SETTING THE SCENE
When I originally conceived of this blog and accompanying vlog I wanted to weave together three loves when I travel: Education, Exploration, Entertainment. My trip to Lisbon (the third time I visited this incredible city) perfectly fit those three loves.
Without a doubt, Lisbon has it all: rich history, incredible food and music, charm that can be explored on foot, and incredibly varied points of interest in and outside the city. On top of all this, the country is affordable to most Euro budget travelers, varied in geography (boasting some of the best surfing in the world [just check out the HBO’s docu-series, 100 Foot Wave in Praia do Norte in Nazaré), and diversity in culture — African, Asian, Mediterranean, Arab influences a plenty.
On this trip to Portugal, I also drove north and south, quite easily as it’s a 6-hour drive from tip to tip and less than two hours east to west. While the focus of this blog/vlog will be on Lisbon, I will also touch on the side trips I made to the Algarve and Douro valley because honestly, they were some incredible areas to visit and highly recommended to anyone who is visiting the country since it’s so easy to get around!
In short Lisbon’s incredible geography at the mouth of the Tagus river, where the natural harbor made it a strategic seaport for many conquerors from the Romans to the Muslims and later Christian crusaders for over 2,000 years. One of the most seminal events in the city’s history is the famous Earthquake + Fire+ Tsunami that nearly leveled the city in 1755. As you walk through the city, you can see how so many buildings, boulevards, parks etc were built after this time (it was as if that apocalyptic event was a reset for the city’s history).
There is so much history and learnings from just walking around the city. In fact, if I started going through each unique neighborhood, unearthing the main historical monuments and attractions then this blog would become an opus, and frankly who wants to read that. So I bake in the history in the Journey Journal section where you can see some of the main historic highlights I visited.
FLIGHTS & COVID PROTOCOLS: Getting to Lisbon is super easy by plane (again this is for a U.S. based audience). Tons of options. I flew via Germany on United (my carrier of choice) but I had to watch out for COVID protocols. At the time Germany just required a Vax card to transit through, so you want to make sure you avoid transits that require a lot more or worse still, quarantining. Before I left, I had to get a PCR test up to 72 hours before departure, which I did. When I landed in Lisbon I showed them the results and was good to go. Make sure to complete the health pass and upload the necessary documents in advance of the trip so you can show them the QR code when you land.
RENTING CARS & DRIVING: Renting a car here was super easy. I got it on Orbitz as usual and found some awesome deals. Remember to get insurance unless you have certain protections for your credit card (ALWAYS find out what protections you have before flying out so that you can save money while also having the piece of mind that all is well). I would also recommend getting the fast track option in case you are going on highways that have tolls but do not have the option of paying cash. Driving in Portugal is also super easy. No brainer here, except ALWAYS remember in Europe in general the left lane is used for passing cars and you should not stay on it just because you are driving fast. You can get pulled over for this offense. Last thing, driving around Lisbon, unlike some other European capitals (i.e. Paris and Rome) is quite straightforward and not too complicated in terms of historic zones, one way streets, tiny alleys etc. You’ll enjoy it!
DATA PLAN: As always I recommend getting a data plan before traveling anywhere. For one thing, having GPS on the phone is clutch and being able to make and receive calls to make last minute hotel bookings, flight changes, dinner reservations etc. I have T-Mobile by design for this exact reason to be able to use it in many countries around the world.
ACCOMMODATIONS: On this trip to Lisbon I pretty much stayed the entire time at Esqina Cosmopolitan Lodge. Loved this spot. Super central near the Rua Augusta pedestrian shopping street. It’s edgy, artsy, and frankly just a great and reasonable place to stay.
Note, I’m bias too since the hotel staff bent over backwards trying to rescue my apple watch that fell behind the toilet. Huge thank you to Claudia for her heroic work!
Instead of the usual day by day layout, I am providing the highlights of my visit(s) so you can get a sense of what to see, eat and do.
Like I said before, Lisbon is edgy, forward-leaning, uber creative in its approach to celebrating its diverse culture and promoting tourism to all. Exploring the city is super easy given the many different and affordable means of public transportation: scooters (literally all over the place now), bikes, local trains (especially to neighboring towns like Sintra or Casicas), car rentals (cheapest from the airport), ubers (super reasonable, €7-8 from airport to city center) and the famous street trams (worth checking it out for a quick ride).
While I was there I tried all of the above with great effect in addition to of course walking and running around the fabled capital.
Take an uber here, easiest way and super cheap. LX Factory was built in 1846 and once homes one of Lisbon’s most important manufacturing companies. Now it has tons of super cool shops, restaurants, and bars. I really enjoyed the book store, Mexican restaurant in a boxing ring, and the incredible brunch food at Boro Godó Sundays are particularly awesome because of the different vendors in the market. I would spend at least 2 -3 hours here.
Baixa & Rossio
I stayed in this area largely because of its centrality, the shopping and restaurants and the general overall vibe of the area. No trip to Lisbon is complete without walking around this area. Highlights include the Saint Justa Lift, the Praca do Comercio, Castello de St. Jorge, Lisbon Cathedral, and of course the Rua Augusta shopping street with its many bars and restaurants.
Bairro Alto is one of the older parts of Lisbon dating from the 1500s that was not entirely destroyed by the apocalypse of 1755. What makes it unique is its Lisbon’s answer to Paris’s St. Germain de Pres, as in its the bohemian stomping grounds for artists and writers alike. While its chill during the day, I was blown away by how lively it is at night, bar hopping between alley ways and narrow streets paved with cobblestones. Definitely worth seeing, especially at night to get a taste of Lisbon’s quirky and unique nightlife.
To the west of Bairro Alto is Belem, an old and charming neighborhood with a ton of history (there are a ton of neighborhoods in between but this blog would be a novel if I went through each one, Lisbon is absolute fire!). Other than the architecture, historical landmarks including the Jeronimos Monastery, where Portuguese lumineers were buried, the Torre de Belem on the water and of course the famed Pasteis de Belem, which serves up some of the best Pastel du Nata (though I would also try version of the pastry around Lisbon).
Also that coast highway from the center of the city to Belem is a great running path!
Alfama which comes from the word Al-Hamma (baths) is an old quarter of Lisbon and definitely worth visiting. Tons of great restaurants in the area, a lot of history including the chance to see the old wall that surrounded the city, and an incredible viewing point to get an incredible backdrop of the city, river, and Europe’s longest bridge.
Praia De Sao Joao (Beach)
Right across the independence bridge (looks just like the Golden Gate bridge) is a beautiful beach area. We were to Praia de Sao Joao and had a nice lunch at Classico Beach Bar. If you want to get out of the immediate city, this is a nice get away (but the water is like California, frigid!).
The Portuguese cuisine is as eclectic as its stored history. Given its status as a colonizer in South America, Africa, South East Asia (spice trade), as well as North African/Middle Eastern and Nordic (especially French) influences the food is nothing short of superb, no wonder Anthony Bourdain (RIP) has a field day with his show in Lisbon. The food centers around meat (Chafana is fire even though I’m not a huge fan of lamb) and chicken (piri piri frango is a favorite), fish and veggies. Some stand out places include (but on the pricer side: JNcQUOI Asia and its sister restaurant JNcQUOI Avenida – aside from the phenomenal food, the interior of these places is something else!)!
While in Lisbon, I focused mostly on seafood and honestly, as expected, Cervejaria Ramiro (where Bourdain frequented) was incredible. The restaurant is unassuming and only after we sat down did my host tell me about its recent fame — no wonder the wait was like almost 2 hours and their wait list numbering system was nuts. Point is we indulged in massive tiger prawns, lightly spiced and lemon’ed (is that even a word, you get the point) Cod, and the le piece de resistance…the lobster which was one of the best I ever had!
A few other highlights include the Timeout Market to get a VERY wide variety of Portuguese delicacies, live music, and even cooking classes. The Portuguese are also fanatical about their sardines (I really am not a fan). But it’s worthwhile stopping by Conservas Portuguesas just to see the colors and marketing of the stores! Also there are some amazing hole in the wall spots
along the waterfront and up near the Sao Jorge Castle. Point is, get lost in the city and I guarantee you’ll come across a worthwhile restaurant that will blow you away!!
Not to overwhelm readers with the hundreds of entertaining things to do in Lisbon (concerts, sporting events, book fairs, etc. etc. I wanted to focus just one form of entertainment – Fado.
When I was a law student at UC Berkeley, I was able to pay off my tuition by teaching undergrad classes. One class I led as a Graduate Student Instructor was called the Politics of Music with a simply awesome, avant-garde professor (Darren Zook)! The course was aimed at the interplay of how music influences culture and politics and how that in turn influences the music. Truly a remarkable course that opened my eyes to a whole new world and way of traveling and exploring global cultures.
Portugal remember was a major colonial power due in large part to its intrepid navy and tenacious explorers like Vasco de Gama (first European to reach India). It is said before the explorers left, their women would serenade them since it was likely they would not see them for a long time or ever again. Hence it makes sense that the music is said to be characterized by “mournful tunes and lyrics, often about the sea or the life of the poor, and infused with a sentiment of resignation, fate and melancholia.” This music became incredibly popular in the 1800s and now is recognized as the national music of the country.
So this is a long way of saying look out for street performers plying their craft on Portuguese guitarra, which I saw near the center of downtown.
Or if you have the time to see a life performance of Fado. I would recommend Club de Fado, small, quant, and the acoustics are great (tip if you get there by 10PM you can see the show for free as long as you order a drink or get there earlier for dinner reservations), plus its worth walking around the neighborhood, which is historic and has some great views.
Outside of Lisbon:
A short train ride away from central Lisbon is the suburb of Cascais. This where I stayed the first time I visited Lisbon in 1999. The beaches are really worth it, the boardwalk a great place to run and the old town awesome especially during the weekends. A few years back I was lucky enough to attend a wedding at the Forte da Cruz, and now a close friend lives right over the town in Estoril. So this place is really full of memories and a great respite from the bustle of Lisbon.
Honestly, this place is straight out of a fairytale – its like Disney’s Agrabah from Aladdin lol! The area is one of the wealthiest in the Iberian peninsula (more Michelin Star restaurants in this area than you can imagine!). But what makes this place so incredible is the buildings – like the Pena Palace, numerous parks and gardens, hikes and vista points. While the Palace is incredible, especially the colors, the surrounding less frequented structures and carefully landscaped parks are just as amazing and worth visiting! Again it’s a short train ride from Lisbon (about 1 hour) and certainly worth a full day visit at the very least!
I found a great guy, Fabian, in Puerto Moralos, about 30 minutes from Tulum (where incidentally they have an aquarium of sorts and I saw my first ever sea cow, and played with Dolphins, from shore!) who had a small 30 foot sailboat. We agreed to go out a few times in the ocean to learn the ropes. It was an incredible experience sailing in and around the port, working the sails and learning how to navigate the coastline, currents, and wind patterns etc.
Fabian then approached me about a rare opportunity to pick up the sailboat of a client in Isla Mujeres (about 1.5 hours from the port), and navigate it back to the port. The task start at 7PM with an estimated arrival around 4AM or 5AM. He said it would be a great once in a lifetime experience that would help my training. So I pulled the trigger. Man, what a mistake lol. As soon as we pulled away from the small port in Isla Mujeres, we started seeing storms on the horizon. And within a few hours it slammed our little 40 foot sailboat, and for the next 7 hours we felt ever single wave. I must have thrown up like 10+ times. I swear when I rolled off the boat at the end of the trip I kissed the ground and swore I would never do it again!
DUORO VALLEY – Northern Portugal
For those who know me, I am not a wine connoisseur at all. But there is something magical about vineyards. Duoro valley, located in the northeast of the country is the capital of the world’s port. What makes this particular place just that much more magical is the fact that there is a river that runs right through the whole valley with vineyards on either side. I think you would be hard pressed to find a back drop like this anywhere! We stayed in a local hotel overlooking the valley, we had a little port at Quinta Do Bomfim
and ate at a nice dinner at a local Michelin Star restaurant right on the river.
The highlight was taking a boat down the river, which just unreal. The weather, the valley, the hospitality…honestly a must see!!
The coastline in the south of Portugal is rugged, raw and stunning. Beautiful rock formations, crystal clear waters, and just a culture that is very unique to the area. We rented kayaks and went down the coast for a 2-hour excursion so we can see the blow holes, arches, and caves. Plus the drive along the coast is really awesome, so if you have the time check it out. Note, I went to a main tourist area but there are so so many of the beaten path adventures to embark on that have far less tourists. So go explore and let me know what you discover!
On the way back from up north, we made a stop at Fatima (about 1.5 hours outside of Lisbon). Why? I had seen a documentary about miracles some 15 years ago and became fascinated by what happened in Fatima in 1917. Basically, these three shepherd kids see an apparition of the Virgin Mary on a hill between May and October 1917. It became a miracle and pilgrims flocked from all over the world to pay homage to the Cova de Ira location where the sightings took place. Now it has become one of the most sacred religious Christian sights in Europe with over 6-8 million pilgrims visiting the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima per year. It’s simply a HUGE sight and truly awe-inspiring to see such reverence in one place.
I love Lisbon. I love Portugal. It’s reasonable. It’s historic. Incredible food, culture, music, sports etc etc etc. Bottomline, Portugal has it all. I even have a few friends who already moved there cold turkey, and bought a home. I first went there in 1999 and it has only gotten better over time like a fine port. So don’t underestimate this country and make sure you make it a priority to visit.
1.Fast Track: Make sure you sign up to fast track with your rental car company so you have the ability to take the toll roads which are literally everywhere in Europe!
2. Making Payments: When charging your credit card, make purchases in local currency and not your home residence currency (i.e. pay in Euros not dollars). Your credit card’s exchange rate is better than that provided by the shop owner etc.
3.Leveraging Hotels: When you stay in a good hotel you can get the staff to do a lot for you. Reservations, advice, and even when s**t happens, like dropping the watch behind the toilet. The staff were so awesome. Now when you get to know them, they will give you even better rates at the hotel then Hotels.com (my usual go to). So make sure you are great with the hotel staff and it will pay off in dividends.