Flying to Europe?
Consider a stopover in its sunniest and westernmost capital city: LISBOA
What is a Lisbon Stopover?
Technically, a “Lisbon stopover” is a short stay in Lisbon on your way to another destination. This past June (2016), my teen daughter, Mila, and I were looking for flights to Italy from either Dulles or the New York metro area. Since every flight I could find was exorbitantly expensive, I started to get creative. We needed to be in NYC anyway after our trip to Europe, so I was immediately attracted to the attractive TAP Portugal flights direct from Newark to Lisbon (at $800 each r/t). If we bought another short r/t flight to Italy from Lisbon, I thought, Mila and I could enjoy a few days in a new and captivating city (and country) before joining my husband in Southern Italy and still save (well, maybe some) money!
Later this summer, TAP Portugal created an easier and more official “Lisbon Stopover”, which will allow you to do what we did in fewer steps – and for free! You can stop in Lisbon on your way somewhere else for 24, 48 or 72 hours. Check out their website for stopover details and, if you’d like some ideas and inspiration, read on to find out about what we did in this fascinating, beautiful and very welcoming city.
What to do in Lisbon, when time is of the essence: 3 ideas to consider:
1. Get an Overview of the City on a guided Tuk tour:
Tuk’s are the little gas or electric-powered carts that zip around the city carrying passengers like taxis or, as in our case, on guided tours of all sorts. Since we only had four days in Lisbon, I didn’t want to waste a second. Yet I knew we’d also be pretty beat on the day of our arrival. A two hour guided tour of Lisbon with Eco Tuk Tours was the perfect introduction to the city on our first afternoon. After our four hour post-flight nap, our guide and driver, Diogo, picked us up right in front of our apartment at 3pm and proceeded to tell us a bit about Lisbon’s history as he drove us – silently! – to our first stop, just a few blocks away. From the first of five or six miradouros (viewpoints) we visited, Miradouro do Nossa Senhora do Monte, Diogo oriented us geographically to this spectacularly hilly city on the Tagus river. As we drove up and down hills, through the narrow streets of historic Alfama, on to bustling Baixa and up to chic Chiado and Barrio Alto, we stopped here and there to listen to Diogo’s tales, ask questions and generally get a very vivid and thorough introduction to Lisbon and Portuguese culture. Of course, I practiced my beginner’s Portuguese on him, too! Eco Tuk does a great job of customizing their private tours, and in our case a mention of street art was all it took for our Diogo to take us past some of the city’s best examples of this urban art form. He also showed us the best places for photographs and even took our mother-daughter pic in the best spot in the city (according to Diogo – but we kind of agree!).
2. Take a Guided Food Tour with Lazy Flavors:
I love food tours as a way to get to know a new place. Not only do you get to taste many delicious foods and learn about the country’s culinary past and present, but food tours also involve lots of walking and talking. Walking, talking and eating – three of my favorite hobbies! Mila is quite a curious and adventurous eater, too, and so I knew a food tour would be a safe bet for us both. After exploring online a bit, we booked with Lazy Flavors, in part because of the good reviews and also because our airbnb host offered cooking classes through Lazy Flavors (so we knew they had to be great!). Different from most of the competition, Lazy Flavors, which is co-owned by Mariana and Veronica, offers only customized private tours. Via email Mariana took the time to get to know our general preferences (we wanted to see some of the old and some of the new) as well as the fact that we didn’t want any alcohol on our tour (most food tours include wine/port and beer tastings). Within three or four emails, all of the details were set and our appetites were kicked into gear.
Our wonderful guide, Veronica met us in front of the Mercado da Ribeira on the late morning of our second day in Lisboa. We liked her kind and light hearted demeanor immediately. Ribeira is the perfect first-stop for a foodie in Lisbon because it contains the old – the original produce and fish market, est. 1892 – and the new – the TIME OUT managed food hall (est. 2014) – in one delicious place. Veronica took us around the old market and then introduced us to the new chefs and their stands in the adjacent food hall, which got my heart beating very fast. Since it was still morning, we sat and enjoyed a perfect interpretation of the city’s famous pastel de nata (cream custard pastry) and two yummy bicas (similar to a caffelatte) .
After this delicious start we began our lazy stroll and lively conversation through three streets of Baixa, where we blew past tourist traps and stopped to learn about the country’s canned fish consortium and taste some of the more gourmet products and then to a small restaurant where they make the best codfish cakes in the city. Everywhere we went, Veronica was greeted like a well-respected, welcome friend and, thus, and so were we.
After Baixa we headed to a much older and (to me) more intriguing neighborhood, Mouraria, one of the city’s most historic districts and home to many of the country’s most revered Fado singers and musicians. Veronica guided us around the maze of streets and eventually to a lunch of sizzling garlic shrimp in an unassuming restaurant in a hidden alcove. It was packed with locals, including a table of about 20 retired businessmen who apparently lunch there together once a month.
Our final stop was at an elegant historic café in Baixa, where we downed tiny coffees and nibbled on oh-so-sweet, traditional egg-yolk based cookies.
Veronica was so generous with her time. What I thought would be a two hour food tour turned into an in-depth five hour conversation with a new friend.
3. Take a Daytrip to Sintra:
If you’re staying three (72 hours!) or more days in Lisbon, I highly recommend taking a daytrip to nearby Sintra to enjoy gorgeous countryside, a bit of the coastline and some magical 19th century Romantic gardens and palaces. Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the coastal resort town of Cascais are the two most popular excursions from the capital and many tours combine the two into one long but very pleasant day. I knew we wanted to spend most of the day in Sintra, a picturesque village that was the vacation destination of Portuguese nobility and élite and thus we opted for a small group tour with Cooltours. Friends who’d lived in Lisbon for a while told me to not to miss the Quinta da Regaleira estate and gardens in Sintra and Cooltours was one of the few (group, not private tours) I found that dedicated a generous few hours to Cavalho Monteiro’s enchanting gardens and palace.
We left Lisbon at 10am with our friendly local guide and driver, Inês, and our delightful companions – a charming, well-traveled lawyer from London and a very pleasant Belgian family. After a 30 minute stop in Cascais for coffee and a stroll along the water, we returned to our van and in 20 minutes or so (along scenic, windy roads), we arrived at our second quick stop: the westernmost point in Europe, Cabo da Roca. The winds were fierce but stunning views from the cliffs were are reward.
It took about 20 more minutes to reach the village of Sintra, nestled in the pine covered hills of the Serra de Sintra. After Inês quickly and nimbly slid the van into one of the only parking spots left on this gorgeous June day, we headed to Quinta da Regaleira, where we spent a few hours strolling around the 4 hectares of palace gardens with their numerous ponds, tunnels, towers and grottoes. Everything was in bloom, adding to the beauty of the design and landscaping. We spent just a few minutes inside Monteiro’s palace – the day was too beautiful to spend inside.
We lunched on roasted chicken all together at a humble local restaurant that Inês recommended (just perfect) before heading up the mountain to the Palacio do Peña, one of the most important Romantic structures in the world and both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal. The colorful, eclectic castle, which is a mix of several architectural styles, is a visual delight. You can tour the inside of the palace, but we opted for the tour of the exterior, along the many walls, terraces and towers that encircle this photogenic structure with its breathtaking views in all directions.
It was hard to pull ourselves away from Sintra, especially since we had yet to step foot in the extensive gardens beneath the palace, but our day had been full and thoroughly rewarding. We returned home to our apartment in Graça by 7:30pm and ate bowls of peaches and berries purchased at a neighborhood stand before crawling into bed to watch, as a counterpoint to Sintra’s intense natural and architectural beauty, Orange is the New Black.
Where to eat in Lisbon:
Mercado da Ribeira: the new Time Out-managed food hall something for everyone. From affordable gourmet plates by new Portuguese celebrity chefs like Henrique Sá Pessoa to historic Santini ice cream and pasteles de nata by 70 year-old Aloma bakery.
We rode past this Lisbon institution located on a busy boulevard in our Tuk. Diogo told us that Anthony Bourdain was a fan (check out his Lisbon episode of No Reservations) and that anyone who loves shellfish must pay a visit. Mila and I both adore shellfish and so, just about an hour after our Tuk dropped us off at home, we headed back out, making a beeline for Ramiro. There’s generally a long line outside, but we only had to wait about 10 minutes (in a line of other foreigners familiar with Ramiro’s fame) before being shuffled quickly through the bustling dining room to our spots at a long table lined with happy diners slurping plump oysters, hammering crabs and sucking on lobster legs. Our efficient, slightly bemused waiter handed us a tablet that featured photos of the menu items in at least 10 languages. We ordered grilled tiger shrimp, shrimp in garlic sauce and, because Bourdain surely did, a bowl of barnacles. The barnacles were fun to eat and tasted like lobster. Both shrimp dishes stopped our conversation short, especially when we dipped the toasted, buttered bread into the garlic butter sauce.
Needless to say, we returned to Ramiro on our way back through Lisbon in July. We actually spent 3 weeks in Italy looking forward to savoring these flavors of the sea once again and it was a perfect, celebratory end to our Lisbon stopover and our glorious month in Europe.
Where to stay in Lisbon:
Lisbon has several neighborhoods to pick from. My daughter and I thoroughly enjoyed staying in Graça because it is central and convenient, while retaining more of a local (aka non-touristy) feel. It’s on the tram line, has a taxi stand, lots of small groceries and cafés, and is 15 minute walk to Baixa/center and 10 minutes to Alfama. We also loved the hilltop location – Graça boasts two of Lisboa’s best miradouros (panoramic viewpoints) and they usually have cute coffee and snack carts for morning or sunset visits. packed with shops, cafés and restaurants for convenience.
What we did : booked 4 nights with Patricia on airbnb. We couldn’t have been happier with this artfully-decorated flat on a quiet street just one block from the main boulevard, Rua Graça, and many produce shops and grocers. Patricia, a chef and foodie who was preparing her TED talk when we arrived, was a fascinating and gracious host. We loved the charm of her apartment, the good wifi and especially the private, herb and flower-strewn patio.
Baixa – the area of the city center rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake – was also a perfect place for our one-night stay as we headed back through Lisbon on our way home to the U.S. It’s easy to get anywhere from Baixa as there are loads of trams and taxis in the main squares and you can also walk just about anywhere, too. My fashion-forward teen daughter loved our proximity to shops and I loved being able to walk to stunning Praça do’ Commercio and the riverside in just a few minutes.
Where we stayed: My Story Hotel Ouro. This adorable little hotel was the perfect place for our single – and, sadly, final – night in Lisbon. We took the affordable bus from the airport, which stopped in Praça do Commercio (square), just a few short blocks away. Our room was bright and charming and offered big windows with views over the bright orange rooftops of Lisbon. Even though we didn’t arrive at the hotel until around 4pm, its central location allowed us to easily absorb the best of the city we had come to know and love – a walk to the river through Commercio square and crowds watching the Euro Cup soccer match; lots of ice cream and food options nearby, a friendly and helpful staff and, for the morning of our cross-Atlantic flight – an EXCELLENT full hot and cold breakfast buffet. My Story has several other properties in different areas of Lisbon – I highly recommend these sweet
Another neighborhood to consider: Chiado is also up on a hill like Graça but is definitely more chic with its designer shops and hip eateries. Consider it a higher rent alternative to Graça and definitely worthy of an afternoon wander, at the very least!
When to go: anytime, really, but ideally from May-October, when there is less chance of rain and the temperatures, even in July, are more than bearable and average in the mid-70’s. As the photographs show, we enjoyed blue skies and 70-80 degree days both in mid June and in early July.
Where to learn Portuguese? Although we do offer Brazilian Portuguese at Speak!, the lack of qualified European Portuguese teachers in Charlottesville has made it challenging to teach the Lisbon-bound. I did about 18 Pimsleur audio lessons and was able to get by fairly well. If you’re able to study in Lisbon or if you’d like to try Skype lessons, check out Portuguese Connection.