For our first trip of what is shaping up to be a busy summer travel-wise, we decided to start with a long weekend exploring Lisbon and Sintra in southern Portugal. Before moving to Europe, Portugal was never a top priority destination for us, but we ended up loving the food, wine, scenery and vibes in Porto on our first visit so we had high hopes for exploring Lisbon.
Watch our Lisbon Travel Film:
We headed out of Luxembourg early Saturday morning and flew direct for a little more than 2 hours into Lisbon. We chose a boutique hotel with roof deck views down to the Tagus Estuary. After arriving, we started our day by taking in the view of the hilly town covered with tightly-packed pastel-colored buildings, winding streets, orange rooftops and a nearly identical copy of the Golden Gate Bridge. Our initial impression was one of shock as to the similarities between Lisbon and San Francisco. Our first step was to rent a scooter and take off through the weekend traffic a couple of miles down the coast to check out a few major sites in the neighbourhood of Belem.
Pasteis de Belem
Before starting our tourist trek, we stopped in at the famous Pasteis de Belem, a bakery and cafe where the famous custard-filled egg tart pastries are made. The shop opened in 1837 and began making the pastries from a secret, ancient recipe found at a nearby monastery. The pastries are made every day in the bakery by hand and served for takeaway in cylindrical cardboard boxes. We picked up a few of the sweet, flaky treats and enjoyed a tasting as we headed to view two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Torre de Belem and Jeronimos Monastery.
Torre de Belem and Jeronimos Monastery
The tower was built in the early 16th century along the shoreline for defense purposes and also to serve as a ceremonial gateway to Lisbon. The monastery was built over a 200 year period beginning in the 1400s and it housed monks for nearly half a century. Both buildings featured a rich, ornate architectural style that contrasts from the simpler buildings found throughout Lisbon. We both enjoyed exploring the structures despite the hordes of tourists on a summer Saturday afternoon.
Jardim dos Sentidos
We headed back to our hotel and enjoyed sundowners before heading out to try Lisbon's best vegan restaurant, Jardim dos Sentidos. On our way, we enjoyed walking down tree-lined boulevards that felt a like a cross between Paris and Barcelona. We headed past perfect pastel pink buildings studded with the famous blue and white tiles and through narrow cobblestone streets lined with crumbling but picturesque buildings covered in bright and beautiful graffiti. We both felt that Lisbon possessed a grittier feel than Porto, but we appreciated the mix of classical architecture with modern street art.
At dinner, we enjoyed a vegan feast that included local beer, wine and sangria, a "cheese" board, veggie burger and taco salad and walked off the delicious meal to the Barrio Alto neighborhood, which was filled with revelers taking in the sunset over the water from rooftop bars and street performers singing the famous Fado music as the sky darkened.
The next morning, we awoke early and headed on an epic scooter adventure through urban traffic, along seaside highways and through a mystical forest to Sintra, a town in the Portuguese Riviera known for romantic architecture, castles and palaces. As we drove down the coast on our Vespa, we were baking in the summer heat, but as we turned off the coast and headed up into the hills, the temperature dropped at least 10 degrees and the forest became misty, creating a magical element that permeated our entire day.
Our first stop was the Pena Palace, a hilltop castle designed in the romantic style, that features wild, colorful structural elements, blue and white tiles and eclectic influences from Gothic to Islamic and Renaissance. We arrived just as the castle opened and speed-walked up the hill through the castle gates. We enjoyed being the first to make it up so that we had free reign to run around the palace alone. We took in the crazy views down to the Atlantic Ocean and hiked through the palace grounds to find a spot to fly our new drone to get fresh angles on the almost psychedelic structure. After exploring the interior of the castle, including the perfectly intact kitchen (which Erin loved), we headed to our next spot, the medieval Castle of the Moors.
Castelo Dos Mouros
The Castle of the Moors was built in the 8th and 9th centuries atop the hills of Sintra during the period of Muslim occupation of Portugal. It served as a barrier to protect local citizens from invaders and eventually as a place of Christian worship once the Catholics took over dominance of the area. We drove our scooter to the base of the castle and walked up towards the imposing walls through paths lined with pink, purple and blue hydrangeas, which seem to grow in the wild throughout Lisbon and contrasted starkly with the rough, rugged castle walls behind them. We climbed up the stairs along the castle ramparts and took in views down to the ocean and over to the Pena palace. After the castle, we headed into town to pick up a couple more famous Portuguese pastries (including one that tasted exactly like Cinnamon Toast Crunch) and then headed for the coast. Dave thought the breaks on the Vespa were going to burn out as we skidded down the cobblestoned mountain.
Bar do Fundo
Once we scootered out of the forest and reach the coast, we drove along rough cliffsides and bright blue bays dotted with beach umbrellas until we reached Bar do Fundo, a beach-side restaurant featuring an outdoor deck, chill lounge music and epic seafood. While waiting 30 minutes for our table, we headed out to the beach and walked in the water as the giant Atlantic waves crashed on the nearby cliffs. We noticed that the beach had a distinctly Brazilian vibe, with very tan, beautiful people with very small swimsuits in abundance and super-talented soccer players kicking balls along the beach.
After getting a bit of sun, we headed to our seaside table and enjoyed a pitcher of sparkling Sangria made with local wine, a fresh crab stuffed with crab salad, local olives and olive oil, and grilled fish and vegetables. After lunch, Dave took a dip in the freezing ocean and we took a little siesta in the sun. We hopped on the scooter and headed back towards Lisbon, weaving between the traffic and stopping in a beach town along the way for much-hyped gelato that was not worth the 20 minute line. Side note, there is a law in Lisbon that allows pregnant women and parents of young to cut in line, so standing in a line for gelato as a couple on a hot summer day is not a great plan, as anyone with a kid can and did jump the line.
Pharmacy Museum Dinner
We arrived back to Lisbon around dinnertime after braving the crazy beach traffic on the way home and headed to one of the many hilltop viewpoints around town to take in the sunset. We noticed a very cool-looking outdoor restaurant with tables strewn out on a grassy rolling lawn across from the viewpoint, so we headed in and secured a table. It turns out this hip restaurant in the daytime is Portugal's museum of pharmacy in medicine, and that the medical theme applied to the restaurant as well. Despite the strange theme, we enjoyed Portuguese tapas including chilled soup, salmon and sweet potato sandwiches and chickpea stew, topped off with an insane peanut butter mousse, which was one of Erin's favorite desserts ever. Our check came inside a container typically used by doctors' offices to collect urine samples, which again was a strange touch, but we had a great dinner and then headed home after sunset in a crazy cheap Uber. We noticed that everything in Lisbon, from drinks to transportation, was significantly cheaper than other European cities, allowing us to live it up and indulge in the awesome local wines and beers.
Saint George castle
The following morning we headed out on an epic walking tour of old town Lisbon. We started by driving our scooter toward the old town, but through a series of road closures ended up driving along the slippery cable car tracks, which was pretty harrowing on a scooter during the busy Monday morning commute. We ditched the scooter in a narrow pedestrian alley and headed out on foot. Our first stop was the Saint George castle, a Moorish fortified citadel set atop the highest hill in Lisbon, with views along the whole city. We climbed up the castle walls and were surprised by the wild peacocks walking along the structure. The fortifications in this area date to 48 BC, when Lisbon was classified as a Roman municipality. We took our time to take in the views and to climb along the battlements, canons and narrow staircases before heading down hill towards town.
We headed to the Alfama, the oldest district in Lisbon, and enjoyed exploring the delightful maze of narrow streets. The narrow walkways were strewn with streamers, twinkle lights and graffiti art, giving the neighborhood an eclectic, celebratory vibe that we'd never experienced previously. Before the Renaissance era, the Alfama was outside city walls and home to the city's poorest residents. Later, the area became known as a rough and tumble area filled with dock workers and sailors. Throughout the years, the area has become trendy and famous, as its architecture and winding streets have not changed throughout the years, despite the growth of Lisbon and several major earthquakes.
Time Out Market
We continued our walk through town and headed to the local food market for lunch. Recently, a group of chefs decided to open a food hall adjacent to the local produce market. To keep the market as authentic as possible, the creators decided to ask local chefs to open up stalls within the food hall, so that the market could accurately reflect the variety of local cuisine. We enjoyed tasting a few local dishes for lunch and then headed back to our hotel for our business calls scheduled for Monday afternoon.
Pistola y Corazon
In the evening, we decided to celebrate the American Fourth of July a day early at a very hip taco bar in an up-and-coming part of town. The bar was totally our style, featuring a low key vibe, great music, cold beer and delicious, authentic tacos. All of the employees were dressed in cool, edgy fashion that we've been deprived of living in safe, simple Luxembourg, so we had a great time taking in the scene while downing Pacifico, Modelo Especial, tequila cocktails, chips, salsa, guac and tacos. As we left, the line out the door was filled with an international crowd of young travelers and hipster locals.
We headed back to view the sunset in the Barrio Alto, and we had an epic end to the trip listening to a reggae band play live covers of Bob Marley, John Lennon and other classics as we drank beer and wine, surrounded by about 100 others, just hanging out and taking in the scene. People took their dogs off leashes, brought picnics and chilled as the sun set over the water. This was one of the moments that we felt really grateful to be able to live in Europe. Summer nights like these are so special in these historic European towns and the feeling throughout the crowd was celebratory, positive and happy. We had a lovely long weekend in Lisbon and would recommend Portugal to anybody - it is a refreshing alternative to some of the bigger, more expensive and crowded European cities.
Next up, Cote d'Azur for riviera swims, lavender in Provence and canyon adventures.
Check out our Porto trip here.
Adventure Travel Guides