Once our first night in Lisbon was done, the assistante and I had a sunny (albeit chilly) breakfast outside of our hostel patio, which was a hearty platter of bread, fresh fruit, even homemade crepes (prepared by the hostel cook)! Once we finished up, we were off for our first full day of exploring the capital of Portugal.
Since the assistante had arrived in late the day before, I showed her the sights that I’d seen beforehand, including the Santa Luzia miradouro, the Lisbon Cathedral, the Rua Augusta Arch, the Baixa district, and the Santa Justa lift. Just like the day before, the sun was out and emitting its warm, intense rays…even in the middle of winter! We weren’t complaining, though, as we took in the much-needed sunlight after being starved of it for months in the north of France.
Together, we visited the São Jorge Castle, located on one of Lisbon’s seven hills overlooking the sea. It’s a Moorish citadel, dating back from either the 4th or the 2nd century BCE and known for its high, protective walls and rich views of the deep blue sea from above. I believe that it cost no more than 5 euros to enter, and I found it to be quite a pleasant visit. Even though the castle walls itself were rather plain and barren, the small exhibitions inside the fortification weren’t bad to check out, especially touching on the history of Lisbon itself during Moorish and Portuguese ruling, starting from the 10th century.
Again, the sea views from the top were too surreal, for the color was so clear and blue that day. From the distance, we could also see the 25 de Abril Bridge, which uncannily resembles that of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco (fun fact: the bridge was built by an American company, although the people hadn’t design the Golden Gate itself) and the Sanctuary of Christ the King, which also bears a strong resemblance to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ that overlooks Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. You could say that Lisbon copied these famous world monuments (which is actually true, since they were built after the original ones), but at the same time the city drew inspiration from such monuments and made them their own style to add atmosphere to its already-natural beauty.
We left the São Jorge castle, descending the hill and returning to the entrance of the Baixa district where we sat beside the water right next to the concrete beach and just relax, enjoying the sights and smells of the ocean. Really, we don’t get paid enough to take it easy, to the point that I’d forgotten what it feels like to sit down and relish in the sake of being in a new place other than the cold winter of northern France.
While sitting by the water, we were also thinking of what to do for the rest of the day. Eventually, we decided to hit up the Belém district, which was a bit of a way out from the city center, but nevertheless accessible via tramway from the Baixa neighborhood, where we were situated at that point. We took line 15, arriving in Belém about 30 to 40 minutes later.
Belém is located in the southwest of Lisbon, about 6 kilometers (~4 miles) from the city center, hence why it was logical to take public transport, rather than walk and lose time. It’s a well-known district of the city, known for its impressive Jerónimos Monastery and the eponymous tower, the latter situated near the shores of the Tagus River. Generally speaking, Belém is also a popular tourist site, so it was a reason for us to check it out, even though we didn’t know what to expect there.
First things first, though, we needed to get lunch: we’d arrived close to 13h00 and we were absolutely starving. Didn’t have a particular restaurant in mind, so we popped into a cafe-restaurant for a late meal (by our standards, not the Portuguese’s). Considering that I’d ordered bacalhau for dinner the previous night, I was keen on trying another traditional dish from Portugal: leitão, or “suckling pig.” Just like with the bacalhau, the suckling pig was overly salty, but again, it worked to make the meat so succulent. With crispy skin and a tender, moist center, the leitão was near perfection. Served with fries and salad greens and it’s a winning dish! Mind you, this was from a completely-random restaurant in a touristy area, but the price was fairly reasonable (around 15 euros, I believe) and the food was super filling, which was much appreciated!
With satisfied stomachs, we headed over to the Belém Palace, but unfortunately it was Tuesday and the place was closed on those days. Instead, we headed over to the Jerónimos Monastery, which dates back to the 15th century and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its Gothic architecture. Admittedly, it was a bit pricey to enter (somewhere in the ballpark of 8 to 10 euros), but the cloister was well-constructed and especially on a warm, sunny day like then, the shadow-and-light contrast made for a dramatic, but attractive site to see.
Having finished the Jerónimos Monastery, the assistante and I made our last principal stop at the Belém Tower, which was about a 20 to 30-minute walk from the center of the district itself. Again, we weren’t prepared for the sun beating down on us as we headed even more southwest than Belém already was. We reached the tower, but decided not to pay to climb up since we were reluctant to spend more money than necessary and we thought its rather smallish scale didn’t merit a trip in and up. All the same, a photo from the outside would suffice.
We made our long trek back to Belém’s city center; along the way, we popped into Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém, the district’s best-known pastry shop which serves its own district-style pastel de nata, or rather, the pastéis de belém, which apparently the locals are fervently adamant about it being different from the general egg custard tart. The assistante and I got some to go, and aside from sprinkling a small packet of sugar on top of it, the pastéis de belém tastes pretty much identical to the pastel de nata. For any Portuguese out there (heck, those who live in Lisbon, or Belém, for that matter), let me know what the difference is between these two egg custard tarts…because this foodie individual wants to distinguish them!
Around 15h00, we were ready to head back to the city center and then back to our hostel; we were quite exhausted from walking all morning and afternoon, so we wanted to rest a bit before heading out and doing more later in the day. We caught the tramway back to the Baixa district, then decided to pay to ride on one of those cute, iconic historic trams which are essentially small boxcars in that squeezing with other tourists and locals makes for the cultural, if somewhat claustrophobic experience around town. Our tram line took us back to our hostel where we rested for the remainder of the afternoon.
We ended up deciding to pay 9 euros for the hostel dinner, as well as attend a fado tour later that night. The dinner turned out to be a wonderful surprise, again done by the hostel’s cook: it was a full three-course meal, with bread and wine to boot! Even more so, the dishes were, as the cook had told us, typical of Portuguese cuisine, from the simple, hearty starter soup to the main course of pork and clams (aka the “surf-n-turf” of Portugal) and rice-cinnamon pudding for dessert. Mind you, I wasn’t hungry when I ate dinner, since the leitão for lunch was still in my system, but all the same, the dishes were so good that I ate pretty much all of them! Plus, they were homemade with love, so why not show appreciation to the cook?
Around 21h30, the assistante and I headed over to check out a fado performance at a bar not too far from our hostel. Another person joined us: she was actually a Spanish assistante from Mexico, who was also taking her holidays in Portugal. We arrived at the bar, where locals were having their dinner (still!) and where we were right up-and-center with the musicians and singers.
Now, fado is a traditional type of Portuguese music, which is meant to have a sad atmosphere to it. Usually sung by women and accompanied by guitars and other instruments, it’s historically been a way for the singer to lament about a husband or a lover, who were either away and/or lost at sea, since many worked in the fishing and sailing industries. Similar to the flamenco performance that I’d attended whilst in Madrid, I could feel the pain and heartache from the singers as they played several tunes in the bar; the complimentary drink was a nice touch, too.
I found the fado experience to be pleasant, but by 23h30 I was too exhausted to keep going…and it was only intermission! The assistante and the Mexican assistante were feeling the sleepiness as well, so we left early to head back to our hostel for the night. Besides, the assistante and I had to get up fairly early the next day for our next destination, so we couldn’t afford to be out for too long, or else risk falling asleep while exploring!
…and that concludes my travels in Lisbon! As I’ve mentioned numerous times, it remains one of my favorite places to have visited whilst in Europe. From the warm weather (in February!) to the warm people to the warm, delicious food, Lisbon remains a beautiful memory and I would go back in a heartbeat.
We’re moving on to the next destination from last year’s February holidays. Next up: Sintra, Portugal!