A Colorful Escape in Portugal: A Travel Diary

August 31st, 2018

The first thing we saw once we exited the Lisbon airport was the rising sun over the Tagus River. It was just after 7am, and the sun created a golden glow over the streets, buildings, and palm trees. The other travelers who were around us were taking photos to document how serene it was. Getting ready for a foreign vacation always worsens my anxiety, so it was nice just to stop, relax, and bask in the scene before we hopped on the metro to head towards our hotel.

The check-in time for our hotel wasn’t until 2pm, so we had some time to kill. Luckily, the hotel allowed us to drop our bags off so we could explore the city. I didn’t have a specific itinerary for the day; instead, what I wanted was for us to wander the streets of Lisbon to get aquatinted with the city we would be living in for the next five days. 

We walked down the cobblestone sidewalk towards the Tagus River. There weren’t many people out since it was a weekday morning after rush hour, so the usually bustling street was quiet. None of us were talking. I was too busy marveling at the architecture. The buildings were pastel pinks, yellows, and greens, and some of them had really beautiful detailing.  

Closer to the river we saw a Starbucks, and like the typical Americans we were, we decided to stop to get some breakfast. None of us got a lot of sleep on the plane, so caffeine was a must if we wanted to make it through the next few hours. We fueled up, and then continued to make our way down to the river.

Right before we reached the river, we came across a large plaza called Comercio Plaza. On three sides, the plaza was surrounded by a large yellow building that the royal family used back in the day. The other side faced the Tagus River. There was a clear sky, there were boats on the water, and you could see bridges in the distance. It was gorgeous.

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While we were in this area, I remembered that one of the places I wanted to see most, Castelo de Sao Jorge, wasn’t too far and would be opening soon. Not really in a rush since it was our first day, we meandered down some small side streets to see what hidden gems we could find. And we weren’t disappointed. On the small narrow streets, we saw hidden churches, tile-covered facades, and people’s laundry hanging out of the window to dry. But not only that, it was quiet as well. There were no sounds from traffic. It was like we stepped into another town, even though we were only blocks away from the more populated areas.

We continued to make our way to the castle, turning this way and that way up the narrow streets. The streets were steep, and my sleep-deprived body was having a hard time (little did I know that these hills weren’t the steepest we would encounter on our trip). We took our time, both for our bodies sake, and to admire the views as we continued to climb.

At the very top of the hill was the castle. I was a little bummed that there didn’t seem to be much information about the castle’s history, but the views from the top were incredible. The castle overlooked the entire city of Lisbon, which was dotted with white buildings, and terracotta tiled roofs.

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While we were at the castle, we saw a couple that looked familiar. We realized they were on the metro with us earlier that morning. A couple of hours before when we were on the metro en route to our hotel, there were two Americans who were sat in the same area of the train. And by total coincidence, they were at the castle as well. We introduced ourselves. They were from Miami, and they were staying in Lisbon for three days before moving on to Budapest, and then to Prague. We said our goodbyes and continued to explore the castle.

To my surprise, there were a few peacocks that were roaming the castle grounds! We couldn’t really tell if they belonged at the castle or not, but it was cool to see them walk around amongst the tourists.

After we climbed along the castle wall and explored the ruins, we decided to grab lunch. We walked back toward the large plaza we saw earlier and found a Portuguese restaurant. We were waiting for our lunch when my friend noticed the same couple from the castle and the metro. We turned around in our seats, and there they were, asking to be seated at the same restaurant we were eating in. They noticed us as well. The restaurant was in a different part of the city than the castle, so we all had a laugh about how coincidental the whole thing was. 

It was approaching 2pm by the time we finished with lunch, so we decided to head back to the hotel. We were all beginning to feel the effects of the jet lag, as well as lack of sleep, kick into gear. Naps were definitely on the agenda.

Once we were well rested, we took it easy for the rest of the day, and planned what we wanted to see while we were there.

 

September 1st, 2018

After unintentionally waking up at 11am due to jet-lag, we figured our day would be best spent shopping and exploring in the neighborhood of Bairro Alto. 

Since it was almost lunch time, we started our day with brunch at a small Portuguese cafe. There were tons of pastries to choose from, it was almost overwhelming!

Once we finished our lunch, we made our way to some of the stores we wanted to visit. Similar to the day before, we weren’t in a hurry, so we took streets that were in the general direction of where we wanted to go so that we could explore a little more off the beaten path.

For a Saturday, the streets were surprisingly empty, but it was great to see all of the buildings with an unobstructed view.

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The first store we went to was a discounted ceramics store. Ceramics are very popular in Portugal, and the ones at this shop had very slight imperfections that I nor my friends could pick up on. There were mugs, plates, vases, serving platters, decorative pieces… you name it, it was probably there, and it was probably there in about ten different colors. We spent a good amount of time in that store before we bought a couple of things for ourselves and family, and vowed that we needed to return before we left Lisbon.

We were in the main shopping district at that point, so finding other stores was relatively easy.

The next one we went to was more upscale and had a lot of high-end souvenirs like soap, jewelry, blankets, and gourmet food. We ogled at the items before leaving and continuing our shopping excursion.

A bookstore, a homewares store, and a shopping mall later, we decided to get meander around the streets some more, choosing to go either left, right, or straight once we got to an intersection. I realized that’s my favorite way of exploring a city. There’s no guide to follow, you aren’t going where all of the tourists were necessarily going, you’re finding your own way through the city and stumbling upon things along the way.

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We walked around for a while before we miraculously ended up back where we started earlier in the day. We decided to have an early dinner at the Time Out Market, which is similar to Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. There were all sorts of different food vendors around the perimeter with family style seating in the center.

Once we got back to the hotel after dinner, we realized that we all had a craving for gelato, despite just eating dinner. Luckily, there were a few places within walking distance.

The one we chose was near a large park. We took our gelato to go, found a bench in the park, and people watched while we ate. To the right of us was someone teaching a group of people how to salsa dance. To the left were a couple of dogs playing. Even beyond that were kids playing on a playground. The sun was just starting to set, turning the sky all sorts of pinks and oranges. It was the perfect ending to the day.

 

September 2nd, 2018

When we were planning this trip, we had picked a few days trips we were interested in. Unfortunately, I knew we wouldn’t be able to fit all of them in one trip. The one place that I wanted to try to fit in during our time here was Cascais, a beach and resort town west of Lisbon.

We left early in the morning (or early by our standards anyway) in order to beat all of the weekend crowds at the beach. It was a little confusing trying to navigate the train station at first, but when I saw all of the people waiting with beach umbrellas and bathing suits, I knew we were in the right place.

The trip out to Cascais was a nice one. It was foggy in the morning but cleared up on the ride out there so that we could see the water and the coastal towns along it.

We didn’t make a list of things we wanted to see in Cascais, so once we got there, we started to walk aimlessly. 

On the beach, people had already staked a claim to their spot with their belongings. In the water, children were laughing and playing. Alongside the beach, fishermen were bringing in their catches of the day, some of which would probably go to the restaurants in town for that night’s dinner. 

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We walked along the water and stumbled upon a large home that was painted a bright yellow with blue and white tile mosaics. We weren’t sure what the home was, but we peeked inside and found out that it was a museum. The inside was gorgeous. There was every color imaginable, and every surface you looked at had intricate detailing. We walked through the rooms, each of which had a different look and feel to them.

Outside, the museum was situated on nicely landscaped grounds with paths, a rose garden, and multiple large fountains. And in front of the house was an older group of people who looked to be taking a drawing class in order to draw the home.

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As we continued our journey through the town, we ended up on some of the residential streets. The streets were narrow and quiet, and it was hard to believe that we were only a short walk from the beach. We took our time walking through the area, enjoying the lack of cars and people. Eventually, we found a bench that overlooked the beach and was perfect for us to rest for a while.

Once we were satisfied with our exploration around Cascais, we hopped back on the train and headed back towards Lisbon. And on our way back, we made a pit stop to visit the discounted ceramic store again.

 

September 3rd, 2018

It was another early morning where we were train station bound. On the day’s agenda was to visit Sintra, a picturesque fairytale town outside of Lisbon.

When we arrived, the town was bustling with people, even though it was still early. We knew it was probably best to get our must-sees out of the way first before the crowds got any worse.

The one thing I definitely wanted to see in Sintra was the Moorish Castle. It was situated on top of a mountain with views of the Atlantic Ocean. In order to get there, we had to find our way up the mountain. Our options were to hike or take a bus. My Rick Steves travel book warned me that the trail was difficult even for experienced hikers. Of course, I didn’t listen. We approached the beginning of the trail, and there were a few small cabs that could take you up to the top of the mountain instead. They asked if we wanted a ride, and we said no, determined to hike up the mountain.

I get winded from walking up a flight of stairs, but I was up for the challenge. We had to stop often to catch our breaths and take water breaks, allowing more seasoned hikers to pass us. After about forty-five minutes, but what felt like the entire day, we made it to the top. 

Our original plan was to go to the Moorish Castle and then go to Pena Palace. But, when we were buying our tickets for the Moorish Castle, there was a small sign that said the line just to get into Pena Palace was an hour long already. So much for that idea.

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It was the first cloudy day we had so far, so, unfortunately, the views from the castle weren’t as great as they would have been on a clear day, but they were still pretty incredible. Even though Sintra was about forty minutes from Lisbon, I could make out the faint outline of one of the bridges all the way from the top of the castle. And luckily, we could see Pena Palace as well! We didn’t have to wait in line for an hour, after all.

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After we made it back down, we got lunch at a small restaurant on a little narrow street, and then we decided to walk around the other streets to look at the shops. I wished I left all of my souvenir shopping until this day because all of the shops we went into were so cute and had so many unique items. 

The small town was so cute and I wish we would have stayed overnight to really get to explore all of it.

 

September 4th, 2018

For our last full day in Lisbon, there was only one thing left to do on our list– visit the Jeronimos Monastery.

Unlike Cascais and Sintra, visiting the monastery only required a short train journey. And also unlike Cascais and Sintra, the train we took to get to the monastery was empty. There were only a couple of other people in the train car with us. It took me a while to realize there was a good reason why the train was so empty. It turned out that we had gotten on the express train without realizing it. It wasn’t until the train didn’t stop at the station we needed it to that I realized our mistake. I turned to my friends, and said: “well, I guess we have a change of plans.” I didn’t mind, because we had all day, but it was still inconvenient.

The train stopped at the next stop and we decided to get off. The distance between the stop we needed and the stop we were at seemed like it was too far to walk. I began thinking of other options. We could hail a taxi, we could get an Uber, we could get back on the train going the opposite direction and hope that one stops where we need it to. I decided to ask an employee at the station how far away Belem was. 

The area we ended up in was not a tourist area, so there weren’t a lot of people who spoke English. I approached a security officer, who only spoke Spanish and Portuguese. I wasn’t feeling confident in my Spanish to be able to communicate with him, so I went up to the ticket counter and asked a man at the desk. He understood English well enough for me to use keywords and hand gestures to ask how far away Belem was. Luckily for us, it was only a fifteen-minute walk from where we were. I thanked him, and then we were off. 

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And the man was right. Fifteen minutes later, we could see the Tower of Belem. We didn’t feel the need to go into the tower, but we took some photos of the exterior and then walked across the street to Jeronimos Monastery. 

If my plan of getting off at the correct station the first time had worked out, we would have gotten there about twenty minutes earlier than we did. It would have been helpful because even though the monastery had just opened when we got in line, the line already had an hour-long wait. Since this was all we had planned for the day, we decided to wait. 

After over an hour, we were inside of the monastery. 

Due to all of the people in line, I was expecting the inside of the monastery to be crowded, but it wasn’t. We weren’t pushing through people just to get to the next area; we could really enjoy the time we had there.

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There were rooms in the monastery that were set up more like a museum exhibit where we learned more about the monastery’s history as well as some history of the royal family.

After walking around the monastery, we went inside the church that was next to it.

I’m not a particularly religious person, but I am a design and architecture nerd, so I absolutely loved all of the detail that was in both the monastery and in the church.

The church was so incredibly massive, and it was absolutely silent. There were people in there, but no one was talking. It made the experience even more awe-inspiring.

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After we were finished, we grabbed a bite to eat and then headed back to the hotel to rest our feet. It was still early in the day, but all of the walking from the last few days finally caught up to us.

Later on in the afternoon, two of us got a second wind. One of my friends stayed behind at the hotel to rest, but my other friend and I went out to explore Lisbon for one last time before we had to hop on a plane the next morning. I wanted to get one last dose of the pastel-colored buildings, the bright tile work, and the small side streets that made it feel like you were miles away from a larger city.

We walked down to the shopping district and I was on a mission to spend the last of my money.  And you bet we went back to that discount ceramic store for the third time.

 

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