Lisbon

This is the 2nd destination of two in the Portugal itinerary. The details related to planning for this destination and the others on the Portugal circuit are described in The Portugal Travel Planning post.

Lisbon must be visited on a first trip to Portugal. As the seat of Portugal’s maritime empire spanning from the 1500s through the 1800s, Lisbon is deeply steeped in history and tradition. Nestled on seven hills on the Tagus River, the city has some of most breathtaking views from these hillsides – called Miradouros. The first time visitor will be enchanted with all that Lisbon has to offer, especially the high quality, very affordable food scene. Lisbon is a seafood lovers delight, especially for anyone on a budget.

 

Arrival

As the second stop on the Portugal itinerary, we arrived by train from Porto in just over three hours in the early afternoon on December 26. The train ride was uneventful, with the countryside whistling by as the train made steady progress towards Lisbon. We arrived at the Lisboa Rossio train station, relatively close to our apartment – just a five minute taxi ride away. In fact, it took longer to hail the taxi than it took to get to our destination.

The contrast between Porto, and Lisbon on arrival was both immediate and obvious. Porto was a fraction of the size of Lisbon, had an intimate feel to it, people seemed friendly and approachable, the pace of life was slower, and even the restaurants and cafes felt more familiar. Lisbon was a larger, more diversified city, definitely with a charm all its own, and more of everything than Porto – museums, parks, monuments, restaurants – waiting to be discovered. Lisbon felt a little more rough around the edges, perhaps a little more gritty than Porto. Different, yet charming.

 

Settling in

I booked the Lisbon apartment through Homeaway, my go-to resource for high quality apartments in some of the best locations. This particular apartment was booked nine months in advance, and was in a residential neighborhood, with easy walking access to all of the interesting parts of town. It had wonderful views over the rooftops of the city from the back of the apartment. We had our own Miradouro right inside the apartment.

The apartment was spacious with over 1,000 square feet of interior space, which is relatively large by European standards for a single bedroom dwelling. It was fully equipped with a washer/dryer, WIFI, a bed that might have been a bit more comfortable, and a shower with ample hot water. Five nights in Lisbon were comfortably spent, with all that a traveling couple would need.  And the best – there was a true Miradouro just outside the apartment overlooking the city all the way to the water: The Miradouro of Our Lady of the Mount.

The photos below are some of the views we had from our lovely apartment, and the video is from the Miradouro of Our Lady of the Mount, just outside the apartment.

 

Discovery Trek

Continuing the leisurely pace we started in Porto, upon arrival in Lisbon we set out to discover the city and its neighborhoods. The first local point of interest we sought out was the port of Lisbon and its centrally located Praca do Comercio, or Commerce Square.

 

We eventually found our way to Costelo Sao Jorge while strolling through the twists and turns of the medieval streets of the Alfama. This neighborhood has been in existence for a thousand years, and people still sell fish from their door stoops – a throwback to medieval times.  The Costelo is the very top of the climb in the Alfama, and is one of the more impressive Mirodouros in Lisbon, with spectacular views.

 

We taxied to Almada to see the impressive statue of Christ, essentially an homage to the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. Very impressive was the Ponte 25 de Abril, the enormous suspension bridge built by the same American company that built the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Bridge, and looks remarkably similar to the Golden Gate Bridge.

 

Still a bit off the beaten path of tourism, and something mostly the locals would see, we visited Estufa Fria, the botanical garden in the center of Parque Eduardo VII which was started in 1910.

 

We took a marvelous walk starting at Campo Santa Clara, and terminating in Praca do Imperio in Belem. We visited the National Pantheon at Campo Santa Clara, which included the final resting place of historical Portuguese figures, most notable among them was Vasco da Gama. It was at least a ten mile walk round trip on a beautifully blustery, sunny day in Lisbon at the end of December.

 

On our last day in Lisbon, we took tram 28, which stopped close to our apartment, to places unknown, simply following our sense of discovery. We found a wonderful 800 year old former monastery, turned into a brewery, then into a restaurant – see the food scene below.  We also found a Port wine tasting cafe with a huge variety of the good stuff. I tried a 40 year old vintage Port, which was a wonderful aperitif leading up to dinner.We spent our last full day in Lisbon simply discovering, and meandering.

 

Day Trip to Sintra and Cascais

With five nights in Lisbon, we were afforded the opportunity to get out of the city to explore interesting destinations nearby.  The Moorish designed Sintra National Palace, richly decorated in period tile is the major attraction for visitors near Sintra. The nearby Pena National Palace, perched on a hilltop, is a Mirodouro all unto itself – with sweeping panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. All of this scenery was an easy short train ride from Lisbon.

 

Cascais is a beach resort town, in the vicinity of Sintra, and we taxied over for a visit from Sintra. This town is home to the medieval Nossa Senhora da Luz Fort and the Citadel Palace, although neither of these two were accessible during our visit. It was still nice, further exploring a bit away from the big city of Lisbon, and enjoying a beer on the beach in December.

 

 

Food Scene

Matas – Lunch

This was a little mom and pop cafe, with a couple of tables indoors, and a couple of umbrella covered tables outdoors. They specialized in seafood, and everything was fresh. The prices were unbelievably affordable. We both ordered the grilled octopus with potatoes for lunch. It was very good.

 

Matas – Dinner

Lunch was so good, we simply couldn’t resist going back for dinner. We noticed how extensive the fish menu was at lunch, and decided to give it a try for dinner. We had a couple bowls of soup as appetizers, with grilled seabass, and grilled bream for the main course. It was like a home cooked meal. Very local, and very good a second time.

 

Chapito a Mesa

This little restaurant was discovered on our way back from Castelo Sao Jorge. They had an outside seating area with incredible views overlooking the city.  We ordered mountain smoked ham, and grilled shrimp with tropical fruit and vinaigrette. Snacking with a view.

 

Chimera

We found this local restaurant after we toured the botanical gardens at the suggestion of our taxi driver. Another small, family run restaurant with incredibly reasonable prices for everything on the menu. We each had soup, and fish tacos with rice and beans.

 

Via Graca

This was a very upscale restaurant situated just a hundred yards from our apartment. The menu read like a high drama novel, with specialties included for the holidays. I couldn’t make sense of the a la carte portion of the menu, so we decided on the tasting menu for two, which also came with a wine pairing. It was very good, and reasonably priced for this caliber of cuisine.

 

A Margem

We stumbled upon this riverside cafe on our long walk along the River Tagus, very near the monument to Maritime Explorers, and the Balem Lighthouse. We both ordered soup for appetizer, and a mixed protein plate. Not sure how else to describe it – beefsteak, ham, with an egg on top, fries and rice on the side. Different.

 

Satelite da Graca

This is a very local little place just a few minutes walk from the apartment. We started with some homemade soup, followed by shrimp in a garlic sauce, and squid with potatoes. We ended with a chocolate mousse for dessert. I enjoyed a local white wine with the meal.

 

Cervejaria Trindade

The building housing this restaurant was 800 years old, and started as a monastery. The building transitioned to a brewery over time, and later added the restaurant. It was cavernously large, capable of seating hundreds of people. All of the waiters were dressed as monks. We started with some soup, and we ordered a lobster casserole for two. I enjoyed several beers with this meal.

 

Estrela da Graca

Another little neighborhood place, just a few minutes walk from the apartment. We seemed to have started nearly every meal with soup. It simply was offered everywhere; we like soup, and it takes the chill of late December away. We had grilled seabass, and grilled octopus, with a salad on the side. We finished with a slice of orange cake, and creme brulee.

 

 

Epilogue

Reflections on Lisbon. In a word – hilly. Calves and hamstrings did get a workout while getting around Lisbon. There were outdoor stairs leading from an upper part of town to a lower part, occasionally hundreds of steps at a time. It was a thrill getting lost deep in some local neighborhood, and having to discover our way out. Lisbon was a beautiful, diversified city, comprised of many interesting neighborhoods. My favorite was the Alfama – the medieval part of Lisbon, spared from the destruction of the earthquake of 1755, with steep and twisty narrow lanes traversed by the famous Tram 28, and topped with the crown that is the 11th century Sao Jorge Costelo, and its wonderfully scenic Miradouros.

 

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Porto

This is the first destination of two in the Portugal itinerary. The details related to planning for this destination and the others on the Portugal circuit are described in The Portugal Travel Planning post.

The city of Porto, nestled on the Douro River, with its medieval architecture, friendly locals, the source of Port wine, and a food scene that simply must be experienced was our first stop in Portugal. With a history dating back to the 3rd century BC, and having passed through the hands of the Celts, Romans, and Moors, with all having added something to the history of this lovely city. With a four night stay in Porto, it afforded me plenty of opportunity to explore the medieval center of town, the Douro river front, tour some of the Port wine cellars, and simply be a local for the Christmas holiday.

 

Arrival

It was quite the voyage leading to our arrival in Porto, with a Transatlantic flight from my home base in Atlanta to Madrid, a layover in Madrid with a connecting flight to Lisbon, then a train from Lisbon to Porto, ending with a taxi to the apartment from the airport. The flight to Lisbon was delayed, causing us to miss our scheduled train to Porto, and required new tickets with all of the associated hassle. It was a great joy on arrival, if for no other reason – no more planes, trains, or taxis for a four nights.

 

Settling in

I booked the Porto apartment through Homeaway, my go-to resource for high quality apartments in some of the best locations. This particular apartment was booked nine months in advance, and was in an ideal location. It had wonderful views of the Douro River from its back windows, and more nice views of the square of the Palacio da Bolsa, and the Jardim do Enfante Dom Henrique from the front windows. It was cozy, with all of the accommodations needed for a four night stay, including a washing machine which is very important for us, as we travel light with only carry-on luggage. The Douro River walk, the historic and medieval parts of town, as well as dozens of restaurants and cafes were easily accessible within a few minutes walk from this wonderful location.

Below are some of the wonderful views we enjoyed from the apartment.

 

Discovery Trek

We took Porto at a very leisurely pace. It’s what it demanded. There was so much to see, and there was no hurry to get it done. There were several points of interest on our first day of exploration, starting with Vila Nova de Gaia, right along the Douro River. The Rabelo boats, used to transport the Port wine to the city were along the river, still used today as a continuation of the centuries long tradition. We enjoyed the views from the Telerifico de Gaia, the cable car leading to some wonderful vistas of the city. Yes, touristy, and still a wonderful experience. And we enjoyed a wonderful walk to the Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar.

 

On day two we visited the Palacio do Bolsa. Literally right across the street from our apartment. Then we toured the Taylor’s Port House where we had a wonderfully memorable meal, included in the food scene section, and new insights into the history of Port wine. My wife is not a wine fan, but she loved the Port, especially the ruby – the younger, the sweeter, which was right up her alley. Young, sweet, and fortified to 40 proof. It sneaks up on a person. We ended the day with a stroll through the center of town, enjoying the Christmas decor in the main square.

 

On our final full day in Porto, Christmas Day, we meandered through town finding those places we had not previously visited, including the Torre dos Clerigos. We had a wonderful long walk along the Douro River, and took in some picturesque scenery as the sunset – including the photo that is the feature for the home page on this site – the bridge at sunset, with the lights reflecting on the water. We had in fact walked for so long, that we couldn’t walk back to the apartment. We hailed an Uber on Christmas Day late, and amazingly the driver actually showed up. I had an interesting conversation with the driver, a young man who was supplementing his income, working towards a university degree. The entire fare was so inexpensive that I left the driver a significant tip in gratitude, and recognition that it was Christmas. He reluctantly accepted. The Portuguese are are wonderful, warm people.

 

 

Food Scene

The food was to die for good. While bacalhao, the salted cod dishes served in a variety of manner – with grilled being my favorite, and especially popular at Christmas, was the national dish – I believe octopus was also a Portuguese national dish. I have had octopus all over the Mediterranean, and Adriatic, but nothing of this caliber. It was so tender, melt in your mouth tender – while still maintaining the proper flavor and texture. Clearly one needs to be a fan of octopus, and I am. I was so curious as to how this miracle happened that I had to ask. It was explained to me in one of the restaurants we visited that the Portuguese cook octopus twice. Typically the first cooking is done through poaching, then the final step is grilling. They also use octopus in rice casseroles, which I’ve documented in the food scene. Portugal is an octopus lover’s heaven.

 

Adega Sao Nicolau

Dinner is served later in Portugal, typically 8:00PM. We had been on the road for twenty-six hours with planes, trains, and taxis. So we were hungry on arrival just after 5:00PM, and could not wait until regular local dinner hours. We wandered from the apartment and found this little place open – by little I mean a grand total of 4 tables indoors. We ordered grilled octopus, with boiled potatoes and an egg, and fried sardines with rice and beans on the side. We shared a slice of torte, and a glass of Aguardente – the grape brandy used to fortify Port wine. The Aguardente was ladled from a jar filled with drunken cherries. It was a wonderful first meal, and the Aguardente was a digestif reminiscent of Bulgarian Rakia, or Peruvian Pisco. The octopus was like nothing I’ve had anywhere else, very tender.

 

Casa Adao

We arrived right at noon when they opened for lunch. This mom and pop restaurant is a local favorite for working guys, and it filled to capacity immediately after they opened. The working guys were fed immediately upon arrival – they were expected as part of daily ritual, and they were gone thirty minutes later. Workmen’s lunch. We ordered a rice casserole with octopus and shrimp for two, and fried octopus on the side. It was like a homemade meal. The octopus was melt in your mouth tender, like nothing I’ve had before. There was too much food for two hungry people. I don’t know that there’s a more local, immersive lunch experience.

 

A Grade

We shared octopus in olive oil as our appetizer, followed by a cream of spinach soup. I tried the grilled bacalhao (salt cod) – one of the national dishes of Portugal, and very popular around Christmas. My wife ordered the fried hake with a cabbage side. We shared a rice casserole with our meal, and had a baked apple for dessert with a glass of Tawny Port. Incredible meal.

 

Barao Fladgate

This was the restaurant we visited at the end of the Taylor’s Wine House tour and Port tasting. This lunch was included as part of the tour as a package. We had the cream of asparagus soup, and marinated sardines on toast for appetizers, we both had grilled sea bass on a bed of gnocchi for our main course, and orange spongecake for dessert with our last glass of Port.

 

Carris Hotel

This was the only place open on Christmas Eve for dinner, a cafe attached to the hotel. Most people seated were having drinks and snacks. We each ordered grilled sausage with egg, and frites, with melon and pineapple for dessert.

 

RIB Beef and Wine

This was a fancy Christmas luncheon menu. We had beef carpaccio, and parmentier soup with mushrooms for appetizers, two beef courses – veal, and entrecote, then carrot pudding with green apple sorbet for dessert. Upscale and tasty, but twice the price of the next most expensive meal we’d had in Porto.

 

Forno Velho

This was Christmas dinner at a hotel restaurant. Hotels were the only places open on Christmas Day. We had a tomato salad and seafood soup for appetizers, grouper with mussels and clams, and suckling pig with homemade potato chips for our main courses. We shared a chocolate shell filled with mangoes all dipped in chocolate sauce. Very nice meal.

 

Epilogue

Reflections on Porto. Among the most immersive travel experiences I’ve ever had. The apartment location was ideal, if not perfect. The weather was very accommodating over Christmas. The food was both delightful and memorable – and remarkably affordable. The locals were both warm and friendly – although English was not pervasive everywhere a visitor might have gone. With very fond memories of lovely Porto, I find myself longing for an extended visit sometime in the future. I could live in Porto. Easily.

 

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Portugal Travel Planning

Portugal Travel Planning

Motivation – Portugal Travel Planning

With architecture dating back to the 1500 – 1800s, when Portugal had a mighty maritime empire, a food culture centering around the bounty of the sea, and a tradition of winemaking that includes fortified, vintage Port, there are plenty of motivations to visit this gem of the Iberian Peninsula.  Portugal’s history has been touched by a variety of cultures, including Romans, Visigoths, and the Moors over the millennia – all have left something, adding to what is the modern day country and culture of Portugal. On top of all this, add the fact that Portugal is very affordable by European standards, with good weather year-round, a visit to Portugal is impossible to resist. And lastly, a visit to Portugal is a must for anyone wishing to round out their European immersive travel experiences.

 

Itinerary – Portugal Travel Planning

The calendar allowed for 9 nights on this trip, starting at the end of December, 2015. I resisted the urge to schedule more than 2 destinations, which would have diluted the amount of time spent at any one of them. My immersive travel motto calls for enough time at each destination to enable familiarity, and exploration, all leading to an immersive travel experience. Immersion happens best at a leisurely pace, where it’s more about being there than doing more.

The city of Porto, nestled on the Douro River, with its medieval architecture, friendly locals, the source of Port wine, and a food scene that simply must be experienced, was at the top of my list for destinations in Portugal – ahead of Lisbon.

Lisbon must be visited on a first trip to Portugal. As the seat of Portugal’s maritime empire, Lisbon is deeply steeped in history and tradition. Nestled on seven hills on the Tagus River, the city has some of most breathtaking views from these hillsides, and will enchant the first time visitor.

 

Porto – 4 Nights

 

Lisbon – 5 nights

 

Logistics – Portugal Travel Planning

At the time this trip was planned, there were no regularly scheduled, direct flights from my home base in Atlanta to either Lisbon or Porto. The best I could do to minimize travel time, and therefore optimize my immersive travel experience, was to book a direct flight to Madrid. There were plenty of options for connections from Madrid to Lisbon, but fewer and more complex options to Porto. Again in the interest of time, I elected to fly to Lisbon.

The choice to visit Porto first on this itinerary is borne by the logistics necessary to fly back to Madrid for the return trip home. Had I elected to visit Lisbon first, it would have required a very early train ride from Porto back to Lisbon to catch the connecting flight to Madrid. The connection times from the train station to the airport in Lisbon were too tight, and would have been an uncomfortable experience even if successful.

I elected to use the Portuguese rail system to get to and from Porto, rather than rent a car. I very much enjoy driving, as it adds to the immersion for me, but on this occasion it didn’t make sense. A vehicle was simply unnecessary for either Porto or Lisbon. The train was sufficient to go round trip to Porto from Lisbon, and it had some immersive travel experience all its own.

I rented an apartment in both Porto as well as Lisbon for this trip. Apartments make for a much more immersive travel experience, in my opinion. There were plenty of high quality properties available on multiple holiday rental websites. I had a good selection that met my criteria of being in residential areas, and in historic parts of town to choose from. There was no need to even consider a hotel.

 

Resources – Portugal Travel Planning

Indispensable for planning purposes: Google flights. It works well with mainstream carriers, as well as the puddle jumpers.  I use it to analyze costs related to date ranges, as well as stopover options for those destinations unreachable directly from my home airport – like Lisbon.  

I rely on several sites for apartment rentals.  In the order of preference:  HomeAway, booking.com, and last and definitely least, Airbnb.  Some may be shocked that I prefer to avoid Airbnb, but I have good reasons to avoid them.  Both apartments for this trip were booked through HomeAway.

Google maps is a staple, and I use it on every trip for a variety of needs.  On this trip, I mainly used it for navigating to restaurants and points of interest while on my discovery treks.

TripAdvisor is awesome for advanced trip planning, and I find the travel forums specific to my destinations particularly useful. There’s no better advice than from someone that’s already done what I’m planning to do.

With Google translate on my phone at the ready, I fear no language barrier. I did end up in places where English was not spoken, so this phone app was very handy.

 

Epilogue – Portugal Travel Planning

Reflections on Portugal. This trip was a fabulous entree to Portugal – a sort of nine-night highlight tour of some of the best the country had to offer. It whetted my appetite. While I had a wonderful time exploring Porto and Lisbon – and Porto was by far the more immersive travel experience, it left me wanting to come back and further explore the places in between. In my opinion, that is the hallmark of a well planned travel itinerary. It should be immersive, steeped in discovery, but always leave you wanting to further explore. And this lovely country, wonderfully affordable, with its friendly population, and its approachable culture, merits much more of my exploration in the future.

 

 

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