So … Much … Rain…. At least on the day we arrived in Lisbon. We took a bus from Caldas da Rainha, where we had returned our rental car, and then took a metro to within 800m of our accommodation. Even if we had taken an Uber or Bolt ride, we would still have had about 500m to walk in the downpour since we were staying in a vehicle-limited area. By the time we had schlepped our suitcases up and down many stairs and bounced them down the waterfall that was actually our steep cobblestone street, almost everything–our luggage, our “water resistant” shoes, and everything we had on except what was under our waterproof jackets–was saturated enough to require wringing out. Welcome to Lisbon.
Thankfully, rain wasn’t a constant factor throughout our time in Lisbon. We spent 11 days in the city, so we were able to work around whatever the weather threw at us. And since we visited Portugal in winter, which is also the rainy season, we couldn’t complain.
Walking is one of the best ways to explore Lisbon, and walk we did. Though it was often more like hiking as we climbed up and down the many very steep streets, including the one that we were staying on.
Lisbon is the one city in Portugal covered by Rick Steves’ audio tours, which we have enjoyed in other cities, so we thought it might be a good starting point. It’s a few years old but, for the most part, was still relevant–except for the shutdown tram on one of the steepest streets in the city.
Arriving in Lisbon in mid-December provided the added pleasure of Christmas lights, making nighttime especially cheerful.
We had already been in Portugal for a few weeks so didn’t want to do a typical food tour with the standards, but we were interested in seeing the city from a different perspective. We chose a food tour through AirBnB Experiences that was heavy on the cultural and historical aspects of food in three different neighbourhoods. We walked, we learned, we ate, we drank, and enjoyed a delightful evening.
Some travelling friends mentioned that there was a Bordalo exhibit (a Portuguese artist whose work we had been running into–and searching for) somewhere in the city. We couldn’t believe that we hadn’t heard about it, looked it up, and found out that it was only on for a few more days and–bonus–it was free! We figured out the transit route and headed out of the downtown core the next day. It was fun to see smaller pieces from this artist, along with a video documenting his team’s clandestine exhibits of fun neon art pieces throughout Lisbon’s transit system through the COVID lockdown.
Near Oriente train station
Oriente is one of the major train stations in the city, but we hadn’t needed to access it until we headed to the Bordalo exhibit. We discovered a very modern shopping mall and station with impressive architecture, and a ridiculously huge Bordalo sculpture nearby.
Belém is a district in western Lisbon. For us, the most important landmark was the Pastéis de Belém, the pastry shop known for its version of the pastel de nata custard tart. Sure, there were other things to see in the area, but the tart was the main event, and it was one of the two best that we had eaten in Portugal so far (and we had definitely eaten our share).
Around the LXFactory
Between Lisbon center and Belém, under the Ponte 25 de Abril (bridge), is a historical industrial complex that has been reworked with funky shops, galleries and restaurants and bars. The area around the LXFactory includes colourful buildings and the Carris transportation company with its open shop filled with historic trams.
Also near the LXFactory, at the very eastern end of Belém, is the Cordoaria Nacional, an industrial building converted to a gallery and currently showing Steve McCurry ICONS. (Traveling friends told us of this one, too–Steve McCurry is the photographer of the truly iconic 1985 National Geographic Afghani refugee girl cover photo.) Though not specific to Lisbon or even Portugal, this exhibit is worth a couple of hours wherever it is being shown.
Cascais by train
Cascais, a coastal town, is an easy train ride from Lisbon. Many tours make it a quick lunch stop, but we were happy to make it a day trip on its own. Considered a resort and marina town and home to higher-income folks, it continues to be an active fishing village. We enjoyed walking the seashore, visiting the cliffs, and immersing ourselves in some of the historical areas. There are plenty of cafes, restaurants, parks and museums. We combined a couple of WalkBox audio tours to really explore the area. We visited on the weekend (though off-season) and found Cascais to have a calmer, quieter vibe than Lisbon.
Sintra by train
We really waffled about how to visit Sintra. Based on what we had read, it would be easy enough to get to by train, but could be challenging to get around to the different sites. There could be horrendous lines to get into some of the locations, some required timed tickets, etc. Tours are prolific and generally include visits to three of the many possible sites. We opted to get to Sintra by train and figure things out there. From the train station, we walked up the hill to the main village, and checked out our options from there, including a quick chat with a helpful tourist information person. We had planned to try for two sites–Quinta da Regaleira and Palácio Nacional da Pena. Unfortunately, Pena Palace, which is positioned atop a hill, was completely enshrouded in clouds. Though we would be able to see the colourful palace, we would not enjoy any of the views. We continued our walk to Quinta da Regaleira thinking that we would visit that palace and its gardens first, and perhaps go up to Pena Palace if the clouds cleared.
We ended up happily exploring the gardens, grottos and palace for several hours, before finding a lunch spot in the very touristy village. The clouds hadn’t cleared much, but we looked into options for getting up to Pena Palace anyway. There are numerous tuk-tuk drivers, some quite aggressive, offering rides up the hill (one way) for €10 per person (if memory serves). Alternatively, you can purchase a bus ticket for €11, which gives you on/off privileges on the bus for the day–something that might have made sense if we had done this from the beginning of the day. The bus travels in a long loop and could require a significant wait anywhere we tried to go. We tried to book an Uber (or possibly a Bolt) driver, but the driver went past the road up, which meant that the 10-minute trip to us turned into about a 30-minute trip (the road is one way and, once on it, it is not possible to turn around). We were tired and a bit frustrated by the challenges and costs of the various modes of transport (we could see the value of doing this trip with someone who knows what they are doing or of doing a bit more preparation before arriving), so we decided to call it a day and walk back to the train. Next time we’re in Lisbon, we’ll try again, perhaps staying a night or two in the area to make exploring easier. A final thought on Sintra–we wouldn’t want to do this in the high season!
Yet another collection of Portuguese pavement tiles (calçadas)
- Caldas da Rainha to Lisbon: Rede Expresso bus, €5 per person
- Bus to Belem: €1.35 per person with zap card (train or bus options from Cais do Sodre)
- Train to Cascais: €1.90 per person from Cais do Sodre
- Train to Sintra: €1.90 per person from Cais do Sodre
- Steve McCurry ICONS exhibit: €25 for both of us
Wow, Lisbon is such a beautiful city. But I don’t think I’ve seen pictures in the grotto before – what a great place to explore. Maggie
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Thanks for reading!
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