When I first arrived in Lisbon on Thursday morning and started to explore the city, my first opinion was that I was not impressed. But in this case my first impression couldn’t have been more wrong. Although initially disappointed in the religious architecture and prices at cafes in the city, as I explored I encountered the true culture of Portugal’s capital, as well as the towns immediately accessible by pedestrian train. In order to take in all of the sights and things to do in this area of Portugal, ample time was certainly necessary.
Thursday was my first day and the first thing I did was to take the Aerobus to the Praca Commercio, in the city center right on the river. This large plaza was the starting point for both self guided walking tours which I had ready to go from Frommer’s Lisboa guide on my Nook. Directly beyond the plaza is the Rua Augusta, which is a pedestrian only street full of shopping and restaurants. A big chunk of the city center is closed to car traffic, so that only people or bikes can move through these black and white tiled streets. I ventured to two of the other main squares, Rossio, and the Praca de Restsuradores. After looking into some of the oldest churches in the city, I enjoyed a shrimp omelet and orange juice while people watching at Rossio square. I still had some time until I could check into my hotel, so I headed off to see some more of Lisbon’s most famous attractions.
Next up on my list of things to see was the Se de Lisboa, the large cathedral of the city of Lisbon. As my travel guides warned, it was not all that impressive. The churches of Lisbon all kind of resemble each other, so after you have seen 2 or 3, you’ve really seen enough. There are no standouts of any form of religious architecture here, the treasures most certainly lie elsewhere. I continued uphill to the Belvedere of St. Lucia, a gorgeous lookout point over the tiled roofs of the city towards the river. Close by, I visited the Museum of Decorative Arts, and saw how Portgugese interior design was in the 16th and 17th centuries. One thing Portugal is very famous for is their decorative tiles, which they use on the walls of rooms in order to make them more appealing. Typically, the tiles will go halfway up a wall and stop, or sometimes the tiles are in the form of portrait. Because of the prevalent use of tiles for beauty, in central Lisbon it is possible to see entire apartment complexes whose exterior walls are completely covered in colorful decorative tiles, which glimmer in the sunlight.
Continuing uphill, I eventually reached the Castle of St. George, an old fortress which guards over the city of Lisbon from atop one of its 7 hills. The views from the castle were magnificent, the artifacts in the museum were very interesting, but the castle itself was somewhat disappointing. Only the exterior walls have survived, and the center is just an empty courtyard with trees in it. Compared to other castles I have been to lately, I was not too impressed. After seeing the castle, I went to the Pantheon, which is a more recent building and probably the most impressive church in the city with it’s huge marble dome. It was quite a treat to get to climb to the start of the dome and view it from the inside, then be able to go onto the roof balcony of the church surrounding the dome. I think that the best views of Lisbon are available from this spot. I spent some time taking in the beauty all around me and the perfect day, read a few chapters of a book, then moved on to the bus station to catch a bus to the newest, most swanky part of town to visit the Lisbon Aquarium.
The Portugese take great pride in anything having to do with the ocean and with discovery, so of course the aquarium is advertised as being a big deal. Although impressive, it was nowhere near the quality of the Atlanta Aquarium, but was fun to visit nontheless. My favorite part of the aquarium was the central tank which included many different types of underwater animals and it was possible to watch them all interact with each other. After the aquarium, I proceded to eat some local fish, and finished my meal with cookie cake, a cake of layers of chocolate chip cookies and a creamy mixture. At the end of the day, I retired to my hotel room – which I was lucky to find on hotels.com for a stay 3 nights, get the 4th night free deal, so I had a room all to myself! The most pleasant suprise when I got there was that I had a balcony on the 5th floor overlooking one of the busiest pedestrian streets in the city, so I had constant entertainment, but luckily, not too much noise.
On my second day, I took a day trip to Sintra, often labeled “Eden” by the Portugese and tourist advertising. This was possibly my most favorite day trip I have taken so far. The day was perfect, with excellent weather and clear, sunny skies. When I arrived at the train station in Sintra, I took a bus to the top of the mountain because the first thing I wanted to see was the Palace of Pena. By far one of the most impressive palaces I have seen, Pena is very colorful and has lots of Portugese decorative tiles. I took a walk all around the perimeter for views of the valley leading out the ocean, and a birds eye view of the Moorish Castle in the distance. Then I went inside and toured the interior, which was lavishly decorated with everything the visiting royalty might need. What was so special about this palace was that it had a network of gardens which went on for about 2 miles with wandering paths, dotted with chapels, small cottages, ponds, and a variety of flowers. The gardens here are part of the reason why Sintra got the name “Eden”.
After spening some time walking through the garden, I decided to hike over to the Moorish Castle. It was no easy hike, but when I got there, I got to climb along the anceint castle walls and look down at the city. The castle also had excellent views and was interesting because it remained in such good condition after so many years and so many uses. I didn’t spend much time at the castle, but instead headed back into town to the the National Palace of Sintra. Also intriguing on the inside, my favorite part of this palace was the kitchen, which featured two huge chimenys and utensils for feeding large amounts of people. The artwork in the palace was also very pretty.
The next place I went to was the Palacio de Regaleria, the most modern palace, having only been completed in the early 1900s. This palace was fascinating because the owner wanted for it to resemble the mythical grottos, so there are tons of hiden spaces in the gardens. Most notably, is a well deep within the earth, which makes you feel like you just stepped into some mythical story. The palace itself is simply a nice house with a great view, but the expansive mythical gardens are what makes this place worth a visit. After seeing 3 palaces and 1 castle and hiking all over Sintra, I was starving, so I stopped at a cafe. I had the best codfish dish of my whole trip there; it was codfish au gratin.
After my meal, I walked around the town of Sintra for a bit before heading back to the train station. When I returned to Lisbon, I relaxed in my hotel for a while before heading to a port wine tasting bar. Portugal is well known for its port wine, a mixed wine consisting of many different types of grapes. I tried a few different varieties and it was hard to pick my favorite since there wasn’t one I didn’t like. Each kind had a light, summery, fruity flavor. I rode the Santa Justica Elevator up to the Barrior Alta for a view over the city at night, then took a streetcar back down the hill to my hotel and promptly passed out, extremely exhausted. My trip was only half way over!