We made the decision to travel to Portugal on the fly. After a long year jam packed with many travel adventures, we decided to squeeze in one last week-long trip to Portugal in November.
Lisbon, Portugal had come highly recommended. It was described as a city with all the quaint, traditional charms one can expect from Europe, but was not such a popular destination that it was overrun by tourists. We found that all of this was true.
Anyone who has a fondness for travel in Europe would be enthralled by the sites, museums, cafes, and proud culture Lisbon has to offer. As a bonus, we found that Portugal was far less expensive on the whole than its more well-known European counterparts, like France or Italy.
Here are our favorite experiences from our week in Lisbon:
1) São Jorge Castle
Set overlooking the heart of Lisbon, this historic castle is a must see for anyone spending even just one day in Lisbon.
The castle is a focal point for the city. Your eye can’t help but be drawn up to admire its regal perch overlooking the city.
We visited first thing in the morning and had the castle grounds largely to ourselves. We wandered over to an archaeological dig in the middle of the complex where experts sift through the layers of history on this prominent hilltop.
We were able to take a guided tour of the archaeological site to learn about its prominence in history. The site contained remnants from a Phoenician House (700s BC), a wealthy Moorish House (1100s AD), and a bishop’s house (1500s AD). We also learned that the castle had been stormed and taken from the Moors in 1147 AD.
2) Belém: Monument to the Discoveries, Jerónimos Monastery & Belém Tower
After a day of touring the heart of Lisbon, we recommend venturing to Belém for the day to learn about Portugal’s famous explorers who helped shape Europe’s Age of Discovery.
Monument to the Discoveries
Our first stop was the Monument to the Discoveries. This colossal structure dominated the shore of the Tagus River, paying homage to explorers such as Henry the Navigator and Vasco da Gama. Be sure to buy a ticket to go up to the roof of the monument. You’ll be treated with some spectacular views of the Jerónimos Monastery and the Belém Tower!
Next, we visited the Jerónimos Monastery where we saw Vasco da Gama’s tomb. It is believed he spent his last night at this monastery before setting off to become the first European discoverer to sail to India.
We also toured the monastery’s cloisters – the monks living quarters. This part of the complex boasted beautifully carved stone work and a serene central courtyard for prayer and contemplation.
The Belém Tower was the final stop on our day trip to Belém. This fortress was built in the 1500s on an island in the middle of the Tagus River. It’s purpose was to guard the mouth of the river and protect the city of Lisbon just upstream.
In 1755 Lisbon suffered a horrendous earthquake which caused the Tagus River to be redirected from its original path. This explains why the Belém Tower is now situated on the river’s shore instead of at its center.
The Belém Tower is also regarded as the embarkation point for the great explorers of the Portuguese Renaissance. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.
3) Dinner at a Fado House
Fado – the sorrowful, soulful music of Portugal – is an integral part of Portuguese culture. You can’t walk through the streets of Lisbon without hearing its dramatic rhythms pulsating from storefront radios or from live fado houses late into the evening.
We decided we wanted to see a live fado performance and asked our hotel for venue recommendations. They assured us that O Faia was the best and secured a reservation for us.
At Fado houses there is only one round of seating and the singers perform between courses. It is customary for everyone in the restaurant to be silent and stop eating during the performance.
As the first singer began her lament, the beauty, sadness, and longing in her voice filled the restaurant, captivating the audience. There was something enthralling about the entire ambiance of the evening: the delicious food, glass after glass of vinho verde, and the melancholy of the fado music itself. It was a night we will never forget and an experience everyone visiting Portugal should seek out.
4) Praça do Comércio at Sunset
The Praça do Comércio is situated along the Tagus River in the heart of historic Lisbon. We often found ourselves meandering through the plaza between visiting tourist attractions, watching both tourist and local alike enjoy the square in whatever way they thought best. The Rua Augusta Arch on one side of the square prompted endless selfies while the waitstaff at the square’s outdoor restaurants bustled to and from trying to please their customers.
The Praça do Comércio truly came alive at sunset. People gathered along the river facing westward to watch the sun finish its descent through the sky. The soothing sounds of water lapping against the stone, the toasts of friends indulging in a bottle of wine together, and the joyous squeals of laughter from children splashing in the water filled the atmosphere.
Relaxation and contentment were the expectation here.
5) Port & Pastries
Lastly, no trip to Portugal is complete without trying at least one glass of port wine and one Pastéis de Nata, or Portuguese egg tart. These culinary treats are impossible to miss in Lisbon, and if you’re anything like us, you’ll indulge in them at least once a day (if not more!).
In truth, I was too busy eating the pastries that I didn’t pause to snap a photo of them!
-Annie, Your Friend at Orange Backpack Travel