Portugal, and Lisbon in particular, is a unique place of extraordinary beauty in Europe when it comes to architecture, food and music. It’s also a country with an incredible history, which translates to amazing stories of the times when Portugal was one of the leading powers in the world.
For instance, did you know that Lisbon is the second oldest capital in the world? Or that in 1755 almost 85 per cent of the city was destroyed by an earthquake? Me neither!
Lisbon is a city built on 7 steep(!) hills and the narrow streets are still mostly gobble stoned. Many houses sport whole walls of incredibly beautiful mosaics of every colour and style, and if not covered in mosaics, the decorative doors present you with excellent Instagram picture spots.
We embarked on this trip completely out-of-the-blue with just one plan: to soak up as much sunshine in 3 days as we can and eat well! Both very easy goals to achieve in Portugal! Actually we chose to fly to Lisbon specifically because of the weather: we looked at the weather forecast for all Southern European countries and Portugal was the warmest.
Lisbon is not that big of a city, and it doesn’t include such humongous sights as the Eiffel Tower or the Colosseum, but there are still plenty of museums and the seaside to explore. In fact, I thought 3 days was long enough, but now I’m thinking we could’ve actually done better with 5 days.
Nonetheless, this vacation turned out more action packed than we planned, as tends to happen when us two are involved. So, here’s my list of what you should definitely get up to there, plus one don’t.
But no, this list does not include “ride the tram”, which is something that’s captured in 70 per cent of the pictures when you Google Lisbon. I really don’t get why, we barely saw 2 of them.
And since this is the Outlandish Blog, I shall give you a list of perhaps more ‘unconventional’ things to do, because these really are the most important things, in my view. You all know how to do museums and main sights without me telling you about them, right? So, here goes:
7 Things To Do In Lisbon
I don’t necessarily mean ‘waste your day trying to find one corner pub without any sort of map or application to help you find you way’, no. What I mean is, just pocket that phone and walk the streets with no aim. I would recommend to always venture towards to coastline.
On the way, wandering aimlessly, you will bump into most amazing architectural gems and the best little pubs and restaurants that Google perhaps wouldn’t advice you to visit.
On our aimless walk through the city we found beautiful buildings covered in colourful tiles and mosaics, some pretty damn impressive graffiti art and some sort of collection of trash glued to a building wall making the image of a colourful, beautiful cat.
Just forget about direction and all responsibilities, and let yourself get lost. Because when you’re done walking, just check the map on your phone and either walk back to the hotel or order a taxi. We were very happy to discover they had Bolt, which is an Estonian taxi app and works all over Europe. It’s so much better and more reliable than Uber!
Talk to taxi drivers
Following on that theme, I completely fell in love with Portuguese taxi drivers! If you order a Bolt taxi, the drivers are likely young and speak English. The elder drivers don’t necessarily know any English, but the way they relate to their profession was just adorable:
We got a taxi one day to the city of Sintra (coming up soon!) and our driver didn’t seem to have any idea where to go. Instead of using the GPS propped on his dashboard, he called his friend… With an hands-free.
So, his friend’s voice BOOMED from the speakers, and since I know Spanish, I could tell that he was asking for directions. Along the way he called 3 different friends and asked directions from each. Eventually we did get exactly where we wanted.
The thing is, Mr. S. loves to interrogate taxi drivers. Which is great because there’s no better way to get into the local culture than asking straight questions from the taxi drivers.
We learned that, just like in Croatia, the people living in Lisbon retreat to Southern Portugal in the Summer, when the season starts. The city is just too full of tourists and nobody likes that.
Except the taxi drivers! Who apparently earn twice better than someone working on an average salary in Portugal, which according to our driver is around 600€/month. Lisbon is not cheap, so this was shocking.
Maybe the restaurants have differently priced menus for tourists and locals, because I don’t understand how they could afford to eat out otherwise. This sort of pricing tactic is a normal practice in many Southern European countries.
Eat in small, local restaurants
Which brings me to the next, ultimate advice, FOOD! Oh yes, the love and light of my life, the thing that I think of most of the time that I spend awake, The Food.
For someone who loves food almost as much as I do, Portugal is a dreeam destination! I knew to expect that small, local restaurants would be the places to opt for, and I was right. Lisbon offers you everything from street food to Michelin Star restaurants, but honestly the places to be are the ones that the locals prefer.
Just one thing; they do have this thing called siesta, and it means that restaurants are closed from 2pm until reopening again at 7pm. So, make sure to have lunch before 2 o’clock so that you can make it to the evening.
We were almost left hungry on our first day, looking for lunch around 1pm. But we found a place close to our hotel, called Come Prima and oh my lordy lord! I must insist that you go there when in Lisbon! Their starter on the house is a bruschetta topped with tomatoes marinated in olive oil, garlic and something which I cannot name but I would KILL to have that for breakfast for the rest of my life!
We had risotto and pizza for lunch and everything was breathtakingly good. On the last night we opted for some Italian and found ourselves in a teeny tiny side streets, with laundered clothes hanging outside of every window above us. And there, almost all the way down the steep street was a door with Il Covo written on it. Another amazing taste-experience.
I’d say that you’re pretty well off choosing any small, local restaurant. They are simply amazing and you can find them buy just writing ‘restaurants Lisbon’ to Google search, and then choosing at random.
Pay attention to the service
Now, this perhaps isn’t a must-do, but I simply had to bring this up. In many countries around the world tipping is considered compulsory. I find this, in all honesty, ridiculous. Why? Because I come from a country where they pay restaurant staff normal salaries, so that they don’t need to rely on customers’ charity.
What I particularly detest about this ‘compulsory tipping’ culture is the fact that in these countries service tends to be, putting it nicely, shite. You do not deserve an effing tip if you can’t even manage a fukin smile!
This doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t want to tip, oh no. Au contraire, I pretty much want to give away my money when the service is good. Perhaps because I’m so used to absolute shit service here in Estonia, when I get proper service it makes me insanely happy.
Little things like being polite, smiling, bringing bread and olive oil to the table without charging for them(!!), and having someone in the restaurant who at least knows how to treat a bottle of wine. It really is all about such teeny tiny things, but they’re things that elevate a restaurant experience to a whole new level.
I have never in my life had the privilege to enjoy such amazing, consistent service as we did in Portugal. Even Mr. S, who very recently dined in some of the world’s highest ranked Michelin Star restaurants in Switzerland, said that the service in Portugal exceeded those.
They really seemed like they wanted to be there, they enjoyed showcasing their country’s treats, and their behaviour was impeccable. Nothing special, they just made us feel very welcome from the moment we stepped in to the moment they stayed waving at us by the door when we left. Nothing but love to all Portuguese restaurant staff ♥
Sintra is village just half an hour drive away from Lisbon. And oh boy, what a village it is! It’s basically a low mountain that’s littered with the most extraordinary castles and palaces with their extensive gardens, that rival with Disney Land.
I’m serious, you have to go there! And you will need couple days to go through all of the castles and palaces there because, seriously, there are that many. And they’re all completely unique, incredible and just unbelievable. The main castles in the area are:
- National Palace of Pena (an incredible toy castle reminding of Disney cartoons with the most epic playground gardens, more on this coming up soon!)
- Castelo dos Mouros (like a miniature wall of China in Portugal, but actually so much more!)
- Quinta da Regaleira (absolute epic awesomness, post coming up on this soon!)
- National Palace of Sintra (this was actually a bit of a disappointment, too ascetic)
- Palace of Monserrate (English architectural gem and summer house of notable English merchants)
- Seteais Palace (these days a luxury hotel).
Honestly, these were just the biggest ones.
Join the crowds in Santa Catarina viewpoint
Sunsets are beautiful everywhere around the world. But in Lisbon they’re made a bit more special with music and happy people surrounding you at the Santa Catarina viewpoint, which watches across the sea.
It’s the ultimate way to relax, sitting down on a bench or a low wall and just chill. Portuguese music is something else, it’s joyful and playful, and the soft, beautiful language brings its own notion to the whole mix. Bring a bottle of wine and some strawberries with you and enjoy life in that moment.
A word of caution to this tale; our friend the Taxi Driver advised us never to approach the groups hanging about around such places where loads of people are enjoying the music. You might just want to go and ask for some weed, but instead they try to sell you an iPhone while your purse is being efficiently emptied. They won’t approach you, so don’t be a tourist and approach them ;)
Go for a wine experience
This was recommended to us but unfortunately we didn’t have time to participate. The tour takes all day and it includes getting to know the growing process from grape to bottle, in addition to the actual wine tasting.
We did get a good taste of Portuguese wines on our own, though, and they delivered! Strong and flavoursome red wines that went together just as well with creamy, Atlantic cod as with pizza.
There are actually shorter wine tastings as well, but with prices starting from 60€ for 5 sample glasses, I’d rather opt for the whole day experience. Maybe next time!
+ DON’T bother packing too many high heels, you really won’t get any use out of them. The whole city consists of veery steep hills and all roads are covered in little, uneven cobble stones. You are asking for big ankle trouble if you venture down a steep hill in heels.
Obviously, me being me, I had packed 2 pairs of heels + the heeled ankle boots that I wore when traveling, and only one pair of flat ballerinas. So, I ended up wearing the ballerinas all weekend, except to breakfast and to 1 dinner, where I insisted to wear the precious heels.
I didn’t expect much when we chose to go to Lisbon, tbh. But even if they don’t have Big Bens or Schönnbrunn Palaces, the culture, food and Sintra are more than awesome reasons to visit the ancient city. We were there outside of the season, which starts in May, but there were already a lot of tourists roaming especially the Sintra area.
But it was 23 degrees warm, so if you’re not a fan of roasting yourself in a massive crowd, that doesn’t seem to be moving anywhere, I’d recommend going there just outside of the season. April and October are both warm months and you won’t be overwhelmed by the thick crowds.
Any experiences you’d like to share on this beautiful city or country? I’d love to hear how you experienced it all! xx