The week before last, Ryan had a meeting in Lisbon so we decided to make a vacation out of it. After we made the decision to visit Portugal, we realized we didn’t really know all that much about the country; so we did some research. Portugal used to be a very powerful country with many colonies, including Brazil and parts of India, along with a whole bunch of other colonies. After learning a bit about the country and researching where to visit, we decided on a list of places we wanted to see.
As I mentioned, Ryan was already in Lisbon so I flew down on Thursday morning to meet him. The flight was relatively short- just 2 and a half hours. After collecting my bag at the airport I grabbed a cab into town. Cabs are really cheap in Lisbon, but not terribly well-regulated. For instance, Ryan’s cab ride to the hotel was about 15 Euros, but mine was 25 euros. Other than the ride from the airport, all our cab rides within town were really cheap, none being more than about 10 euros.
After dropping off bags at the hotel, we headed out for some sightseeing. We started out with a walk through the Barrio Alto and Chiado neighborhoods following the route in Rick Steve’s guidebook. After reading about the places on Rick’s tour and doing some research on Trip Advisor, we already knew which ones we just wanted to look at from the outside and which ones we wanted to actually visit.
The walking tour started with the Miradouro Sao Pedro de Alcantara, which is a viewpoint looking out over the city of Lisbon. It was a really pretty terrace with a great view of the town and of the Sao George castle on the opposite hilltop. There was also a neat looking tile map explaining the sights.
Speaking of tile, Portugal is very well-known for its decorative tile. As we left the viewpoint, we saw that a lot of the buildings we passed had at least some small amount of decorative tile. In fact, some were almost completely covered in decorative tile. As we followed along with the walking tour, we passed the Sao Roque church and the oldest tavern in Lisbon. Our next stop was the Largo do Carmo and the Convento do Carmo. The Largo do Carmo was a beautiful square in with an old fountain and trees with gorgeous purple flowers.
The Convento do Carmo, an old convent, was right off the square and was one of our favorite stops in Lisbon. In the 1700’s, there was an earthquake in Lisbon and it destroyed part of the Convento do Carmo. Today, all that remains are the church walls and stone arches. If you look up at what would normally be the ceiling, you could see the sky instead.
After visiting the Convento do Carmo, we grabbed a cab and headed toward the water and the convention center to grab lunch with some friends. After lunch, we headed over to the water to walk along the river and near the 25 of April Bridge, which was built by the same company who built the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco. The two bridges look almost identical except the one in Lisbon has a lower deck for trains. Above the bridge and the city is the Cristo Rei, a giant statue of Jesus “blessing” the city. This statue is a smaller version of the one in Rio De Janeiro.
We walked for quite some distance along the water to the Belem neighborhood. While I do recommend walking along the water for a bit, I don’t recommend walking all the way to Belem! We wanted to visit the Monument to the Discoveries in Belem and could see it from near the convention center, but we thought it looked a lot closer than it actually was!
The Monument to the Discoveries was really interesting to see. Its several stories tall (I think 6 or 7) and is shaped like a sailing ship with figures along both sides. At the bow of the “boat” is Henry the Navigator. On the ground in front of the monument, a compass rose is inlaid into the stone with a map of all of Portugal’s discoveries. You can pay a few Euros to ride the elevator to the top of the monument (which we did) and get a great the 25 of April Bridge, and the Cristo Rei across the river and the city and the Jeronimos Monastery nearby. We really enjoyed the view and the top was windy, which was a nice break from the heat of the sun everywhere else.
After visiting the Monument to the Discoveries, we headed over to the Jeronimos Monastery. In the mid 1400’s a small church was built on the site of the current monastery. Later, in the early 1500’s, King Manuel built the current monastery on the site of the original church. The monastery is absolutely beautiful. It’s architecture is what is known as “Manueline style” and the building is covered in amazing and ornate stone carvings both outside and inside. While the church is free, you have to pay to visit the cloisters. But the cloisters are beautiful and are really worth the visit! All the stone also makes it nice and cool inside compared to the hot sun.
When we had finished visiting the monastery, we grabbed a cab from the taxi stand across the street and got a ride to the Sao Jorge Castle. As we were driving up the hill to the castle, we saw a ton of people on the streets. Our cab driver explained that everyone was leaving or heading to church because it was a holiday- the Feast of St Anthony. As it turns out, St. Anthony is the patron saint of Lisbon so it is a holiday for the city. The Sao Jorge Castle is on a hilltop overlooking the historic Alfama neighborhood of Lisbon. The castle grounds were beautiful and had a great view of the city. We also went inside the castle, which was essentially empty except for the old walls. We walked up the original steps to the top of the castle walls and were able to walk all along the ramparts. It was really neat to walk along the top of the castle walls, but I think the view from the castle grounds was the best part of Sao Jorge Castle.
As we left the castle, we wandered around the Alfama neighborhood for a bit, but we were getting pretty tired from a long day of sightseeing and the neighborhood was getting crowded since there was a parade scheduled for that evening. Luckily, we were able to find a cab relatively easily and get a ride back to our hotel to relax for a few hours before meeting up with a friend and eating dinner at a really good Goan restaurant.
On Sunday morning, we met up with our friend again for a trip to Sintra. Sintra is only a 30-40 minute drive from Lisbon and I wouldn’t recommend driving if you’re visiting. The roads were steep and narrow and there wasn’t a whole lot of parking. Luckily for us, our friend was driving and he was used to the narrow and steep streets. Our first stop in Sintra was the Pena Palace.
The Pena Palace is really interesting to visit. It’s on a hilltop overlooking not only Sintra, but also Lisbon and many other surrounding towns. The palace was built in the 1800’s and is a mix of styles. There are arches, towers, tile work, and ornate carvings. It was really something else and the tile work on the facade of parts of the palace was beautiful. The ornate carvings and paintings adorning the ceilings of many of the palace rooms were really amazing. And since the palace was in use until the early 1900’s, it is an interesting mix of old and new. In the King’s bathroom, there is a shower-tub combination imported from London and a telephone so he could listen to the opera.
Since we really only had part of the day for sightseeing on Sunday, after visiting Pena, we headed to nearby Cabo da Roca. Cabo da Roca is the westernmost point of mainland Portugal and Europe. The landscape was beautiful, but very, very windy. It actually reminded me a lot of the coast around Los Angeles with lots of cliffs and similar plants. Although, I think the wind was far worse in Portugal than in California!
After visiting Cabo da Roca, we headed back into Lisbon to pick up our rental car and get on the road to the south of Portugal. I really enjoyed both Lisbon and Sintra and wished we had more time to visit. With another half or full day in Lisbon, we could have seen the historic downtown area and some other sights. And will a full day in Sintra instead of just a few hours, we could have explored the town and visited some of the other palaces. But, we were both happy with what we did get to visit and really looked forward to heading south to the Algarve region.
Next week, I’ll continue the story of the rest of our trip to Portugal with picking up our rental car on Sunday (which didn’t go so well) and visiting Lagos (which was my favorite part of the trip).