This week we are pleased to present a guest post by Ligaya Malones, who writes about bright spots in travel and food from San Diego and abroad with the approach that life isn’t fun if it isn’t funny. Read more on her website, The Curious Passport
For a case study in appreciating things as they are, look no further than Lisbon, Portugal’s vibrant capital city. In signature Lisbon street style, light saturated buildings are unapologetically weathered. Trams roll up, down and around the city’s neighborhoods on their own schedules, despite posted timetables. At sunset, locals commune on a miradouro overlooking the Rio Tejo sipping Super Bock. Soaking in a sublime evening, they watch the fading light wash Lisbon in a mesmerizing ombre of orange and pink as the sun sinks.
With two weeks to spend in the beautifully preserved port city, I enjoyed myself completely, thanks in part to the practical items I included in my new Tortuga carry-on, and the myriad of hidden gems tucked away in the quiet corners of cobbled streets. If you are heading to Lisboa soon, here are a few things to pack, and some adventures to get you started.
Packing for Portugal
Wondering what to wear in Portugal? Your Portugal dress code is casual, with a little flair added for evenings. Packing layers is a great idea, as mornings and evenings can be cool, even in summer. Choose good quality, basic pieces that can be dressed up for evenings out listening to Fado music, or dressed down for an afternoon walking the promenade along the waterfront, or popping in and out of tile shops.
- 3 t-shirts or tank tops
- 1 long sleeve cardigan, light jacket, or wrap
- 3 bottoms (skirts or shorts in summer, one pair of nice pants for men)
- 3 pair underwear
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 hat (for sunny days)
Comfortable Walking Shoes
Lisbon’s intricate cobblestone sidewalks are beautiful to look at, but they don’t offer much arch or ankle support, their uneven surface means shoes with a solid sole are a must. As a city best explored on foot, I recommend a sturdy pair of flat footwear. The city on seven hills, which was built and rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in 1755, makes for a series of steep inclines and slippery downgrades.
My pair of Teva strap-on sandals served me well; from shuffling through Bairro Alto’s late night crowds, to scaling the labyrinth of stairs in the Alfama district (one of Lisbon’s historic neighborhoods and its old jewish quarter), and as I scrunched aside as a tram rounded a tight corner. Traction pays.
Compared to what the protective goop typically costs in the U.S., sunscreen is expensive here. While spending a few days surfing in Peniche (a two hour bus ride North of Lisbon), I was surprised to learn that a 3 oz bottle of SPF30 would cost me the equivalent of $20 USD.
Apparently, the significant cost difference, according to the Environmental Working Group, is because European sunscreens are made with different active ingredients used to filter the sun’s rays. Science aside, paying more than $12 a bottle for the stuff may come as a shock, especially given the relatively low cost of everything else in Lisbon. If you’re minding your wallet, pack your own.
With all of the walking you’ll likely do in Lisbon, keeping hydration handy will aid your ascent to the Castelo de Sao Jorge, or stroll along the Tagus to take in the airy Praça do Comércio and Rua Augusta Arch.
The tap water is safe to drink, and since there is rarely a functioning public water fountain in sight, you’ll be grateful for access to a personal supply. As it turns out, these days Lisbon’s drinking fountains are more of a photo opp after running dry years ago.
To lighten up my carry-on, I brought a collapsible version malleable enough to stash in my tote while out around town. It was also discreet enough to whip out of my purse to fuel an epic rooftop dance party in which the DJ, who continued to play hit after 90s hip-hop hit caused us to miss our planned dinner.
Mind your wallet and keep a keen eye on belongings. Although the city is quite safe, pick-pocketing is common. As I checked in to my hostel during my very first day in Lisbon, a distressed family of four approached reception to explain that one of their bags had been stolen on Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara. Reception pointed them in the direction of the tourist police, though I was skeptical of how lucky they’d be to reclaim what was snatched.
With a map in hand that also warned readers of petty theft, I explored the city with a new sling purse I picked up in Madrid the week prior, or my tote bag with a zipper closure. Occasionally, I stepped out for an afternoon jaunt to the standing-room only Manteigaria for a custard tart, or a late dinner (typical for Lisbon) with my cell phone buried in the deep pockets of my printed harem pants.
A bag like the Outbreaker daypack is theft deterrent, with interior pockets and clips that protect your most precious possessions from slash and grabs. It’s low profile design doesn’t scream, “I’m a tourist! Rob me!” The covered zipper means that the bag is that much harder to get into, and we all know that most petty thefts are crimes of opportunity. Remove the opportunity, your stuff is safer. The high quality, waterproof sailcloth it’s made from means that if it does develop a hole (say a thief cuts one) the hole won’t grow, rendering the bag useless.
Lisbon moves about fast as the time takes for the number 28 tram to wheel itself to the pick-up point at the bustling Praça Luís de Camões. That is to say, the pace here is glacial. As a child of the unhurried Hawaiian island life, and a current breezy Southern California resident, who knew it could get any slower?
While dining, I challenge you to embrace what can appear to be a lack of service during extended periods of solitude. Take in the variety of characters traversing the plaza while you wait for the tram to arrive. If you’re waiting at Praça Luís de Camões, hold steady and don’t lose your place in the queue; Manteigaria’s nearby, but you’ve got to snag a seat on the tram before the hoards manifest by 11.
Rough Guide to Lisbon
When you arrive, admire details up close and afar. From the streets, notice the black and white stoned patterns underfoot, the tapestry of painted tiles (azulejos) decorating the buildings and fresh laundry strung from residences.
The metro is fast, clean and efficient, running straight from the airport, right downtown. A taxi cab will cost about 18 EU from the airport to the heart of the city (they are metered and regulated at the airport, so just hop in line). Uber is ubiquitous and a better deal than a cab for most trips. You’ll find the drivers friendly, mostly English speaking, and cars usually equipped with wifi, free of charge. How cool is that?
For those who arrive early and can’t check into a hotel yet, drop those bags at the centrally located Lisbon Luggage Storage and explore the city hands free, without worrying about your stuff. Not only do they store your bags for a reasonable price, they also will help with airport transfers, printing travel documents, internet access, and more.
Escape Hunt Lisbon
If you’re into escape room gaming, you’re going to love Escape Hunt Lisbon. Never tried one? This is a great place to start. With three games to choose from, including one that is based in Lisbon’s history (the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755). Team Tortuga raced the clock, and each other, on their recent retreat, and lived to tell. Can you escape in an hour?
Gelato might be famous in Italy, but it’s great in Portugal too! Sanitni Gelati is, reportedly, the best of the best in Lisbon. Known for their fruits over their creams, be sure to get more than one flavor in your cup.
Gelato Therapy is a small shop that is worth a visit. They’ve got some very different sorts of flavors, like lemon-honey-basil. Mmmm.
Entering Lisbon’s beautiful Oceanario is like an underwater-immersion meditation experience within Takashi Amano’s “Forests Underwater” exhibit. There is only one word: mesmerizing. According to Trip Advisor ratings, this is the best aquarium in the world. Be sure you see the rare sea dragons, and, of course, the octopus.
Miradou de Sao Pedro de Alcantara
A park with a view, overlooking the city, the castle and the sea, this is the perfect place to watch the sun paint the city in every shade of pink and peach as the afternoon rays stretch long towards the horizon.
Wander the local market that lines the street side of the park, enjoy the dried fruit, buy some locally made cork crafts, and whatever you do, do not miss the sangria, sold from a market stall at the end of the park nearest the funicular. Try the red. And the white. Add a prosciutto sandwich from the stall right next door. Perfection.
All of Portugal is known for the spectacular tile work. Lisbon’s narrow back streets are dotted with shops selling tiles. The new ones, marketed to tourists, are easy to find. Look a little harder and you’ll notice dusty shops selling tiles and fragments that are centuries old. Wander slowly, ask questions, and maybe take home a piece of Portuguese history.
This is a word you’ll become very familiar with: Cod. It’s a daily staple. The fish (of all sorts), is really good in Portugal, and no matter how long your stay, you could try a different preparation every day. During a stopover in the Azores, a French tour guide told me that the Portuguese have more than 1,000 ways to prepare cod. Try the cod with cream.
No trip to Lisbon is complete without an emotionally rending evening of Fado. Skip the large venues that sell tickets prominently through the tourist venues. Instead, wander into the back streets just before nine in evening and find a little restaurant with a hand lettered sign out front advertising Fado. You’ll be shoehorned into a tiny room, with the musicians so close that you can see the emotion on their faces. This is real Fado. Restaurante Aviela is one of the local treasures.
Park- Roof Top Bar
One of the coolest hidden of the city is Park, a roof top bar that-you guessed it-is atop a regular old parking garage. It’s not advertised on the street. You’ll walk past it a hundred times and never know it’s there. Take the stairs (or the graffiti covered lift) all the way up to the fifth floor and, like magic, you’ve got great tunes, great drinks, and a killer sunset view over the water. You’ll feel like a local.
Here’s the super secret address: Tv. Andre Valente 7, 1200-433 Lisboa. You still might not find it.
Take a Day Trip
Head to Cascais for a sparkling beach day, Belem to take in some Portuguese history (and a stop at Pasteis de Belem for THE custard tart), or Sintra to make all of your castle dreams come true (keep reading). All three destinations are accessible within an easy train ride away from Lisbon’s Cais do Sodré station. Take a bus or a tram out to the beach and watch huge Atlantic surf waves break against the shore. Or spend the day shopping the cobbled streets filled with local arts and wine shops.
Sintra: Bonus Weekend
If you’ve got the time, a weekend trip to Sintra is easy to make and feels a world away from the bustle of the capital. The train from Oriente Station, in Lisbon, takes about 45 minutes and Sintra is right at the end of the line. There’s a departure about every half an hour, so you can’t miss it. Oriente Station is the one stacked right up behind the big Vasco de Gama shopping mall, near the waterfront.
For a fun and funky atmosphere, consider the Nice Way Sintra Palace Hostel; be sure to participate in one of their lively community dinners, with “all the sangria you can drink,” included. Ask for the room on the very top floor with a view of three castles. It’s worth the climb.
There are six castles within walking distance, but you can take the bus, return for 5 EU to all of them (there are two routes, the Moorish Castle and the Palace of Pena on one route (bus 434), the other four castles on the other route).
By far the best of the castles is Quinta de la Regaleira for sheer fairy tale delight. With an underground labyrinth, hidden tunnels behind fountains and waterfalls, towers worthy of Rapunzel letting down her hair and spiral staircases down deep into the earth, it’s pure magic for 6 EU. Don’t miss it.
From Sintra, the bus to the beach is 441, the bus to Cascais (and the other beaches) is 417.
Lisbon is warm, sunny most days and super hilly. Make sure to pack:
- Clothing in layers, for sun, wind, and cool evenings
- Comfortable walking shoes, preferably flats
- Sunscreen, or risk potential sticker shock when you land
- Secured purse or apparel for your personal items
- Water bottle
- Embrace the details
- Eat the fish & watch them too
- Put your phone down, drink in the sunset
- Savor gelato and sangria
- Don’t miss the truly local Fado
- Add a weekend trip to Sintra, you won’t be sorry
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Photo Credit: Andrea Moroni, Peter