Growing up, Portugal always seemed so far away. As a little kid, I imagined it to be an exotic and mysterious world that I would never get to visit. When I finally got to go there, I couldn’t believe my luck. The streets are absolutely beautiful and a photographers dream. Around every corner is a path to follow, somewhere new to discover and another perfect spot to sit and marvel.
Cobbled streets and old buildings, the kind of place that makes you take notice of the architecture and the history. We walked for hours taking photo after photo of this lovely city, getting lost in winding streets. Bright trams rattle past, winding their way up the steep hillsides and you feel like you’ve stepped into somewhere straight out of a storybook.
The party district of Bairro Alto sees streets lined with Mojito Bars and restaurants, playing music and teeming with life, just begging you to come inside. It’s a surreal experience compared to the old-world feel of traditional coffee shops which grab your attention during the daylight hours, the perfect place for a coffee and local sweet treat.
One of my favourite things about Lisbon is the people, who are passionate, artistic, vibrant and friendly. Each person looks like they have a story to tell and we were lucky enough to meet and speak with quite a few locals who shared theirs with us.
Contrary to what I thought Portugal would be like, there was not a Nando’s on every corner and I was not offered the option of mild, medium or hot peri-peri on any of my meals. In fact, our incredible tour guides told us they think Nando’s is pretty funny because it doesn’t exist in Portugal! Instead, there’s a lot of other delicious traditional Portuguese food for you to sink your teeth into.
Where to stay
Due to a tight budget, we stayed at the Poets Hostel, a very cool, artsy place situated near all the main tourist attractions. Despite my immediate regret at booking a hostel, it was extremely clean, modern and perfectly situated in among all the tourist hot spots that you’ll want to see while staying in Lisbon. Above all, it was really affordable and we didn’t have any problems staying here. Rather than a bunk in a shared dorm, we booked a private room and really enjoyed our stay.
Rossio Square is a good place to base yourself as it’s centrally located to the main tourist attractions and everything is easy walking distance. There are a number of hotels to choose from and it will just depend on your budget and personal tastes as to which one you choose.
What to see and do
We wanted to see as much of Lisbon as possible, so booked onto the X Day Tour run by We Hate Tourism Tours. Our guides Marcos and Miguel were incredibly funny and knowledgeable, the tour was excellent value and we saw everything we wanted to and more. They took us to places we wouldn’t have been able to find or visit without them and took excellent care of us, sharing so much history.
Our day was spent strolling through castles and villages in Sintra, eating freshly baked (and completely life-changing) chorizo and cheese rolls from a roadside vendor in Serra de Sintra, indulging in ice creams in Cascais and standing on the most western point of Europe at Cabo Da Roca, once considered to be the ‘edge of the world’. Absolutely inspiring!
During the early stages of the tour, Marcos and Matt discovered a shared love for Eddie Vedder, Into the Wild and Surfing. And so I found myself sandwiched between the two of them, hurtling through the streets of Sintra with Pearl Jam pumping out of a Nokia 6210 on the dashboard as they discussed their favourite surf breaks. It was a fantastic, fun day and I highly recommend We Hate Tourism Tours as one of the best ways to see Lisbon and surrounds!
Food, drink and culture
Our first night in Lisbon, we discovered that the food in the main tourist areas wasn’t impressive, it was only when we got out of these areas and into the smaller streets with small cafés and street vendors that we found amazing food! Do yourself a favour and stock up on savoury and sweet treats from a local bakery, amazing.
Our second night in Lisbon, we headed out to find a Fado café. Fado is traditional, soulful Portuguese music and something considered to be a ‘must-do’. Unfortunately for us, we walked into Café Luso and ended up paying €56 ($71 AU) for two starters and half a bottle of white wine.
As we were scraping the last of our money out of our wallets and trying to make a swift exit, the dancers who were previously on stage now appeared at our table, thrusting large, wooden banners covered in bright flowers into our hands and pushing us onto the stage into a conga line of our fellow diners who were equally as frazzled as we were.
We danced around in circles aimlessly while tables of tourists produced iPhone, Smart-droid, Black-currents and filmed the whole ordeal to, no doubt, stream live to the world online. Needless to say, we were both horrified and quickly scurried back off stage, out of the restaurant and to the safety of the nearest Mojito Bar. We spent the rest of the night laughing!
We had a second Fado experience which was absolutely incredible at a tiny little local bar whose name I couldn’t find. We were pointed there by a local and it turned out to be one the highlights of our trip. We sat quietly at a small table, watching the musicians and singers perform soulful, evoking music that has to be experienced. The mix of local food and wine with the music was one of those surreal travel moments where you have to pinch yourself a little.
My top five Lisbon tips
- Take the Tram – The #28 runs through the heart of Lisbon and is a fun, cheap and authentic way to see the sights. Go to the metro station in town to buy a daily travel card for €5.50, it will last 24 hours and you can use it unlimited on buses, trains and trams.
- Bairro Alto – Skip the expensive, overrated drinks and dinner and go to the Bairro Alto district for cocktails and live music.
- Chorizo rolls and Portuguese tarts – Don’t eat breakfast at your hotel, wake up early and find a local bakery. Be sure to indulge in one of the freshly baked Chorizo rolls and a Portuguese egg tart.
- Find a real Fado Bar – Poets Hostel runs a free Fado tour on Sunday’s that will take you to an authentic Fado Café where you’ll pay a fraction of the price but have one of the most amazing live music experiences of your life
- Oceanarium and Esplanade – Use your bus ticket to take a trip out to the Oceanarium and Esplanade, kids will love the aquarium and afterwards you can stroll along the Esplanade in the sun, then stop for Sangria and Tapas
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