Friends, life is all about difficult choices. When all of Europe is your oyster, it can be kind of hard to choose a vacation destination. Do I want to visit the jagged volcanic crags of Iceland? Check out the weird wonders of Budapest? Fly south and kick it on a beach in Egypt? For my February break I had a few requirements. It had to be someplace I’d never been before. It had to be affordable. Escaping the dishwater gray haze that smothers Switzerland in the winter was a non-negotiable. I wanted sunshine, I wanted mystery, I wanted music, wine, good food and a place I could fall in love with being lost in.
View from the terrace of our Alfama apartment…
I have a love/loathe relationship with early morning flights. On the one hand they’re cheap and they rarely get delayed. On the other hand, I’m not a morning person. A fringe benefit of flying to Lisbon before dawn on a frigid Swiss morning is that by the time you’re cruising the coast of Portugal, you’re treated to a magnificent sunrise from 10,000 feet above the Atlantic ocean. Don’t forget to book a window seat so you can gawk fully at Lisbon’s early morning splendor. And swoon over that fact that there’s no snow on the ground.
From Lisbon International airport you can hop right on Lisbon’s cheap and easy to use Metro system (just remember to bring small bills to buy your tickets, the ticket machines only take Portuguese credit cards.) right into the heart of the city. My travel buddy and I chose the quaint and cozy neighborhood of Alfama as our home base. Alfama’s narrow cobbled streets, twisted staircases that lead to unexpected breathtaking views, and hole in the wall bars and cafes serving up to die for traditional Portuguese dishes along with decently priced wine could be enough to enchant you for an entire weekend. Indeed, it was difficult to tear ourselves away from Alfama to explore the rest of the city.
With hours to kill before check in time we headed uphill in search of a view and ended up stumbling upon a huge, rambling flea market at Campo de Santa Clara, a pretty spot in the shadow of the Panteo Nacional’s graceful white dome.
Look no further for endless tables full of odd and delightful treasures. Old fur coats? Check. Vintage nautical accoutrements? Look no further. Crystal jewelry? Old and hard to find records in great condition? Ever fancied owning an accordion? A Victrola? A rotary phone? You’re in luck. My friend even scored a genuine Omega watch for far below it’s selling value.
Come for the junk, stay for the sweeping view of the river Tagus. There’s a lovely little park overlooking the market where you can kick back with a coffee, enjoy the breeze, and plot your next move.
From there it was time to check into our Air B&B flat so we wandered back downhill to meet Susana, our gregarious and charming hostess. She welcomed us to the neighborhood with a colorful retelling of the story of Lisbon’s famed 1755 earthquake and plenty of offbeat recommendations about where to wine and dine in Lisbon.
Susana suggested a great Fado bar for us that evening. Of all the unmissable things I experienced in Lisbon, Fado has got to be at the top of the list. Wander down any quiet street in Alfama in the evening and you’ll hear music drifting from open windows and doorways. Fado is a distinctly Portuguese art form, wrapped up in the idea of saudade or simply, longing. I don’t know any other way to describe it besides telling you that it’s like going into a dark room with a stranger and hearing them sing their heart out to you about their deepest and most intimate sorrows. It is intense, it is personal and it is beautiful. And you can find it almost any night of the week in Alfama.
Some old-school Fado, photo credit: Everett
Fado singers can range anywhere from amateurs to highly experienced and talented artists, and they’re usually accompanied by a twelve string Portuguese guitar. Fado bars often feature a rotation of singers throughout the evening. Our waiter even took the floor for his own set. If the music isn’t enough to melt your cares away, the tiny trays of olives, bread and cheese, traditional dishes like codfish cakes and the free-flowing liters of house wine will seal the deal for you. Honestly, I could have gone to Fado every night we were there as it encompasses three of the things I love most in life, food, song and community.
Day 2 saw us headed uphill again to Castelo de. S. Jorge. The Castelo has some of the sweetest panoramic views of Lisbon that just about any scenic overlook in the city has. (And that’s saying something, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a gorgeous vista in Lisbon. Is that a weird metaphor? Do I care?) The main terrace is dotted with built-in binoculars so you can ogle sweeping views of the river Tagus and its graceful bridges, spy on the locals living under Lisbon’s ubiquitous orange tiled rooftops, and get a bird’s-eye view of Bario Alto, Baxia and Praca do Comercio spread out below. Don’t forget to take a picture of yourself next to one of the castles big-ass cannons, if that’s your thing!
The view from the Castelo’s terrace
Castelo de. S Jorge also sports some lush grounds populated by some seriously sassy peacocks, a nice little museum of archeological artifacts and some fun historical reenactments that made me wish I was a kid again. (Swordplay lessons with a knight dressed in chain mail? Yes please!) They also have an open policy about strolling the grounds with a nice glass of wine that we unfortunately, didn’t take advantage of.
After the castle it was time to kick it at a nearby cafe with yet another cappuccino and some Pastel de Nata, a traditional Portuguese custard tart. Yum!
The afternoon was a perfect time to wander downhill and check out sunny Praca do Comercia, which is every inch as grand as you’d expect a main square in a European capital city to be, and directly overlooks the water to boot. Take some time to grab gelato or a coffee at one of the many large open air cafes that line the square. I also made a pit stop at a the little beach across from the square to collect some seashells and sniff the ocean breeze. There’s a lovely promenade along the river there where you can take in a glorious sunset or two if you chose.
After lunch we wandered back uphill to Barrio Alto which features some kick ass street art and a lovely reverse view of the castle and Graca.
Miradouro da Senhora do Monte, Lisbon’s highest viewpoint.
Dinner that evening was at the weird and wonderful Pharmacia. Housed in, you guessed it, Lisbon’s Pharmacy Museum, Pharmacia features quirky retro medical decor, and a menu that is a modern twist on traditional Portuguese petiscos or, “small plates”. The view on the grassy outdoor terrace looked pretty sweet too, but we didn’t linger long there due to Lisbon’s unseasonably cold weather.
There’s something about ruins that are just romantic. Stories untold. Graceful, bone white architecture. Shadows and moss. Ruins are the bomb and Carmo Convent is the bomb diggity. Destroyed in Lisbon’s famed 1755 earthquake, it has since become a repository for random artifacts from all over the world. Come for the flying buttresses, stay for the hauntingly well-preserved South American child mummies.
Looking at old dead things sure works up an appetite for food and drink! Before dinner libations were had on the terrace at Portas do Sol, where we braved the bracing wind for a glittering view of the city and the Tagus below. Then on to yet another charming Alfama hole in the wall for our final dinner. Damned if I can remember the name of the place, but I’ll never forget the creamy pasta alfredo…
Fancy a funicular ride? There’s many ways to reach those vistas in Lisbon.
You can’t help but leave Lisbon with a heavy heart. Before leaving for the airport we took one last victory lap around the city on the historic Tram 28. Yes I know that Tram 28 is a better activity for the first day in Lisbon, but that’s the way the Pastel de Nata happened to crumble in this case, and I’m completely okay with that. It was nice to be able to scoot past all of our favorite sights making silent promises to return. The great thing is, Lisbon is so easy to get to and affordable that I know I will return and that next time I’ll explore even more of the city and the surrounding countryside. In the mean time I’ll have to satiate myself with some Portuguese wine and my Fado Youtube channel…