Read all about this under rated city break destination
I spent my long weekend in Lisbon with two amazing friends, Jenny and Fainche. Background, I met both of them when I was a Rose Escort for the first time during the Rose of Tralee International Festival in 2016. While in New York to march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade in 2017, we became great friends!
Down through the years, we have each visited our respective homes in Ireland, even though we seem to be the three busiest people in the country! On this occasion, after much deliberation, we decided to visit the Portuguese capital, Lisbon!
We met up in Dublin Airport at 4am to catch our early Ryanair flight. At this point, I realised there are four distinct ways to dress when travelling. Firstly, there are people who dress for comfort, typically long haul travellers (none of us chose this option). Jenny dressed in the more normal fashionable leisure wear (the best option). I simply wore my normal clothes. Fainche chose the fourth option… Dress like you’re already there. She arrived in a lovely bright pink dress and a colourful bucket hat running down the concourse exclaiming loudly, “I’m on my holidays!!!” in her Northern accent! With this, the belly laughs started in earnest!
We took a taxi from the airport to our hotel. It took about 10-15 minutes and cost less than €15. We chose to stay in the Eurostars Museum Hotel in the Alfama district of Lisbon. This beautifully appointed 5* hotel is about five minutes from the famous Praca de Comercio, one of Lisbon’s top sights. The hotel was an amazing find! We stayed in a massive triple room that worked out at less than €160 each for two nights bed and breakfast! For the service we received and for the facilities, this was an absolute bargain!
When we returned to the hotel on the first night, some chocolates and fresh custard tarts were waiting to greet us! The culinary delights didn’t stop there! The breakfast on both mornings was nothing short of spectacular! It was like a supercharged version of a continental breakfast buffet! The only time I’ve had something similar was in the Grand Villa Argentina in Dubrovnik! The two girls were particularly enamoured with the area where you could make your own mimosas!
Castelo de Sao Jorge
Once we dropped off our cases (it was too early to check in fully) and freshened up a little we set off the fid the famous Tram 28. As we approached the stop at Cathedral Se, near our hotel, it was just pulling away. We waited for a while, but eventually gave up and set off on foot. We went to Castelo de Sao Jorge. The cost to enter the castle grounds was a very reasonable €10 for adults and €5 for students and OAPs. It promised wonderful views across the city, and it did NOT disappoint!
On our way up to the castle proper, the girls spotted a little cart called “Wine with a View”! Here you could purchase a glass of one of a selection of wines, served in a special glass that you could keep and resulted in a reduced price on your next glass. We sat as they sipped away and soaked up the beauty of our surroundings and of the city that stretched out below us!
A Good Arch
Jenny and Fainche are known for a good photo themselves, so when we spotted an arch, the girls exclaimed, “Ooo, that’s a good arch!” Needless to say, photos had to be taken! Not only was it a good arch, but it was also a popular one! We had to queue to get a photo there. Naturally, we milked it when we could because others totally jumped the informal queue that had formed!
Here are some of the fruits of our work! It’ll give you a good idea of the messing that went on and the resulting belly laughs!
A Good Arch!
After this we perused the castle itself, this surprisingly tall Portuguese National Monument dates from the 12th Century, but there is evidence to suggest the hill was first occupied by humans in the 8th Century BC and has been fortified since the 1st Century BC. The castle stood, resolute, until the massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck Lisbon in 1755. Little other that the outer walls of the castle survived and it remains the case to this day.
It is possible to visit the various towers in the castle. I thoroughly recommend this because however good the views are in the grounds, they feel totally different from the towers! Some of the towers you can visit are the Tower of the Keep, the Tower of Riches, the Tower of St. Lawrence and the Tower of the Cistern. No, the last one is not the castle bathroom, it was where they collected rainwater for the castle’s use.
Food, Glorious Food!
After visiting the castle, we set off in search of sustenance. We settled on Chapito a Mesa for lunch. This busy restaurant had a phenomenal view! We were lucky to get a table as we had no booking and soon after we sat down, the whole restaurant was full! The food itself was amazing! The goat’s cheese salad I ate (my only healthy option for the trip I can assure you!) was devine! It didn’t feel like you being good at all! Quite the opposite! Three main courses and soft drinks cost us approx €42! I thought it was amazing value!
After lunch we returned to the hotel to formally check in and to change our clothes a little to allow for the unexpected warmth of Lisbon in February!
Praca de Comercio
Next stop was the well known Praca de Comercio. This magnificent square was once the location of the Royal Ribeira Palace which, like many of Lisbon’s buildings, was destroyed in the 1755 earthquake. The square is also known as Terreiro de Paco (Palace Yard) as a result! The square as it still stands was constructed between 1755 and 1775 at the instruction of Portugal’s then king, Jose I. His statue (on horseback) stands at the centre of the square.
The square oozes the feeling of the wealth that Portugal had during the Age of Exploration and for me, you really get a sense of the splendour of this Portugal when you stand in it and look around!
Pink Street (Rua Nova do Carvalho)
This ingenious idea started in 2011 to, believe it or not, transform a seedy area of the city. What’s more, it worked! Pink Street, or more correctly, Rua Nova do Carvalho was once Lisbon’s Red Light District! It, in the past was home to gambling dens, filthy pubs and brothels. It was also a popular meeting spot for prostitutes and local criminals. Now, it enjoys a different life. During the day, it’s frequented by those seeking a new profile or Instagram photo (the earlier you visit the better) and by night, it is a great spot for locals and tourists alike to spend a night on the town!
As you can see, the pink does need a little touching up in places. The reduction in the vibrancy of the pink colour is down to the fact that the street still has to function as such. Most of those looking for a photo here go to the Western half of the street, but I actually preferred the Eastern side. Yes the street is slightly less pink here, but the colours of the buildings on this side are, in my opinion, much prettier.
Elevador de Bica
The Elevador de Bica is both tourist attraction and public transport. It transports you up the exceptionally steep Bica street in a matter of a minute or two. As it’s deemed to be public transport, it’s covered on the Via Viagem card which you can purchase in the city’s metro stations. It costs €6.40 for a 24 hour ticket. This ticket covers all public transport in Zone 1 including the metro, trams, city buses and the Elevadors (most notably, the Elevador de Bica and Santa Justa).
Padrao dos Descobrimentos
The Padrao dos Descobrimentos is a MASSIVE statue in the Belem area of the city. Opened in 1958, it celebrates some of Portugal’s heroes from the Age of Exploration. At it’s head is the renowned Henry the Navigator. He is credited with being the main instigator of the Age of Exploration. He was responsible for the exploration of Western Africa and is still regarded as the patron of Portuguese exploration. It is possible to ascend to the top of the statue. If i’m honest though, the Padrao dos Descobrimentos is best appreciated from the open area surrounding it.
Torre de Belem
This iconic Lisbon landmark isn’t hard to miss. It stands proud of the shore in Belem, if you’re arriving to Lisbon by air, chances are, you might even see it from your plane! When it was completed in 1519, it stood on a small island near the shore of the Tagus river. Following the earthquake in 1755, the river’s course altered slightly and brought the shore almost all the way to the tower.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the major symbols of Europe’s Age of Discoveries and as such is a popular destination. Be aware you will most likely need to queue to get inside so arrive early to lessen this possibility. As far as photos are concerned, most people flock to the East side of it (the side closer to Padrao dos Descobrimentos), but explore the semi-circular seating area as well as to the West of the tower, some of these locations give a nicer photo, or one with fewer people in the background.
Bites of History
Our encounter with Bites of History was purely by chance. On our way to Torre de Belem across a park, Jenny spotted a bright blue Citroen 2CV and we decided to investigate. The result was an exceptionally interesting 10 to 15 minutes chatting to Luisa. This very stylish and interesting lady told us all about Bites of History.
Bites of History are a series of souvenir cookies that have beautiful designs that centre around Portugal’s and Lisbon’s culture and history. Each cookie comes beautifully packaged with a card inside in both Portuguese and English telling you all about the design pictured on the cookie itself so you can learn as you eat. The bonus is, they are absolutely delicious! We all agreed that our time chatting to Luisa and chilling at the Torre de Belem, near where she parks her beautiful 2CV were an absolute highlight of our weekend in Lisbon!
At this point, the girls spotted the second Wine with a View cart. Naturally they indulged as they had their re-usable glasses with them! As I searched for a novel photo of the Torre de Belem, they took a few selfies, this is what happens when you have wine and a view…
Jenny and Fainche Enjoying Wine with a View!
Pasteis de Belem
If you had to pick a type of food that Portugal is famous for, it’d probably be the custard tartlet. The famous Portuguese Custard Tartlet was first baked by the wonderful people at Pasteis de Belem in 1837. The restaurant/take-away is pretty much always really busy. Contrary to popular belief, if you choose to eat in, you can end up getting served more quickly. That’s what we decided to do! When we joined the line, it was fairly long, about 20 or so in front of us. Within ten minutes we were seated at a table, menus in hand. The restaurant/cafe goes much much further back than you’d expect and there’s several large rooms with plenty of tables.
As it’s the home of the tartlet, you’d expect the price to be a bit higher. As part of the experience I would’ve expected to pay up to €5 for a tartlet. I was very pleasantly surprised to find the famous dessert cost only €1.15 each! The flavour also lives up to the hype. Of all the tartlets I ate in Lisbon, these were by far the best! They also serve a variety of meals, specialising in sweet and savoury pastries, any of which I tried were delicious!
While I’m on the topic of food, we went to the TimeOut Market for dinner on one evening. I loved the vibe of this buzzing venue! There were seeming endless options for dinner. There are loads of separate places serving up everything from steak to sushi, from pizza to pints and from burgers to big desserts! The seating is first come first served in the large central area. As a result, it can be hard enough to find seats, especially if you’re in a larger group. It might be best to get someone to hold seats if you spot them. For ordering, you place your order and are given a device that alerts you when it’s ready!
Convento do Carmo
Before you go into the Convento do Carmo, pause for a moment to take in the square outside, Praca Largo do Carmo. It was in this square in 1974 that the bloodless coup d’etat to overthrow the authoritarian Estado Novo regime which was triggered by the playing of that year’s Portuguese Eurovision Song Contest entry. The movement became known as the Carnation Revolution because almost no shots were fired and an activist, Celeste Caeiro, gave carnations to the soldiers when the people took to the streets.
The Convent do Carmo itself was founded in 1389. It functioned as a place of prayer and worship until the earthquake in 1755 that left the church in the condition in which it remains to this day. It naturally meant that it was the end of it’s use as a church. This was probably my favourite place in Lisbon. I loved the arches reaching up into the clear blue sky beyond. As well as serving as a museum (predominantly at the Eastern end), it’s clearly used by some as a place to chill. Hardly surprising really!
Work the Angles
So, while we were in the Convento do Carmo, taking in the beautiful surroundings when I decided to break out the selfie-stick and try to get a few photos with interesting angles. The girls joined in and we started getting a few photos together. It was at this point that Fainche decided to take matters into her own hands… Now anyone would’ve held the phone low down, but not my friends! Fainche literally got my phone and literally curled up on the ground to get a good angle! Needless to say, Jenny and I were doubled up laughing! Jenny did manage to get a photo of the antics, so feast your eyes on the results!
The MOST Unconventional Photoshoot!
OK so I know this won’t be for everyone, but I absolutely loved it! The upper floor is a museum with varying exhibits showing the evolution of the profession of pharmacy since ancient times. There are loads of artefacts dating from Ancient Egypt and Rome right up to the present day! Downstairs there are several displays showing how pharmacies have evolved down through the years. Being a pharmacist, I found this awesome. If you have an interest in the history of health, medicine or shopkeeping, it’s also well worth a look! It only cost €5 to get in too!
Elevador de Santa Justa
Similar to the Elevador de Bica, the fare for the Elevador de Santa Justa is covered on the Via Viagem 24 hour travel card. It can be used as a way of saving the legs or if you want a great view, particularly of the nearby Convento do Carmo, you can head up to the Viewing Deck for unobstructed views. This does incur an additional cost. Saying that, it’s only €1.50 (They can’t accept card for this payment) so if you do want to head up that far, it won’t break the bank! The whole thing opens from 7:30am (9:00am for the Viewing Deck) in the morning until 9pm in the winter and 11pm from the middle of April until the end of October.
Se de Lisboa
The cathedral, Se de Lisboa is probably Lisbon’s most famous church. It was built in 1147 and has survived several earthquakes relatively unscathed. It’s predominantly gothic in style and when you enter it, you really get the tremendous feeling associated with almost 900 years of history! The interior is more splendid because of the architecture rather than the adornment seen in later churches. We visited on a Sunday in between masses and it cost nothing to walk around and soak up the grand beauty while the organist was playing.
Mosteiro dos Jeronimos
We also visited the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos which is like the polar opposite of Se de Lisboa! The much newer church is beautifully decorated and exceptionally ornate! The gardens outside it also lend themselves to a lovely stroll or a wonderful space to simply spend time. It’s easy to see why this is a UNESCO listed World Heritage Site!
A View Around Every Corner
Views from Miradouro de Santa Catarina (outside pharmacy museum) and Jardim de Sao Pedro de Alcantara are two spots, as well as all those listed above, where you can enjoy panoramic views across Lisbon and the Tagus. You will literally have to stop every two minutes to take a photo, be it of one of the many city views, of a beautiful tiled building or even a stunningly paved street! You cannot ask for a more quietly beautiful city than Lisbon.
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