Landing in Lisbon
Our trip to Lisbon, Portugal from Tangier, Morocco was our longest one yet. It began with a ferry ride from Tangier to Spain which, thankfully, ended with us finding our car right where we left it, safe and sound. Our total drive time was about 6 and a half hours, but we decided to make a stop on Jerez de la Frontera, Spain to visit our friends, Fritz and Anya Beaumont, who we met on a bus to Chefchaouen in Morocco.
Fritz and Anya took us to a restaurant in Jerez with a local following. We sampled different regional dishes and all of the different types of sherry which are made in the area. I didn’t think I liked sherry before our lunch, but I left wanting to seek out a couple bottles to take along our travels with us. Jerez is a lovely town and our friends gave us a town of the downtown area while we sought out a shop to buy some sherry. It was a short visit, but it was fun to see Fritz and Anya again and to see their Spanish home. They’ve since moved from Jerez to Bilbao and we hope to visit them there one day as well.
We had originally booked an Airbnb in downtown Lisbon, but the host cancelled the booking while we were in Spain. With such short notice, we weren’t able to find a reasonable place downtown and decided to stay in a city across the ocean inlet from Lisbon called Baixa de Banheira. The area we stayed in didn’t have much to do, but we were only a short train ride and a ferry away from the bustling city of Lisbon and the price really couldn’t be beat. Our apartment was spacious and the grocery store was close, so after we checked in we made our way there to buy some dinner and snacks.
Kody and I had been looking forward to getting to Lisbon. We both felt like it would be one of our favorite places on this trip even though neither one of us had ever been there. Before leaving on the trip, we’d watched an episode of a travel show called Somebody Feed Phil on Netflix set in the city and it looked like a dreamy, colorful, foody paradise. And, to be honest, the city mostly lived up to the hype.
This was the first time we were utilizing public transit on our trip. Luckily, having spent time in Germany and London, I felt pretty confident with my navigation skills and Kody trusted me enough to follow my lead. No pressure. We got on the train without incident and 15 minutes later found ourselves on a ferry heading to the city.
The ferry was packed almost to capacity and you could tell we were some of very few tourists onboard. The view of Lisbon as we pulled into port was beautiful and exciting. We were so ready to explore and wanted to get our travel energy back after being slightly disappointed with our time in Morocco.
Immediately noticeable in the Lisbon sky are all of the tram lines. They crisscross over the roads in what looks like chaos but is actually an intricately organized system. The teams themselves rumble along the roads with purpose, if not speed.
Lisbon is a city of hills and from some viewpoints it looks stacked up on top of itself in a dangerous way. These hills are not a joke. They shoot straight up claiming tourist victims without remorse. We decided to start our day on flatter ground and approached the hills after filling our bellies.
From Somebody Feed Phil, we had learned about the Time Out food market. Is there any better place to have lunch then a decked out local food market?!
Along the way to the food market, we stumbled upon… a food market! This place was already fulfilling so many of my dreams. We stopped to learn about port wine and try some tapas.
My goal for this day was simple: I wanted to eat pasteis de nata. Pasteis de nata are a regionals specialty in these part of Portugal. The deceptively simple tart are composed of a thin flaky pastry shell filled with custard and baked until blackened on the top. When they’re served, you cover them in cinnamon and powdered sugar and, truthfully, they sounded like what dreams are made of. Every person in Lisbon has their opinion on where to find the best ones, but we decided to try them for the first time in the Time Out Market. We rounded out our meal with croquettes (fried dough balls filled with codfish or other meats), ginja (local cherry liquor sold by the shot), an espresso, and a beer. Literally the picture of health.
The pasteis were everything I had hoped they would be. Anything that you can douse in cinnamon and powdered sugar is guaranteed to hit high on my list. The food at the Time Out Market was amazing and we were able to do some great people-watching while we dined.
It only seemed right to walk off our indulgent lunch on some of Lisbon’s famous hills. We walked in the direction of the start of the route for the historic Tram 28.
At the top of a particularly gruesome mound, we found the Rossio fountain. The fountain is surrounded by Portugal’s trademark black and white patterned limestone walkways. Kody and I are obsessed with them. What amazing foresight to put the same amount of beauty and effort into the ground that you put into your buildings. It makes Lisbon beautiful from all angles. Looking up the hills, you see the stacked, tiles buildings. Looking down at the ground, you see the changing limestone patterns underfoot. Everything felt like it was alive. We even saw a group of workers repairing a portion of sidewalk, painstakingly placing the black and white stones in the proper pattern. I felt like I should thank them for creating such a wonderful walkway just for me, which, of course, they didn’t.
This tram is one of the only remaining in the city built in the older style. It cannot be modified or changed very much because the route it follows has so many narrow streets and turns that the newer tram models cannot make. This claim to fame meant that after our long, uphill walk, we had to wait a while in a line of fellow tourists making the same pilgrimage.
The truth is that some things are touristy because they’re actually really cool and everyone wants to experience it. If I lived in Lisbon, I might be annoyed with tourists waiting in long lines just to ride a tram, but that’s because I would already know the city. The Tram 28 route crosses a long swatch of the city from east to west, passing monuments and places of interest along the way. Since the beginning of the tram route was near the ferry port, we decided to ride it all the way to the end and back.
In some places on the route, we were so close to the buildings that you could reach out from either side of the tram and touch the walls. The tram chugged up the hills and hugged the corners. It was a bumpy and fun ride. We were lucky enough to grab a seat and not have to stand and sway for the entire ride.
Before leaving the city for the day, I was able to capture some lovely examples of another Portuguese obsession of mine (and probably anyone who has ever been there): tiles. The painted tiles found on many of the buildings there are as colorful and varied as the food. There seemed to be a special affinity for blue tiles and the more chipped and faded they were, the more I felt drawn to them.
We felt like we had had a perfect day in Lisbon, which was wonderful because we didn’t know what was in store for us the next day.
The next day, the ferry workers went on strike. What this meant for Kody and me was that our 30 minute trip to Lisbon had turned into at least 2 hours. The train going into the city went south before heading across a long bridge over the inlet. The Lisbon stop from this train was nowhere near the downtown area and required taking a bus. We made it into the city after almost 3 hours. A city we could literally see across the water. It’s hard to be motivated after a trip like that. At least we got to see the aqueduct from the train station in northeastern Lisbon.
We made our way to the Jeronimo monastery and saw the tomb of famed explorer, Vasco da Gama. The monastery itself was an impressive structure, all arches and spires on the outside and cold, dark stone on the inside.
We walked through a park filled with more intricate limestone walkways to a monument dedicated to the great seafarers and investors of the Age of Exploration. It was absolutely enormous and shaped like the bow of a ship with statues of the explorers and financiers crowding towards the front to view the horizon. On the ground in front of the monument was a granite map of the world showing the “discovery” of the New World.
Down the waterfront from the monument was the Belém Tower. This tower was the last thing sailors would see leaving Lisbon and the first thing they would see upon arriving home. It has stood the test of time and weather since the 16th century and has a weathered importance that felt significant. I thought about being one of those explorers leaving for the unknown and looking back from the horizon to see that emblem home not knowing if I’d ever see it again.
We had a wonderful seafood lunch at a local restaurant before taking a fast and furious tuk-tuk ride to a small fado concert.
If you’ve never ridden a tuk-tuk, it’s essentially a souped-up moped with more seating. The seatbelts will not save you from being flung out of the vehicle if it takes a turn too quickly and you can probably walk up a hill faster than it can drive up one. That being said, they are a fun alternative to taking a cab or a bus.
We had booked tickets to see a traditional fado show in a cave like restaurant. Fado is a melancholy type of music, almost like the Portuguese version of the blues. The show was held in a small room and the singers were accompanied by two traditional Portuguese guitars and one standard guitar. One male singer and one female singer took turns singing emotional songs on a language we couldn’t understand at all. It was one of those experiences where the meaning transcended the language barrier and we felt carried away by the long, sorrowful notes. I didn’t take any pictures, unfortunately.
Our trip back to our apartment took even longer than our trip to the city due to Google maps snafu. We tried to take a cab home and the cab driver refused to “cross the river.” By the time we got home, we were exhausted, cross with each other, and starving. It had put a damper on what was otherwise a lovely day. There was no way we were going to do that again the next day.
We decided that if it was going to take us 2 hours to get somewhere, we might as well go somewhere 2 hours away. Instead of fighting the ferry strike, we leaned into it and took a day trip to the city of Sintra.
Sintra is in a hilly, heavily forested area near the Atlantic coast. Portuguese and Spanish royalty built their summer palaces here and they dot the hillsides in spectacular fashion. Kody and I had come to visit the colorful Peña Palace and its extensive grounds and gardens. The hike to the palace is about an hour and a half straight uphill, so we took the advice of a local and rode a tuk-tuk up with the idea of walking back down later.
The entrance to the palace grounds led us to a lovely forest path with some ponds and buildings dotted throughout. Our first view of the palace was from below looking up and it seemed massive and playful. The palace is yellow, red, and purple. We were there on an absolutely beautiful day and the colors stood out against the blue sky exactly as intended.
There was a huge line of people queued up waiting to enter the palace, but access to the outside area was unrestricted. We walked along the palace walls and into an open courtyard in the back. The palace was high enough that we could see the sea.
Each part of the building was so intentionally created. Some portions were yellow, some red, some were covered in three-dimensional tiles, some were marble carved with seascapes. It seemed like someone’s dream palace come to life.
Oftentimes, the outside of a palace is much more interesting than the inside. That was partially true in this case, only because the outside was so fascinating. We waited in line for close to 45 minutes, but only 4 or 5 rooms were open for viewing once we entered. To me, the ceilings were the most interesting. The chandeliers hung low and were brilliantly colored and gilded. There was an impressive stained glass window in the chapel. I, unsurprisingly, loved the kitchen with its copper pots and pans hung all over the walls and large open hearth. I could imagine cooking in there every night!
After visiting the inside of the palace, we took to exploring the grounds. Not far (but completely uphill) from the palace is the High Cross, a cross built on top of the highest point in Sintra. We walked along a path that was cobblestone in some parts and gravel in others until coming up to long, flat stone stairs that led up to the crest of the hill. The walk was delightful. The forest surrounding the palace is a national park that has struck the perfect balance between cultivation and wildness.
We made it to the top and saw the High Cross perched among the rocks on the summit. Across the hill was the Peña Palace in all of its glory and we had an amazing view.
On the way down from the High Cross, we visited the palace stables and greenhouse. We were almost entirely alone on the twisting trails on the grounds. It was a good thing that we had taken the tuk-tuk up to the palace so that we could enjoy ourselves in the park. Kody and I were both feeling so great in Sintra, fully revitalized after our terrible travel time the day before. It was peaceful and gorgeous. Overall, we walked about 9 miles and approximately 100 flights of stairs.
We made our way back home and washed and hung out our laundry. The trick is to never pass an opportunity to wash your clothes on a trip this long – you never know where the next washing machine will be.
Our final full day in Lisbon and, thankfully, the ferry strike was over!
We made our way into the city and to the Story Centre, an audiovisual Museum about the history of Lisbon especially after the devastating earthquake in 1755. The entire city was rebuilt following the disaster and the grid system was centered around the Praça do Comércio, which is where the Story Centre is located. It was really interesting to walk out onto the square and know its significance and history. We looked upon it with different eyes. At the far end of the square is a set of marble stairs that come straight up out of the water. It is from here that many important visitors entered the city of Lisbon.
We took to wandering and found some more tinned fish to take on our travels with us. Our favorite so far is codfish with chickpeas – with a nice crusty piece of bread, it’s a meal on its own! Another stop for a ginger shot, smoothie and some coffee pepped is up to make the trip back across the “river” and get packed up to move to Madrid.
Although we were initially disappointed with our trip to Lisbon, time has made us realize that we had a really fantastic visit. The ferry strike and our terrible day of travel really put a damper on our attitudes and motivation, but we managed to power through it and give Lisbon the love and effort it deserved. A city we would definitely visit again.