For a long weekend in Februrary, my friend and I headed to the neighboring country of Portugal. I’ve been wanting to visit Portugal for a while, and it’s so close so I didn’t feel very rushed to head there soon after moving here. We spent two days in Lisbon and another day in Sintra, a neighboring city which houses multiple palaces and a castle!
We left early-ish Friday morning and arrived in the city. After hauling ourselves and our backpacks up one of the city’s famously tall hills, we found our hostel and dropped off our bags before heading out to explore the city.
The buildings in Lisbon looked a lot like the buildings in Madrid and other parts of Europe, with beautiful iron balconies, but there were a lot more things hidden down the streets. This elevator below was designed by a student of Eiffel!
If you keep walking down from the Bairro Alto (where we were staying), you reach the Tagus river with its own lovely beach after you pass through a town market-square with an imposing statue.
Farther down the waterfront is the famous Belém tower, built in the 16th century. Students can enter the tower at a discounted rate (3 euros) and so we climbed to the top of the tower. The staircase is a winding, claustrophobic climb though, so not for the faint of heart or those requiring mobility assistance. The stairs are for both upwards and downwards traffic- at certain intervals a bell rings and everyone on the stairs has to head into an adjoining room to let people going the opposite direction pass you.
By the tower is a square with a map depicting historic Portuguese voyages around the world, complete with dates and places marked.
There is also a bridge that looks familiar to many of us, perhaps because it was designed by the same person who designed the more famous one in San Francisco, CA. Alongside the water is a museum, whose roof you can climb on for a better view of the bridge.
The next day we headed to Sintra, which is about an hour way by train (2.20 euros each way). Like Aranjuez, the city was the site of the royal residences. As such, there is a National Palace, the Pena Palace, and the Castelo dos Mouros (Castle of the Moors).
Because of the hilly climbs, it’s difficult to get up the mountain to Pena Palace and castle. You can either take a bus or a tuktuk! We couldn’t figure out the bus schedule so we ended up in a tuktuk and it was a fun ride.
The old town of the city also has a few neat sights; it’s not all just palaces!
The Pena Palace reminded me of Legoland, with its bright and multicolored exterior. We opted to not pay to go inside but paid rather for the ‘garden’ ticket that allowed us to walk all around the exterior of the site. We felt it would not have been worth it to pay to enter the castle as we did get to enter a few rooms despite not having the ‘palace’ ticket. The palace in its current state dates to the 19th century, though there has been a building on this site since the Middle Ages.
Each side of the palace offers a new color scheme and decorating style, like this side featuring Triton and coral sculptures.
Parts of the exterior also include interesting tileworks with varying patterns.
Slightly farther down the hill is the Castelo dos Mouros, dating to the 8th and 9th centuries when the Iberian peninsula was part of Al-Andalus, the Muslim empire of the time period. After being damaged in a terrible earthquake in the 18th century, it was restored by the same king who built the Palace of Pena.
The two sites couldn’t be more different. This castle was much more strategic militarily and wasn’t residential, while Pena Palace was built for luxury.
The stonework is accented by beautiful greenery that was all over. Really refreshing for a girl from the Sonoran desert! From the castle you could see the Palace of Pena on the hill; what you can’t see in the photo are the high winds I fought to get the shot.
Down the hill and in the main part of town is the National Palace of Sintra, which dates from the same period as the castle, but was added onto later. The blend of architectural styles is really interesting, with the castle using strong Moorish features (like the windows in the photo below).
The next day we took a walking tour around the city. We had originally planned to do this the first day there but ran into some scheduling problems. It was nice though to see some things we had missed the first day!
Our guide told us a lot of interesting things about Portuguese history, including the tale of their Carnation Revolution against their 1974 overthrow of their fascist government. The revolutionaries put carnations in the muzzles of their guns and fired almost no shots, killing not a soul.
Our tour guide also taught us a bit about Lisbon’s literary claims to fame, including Luís de Camões, the “Portuguese Shakespeare” who wrote an epic poem about great Portuguese voyagers. We also learned about Fernando Pessoa, a poet who invented heteronyms, or complete identities under which he wrote.
Lisbon is also home to the oldest still-functioning bookstore in the world, pictured below: Livraria Bertrand.The sign, graffitied over and blocked by a street vendor, identifies it as such. Inside is a beautiful, large assortment of books in a variety of languages. If you buy a book (which I did) and ask, they will stamp it for you and identify it as a book “bought in the oldest bookstore in the world.” I bought a copy of Camões’ Os Lusíadas, in Portuguese, hoping it will encourage me to learn the language.
Lisbon is really known for its seafood, most famously cod, cooked a brás: chopped up and fried with rice, eggs and onion. However, there are also sardines aplenty, and we found this really interesting store that looks like a circus inside but only sells sardines! The name translates to “Fantastic World of the Portuguese Sardine.”
In addition to seafood, Portugal is famous for a few pastries. We definitely sampled our way through a few, which I highly recommend doing, especially the egg-yolk custard tarts. We ate at some really great restaurants, like Bread4You and Há Pitéu, and I had some great seafood at both places.
Overall, I had a great time in Lisbon and the city definitely has landed itself on my list of Favorite Cities, at about spot #3, with Dublin being #1 and Rome being #2. I would love to go back (and a trip is currently in the works, actually) and definitely recommend that people visit. It was lovely getting a break from being in Spain but was similar enough that there wasn’t any culture shock. It was also nice being able to speak English or Spanish and have no communication problems. However, I do want to learn Portuguese! I just bought a textbook, so let’s see how much I can learn before returning!