We kicked off our two week Portugal roadtrip in Lisbon, and stayed at an AirBnB in the Alfama. The Alfama is the oldest district of the city, which, I now see on Wikipedia, was built around the 12th century. Obviously I did tons of investigating before and while I visited the city! Anyway, read on to check out my Lisbon travel tips from our 3 day visit.
The Alfama area was a sort of labryinth, with tiny streets that suddenly seem to dead end or veer off, and steep hills. After arriving at our apartment, I figured we’d never find our way back – thankfully Google has mapped this area, so don’t worry.
The Alfama was an ideal place to stay – it felt authentic. Wandering through the twists and turns of the neighborhood you can stumble across cafes, restaurants with live Fado, or just some kids playing a game of soccer in the streets. This area, filled with locals drying their freshly washed laundry above you, with what appear to be crumbling buildings, and elderly locals who have seemingly never seen the world outside of their neighborhood – the Alfama is a world all to its own.
Below: posing in the Alfama
Immediately after we checked in to our apartment, our host told us, “Let me take you to Belem!” and having no idea of what to do in Lisbon anyway, we agreed. We were surprised when after about a 10 minute ride, we arrived all the way in the next town, all the way to Belem! Its just a short drive (or bike ride) along the Rio Tejo.
There were some nice sights to see, as you can see below. In our usual summer vacation fashion, we weren’t too interested in doing any tours or museum trips, so all pics are from the outside.
Side note here : as soon as we got to Belem, street vendors started offering us cocaine (woo hoo!) and €25 sunglasses. I didn’t negotiate on the drugs, BUT, just know that you can bargain them down to €5 on the sunglasses. That €5 can get you a nice pair of Ray-Bam sunglasses. Yes, Ray-Bam’s.
Castle of Sao Jorge
After dinner on our first day in Lisbon we wandered up here and much to our surprise, the castle was free for Lisbon’s museum night. Apparently the first fortifications were made here in 2 BC. That’s pretty damn old. The castle is beautiful and gives a great view of Lisbon, especially at sun down.
Sintra was easily my favorite part of visiting Lisbon – and its not even in Lisbon. About 40 minutes away by train, I really think this is a can’t miss. Lonely Planet suggests that you get out at the second to last stop on the train route to Sintra, but you should really get out at the last stop. We tried to get out at the second to last as Lonely Planet suggested and the train attendants laughed at us and told us we’d have to walk 40 more minutes to Sintra. Definitely good that we didn’t do that, since it was really warm, and in Sintra we hiked uphill the whole day.
In Sintra there are a lot of sights (which I don’t think the Lonely Planet does a good job of promoting – the picture in their latest Portugal edition doesn’t make it look too appealing). Of all the cool sights, we chose the Moorish Castle and Palacio Nacional da Pena. We arrived around noon, so had to choose, but would have seen everything if we would have stayed a couple days there.
Sintra is lush, hilly, and feels royal – I suppose that’s why royals chose to live there. We hiked from Sinta Vila (the city) up the hill to the Moorish Castle (40 mins), and then to Palacio Nacional da Pena (15-20 mins). Having no energy after hiking around these castles all afternoon, we took a TukTuk down the hill back to the train station for €5, and that was probably the best €5 I could have spent that day! It was basically a rollercoaster ride – the kind of ride where you think you might get thrown out, but probably not, so you just bounce along for the ride.
So, this is the part that should be most interesting, right? Well, Lisbon was nice. But in Lisbon we didn’t do too much. We mostly just checked out the main sights to see. In total we probably only spent about a day there in the 3 days we visited.
One of the best finds we had in Lisbon was this darling little breakfast cafe in the Alfama. It was tiny – seriously – it could only fit about 12 people at a time. There is a really sweet young woman running it. The breakfast is one set menu – a croissant with jam, an omelette, bacon, and grapes & bananas with honey, not to mention endless coffee for €6.50/person! It was amazing and cute, and just what I needed after turning into an hangry gremlin after getting up at 4am for our flight and not eating til 10am. Like Snickers says, you’re not you when you’re hungry. And that’s true. I turn into a gremlin then. Just ask my loving boyfriend 😉
We also visited the Museu Nacional de Arqueologia. I’m pretty sure I got this in my mind after seeing the freestanding arches on Pinterest. Walking around the city I looked up the hill one day and said “THAT’S IT” and we had to go there. Entry was only about €3, so it was the perfect price for a 30 min visit. Just be careful to stick to the outside of the museum and be careful if you go inside – caution: creepy mummy children ahead.
Lonely Planet recommended this as one of the must do day trips from Lisbon, so we thought we’d try it. We imagined a cute fishing village with the beer halls they describe in the book. Don’t bother spending your €2 to cross the river and go here. We were really disappointed when we crossed, so we (stupidly) decided to go up the hill to the huge Cristo Rey statue (similar to the one in Rio). We trekked up the hill through Almada (a bigger city behind Cacilhas) which was tremendously lacking in charm, til we finally reached the Cristo Rey statue. OK, it is impressive that a giant Jesus is on top of the hill but, that was pretty much it. A nice view of Lisbon from the other side of the water to take some pictures, but in the future, I’d rather just visit by car and then get the hell away. We visited for about 10 minutes before we had a popsicle to cool down at the sad visitor center cafe before saying “fuck it, we’re taking a taxi” … (come to think of it, I have a lot of “fuck it, I’m taking a taxi” moments).
The best part of our mission to Cristo Rey was stopping at a little supermarket along the way where I discovered how cheap strawberries are in Portugal. €1 for almost a pound of strawberries! Even better, I learned the name for strawberry – morango. Is that not the best name ever?
Needless to say, by the end of our trip to Cacilhas, I was sweaty, tired, and had a stomach ache from eating so many morangos (I ate all but 2 before Dutchie could have some… oops).
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As always we used our friend Lonely Planet to plan our entire trip to Portugal