Every five years, three girlfriends and I jet off for a long weekend, usually to a city in Europe, hopefully to a place that none of us have been to before.
Ten years ago we set up a bank account, agreeing to deposit £15.00 each month, to ensure that this little adventure actually happens. You know how the intention is firmly there but the funds or time are not always willing? It’s worked out brilliantly so far, with enough money to afford us a good break in a nice hotel, all spending money included. Believe it or not, this time I actually came back with more money than I started!
Five years ago it was Verona (a city that stole my heart); this year it was Lisbon.
I’ve been to Portugal a number of times but always to the Algarve, where the sunshine and surf beckons. Lisbon is not a city that I would ever have put on my bucket list but one that all four of us had not been to – that’s a tall order when one in our party is (and always has been) a keen traveller. I had no preconceived ideas before going and due to four very busy lifestyles, none of us had had a chance to read the tourist guides or even the Tripadvisor ‘must sees’!
Where we stayed.
We had booked our hotel rather hastily, thanks to the advice of Booking.com and an evening of Whats App messaging. The place we chose, A Casa das Janelas com Vista, was very affordable at £130 per night, per room, and certainly didn’t disappoint.
A quirky boutique hotel with only 12 rooms, situated in the Bairro Alto district with its bustling night life and windy, cobbled streets – it was perfect for us.
The hotel staff were amazingly helpful and couldn’t do enough for us (I think we had cleared them out of Baileys by the end of our three night stay!). Breakfast was laid out for us to help ourselves every morning, with freshly brewed coffee, eggs made to our liking and enough croissants to keep us all happy! As soon as we arrived they offered us a welcome drink and gave us a much-needed explanation of the map of Lisbon.
If you didn’t already know (we didn’t) Lisbon is a very hilly city and looking at a map, can be ultra confusing. Having spent three days there, I still couldn’t explain how we managed to get lost on pretty much every single outing but I could probably get you from our hotel down to the sea front (which is actually the River Tagus but more on that later).
Lisbon is full of charm and a wonderfully diverse city, meaning that you’re never short of something to see or do. There’s a different view around every corner whether it’s of Lisbon’s traditional coloured buildings, the iconic yellow trams, rooftops that seem to appear out of nowhere (even the hills aren’t uniform) or the quaint cobbled streets that certainly do not accommodate heels!
It’s a city buzzing with outdoor cafes and bars, very satisfying for an avid people watcher like me. But it also appears a safe, friendly place attracting families and stag dos (not too many thankfully!) alike. Every bar owner, cafe worker and Tuk Tuk driver we met, couldn’t do enough for us.
Lisbon is split into various unique districts. I won’t go into every single one of them because there are so many and as we already know, a tourist guide I am not!
We were staying in the Bairro Alto district where you’ll find the night life but also the older, quirky streets with unusual little shops and bars that stay open until the small hours. The streets might be lined with people drinking and socialising until well after bedtime (mine anyway) but it still feels safe and not at all intimidating. Our hotel was tucked out of the way, meaning that we were blessed with a quiet night’s sleep.
We loved the smart, chic charm of Chiado/Baixa with its wide open streets and a range of shops from well-known high street stores to boutique flower shops and the best ice cream in the city!
Just outside of the main city is the beautiful district of Belem. We took the E15 tram from the Praça do Comércio to Belem and contrary to what you might think (yes, we took 30 minutes before feeling confident enough to board the tram without a pre-purchased ticket!) you can buy a ticket from the machine on board each of the yellow trams. The journey took about 20 minutes.
Once there, we headed straight for the famous Pasteis de Belem to sample the best Pastel de Nata (traditional egg custard tart to you and I) the country has to offer. All of the guides suggested that this place would be heaving and not to go at midday or on a weekend. Guess what? We headed there on a Saturday at midday! It wasn’t busy and we were able to find a table straight away.
If you want to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, Belem is your place. You only need a few hours to take in all the sights, giving you enough time to sit by the river and watch the boats go by.
We kind of stumbled on the Time Out Market which is also situated by the Praco do Commercio, but loved the atmosphere in here, full of different places to eat and drink – definitely something for everyone. If you’re wanting to get out of the heat for a bit, this is a great pit stop.
We enjoyed strolling along the River Tagus in the evening which runs up to the Praca do Commercio square – a wonderful open space of beautiful buildings, restaurants and places to relax with a beer/cocktail or two in the evening. Many of the sight-seeing tours also go from here.
It’s worth taking a walk up to the castle and wandering around the streets of Alfamo for more fantastic views and windy streets.
For the best view in Lisbon, take the Santa Justa Lift which is located in the Baixa district. Fairly reasonably priced and you can spend as long as you like admiring the view.
We happened upon a rather fantastic little rooftop bar just below the exit from the lift. The drinks weren’t cheap but I would highly recommend asking for 3 diet cokes (you’ll get 3 daquiris in exchange!).
Talking of bars, we visited two very different roof top bars that both had fantastic views of the city but you do need to arrive early to grab a good seat.
The first one was aptly named Park, mainly because it is situated above a rather dismal multi storey car park in Bairro Alto! Persevere though because it’s worth it once you get to the top and it seems to be where all the cool people hang out.
The second one we queued for but once we got a good seat, didn’t move for two hours! Again in the Bairro Alto district, it was the roof top bar of the 5 star Bairro Alto Hotel. Everyone is welcome, even if you’re not staying at the hotel, and it’s a lovely place to watch the sun go down.
- I’ve not really mentioned any specific restaurants because there is a Tapas bar around every corner of Lisbon. Most restaurants look basic from the outside (and inside more often than not!) but the food is fantastic and extremely good value for money.
- Our number one tip would be to leave your heels at home! Lisbon is a very relaxed, casual city where no one seems to dress up and probably due to the vast number of cobbled streets, you won’t see any heels. We attempted wedges one evening but they were soon discarded for the emergency flats secreted in our bags.
- The main mode of transport is the traditional yellow tram that fights its way through the city, but we loved the Tuk Tuks that can be hailed down at any time. Haggle a price for your destination or go on a sightseeing tour of the city – the choice is yours. They are super speedy too as they weave their way through the city’s traffic.
- Give the tram tour a miss and opt for the sight-seeing bus or Segway tour instead. Unfortunately our Segway tour was double booked so we were unable to keep up the tradition but we saw plenty of other people having a go and it looked like great fun.
Only another five years until the next trip girls – New York for our fiftieths?