles. I set about taking a collection of dozens of photos of different tiles.
Get a little out of the city: There are some great excursions just a short train or tram ride from Lisbon.
Sintra is a short train ride away: This UNESCO world heritage site is easily reached by train from Lisbon. We took a train to the historic village of Sintra and spent most of the afternoon walking up and up and up to see a stunning hilltop Moors castle. It was truly worth the climb. Other places to visit along the way include the Pena Palace and the National Palace and the Moors castle. If you have a car you can access a fantastic beach, Praia da Ursa, from Sintra.
Belém is a tram ride away: This picturesque district to the west of Lisbon (take Tram 15E from the city centre) is another location of many notable tourist attractions. Belem is situated on the northern banks of the River Tagus and is an ancient harbour. Many of the 14th century “voyages of discovery” departed from here.
The best way to see Belém is during a 30-minute walk from Pastéis de Belém (the famous custard tart shop) to the Torre de Belém. This route passes the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, the Discoveries Monument and goes through many lovely parks. We really enjoyed the maritime museum with its amazing life-size boats.
Unique artworks: The Berado Museum in Belém includes art by Warhol, Picasso, Dali, Duchamp, Magritte, Miró, Bacon, Jackson Pollock, Jeff Koons. I was the first time I’d seen, in real-life, art by Picasso and Andy Warhol.
Pleasantly cheap: Food, drink, entrance costs to attractions and transport seem incredibly cheap compared to the UK. For example, meals out were around a third to 50% cheaper than Scotland and cocktails cost as little as £3. Paying to get into museums and galleries was rarely more than €5.
Some Sundays are free: On the first Sunday of each month Lisbon museums are free to enter.
The “world’s best” aquarium: When I read that the aquarium, Oceanario de Lisboa, had been rated one of the best in the world I put aside my usual hesitance about visiting a place where wildlife is enclosed. I am glad I did.
Although I still feel uneasy about the sealife being homed in tanks I was hugely impressed with what I saw. The central tank was awesome and the work they do in terms of conservation eased by conscience a little.
The Park of Nations: The aquarium is sited in the Parque das Nações (Park of Nations), which was originally the site of Expo 98. It has since been transformed into a modern area of Lisbon with a smart shopping centre, a cable car and also the Oceanarium.
Views-tastic: Lisbon’s hills might be tiring to walk but they also offer a wealth of fabulous viewpoints. There are too many views to mention them all but you should visit as many viewing places as possible. One of the best views was from Lisbon Castle.
Close to our apartment we also discovered Largo da Graça and another viewpoint at the Miradouro Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen (Sophia Andresen viewpoint) in front of Graça Church. A drink while watching the sun set from many of these viewpoints is almost obligatory.
The home of ice cream: Santanis is Lisbon’s famous ice cream parlour and has an impressive array of flavours (as you would imagine). Walk from Belem back towards town to pop into Santinis. Then catch the 15 tram from outside the parlour back to the city centre.
Eat local: There are plenty of small but lovely restaurants for cheap dining. We enjoyed lots of fish and seafood, barbecued black pork sausages as part of a huge sharing tapas meal, cheap wine and cocktails. Did I mention cocktails again?!
Eat at Mercado da Ribeira: Now branded as a Time Out location, the Mercado is a fantastic place to dine. You can choose from dozens of food stalls, from bakeries and burgers to fine dining experiences from well-known local chefs. Once you have chosen your meal you sit at tables in the middle of the market and soak up the buzzing atmosphere. My slightly salted cod and chick pea dish was sublime.
Eat traditional: There are a few dishes and treats to try, including the famous custard tarts known as Pasteis de Nata, a salted cod dish called bacalhau and fish soup (açordas) served in a bread loaf.
We also came across amazing small pies (rather like pork pies) but stuffed full of fabulous fresh ingredients, including black pork, chicken and spinach, veal, vegetables etc.
Service (mostly) with a smile: The service in bars and restaurants was pretty good. There were several times when one of our orders or dishes was forgotten but after being reminded it was quickly sorted out with a smile and an apology.
Sometimes it took quite a while to be served but this is fairly normal in Continental eateries. On one occasion the waitress was completely non-smiley but we decided she must be having a bad day and didn’t really fancy mixing us cocktails for the amazing price of €3 (because she know this was too cheap!).
Lisbon ginja: In Scotland we call Irn Bru ginger. In Lisbon, Ginja is a cherry flavoured liqueur that we enjoyed drinking from mini chocolate cups. Yum!
Great wee gems: We chances upon an amazing wee shop, Garbags, selling up-cycled packaging, but not as you might ordinarily imagine it to be recycled. I plan to blog more.
8th hill brewery: As I have written above, Lisbon is known as the city of seven hills. There is a brewery called 8ª Colina (8th Hill) in the Graça district, which sells a range of crafts beers. We ran out of time to make it along here but Carlota told us it’s fab.
It’s fun with friends: Travelling with friends is a fun thing to do.
It’s hard to leave behind the sunshine: Even in October the sun was warm and many days were bright. It felt like a huge wrench to be heading home to chilly autumnal Scotland. I may well return to Lisbon – and I would highly recommend it as a place to go for a long weekend break.