For the budget traveller, Portugal is a dream. There are top hostels at around €15 per night, a meal and drinks can be purchased at the local markets for under €5, and generous cocktails in bars all sit around the €3-€4 mark. And with just two days to spare needed, you can have it all in the humming capital of Lisbon.
Lisbon well and truly has the right balance between the laid back culture of Portugal and the ‘something to see in every corner’ nature of a city. From the tree-lined main street Avenida da Liberdade, the neighbourhood of Belem famous for its Portuguese tarts, to the ultimate nightlife district of Barrio Alto, Lisbon has a unique character that varies over the seven hills it is built on.
Yet at the same time, it feels familiar for an American in places. Vintage trams rattling through the steep, narrow streets and a red suspension bridge across the river make it feel like a slice of San Francisco has been recreated in Europe; while a giant Jesus statue at the very edge of the city has a striking resemblance to the famous Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. But familiarity aside, there’s still more to uncover is Lisbon. Here’s how to make the most of the city in two days.
Day one: Lisbon City
To pack in the most sights (without feeling tired from all the hills), pick up a 24 hour train/bus/tram card for €5.
First stop: Belem. Just 15 minutes from the city centre on tram #15, this district is popular with tourists for one main reason: custard tarts. The Pasteis de Belem bakery has been running since 1837 and has become so famous for its Portuguese tarts that on any given day, you can expect to line up for at least 5 minutes to get into the door. €1.05 later, and you have a freshly baked, flaky pastry tart in your hand filled with thick warm custard. These tarts may be found all over Portugal, but after having a Pasteis de Belem anything else would just be disappointing.
Next up: the districts of Chiado and Baixa. Right in the city centre, these areas are home to the shopping and cafe districts of Lisbon. Take a stroll through the winding streets and stop at a café for a spot of people watching, before taking another ride on the tram.
Tram No 28: This tram is one of the smaller, vintage style trams that hurtles across the hills from one side of Lisbon city centre to the other, making for an easy way to do the ‘tourist loop’ of the city. Ride in the direction of the Castelo de São Jorgeand be treated to views from a giant castle that overlooks the coastline. If you time it right, the sunsets are spectacular – Lisbon is the only European city directly facing west, making for some magnificent views.
NIGHTLIFE: Head to the Barrio Alto district for a slice of local nightlife. Up in the hills are over 200 little bars lining the streets, and they serve some seriously cheap alcohol. The bars are so tiny that everyone spills out onto the streets, meaning it is constantly thriving with people. The perfect spot for a bar crawl, step inside a bar for a €1 shot and then make your way down the street.
Day two: Sintra
A 45-minute train ride from Lisbon is the picturesque town of Sintra. Full of palaces, gardens, churches and quirky architecture, this town is such a unique place that it was given World Heritage Status by UNESCO in 1995.
Two of Sintra’s biggest attractions are the Palacio Nacional da Pena (a grand palace on top of a hill that easily looks like it houses a princess or two), and the Castelo dos Mouros (a big castle built by the Moors, again on top of a hill). But the best site of all is the little known secret called the ‘Initiation Well’.
Sitting inside the Palacio e Quinta da Regaleira (Regal Palace and Gardens), the initiation well is something off the normal tourist trail. The grounds in this place feel like something out of a fairy tale. Step inside and see an intricately designed palace, gardens full of lookouts in turrets, grottos in caves and tunnels with tiny lights along the way. But the real highlight is the initiation well, a tower that sinks some 27 meters into the earth.
After following a series of tunnels winding under the grounds of the Palace and Gardens, you will find yourself in a spiral well. The walls tower above you and are covered in a green moss, giving the illusion that the earth has just opened up and swallowed you inside it. Coil your way on the path to the top and take a peek over the edge and you will realise this is one no ordinary well, this is something straight out of Middle Earth.
Finish off your time in Sintra with a taste of the local tipple, ginja. This cherry-flavoured liqueur has an intense alcohol taste, but it comes served in a tiny chocolate cup which balances it out with some sweetness. Best of all, the shops all offer free samples – what’s not to love about a free chocolate alcohol hybrid?