Why Lisbon, Portugal Feels So Magical

Last month I traveled to Milan for work, so I decided to take the following week off to explore two very different countries on two continents: Portugal and Morocco! While in Portugal, I stayed in Lisbon for four nights, which was enough time to get a good sense of the city but not enough to see everything I wanted to. After that, I flew from Lisbon to Marrakech, where I spent three nights before heading back to the US. (If you’re curious about Morocco, you can read about my adventures in Marrakech here.)

There’s something about Lisbon that makes it feel like the backdrop of a fairy tale or a fantasy movie. Castles and churches sit on hilltops overlooking the city. Street trams zoom through narrow winding alleys. Public squares are filled with tourists and vendors at all hours of the day. It’s no wonder that J.K. Rowling drew some inspiration for Harry Potter during her time in Portugal (at least according to one local bartender).

Furthermore, Lisbon is relatively easy to navigate, the locals are friendly, and the food is amazing. I’ll let you know where to stay, what local delicacies to try, and how to find the most scenic spots around. Read on to see find out exactly what makes Lisbon feel so magical!

Where to Stay

First of all, this was a great city for Airbnb. Four nights in a fully furnished three-bedroom apartment only cost $137 in the trendy and centrally located neighborhood of Graça. I only booked this about a week in advance, so you probably won’t have to worry about running out of options even if you wait until the last minute.

The center of Graça, a great Lisbon neighborhood to stay in.

Graça was great because it was close to the historic district of Alfama, which is the oldest part of the city. It’s a fun area to explore on foot, but it’s also located on the side of a steep hill, so prepare for a leg workout if you want to explore here (many other parts of the city are very hilly as well). If you stay in Graça, you’ll also be within walking distance of the Avenida Almirante Reis, a major street that runs north to south that will eventually bring you to a huge public square (the Praça do Comércio, or Commercial Plaza) next to the waterfront.

A typical street in the historic neighborhood of Alfama.
Praça do Comércio.

If you’d rather stay near bars and nightlife as opposed to the old town of Alfama, you might also consider Bairro Alto. This area is located on the other side of Avenida Almirante Reis, but is still within walking distance of Praça do Comércio and all of the surrounding restaurants and shops.

Getting Around

Even though Lisbon has a subway system, I never ended up using it even once. Taxis were surprisingly affordable, but for the vast majority of my trip I ended up walking. The city is relatively compact, and it really gets your heart pumping to walk up and down all the hills! In contrast to my previous trip to the Turks and Caicos Islands where the only way around was via rental cars, I enjoyed being able to walk to most places in Lisbon. Especially in Alfama, many alleys are too narrow for even a single car to fit in, and there are a ton of hidden stairways and shortcuts between the streets that can only be explored on foot.

Another option for transportation that I didn't try.

If you go to the nearby small town of Sintra to see the castle and palace there (which you should), you’ll take a train. It’s easy to figure out and you can read more about that here.

In the City

Whether you stay in Graça or not, there are two really cool lookouts in this neighborhood located here and here. The first one is next to a church that has an interesting courtyard that’s open to the public as well as a little espresso and snack stand. You’ll find a small pathway heading down the hill that has some interesting graffiti art.

The second lookout is situated at the very top of the hill and offers slightly better views in my opinion. I never made it to the Castelo de São Jorge (Saint George Castle), which can be seen from both of these scenic spots, but it’s located at the top of the hill and reportedly offers some equally nice views of the bay.

As I mention above, the Praça do Comércio is worth a visit. A similar public square a few blocks north is the Praça da Figueira (Fig Tree Plaza), which has a bunch of vendors in and around it. A few streets over is the Elevador de Santa Justa, which is free-standing elevator that brings you to a platform overlooking this part of the city. It looked like a really cool thing to visit, but the line was long and didn’t seem to be moving so I didn’t purchase tickets.

Building Tiles and Street Pavement

One thing you’ll notice right away are the tiles on so many buildings in Lisbon. As far as I can tell, they are all distinct and appear to be handmade. Take some time to check them out, because they really do give the city its own unique character.

You may also notice the unique way that streets and sidewalks are paved with small, white square tiles. According to one source online, this style is so distinct that it has its own name (calçada portuguesa, or Portuguese pavement) and has even been implemented in the streets of former Portuguese colonies such as Brazil. It’s especially beautiful in the Praça Rossio, pictured below.

Belém

The neighborhood of Belém is about 6 or 7 miles west of the center of Lisbon. Even though you’ll need to get a ride over here from downtown, Belém has a unique atmosphere as well as a bunch of interesting monuments. My favorite is the Belém Tower, which looks like a castle that was built right on the beach. Walk along the shore about 15 minutes to the east to check out the massive Padrão dos Descobrimentos, a monument celebrating maritime exploration.

Belém is also home to a famous bakery, which brings me to…

Foods to Try

Pastries

This is one thing you can’t miss in Lisbon! Wander the streets of the city for an hour and you’re bound to pass a dozen or more bakeries with fresh pastries sitting in the window displays. As mentioned above, a famous bakery is Pastéis de Belém. They are known for a particular kind of delicacy called a pastel de nata, or egg tart. (On a side note, if you’ve spent time in China, these might look familiar to you. That’s because the pastry was brought over from Portugal to Macau, where it eventually spread in popularity to all of the mainland and can now be purchased in Chinese pastry shops as well as fast food restaurants like KFC.) This bakery is supposed to be the original maker of egg tarts, and they really are amazing. The pastries, which only cost about one Euro, come with a brown packet of powdered cinnamon which makes them even more delicious. The line outside might look long, but it moves quickly and is worth the short wait.

There is also a chain of bakeries called “A Padaria Portuguesa” which has locations around Lisbon. This is a perfect place to have a quick but filling breakfast. They have a huge selection of both sweet and savory pastries; I really liked the one that has shrimp (camarão) inside. Once you’ve been here, branch out and try some family-owned bakeries as well.

Other Local Cuisine

Portuguese cuisine may look humble: it is served on simple dishes and without much embellishment or garnish. Before the meal, you’ll probably be served a loaf of bread with butter and olives. A surprisingly common side dish is french fries. But what it lacks in presentation, it makes up for in flavor. I really enjoyed every single meal I had here and found that they were all unique.

One classic dish here is cod (you’ll see “bacalhau” on the menu). It’s prepared in a number of different ways but since Lisbon is right on the water, any kind of seafood is going to be fresh here. Another dish I really liked was secretos de porco preto, or very tender cuts of kurobuta pork. A somewhat similar dish was bitoque, which was a steak with an egg cooked over it. In terms of drinks, local wines were very good but my favorite was ginja, a local cherry liqueur that is sometimes served in an edible chocolate cup (ask your waiter or bartender about it!).

If you’re looking for restaurant suggestions in Lisbon, I’m sorry to say I don’t have any. Whenever someone recommended a place, I’d go in only to be told by the host that it was fully booked for the night despite having almost no customers seated. But more importantly, I really loved the experience of searching the streets for smaller mom-and-pop restaurants and just popping in. I suggest you do the same and I think you won’t be disappointed with the food or the authenticity of the dining experience.

Day Trip to Sintra

If you ask a local what you should see on your trip, there’s a good chance they will tell you to go to Sintra. Located about 20 miles to the west of the Portuguese capital, this picturesque town in the mountains is definitely worth the hype. If Lisbon doesn’t feel mystical to you, Sintra definitely will. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to a number of historic buildings, the oldest of which date back to the Middle Ages.

In order to get here, you’ll need to make your way to the Rossio railway station. At the ticket window on the upper floor, you can purchase a round-trip ticket for only five Euro. Trains run frequently (multiple times per hour), and once you board it will be about 45 minutes until you depart at the final stop. It’s a nice, scenic ride that will give you a glimpse of the suburbs of Lisbon, but the truly breathtaking sites are in the town of Sintra itself.

The biggest attractions here are the Castelo dos Mouros (Castle of the Moors) and the Palácio da Pena (Pena Palace). Despite their close proximity to one another, the two landmarks are completely different in architectural style; after all, the castle was built in the 8th and 9th centuries while the palace was completed in 1854. You can purchase entrance tickets for both at a booth located between them. If you’re feeling up for it, you can hike up (or down) the mountain to this ticket kiosk from the town of Sintra. Otherwise, a one-way ride costs five Euro. The castle offers the most scenic views, but the hike will take you through some scenic parks and wooded paths.

Unlike the castle shown in the pictures above, the Pena Palace has an extensive and lavish interior that you can wander through. The distinctive red and yellow exterior are only a sneak preview of all the luxury and exquisite designs housed within the palace walls.

Before or after your journey, you can stop for a meal at one of the many restaurants in town. I found a place that had a delicious daily special of chicken stroganoff, but I saw everything from traditional Portuguese cuisine to Chinese food. When you’re ready to go back to Lisbon, just head over to the train station and swipe your ticket.

In Conclusion...

As you can see, there’s so much to explore in and around Lisbon. I wish I had time to see some of the things I missed, but I don’t regret splitting up my week of vacation between Portugal and Morocco. Whether you’ve been all over Europe or never left your home country, Lisbon is a city that is welcoming and accommodating to visitors. If you want to hike, eat some amazing food, or learn about the history and culture of Portugal, you have to come here to experience the magic for yourself!

 

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