If you only have two to four days in Portugal and can only pick one location then Lisbon (Lisboa in Portuguese) should be it. Stop researching and look no further. This stunning city, referred to as "Paris of the Portuguese speaking world", is a jewel with so much to offer. Bubbly Tourist was absolutely blown away by its beauty, charm, ambiance, history, cleanliness, and safety. See why and explore with us below...
Castelo de Sao Jorge. At the highest point above the city in the old town, you'll find this 11th century hilltop moorish Castle of St. Jorge. Image all the history it witnessed: the fall of the Romans to the Visigoths, the fierce conflicts between the Christians and Arabs, the sieges by the Castillians and the birth of Portugal as a seafaring nation. You can tour the ramparts, gardens and museum and /or take a break in the shade with a refreshment. Regardless of where you are, you'll find some spectacular panoramic views over the city and out to the river as seen in the photo below.
Visit the Praça do Comércio (Commercial Plaza). This large plaza is right along the harbor and lies at the heart of city center. It's lined with shops and cafes and is the location for periodic events and street performers. This plaza is rich in history which includes the tragic earthquake of 1755 and the subsequent tsunami that killed all the city residents gathered there seeking refuge. You'll find the equestrian statue of King José I and the Arco da Rua Augusta (Augusta Street Arch) which provides the gateway (as well as views) from the plaza to downtown.
Ride a funicular up the hills. The hills up above the city center can be quite steep and can test your cardiovascular endurance. Never fear, there are several funiculars and elevators sprinkled around the city. We took the Gloria Funicular up the almost vertical hill to Bairro Alto to enjoy the nightlife bars and restaurants sprinkled in this maze-like area of town or to see the Pink Street. Cost-saver tip: although not expensive, we bought our funicular roundtrip ticket and used it twice to go only uphill (instead of roundtrip).
Take in some live Fado music. This soulful melancholic music is a symbol of Portuguese culture and tradition. It translates to "fate" in Latin and evokes a despairing belief in a futile destiny filled with pining and hopelessness. Up above the city center in Bairro Alto you'll find some of the best Fado houses in Lisbon. Most are restaurants that have a minimum spend or an expensive menu that includes the fado show. The Bubbly Tourist opted for Tasca do Chico which introduced us to the music in a less expensive venue without the traditional dinner and show experience.
Take an eBike tour. If you're comfortable on a bike then this can be a really fun thing to do as you can explore vast areas of the city on a guided tour, and the electric assisted bikes make it a breeze to go up all the steep Lisbon hills. One might find it daunting but the tour operators are very careful in ensuring their clientele know how to operate the bikes, stay safe and remain out of harm's way. Bubbly Tourist decided to take the Lisbon Hills guided eBike tour and had a blast. We're obsessed with eBikes!
Explore the old town in Alfama. In addition to Castelo de S. Jorge (described above), you'll find plenty of other sites, restaurants, cafes and shops. If you don't mind the hills, it's a beautiful area just to walk and explore. You'll find the Lisbon Cathedral (Sé de Lisboa), you'll see the traditional Alfama houses with red roofs, you'll encounter multiple viewpoints with panoramic city views including the Miradouro de Santa Luzia, or you can just relax in a café or restaurant with outdoor seating like we did at Tapas n' Friends, Sé. Ahhh!
Share in the culinary dishes of Portugal. Pastel de Nata is a custard tart and it is the most famous Portuguese dessert. It's a sweet caramelized custard with a flaky golden brown puff pastry and is found throughout Portugal. Chances are you'll have plenty of opportunity to try some before you leave the country. The other national food is bacalhau (dried and salted cod). Fresh cod is referred to as bacalhau fresco. There is even a saying in the country that bacalhau can be served in 1001 ways so indulge when you get the opportunity. Finally, try the sardinha (sardines). If you like them, there are even tourist stores dedicated to the canned sardines that you can bring home with you.
Treat yourself to an amazing dining experience with bubbly, of course. There are countless delicious restaurants in Lisbon including 18 Michelin restaurants. So on our last day in Lisbon, Bubbly Tourist ventured up to Bairro Alto once again and splurged at Suba, a restaurant on the top floor of the Verride Palacio Santa Catarina hotel. We chose a late 2pm lunch and were offered seating both inside and out. Believe us that the views are amazing regardless where you sit (we sat inside), the service was impeccable, and the Portuguese style cuisine was presented beautifully and just out of this world delightful! Following your meal, head up to their rooftop for incredible 360º views.
Shop the upscale Avenida da Liberdade. The avenue is wide and lovely with plenty of shops and restaurants. It reminds us of the Champs Elysees in Paris only more shaded with all the mature trees and somehow more relaxed. All the high-end shops can be found along the Avenida da Liberdade. If you're interested in purchasing something fashionable you will find it here. And don't forget this cost-saver tip: take advantage of VAT refunds. Certain purchases over a minimum euro limit qualify for a VAT (Value Added Tax) refund of between 12% - 15% by the government but require the retailer to provide the appropriate documentation.
If you have time for a day trip out of Lisbon, try these popular destinations...
Sintra (day trip from Lisbon) - Romantic palaces of a bygone era.
Hire a driver or take a tour or train/bus on a day trip from Lisbon to Sintra.
Things to do and see on your day trip from Lisbon:
Pena Palace and park. This is a must-see when in Portugal. Not only do you have this amazing hilltop palace where Portuguese royalty once lived to visit with incredible views of the Atlantic ocean, but you can easily hike the park with its lush fern gardens and hidden paths for hours on end. Tip 1: trust us and buy a timeslotted ticket to be first in the palace. Otherwise, you'll end up waiting in the line for your timeslot with a hundred other people (and is not marked so ask around) and due to the thousands of tourists waiting in line ahead of you, you won't gain entry to the palace until well after your designated time. And even after you get bleeped to go through the castle gate, the line continues in single file throughout the majority of your palace visit. Tip 2: get a taxi or hire a driver to take you to the front entrance or take Bus 434 from the train station. It's a long steep one way road to the top with lots of traffic and walking is NOT an option.
Moorish Castle. Full disclosure: Bubbly Tourist didn't see this castle because of all the time spent waiting to get in the Pena Palace, but it's convenient enough to the palace and park so stop in and take in this monument. The walls of this fortification look pretty dramatic against the coastal background and there's centuries of history here. The Moors (or Moops if you're a Seinfield fan) lived here until 1147 and then by the Christians through the 15th century.
The town of Sintra. This adorable hillside town is a perfect stop after visiting the Pena palace, park and castle. Take a break and grab a bite to eat, do some shopping (we bought an olive serving platter), or have a drink. You can also visit the National Palace of Sintra which we did not do. Per the recommendation of our driver, we had a Travesseiro which is a famous pastry of the Sintra area. It's a pillow shaped puff pastry (travesseiro literally translates to "pillow") that is light and airy and filled with a sweet almond cream with powdered sugar on top. Yum! We also stopped at Cantinho do Lord Byron for a drink. This tiny little pub has outdoor seating right on the cobblestoned street which makes for an excellent spot to relax.
National Palace and Gardens of Queluz. This beautiful off-the-beaten path palace and gardens is a must-see. Avoid the mistake we made and visit Queluz after visiting and not before the Pena Palace of Sintra. See Tip1 above and be first in line at the Pena Palace. Tour the beautifully decorated palace and take the time to see the beautiful fountains and the azulejo lined swimming pool and palace walls. The palace was permanently inhabited by three generations of the Portuguese Royal Family until their departure in 1807 to Brazil due to the Napoleonic invasion.
Cascais (60 minutes from Lisbon) - Beautiful seaside village near Lisbon
Cascais is easily accessible via train from Lisbon's Cais do Sodre train station which is the final station on the green metro line. Cais do Sodre terminates in the center of Cascais and can also take you to other of the region's finest beaches outside of Lisbon.
Looking for an oasis of rest for a day or longer? There are beaches, spas, pools and walks from which to choose in Cascais. Head to this upscale village full of shops and seafood restaurants along the sea. Interested in sports: rent a bike, a surfboard or a court to play paddle. Interested in food & drink: pick from a selection of nice restaurants, have a refreshing cocktail, or just chill with some bubbly on a patio overlooking the water.