I try to take a meaningful vacation once per year, traveling to a destination that allows me to get out of my comfort zone, learn some history and experience life from a different lens. Sometimes that takes me to a different state, and when I’m lucky, that trip will take me overseas as it did in 2017.
Flights to Europe have been dirt cheap as of late, so I took advantage and bought a round-trip, non-stop flight from LAX to Barcelona. Tapas, cava, history and culture were awaiting our arrival until the political tensions escalated in early fall and riots overtook the streets as the future of the Catalan region was at stake. Click on that link for more information, as I like many, had no idea that they don’t speak Spanish in Barcelona! Perhaps you did, in which case I digress. Although at the time I was bummed to say the least, we rerouted ourselves to Portugal, the lesser-traveled, under-developed yet rich with culture, neighbor of Spain.
Portugal can be compared to California in many ways. Yes, I realize we left California to experience other regions and cultures, but don’t worry, you’ll get your fix here. The coastline is rugged, the food scene is impeccable, and the wine region holds its own in a land that isn’t too far from the more popular vineyards in France and Spain. The capital of Lisbon even has its own replica of the Golden Gate Bridge (25 de Abril Bridge), which in photos, will instantly appear as though you haven’t left the Golden State. Hilly streets and cable cards are another reason you will take second glances and wonder if you’ve actually left the states at all.
We stayed in the oldest district of Lisbon, the only neighborhood which was not impacted by the 1755 earthquake. The quaint village is known as Alfama and is home to cobblestone windy streets (do not wear heels or plan on using a roller suitcase if you are staying here)! The neighborhood gives you all the feels as many of the streets are not open to cars so get your walking shoes ready. Hidden churches, small bodegas and delicious and nondescript wine and tapas bars make you feel like a local in a short period of time. By night two we were saying hello to restaurant and store owners we had met and making friends at a small bar which charged 2 Euro for a beer and had its patrons congregating in the street as the facility did not hold more than 4 people at a time.
Some of the highlights of Alfama were the Fado Museum which tells the story of the rich history of Fado music. Do yourself a favor and allow for at least one evening of listening to live Fado music and sipping delicious portuguese wine in the Alfama – an experience you won’t get anywhere else!
St.George’s Castle was a short walk (uphill) from our Air BnB and did not disappoint. Make sure to go early – 9 or 10 am – if you don’t want to feel like you’re at DisneyLand with long lines and bumbling tourists (like me). It is a Moorish castle, Moorish meaning of descent from the middle east or a form of islamic architecture.
Another highlight of the Alfama neighborhood were the quiet and intimate restaurants. Recommended by our Air BnB hosts, Alfama Cellar was a favorite for its attention to detail and as expected, extensive wine offerings. At the conclusion of our meal the owner brought over a complimentary port wine from 1997 which was the icing on the cake to a beautiful and authentic dining experience in Portugal.
It took us until our third day to realize that there was much beyond this sleepy nook of Lisbon. The main square right off the water’s edge, known as Praca do Comercio, has a statue of King Jose I at its center and is surrounded by government offices, restaurants, shops, museums and the Arco da Rua Augusta.
If you are looking for a beer don’t fall into the tourist trap on the main square – the Museum of Beer. Take a few minutes to stroll north to LisBeer where you’ll be greeted with delish beers from around the world in a cozy and belgian atmosphere.
From the main square stroll along the glistening water, check out some interesting rock formation statues which a local constructs and view the Golden Gate bridge replica in addition to Christ the King statue which is situated on the other side of the water in Almada. This statue is also a replica, stemming from the Christ the Redeemer from Rio. It was erected as a symbol of gratitude that Portugal was spared from WWII.
North of the square you will find the lively neighborhoods which are home to bars, nightlife, shopping and restaurants. We didn’t spend too much time in this area as it is rather commercialized but some of the best restaurants in the city can be found in the Barrio Alto. A Cevicheria is a must visit. The fresh seafood restaurant is famous for not only their pisco sours but also the lifesize octopus which hangs from the ceiling like an umbrella. The clean and simple restaurant is cozy to the say the least and if you have the chance to snag a spot a the bar, watching the single chef prepare the ceviche and desserts is a show in itself.
If you’ve had enough wine and cocktails and are looking for a great beer bar, swing over to Delirium Cafe which serves the world acclaimed Delirium Tremens. We ended up closing down the bar with the owners and I even managed to find my way into their company party photo at some point. The people of Lisbon are very friendly to tourists so don’t hesitate to make friends.
Further west, along the Tagus river, you will come across the Time Out market which is essentially a Ferry Building, indoor (yet open) market full which will provide any foodie with enough vitals to sustain the day’s walk. Fresh seafood, smooth wines and small shops to buy gifts comprise this San Francisco-esque market.
Once you’ve reached the base of the bridge, you will find yourself in a hipster’s paradise referred to as LX Factory. What was once an industrial warehouse has since become of the hottest places to grab a bite, do some shopping and listen to music. Coffee shops, a brewery, and an eccentric book store are some of the highlights. If you do venture into Ler Devagar (bookstore), make an effort to climb the metal stairs all the way to the top, where you will find one of the coolest people ever – Pietro Proserpio. Make sure to have some spare change as you will need it to help run his contraptions.
The final stop along the river in Lisbon is the neighborhood of Belem. Note that most of the entries to the towers, museums end at 5pm, so if it’s already mid-afternoon, save this visit for a new day as there is plenty to explore in Belem. The highlight of our explorations was Belem Tower. We sadly did not have the opportunity to go into the castle, but did get to watch the sun begin to set while watching boats drift in the background.
A few minutes south by foot you will find the Padrao dos Descobrimentos discovery monument. It is amazing to view with stunning backdrops of the water, but if given the chance, step inside to view the museum as well as take an elevator ride up to the top to experience the viewing platform.
Last but not least, take in the Jeronimos Monastery which is built with a late gothic manueline style of architecture. Both the monastery and the Belem tower are UNESCO world heritage sites. Before you leave Belem for the day, swing by the highly acclaimed Pasteis de Belem for a creme brulee style custard whose recipe originated from the nearby monastery. Be prepared for long lines and lots of photos being taken – it is a top spot in the city.
Lisbon is a lively city which still has managed to not let go of its unique culture and history but if you really want to dig deep into the archives, take a day trip to Sintra, a small village with centuries-old castles and landmarks which will blow you away. I recommend visiting by train as you will not want (nor be able to manage) a car once you arrive. An hour’s travel by rail and you are dropped off at a tourist station in which you will have to pay to take a shuttle or bus to each of the sites. Check out the site for pre-purchasing tickets and getting your agenda together in advance. We didn’t do enough research so it was a little stressful the day of.
Given the amount of people and traveling between each point, seeing three of the sites occupied a full day for us. The National Palace of Pena is a must-see, followed by the Moorish Castle. We also visited the National Palace of Sintra, which I enjoyed. A convenient shuttle does a loop between each of these stops throughout the day so just wait at the sign and hop on when it arrives. Note that we went in November and there were a ton of people so more planning may be required if you are going in the summer. There are places to stay in Sintra, although the train ride is quite easy to get to and from Sintra each day.
If you have an extra few days in Portugal and want to see the origins of the country, head north to Porto, a two hour train ride which will bring you to the heart of the wine-making region. Porto’s name is a reflection of its port-city status, a port which for centuries transported wine from the Douro Valley region (inland) to Europe after trade relations between Europe and France fell through.
I recommend spending time in Porto and visiting the river bank where the bridge will connect you to Nova de Gaia (technically not Porto anymore) where a host of wine caves will make you feel like you’ve stepped into napa. Many of the tours and facilities are rather commercialized but if you take a tour, as we did at Porto Calem, you will learn a lot about the history and production of port wine.
Porto is a drastically different city than Lisbon, where the bright tiles and lively streets are replaced with a much more somber tune in Porto. The castles, churches and structures date back to the 11th century and the region is even more under-developed than Lisbon. The city itself is quite compact and one full day was enough to experience all the city has to offer. If you’re a Harry Potter fan, the famous book store where J.K. Rowling got her inspiration for the series is a site not to be missed but note, tickets are necessary. There is a gelato shop next door which serves gelato macaroons, just saying 🙂
If you have 2 or 3 days in Porto I would highly suggest taking the train or a river cruise out to the Douro Valley wine production region. A much less commercialized version of California wine tasting, you will have the chance to sit and converse with the winemakers while enjoying, in my opinion, some of the best wines for the extremely affordable prices. The wine region itself is a site, as the unique way they grow makes for breathtaking landscapes along the Douro River.
If you aren’t already convinced, I will let you know this is one of the most-affordable European vacations you can take as the country is still mending from the financial crisis and lags many of it’s neighboring countries in growth and prosperity. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t offer all and more through its rich history, delectable eateries and off-the-beaten-path vibe which many of us long for in a vacation. Escape, explore and enjoy!