One of the best discoveries that we have found over the last two years is TAP Portugal Airlines. Flights from Miami to Portugal are quick, relatively inexpensive and convenient for us. When flying to Europe, we always check TAP first. And one of the benefits is that it allows us to stop in Portugal (either Lisbon or Porto) for up to 5 days for no additional costs. Our first time we stopped over, we visited Lisbon. Lisbon has been the capital of Portugal since the 13th century. Presumably, it’s name comes from the Venetian “Allis Ubbo” (which means safe harbor) and lead to the city’s roman name of Olissipo! Today is the country’s most bohemian and vibrant city so if you ever end up wondering around its streets, here’s a list of what you can do to make the most of your time:
1.Do a free tour:
This is a must and will always be our recommendation for any city that you visit. It’s the best and cheapest way to meet the locals and get awesome tips from them. In Lisbon they normally gather the groups in the Camões Square and from there you start the tour. They last for about 3 hours and, in the end, you pay whatever you feel is the right value for the performance of the guide/quality of the tour.
2. Get lost seeing the most amazing viewpoints:
Lisbon has a light like no other city in Portugal and anywhere you go will feel like you’re in a movie set. It’s only logical that you spend a while exploring the viewpoints overlooking the Tejo river. Anywhere you go you’ll find little kiosks selling drinks, coffee and food so you can relax while enjoying the sun. It’s a pretty big city with a lot of hills but you can easily move around by bus, tram, metro and even train! We walked miles and miles and loved every minute of it.
3. Visit the museum of Resistance and Freedom:
This is, by far, one of Lisbon’s most interesting museums. Even if you’re not a museum fan, this one is very interactive. It’s name is Aljube that comes from the arab “Al-jubb” and means prison or dungeon. No further explanations needed, it was an old political prison from the Portuguese dictatorship period. For those of you who are not so familiar with the Portuguese history, Portugal had the longest fascist regime in Europe that ended in the 25th of April of 1974 when the captains of April (the name given to the soldiers of the revolution) marched towards Lisbon to fight for the independence and freedom of the country in what it was the most peaceful revolution in the history of Europe. This museum is more than just an interesting way to see how the inmates used to live and learn about the Portuguese dictatorship. It’s also a reminder that freedom is only a child and that “even in the saddest night, in times of servitude, there’s always someone that resists, there’s always someone that says no” (a quote from one of the many songs of intervention that were composed in that period). The price for the entrance is 3€ but there are discounts for seniors, children and residents. You can also ask them for a tour and, to be honest, it’s even a more engaging way of learning (make sure you book in advance).
4. Spend half a day exploring Belém!:
This is a must in Lisbon. You can easily reach in 15 minutes by tram from Lisbon’s Terreiro do Paço (one of the most iconic squares). Half a day is sufficient to explore what it is the village of the Portuguese discoveries. When you arrive the first thing you’ll see is the Pattern of the Discoveries, an homage to Henry the Navigator, the father of the Portuguese navigation that conquered Ceuta in Northern Africa in 1415. The monument was erected to commemorate the 500th anniversary of his death. Stroll along the river side, taking amazing pictures until you see the old defense Tower of Belém, UNESCO’s World Heritage. Definitely worth visiting! After all that you should be feeling peckish so don’t wait any more and treat yourself with Portugal’s most beloved dessert – Pastel de Belém aka Pastel de Nata. Heads up! There will be a line ahead of you, it’s normal and you have two options: either wait in line (they’re normally pretty fast) or go inside, sit at the table and order a coffee and a few pastries to go. Why is it so special? Just imagine a perfect crispy puff pastry filled with an awesome egg custard topped up with cinnamon and powdered sugar. It’s as tasty as you might imagine.
5. Listen to Fado:
Fado is a genre of music born and raised in the poorest neighborhoods of Lisbon and it’s World’s Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO. The word comes from the Latin “Fatum” that means fate. Pretty deep right? Is normally sung by women but it can be performed by men as well. The band is composed by a singer, one guitar player and one Portuguese guitar player (similar to a big mandolin with 12 strings) and, as the name says, everyone sings their fate out. That’s the reason why it is associated with being sad and melancholic, the majority of the fados were composed by the time where the Portuguese were suffering the most. There are some typical neighborhoods of Lisbon like Alfama and Mouraria where you can listen to it everywhere. The trick is in finding the right balance between price, quality of food (usually the performances are in bars/restaurants) and the quality of the show. This last one is as well very important because you listen to Fado with your heart, not with your ears (as the Portuguese say) so it’s very different if you listen to it in a commercial place or from the mouth of someone who’s feeling what they’re singing. Our recommendation is to ask a local, they always know better.
6. The church of St. Domingos:
We know that this is a very specific church within a country that has churches sprouting on every corner. But it’s worth it. Right in the heart of Lisbon, right to the side of the Rossio Square, you’ll find the church of St. Domingos. Many people pass by and just keep on going but this is probably the most impressive church you’ll see in Lisbon and once you go in you’ll feel that weight right on your soul (there’s no way of justifying why but it is a thing). It’s impressive not because of its architecture but because of its history and the massacre of 1506 where 4000 Jewish citizens were assassinated violently over 3 Easter days because of the order of two priests and the collaboration of the citizens that were living through the plague and drought. After that, the king punished those involved in the massacre and the church was forever cursed. It suffered from a huge earthquake in the 16th and 18th centuries and was left with huge cracks all over the facades. It also suffered from a violent fire in 1959 where the rest that was left was destroyed. The church today is still standing and people still go there for the mass but it’s unavoidable to feel the weight of history from the minute you step a foot inside and see all the destruction. Outside there is a memorial to the Jewish Community where you can see written in 34 languages – Lisbon, the city of Tolerance. Right across you can also indulge in Lisbon’s most known Ginjinha café – a sour cherry liqueur to cheer up your mood!
7. Eat your way across the city:
That’s right! Lisbon is the perfect city if you are a foodie! Being the capital of Portugal you can actually find a huge diversity of offer! But when in Portugal, be Portuguese! We recommend that you check Lisbon’s most famous fish and seafood restaurants. Being close to the ocean, it only makes sense that you feast on that! Another MVP would be “Bifana”. Now watch out because in the country you’ll have different interpretations of this dish but in Lisbon they joke and say that’s the perfect dessert after a seafood extravaganza. And it actually is! Imagine a beautiful garlicky grilled pork steak (thin and tender), in the middle of a bread roll and topped with a spicy chili oil and mustard? It’s a perfect pair with a nice cold beer. Don’t forget to go nuts in the bakeries, you’ll see a huge variety of sweets and there’s no such thing as too much codfish! In Portugal they have more than 700 recipes and at least two you need to try, being Lisbon’s most popular recipe: Codfish “À Braz” – sautéed cod with onions, potatoes, eggs, parsley and black olives. Culinary heaven and always side by side with wine from the region.
8. Be blown away by the gardens:
Gulbenkian Park, Edward the 7th park, Jardim da Estrela and others are just the tip of the iceberg. If you’re a nature lover you’ll sure love to wander around Lisbon’s most famous gardens. Check the dates that you’re going because on Sunday’s the majority of the entrances are for free and you can organize your visits based on that.
9. Dive into the Oceanarium of Lisbon:
It’s the 2nd biggest oceanarium of Portugal and Spain. In 2017 it was considered by TripAdvisor the best oceanarium in the world! It counts with almost 8 million liters of water divided by 30 tanks with 8000 different aquatic species that will make you feel like you’re deep into the real ocean. It’s a great thing to do with kids or even if you’re an adult looking for a good time in Lisbon. Pair that with the Zoo of Lisbon and take a walk on the wild side of the city. Tickets start at 10€ for kids, 19 for adults and they have family and senior discounts.
10 You can’t skip Sintra:
We finish this Lisbon article strong by mentioning that Sintra is definitely worth visiting. Yes, it is touristy and yes, there will be lines but that are also ways you can go around it. You’ll find many articles online with the best of the best to do in Sintra so luckily for you we don’t give you the fish, we teach you how to fish! So here’s the deal: if you go on the weekend it will be for sure much more busy than on weekdays. So that’s tip #1 – avoid weekends. Tip #2: A tour is worthy and we’ll tell you why. Sintra is only 45 minutes by train from Lisbon so you can and you should go by train and avoid traffic. Once you get there you’ll be blown away by how many things you have to see and do, so if you take forever in line time will pass by and Sintra is steep so going up to the Pena Palace, giving up because of the huge lines and going back down is not cool. Tour operators / guides will have not only good discount deals for all the monuments but as well fast pass tickets. It’s a little investment that honestly will go a long way. If you still don’t want to do it then be realistic: invest in the tuk tuks that will take you across the city in a heartbeat or choose 2 or 3 monuments (in our opinion the Pena Palace, Castle of Moors and Quinta da Regaleira are the ones you can’t miss but there are many others), buy the tickets online and stick with those. Either way memorize this: you can’t skip Sintra.
The last thing I would say is find a cool, eclectic hotel. Kati and I stayed at a place that was not much to look at outside, but inside it was wonderful. The service was great and breakfast was outstanding. We loved our time in Lisbon and will definitely be returning. Keep in mind that suggestions really depend on your personal taste and the things you love to do the most. Regardless of being a fan of history, arts, culture, music, gastronomy, nature and countless others, Lisbon will have something for you. It’s a little paradise planted right on the side of the Tejo River and, like a popular Portuguese song says: É paraíso sem nunca ter fim (“It’s an endless paradise”).