Lisbon: people, weather, food
When you ask people what they love about Portugal, it’s usually a variation of “weather, people, food.” For us, it’s “people, weather, food.” We have seriously enjoyed talking with almost everyone we’ve met in Portugal, both locals and tourists. It’s as if something magical happens when people enter this country and everyone becomes helpful and kind. Kind of like if Burning Man was a country. Perhaps the most impactful people we met on this leg of our trip were our Airbnb Host Monica, who was a tremendous resource when Clay and I both ended up needing medical help. You can read more about those experiences here and here.
Someone used the term, “perpetual spring” and I think that’s a good explanation for Portugal’s moderate climate. Though it’s obviously different depending on where you are in the country, the average temperature is 21 °C (69.8° F) with dips down to 14 °C (57° F) in the winter and up to 29 °C in the height of summer (84.2° F).
While we are not gourmands, we do like to eat and we loved just about everything we ate and drank in the different places we visited in Portugal. And we’re not alone in this as Portugal was just listed #13 on the Best Cuisine in the World by TasteAtlas. The focus on fresh, local food, combined with a rich cultural food heritage and creative chefs all contribute to this. Another big factor is that Portugal figured out how to get a piece of the spice trade back in the 1500s, so they’ve had access to a wide variety of seasonings for a very long time. As we do in most countries, we experienced one of Lisbon’s parrishes, Campo de Orique, through a food tour, which I’ll talk about more below.
Visiting Portugal’s capital
Since we loved Porto, we assumed we’d love Lisbon as well, and that was a correct assumption. Lisbon has the same Portugal vibe that we’d already fallen in love with, along with great weather, kind people and delicious food. It’s much bigger than Porto, with approximately 2 million people compared to 350,000, so you also get the big city vibe in case you’re looking for that.
Since we weren’t quite ready to jump back into a big city, we chose an Airbnb that was outside Lisbon proper. Queijas is technically a village that’s about a 20-minute car ride from Lisbon. With a population of fewer than 30,000 people, it was the perfect size for us to escape the hubbub of Lisbon, with easy access to the city. Our Queijas Airbnb was lovely, actually the best we’ve stayed in on this adventure.
Since we had two weeks in this magical place, we took it easy, alternating tours with wandering through the charming stores and cafes in Queijas. This easy-breezy approach fit right in with the area and allowed us to absorb even more of Portugal’s (and Lisbon’s) fascinating history.
One of the biggest differences between Porto and Lisbon (besides the size) is the age of their structures. Lisbon suffered a horrific 9.0 earthquake in 1755, followed by a tsunami, destroying nearly 85% of the city’s buildings, including many palaces, museums and libraries. As the earthquake happened on All Saints Day, many houses were full of lit candles, which got knocked over and the resulting fires destroyed most of what had survived the other two catastrophes. This means that most of Lisbon’s buildings are “new” compared to Porto, which boasts many buildings from the 12th century.
The bigger loss, of course, were the people who were killed. According to SMS-Tsunami-Warning.com: “The 1755 Lisbon earthquake was one of the most destructive and deadly earthquakes in history, killing more than a third of the entire population of the Portuguese capital. Tens of thousands of Portuguese who survived the earthquake were killed by the tsunami triggered by the earthquake. The tsunami was accountable for most of the about 70,000 deaths in Portugal, Spain and Morocco.” The triple catastrophe also took much of Lisbon’s historical works of art and records of exploration.
I cannot imagine the grit it would take to come back from a disaster of this magnitude, and I wonder if overcoming that has contributed to the overall sense of unity we felt in Lisbon.
Portugal’s Maritime Prowess
We learned a lot of the details of the earthquake on a sailing tour of the Tagus River, which starts in Spain and empties into the Atlantic Ocean in Lisbon (the river, not our tour). Sailing is the perfect way to experience this area, as it allows you a birdseye (fish eye?) view, and Captain Rui was a great narrator, sharing details about Lisbon’s history (much of which centered on sailing).
He told us about how Portugal wanted a piece of the lucrative spice trade in the early 1500s, and sailing seemed like the most obvious way to get it. Portugal’s government invested heavily in its sailing operations, which paid off handsomely when a route was opened up by Francisco Serrão, who sailed to the Spice Islands in 1512.
The first person responsible for circumnavigating the globe on a voyage that lasted from 1519-1522, was Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, though he didn’t technically get the honors as he was killed in a skirmish in the Philippines. It’s believed his second in command, Juan Sebastian Elcano, was in charge when they returned in triumph. WorldHistory.com shares that “this first circumnavigation has been described as the greatest voyage of exploration ever undertaken.”
Captain Rui was a fantastic storyteller, sharing anecdotes about brave (and not-so-brave) sailors, as well as pirates and torture methods intended to keep crewmen (most of whom were prisoners) in line. We also enjoyed spending time with two groups of young people visiting from the UK to escape the craziness of the coronation.
Lisbon Landmarks on the tagus
We saw many Lisbon landmarks from the Tagus, and then went back later to explore them close-up.
Located near the Belém Marina is the Torre de Belém, which seriously looks like a gigantic sandcastle, even up close. Constructed in the 15th century, it originally served as a fort and ceremonial welcome to dignitaries and returning sailors. Though it’s pretty austere inside, it’s definitely worth paying for a visit to get a better idea of the world they were inhabiting then. There are even historic cannons and cannonballs to remind us that not all visitors were friendly. There are also terrific views from the top, so you can experience how effective it was serving its role as a fort.
We used the GetYourGuide self-guided audio tour to explore at our own pace.
Just down the coast from the Torre de Belém is the Monument to the Discoveries, which was created under the rule of Prime Minister Antonio Salazar, Portugal’s last dictator, as a way to celebrate the Portuguese Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries. The monument, which stands 52 meters (170 feet) tall, was conceived of by José Ângelo Cottinelli Telmo and sculptor Leopoldo de Almeida, and unveiled during the Portuguese World Exhibition in 1940, to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator.
Though it would be hard to deny the talent involved in the craftsmanship, it is considered by many to be a fascist statue because of its connection to Salazar. Captain Rui also told us that they’re starting to change the words they use when they talk about this era, since the Portuguese didn’t actually discover new lands, as most of the areas they conquered were already inhabited. Though they haven’t actually changed it to “Age of Exploration,” that made a lot more sense to us so that filter allowed us to more fully appreciate the statue.
The Cristo Rei monument, which was inspired by the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, was erected by the Catholic Church in 1959, in gratitude for being spared many of the horrors of World War II. We only saw it from the sailboat, but we understand it’s an incredible experience to visit it up close.
The 28-meter (90ft) statue stands on a 75-meter (246 ft) tall pedestal, and is reached by an elevator. To get there, take the commuter ferry from Cais de Sodre Station in central Lisbon, then hop on bus 3001, which ends at the statue. It’s free to visit, but there is a €6 charge to go to the top from July to October, and €5 the rest of the year. Children between the ages of 8 and 12 pay €2.50.
The bridge linking Lisbon to Almada was known as the Salazar Bridge (Ponte Salazar) at its creation in 1966. In 1974, in a literal nod to the Carnation Revolution which officially ended Salazar’s rule, the bridge was renamed the 25 de Abril Bridge, the date of the revolution. The 25th of April Bridge was built by American company Morrison-Knudsen, which also built the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, and you can see the similarities between the two. It also boasts the same orange color as San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. At 2,277 meters (1.4 miles), it is the longest suspension bridge in Europe.
We highly recommend taking Captain Rui’s sailing tour as a great way to enjoy Lisbon’s lovely weather, the Tagus and some great storytelling.
More Maritime History
Fascinated by Captain Rui’s stories (and those we heard from others along the way), we went back to Belem to visit the Museu de Marinha (Maritime Museum) later in our trip. The Museum, which was founded by King Luís in 1863, to honor Portugal’s navy, documents the country’s maritime dominance chronologically, through more than 17,000 historical maritime instruments, maps, globes, statues and replicas of ships.
In the summer, the Museu do Marinha is open every day from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm and it is accessible, with plenty of parking.
Historic maps are really fascinating when you think about what went into them and how long it took to get something accurate. Brave and often foolhardy sailors had to leave land without knowing for sure what was out there, and then sketch and measure along the way. We loved examining these maps and seeing how incredibly accurate they were, doubly impressive when you consider many were created in the 1500s.
A Day Trip to Sintra
They’re both incredible and I’m glad we had the chance to experience them with our guide, Pedro. When he gave us the history behind the Palace, he let us know that it was originally built as a monastery in 1511 under the order of King Manuel I. Much of it was destroyed in the earthquake of 1755, and its current iteration was King Fernando II’s “dream” for a summer house for the royal family in 1838. That description makes perfect sense when you experience this whimsical palace, called “one of the best expressions of 19th century Romanticism in the world.”
As we had been warned, the Palace was packed and Pedro did a masterful job of parking our van, and then leading us up the hill and navigating the crowds. I honestly don’t know why everyone doesn’t use a guide for experiences like this. Without him, we would have had no idea what we were seeing. And, as importantly, we were able to spend less time in line.
Pena Palace is open every day from 9:30 am to 6:30 pm. There are coffee shops, restaurants and bathroom facilities and much of the palace is wheelchair-accessible (though it can be a challenge getting up there). It is surrounded by 200 hectares (494 acres) of Pena Park, filled with secret paths, pavilions, lakes, ponds and exotic trees.
After our visit to the Pena Palace, Pedro took us to Sintra and told us about this charming town, which is home to many architectural and historical wonders, including the Palace of Monserrate, the Palace of Ribafrias, the Moorish Castle, the Palace of Seteais, the Quinta de Regaleira, the Trinity Convent of the Arrabalde and the Church of Santa Maria.
Pedro then introduced us to ginjinha (delicious cherry liqueur in a chocolate cup), followed by a queijada (a small pie filled with cheese, sugar, eggs, flour and cinnamon, wrapped in crunchy dough). Um, yes please.
While we enjoyed learning about Sintra and the Pena Palace, we really appreciated everything Pedro shared with us about Lisbon and Portugal — the history, as well as what it’s like to live there now. We also enjoyed getting to know the other members of our small group, all of whom hailed from different parts of the United States.
We highly recommend this tour. Ask for Pedro!
Visiting a Castle
The Castelo de São Jorge is another literal highlight of Lisbon. Sitting on top of the city’s highest hill, it offers amazing views of the city and Tagus River. It is also lorded over by a flock of peacocks, which take their roles as ambassadors quite seriously.
Named after the patron saint of England, Saint George, SaoJorgeCastleTiickets.com shares: “It is widely considered the first known human settlement that developed through time and made the city what it is today. Once inside the castle, you’ll see ruins of three separate periods in Lisbon’s history: the first known settlement from the 7th century BC, the second from the Moorish era residential area from the mid-11th century, and the third from the last palatine residence in the former alcáçova.”
Though the structure is no longer very castle-like, it does give great insight into early Lisbon through the architectural ruins. The Portuguese government has also invested heavily in creating an overall experience with plenty of room for exploration, walking, picnics and enjoying the sun.
GetYourGuide offers a self-guided audio tour, allowing you to walk and learn at your own pace.
Exploring Lisbon’s Food Scene
Lisbon’s food scene can be overwhelming, so we were glad that our guide, Sophia, focused on one neighborhood, Campo de Orique. We loved Sophia from the second we met her, as we did with the other members of our group, Andy and Verena from Hanover, Germany, and Ashley and Ashley from California.
Sophia did a terrific job of setting expectations for the group at the beginning of the tour, explaining what foods we’d eat and roughly how long we’d be together. She also double-checked with the group about food allergies, or items anyone was adverse to eating.
With the details out of the way, we set off to our first stop for a breakfast of coffee, juice, sandwiches made with the Bread of God, and Az de Comer pastries (which are only available at the restaurant).
She then took us to the Mercado Campo de Orique, where our senses were overwhelmed by the beauty and smells of flowers, a variety of hot nuts, olive oil, wine, dried meats and cheeses.
After a short walk through some beautiful neighborhoods, she took us through secret hallways and up several flights of stairs, to a charming patio, where we enjoyed a seafood lunch and (of course) pastel de nata, though this variety had a vegan twist.
Although Sophia has only lived in Lisbon since last July, she’s been coming to Portugal for nearly 20 years and knew the city well; and the restaurants’ staff members greeted her warmly (and they all expected her and were ready for our arrival).
The food was delicious, and Sophia is a terrific ambassador for the Campo de Orique food scene. We highly recommend booking a tour with her.
so much more
Though we spent almost two weeks in the Lisbon area, it wasn’t nearly enough to experience everything this beautiful city has to offer. One afternoon on the Hop On Hop Off Bus gave us another list of experiences we have to check out when we go back, and there are five other bus line/tours we didn’t take.
What are your favorite sights, sounds and tastes of Lisbon? Leave us a comment so we can add it to our list for when we go back! In the meantime, get to know some of the people we met on our trip.
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