If there is one thing I could say for certain, it’s that the people in Lisbon, Portugal are some of the friendliest people I’ve encountered. It wasn’t uncommon for someone you casually meet to offer you a free meal, give you their contact information if you need a ride, restaurant suggestions, a million dollars in gold, a kidney donor…Because of their extreme generosity and hospitality, Caroline and I really immersed ourselves in Portuguese culture. Lisbon (or Lisboa, in the native tongue) was one of the best excursions of the summer (in my humble-yet-correct opinion).
Our flight from Lyon to Lisboa made its wild and rocky landing shortly after seven o’clock in the evening, local time (now five hours ahead of Eastern-Standard Time). After a forty-five-minute journey through the metro, we arrived at Lisboa Central Hostel. We were greeted with exceptionally friendly staff, lovely living amenities, and, get this, free dinner! One of their staff will make soup and sandwiches for the residence simply because she wants to do so. On the menu? Squash, mushroom, and parsley soup with cookies. Additionally, Friday is sangria night: all-you-can-drink, homemade sangria for one euro. We settled in with dinner and drinks in a cozy hostel filled with international travelers, with whom we had hours of great conversation. I guess you could say that the trip was off to a great start.
In addition to the free dinner and breakfast, the hostel also served as a meeting point for a free Lisboa walking tour! Since the tour covered a lot of the sights on Caroline and I’s wish list, we decided to join in on the fun (especially since they were led by locals). Our first guide, Diana, picked us up and walked us to Rossio Square, where the tour officially began. We had the choice of two tours: one through the Alfama neighborhood or the Mouraria neighborhood. Alfama is Lisboa’s oldest neighborhood, and the tour included stops at several churches and viewpoints, so we took this route. Our tour guide, Omür, was very knowledgeable and passionate about each area we visited (and also a fan of group selfies).
At the start of the tour, Omür described the fateful day of November 1st, 1755. An earthquake, with an estimated magnitude of nine, ravaged the city. Several buildings were destroyed, and others caught on fire (specifically churches, due to candles). Later, a tsunami struck the city: it helped extinguish the fires, but still brought more destruction upon Lisboa. One of the buildings left standing was the Igreja de São Domingos, and was our first stop on the tour. It’s often nicknamed the “Cursed Church,” for it remained standing while other buildings perished.
After a brief history of Lisboa, we headed up into Alfama. Typical sites in Alfama include vibrant street art, buildings lined in colorful ceramic tiles, and the traditional yellow street cars (think of the old Rice-o-Roni commercials). The ceramic-cobblestone paths and opulent artistry of the neighborhood bring out a character unlike any I’ve ever seen.
A brief yet rigorous hike into the heart of Alfama led us to a small café, where Omür allowed us to try ginjinha: an digestif made from sherry with flavors of cherry, cinnamon, and ginger. The best way to describe it? A shot of sangria with a stronger alcoholic taste, and beautifully delicious. The café was adjacent to a beautiful lookout point, adding to the essence of the Alfama neighborhood.
The tour continued by the Castelo de São Jorge and the Ruin Art site before arriving at the Miradouro das Portas do Sol, another picturesque viewpoint in Alfama (I’m sure any photo you’ve seen of Lisboa is probably from here). There was not a single cloud in the sky, so the view was spectacular.
The last stop on our tour brought us to Sé de Lisboa, or the Lisbon Cathedral. This church was rebuilt several times (due to earthquakes) in several different architectural styles. At the end of the tour, Omür invited us all out to lunch at an authentic Portuguese restaurant. I ordered the octopus casserole; and while many of you may not be as adventurous as I am, I will say that you missed out on this incredibly delicious dish. Not to mention that it came with a complementary glass of ginjinha (don’t worry mom and dad, I was eating and drinking plenty of water). Omür encouraged us all to sign up for a Fado tour the following day, to which we all agreed (more on that in a bit).
After parting ways with the group, Caroline and I made our way toward the Arco da Rua Augusta and Praça do Comércio to peruse the local vendors. Popular items include ceramic and glass items (jewelry, tiles, plates) along with items made out of cork and burlap.
We hopped on a train out to Belém, a small suburb of Lisboa. While there are several interesting sites to see here, the main attraction for us was Pastéis de Belém: a popular restaurant known for the original Pastéis de Nata (they call them Pastéis de Belém). It’s a small, filo-dough pastry filled with custard, and it’s pretty much the best thing I’ve ever eaten in my entire life. If you want to amp up your Pastéis de Belém game, add some ground cinnamon on top. Between the awe-inspiring flavor of the pastry and the Moorish-style interior of the restaurant, I was in heaven.
Before heading back to Lisboa proper, we perused two of the main sights of Belém: the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument of Discoveries) and Torre de Belém. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to go inside the Mosterio dos Jerónimos due to a large [unknown] event occurring there at the time.
For dinner, we visited the Time Out Market Lisboa. If you’ve been to Ponce City Market, it’s almost identical. There were lots of ceramic and glass vendors and a large food hall, where Caroline and I sampled some delicious croquettes.
Lisbon is gorgeous at night, if these photos don’t prove it to you otherwise.
This is the point in the program in which the audience is encouraged to play the song, “The Trail We Blaze” by Elton John, from the famous and undeniably one of God’s gifts to man, The Road to El Dorado. Your participation is appreciated.
SINTRA. Only a fourty-five-minute train ride from Lisboa proper, this municipality is part of the Portuguese Riviera and is home to several palaces occupied by Portuguese royalty. A fortress sits atop one of the highest cliffs in Sintra, overlooking Lisboa and its surrounding territories. Travelling here feels as if I’ve stepped into a tropical rainforest, which proved to be an exciting adventure. With only part of a day to see the area, we narrowed down the two places we wished to visit the most and began our journey.
We opted to take the pedestrian trail up to stop number one: Parque e Palácio Nacional da Pena. The hike up was brutal at times, but more than 100% worth the effort. Not only was it great exercise, it gave us great views from on top of the cliffs. It was nice to do our hiking in the morning, since the temperature was in the nineties by midday! (I was also glad to have brought two large water bottles with me, along with a PB&J I made at the hostel.)
After arriving at the Palácio Nacional da Pena, it was clear why this was a major tourist destination. The colors of the palace against the crisp-blue sky really set it apart from green forests surrounding it. This was the home of several Portuguese kings, queens, and other royalty. Although the palace is not as large as others in Europe, it by far is one of the most opulent.
In order to save some time, we hired a Tuk-Tuk driver to take us to stop number two: the Palácio de Monserrate. The Tuk-Tuks are like fancy golf carts, capable of navigating the steep and winding roads that make Lisboa the “San Francisco of Europe.” Our trip over there, while expensive at twenty euros, was not only efficient but entertaining and wild. As the Tuk-Tuk raced through the overgrown roads, the driver was more than happy to discuss his favorite sights in Sintra and Lisboa. He even gave us his business number if we needed a ride or help while here.
The Palácio de Monserrate was my favorite site of the day. Its unique architecture style (a mix of Mexican, Moorish, and Portuguese) really set it apart from the rest. The gardens surrounding the palace emanated a tropical vibe that only Sintra could pull off. Many of the plants were transported from all over the world, with varieties from China, Mexico, Australia, and New Zealand.
Exhausted, tanned, and a tad dehydrated, we headed back to Lisboa for some downtime before our Fado tour. Fado is a style of music that originated in Lisboa, specifically in the Alfama neighborhood. The original Fado style is extremely melancholic, having arose from the prostitutes and their longing for a better life or love. They would sing about the empty feeling in their hearts; but knowing that their fado, or fate and destiny, would carry them through. Traditionally, the music only consists of guitar and voice, with either a standard guitar and/or a Portuguese guitar. Modern Fado is sung by both women and men, can be upbeat or melancholic, and can incorporate other instruments as well.
Diana (one of the guides from earlier) was our Fado tour leader, who explained why Fado is considered to be the soul of Alfama and of Portuguese music. Once we arrived at the Fado house, we were offered delicious tapas and wine from the Alentejo region. We couldn’t have picked a better way to sum up our time in Lisboa: listening to a middle-aged woman passionately sing the songs of her people, as we ate and drank local cuisine on the top floor of a local Fado house overlooking the Tagus river at sunset. Picture perfect.
At this point in our trip, our bodies had basically given out from the hiking. They don’t call it the City of the Seven Hills for nothing. Keeping our activities to a minimum, we managed to make our way to one last viewpoint in Barrio Alto, another neighborhood in Lisboa. Caroline and I enjoyed strolling through the nooks and crannies of the city, seeing and photographing all of its beauty.
Before departing, we sat down to a lunch of paella. I know it’s a Spanish dish, but I’m a sucker for good paella and seafood in general, so why not? We also got more Pastéis de Nata, along with a new chocolate cake dessert. I regret nothing.
We then made our way towards the airport, and after a (decently delayed) flight we were back in Lyon. In my mind, Lisboa is one of the most underrated cities in Europe. It’s not nearly as tourist-infested as Rome or Paris, it’s very affordable, the people are very friendly, the food is delicious, and it’s just a gorgeous place to visit. I highly recommend it to anyone, anywhere.
Happy Independence Day, America! After a long day in Synthesis Laboratory, my fellow TAs and I treated ourselves to some American cuisine (or as American as we could get while in France) to celebrate. A stroll through Lyon at night proved to be a lovely way to begin our farewells to this wonderful city.
And now, my time in Europe is quickly coming to an end. Less than two weeks left, and I can’t help but wonder where the time went. As I reflect on the summer, I think very fondly of the adventures and memories I’ve made thus far. It’s not over yet, though. This weekend, I take a four-day excursion to Prague, Czech Republic! I’ve heard so much about this city, and I can’t wait to see what all it has to offer.
Photos from Lisboa can be found here.