February 3 – March 2, 2016 (End of winter)
Currency: Euro (€)
Cost of living: Medium
We’re still not sure whether Lisbon’s temperate winter beckoned us, or Penang’s sweltering one pushed us away. But this charming city on the edge of the European continent captivated us instantly. Old buildings and narrow streets felt cozy even on damp days, while warm food and rich wine complimented the season. Of course, the steep hills and countless stairs helped us burn off that excess energy. We loved the feeling of cool maritime air blowing in off the Atlantic. It made perfect sense that it would have called to the people here all those generations ago, inspiring the explorers that charted the world we know today. Their exploits built a great empire. And while it is not what it used to be, the monuments to that era are still as tall as ever. Today’s Lisbon is a more relaxed place, its cafés and pastelarias playing host to budget-minded destination seekers from across Europe and, increasingly, the world.
Where we stayed
Even in the off season, Lisbon was full of tourists. Though the US is only just starting to awaken to its charms, the city has been popular with digital nomads and obnoxious stag partiers for years. Our compact Airbnb↗ in Santa Catarina was a bit above our budget, but easily the cheapest available in the city core on short notice. The neighborhood was semi-off-limits to cars (only locals and deliveries were allowed), so it was fairly quiet and very walkable. Unfortunately, one of the nearby apartments was under renovation so we had a few days of noise that drove us out into the town.
February weather in Portugal was a bit like Washington’s – rainy, gray, but with a few nice days mixed in. The temperatures left us chilled, especially after the tropics, but our apartment lacked central heating. Instead we relied on a portable radiator for warmth. Since we didn’t leave it on overnight, getting out of bed in the morning was a bit of a trial, us hopping around on the chilly floor and then huddling over the heater with breakfast in hand until the room warmed. Our shower tried to help in its own special way, but was a little overexcitable and tended to go scaldy on a whim. It was also the smallest shower we’d ever had; butt-bumping the handle was a very real danger.
The kitchen was also small, but incredibly well-equipped. Stovetop, oven, microwave, full-size fridge, dishwasher, clothes washer, even a Nespresso machine all crammed into a space barely large enough for two people to squeeze past each other. We took full advantage, which necessitated a lot of grocery shopping. Supermarkets were hard to come by, but minimarts (like our local Minipreço) were everywhere. We also had the Mercado da Ribeira just a few blocks away. Between the fresh fish and produce there and the minimarts for everything else, we had everything we needed for some truly tasty meals.
We lacked any sort of desk or area suitable for stand-up computer use, so we started to improvise. This was the first place we discovered that ironing boards make a decent makeshift standing desk. Our Surface in particular proved its worth in this environment. Removing the keyboard attachment and putting the tablet at eye level made for a more ergonomic experience than staring down at an arm-level laptop screen all day.
Our front windows opened toward more residences across a narrow street, while the ones in back looked over a red-tiled roof toward distant domes. Laundry lines hung out the back windows, and the wind only rarely whipped our undies into courtyard below. The swift-changing weather made it a little challenging to predict rain showers – we ended up with a few unintentional rinse cycles. If we ever felt too cooped up, we’d just unlock our monster Jurassic Park door lock and walk to the Miradouro de Santa Catarina viewpoint for expansive views of the city, sea and sky.
What we did
Shaking off the remains of serious jet lag, we hiked to Castelo de São Jorge on our second day in town. The castle sits atop one of the city’s seven (why is that number such a trope?) hills, looking out across Lisbon and toward the Tagus River. The fortress is imposing from just about every angle. This area has been used for some type of fortification for nearly 2,000 years, beginning with the Celts. Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, and Moors all made their mark. Now, however, it was our turn to climb its crenelated walls. A few exhibits within showcased items excavated from the castle. We spent several hours there, wandering the grounds and taking in sweeping views of the skyline. Some peacocks even roamed around alongside us. As far as fortresses go, São Jorge was definitely one of the best↗.
The castle was grand, but the most spectacular building in the city may be the ruins of Carmo Convent. In November 1755, a massive earthquake struck Lisbon. Much of the city was destroyed in the quake or ensuing tsunami and fires. The monastery church, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, got off relatively light as the roof collapsed but the walls and arches remained largely intact. The city rebuilt, but this church was left as a monument to the destruction and lives lost. Today an archeology museum fills the apses of the church, but the central nave remains open to the sky. It was a bizarre but moving sight. There were few other tourists when we visited, providing an enclave of quiet and reflection in the crowded capital.
West of the town center, Belém holds another famous fortification and another memorable monastery. But more than that, it offers one of the world’s unmissable pastry experiences. We visited on the first Sunday of the month to take advantage of free admission↗. Our sightseeing began at the Torre de Belém. The wait was nearly an hour, but honestly, that wasn’t all the free day’s fault. This combination defensive position and ceremonial gateway is one of the preeminent landmarks the city. The cannons and prison cells seem out of place compared to the flowery architecture (or maybe it’s the other way around?). In any event, form was clearly as important is function. Jerónimos Monastery, a short walk away, is even more ornate. It was not surprising to learn it took a century to build – each arch and doorway is unique and thoughtfully symbolic. The interior of the Church of Santa Maria is equally spectacular with its ribbed ceiling vaults and tombs of famous kings and navigators. The monastary now houses two museums in its separate wings: Museu de Marinha shows off Portugal’s grand seafaring history (remember all those explorers from grade school history?), while Museu Nacional de Arqueologia’s exhibits are more terrestrial. After several hours of awe-struck admiring, a snack was an order. Who are we kidding? Pastéis de Belém was our objective all along. While they sell other items, pastéis (a sort of egg tart) are the reason to visit. We giddily waited our turn for a tube of tarts, complete with powdered sugar on the side. We had no idea what to expect (something like cheesecake, or maybe crème brûlée?), but they turned out to be light, delicious, and well worth their fame.
Cemitério dos Prazeres made for a much quieter and less crowded day trip. The only other living things we saw on the tree-lined paths were a few dozen cats, stretched out in the sun, guarding the silence. Most burials are housed in family tombs shaped like small chapels or homes, lined up in rows along the many “streets” of the cemetery. It is a literal city of the dead. Glass doors and windows allow the caskets to be seen alongside their decaying flowers and yellowing lace drapery. Many famous and wealthy locals rest here; the monuments erected in their honor are striking. Some tombs are adorned with wailing women lamenting some lost ladykiller (nothing eases a dying man’s pain more than some ego-stroking), others with angels or stained glass windows – more standard fare. The hilltop location also boasts a sweeping panorama of the Tagus.
Exploration (and colonization) brought Lisbon the great wealth that powered its golden age of architecture, but also the explosion of art showcased in the city’s many art museums. The Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga showed off centuries of Portuguese paintings, sculpture, and furnishings. Most of the older pieces are religious and were confiscated when monastic orders were dissolved in 1834. More eclectic were the Gulbenkian Museum and Foundation. Next to each other in a spacious and well-landscaped park, they showcase the broad tastes of their eponymous founder. Turkish rugs, Egyptian sculpture, paintings by a dozen European masters like Rembrandt and Degas. The modern art collection sat in its own building. It featured more quirky and abstract works by artists from the last century. Even the route to and from the museums was memorable, though. Parque Eduardo VII and the Avenida da Liberdade cut like a canyon through the city, channeled straight downtown and spilling our gaze into and across the river.
Outside of Lisbon, we visited a collection of memorable castles and palaces in the nearby towns of Sintra and Mafra. Either would be worth a day trip on their own, but together, they raised our appreciation of Portugal to a whole new level. Read more here↗.
Food & Drink
We were well aware that Penang↗ would be an impossible act to follow in the food department, but Lisbon made an impression with an array of flavors all its own. An espresso paired with egg tarts seemed to be a national right. Every bakery carried a mouthwatering selection of those goodies and others. The famous tarts had a light and fluffy texture unlike anything we imagined, a small rich cream puff pie with a lightly-seared skin on top. Danielle is the sweet tooth between us, while Kevin is fairly indifferent to most of the dessert genre. But neither of us could resist. We were captives of the cafe culture from that day forward. Long walk home? Gotta stop in at least one pastelaria.
On the subject of eggy things, Portugal’s may just be the world’s tastiest. We never knew mere chicken ova could have so much flavor! They certainly went a long way to explaining the magical flavor of pastéis de nata, but we did not stop there. We indulged for breakfast, lunch, and… well mostly breakfasts actually. But they were great breakfasts!
The grocery stores that supplied those eggs tended to be tiny, at least in our area. Often just an aisle or two wide. But they carried enough selection to carry us through the month. The nearest was MiniPreço, though occasionally we headed further to Dia or Pingo Doce to change things up. Prices felt high after Southeast Asia, where a whole meal could be had for a dollar. But Portuguese prices were reasonable by European standards, a good value.
We were fortunate enough to be a short walk from the Mercado da Ribeira. Once a typical greens-and-meat market, a big portion has been converted into what could be described as the world’s best cafeteria, the Time Out Market. Dozens of restaurants are represented with stalls inside, all serving an abbreviated menu of their greatest hits. Dishes range from fresh oysters to veggie pilaf to piles of presunto. Quail and mushroom risotto helped banish the brisk winter chill, and a rice dish with duck, asparagus, and sausage stood out too. Lox and king crab salad checked boxes for lighter fare. And crab and avocado dip made the perfect snack. We even got our first crack at croquettes, including goat cheese and onion and game meat flavors. But for all the pre-made goodies on offer, nothing was quite as excellent as what the other side of the market was selling. Fruits, fish, cheese, meat, and vegetables were all best and freshest from the open-air market. Our most memorable find was horse meat. We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try something new. Topped with butter and onions, it turned out to be a decent, if gamy, with elements of bison’s lean flavor and lamb’s dustiness.
Most of our home cooking was based on beef or fish dishes. Good fish could be found at the right market, and we tried the swordfish and mackerel as well as salmon. We also purchased a whole rabbit and turned it into a tasty hasenpfeffer stew. The only unfortunate part was opening the packaging to reveal the still-attached mangled bunny head staring at us. Well that, and butchering the thing. Mammal bones are so much tougher than fish or poultry!
We didn’t do that much snacking at home, since cafes scratched that itch so effectively. We did some dippy bread (olive oil and balsamic). The only notable chip flavor was the presunto variety. They were better than we expected, but still not top tier compared to Thailand or even the Balkans.
As our final dining act in town, we splurged on a nice dinner at Fumeiro de Santa Catarina. They specialized in grilled and smoked meats, and delivered. In a single evening we ate our way through duck confit topped with grilled apples, a mushroom and asparagus plate, a chicken puff, and a roast beef sandwich plus almond cake for dessert. All told, we still spent less than $40, even with two glasses of wine. The plates were small, but each bite was delicious. They sure knew their stuff.
There wasn’t a whole lot of beer here. Super Bock was pretty ubiquitous, and quite good. At least when compared to the relative dearth of good beer in Malaysia and Spain. We picked up a bottle in Barcelona and found it pretty underwhelming in retrospect. For the place and time though, it was a real treat.
In Portugal, wine is a right. So much wine! And nearly all of it cheap and delicious. We tried bottles from the Douro, Porto, and Alentejo regions. The reds were our favorite, vibrant and fruity. An average bottle only set us back about $4, so it was easy to indulge. Each one seemed better than the last. Wine shops abound and made it easy to find new ones to try. We sampled vihno verde, wine bottled the previous year, though found slightly older wines more to our taste. A 30 year old port we sampled at Garrafeira Nacional at Time Out blew us away. Mellow and smooth, we wish we could afford the whole bottle. We simply couldn’t believe the value we got for our money in Portugal. It didn’t matter how low you reached on the shelf – it was delicious. Or how high – it was affordable. There’s no other way to say it. If you like wine, go to Portugal.
Lisbon Portela Airport is not far from the city center. We arrived after a three-flight, full-day travel marathon, and had no patience or stamina for navigating after touchdown. Luckily, we’d arranged to be picked up by our host. The 25 euro fee seemed reasonable at the time – dealing with transit after that much jet lag and that little sleep is no picnic. But the subsequent Uber↗ back to the airport was less than $10, so we felt a bit silly.
Our flight in had a one-hour layover at London Heathrow. We didn’t realize that this necessitated busing to and from each plane, changing terminals, going through security again, and dashing through a maze of halls that resembled a hospital wing more than an airport terminal. We made it by the skin of our teeth, the last passengers to stumble onto the plane to Lisbon. That gave us some sort of layover PTSD. We shy away from stopovers less than 90 minutes now, and anything through the UK is pretty much radioactive to us. On the other hand, Malaysia Airlines went above and beyond for our Penang to Kuala Lumpur leg. When we checked in early, they put us on the next available flight instead of our later-scheduled one, no questions asked.
We preferred walking for getting around the city. The many hills gave us plenty of exercise, and we happened across countless beautiful tile-covered buildings we were glad not to miss. Throughout much of the old town, the sidewalks and roads are cobblestone, so comfy shoes were a must. Several funiculars and the Santa Justa Lift advertised easier changes of altitude, for a fee.
Stuff of interest
We got SIMs↗ from MEO. The employee misjudged our age though, and hooked us up with their Moche youth-only plan. For one month in town, 2 gigs of data set us each back $16.
Portuguese and Spanish are superficially similar, but different enough that our limited Spanish knowledge didn’t really help us at all. Spanish is also fairly widely understood, but locals would pretty much rather speak even broken English than fluent Spanish. We had been warned before arriving, and sidestepped any offense (“This is Portugal, we speak Portuguese here!”) by just pretending not to know anything but English.
Television was also interesting from a language perspective. In most of the world, even where subtitling is the norm, children’s shows were almost always dubbed (because kids are less likely to speak multiple languages or know how to read). Here though, Cartoon Network shows like Adventure Time and We Bare Bears were aired in English, with Portuguese subtitles. Even more curious, commercials during kid-oriented programming appeared to be heavily regulated. Commercial breaks were few and far between, almost always for something wholesome or educational, and were bookended with big warnings that this was advertising, not content.
Portugal is one of the few EU countries to allow birth control sales over-the-counter. The pharmacy produced several choices, with the young women behind the counter unabashedly offering suggestions based on what they and their friends used. And it was very affordable compared to the US, at less than $6 per pack.
Whether it was the influence of the Atlantic or a secret magical spell, Lisbon had beautiful clouds. The weather changed every few minutes and clouds swept over with breakneck speed. It made for fabulous sunsets, and great photos.
Portugal loves literature and has dozens of famous poets and authors that are rarely translated into English. Read The Lusiads or works by Fernando Pessoa for some travel inspiration.
What we learned
Portuguese wine might just be the most underrated in the world. We’ve kept an eye out for it ever since we left. When the “Portugal” section of any wine shop inevitably has nothing but port, we can’t help but shake our heads, disappointed that we (and everyone outside Iberia) are missing out.