Because we couldn’t be with our friends over the 4th of July holiday, I initiated a trip to Lisbon. I thought if we were somewhere cool, I wouldn’t think about what I was missing back home. And because the capital city of Portugal looked amazing on the MTV European Music Awards last year, it was on my list of must-sees for this summer. So on July 4th, we departed for Lisbon for five days.
Our travelling day was longer than expected due to the delayed arrival of our aircraft and headwinds. So a four hour excursion turned into eight. Needless to say, by the time we arrived in Lisbon around 8:30 p.m., we were tired. But because the car service from the Four Seasons was there to greet us and whisk us away to the hotel, it improved quickly.
That was, until, we actually arrived at the Ritz Four Seasons hotel. We’re not prissy queens. But when we saw the condition of the hotel and the rooms, it wasn’t what we anticipated (because for those of you who’ve stayed in a Four Seasons, there are certain expectations you have regarding the facility). The rooms were dated. The hotel was unfortunately off the beaten path. And the so called upscale hotel was filled with old people and suburbanites getting married (it could also double as a convention center in Florida). So after settling a bit, we decided to go walking for dinner as well as to find another hotel. As a result, the next day we left the Four Seasons for the Bairro Alto Hotel located in the heart of the city. Change is good. And in this case, change was really good.
Time 2 Sleep
We first stopped by the Sofitel along Avenida da Liberdad (modelled after the Champs Elysees but not as nice – too many trees and not enough shops). We love the Sofitel in Munich (breakfast buffet and all) so we thought it was a good starting point. The décor was modern with a French twist. And the three hot male models standing in the lobby made the hotel that much more appealing (we assumed they were models as they were all gorgeous and tall – dwarfing me in the process). Even better was the price. For a double room, the rate was half that of the Four Seasons. It was smaller, but assuming we weren’t going to be spending that much time in the hotel, we booked a room for safety measures before heading up the street to the Bairro Alto hotel (noted in our Louis Vuitton travel guide).
As we crawled up steep hills to reach our second destination, we realized the Bairro Alto neighbourhood was more of what we were hoping to find. It was bustling with a hip and trendy crowd – not senior citizens wearing generic white sneakers. And upon entering the hotel, we both smiled and agreed the Bairro Alto Hotel was where we wanted to stay.
Converted in 2005 from an 18th century building to a modern boutique hotel, the Bairro Alto Hotel has 52 spacious rooms (a mixture of singles to suites), a rooftop terrace overlooking the Targas River (perfect for drinks and a light snack), a very small but effective fitness center (one of two features that pail in comparison to the Four Seasons), and a breakfast buffet (the second). First and foremost, however, was the hotel’s location. It’s perfectly centered next to both the Metro and Tram systems that gets you everywhere from monasteries to pastries.
Time 2 Sightsee
I’m not a big fan of constantly running around sightseeing when on vacation. You need downtime to enjoy the pool (when there is one – and in Lisbon, there isn’t except for a giant public pool most likely filled with urine). In addition, museums are good in small quantities. So before leaving for Lisbon, I identified just a few must-sees including: Mosteiro dos Jeronimos (Monastery of St. Jerome), Museu do Azulejo (Tile Museum), and Castelo de Sao Jorge (Castle of St. George). Two were amazing, one was “eh.”
Monastery of St. Jermome lies just west of the city along the river. Many say it’s Portugal’s most important historical monument. Built in the 16th century, the opulent church and cloistered garden has to be the cleanest tourist attraction I’ve ever seen. Of course, it’s beautiful. And its well-kept appearance and grounds added to the monastery’s allure. But there’s more to Belem than the monks’ house.
Right next door to the monastery is Pasteis de Belem. In 1837, the sweet shop began making the original “pasties”, or custard tarts, from an ancient “Convento dos Jeronimos” recipe. It’s apparently still in use today. You can find imitations around Lisbon, but nothing compares to those warm “Pasties” right out of the oven. We sat and enjoyed six in the park accompanied by a Coke Zero from McDonald’s across the street (we must always support the local McDonald’s no matter where we go). In fact, they were so good, we returned Saturday night for one more round of the Portuguese sweetness after dinner.
In addition to the monastery, there are other attractions in and around Belem including the Tower of Belem and Chapel of St. Jerome. We saw both from afar but didn’t further investigate. We opted instead to see what I believe was the Maritime Museum with a spectacular view of the Targas river. It commemorates the point in Belem where ships sailed for the new world. It also features a movie on Portugal that you can see for an additional euro above the four-euro entry fee. Personally, I’d skip the movie. It was, however, air conditioned so it’s a good place to rest.
e spent another day at the Castle of St. George and random churches you find on your way down the hill. The Moorish castle sits high above Lisbon so it provides truly the best perspective of Lisbon and its geography. Fortunately, there’s a tram (#2) that also takes you right to the gates so no walking is required. Otherwise, with the warm temperatures, you might be a sweaty mess by the time you reach the top. But once there, you’ll find beautiful grounds and gardens, along with an amazing view. Oddly, I found similarities to my hometown’s very own Coronado Heights (in Lindsborg, KS). It also rests atop a hill in the country with a small castle at the top. Sure, the scale is different, but trekking through St. George’s castle gave me flashbacks to when I was kid climbing the steep “mountain” to reach the top – only to burn grass and create dangerous fires that drove my grandma crazy.
On Sunday, as we waited for our flight later in the day, we decided to visit the tile museum as Portugal is known for it’s clay baked squares. Unfortunately, the museum is off the beaten path so it’s only accessible via a short cab ride (or connecting buses). Looking back, I’d mark this one last on my list, as not only were they in the process of completing the museum, it wasn’t that particularly interesting. It was free, however, as most museums in Lisbon don’t charge on Sundays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. We soared through the monastery in about 30 minutes before heading to another hot spot on Sundays – the Corte Ingles Superstore with an open grocery store and movie theatre (unusual for Sundays).
We grabbed some bread, cheese, chips and drinks and made our own lunch before seeing one of two movies we caught in Lisbon – Transformers and Fantastic Four. With every moving playing in English (with Portuguese subtitles), we took advantage of the state of the art cinema to be part of Transformers opening weekend on Saturday. We also saw Fantastic Four on Sunday, as it’s not scheduled to open in Munich over the next two months. The popcorn (sweet mixed with salted) offered by the concession stand was delicious (and free as we purchased tickets in the Vonage VIP section), the sound was amazing, and it felt as though we had our own private screening as nobody was there. Sure, the ice cubes in the soda were too big, but we both enjoyed the movies – something many might consider strange as we were in another country with so much to do and see. But for us, sitting in a foreign movie theatre provides the right balance of sightseeing activities with something more low key.
Time 2 Shop
Between hiking up hills to tourist hot spots and stuffing our face in the cinema, we also spent time shopping. We hit many small shops in the Bairro Alto, but didn’t find much except for the sale at Diesel and tiles at Sant’Anna right behind the hotel where we purchased 20 tiles to place in our house once we return to America (it’s very difficult to compose a tile picture when you have no idea where you’ll put it). Most of the other retailers in the area seemed to cater to skateboarders. As a result, we moved down to the Chiado where more high end and specialty stores are located like our favorite shop in Lisbon, A Vida Portuguesa (formerly known as Uma Casa Portuguesa).
The “new” Chiado shop features “genuine and touching products of original Portuguese Design.” From soups to ceramics, the store is filled with an eclectic mix of all things interesting. I purchased a gift for someone’s birthday (unable to identify as they read the blog) as well as candles (we’re a sucker for good scents). Besides that, Olga, the semi-blonde gypsy working that day made it all worth the while. She was perfectly quirky and fun – just like the store.
In continuation of our tradition to stock-up on smells we like, we stumbled across giant incense sticks at Emporio Casa. The store is somewhat filled with knick-knacks you’d rather avoid, but within the plastic accessories lays a few hidden treasures. Of course, Hermes, Benetton, Zara, Luis Vuitton and others are all located in Lisbon also, but we find small shops that offer local flair the best (hence why we ventured out to Portugal’s biggest mall to find one-of-a-kind stores only to find Portugal’s biggest mall with the littlest stores ever constructed). The same applies to dining.
Time 2 Eat
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for stopping at McDonald’s, Ben & Jerry’s or Subway (especially when they have my favorite “squirrel shit” ice) for a snack or when we’re on the go during the day. But when it comes to eating out while travelling, we believe you should experience what the country is known for serving – and for Lisbon, it’s fish (which posed a problem as the only fish I like is albacore from a can or the kind found in fish sticks).
For our first dinner in Lisbon Wednesday night, we followed the recommendation of our soon-to-be hotel, the Bairro Alto. They suggested as Salgadeiras. Considering we had been travelling all day, I couldn’t think of swallowing a fish dish. So, against my own advice, I ordered veal stroganoff. Chris had some fish (cod perhaps?) The service was nice, the restaurant adorable, and the food just above average. But at that point, we didn’t care really. We both just wanted to go to bed.
The following night, after enjoying a cocktail on the roof of the Bairro Alto hotel where we met Jonathan and Ryan, a Swiss and Canadian now living in NY, we all went to Orange. Interestingly, the concierge recommended it to us all (as well as everyone else at not only our hotel but the Four Seasons as well). And since our seating times were just 30 minutes apart, we decided to combine dinners (as they had been alone on an island for almost a week and Chris and I spend enough time together in Munich). Besides that, it was good to be surrounded with some “gayness” as it’s not that apparent in Lisbon (as we soon found out later that evening).
Both Jonathan and Ryan couldn’t have been any sweeter. They’d been together for 11 months while Chris and I just celebrated our 11th year anniversary. Good thing the company was good as the food at the restaurant wasn’t very appealing. Being a fan of stew, I selected some dish made of fish and bread (so did Ryan). In short, it was horrible. Think of it as bread “mushed” with fish with some type of brown sauce. They called it “poor man’s food.” Apparently the Portuguese created it first only with bread - adding fish at later date. Either way, it wasn’t tasty. Dessert was better but nothing to write home about. But as we all started to fall asleep (around 11 p.m.), we convinced ourselves to push on with the evening and venture out to the gay scene around the Bairro Alto.
Jonathan had a map torn from a Spartacus guide. So with paper in hand, we searched for a bar worthy of our visit. It wasn’t until the third stop on our list that we realized not only was it hopeless, but nothing short of a miracle would present a happening place filled with eye candy. So, we parked ourselves at Ceu. It wasn’t particularly interesting, but with more than five people inside, it was our best option. After one drink, a few pictures and some good laughs, we all decided it was time to return the hotel. With the boys having an early flight the next day and Chris and tired from walking the hills in Lisbon, midnight was late enough for us crazy, party kids.
I can always rely on MTV Europe for some useful information. Not only do they have a channel devoted to pure dance, the music television gives me some helpful hints on where to travel in Europe – like our upcoming visit to Copenhagen (featured in this year’s awards show). I never would have picked Lisbon had it not been for MTV. I truly didn’t know much about the Portuguese city. But what we found was a cross between San Francisco and Madrid. It’s a beautiful city where people are nice (and speak helpful English without hesitancy), cultural activities are plentiful and desserts are unimaginably sweet and delicious.
PTT Picks: Lisbon
Tile Store: Sant’Anna
Address: 96, Calcada da Boa-Hora
Portugeuse Eclectic: A Vida Portuguesa
Address: 11, Rua Anchieta
Smells: Arquitectonica 2 Emporio Casa
Address: 62, Rua da Ivens
Sweets: Pasteis de Belem
Address: 84-92, Rua de Belem
Sights: Castle of St. George
Address: Rua Costa do Castelo
Sights: Monastery of St. George
Address: Praca de Imperio
Bus: 28, 43, 49, 51
1) Don’t stay at the Four Seasons Hotel unless you’re specifically looking for a nice fitness center and breakfast buffet. Otherwise, find another hotel that’s better priced and closer to the heart of the city.
2) Stop by the Bairro Alto Subway for a cold, refreshing Coke Zero with “Squirrel Shit” ice.
3) Don’t expect to find an outdoor pool in Lisbon. There’s only one, it’s public and in the suburbs.
4) On Sunday, the Corte Ingles grocery store is open along with the movie theatres. So, if you have time between your check-out time and flight departure, and you’re tired of museums, go wander the aisles to see what crazy foods you can find.
5) The biggest mall in Portugal isn’t worth seeing.
6) The Bairro Alto doesn’t ask for your room number at breakfast. So, if you want to be cheap (really, really cheap), walk in between 7:00 and 10:30 and act as though you’re staying there.
7) By a public transportation pass at the metro for the tram, bus or subway. It’s only three euros a day and gets you everywhere.
8) Don’t wear sandals. The hills will shred your toes.
9) If you want to experience the party scene, don’t expect to go out until 2:00 or 3:00 a.m.
10) Beware of those who pick-pocket – especially on the trams. With you being stuffed inside those rail cars, it’s easy for some little squirt to snatch your wallet.