After two years lockdown, we finally got to visit Lisbon in the Easter holidays. We spent 5 days in Trafaria, a tiny, typical Portugese fisherman’s village located between Lisbon’s city center and the Costa Caparica. Ideal to visit Portugal’s intriguing capital, Sintra fairytales’ castles and golden beaches. In this blog, some tips on what not to miss out when you are heading to Portugal’s capital.
#1 Take a stroll and admire tiles in the narrow lanes of the old city center and Alfama
Lisbon’s heart is in the old city center, with it’s narrow lanes, majestic castle, pastel houses, all starting from the Praça do Commércio or Lisbon’s ‘Market Square’. The old city center is not big at all, around 4 kilometers in wide, and easy accessible on foot. Or you can take a tuk-tuk, immensely popular next to Tram 28.
There is indeed vintage Tram 28, the famous bright yellow (or sometimes even red) Lisbon’s tram, which brings you through the backstreets of Baixa and the winding postcard perfect streets of Alfama up to the hilltop of Graça. We intended to take it but in the end didn’t so: too much queuing.
Instead, we walked the area, taking at hand a walking route from Lonelyplanet. We started at the Praça do Commércio, passed the pedestrian shopping street of Baixa, passed the Elevader de Santa Justa, up to the Miradouro da Senhora do Monte, the Miradouro da Graça and the Castelo de São Jorge ending up, via the Miradouro de Santa Luzia, in the narrow backstreets of Alfama. It’s by times a pretty steep climb, but the walk gives you a great view on the city’s best and it’s special atmosphere.
What I liked most – besides the narrow lanes in Alfama – were the various exquisite tiles to be found on houses, fountains, monuments, … some more pictures in one of my next blogs. In any event, watch out for them and enjoy the various patterns and colours, it’s true artwork.
#2 Visit Belem’s treasures
Belem is a mixture of historic and modern Lisbon. There is a lot to explore, ranging from a heart-stealing monastry over excellent musea, Lisbon’s most famous ‘Torre’ and monolithic, the famous Pastéis de Belém, sailing trips and a kilometers long bike path with cosy waterfront foodstalls and restaurants.
Top of the bill and one of Portugal’s highlights is the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, a masterpiece of 16th-century architecture in Portugal and inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List (1983). This magnificent monastry overlooks the Tagus River. The monastery It is a true ‘chant’ to the Manueline style, as can be seen by the profusion of religious, nautical and regal elements that have been perpetuated in stone.
The connected church at the western portal – to be visited free of charge – seems to be build up by tree-trunk-like columns that grow into the ceiling, forming a delightful interplay with the sun seeping through the church’s windows. In the lower chancel, just left of the entrance, the remains of Vasco da Gamma are interred.
From the Mosteiro it’s only a few minutes walk to Pastéis de Belém, Belem’s one and only traditional bakery making, since 1837, Portugal’s time-honoured sweet Pastéis de Belém following the original recipe. You can either enjoy the sweet inside or ‘take it away’ at the counter, next to other delicious pastries. We went for the ‘take away’ and bought 6 pastries in a package, still lukewarm and with cinnamon toppings, and were lucky not to be in the long queue we saw when passing by … so, go early in the morning -:).
From the Mosteiro you can also further explore Belem’s area to the south. There are various museums but a must-see is definitely the excellent Museu Coleção Berardo housing a magnificent collection of modern and contemporary art, in origin privately collected by billionaire Berardo Colecção. Already a preview in this blog but more in the next one. You can visit the museum for free on Saturdays.
From the museum, it’s a short walk to Torre de Belém, also Unesco listed and an icon of Portugal’s cultural heritage spread across the world. It is one of the architectural elements punctuating the cityscape of Lisbon’s monumental riverside area of Ajuda-Belém.
From the Torre, a bike and walking lane runs up to the Padrão dos Descobrimentos monument, a standing alone monolith in a striking position on the breakwater on the bank of the Tagus, evoking the Portuguese overseas expansion, recalling the country’s glorious past and symbolizing the enormity of the work carried out by the Infante, the driving force behind the Discoveries. 32 of them are there, significant characters of the Portuguese overseas expansion all portrayed with symbols that allude to their identity: navigators, cartographers, warriors, colonisers, missionaries, chroniclers and artists. The Torre and monument are in full glory at sunrise or sunset.
Walking or biking between both monuments, you pass food stalls, two small harbours and restaurants. The squares at both the Torre and monument were lively at the time of our visits, with some street musician’s playing life music.
If you have some more time to spend around Belem, also worth a visit is the LX factory, or the ‘Factory of Arts’, an ancient industrial area of 23,000m2 in Alcântara transformed in 2007 in Lisbon’s coolest hub of creativity. It’s a vibrant and dynamic place with shops (vintage clothes, crafts, …), art galleries, book shops, rooftop bars and cosy restaurants. We had an excellent vegan Bruschettas at The Therapist.
#3 Take a boat ride
It’s in all travel guides: walk up to the highest point of Lisbon, the Miradouro da Senhora do Monte to overlook Portugal’s capital. And yes, indeed, from this point – which was not crowded when we visited – you have a stunning panoramic overview over the city: the rooftops of Baixa, the pastel tones of the houses and castles, the Tagus estuary and the Ponte 25 de Abril, the longest suspension bridge in Europe. You find a similar lookout at the Miradouro da Graça, where you can not only enjoy the view, but also enjoy a coffee in the shade of the church under pine trees.
But why not admire the city from the southern banks of the Tejo? You can have an excellent view on Portugal’s capital by simply hopping on a ferry. Admittedly, these ferries are designed for commuters – they want to avoid the heavy traffic rush on the Ponte 25 de Abril – and unfortunately have no outside passenger’s deck, but the ferry journey offers amazing views over the city center, the suspension bridge and is, on top, inexpensive. You can of course also go for a more expensive river cruise.
We took two routes.
Since we were staying in Trafaria, we took the ferry from Tafaria to Belem, which takes about 20 minutes. Trafaria ia a typical Portugese fishing village and has excellent restaurants (see more information on our next blog). From Trafaria, there are bus connections to the beaches of Costa da Caparica.
More popular however is the Cais do Sodré to Cacilhas, the waterfront district directly across the river in Almada. The crossing only takes 8 minutes. Not only do you come close to the Ponte 25 de Abril, you can at Cacilhas also take a connecting bus to the Cristo Rei monument and the beaches of Costa da Caparica.
#4 Spend a day in Sintra and head back by Cabo da Roca
One of Portugal’s highlights and only about 40 kilometers from the city center is Sintra, definitely worth a visit. Hidden in a cool majestic pine forest you find exotic gardens, glittering palaces, extravagant villa’s and colorful manors connected by narrow, winding roads. It’s like stepping in a fairytale.
We went for just one day, just enough to enjoy two of the highlights: Palacio Nacional da Pena and Quinta da Regaleira and have a short stroll through the village. Quinta da Regaleira was our favourite, read all about it in my Sintra blog.
#5 Explore the beaches
Lisbon and beaches go well together. If you want to enjoy sun and sand and even go surfing after a day citytripping, just head southward in the direction of Costa da Caparica.
Costa da Caparica is a typical beach town with wide golden beaches and dune-backed sands facing the Atlantic stretching out for about 15 kilometers to the south. Surfers look up the mighty waves.
The beaches in the town itself, near the beach promenade, are very busy, full of surfers and surf clubs. If you head south however, the beaches are less crowdy, just as the S. João beach in the north. Along the beaches, you find excellent beach bars and restaurants.
We hiked up to the Praia da Reinha and had lunch at Casa do Sol, a pleasant beach restaurant serving excellent snacks and sandwiches. We returned on foot via the beach and city beach promenade, flanked by 24 boxy seaside bars, restaurants and surf clubs, good for a colourful, vibrant atmosphere.