It appears that Lisbon has become the hot destination this year. Not that it was “undiscovered”, just that other places had greater pull for various reasons.
We traveled to Portugal in February for a two week fly-drive sort of visit. Our initial arrangements were made through Gate 1 Travel, our preferred travel provider. In more than a dozen trips taken with this company we have never had less than a great experience. I am not a paid endorser – just a very satisfied customer who has very happily used them for escorted and independent tours and travel.
One big reason we like Gate 1 is that extending trips is easy and often financially painless. In this case, our tour was a six day independent trip to Lisbon. (Experienced travelers know that is NOT six nights in travel agent parlance , but only four.) The price was only $599 taking advantage of a “flash sale”. We extended our stay by delaying our return air departure for $40 each. Now, even in February, that was excellent value; actually less than airfare alone. We flew Delta out of Washington Dulles (IAD) to Lisbon via New York (JFK).
Arrival at Lisbon was perfect. We took the subway to our temporary home, Hotel Mundial, which is in the heart of downtown and within walking distance of the sights. The ride took 45 easy minutes from airport to the stop on Martim Moniz Square, which was a few minute walk to the hotel lobby.
We were impressed by the hotel. Our rooms had a view of the Square, which was frequented by Lisboners, including hosting a concert, while we were there. It was only steps from the famous Tram 28 stop, and short walks to restaurants, supermarkets, and purveyors of the national pastry, the custard tart Pastel de Nata. Truthfully, after reading the reviews at various sources, I wasn’t sure we were at the same place. Our stay was very pleasant, our rooms clean and well-kept, the breakfast buffet excellent, and the staff attentive. I didn’t get the feeling we were lucky or exceptions.
Lisbon is easy to navigate, fun to walk, and not particularly crowded – certainly not in February. While we were there the weather was comfortable, with daily temps in the 60s F. Where Lisbon gets tricky is when walking takes one into the hills. The central city is between two high bluffs. There are various means to save your legs, particularly the trams and elevators.
The trams are much like San Francisco’s cable cars with one big difference: Lisbon’s trams are enclosed coaches. Some take them for a scenic tour of the city. I don’t know why as one doesn’t see much of the city, especially if standing in the frequently crowded car. They are great as transport. Use them. And beware the tight quarters – perfect for pickpockets.
The other alternative is an elevator that allows you to bypass the climb. These “Elevadors” are part of the public transportation system, and there is a charge (€5.15) if not holding a transit pass. The Elevador de Santa Justa, off the main pedestrian Rua Aurea, is perhaps the most famous of a few, lifting passengers about 150 feet from the city to Largo do Carmo, or Carmo Square. We went early, before busloads of tourists arrived to overwhelm the lift’s capacity. Waits then reportedly can run as long as a few hours. We were off in ten minutes. Spend the €1.50 to climb up the spiral stairs to the observation platform and take your time appreciating the view.
Walking the Rua Aurea is a treat. Shops and eating establishments line the pedestrian street. At the avenue’s end is the Praca do Commercio, with the beautiful, iconic Rua Augusta Arch and square beyond. The arch celebrates the reconstruction of Lisbon after the 1755 earthquake. It is adorned with numerous statues representing such key Portuguese historical figures as Vasco da Gama and the Marquis of Pombal. The statue in the square is of Joseph I, King of Portugal during the Great Earthquake. His royal palace once stood at the site. The view from the water’s edge is wonderful.
Lisbon is a city of food. From fast food staples (even McDonald’s) to white tablecloth fine dining, it’s easily found. Most have a substantial hotel breakfast to start the day. We prefer the big meal at lunchtime. Lisbon restaurants generally offer specials that are filling and fairly priced, just look for the street signage. The meal is often labeled as a “Tourist Special”, costing around €7.50, and including starter, main dish, dessert and a drink (soda, beer or coffee). The meals we experienced were well-portioned and delicious. And the hospitality never quit. We were often served complimentary port wine or ginjinha as a digestif after the meal. The staff at most restaurants are very easy to engage as english is a second language in urban Portugal, a mandatory course in schools. Service was invariably friendly and efficient. Enjoy it.
Bread, cheese, sausage, olives, chips…go to the supermarket and you can have a delicious evening meal for not much money. If you like sardines, Portugal is the center of canning and exporting the fish around the world. There are even stores devoted exclusively to canned sardines. The point is that there is great food all around you.
One bit of advice, given us by a guide, is to never spend more than €3.00 on a bottle of wine. As John put it, spending more is a waste of money. And buy your wine in supermarkets for best value. We bought wine for as little as €0.90 that was enjoyable to drink – hard to believe, but true. Portuguese beer is also a good buy.
The “national drink” is ginjinha, a liqueur made by soaking and fermenting aguardente and ginja berries, in water, with cinnamon, and sugar. It tastes a bit like old time cough syrup, and you either like it, or not. The drink is for sale all over Portugal for about €1 per shotglass serving. For a few cents more it comes in an edible dark chocolate cup. Try it with the cherry in your glass, “Com elas.”
But I digress…