Updated: Sep 2, 2021
We all try to avoid long lay-overs when we fly but you can also extend your visit and turn it into a fun "stopover"! I did it last week when I spent 2 nights in Lisbon en route to the U.S. from Italy. Ryan Air was offering ridiculously low prices for their Pisa-Lisbon leg so I couldn't resist! I had an amazing time so wanted to share my findings with you.
Lisbon spreads out over several hills and has a long suspension bridge, so it reminded me a bit of San Francisco. It even has old trams that go up and down the winding streets! I had a nice little hotel up a steep side street so had a bit of a climb to do at day's end.
The Baixa neighborhood is all flat, and has a grid of wide, straight avenues that lead to the Tagus River waterfront. Rua Augusta runs from the busy Rossio Square down to the archway built in 1755 to commemorate the rebuilding of the city after a devastating earthquake.
Rossio Square was decorated with creative cobblestone patterns in the 19th century, starting a trend that you see in other places around the city and the rest of Portugal.
Lisbon is especially famous for its colorful tiles called azulejos, whose origins go back centuries to when the Moors occupied the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal). I loved these two, advertising what seems to be a DYI shop.
And here are some classic abstract tiles:
Here are a few more beautiful details that I found on my walk through the city:
In the 19th century the city built a fabulous wrought-iron elevator to whisk people up the 45m (150 ft) to the Bairro Alto neighborhood. It was a miracle of modern engineering and is now one of the most popular tourist attractions.
The Bairro Alto is now known for its lively nightlife and is full of bars and restaurants. I loved wandering the backstreets and seeing the local color (sometimes literally!).
The oldest church in the city is the Cathedral of Santa Maria Maior, built in 1147 over what was the city's biggest mosque when the Christians took the city back from the Moors. Archaeologists have found traces of Roman constructions inside, as well as some buildings from the Visigoth period. It was closed when I passed by so I couldn't visit it, so that's on my "to do" list as well!
The historic #28 tram line goes up the serpentine hillside to the Saint George castle, which is fun to visit around sunset for gorgeous views out over the city.
One of the most colorful streets in the city is known as "pink street." Rua Nova do Carvalho used to be the heart of the "red light district" but was gussied up and painted pink in 2011 to give it a new life. Now it's full of bars and restaurants and is a great place to grab a drink between hill climbs.
There's also some great street art:
Even Cupid was out lookin' for love ❤️
Who knows what mysteries await behind Door #2??
Don't forget to look up as you walk around, and take in all of the stunning architecture detail.
Or stop to look IN:
On my 2nd day I hopped on a local bus and went out to the neighboring district of Belém, where you find the 16th century Belém tower, Jerónimos Monastery, and Archaeological Museum. I love that there's a little "wine with a view" truck that sells wine in plastic goblets so you can enjoy a cool one without having to worry about breaking the glass. 🙂
The Jerónimos Monastery is a soaring Renaissance building that once housed monks from the Order of Saint Jerome.
Once again: look up! Amazing ceiling detail.
Here's the main entrance to the monastery as well as to the (small) Archaeological museum.
The Archaeological Museum had a few nice pieces but I was generally underwhelmed. The most interesting item, I thought, were the "Lusitanian-Galaic" warrior statues from the late Iron Age -- or guess who?? The Celts! You can even see the heavy torcs around their necks (see below right). *[If you're new to my blog, check out my post about the Celtic tribes in Italy from a few months ago to see why I'm so fascinated by them]
And of course, I had to try...
... the famous custard tart called Pastéis de Belém. Originally produced by monks in the monastery, they are now produced only at one small bakery nearby that has patented the recipe. It's creamy and flaky and oh-so-good!
This doesn't mean you can't find other amazing delicacies elsewhere! Indeed, you can find similar custard tarts everywhere in the city, and those go by the name Pastéis (or pasteles) de Nata.
My hotel owner said he prefers the ones from the Manteigaria bakery chain (there are a few scattered throughout Lisbon).
And speaking of food... my diet has gotten a lot more restricted in recent years to due health concerns, so my vegetarianism now skews vegan AND gluten-free when possible. When I started traveling 3 decades ago this meant getting a lot of green salads and quizzical looks from waiters, but now there's a plethora of choice -- thank you, meatless gods! A quick google search turned up a bunch of good options around the city, from the not-exclusively-vegetarian winery/restaurant Eating Bear tapas bar to the all-vegan (and amazing!) Organi Chiado to the vegetarian Asian fare at Psi Vegetarian Restaurant.
For me, "eating locally" doesn't necessarily mean eating traditional local cuisine (most of which is meat or fish in Portugal). It also means patronizing small restaurants who use locally-sourced produce, or encouraging new establishments who are trying out innovative recipes, and especially (in my case) giving business to vegetarian and vegan places who make going out to eat such a treat for me now.
My hotel was in a renovated noble house in the hills just north of the Baixa neighborhood and had a lovely rooftop terrace. I got a great deal and would love to try some of their other locations (being up a steep hill meant a lot of tramping up and down...). I was at the Quinta Colina but you can see the others on their website.
There were FREE walk-in Covid testing trailers set up around the city so getting tested 48 hours before my flight was no problem.
So that's it! Did I see everything I wanted to see? Heck no! But I got an idea of the "lay of the land" and now have a better idea of where I'd like to stay next time, what I'd like to see, what I don't need to re-visit, and how to get around (get a 24-hour public transport pass so you can hop on and off buses, trams and metro as you go!).
Connections to and from the airport: a taxi to my hotel from the airport cost €25, which I took on the way IN, while my city bus OUT was only €2 (take the #744 from Restauradores Square).
One of the museums that I really enjoyed was the Museu do Oriente (museum of the orient), which had collections from Portugal's era as a colonial power in Asia. There was too much to include here so I'll do a "bonus post" soon.
I hope you enjoyed your quick stopover in Lisbon! If you have a few old Portuguese escudos rattling around in your change purse you can toss them into the tip jar to help my continued research into custard tarts. I am STILL languishing in Tour Guide Limbo so every bit helps. One of these days I'll be back to guiding IN PERSON, and I hope to see you out there!