If you’ve been keeping up with my recent instagram stories about Lisbon, you probably already know that Portugal was a last resort destination idea for our annual spring break excursion. Dan and I were in search of some warm weather, or at least a degree or two higher than the snowstorm we were experiencing in D.C. in APRIL (Get it together, climate change). We quickly scoured the internet for sandy beaches without the threat of Zika and landed with San Diego, the Canary Islands and Lagos, Portugal, all that would be worth traveling to for nine days. Thank heavens for Google Flights because after some quick price comparisons, we learned it was far cheaper for us to head over to Europe than towards the west coast. We were able to get to Portugal on points (want more info on this? Let me know!) with a layover in London on the way there and Frankfurt on the way back. Although the flights were on the longer side (8 hours followed by 2.5 hours), it was so worth the destination awaiting us.
To be honest, with a lot of life changes happening on the homefront, this trip snuck up on us and we weren’t as prepared as we typically like to be. Luckily, Lisbon is so accessible that we could easily see all the sights with little prep. As soon as we landed, I knew this city was something special. The people are overwhelmingly friendly (so much so that our uber drive offered to drive us to the sights for free simply because he enjoyed them so much)! This is clearly a place where people are proud to reside and eager to share all the nooks and crannies it has to offer. Which thankfully, we gulped up all their suggestions considering we had little more than a quick internet search on where to begin.
For me, Portugal feels like the tourism boom in Iceland circa 2010. It’s mostly unknown to the rest of the world but its gems are slowly being discovered by outsiders. Not only are the quaint cities surrounded by illuminating aqua waters and secluded beaches, but, unlike Iceland, it’s affordable! Coming from D.C., I’d even go as far to say it was cheap. We spent less money in Portugal than we would have spent at home. Seriously. And, it’s walkable. With mostly sunny weather, you rarely have to fear that rain will ruin your plans. You can access the entire city on foot and feel extremely safe while doing so. While pickpocketing is a real concern, it was nothing compared to the continuous fear I had in Paris. Dan was offered drugs here and there by some street hustlers, but they weren’t aggressive and most of them appeared to be young teens.
TL:DR my wordy intro? Here are the facts:
Inexpensive (think small-town prices with big city lifestyle)
Walkable with easy public transportation (think N.Y.C.)
Pleasant weather year-round (think San Diego)
Welcoming and friendly locals (…don’t think Barcelona)
Not overrun by tourists in the spring season (like Nice, France or the coast of Italy)
Incredible landscapes and outdoor activities (think Cliffs of Moher, but sunnier)
Awesome music (folk and jazzy twists on all your favorites)
Okay, enough gushing for now. But seriously, if Portugal isn’t on your radar, put it there! We left having met the most interesting people, including other tourists who also felt as though they’d stumbled upon Fotor’s best kept secret. Since our days were so jam-packed, this post is going to focus on a brief itinerary (ha who’s kidding, I’m never brief) of what we did each day and I’ll have supplemental posts on the tours and day trips we took, as well as our journey down to the southern coast.
Let’s get to it! We flew overnight from Dulles outside of D.C. and landed in Lisbon early Sunday morning. Uber is a must in the city for the cheapest prices. It was only seven euros to get from the airport to our hotel in under 15 minutes. We opted to stay at Fontecruz Lisboa, Autograph Collection which was a major win. We’re loving these quirky boutique hotels lately. The interior design is so spunky and the rooms were massive for European standards. Plus, we were located right on the main strip and could easily access all of the sights by foot, which we planned to do immediately!
Per suggestion of the concierge, we started our day walking through the Bairro Alto district. Full of restaurants and small shops, this neighborhood comes alive at night and is the best place to grab a drink. There are lots of photo ops here of the narrow alleyways and pastel-colored buildings (a theme carried out through all of Portugal).
Alfama District, São Jorge Castle, and the 25 de Abril Bridge
We continued our walk up to the Alfama district in search of lunch. One of the oldest districts in Lisbon, the Alfama neighborhood is filled with traditional colorful tiles lining narrow cobblestone alleyways. We headed out this way late afternoon to make our way up to the São Jorge Castle for sunset. We purchased castle tickets for a few euros to go into the castle but mostly so we could see the view. It was certainly well worth it! This is also one of the best spots to see the April 25th Bridge, whose history is fascinating if you’re into that stuff! If it looks familiar, that’s because it was created by the same architect as the Golden Gate Bridge. You’ll also be able to see the Christ the King statue that was a replica from the one in Rio De Janeiro in Brazil. I absolutely loved the fact that Lisbon had no shame in incorporating qualities of other cities. It sure made an eclectic sight!
Time Out Market
We were absolutely starving after walking up all the stairs and were eager to try out a dinner place that had been suggested by both tourists and locals alike. This would be an easy and cheap uber ride, but we got into the rhythm of walking everywhere so we just kept it up as we headed to the Time Out Market. What appeared to once be an abandoned warehouse was now a large building filled with selections from top restaurants around the city at reasonable prices. Wine and dessert included! We had a blast wondering to the different stations and finally settled on some fresh fish and pumpkin risotto that was nothing short of amazing. We capped the evening with custards tarts, a Lisbon specialty, and made our way back to our hotel.
Wine Tour and Sesimbra
We got an early start to the morning as we headed to our first excursion outside of the city. We were eager to try some Portuguese wine from wineries across the country side. I’m doing a separate post on this day but our Viator tour consisted of time in Arrabida and Sesimbra with free time hanging out on Portinho da Arrabida Beach. It also included views of Lisbon and the Atlantic from Arrabida Natural Park and Cristo Rei Sanctuary. And, of course, wine tasting at two wineries with bottles ranging from 2 euros (seriously!) to well over 100. To be honest, we had wished there was one more winery to visit, but we greatly enjoyed the two that were included.
Miradouro da Graça Photoshoot
We ended our day meeting up with another tourist (who also happened to be from D.C.) whom I met via the world wide web (shout out #gltlove!) who asked if we would be her subject for a photoshoot throughout the Lisbon streets. Obviously, we were down for that and excited to see some new areas. We met at Miradouro da Graça and photographed our way down until, you guessed it, we ended up back at Time Out Market for dinner. After another delicious meal, we took part in the Lisbon tradition of ginjinha, a cherry liqueur, in a chocolate shot glass at Ginginha do Carmo. Cheers to new friends!
Sintra Tour, Pena castle, Quinta da Regaleira, Cabo Da Roc, Hellmouth, and Cascais
Our next day was another Viator tour that I was the most excited about. While I’ll give a full tour recap on another day, here were the highlights! We ended up getting a private tour with Hugo for reasons we didn’t quite understand (off-season?) but we were pumped either way. Sintra is known as the fairytale village with castles overlooking a charming village. While this day trip is well worth your time, Sintra recently altered traffic patterns to cater to the locals that makes traveling there very difficult, even for professional tour guides. It was quite the headache making our way into the village, but we eventually parked farther away and walked in to explore the sweet town. After another round of custard tarts, we headed to Pena Castle, aka the castle in the clouds. Next, we headed to Quinta da Regaleira, a majestic estate full of winding paths. Then it was on to gorgeous viewpoints at Cabo Roca and Hellmouth, along with a brief stop in Cascais, a ritzy neighborhood outside of Lisbon. This tour was a very full day, but an absolute blast and highly recommended! We adored our tour guide and loved learning so much about life in Portugal.
Bonus fun: If you remember our last spring break trip to Yosemite National Park in California, we spent a solid day in search of Sequoia trees but ended up only finding stumps. Well, much to our disbelief, there were healthy and large Sequoia trees all over the Quinta da Regaleira. We were so happy to have finally witnessed the golden prize! Fingers crossed it stays that way.
The next day we took a bus down to Lagos, which I’ll get to next week. We spent three days on the Algarve coast while staying at Casa Mae and it was a dream! More to come. Now, back to Lisbon.
Belém Tower, Belém Pastries and District
We took a bus back to Lisbon late morning fully sunburned from Lagos and got to our hotel around 2pm. I was ready to call it a day but I’m so glad Dan encouraged me to head out to one more sight we wanted to see. We took a quick uber down to the Belém Tower, a fortified tower that overlooks the river intersecting with the Atlantic. I thought this was going to be one of those obscure sights that’s far away from everything, but it turns out Belém was one of my favorite neighborhoods to explore! The day was warm enough for us to enjoy burgers outside and people-watch for a couple hours. We made it back to our hotel with plenty of time to watch quality Portuguese reality television and get some extra rest for a 4:30am wake up call for a flight back home. Overall, we left with a new appreciation for Portugal and plans to come back sometime in the future. Stay tuned for next week’s post on the secrets of the Algarve coast!
Have you been to Lisbon? Is Portugal on your radar yet?