Lisbon is easy – easy to walk around (as long as you don’t require flat!), easy transportation, easygoing friendly people. It’s an interesting, vibrant city with buildings beautifully clad in colorful tiled exteriors, buildings in great shape next to crumbling abandoned ones tagged with graffiti.
But what makes me say Lisbon is Easy? It started with our first night and a 15 minute shuttle ride from the airport right to our apartment in Chiado, a terrific historic neighborhood in central Lisbon, with a great driver who volunteered info on restaurants and what to get for a quick bite. But more about that later in this post, there was something intangible about Lisbon that just made it feel easy.
- Beautiful tiles everywhere, on buildings, on sidewalks, on interiors
- Nothing like Portuguese pastries and coffee!
- Excruciatingly crowded Trolley 15E to Belem
- Crowded and short ride on Tram 28
- I’d skip the Gulbenkian Centro de Arte Moderna, next door to the Gulbenkian
The Carnation Revolution – April 25th 1974
The Carnation Revolution celebrations are a terrific time to be in Lisbon, everyone’s wearing red carnations and throughout Lisbon giant billboards in the squares commemorate the events of the overthrow of the fascist dictatorship on this day in 1974.
Tip: A great way to learn about the events of the Carnation Revolution is by watching the movie “Capitães de Abril” (April Captains) – in Portuguese with English subtitles.
From our balcony we saw all the people headed down to the huge main square next to the Tagus river – Terreiro do Paco (Praca do Comercio) – for the night’s festivities.
Crowds sounded like a bit too much for us this jet-lagged evening so we headed the other direction to an outdoor café just off of the famed Restaurant Square. Relaxing with out first taste of a traditional Portuguese sandwich called a Bifana (a snack tip from our shuttle driver) and with a couple of the most popular beers in Lisbon – Sagres and Super Bock, and chatting with the easygoing friendly waiter.
Back at the apartment at 2:00 AM – BOOM-BOOM-BOOM! Fireworks lit up the sky over and over again. We saw it all from the comfort of our 5th floor balcony, celebrating the anniversary of the birth of Portugal’s democracy with the people in spirit. What a great first night in Lisbon!
I’m a BIG fan of walking tours for the first day, first visit to a city. Once again Sandeman’s New Europe “free” tour did not disappoint, entertaining and paced fast enough despite the number of people on the tour and the crowds in the squares on this holiday.
Plenty of history and a fun (and tasting!) stop at A Ginjinha – the historic shop where the Ginja sour cherry liqueur was first marketed.
At the end we signed up for the 2:00 Alfama district tour, the oldest neighborhood in Lisbon, with our guide Rui which turned out to be even MORE fun. Lucky us, there were only 5 of us on this tour – perfect for an impromptu break at the tiny pastry shop Pastelaria Alfama Doce.
Oh boy, our first taste of Portugal pastries! We tried two, first the famous Pasties de Nata that you can get all over Portugal (the best are in Belem and called Pasteis de Belem), and second the delicious almond custard pastry called Alfamas that you can only get in Alfama, plus we learned how to order the short espresso “Café Pingado”. If you like Caffè Macchiato, just order café pingado or pingo in any cafe.
The National Tile Museum
A tile museum may sound like a dull place to spend a couple of hours, but it’s not – it’s quite interesting and worth the effort to find the bus stop for #794 to get to the museum.
Portugal and decorative tiles are synonymous and the museum (a former convent) is the best place to see lots of gorgeous tile murals saved from cathedrals, mansions and monuments plus learn how Portugal got started on this cultural phenomemon.
The National Tile Museum is in a former convent, so of course there’s a church in it!
Get the audioguide! The restaurant is a good lunch break before taking the bus back.
Easy Transportation in Lisbon
- Get a Viva Viagem card for transport around Lisbon – it’s valid on trains, trolleys, public buses and even the ferry. There are 3 different types you can buy, (1) single use, (2) a 24 hour unlimited Day pass or (3) a pay per ride card that you pre-load with an monetary amount and can re-load when depleted. That’s the one we used, it made the per ride cost €1.25 around Lisbon. You can also use it for the trains to Sintra, that cost is €2.15 one way. Reloading the card is called zapping and the expiration is 1 year. No sharing, each person must have their own card.
- How do you know if you have enough credit on your Viva Viagem for a trip? Hold the card up to the machine, if you have enough for the trip you can get on, if not the machine will beep at you.
We were taking bus #794 near Praça do Comércio and stopped at the metro at the far end to buy the Viva Viagem card at the automated machine – selected the reloadable option and loaded it with €10. The card itself costs .50.
Tip: To get to the National Tile Museum, take bus #794 from the Campo Das Cebolas stop east of Praca do Comercio along the waterfront. The return ride drops you at Terreiro Paco stop, not far from where you got on.
A ferry over to Cacilhas was an easy way to get on the water and see Lisbon from across the Tagus river, made even easier because you can use your Viva Viagem card!
Cacilhas is famous for it’s seafood restaurants. We walked along the abandoned warehouses along the water, looked at the pricey menus for the 2 deserted restaurants at the far end, then took the elevator to the top and had a boring walk back to Cacilhas to find a reasonably priced place.
It’s pretty much all restaurants on the street facing the ferry building and up the pedestrian street around the church. We stopped at Peralta where a huge platter of seafood for two cost just €25. There was plenty of time to relax and then see the beautifully restored Fragata (Frigate) Fernando II E Gloria before heading back.
We were back in Lisbon with enough time to go up to Largo do Carmo, the most important and dramatic scene in the Carnation Revolution, and pop into the Republican National Guard headquarters building for a look around the museum inside.
Day trip to Sintra
An easy 40 minute train ride to beautiful Sintra. If you start early and don’t go on any hikes (other than the walk to the Moorish Castle) you can see the Pena Palace, The Moorish Castle, the National Palace, and last and the most fun – Quinta da Regaleira.
We did it all, with a break at the Pena Palace terrace for a café pingado and half our picnic lunch, and a break at the Moorish Castle for the other half of the lunch. Wrapped up the day with specialty pastries at Café a Periquita in Sintra, a nice and relaxing reward to a busy day before heading back to Lisbon.
Tip: No waiting in a ticket machine line at the train station in Lisbon if you already have your Viva Viagem card!
Tip: The Moorish Castle has beautiful views of the Pena Palace, but don’t spend too much time stomping around there if you want to have plenty of time to wander the fascinating grottoes of Quinta da Regaleira. If doing all this in one day sounds too rushed just skip the Moorish Castle or the National Palace, but don’t skip the Quinta!
Pastries, Pastries, Pastries! Every town in Portugal seems to have their own pastry specialty, in Sintra go to Periquita to eat Travesseiros and Queijadas de Sintra, with a café pingado of course. If you want more milk in your coffee, order a Meia de Leite. Another house speciality pastry is Pastéis da Cruz Alta. Yes, we shamelessly tried them all.
Tip: The weather in Sintra can be quite different from Lisbon – make sure you bring layers and socks in your day pack, or you may be warm in Lisbon and freeze in Sintra.
Belem and a day of lines
National Coach Museum
A line for the electric trolley 15E from Praça do Comércio and a terribly crowded standing all the way 15-20 minute ride to Belém. First stop – the National Coach Museum, a trip back in time to see how the royals got around.
Pastéis de Belém
Next stop – Pastéis de Belém for their version of pastel de nata (plural: pastéis de nata), made with something secret and so delicious it is justifiably famous and called Pastel de Belem.
Don’t let the line out the door intimidate you, that is for the counter take away service. Go inside and you’ll see there’s room after room of places to sit and relax with your cafe pingado, pastéis de Belém and sandwich. Keep going back through the small rooms and you’ll see the huge dining rooms. If there’s a wait here it won’t be long. When you order, get some Pastéis de Belém to go – you won’t regret it!
We tried Pastéis de nata just about everywhere we went in Portugal, and yep, they are the best in Belém.
Jerónimos Monastery and The Church of Santa Maria
Next stop – Jerónimos Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993. If you want to see the cloister there’s a fee and there may be – will be – a long line.
The enormous Jerónimos Monastery in Belém was built by King Manuel to thank the early Portuguese explorers for their many discoveries.
Built in 1501 and completed 100 years later, the huge complex stretches 300 feet along the waterfront and is built in a richly ornate architectural style that became known as… Manueline!
When we finally got in to see the cloister, I have to admit – this is the most ornate cloister I’ve ever seen! But there wasn’t an audioguide which would have enhanced the visit – a LOT. So like everyone else we just admired the intricate detail work and fascinating chimeras and carvings.
The Church of Santa Maria is free and without a wait.
If you’re pressed for time skip the line and the lovely cloister and just go to see the free and really interesting church.
Monument to the Discoveries and the Tower of Belem
Next – a walk by the Monument to the Discoveries to… the Tower of Belem and another long line.
Tip: If you bought the combo ticket to the Tower of Belem at the Jeronimos monastery you may still have a wait, but NOT in the line of people waiting to buy tickets. Don’t wait in line, walk right up to the entry attendant who will basically say forcefully “You wait!” and gesture for you to wait to the side of ticket buying line. That’s to the SIDE of the regular line…in a few minutes you’ll get in.
Line woes aren’t over there though…getting up the Tower is a one-way stairwell with entrances off the tower rooms and a traffic light at the doorway. When red, wait while the horde of people come down. When green it’s your turn to go up.
Getting to and from Belem from Lisbon: The electric trolley 15E was horribly, excruciatingly crowded going and worse coming back. But there’s an alternative I wish we’d taken – the bus!
Gulbenkian and the Gulbenkian Centro de Arte Moderna
The Gulbenkian was easy to see in 1.5 hours with an audioguide. Highlight: The Rene Lalique creations in the last room.
After the Gulbenkian Museum we walked through the garden to the Gulbenkian Modern Art Center. This museum was dominated by a Rui Chafes sculpture installation (somewhat interesting) and a Joao Tabarra gigantic photos and video installation (ridiculous). For me, the Modern Art Center wasn’t worth the admission price and I’d advise that it’s not worth going out of your way to see. There were school groups mostly and a couple of us tourists.
Driving Excursions from Lisbon
The distances for day trips from Lisbon really aren’t that huge, at least not for visitors from Southern California where it seems everyone drives about 50 miles just to get to work! We took two days for two different driving daytrips – first, south to visit Palmela, Setubal, Portinho da Arrabida, Castelo do Sesimbra, and top the day off at Meco Beach. Second, north to visit the famous monasteries Alcobaça, Batalha, Fátima, and Tomar.
Last day in Lisbon
A last day in Lisbon to see some more of the Alfama (just an excuse to get some more Alfama pastries!), go to Saint George’s Castle, and have dinner with a side of Fado at the Alfama Grill. St. George’s Castle is really just an expensive view but you wouldn’t know it from the line to get tickets to get in. It was crowded but we enjoyed the views nonetheless.
Great Snacks: A tip from our helpful airport shuttle driver on arriving in Lisbon – ask for a Bifana (BIF’ana) everywhere – a tasty meat sandwich.
Lisbon is Easy
Lisbon was a delight to experience – we walked up and down Lisbon’s seven hills on both guided and do it ourselves walking tours, sampled plenty of the wonderful Portuguese pastries, and went over to the old Alfama district several times for dinner with a side of Fado – the traditional music that, while I didn’t understand a word, conveys a sense of loss and longing beautifully.
A big, but easy, capital city, Lisbon was a perfect start to our 19 nights in Portugal.
- Lisbon map
- Chiado Apartments, 10 nights in a 1 bedroom top floor apartment on Rua Nova Do Almada, a prime location in the Chiado neighborhood (Chiado: SHE-adoo). Beautiful, huge, terrific location, PLUS views.
We loved our 10 days at the apartment so much I wanted to arrange our next trip to include Lisbon just to stay here again! Our Rua Nova Do Almada apartment had beautiful, comfortable spaces ( all 1,100 square feet of it!) with 1.5 baths – we always love that. The French doors in the bedroom open to the pedestrian walk below and it was very quiet for sleeping, there were plenty of supplies, great WIFI, and English channels on the big LCD TV – nice!
I always strive for the perfect apartment in a central location and loved this one. We walked just about everywhere and back multiple times per day, but there was also the Baixa/Chiado metro stop around the corner. One of the other things I loved was the professional management. Chiado Apartments arranged everything for us – transportation from the airport to the apartment, a secure parking space for a few days, and a mid-stay housekeeping. We could easily have lived here a month!
Arriving In Lisbon
We had easy enough flights from San Diego – 16-17 hours including 2 connections and we were in Lisbon! Well, we were but one of our bags stayed somewhere in London Heathrow… don’t worry, it showed up about 24 hours later. Funny thing we don’t usually check a bag, and after this have vowed never to ever again if we can help it.
Easy Shuttle from the Airport
100 Rumos Shuttle will take you the 15 minutes to and from the Lisbon airport for about 6 Euro’s each. Chiado Apartments arranged the pick up for us, but you can schedule it yourself on the 100Rumos.com website. We gave both Chiado Apartments and the shuttle driver a call from the airport to let them know of our lost luggage delay. No problem. Lisbon is easy!
Easy Transportation in Lisbon
Local Transportation – trans, metro, funiculars and buses: The reloadable Viva Viagem card takes care of local transport – Buy at an automated machine with cash. You can’t use automated machines with US credit cards because in Europe automated machines require Chip & PIN validation. US credit cards don’t have PINs. The prepaid, rechargable Viva Viagem is a great deal for transportation. Trams, metro, funiculars and buses will cost you 1.25 per ride. The card itself costs €0.50.
Tram 28: Not worth it if it is crowded. Start at Praca Martim Moniz or Prazeres to get the most out of your ride. DON’T start in the Baixa, or anywhere in the middle because you have to get off at the end and queue up again to get back on.
Drive from Lisbon to Evora – 1.5 hours.