We took the train from Sevilla to Lisbon where we had a little attic apartment in the Bairro Alto neighborhood for a week.
Lisbon is a really cool city. Mix of old and new, brightly-colored azulejo tiles and paint, graffiti and street art galore, open-air bars in every park, incredible vistas, delicious and inexpensive food everywhere. We also got a little slice of home because the Ponte 25 de Abril bridge looks almost exactly like the Golden Gate Bridge. Between that and the “Christ the King” statue (which looks very similar to the “Christ the Redeemer” statue in Rio, Brazil), I sometimes had to remind myself where we were!
The streets are paved with white and black marble cubes that can only be laid by men who have had special training in that art. They create amazing patterns on the ground: geometric, typographical, flora and fauna, even echoing the shadows and outlines of the surrounding buildings. With this, the azulejo tiles, and the eclectic street art, the city could seem overwhelming with patterns and images but somehow it all works together.
There are little lookout spots throughout the city where you can get incredible views over the river and surrounds, most of them even have little outdoor bars where you can get a drink while you enjoy the view. (You could even take that drink to go as having open containers in public is totally allowed, and even encouraged!)
Sintra: One day we took the train to the hill town of Sintra. It’s a cute and colorful little town, but its main draw is that it is full of palaces. On our friend’s suggestion we checked out the Quinta da Regaleira; unfortunately we had underestimated the length of the train ride so we didn’t have much time to check out any of the other palaces.
The Quinta da Regaleira was definitely cool to check out! The property sprawls up a hill and consists mostly of lush gardens and winding pathways. There are tons of little man-made grottos in the rocks, underground tunnels, and even two “wells” which are more like the stairwells of underground tunnels. There are statues and stone structures strewn throughout the gardens and we had fun just getting lost in it all. The palace itself is a richly-decorated Gothic mansion with intricate detailing inside and out.
Cascais: Another day we headed out to the adorable coastal town of Cascais (“cash k-eye-sh”) where we rented bicycles and rode along the beach paths. It was a beautiful day and we got some amazing views! We also wandered around the town a bit and when the place we tried for lunch was full, the owner sent us to his brother’s restaurant which was “just as good because [they] were taught by the same woman.”
Not having much experience with Portuguese food, we decided to get our bearings by doing a food tour at the beginning of our stay in Lisbon. We aren’t usually ones for big organized touristy things, but we really enjoyed this tour! It was just five of us on the tour—us, an older couple from Australia, and our guide—so it was a nice size and we actually got to chat and learn quite a bit. Our guide took us mostly around the Mouraria neighborhood, one of the oldest in Lisbon and the birthplace of Portugal’s famous Fado music. It ended up being about a four-hour tour (cue the Gilligan’s Island theme song… 😉) and we stopped at seven different locations to try bits of traditional Portuguese cuisine. Our favorites were: pata negra (ham from the black Iberian pigs, similar to Iberico ham in Spain), vinho verde wine, Mozambique samosas with super spicy chutney and cashew juice (did you know that cashews have a fruit??), and pastéis de nata with an espresso.
We also learned quite a bit of history about Lisbon and the Mouraria neighborhood. Our guide told us about the history and culture surrounding Portuguese cuisine and happily answered our questions and gave us recommendations. We spent almost three weeks in Portugal so this was a really great way to start the trip!
Food: The strangest thing, for a country with such a long coastline and access to super fresh fish, is that they love preserved fish! Salt cod, bacalhau, is a national delicacy even though the fish all comes from Norway or Iceland now. And there are entire stores dedicated to just selling different kinds of canned fish! But we did up eating quite a bit of bacalhau and it was pretty delicious, so I guess they are on to something…
Time Out magazine and the city of Lisbon teamed up to turn a traditional market into a massive food hall right near the water, filled with different food and drink stalls. We ended up spending way too much time there! It’s kind of an ode to Portuguese and Lisbon food, with places to try all of the regional favorites and local products, plus selections from some of the best restaurants in town. We went for a quick lunch one day, then went back another day for dinner where we sampled several places, and then went back again on our last day while waiting for our train. Mmmm…
Pastéis de Nata. These delicious little custard tarts are rich and addictive. They fall into a general category of egg yolk-heavy confections known as “conventual sweets”: Legend has it that these were traditionally made by the nuns in the cloisters because they needed to do something with the egg yolks after using the whites to starch the priests’ collars. So bakeries have rows upon rows of deep yellow pastries and confections. The pastel de nata has a super crispy-crunchy pastry shell and a rich, creamy, sweet and lightly lemon-flavored custard; it is baked at super high temperatures so the tops are always a little blackened but don’t taste burnt. They are best served with a sprinkle of cinnamon on the top and with an espresso on the side. The original recipe was created by monks of the Jerónimosis Monastery and now is known only by the chefs of Fábrica dos Pastéis de Belém. It is closely guarded and only the tarts that come from that bakery can be called “pastéis de belém“; if they come from anywhere else they are “pastéis de nata.” We visited the original bakery in Belém where they churn out the tarts by the tens of thousands every day but we actually didn’t think they were the best. We averaged about one pastel de nata per day while in Lisbon. 🙂
Wine. Portugal has really good, really inexpensive wine! Like, really inexpensive. And there are over 250 different grape varietals in the small country! Our food tour guide told us how there isn’t a market in the country for smaller production, (relatively) more expensive wines, so those mostly get exported to the US which is why we don’t see Portuguese wine very frequently at home. We got to try a lot, but I think our favorite was vinho verde: a light (usually) white, low-alcohol, slightly effervescent wine (it is “green” because it is young not because of the color) which is extremely drinkable and refreshing.
Fish. We tried bacalhau in several different forms and the best is definitely cooked in the oven with lots of olive oil and served with roasted potatoes and greens. It is quite the process to prepare it, as it has to be soaked in water for up to several days, depending on the size of the piece, changing the water frequently, to reconstitute it and remove some of the salt; if it is soaked for too long it will lose its flavor, but if it’s not soaked long enough it will be inedibly salty. Before it is cooked, it has a…pungent aroma; they sell it in the grocery stores and it perfumes the air throughout almost the entire store. I had to hold my breath while shopping in that section of the stores…
We also tried fresh, grilled sardines which were delicious! Salty but mild, crispy skin, a little bit smokey, we were instructed by our friend Nzeke to eat them with our hands by pinching the meat off the bones. Really yummy, but our hands smelled a bit fishy for a while… (The next time, we used knife and fork, which may be blasphemous but was worth it to not have fish-hands.)
Mosteiro dos Jerónimos: We braved the long line to check out this totally incredible monastery and it was completely worth it. The cloisters are made from intricately carved honey-colored stone; the detail everywhere is amazing and no two columns are alike.
Being social: We met Nzeke through our friend Jarrett. He lives in Munich but is from Lisbon so when we decided to visit we reached out to him to get his suggestions. He responded with detailed itinerary of activities in and around Lisbon, and that he would actually be home for the weekend when we were in town! So we made plans to meet up and Nzeke showed us around a bit; it was really fun to get a local’s perspective and to hang out with a familiar face. We also meet one of his brothers and some of his friends who were visiting from all over, so we got to be more social than we had been in a while!
We even went out to a sunset party at a club in Lisbon one night with Nzeke and his friends. I was reticent about going at first (not being a huge clubbing person myself, and not really having anything to wear), but it ended up being quite the experience and actually some fun! The club had it all: electronic music, limbo bars, zombies (yup.), that thing where you stand in a cage and try to catch dollar bills, etc.
The night ended with some of our group going in a different direction and us somehow accumulating ten new random Portuguese friends and then all of us going out for burgers at midnight. Martin and I kind of smiled through the meal since we couldn’t understand the conversation in Portuguese, but as soon as the other folk realized that we were American they all apologized and switched to English just for our benefit. After we finished up our beers and burgers, Martin and I decided to call it (we were ridiculed for going to bed “early”…at midnight) and we said goodbye to our new friends—like a receiving line at a wedding, everyone lined up to give us goodbye hugs and kisses and to wish us well on our travels, even though we had never learned any of their names.
Stay tuned for more of our adventures in Portugal!