After staying in Sintra for 4 full days, I woke up late in the morning of my 5th day in Portugal, packed up my luggage, made sure I hadn’t left my rooms a mess and checked out of the villa I had been staying at to head into Lisbon for the next 3 days.
(If you ask me if you really need a full week to experience all that Sintra and Lisbon has to offer I would just say it honestly depends both on what you want to see and your pace. I usually only devote 2-3 days to any one place/region I visit but there was so much I wanted to see here AND I also wanted to give myself plenty of time to relax as I had been overly stressed at work so this worked out the best for my budget and timeframe)
After dropping off my bags at Brown’s Central Hotel (centrally located just a coupled of blocks away from the famous Santa Justa Lift) I took an uber to the Museu Nacional do Azulejo. The uber driver was a guy around my age and we talked a bit about my travel plans, Real Madrid and the museum I was headed to visit. His exact words were “Ha yeah i’ve never been to it, we have a ton of those at home, never thought about visiting a museum for them.” He had a point, as pretty much almost anywhere you go in Lisbon, there are azulejos everywhere, but as this was all new to me and I like going to museums, I figured even if I could see azulejos for free all around me, getting a deeper dive into their history couldn’t hurt.
As seemed to be the case almost everywhere I went on this trip, from the Moors Castle to Queluz Palace to the Mafra Palace, it was pretty empty inside the museum and I got to take my time going through the exhibits, reading all the placards and walking down the beautiful quiet halls. The museum is housed in the former Madre de Deus convent which adds to the interesting history you get to walk through- the sacristy specifically was an unexpected delight to get to visit. One of the first things I learned when I visted was that though I had assumed the name “azulejos” had something to do with the color of the tiles (blue), in reality the name comes from the Arabic word الزليج “Al Zellige” meaning polished stone. Finding their history linked back to Byzantine mosaics was also really interesting to me given my mild obsession with that part of history. Though the museum is a little out of the way from other points of interest there’s plenty of transportation that will get you there and I do think it’s a fascinating place to visit before you start exploring Lisbon if only for the way it opens your eyes to the details that surround you.
After about 2 hours at the museum, I headed back to the hotel, getting dropped off a couple of streets away so I could take my time walking back as well as check out the Santa Justa lift (also known as the Elevador de Santa Justa), the massively popular urban lift in Lisbon that is also the only remaining vertical one since all the rest like the Elevador da Glória and the Elevador da Bica are actually funiculars. I got to see the first of these other elevadors the next day when I went to meet up with my guide for the day at the Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara and coming up the street was the Elevador da Glória (first photo below).
Traveling solo (and being a sometimes anxious person), I had decided to book two tours through WithLocals in Lisbon, the first one specifically one that would take me to the hidden gems and provide me with insights to this city I’d never been to before. I had so much fun with Silvia on the tour she had taken me on earlier in the week so I was feeling optimistic about the guide I would have for this one and coincidentally enough Silvia ended up joining up her morning tour with ours- it had worked out in such a way that the couple Silvia was taking a tour with that morning was also the same couple my new guide had an afternoon tour with and Silvia persuaded her to join up with.
It was a bit of a whirlwind tour that combined history with foodie stops that went a little something like this: a history lesson on Lisbon as we overlooked one of the high viewpoints in the city, cheese and chorizo paired up with a glass of red wine followed by exploring the streets of the Bairro Alto and looking at examples of azulejos on buildings, delving into the history of Carmo convent and the Santa Justa lift before heading to a local shop for a Ginjinha (a sweet liqueur made by infusing ginja berries in alcohol) break, walking into a bustling bakery to taste some pastels de nata and then finally ending at Praça do Comércio.
It was an unexpected way to spend the day but definetly a unique way to explore Lisbon with not one but two locals and a Korean-American couple from Chicago who were nice enough to ask if I wanted to tag along for their afternoon tour to Belém. I had already decided I wanted to save Belém for another visit though, so instead I bid them goodbye, thanked my guide for the day for her historical insights and hugged Silvia tightly as I was sure this time it really would be the last time we would see each other (unless she’s still working as a guide the next time I visit!).
My last tour started bright and early the next day at Praça do Comércio, where I was to meet Luis to go on his specialized “Nostalgic Tram 28 & City Walk”. An affable guy he lamented the fact that the day looked like it was gearing up to rain down on us soon but was determined to make the most of the day and show me the sights. We started out beneath the Arco da Rua Augusta, built to commemorate the cities reconstruction after the devastating 1755 earthquake and then walked down Rua Augusta towards the stop for the tram. The streets were still quiet and calm in the morning, few people getting on the tram with us making for pretty chill ride up to our first stop, the Miradouro das Portas do Sol. Miradouro means viewpoint and while there are many in Lisbon, this one was one of my favorites that I visited, overlooking the colorful Alfama neighborhood and the waterfront.
The next stop was the Miradouro da Senhora do Monte, a viewpoint located up a gently winding hill in the Graça neighborhood and one that most people seem to miss as it’s near to another viewpoint, the Miradouro da Graça. Senhora do Monte provides gorgeous views of the Tagus River and the Castelo de S. Jorge as well as fantastic views of the city itself (you can see the burnt gothic ruins of the Carmo convent just next to the Santa Justa lift there in in the above last photo). We enjoyed the view for a bit up here before starting the walk back down the hill to the tram to take us back to our previous stop so that Luis could take me through the winding colorful streets of Alfama.
I had read that Alfama was one of the more interesting and unique neighborhoods of Lisbon but nothing compares to walking down it’s maze like streets with a local. Luis talked to me about the history of the neighborhood as well as some more recent topics (Airbnb featured prominently in our conversations about local real estate especially given how he used to work in the hospitality industry). As we walked, the rain finally started to come down a bit and the already quiet streets turned even quieter and suddenly it felt like it was just me and Luis, exploring Alfama all by ourselves. Leisurely we made our way towards our last stop in the area, Lisbon Cathedral, at times stopping right in the middle of the empty streets just to look up at street art painted on the side of buildings or especially eye catching azulejos.
I didn’t take any good photos of Lisbon Cathedral as it was very crowded (probably where everyone went when it started raining?) but it was an interesting way to cap that section of our tour and then we were getting on the tram one last time, headed towards the Barrio Alton and the Elevador da Bica.
The rain had well and truly begun to come down by this point and while Luis and I each had our own umbrellas we choose to huddle under one as to be able to navigate the slippery streets better (and so I could actually hear him as he told me about the area and its history). Making it to the Timeout Market-Lisbon just a little soaked, we concluded our tour with a hug and well wishes and then we each split off, him to head home and me to check out the food and interesting shops (I can’t recommend Toranja enough btw). I grabbed a burger, a tasty desert and then headed out in the downpour to catch a ride back to my hotel to relax for a bit and then begin the tedious process of repacking my luggage to leave Lisbon the next day and head to Prague.
I don’t know that I could name a favorite European city, but if pressed I could tell you my top 3 and Lisbon is neatly nestled between Florence and Salzburg as the ones I would dearly love to visit again and soon. With Lisbon, even having spent a week in and around it, I still have a dozen places I’d like to visit and revisit and if that doesn’t tell you how wonderful the city is, i’m not sure what could. The culture, the history, the architecture and especially the people who allowed me to see deeper than the touristy gloss, it all made for an incredible part of a trip I’ll never forget.