We should’ve spent more time in Lisbon. Between castles, beaches, mini-castles, giant elevators, giant parks, old churches, and more castles, we definitely could’ve borrowed a few nights from the 7 we spent in Porto. While Lisbon itself isn’t gigantic, the greater Lisboa area is huge. Some popular day-trip destinations from Lisbon are Sintra, Belem, and Cascais, and they are the main reason we wish we had more time here. Thankfully, we were at least able to get to Sintra, which had some cool castles, but we hope we get back to check out the other areas. I’d definitely go back.
We left Porto Sunday morning, taking the metro to Campanhã, one of Porto’s major rail stations, then hopping on a train down to Lisbon’s main station, Santa Apolonia. Our only regret is not getting food before getting on the train. We’ve been spoiled by getting lucky with good train food in the past – one of the best ham & cheese baguettes I’ve had was on our train from Paris to Cologne. Here, T’s club sandwich was not good, but at least somewhat edible, and I gave up on my ham sandwich after one bite. Both scared us enough to not try anything else.
The two main rail options are AP (Alfa Pendular) and IC (Intercidades) with AP having the faster, slightly nicer trains with both offering significant discounts for early bookings. Discounts start at 5 days out and can be as much as 65% off. We booked about 2 weeks out and got a 40% discount (€30.80 -> €18.50). While a plane ticket can technically be as cheap or cheaper (I saw €10 Ryanair fares), if you have to pay extra for bags and/or to get to the airport, the train ticket is likely the better deal. Especially considering that your 1-hour flight will cost you at least an additional 1-2 hours of airport time.
Our Airbnb was only a 15 minute walk from the train station, although it was mostly uphill on the way there and we learned pretty quickly how hilly the city is. It was a loft-style apartment that had a roof-top window that you could stick your head out of for a decent lookout, but was only a 5-minute walk to the Miradouro das Portas do Sol viewpoint if we wanted a really nice view. Unlike our place in Porto, this apartment had both an A/C unit and a washing machine, both of which were much appreciated. Washing smaller stuff by hand isn’t all that bad, but washing bigger items like pants or dresses is a headache without a machine.
Our first day we planned to do a good bit of walking around, mainly wanting to see the Alfama area which is known for its older, classic Portuguese style. We started at the nearby Miradouro das Portas do Sol to check out its great view of the city, then had some lunch. We had received a bunch of restaurant recommendations from our Airbnb host, and for lunch we tried one called Beco a Sério. It was Portuguese-style tapas and, minus the open-faced hamburger we tried, everything was amazing.
Aaaaaand that’s pretty much as far as we made it. It was a bit of laziness mixed with the very hot and humid weather that made us decide to just head back home. Terrible, I know.
Thankfully, we didn’t make our Lisbon stop a complete waste. The next day we got ourselves over to Sintra, a small resort town about an hour west of Lisbon by train. The city is right on the edge of the Sintra-Cascais Natural Park, which has a ton of things to do and see. I won’t bore you with the whole list, but it’s filled with castles and palaces, a Franciscan monastery, the most western tip of Europe, and more. The area is huge, so we limited ourselves to the Moorish Castle and Pena Palace to make sure we didn’t feel rushed.
If you make your way over to Sintra, plan to take the bus between attractions. While the walk between some of the attractions closer to the city center can look short on a map, you’ll be walking uphill quite a bit, plus on skinny roads where you’ll be dodging cars the whole time. The cost for a day pass on the main “Circuito da Pena” bus route is €6.90. Doing each leg individually would be €3.90, so the day pass is a no-brainer if you’re going to ride the bus at least twice.
Our first stop was the Castelo dos Mouros (Moorish Castle), which was used as an actual military castle. It has the “standard” castle design, which I loved because it’s how I’ve always thought of castles growing up. I’ll let the pictures show you what I mean. I also really liked that they point out all the practicalities of the castle – things like where grain was stored and where people were buried. Places like this are more interesting to me than castles that were just built to look nice.
Next was Palácio da Pena (Pena Palace), which is one of those only-built-to-look-nice castles. It started out as a chapel with a monastery later being built around it (separate from the aforementioned Franciscan monastery). An earthquake in 1755 brought down the monastery, but the chapel made it through. The big, colorful palace that we see now was put up in the monastery’s place, keeping the chapel as the mainstay. The interesting thing about this place to me is that the latest rendition was built with a mix of medieval and Arabic elements, so you see things like the standard castle keep design right next to a walkway that belongs in Aladdin.We took our time in each place, so by the time we got back to Lisbon, we were ready for dinner.
We felt like we had our share of Portuguese food, so we wanted to check out what Lisbon’s international cuisine scene had to offer. We found a highly-rated Indian/Nepalese restaurant on TripAdvisor and decided to give it a shot. It was amazing. They had what I think was the spicy Nepalese version of Chicken Tikka Masala, and it was delicious. It was one of the best Indian places we’ve had, and we’d definitely go back the next time we’re in Lisbon.
We woke up the next day and took a quick train ride up to Lisbon airport to hop on a flight to Rome. When we were looking at flights, we had 2 main options: An early non-stop for about $110/pp OR an afternoon flight with a 2h20m stop in Brussels for about $20/pp less. Normally, we’d be perfectly fine spending $40 to avoid a layover, but taking the later flight would also let us sleep in and allow me to check out a new airport/lounge. Getting free lunch at the lounge didn’t hurt, either. None of those things alone would be worth taking two flights instead of one, but we decided that all three together were worth it.
We checked out two lounges at Lisbon Airport, neither of which were all that exciting. However, the Diamond Lounge at Brussels Airport was pretty nice, with decent food options, several options for Belgian beer, and plenty of Belgian waffles to munch on. They also have the fastest internet that I’ve come across in a lounge so far.
Our flights were smooth and uneventful, and we landed in Rome ready to eat some pasta. Or Chinese food. That’s good, too, right?