Lisbon is Portugal’s capital as well as the largest city. The architecture is tiled, the terrain hilly, and the pastel de natas plentiful and delicious. We sampled a small slice of the city’s culture and should have stayed longer.
After getting off our overnight trans-Atlantic flight, we spent an hour getting our rental car before driving to our first AirBnB which was located near the Elevador de Santa Justa. It was very American of us to expect to be able to drive directly to our accommodation and park, so we were a bit surprised to discover it was located on a pedestrian-only street and the parking garage was a 10-minute walk. We did eventually figure it out and after dropping off our bags, we got out to explore the sights.
One striking part of Portugal is how many buildings are coated with tile. The famous white and blue Azulejo (from Arabic meaning “polished stone) tiles reminded me of the classic Dutch Delft Blue pottery. This made more sense when I later learned that the Portuguese began importing Dutch tiles prior to manufacturing their own. These buildings will probably be around for a while since it has been forbidden to demolish tile-covered buildings since 2013. Even though they’re quite aesthetically charming, the original purpose was much more functional as they acted as a thermal insulator.
For sunset, we took an Uber to Eduardo VII Park which comprises 26 acres and geometric hedges that run down the middle leading one’s eye to the Tagus River and a statue of the Marquis of Pombal a previous prime-minister of Portugal.
On the south side of Lisbon lies Belém Tower. It’s a 16-century fortified tower that was used by Portuguese explorers as a ceremonial gateway to Lisbon. Now, it just provides a beautiful reflection during blue hour.
We started meandering our way back to our lodging and stumbled upon a restaurant that turned out to be one of our favorites. It’s eclectically decorated with plywood, has a mini-clothing store inside, and has great food. If you’re in town, I recommend checking out Rendez Vous… more than wine.
On our last night in the country, we returned to Lisbon and my friends took me out to dinner at Santa Clara dos Cogumelos which is self-described as “The Mushroom Temple”. Every dish on the menu has some type of mushroom component including the ice cream. It was delicious and a unique experience, but how can one not be happy when morel mushrooms find their way to one’s plate!?
Azenhas do Mar, Sintra, & Cascais
Azenhas do Mar is known as the Portuguese Cinque Terre. It’s 40 minutes outside of Lisbon but only 15 minutes to Sintra, so it makes sense to do it on the same day. However, this makes for an early wake-up call because the town lights turn off 30 minutes before sunrise and they add a magical quality to a photo. The girls wanted to sleep in, so it was just the guys for the early morning trek. The light was beautiful as it broke through the clouds and listening to the waves crash against the shore as the night burned off was magical.
We thought we had plenty of time to make it to Pena Palace but ended up being late due to the lack of parking and miscommunication between us and our cab driver who refused to take us to the entrance. The girls were waiting for us when we arrived, so we began to explore. It turned into a cold, rainy, foggy day, but we made the best of it. The Pena Castle is a mix of color architectural styles which gives it a Candy Land vibe. It would definitely be worth going back again in nicer weather to see all the vibrant colors against the blue sky.
Afterward, we headed to the nearby Quinta da Regaleira estate to see the Masonic Initiation Well. It’s a misnomer since it was never used for water but instead for secret ceremonial purposes related to either the Freemasons or the Knights Templar. My inner Robert Langdon was geeked! I was also surprised by how many snails came out during the intermittent rain. They were fun to watch slime around.
While grabbing lunch at the base of the mountain we ran into the sweetest Parisian couple who spoke nothing but French. I dusted off my rusty language skills and my friends used a translation app to have a slow but warm conversation!
We spent the rest of the afternoon strolling through the small beach town of Cascais and enjoyed a busker by the beach as well as Panorama Da Villa’s Blue Bar! Then we headed out to the remote Ursa Beach for sunset. We didn’t leave enough time for the hike, so we ended up running to not miss it!
Porto is the second largest city in Portugal and lends its name to the famous Port wine grown and made in the nearby Douro Valley. From 1991-1993 a young muggle named Joanne Rowling taught English there. The charm of the city inspired the world of Hogwartz, and she started writing the first few chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone including her favorite chapter ‘The Mirror of Erised’ while living there. The lore is woven into the fabric of the city. Diagon Alley’s favorite bookstore Flourish and Blotts is similar to the beautiful Livaria Lello. Nobody else wanted to wait in line with me to check it out, so I went 45 minutes before opening to join the already-long line and walked up the most beautiful spiral staircase in the world! I also saw groups of local university students who walk around in what looks like wizarding robes; they were just missing the colorful house ties. The Majestic Cafe is rumored to be the place where she wrote.
We did another self-guided walking tour and wandered around town. Our hosts told us we had to try the local special “the Francesinha” at Café Santiago. The Francesinha is basically a heart attack on a plate: it’s a large sandwich mounded with cheese and an egg served with fries. I had one. It was good, but I think I’d die if I ever had to eat a second one.
The tiled buildings were all over the place, but two stood out and becaome my favorites:
- the incredible mural inside the Sao Bento Railway Station. It took 11 years to install and consists of 20,000 azulejos tiles!
- the Chapel of Souls which is covered by 16,000 blue and white tiles showing the lives of Saint Catherine and Saint Francis of Assisi. Walking by this jumps out at you like a beautiful sleeve tattoo in conservative West Michigan.
I’ve always loved bridges, and Porto has a great one: the Ponte de Dom Luis I. It was built by Teófilo Seyrig a business partner of Eiffel (you may have heard of his tower). It opened in 1886 as a double-decker: one on top of the arch and the other suspended below it. Although it was originally designed to carry road traffic, the top is now used by Porto Metro trains as well as pedestrians brave enough to walk across the Douro River 60 meters below! On the first night we visited, there was an incredibly slow burn of a sunset which we enjoyed thoroughly.
The Douro Valley is the only place in the world that can legally produce “port wine.” I learned that all port wine is still squeezed with real bare feet because they’re hard enough to squeeze the grapes but not too hard that they burst the seeds, so yummy! Ha. We missed the season by a few weeks, otherwise, they allow tourists to pay for the privilege of working the grapes which I absolutely would have done even though that’s ridiculous. Some real Tom Sawyer action happening if you ask me!
I’m a great person to talk to wine country because I make an excellent designated driver! We visited this gorgeous family orchard on top of a mountain after navigating twisty roads and lots of grape terraces. My friends sampled the wine, and I sampled the homemade olive oil that they grew and crafted on-site. Which of course led to me buying a few tins to take home.
We did have a fun adventure with our rental car that required some slight mechanical fortitude. White dresses aren’t the best when it comes to working with cars, so I got on my back and was able to get everything back in its proper place!
Then we went on a river cruise to see a few of the many wineries that call that region home. After a quick lunch, we continued to our afternoon booking at the Quinta de la Rosa. This included an informative tour where they showed us their entire operation. I did participate in the wine tasting. Friends always seem happy when I join because they get lots of extra samples!
I gave the wine the highest compliment I can: it was the wine I dislike the least of all that I’ve tried! Although traditional wine is fully fermented, port is fortified which means during fermentation, they add brandy which stops the fermenting process and leaves some of the sugars of the grape which gives port its signature sweet flavor.
The drive from Porto to Lagos is 5 hours which is a long time to spend in a car. But we stopped for snacks and lunch to break up the time. I thought it was really cool to see a vending machine filled with cashews and pistachios!
And we got pulled over by the polícia. We’re still not sure why, but he did want to look in the back of our car and was unhappy that our driver was driving without socks or shoes. He let us go without really saying much at all.
Our AirBnB in Lagos was located at the very center of a complex labyrinth of one-way streets that were only large enough for one vehicle at a time. We got settled in and started to relax since our last few days were mainly beach days. We did walk out to the nearby Ponta da Piedade which was right on the Atlantic Ocean and had massive sea stacks layered next to each other.
The next day, we drove over near the Benagil Cave and hiked several miles before hopping into kayaks and heading inside. It’s a very cool cave but was packed with people which made it a bit difficult to enjoy. Upon returning to our accommodation our neighbor’s cat sat in the open window judging us. It would have made a perfect villain!
The next few days consisted of eating good food and relaxing before heading back home. Next time I’d like to head out to the Azores islands.
Explore more trips: