Since my family lives in Germany, I have had the opportunity to go to Europe a lot. However, it’s somehow never felt like a true vacation to me, I think because I heard everyone’s stories about big European trips, it was their ‘trip of a lifetime’. I didn’t really understand this feeling of excitement and I realized it could have had something to do with the fact that I was always with my family and hardly ever had to book my own hotel even. Not that I am complaining! I treasure my time with my family, and I can go frequently because I have free accommodations. That being said, I did crave that excitement and I wanted to do a ‘Eurotrip’ on my own. So one day when I was doing what I do when I’m bored aka using the Explore feature on Kayak (seriously the BEST app EVER) and planning trips that I want to go on, I found a crazy cheap flight from Edmonton to Lisbon. Other then the fact that everywhere is on my travel bucket list, Portugal wasn’t a place I had ever thought about going to. And I didn’t know anyone who had been there before… I was feeling that excitement already so I knew I could not pass up this opportunity. I booked it.
I had almost 10 months to plan out every detail, but as I’ve mentioned, I don’t really like to plan a detailed itinerary. So I did what any normal millennial would do and started a Pinterest board and any cool picture that would come up on my feed I would save to my board. I soon realized I wanted to spend way more time then a week in Portugal. Just before I could change my return flight though, I received a letter from the college I had applied to a few months before. I got into the program I applied for but had been waitlisted, this letter said I got in early. Great news! Except that my trip was booked for the week before midterms. Oops. I debated canceling my trip, but every time I would see my Pinterest board I knew I couldn’t do it. So I decided I would do whatever it took, even if it meant studying on the plane or in the hotel, I was going to have an amazing trip AND I was going to ace my midterm. But I knew I definitely couldn’t be gone for more then a week.
I figured because I only had 7 days, I should stick around Lisbon and really see everything it had to offer and then one day I could return and see the Algarve and Porto. I found a hotel using Kayak as well, all I cared about was that it was decent, relatively inexpensive and close to a Metro station. Fun fact, compared to the most of Europe, Portugal hotel prices are very reasonable. I was quite happy with how the pictures looked for the Hotel Expoastoria and with my very limited knowledge of Lisbon neighbourhoods it seemed like a good location.
Fast forward 10 months. I landed in Lisbon on a Sunday morning and took a cab from the airport to my hotel because my jet lagged self was in no mood to try to figure out public transit. Make sure you only use cream coloured taxis or there are some older taxis that are painted black and mint green which are safe to use as well. I would also recommend contacting your hotel prior to your arrival to find out how much to expect to pay for your ride from the airport. Due to the language barrier I wrote out the address to my hotel so I could show the driver and ask him how much it would be to get there. He told me 15€ which aligned with what my hotel had told me so I was comfortable with getting in. Taxi drivers tend to take off as soon as they are paid so I would suggest making sure all suitcases and other belongings are out of the cab before handing the driver the money. On my return trip to the airport my driver charged me 2€ extra ‘because I had baggage’. I thought this was a scam, but since it was only 2€ I just paid it. After I found out this is a common charge, just beware, there should be a flat rate charge for this no matter how much baggage you have. Some drivers try to charge per suitcase.
After checking in to my room I had a quick shower and napped for a couple hours. I woke up around 3pm starving (I hadn’t eaten on the plane so my last meal was dinner in Toronto many hours before) so I went out on the hunt for some food. What I didn’t think about was that Portugal is a very religious country and most things are closed on Sundays. I found a few bars open willing to serve me alcohol but all their kitchens were closed, all of them told me they would start serving food at 8pm for dinner time. So sadly my first Portuguese meal ended up being a very North American Burger King. So lesson learned, when landing in a religious country on a Sunday, don’t be in a rush to leave the airport! Have a meal there because as much as airport food is not the best and is often overpriced, it’s significantly better then Burger King!
I won’t lie to you, I was quite disappointed in the neighbourhood of my hotel that first day because it seemed quite deserted. Since I was still very tired I settled on an early bedtime and tried to have a positive outlook for the next day.
Next morning when I walked out of the front door of the hotel, the entire street was transformed! Right next door to me was a cute little cafe that had its metal shutter rolled down the night before completely hiding what it was. Now it had tables set up on the side walk and delicious smells wafting out the door. I am a sucker for European coffee so I headed in to order one. I was overwhelmed with the many choices of scrumptious looking pastries so I picked out several to go with my coffee as well as a ham and cheese croissant (was still hungry after my disappointing food day on Sunday). All for about 4€, I was in heaven. I discovered that there are sweet pastries and some with meat in them… and they all look the same. I was not a fan of the meat ones mostly because I bit into it thinking it would be sweet, not the best surprise!
I headed to my Metro station which was about a minute walk from my hotel. In comparison to London’s tube or Paris’ Métro systems, Lisbon’s Metro is very small with only 4 lines. My station was Marquēs de Pombal which was handy because it has both yellow and blue lines stopping at it. I got on the blue line heading towards Santa Apolónia and got out at Baxia-Chiado. If you want to avoid climbing a steep hill, when leaving the station take the exit for Largo Chiado. This will lead to escalators that take you up to Chiado and then later you can stroll down the hill into Baxia. Chiado is a shopping area with many historic monuments closely surrounded by Barrio Alto which has a thriving night life and Baxia the flat area with lots of restaurants. This is a very touristy area so the restaurants are more expensive then other parts of the city. A lot of Baxia was destroyed in 1755 during the earthquake and resulting tsunami and fires. When the city was rebuilt the Marquis of Pombal imposed strict conditions so the streets are in an organized grid pattern unlike most older cities with winding streets. This area also is one of the first places where earthquake resistant construction was tested out.
Rua Augusta is a wide pedestrian street with many restaurants leading up to the Praça do Comércio. This is a large square on the banks of the Tagus river. The buildings around it held government offices that regulated customs and port activities.
Igreja do Carmo was founded on 1389 and was damaged heavily in the 1755 earthquake. It’s ruins are a must see when you are in the Chiado district. The nave and apse are now used as a museum that has many items from Portuguese history.
After seeing Carmo, I decided to get lost in the neighbourhood. I wasn’t too worried about getting back to my hotel because I figured I could just find a Metro station if I got tired of walking. Turns out I wasn’t too far from my hotel anyways so I just ended up walking back. You can see the route I took that day here.
Tram 28 is a vintage yellow tram that goes through a lot of great areas of the city and is a great hop on hop off tour if you can handle it. Handle it you ask? Well I got on in Chiado with the intention of doing the whole tour, but I got off two stops later at Prazeres Cemetery. There seems to be no limit of how many people can be on the tram at one time so people just kept cramming in, and then at the first stop more people came on with what seemed like none getting off. My best comparison would be the London tube during rush hour but hotter and less space and less handholds so you are basically relying on your neighbours to hold you up. Oh and there’s pickpocketers of course! It was an experience for sure, I do not regret my short time on tram 28, but I have no desire to get on again. It turned out to be a good place to get out though for two reasons. First, the route ends here and I’m not sure how long until the tram starts up again and second, I was able to discover Prazeres Cemetery. It is the largest cemetery in Lisbon. It was created in 1833 after a cholera outbreak. Many famous Portuguese people are buried there in large mausoleums. Also there is a viewpoint at the back of the cemetery of the Ponte 25 de Abril.
Praça da Figueria is a square in the Baxia district. It can be reached by the Rossio Metro station. There are many open air cafes with better prices then some of the other parts of Baxia. It is the transport hub, all major bus routes pass through here and it’s a good area if you are looking to hire a tuk-tuk.
Alfama is one of the oldest districts, and is a delightful maze of narrow streets and old houses. The best way to see it is by hiring a tuk-tuk or by walking it. If you are tired or walking up steep cobblestone streets in the heat is not your thing, go with the tuk-tuk. That is what I chose to do and even though it was an expensive ride (50€) my driver was very informative and was willing to stop at anything I wanted to see and would wait for me to take pictures. It was interesting to hear a locals perspective and listen to his stories. He was very entertaining!
The Lisbon Cathedral has had damage from many earthquakes so it has been rebuilt in many different styles of architecture including Gothic, Romanesque and Baroque. It was originally built in 1147 making it the oldest church in the city. It is on the way from downtown to Alfama so it was one of the stops on my tuk-tuk tour.
Belém is a district about seven kilometres from the city centre. This is where Portuguese explorers would set off on their voyages around the world. Christopher Columbus stopped here on his way from discovering the New World. To get there I took tram 15 from Praça do Comércio (you can also take tram 127) I got off at Mosteiro dos Jerónimos and walked from there. This monastery was built in 1502 and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Vasco de Gama’s tomb is located here. By the Monument to the Discoveries there is a harbour where I found a sailboat tour that went out past Belém Tower and then turned around and went up to the Ponte 25 de Abril before returning. There are many companies you can choose from, with many offering sunset cruises.
I very much enjoyed my exploration of this colourful city of the seven hills. Stay tuned for my posts on Portuguese food and the day trips I did from Lisbon. And to those of you who were wondering, I didn’t get any studying done while I was in Portugal. However I did cram the entire flight home and even though I only got about 4 hours of sleep before my midterm, I did ace it!