In March 2012, we finally managed to scratch another European country off our list — or at least its capital. We flew to Lisbon for a long weekend, hoping to soak up a little more sun than was possible in Hong Kong in February.
We flew in late one Wednesday night from Munich. Getting out of the airport and smack in the middle of the Baixa district was no trouble via taxi, provided you’re willing to part with 20€, but we learned later that we probably could have taken the airport express bus into town for about a third of the price.
Sarah got us a fantastic deal on a room at Brown’s Downtown. We snapped up a limited-time deal and paid up front, getting a better rate on a medium double room than you can get today for the same time of year in 2013 for a small double room. Our room had a tiny kitchenette (which we didn’t use, but could have), a fantastic shower, and (my favorite) a 27″ iMac at our disposal, connected to the free WiFi throughout the hotel (and we were able to use our own devices on it,too). Note well: those machines apparently are not purged or reset or ghosted or something after every guest. Without looking too hard, I found all kinds of files and browser history left over by previous guests. I made sure to clean up after us. I recommend “Private Browsing” in whatever modern browser you use when you’re not on a machine you own, plus deleting the
.bash_history file if you do anything on the command line (like SSH to other machines you control, for example).
Food & Drink
We enjoyed the food in Lisbon; we never once ordered something we regretted. It reminded us a lot of what we ate in Seville (no surprises there), but with plenty of local specialities.
Breakfast & Coffee
First things first: we needed coffee the first morning. We walked up the hillside from Baixa to Bairro Alto and ducked into the first coffee/pastry shop we found. Jackpot: a Cafe Moka, two Pasteís de Nata, and some kind of Portuguese Einspänner-type-thing. I think they referred to it as a “Capuccino Chantilly” or similar. If you normally take sugar with your coffee, give it a taste before you dump in the sweet stuff. We found the coffee drinks to be plenty sweet as served with little to no adjustment necessary at the table. And that pudding-looking matter beneath the dark brown liquid in the little cup? It’s sweetened condensed milk. Yowza.
Then we noticed there are pastry shops offering pasteís de nata all over the place. Alas, not all pastéis are created igual, but we liked the Casa Brasileira so much that we went back to it several times. You can stand at the counter inside like a local, or bask out in the sun like a tourist. We did a little of both.
Lunch & Dinner
If you eat seafood, try the bacalhau. You pretty much can’t avoid it, and why should you? I had codfish cakes with boiled fresh spinach, and they were lovely.
If you don’t eat seafood, give the alheira a try. It’s a rustic poultry sausage variety, originally used by supposedly-converted Jews to give the appearance of eating pork products. Christians found it tasty too, and added pork to the recipe.
We found plenty of hard and soft goat and sheep cheeses and bread as appetizers and loved them all.
You know what goes great with the aforementioned cheeses? Wine! Particularly a nice cool “green” white wine, as in “vinho verde.” I thought it referred to the color of the wine (and the white we tried did seem to have a greenish tinge), but Wikipedia explains that it’s a statement about the wine’s (lack of age). As such, there are also red and rosé “green” wines, too. We drank much more than is typical for us — probably about a bottle a day on average over the 4 days we were there — and never bought anything extravagant or came across anything less than delightful.
We also picked out a bottle of port from the wine shop across from the Casa Brasileira as we headed out to the main square to catch our bus to the airport. Prices can vary wildly. Ask the shopkeeper for a recommendation in your budget. Ours was helpful and patient with our questions. We’ll post a follow-up comment when we’ve tapped into the bottle we brought home with us.
There’s plenty of Lisbon we didn’t explore at all. We were only in town for 4 days, didn’t want to rent a car or spend time traveling to other parts of the country (though we’ve heard good things about Porto and bad things about travel times and traffic congestion in and out of Lisbon). Our exploration was mostly on foot with a little teaser via open-top bus tour and a couple of short cuts on buses and trams thanks to our Lisbon card.
Taking in the Sights
Mosteiro dos Jerónimos
This church and monastery were fascinating. The church was very accessible and the lighting inside made for surprisingly photographer-friendly conditions. We really liked Vasco da Gama’s tomb. Then we strolled outside into monastery courtyard under broad daylight and were flabbergasted at the intricacies of the structure.
There’s a monument to Portugal’s explorers and the Tower of Belém. We didn’t check this out more closely (these shots are from the open-top bus), but we would if we’d had more time. Instead, we headed for the Museu do Oriente to get out of the sun and into a dark, cool place for a few hours. We found a fascinating temporary exhibit of antique and traditional toys and the permanent collection of decorative arts from from all over the Orient: Japan, China, Korea, India, East Timor, etc. It was a bargain at 5€ each admission for adults.
Castelo São Jorge
We took a little tiny bus — more like a hollowed-out minivan, really — from Rossio Square up the side of the hill to the local castle grounds. We spent a couple hours walking the perimeter, the gardens, and tracing paths up and down and along the walls, and even observing an active archeological dig site on the castle grounds. At 12:30 there was an English-language viewing in a darkened tower of the cityscape zoomed in via a periscope projection disc. That was neat — since the tower of the castle is pretty much the highest thing in Lisbon, we took a live-yet-virtual tour around town that way.
Three different times I was approached and offered drugs for sale — both JV (pot, hash) and varsity level (cocaine). All three incidents were in very public pedestrian zones, not far from our hotel, in late afternoon or early evening, when just by chance not too many people were around, but still in full daylight. One dude even opened up his overcoat to show me the goods. In all three cases I politely declined, we kept moving, and nothing came of it. We’ve never been approached like that before. Nothing else about the neighborhoods we visited seemed unsafe, so it was surprising to receive such bold offers three times in two days like that.
Several friends who had been to Lisbon before warned us about pickpocketers, and we saw some signs on the trams giving warning. In general we tend to be fairly conscious about where we are, who is near us, and what’s happening with our stuff (except for that time on the Zugspitzbahn). On our last full day in Lisbon, while inquiring about ginja and port at a wine shop, a somewhat scruffy-looking (and obviously non-native — she might have been German or Dutch or something) woman was standing a little too close behind me for the shopkeeper’s tastes. The shopkeeper advised me immediately to check my backpack for missing belongings (I detected no problems). Being quite used to Germans crowding each other out in queues (and especially outside of them), I thought nothing of it, but it seemed odd enough to the shopkeeper that she made sure we understood the risk immediately.
Pricing & Costs
We’ve heard that Portugal (and Lisbon along with it) is no longer the cheapo paradise it once was (ahh, pre-Euro Europe — Mensch, das waren Zeiten!). Nevertheless, it didn’t seem overly expensive or like anyone was trying to gouge the tourists. A sweet deal on a hotel and a bargain on airfare, makes us feel better about constant restaurant patronage, and even that didn’t break the bank. And local transit options were reasonable enough on their own or definitely fair on the Lisbon card. In fact, that’s probably the only expenditure we’d do differently next time: with so much to do and see in those four days on foot or via occasional bus/tram, I’d skip the Lisbon card next time for a similar visit. It’s certainly a better deal if your explorations take you out of the Baixa/Chiado areas more frequently.