The city of Lisbon – or Lisboa to give it its proper Portuguese name – sits in the idyllic position on the western Iberian Peninsula alongside the Atlantic Ocean and the River Tagus.
As mainland Europe’s western-most capital city, Lisbon is one of the major economic centres on the continent.
And as is the case with much of Europe, Lisbon has a long and chequered history.
During the Neolithic period, the region was inhabited by Pre-Celtic tribes, who built religious and funerary monuments, megaliths, dolmens and menhirs, which still survive in areas on the periphery of the city. The Indo-European Celts invaded in the First millennium BC, mixing with the Pre-Indo-European population, thus giving rise to Celtic-speaking local tribes such as the Cempsi or Sefes.
Although the first fortifications on Lisbon’s Castelo hill are known to be no older than the Second Century BC, archaeological finds have shown that Iron Age people occupied the site from the Eight to Sixth Centuries BC.
Stepping forward, Portugal became synonymous with explorers from the Middle Ages. In fact, most of the Portuguese expeditions of the Age of Discovery left Lisbon during the period from the end of the 15th century to the beginning of the 17th century, including Vasco da Gama’s expedition to India in 1498.
In the 20th century – during World War II – Lisbon was one of the very few neutral, open European Atlantic ports and became a major gateway for refugees to the U.S. and a haven for spies. More than 100,000 refugees were able to flee Nazi Germany via Lisbon.
Furthermore, during the Estado Novo regime between 1926–1974 – under the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar – Lisbon was expanded at the cost of other districts within the country. However, during the Carnation Revolution, which took place on 25 April 1974 – which brought an end to the Estado Novo regime – the country was able to reform into what it has become today.
The visit to Lisbon, for Holly and I, was one that experienced a huge Covid-19 shape delay. Having been due to go to Portugal in April 2020 the pandemic put paid to those plans meaning we ended up waiting until August 2021 to finally make the trip.
To make matter worse, the trip was actually a long-overdue Christmas present from myself to Holly from 2019, so we were both extremely keen to get on a plane and experience what the city had to offer.
Ideally speaking, August would not have been my first choice for travel to such a warm country. I struggle in the harsh sun, given my skin tone, but having been stuck in the UK for over a year, the urge to get on a plane and explore was too great to ignore.
So with our factor 50 sun lotion firmly packed in our cabin baggage – and Covid restrictions mostly lifted for international travel – we finally set about making the short trip over to the Portuguese capital.
But before our journey there were a few things we wanted to know. Here are some of the key facts we learnt that any first time visitors to Lisbon should know before making the trip.
The first thing is that Lisbon – especially in the summer heat of August – can get very hot. With its traditional Mediterranean climate, Lisbon can experience mild, rainy winters and hot, dry summers.
The average temperatures for August time sees highs of 28°C and lows of 19°C. When out in the hot sunshine in the middle of the day, these temperatures can feel sweltering. And there is usually very little let-up from the sun in August with only, on average, two days of rain in the month at most.
The next thing to note is the currency. As with a lot of western Europe, Portugal is on the Euro which replaced the Escudo in 2002. At the time of writing, £1 sterling would get you around €1.17.
Sadly you don’t get many Euros in exchange for your Pounds these days, but positively, things in Portugal are priced a little more affordably that many will find within the UK. For example, a pint of beer costs around €2 to €4, while a three-course meal for two in a mid-range restaurant – with drinks – can be as little as €40 total.
The next thing to consider is the language.
As you’d guess, in Lisbon they speak Portuguese. While I don’t personally speak Portuguese I have a little bit of an understanding of some Spanish which does help. The two languages share a lot of similarities and you often find that Portuguese speakers can communicate easily with fluent Spanish speakers.
However, do remember that they are not 100% the same and that there are some differences!
A few useful words to get you on your way are those for thank you (obrigado / obrigada), please (por favor), hello (olá) and goodbye (adeus). Often, even by showing the smallest bit of willing to communicate in the native tongue, many locals will help you out by adopting their much better grasp of English.
Also remember to take plug converters. There are two associated plug types for Portugal; types C and F. Plug type C is the plug which has two round pins and plug type F is the plug which has two round pins with two earth clips on the side. Portugal operates on a 230V supply voltage and 50Hz.
A good thing to know about Lisbon is that it is in the same time zone as the UK so when flying from Britain you don’t lose (or gain) any hours either way.
Finally – and although I’ve mentioned this in passing earlier I can’t state it enough – if you are have a pale skin complexation like myself then bring lots of sun screen. The higher the factor the better! The sun is extremely strong in Lisbon during the summer so keeping the lotion topped up is a must if you want to avoid getting burnt.
With all that in mind, Holly and I set off on our first Portuguese adventure together.
Putting the hassles of Covid-19 to one side, Portugal – and in turn Lisbon – is an easy country – and city – to fly to from the UK.
Flights from a wealth of airlines including British Airways, TAP Air Portugal, EasyJet, Ryanair and Wizz Air all have flights leaving all the major London airports, while those outside London can also get flights from cities including Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh.
For our trip we flew with EasyJet from London Luton for just £189.96 for two adult return tickets. This saw us leave the UK at 7:05am and depart Lisbon three days later at 3:45pm.
As with all EasyJet flights, it’s advisable to get the speedy boarding option. This is less about getting on the aircraft first and more to do with the ability to take carry on luggage on the plane with you. Without the speedy boarding option they may end up charge you for this if you don’t have it included in your reservation.
The flight is a two hour, fifty minute affair and – as you’d expect on EasyJet as with all budget airlines – it is a no-thrills environment. There really isn’t much to say about it other than take a good book or download a good TV show or podcast to occupy the flight time.
Touching down on the Portuguese tarmac we got our first views of Lisbon.
Lisbon Airport – or Humberto Delgado Airport to give it its proper name – is a large and modern aerodrome.
Spread across two terminals, some 31 million passengers pass through its gates, on average, every year.
Terminal 1 is the airport’s main building and features large landside and airside areas containing several shops and service facilities. It consists of two check-in halls, the older one has been converted into TAP Air Portugal’s self check-in area, and the newer one housing 68 desks.
The joint departures area features 47 gates (17 of which are equipped with jet-bridges). As the airport features several more apron stands, bus boarding is often used here. Most airlines use Terminal 1, including TAP Air Portugal, its Star Alliance partners and, exceptionally, Vueling.
Terminal 2 is the much smaller and newer of the two terminals in the airport and is used exclusively by low-cost carriers. It is located away from Terminal 1 on the southern border of the airport perimeter. It has 22 check-in desks, designated to each particular low-cost carrier, and 15 departure gates using mainly walk-on boarding but also bus. There are only standard facilities, a few shops and service counters. The terminal is reachable via the free airport shuttle service from Terminal 1.
As you’d guess flying with EasyJet we arrived and departed via Terminal 2.
However, no matter which terminal you arrive at, the airport is only located around 6km north of the main city and is easily accessible via taxi or – better still – the Lisbon Metro (more on that later).
So while our flight to the Portuguese capital saw us have a very early start meaning we were a little tired, we were also excited to get out of the airport and explore the city as soon as possible and start of Lisbon adventures.
Where to stay
The first thing we did after leaving the Airport was make our way to our AirBnB.
Lisbon is a major city and while there are many hotels – both cost effective ones and extraordinarily expensive ones – scattered throughout its boundaries, we had opted to go for our old friend, the trusty AirBnB.
Located reasonably centrally in the Alfama district of the city, this AirBnB was a great find.
For me, Alfama – the oldest district in the city – is the perfect area of Lisbon to set-up camp. Far enough away from the overly tourist-heavy areas while not being too far from the city centre.
This quiet and unassuming neighbourhood provides a great flavour of old Lisbon – with its tiled buildings, bendy narrow streets where locals hang-out of the many windows, watching the world go by while talking to their neighbours; and cafes and bars hosting Fado singers; a type of Portuguese music that is renowned for its expressive and profoundly melancholic character that first came to the fore in this area.
This AirBnB is nicely tucked away. After arriving, we arranged to meet our host on the corner of the nearby Rua São Tomé road where he would walk us to the apartment, give us the keys and show us around.
The walk was short – if uphill – and soon we entered a side door off the quiet side street of Rua Dos Cegos to enter our home for our three days in the Portuguese capital.
Walking into the air-conditioned space – you come into the main living area. Immediately you notice that while space is at a premium they have been clever with it as they spread the apartment across three floors; connected by a tight spiral staircase.
The top floor boasts the bedroom and bathroom facilities – both of which provide ample room to be comfortable in – as well as a good-sized double bed. The best part here is the view from the window which looks out to the south over the nearby Alfama area and across the Tagus River.
Making our way to the bottom of the apartment we found the kitchen space that had been kitted-out with a number of mod-cons for your basic cooking and eating needs. While this space was good to have, we didn’t plan to use it much as we would try and eat out during our stay.
The best was still to come.
Despite the AirBnB’s small space it had managed to include a double-tiered garden area. The lower – and larger – tier had artificial turf laid down and a large orange tree growing in the ground while the small upper balcony provided a great space to enjoy a morning coffee and pastry before heading out for the day.
For this space we paid £315 for the three nights (£105 per night) which gave us a great base to enjoy our time in Lisbon from.
Lisbon is a highly modern city and as such is well stocked when it comes to public transport.
And while walking around the city is a great way to see many of its central sites, it’s also worth noting that it is quite a large landmass to traverse solely by foot.
To that end I’d suggest the use of three main transport methods; none of which involve getting in a car.
The first is that you should use the Lisbon Metro.
Opened in December 1959, it was the first metro system in Portugal and, currently, the system’s four lines total 44.5km (27.7 miles) of route and serve 56 stations.
The metro will also be your best bet to get to the city centre from the airport.
Set on the furthest northern point on the pink line, Aeroporto station is located at the airport and is just a 20 minute ride away from the centre of the city.
And compared to the cost of jumping in a taxi from the airport, you can get to the city centre for as little as €1.50 per adult (for a ticket that’s valid for unlimited journeys on Carris and metro networks, during 60 minutes following the first validation but cannot be used for consecutive journeys on the Metro.)
If you are planning to use the metro and the tramway (more on that soon) a fair bit over a 24-hour period then a good tip is to buy the one-day ticket for €6.40 which allows you unlimited use of the network for the 24-hours following the ticket’s first use.
The metro is also useful to get you between locations within the city itself. During our stay in Lisbon on a particularly hot afternoon, Holly and I took to using the metro to get out of the intense heat and to travel quickly to our next location.
The downside of the metro is simple. It doesn’t allow you to experience much of the city. Also, while the metro is easy to use, there are only four lines and only six stations within the network that cross lines. This means it can be slightly annoying to get to some locations as you have to go quite far out of your way to get where you’re going.
That said, for the cost it is a good service and one that most travellers will probably use at least once during a Lisbon-based break.
Linked to the metro network – by use of the tickets at least – is the famous Lisbon Tramway which forms part of the Carris service along with buses, trams, and funiculars.
The tramway has been operating in Lisbon since 1873, it presently comprises of six lines across 31km of track.
Lisbon trams are an integral part of the city’s transport network, covering many areas of the city that are not currently serviced by the metro.
There are two types of tram. The first is the modern Siemens “Articulado” trams and the other – more famous – is the historic “Remodelado” trams.
The latter of these trams is the ones visitors are probably most familiar with. These quaint yellow trams shake and rattle their way down the narrow streets of Lisbon’s more touristy areas.
The jewel in the network’s crown is the E28 which passes through a large proportion of the city’s historic centre and can get pretty busy at peak times of day.
There are at least two trams that you are likely to want to use during a stay in Lisbon. The first being the E28 of course, to sample the historic centre of the city; taking in the Alfama, Baixa and Chiado districts while the second tram of note (one of the modern ones) is the E15 which connects central Lisbon (the Baixa district) with the Belem district where a couple of key city sites are located.
Price-wise the tram is fairly cheap. If you’ve not purchase the 24-hour ticket mentioned earlier then a single ticket purchased onboard the tram costs €3.
Do note however, that while Lisbon is a pretty safe city, career pickpockets are said to operate on these tram networks and, when the trams are very busy, they can be known to strike. To avoid any unpleasantness, keep a hold of your belongings and make sure that your zips are done up and your money is secure.
The final method of transport to note is one that actually takes you out of the city, but is vital if you want to visit Sintra; some 25km away. For this you’ll need the to use the Lisbon Railway.
Clearly there are many other locations you can visit on the railway network from Lisbon – such as trains to Porto or other major cities within the country, but for the vast majority of travellers to the capital, Sintra is the one location they are likely to leave Lisbon for.
There are two main rail-routes used by visitors. The first is Rossio Station to Sintra and the second is Oriente to Sintra (which goes via numerous other stations).
Holly and I took the first option to get to Sintra and made sure we were on one of the early trains out of Lisbon of the day. This way we would both maximise our time in Sintra and also have a spell where we avoided the huge number of tourists flocking to the area.
The train takes around 45 minutes to get from Rossio and is direct to Sintra. Three to four trains leave every hour to get to the region from Rossio so don’t worry too much if you miss a train by a few minutes; there will be plenty more options.
It’s also extremely cheap to make the journey with adult tickets coming in at just €4.50 per adult for a return ticket.
Aside from the transport network, as I alluded to earlier, you’ll likely find yourself walking a lot in Lisbon.
First thing to note is that Lisbon is far from a flat city – especially in the more historic areas such as Alfama – so make sure you have comfortable shoes.
A little hint for avoid some steep climbs is to use a couple of the city’s ‘hidden’ elevators; Chão do Loureiro and Castelo
These two vertical lifts make the walk from the downtown area to the castle a little less tiring. The first lift departs from a building in Rua dos Fanqueiros (170/178) and drops people off in Rua da Madalena. A mere 100m further there is another lift, that transports passengers to the level of Costa do Castelo street.
They are free to use and all locals know about them so if you cannot find them, you can always ask a local person to point you in their direction.
We have often found that one of the best ways to get to know a new city is to take a free walking tour soon after we arrive. Lisbon is no exception to this an so we booked ourselves onto two of them with Take Free Tours.
Take Free Tours operate walking tours in numerous European cities and their guides are helpful, friendly and full of useful information.
In Lisbon they operate eight tours across a variety of areas – one of which is in Sintra. Of these eight tours, two are run daily (each with two or three start times spaced out throughout the day); the Lisbon Free Tour and the Alfama Free Tour.
Given that we wanted to know more about Lisbon as a whole and Alfama – as we were staying there – Holly and I went online and signed up to both these tours.
The Lisbon Tour was a great introduction to the city and showed us some of the centre of Lisbon’s most important sites.
The start of the tour is just in front of the Tourism Office at Palácio Foz. From there we ventured into the Carmo Convent and admired the gothic ruins as well as taking in the views from a viewing area next to the Elevator of Santa Justa.
During the tour we heard about the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake that shook the city and late modern philosophy and the peaceful Carnation Revolution on April 25th 1974 which overthrew the authoritarian Estado Novo regime created by the dictator Salazar.
The tour finishes in the stunning Praça do Comércio (more on that in a bit) where the customary group photo is taken and shared by our guide (whose name I cannot remember but was very entertaining).
The second tour took us on a stroll through the narrow streets of Lisbon’s Old Town. The Alfama Free Tour covers three thousand years of contrasting history. Starting from Casa dos Bicos, we heard about the Phoenician ventures, Roman frameworks and Arabic heritage; all of which play a role in making up Lisbon’s colourful identity and culture.
Technically, while these tours are free of charge (and if you don’t have the money to spare then no pressure is put on you to give anything) it remains good practice to tip your guides whatever amount you feel appropriate at the end of the two to three hour tour.
As mentioned above the Praça do Comércio is the final stop on the Lisbon Free Tour, but it is also somewhere that you are highly likely to make your way through on numerous occasions.
This large harbour-facing square cuts an imposing figure in the landscape and is full of life at most times of day.
Facing the Tagus to the South, the city square is still commonly known in Portuguese as Terreiro do Paço as it hosted the Paço da Ribeira (Royal Palace of Ribeira) until it was destroyed by the great 1755 Lisbon earthquake. In recognition of this, the metro station located on the square is still named after the square’s old moniker.
It’s free to visit and is a great place to sit back and watch the world go by. Next to the river, you can get down to the water’s edge and many people spread out on the small bay area – when the tide allows – to soak up some Portuguese sun.
As may may have been understood from this blog so far, the city of Lisbon is split into numerous districts and there are a couple of these that all travellers to the city must see before departing.
The first of these is the famous Bairro Alto district.
Located in the centre of the city, Bairro Alto – or Upper District – is a picturesque quarter that dates as far back as the 1500s. It’s in this district that the city’s bohemian and alternative cultures, artists and writers have commonly frequented over the years making it a hive of activity.
Holly and I made the climb up to the district one afternoon. We braved it on foot despite the steep slopes that welcomed us as he headed up; but we did notice that there were options to catch trams up and down should we have wished to.
The views from the top of this district are stunning. After grabbing a drink in a nearby café, Holly and I made our way to Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara where you can get stunning panoramic views out across the city to St. George’s Castle and central Lisbon. Best of all it’s totally free!
Nearby, there are often vendors on the streets selling delicious cold drinks so on a hot day this is a great way to cool off while taking in the sights.
The other district that is worth a visit – and one that’s already been mentioned earlier – is that of Alfama.
Alfama is a delightful maze of narrow cobbled streets and ancient houses, which lead up the steep hill from the Tejo Estuary to the Castelo de São Jorge.
It is said to be the most rewarding of the city’s districts for walkers and photographers thanks to its medieval alleys and outstanding views. A tip is to make sure you look up from eye level as the buildings in the area are splendid to see.
As the oldest neighbourhood in Lisbon, Alfama has a different feel to other more modern areas of the city. Steeped in local culture, this quaint district still holds on to many of the local traditions with many of the businesses in the area run by local people.
Because its foundation is dense bedrock, Alfama survived the 1755 earthquake, and a walk through this old-fashioned residential neighbourhood is like taking a step back in time.
As a village within a city you’ll get to gaze upon tiny squares, churches, and whitewashed houses with tile panels – showcasing in many cases what used to take place inside the buildings the tiles are on – and wrought-iron balconies adorned with pots of flowers, drying laundry, and even the odd caged bird or two.
If you have taken the walking tour of the area as we did, you’ll learn a lot about its history but it’s also advisable to come back to Alfama – even if you are staying elsewhere within the city – on your own and take a leisurely stroll around its streets.
Away from the centre of the city – and probably via a tram ride on one of the more modern models (see getting around section earlier in this blog), there are two great sites that are a must-see.
The first of these is Padrão dos Descobrimentos.
This monument – that’s free to visit – sits on the northern bank of the Tagus River estuary, in the Santa Maria de Belém parish of the city. Appropriately located along the river where ships used to depart to explore and trade with India and the Orient, the monument celebrates the Portuguese Age of Discovery (or Age of Exploration) during the 15th and 16th centuries.
The monument was conceived in 1939 and completed in 1958, and rises high above the river adorned by statues of famous explorers on each of its sides.
After getting off the tram, the monument was easy for us to spot. A short walk across the street and then through a small park, we were able to get a great view of this classic Portuguese site early in the day before the crowds descended (this is my top tip for this monument as many people visit here later in the day).
A good 20 minutes of viewing the monument, grabbing some photos and enjoying the warm Portuguese weather, we were ready to move slightly up the river to the second of the two must-see sites in the area.
The second site is within eyeshot of the Padrão dos Descobrimento and is a mere five minute walk away.
Synonymous with Lisbon, the Torre de Belém – which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983 – is a 16th-century fortification that served as a point of embarkation and disembarkation for Portuguese explorers and as a ceremonial gateway to Lisbon.
Usually, the adult entrance fee to the Belem Tower is €8.50, and children up to 14 are free to enter. However, a little tip here is that – if you are planning to explore this as well as other Lisbon attractions – I would highly recommend getting a Lisboa Card for just €39.90 per adult. With the card entrance to the tower – as well as a number of other sites in the city – is free.
Sadly, for Holly and I, during our visit to Lisbon, the Tower was shut – either for renovations of Covid-19 reasons, I’m not sure which – meaning we were only able to see it from the outside.
That didn’t stop us enjoying the experience thought.
A great aspect to this site is its location on the river. When the tide allows – as it almost did for us – you can pretty much walk the whole way around the tower without getting wet!
During our visit we were probably able to get around 75% of the way around the tower, which gave us a great chance to see the back-side of it which would otherwise only be visible from the river itself!
The final suggestion is one that is actually outside of Lisbon, but really is inexcusable to miss.
For this area, you’ll need to get a train (again see the getting around section of the blog) out of the city to the beautiful and idyllic municipality of Sintra.
The town and municipality sits in the Greater Lisbon region of Portugal and is one of the most urbanised and densely populated municipalities of Portugal.
The area includes the Sintra-Cascais Nature Park through which the Sintra Mountains run. The historic centre of the Vila de Sintra is famous for its 19th-century Romanticist architecture, historic estates and villas, gardens, and royal palaces and castles, which resulted in the classification of the town as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Sintra’s landmarks include the medieval Castelo dos Mouros, the romanticist Pena National Palace and the Portuguese Renaissance Sintra National Palace.
It’s fair to say a single day in Sintra is far from enough to do the whole area justice. However, if you are only planning to spend a day here – as we and many tourists are only able to do – then there are a few locations that you should not miss.
After arriving at Sintra station, make your way around the side of the building to the bus stop. Try and get out quickly, as you’ll have a train-load of people all trying to do the same thing.
Tickets for the bus cost €6.90 per adult for a whole loop hop-on-hop-off bus ticket and can be purchased from the driver directly.
There are a number of buses that operate in Sintra, but the main one we found we needed was the 434 (along the orange route).
Getting on board, we soon discovered that the bus was the correct decision. While it would be possible to walk, it would have been all uphill and we’d have spent most of our day on foot just getting to the locations without seeing much!
Once the bus sets off the first stop on the route is at Castelo dos Mouros.
We found that most people didn’t get off the bus here and instead headed straight up to the Palácio da Pena. While there is logic to this, we decided it was better to get one attraction pretty much all to ourselves rather than a slightly less busy version of a different attraction.
Exiting the bus on the side of the road, we went to the automated ticket machines and here we were actually able to buy our tickets for both Castelo dos Mouros and the Palácio da Pena for just €13.90 per person.
The walk to the castle takes around 20 minutes through a beautiful stretch of woodland that showcases some stunning views.
Making our way slowly, we found ourselves climbing up the path to the castle and once inside the ruins we were afforded some absolutely beautiful vistas of the surrounding area.
The castle itself was constructed during the 8th and 9th centuries and was an important strategic point during the Reconquista, before being taken by Christian forces after the fall of Lisbon in 1147.
Now, the castle’s walls line the mountain-sides and provide a winding stony backdrop to the wooded surroundings.
Standing on top of the battlements, you feel like you are incredibly high-up but realise that other attractions that you can see are even higher still!
After a good walk of all the walls, Holly and I made our way out and decided to make the relatively short walk up the hill to the Palácio da Pena.
It’s worth noting that for those not wanting to walk, the bus stop you got off at would be a pick-up point to take you further up the hill; however, you’d have to wait for the next bus and there is no guarantee that there will be space inside it.
Having climbed the hill – and with our entrance tickets already in hand – we entered the grounds of Palácio da Pena.
A full spectrum of colours adorned the walls and drew us further in. And while it was busy inside the grounds – as we had arrived later in the day due to our first stop – there was still room to move around and to take in the views!
There are few words that do justice to just how beautiful this palace is. Despite there being long queues to enter the interior of the palace itself, we found that we didn’t mind too much as we were able to take in the sights as we made our way to the interior entranceway.
Throughout the palace and its grounds, there are so many great spots here to grab a photo or two and this quickly became one the most most memorable places from our entire Portuguese trip.
Once we managed to tear ourselves away from the palace, we made our way back to the bus and went to our final main stop of the trip to see Quinta da Regaleira.
First thing to note here is that tickets for Quinta da Regaleira are completely separate to those of the other attractions. A different company owns this site so don’t be surprised when you can’t buy tickets for it elsewhere.
The next thing to note is that on paper, the area looks huge. This is an illusion. When you look at a map (which is quite confusing at the best of times) the various parts of Quinta da Regaleira seem spaced out. In truth they are often right next to each other.
Tickets to enter the grounds cost €15 per adult which seems slightly on the expensive side, but is worth it.
The property consists of a Romantic palace and chapel, and a luxurious park that features lakes, grottoes, wells, benches, fountains, and a vast array of exquisite constructions.
While you should make your way around the whole of the grounds during a visit the top things to see here are the Initiation Wells.
The Initiation Wells are two wells on the property that better resemble underground towers lined with stairs. These wells never served as water sources. Instead, they were used for ceremonial purposes.
Of the two wells, the larger one contains a 27m spiral staircase with several small landings. The spacing of these landings, combined with the number of steps in the stairs, are linked to Tarot mysticism. The smaller well contains straight stairs that connect a series of ring-shaped floors to one another. This well is also called the Unfinished Well.
We expected there to be a much longer queue to enter the main well but it turned out to be incredibly short.
From the exterior it’s not even clear that the well is there as it looks more like a small grotto than an underground tower. And once through the entranceway, you get the full view up, and down, the well as you make your way along its winding staircase to the tunnels at the bottom.
This is just one major attraction here as there are quite a few. The palace itself appears to get very busy and queues stretch out beyond its doorways regularly. If you’ve already been inside the previous palace then it may be worth giving this one a miss as your time can be better spent exploring the grounds.
That said, no matter how you choose to spend your time at the Quinta da Regaleira – and Sintra as a whole – you are sure to leave with many fantastic memories.
Where to avoid
Lisbon is a safe city to explore however, it’s worth noting that around some of the tourist-heavy areas – including Praça do Comércio – there are a number of people, quite openly, selling a whole array of drugs.
The first time it happened to Holly and I we were not expecting it. We saw a man surreptitiously approaching us and then trying to – very slyly – show me a small package. He then quietly asked me if I wanted to ‘buy some weed’. A quick and polite no, and he was on his way to someone else.
We thought that this was a one-off but over the course of three days we were both approached – both as a couple and individually – numerous times in the same manner. The only difference being the drugs seemed to get stronger the more we were asked! By the time we were leaving we were being offered crack. Had we stayed much longer I’m sure we’d have been up to the heroin offers in no time!
I’m making light of it as, fortunately, whenever you say no they back off straightaway and move away. There is no hostility and it’s clear they don’t want any undue attention coming their way. It’s just worth being aware that these practices happen.
Away from that rather unsavoury side to the city there are a couple of sites that are not worth visiting if time is a factor.
The first of these is the Elevador de Santa Justa.
The hills of Lisbon have always presented a problem for travel between the lower streets of the main Baixa – just off the Rua Augusta street – and the higher Largo do Carmo (Carmo Square). In order to facilitate the movement between the two, the lift was commissioned and eventually opened in 1899.
It’s worth pointing out that while Holly and I were in Lisbon, the elevator was not in operation (although I understand now that at the time of writing it is back working) but we were told that at peak times when it is operating the queue gets huge and takes a long time to get onto the lift.
Usually, the elevator opens daily between 7:30am and 11pm, with six hourly departures running every 10 minutes.
A positive is that a return ride costs just €5.30. The downside is that queue length mentioned earlier and the fact that the views at the top are not that special compared to others around the city. They can also be seen just by walking to the top section of the city anyway which costs nothing and means you don’t end up standing on the street for hours waiting to board what is a pretty small lift, in turn, allowing you to better spend your time in the city.
The other attraction that is worth giving a miss to is that of Castelo de São Jorge.
This may seem like a strange choice given that it appears to be a full-featured castle nestled at the upper point of Alfama offering numerous views of the city.
However, the first thing to point out here is that the castle is not an original and is under 100 years old – at the time of writing – in its current form.
Historically, a small fortress was built on this site by the Visigoths during the 5th century. It was modified and enlarged by the Moors in the mid-11th century and – during the reign of Afonso I of Portugal (1109 – 1185) – it was altered and in later years transformed into a Royal Palace.
Yet the final restorations of the castle – as it appears today – was only completed in 1938, making this one to avoid for history buffs.
The next point is that it is fairly expensive to enter given its lack of historical draw. An adult admission fee to the Castelo de São Jorge is €10 while children under 10 are free and students are €5. It makes the castle one of the more expensive tourist attractions in Lisbon.
The next thing to note is that the castle gets very busy.
Due to its appearance and location, tourists do tend to flock here to take in the castle and sample the views. However, while the views are nice they can be seen from elsewhere in the city, free-of-charge, and without the crowds.
If you do go to the castle, arrive early and try and get in before the crowds arrive. Yet if you’ve got the choice to go elsewhere, it may be worth doing so in lieu of spending an hour or so at this site.
Great places to eat
Lisbon is a blessing for food lovers and has a plethora of fabulous places to eat and drink littered throughout the city.
One thing that is a must to try in the city is the iconic, palm-size pastry, pastel de nata – or egg tart. This creamy custard tart is available in pastelarias across the city with the recipe dating back to the 16th century, when the confections, like many other Portuguese sweets, were made by nuns in convents.
There are so many vendors for this sweet-treat throughout Lisbon that it’s impossible to miss them. For just a Euro or two you can sample this wonderful Portuguese delicacy on-the-go.
As mentioned there are many great places to eat and drink in the city. More than I could ever wish to document here in this blog. So for these purposes, I’m going to focus on two different restaurants that gave us wonderful food and service during our stay in the city.
The first of these is Solar 31.
This quaint seafood restaurant is located north of Alfama on a road called Calçada Garcia 31.
Based on a quiet backstreet, we entered past a freezer-stand of fish, crabs and lobsters that showcased the food on offer just on the other side of the door.
Inside, we were warmly welcomed by the staff and sat in a quiet corner of the restaurant.
The seafood options here are plentiful and exciting. While I opted for a local fish dish – sea bream – Holly braved the Solar Octopus. And it’s fair to say she got way more than she bargained for!
As the food arrived at the table my sea bream was beautifully presented and looked extremely appetising. Holly then got a massive shock when a whole octopus was put in front of her – head and all!
What’s important to note here is that the octopus was cooked and seasoned beautifully. It was just the fact that Holly was expecting it to come with its head still attached (and ready to eat) that made for some interesting moments.
But, fair play to her, she tucked into the dish and despite appearance enjoyed eating it. I tried some of the octopus too and it was extremely tasty without being rubbery.
To finish off our meal, we were shown the dessert cabinet and each selected a slice of cake to eat – a cinnamon pie and almond pie that we shared – as we finished off our wine.
The restaurant is modestly priced and we parted with around €80 in total for our food and drinks having enjoyed a very memorable experience.
The second restaurant that is worth seeking out is the spectacular Grenache.
First thing to note is that this is a high-end restaurant with the price-tag to match and given their small seating area booking in advance is a must.
This restaurant is located in Pátio de Dom Fradique in Alfama – a mere five minute walk from the AirBnB we stayed in – and was one we had passed each day when we headed out.
Looking at the menu, we decided that we wanted to make our final night in Lisbon a memorable one so booked ourselves a table.
There are two options for dinner. At the time of writing, there is a six course menu for €75 and a eight course menu for €98 per person. Both come with the option of a wine-pairing which obviously adds another €50 or €70 to the costs respectively.
We opted for the eight course menu (without the wine pairing) and took our seats on the outside terrace area. At the time we visited there were no seats inside – but this may have been due to Covid-19 restrictions. In normal times, there may be more options to sit inside if required.
The restaurant offers the finest of French cuisine, in the heart of Lisbon and – while its chef has yet to earn the restaurant’s first Michelin star; from the quality of the food and service it’s only a matter of time.
Course after course of deliciously prepared food arrived at our table as we watched the world pass through the small courtyard.
Quality meat and seafood dishes and delightful desserts were presented to us as we savoured every moment that came and went.
Particular highlights for us were the grilled turbot, smoked eel and teriyaki glazed octopus (this time sans head).
With the added enjoyment of a bottle of wine, this fine establishment set us back around €300 but it was worth it and finished off our Portuguese adventure in style.