Portugal Chronicles, Part 2 of 3: Lisbon and Sintra
Lisbon in a day
09:00am Breakfast (place of your choice) 10:00am Jerónimos Monastery 12:00N Lunch at Pasteis de Belem 01:30pm Monument to the Discoveries 02:00pm Torre de Belém 03:30pm Catch the vintage tram and head to Alfama, have a snack and coffee at Cruzes Credo Cafe 04:30pm Visit Alfama’s Sé Cathedral and walk through the medieval streets 05:30pm Castelo Sao Jorge (try to catch sunset here) 08:00pm Dinner at Cervejaria Ramiro or for Fado go to Sr Fado Other things to consider: Port Wine Institute (Solar do Vinho do Porto), just a funicular ride away from the Baixa this place has a menu of 300 different ports. A Ginjinha this is the place to go if you want to try the famous cherry brandy liquor from Lisbon called “ginha”.
The GPS did an outstanding job helping me not getting lost. I drove from Albufeira to the center of Lisbon without any issues. My first stop was to check in at the Airbnb apartment/room we rented. Did I mention I had a previous reservation but the owner cancelled with less than 24 hour notice? Well, he did and I am glad because things happen for a reason. Airbnb customer service was fabulous. They even gave me a $10 credit and emailed me a few options. I found a room in charming apartment in the center. The owners, both artists (a dancer/choreographer and a pianist) were fantastic. Every time we travel, we prefer to use Airbnb instead of staying at a hotel. It gives you more privacy, it has all the amenities of home and makes us feel like locals living in “x” city. This was my first time not booking an entire home, but just a room. The apartment was beautifully decorated and I felt like royalty sleeping in that room. Nuno and Bruno made us feel welcome and they went above and beyond helping us. Next time we are in Lisbon, we know exactly where we want to stay. After leaving my bag and getting the keys, I left the car in a parking garage next to the apartment with the help of Nuno. He then gave me a ride in his personal car to Jerónimos Monastery. There I bought a ticket for the Monastery and Torre de Belém for 12€.
This monastery is without any doubt Lisbon’s most impressive church. This is where the seafarers such as Vasco da Gama prayed before embarking on their voyages. This church is an example of Manueline Architecture, an ornate, uniquely Portuguese style featuring an airy interior, slender palm-tree-like columns and motifs from the sea, including shell, artichokes (eaten for vitamin C to fight scurvy), and monsters representing the mystery of undiscovered lands.
This impressive building, is a World Heritage monument and also Vasco da Gama’s resting place. Da Gama was the first person to successfully sail from Europe around Africa to Southeast Asia, linking Europe and Asia for the first time by ocean route. King Manuel I built it in 1502 on the site of a hermitage founded by Henry the Navigator, where Vasco da Gama and his crew spent their last night in Portugal praying before sailing to India.
The entrance to the church is free, but if you want to visit the rest of this impressive building (highly recommended) then you must pay the entrance fee. I was in awe when entered the church and even more after seeing the rest. I simply don’t get tired of seeing European churches. They all have something unique. I always enjoy stepping inside, imagining how it looked in the past. I like to sit down, pay reverence and admire the grandiosity of the construction.
After wandering around the Monastery, which in my opinion, reminded me of La Alhambra in Granada, I crossed the gardens located in front in order to reach the Monument to the Discoveries.
This monument was originally built for the 1940 World Exhibition. It celebrated the achievements of the explorers during the Age of Discoveries and the creation of Portugal’s empire. However, that monument was built as a temporary structure and was demolished after the exhibition ended.
The monument we see today is an exact replica of the original one. It was built in 1960 on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of Henry the Navigator’s death. The monument is 171ft tall (50 meter) and shaped like a ship’s prow. We can appreciate different statues of people who played an important role in the discoveries.
Next stop was the Torre de Belém which looks closer to the Discoveries Monument than it actually is. I’m glad I decided to buy the combined ticket at the Monastery because there was a long line to purchase tickets and I simply entered with no issues.
The Belém Tower or Tower of St. Vincent is a fortified tower also built in Manueline style. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (along with the Jerónimos Monastery) because of the significant role it played in the Portuguese maritime discoveries of the era of the Age of Discoveries. The tower was commissioned by King John II to be part of a defense system at the mouth of the Tagus river and a ceremonial gateway to Lisbon. The tower was built in the early 16th century.
In order to visit the several stories you need to make a line on each floor. Because the stairs are very narrow, they control the flow of people coming up and down.
The building is very nice and has an incredible view of the river and the 25 de Abril Bridge which looks just like San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, with the exception that pedestrians are not allowed on the bridge.
Next I went to check off an item from my bucket list: eat Pasteis de Nata in Lisbon
I stepped inside and got a table, instead of making a looong line to by a “pasteis” to go. I was hungry so I ordered a pastel de bacalhau and a croquet with a cold beer and of course a Pasteis de Belem. Those pastries filled with a sweet custard from this bakery are famous for a reason. They are the best. Just thinking about them makes me want to buy a ticket and fly to Lisbon just to have one. Simply sprinkle sugar and cinnamon, like the locals do and you will enjoy an explosion of flavor in your mouth. Like Enrique Iglesias says, “una experiencia religiosa”.
I took a taxi to the apartment to change my shoes when Alexis texted me letting me know he was on his way. Perfect timing. We met at the apartment and then took a ride in the famous vintage tram.
We stopped at Castelo Sao Jorge just in time to enjoy the sunset with a beautiful view of the city below.
After that, we were starving, so we headed to Cervejaria Ramiro which according to Anthony Bourdain has one of the best seafood in Lisbon. When we arrived there was a very long line, but with the hungry we had I’m sure it looked even longer (thank you Anthony!). We waited for 30 minutes with a beer on hand and speaking with some Croatian tourists. It was worth the wait, the seafood was indeed delicious and we even had the “dessert” which is actually a meat sandwich with mustard. Delish!
We went to see the Santa Justa Lift but it was under construction so we couldn’t appreciate it very well. We then walked a little bit around the Baixa neighborhood before call it quits for the day. The next day we woke up early and after having breakfast we headed to the famous neighborhood of Alfama, the oldest district of Lisbon. Because of its foundation is dense bedrock, this neighborhood survived the 1755 earthquake which destroyed almost the entire city, killing hundreds. This neighborhood with its narrow centenary streets is a treat for any photographer. Just walking around and getting lost is a wonderful experience.
We quickly visited the church where we encountered Q & Laure. We had coffee and cake with them at a popular coffee shop before heading to Sintra.
Lisbon is definitely the twin city of San Francisco, with cable cars, steep hills, a bay, the red bridge, friendly people and great food. The resemblance is incredible! We enjoyed our time in Lisbon and wished we have spent a few more days exploring this wonderful city. After driving only 30 minutes from Lisbon we arrived at the Quinta de Regaleira, another UNESCO Heritage Site.
This romantic palace look as if it came straight out from a fairy tale, with hidden waterfalls, mysterious stairs and grottos everywhere.
It’s most famous sight is probably the Initiation Well, which apparently is a symbol of rebirth and self-discovery.
We could have spent an entire day there, but we had to leave if we wanted to see Palacio de Pena and the Moorish Castle, even if it was from the distance. We did not enter to any of those two palaces due to lack of time, but they are on our list of places to see when we return to Portugal. After Sintra, we headed to Porto, our last stop in Portugal. But will talk about Porto in the final part of my “Chronicles about Portugal” series.