Its been over a month since our return and I’ve only just been able to put all my thoughts in order as this trip was absolutely packed with amazing memories. Not only did I get to experience the beautiful Portugal, but I also managed to tick Paris off my bucket list (although I’d love to go back!). To be honest, this trip kind off caught me off guard.
Portugal wasn’t ever really on my travel bucket list, but when the opportunity arose to join my husband on a business trip I jumped. Once you start looking into Portugal, you can’t help but fall in love. And now I can give you reasons to visit too!
Despite it being in the middle of winter, we loved each and every second of it including the rainy days spent under umbrellas and nearly blowing away with the wind in Sintra. But I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s get started at the beginning.
Our week long visit to Portugal started in Lisbon and we were giddy with excitement when we finally made our approach into Lisbon airport. The views were breathtaking as we swooped low over the turquoise waters and felt like we could touch the Padrão dos Descobrimentos before a million red roofs greeted us.
I was initially a little baffled as to which area to stay in, but I’d say our choice of The 8 Downtown Suites in Lisbon’s Baixa area was a pretty solid choice. The staff were very accommodating, friendly and gave us a lot of tips. I’d say anywhere between Rossio square, the Elevador and Lisbon Cathedral can be considered central although I’m sure there are many more lovely areas to stay in.
Our first stop after the long flights was the TimeOut market as we desperately needed to refuel. Although I initially considered it far out, it turned out Lisbon was a lot smaller than it looked on a map, and we were there within 15 minutes for an early dinner. The market is quite similar in concept to Florence’s Mercato Centrale with a traditional fresh produce market on one side (which was sadly closed due to water damage during our stay) and a selection of some of Portugal’s best small eateries on the other. Be warned though that this side can get crowded with seating becoming a challenge if you go after seven. We stopped by several times during our stay and enjoyed food from the Asian Lab, Pizza a Pezzi and another place dedicated solely to chicken. Another favourite was To B. Burger or not to burger, which as the name suggests, is a lovely burger place.
We can’t start talking about food though without mentioning the pastel de nata, a dessert so innocent yet rich and comforting. Several of these delicious bites were enjoyed during our stay, some are served hot, others with icing sugar and few with cinnamon. It is best described as a mini milk tart trying to be a creme brulee.
My personal favourites were from Manteigara although others in our group preferred those from Pasteis de Belém (eggier, if that is a word!) and Tartine (sweeter). We didn’t have a single disappointing one though and at around 1 euro each you really should decide for yourself!
Although there is a lot to see and do in Lisbon, most touristy recommendations centre around beautiful churches, Miradouros (or lookout points) and Belém. I loved the architecture of the Lisbon Cathedral and the striking image of an orange tree against the historic building. Most of the cathedrals and churches in Portugal were ornate and grand, even the smaller ones, but in fear of seeing to many we decided to keep our schedule loose and spend more time walking around and exploring things on our own.
There are several notable miradouros, or lookout points, in Lisbon (Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara, Miradouro de Santa Luzia and Miradouro Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen), but we eschewed them all in favour of the Castelo de Sao Jorge on a clear evening. This Moorish castle dominates the Lisbon skyline and seemed like a good place to admire the beautiful city. The thousand steps leading up were completely worth it though as the castle granted us amazing views over the whole of Lisbon, an excellent vantage points to spot both intruders during ancient times and all the tourist sights today. If possible I’d recommend you head here at the start of your visit as it can help you gain some perspective and make you giddy with the prospect of seeing it all up close.
Of course we also managed to squeeze in some time for shopping and discovered a few favourites. The street leading off from the arch in Praça do Comércio is home to a few popular brands (Zara, H&M, Pull & Bear and many more) and was very close to where we stayed, but we definitely enjoyed shopping along the Rua do Carmo and Rua Garrett the most. There we spent quite some time in the United Colors of Benetton and got lost in a massive four-story Mango. We also found the prettiest florists and small bakeries along the way. I’d recommend you take one of the many side street to discover some favourites a little off the beaten track.
That is how we stumbled upon A Vida Portuguesa, a shop with a unique collection of locally produced things ranging from predictable tiles and sardines to beautiful beauty products. And talking of souvenirs, it seems you can’t go wrong with a pair of leather shoes made in Portugal. There is a leather shop around every corner, so keep an eye out and don’t be afraid to ask for the price should you see something you like.
If designer brands or window shopping is more your thing, then Avenue a Liberdade seems to be the go to. This tree-lined street stretches out from Praça dos Restauradores, the perfect spot to observe the pink Palacio Foz, and is home to designer brands like Gucci, Armani, Louis Vuitton and the likes. You’ll also find a Laduree tucked into one of the centres if you want to satisfy your sweet tooth!
Finally, you can’t go to Lisbon without stopping in to Belém and Sintra. I’ll cover the latter in a separate post, but since Belém is less than half an hour from Lisbon it feels natural to include it here. We had three sights on our list, namely the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, Belém Tower and Jereminos Monastery and surrounding gardens, but really it was the pastel de natas that lured us over.
We headed out on a crowded tram that stopped around the corner from Pasteis de Belém and decided to pick up a sweet treat. Although the line was long, it didn’t take long to get to the front and the pasteis did not disappoint (spoiler, none of them did!) although I do feel they might be slightly overrated. Definitely still worth it though!
From there we walked over to the Jerenimos Monastery where the massive line outside convinced us to first find the two towers. The gardens across of the Monastery were beautifully kept and I imagine it would be a lovely spot to sit and enjoy your pastei on a warmer day, with the Monastery and estuary making for great views.
We didn’t enter the Belém Tower but took in its beauty from the outside. Unfortunately none of our photographs does its scale or the detail on the outside any justice, but it just as you’d imagine.
As there still was a massive line outside the Monastry we decided to rather just enjoy the adjoining church on the right. Here the high vaulted ceilings alluded to what we might have found next door, had we made our way over earlier.
You can’t talk about Lisbon without mentioning the Azelujos, or painted tiles, that adorn most buildings. They really add something completely unique to Lisbon’s architecture and whenever we spotted a building with a unique pattern we squealed with excitement! I do feel though that one of the unsung heroes of Lisbon, and Portugal as a whole, is the cobbled sidewalks. Each features a unique pattern and is like a beautiful artwork.
Although February might not be the best time to visit Lisbon, it helped that this is one of the warmer European cities with temperatures usually hovering between the higher single digits to the low tens. We were also hoping to avoid some of the crowds by going when it is cooler, although we kept holding thumbs for the rain to stay away. We were incredibly lucky with nothing more than a light drizzle in Lisbon.
Lastly as my sister-in-law and I explored much of the city on our own for the first two days it is worth mentioning that we always felt safe even after dark. As wary South Africans we avoided staying out too late and always looked over our shoulders, but even during the quieter and colder evenings nothing ever caused us any concern. Just be aware of the weed (or Hash) sellers who mostly hang around the popular tourist sites like Praça do Comércio and quieter streets after dark. A polite no thanks should send them on their way, but I’d avoid starting a conversation and made sure to grip my bag extra tight.
Lisbon City Guide
Let’s get to the good stuff. If you’re heading to Lisbon soon (lucky you!), make sure to take note of the below:
- Baixa Area – The 8 Downtown Suites
- To B. Burger or Not to Burger – The best budget-friendly burger and fries served in a cute restaurant. Be sure to try their homemade lemonade!
- Pizzeria Romana al Taglio – Great takeaway pizza slices offering everything from traditional flavours to more adventurous combinations
- The TimeOut Market – We loved the Chow Mein at Asian Lab, enjoyed several slices from Pizza a Pezzi and enjoyed a chicken pita from the chicken place. For sweet treats try Santini and Manteigaria.
- Tartine – We came for the pasteis de nata and stayed for lunch. A good selection of fresh breads and affordable prices.
- A Padaria Portuguese – A chain restaurant you’ll find all over Lisbon that offers affordable lunches and good chocolate quentes. No need to enter a Mc Donalds, unless you need the loo!
- Wok-to-Walk – Takeaway stir-fry noodles made to order and enough to share!
Pastel de Nata
- Tartine – A slightly sweeter variety with an extra flaky pastry.
- Pasteis de Belém – Slightly thicker custard that tasted more savoury than sweet.
- Manteigaria – For me these had the perfectly flaky shell and creamy centre that wasn’t too sweet.
- Basically any place that serves hot pasteis de nata for around one euro! You can’t go wrong!
- Avenue a Liberdade – If luxury shopping or window shopping is your thing, this is where you’ll find the Prada and Gucci stores and if you fancy a macaron, stop in at the Laduree.
- Rua Augusta – Here you’ll find all the chain stores – Zara, H&M, Pull & Bear, Bershka and many more.
- Rua do Carmo and Rua
- Garrett – Find larger version of chain stores and a few higher-end brands here along with cute coffee shops and pastry shops.
- Armazéns do Chiado – A shopping centre on Rua do Carmo and home to the largest Mango I’ve ever been in, Parfois for great accessories and a Sephora.
- A Vida Portuguesa – For slightly less tacky versions of typical tourist mementos like Azulejos and Ginja. I could have browsed this old-school style store for hours.
- Castelo de Sao Jorge – Take in the best views of the city from one of its oldest buildings!
- Lisbon Cathedral – Don’t overwhelm youself and head straight to the best church in Lisbon. Be sure to walk around it from the outside aswel!
- Rossio Train Station – A beautiful and interesting building and also a great station to catch the train to Sintra.
- Praça do Comércio – Beware the drug sellers, but enjoy the beautiful view from the square.
- Palacio Foz & Praça dos Restauradores – A pink palace and beautiful square. Do you need to know more?
- Jereminos Monastery & gardens – We didn’t enter as it was raining and there was a long line, so head here early as it is one of the few things I regret not seeing. Luckily the church next door is free to enter, had no line when we were there and is just as impressive! Also don’t forget to enjoy the gardens opposite.
- Padrão dos Descobrimentos – Located opposite the monastery, this makes a lovely starting point for a walk along the estuary to Belém Tower.
- Belém Tower – A beautiful tower that used to play an important role in Lisbon during its seafaring days.
If you have any questions be sure to ask in the comments and I’d love to help!