Because of its rich culture and scenic and diverse landscape, Portugal had been on my bucket list for awhile now. And Lisbon keeps being cited as one of the world's coolest cities. And that weather! So… guess where we just went?
First off: as in any large city, watch out for pickpockets! I had to relearn this the hard way after getting my camera stolen on a beach in Estoril. I also had to relearn the value of backups, as I was left with mostly only the quick snaps on my phone…
Even though it has a lot of tourist attractions, Lisbon doesn't really have a signature landmark that sets it apart from other capitals. The Belém Tower is possibly the most recognizable Lisbon landmark, but it doesn't have the grandeur of the Eiffel Tower, the Big Ben or the Colosseum. What really sets Lisbon apart is its atmosphere: the colorful houses along those picturesque narrow, steep cobblestone streets full of graffiti, the laid-back culture - not to say that they're lazy, it just takes the city some time to truly come alive - and the busy nightlife.
But Lisbon definitely has its fair share of tourist attractions. Belém has its tower and the Jerónimos Monastery (both UNESCO world heritage sites), the Monument to the Discoverers and a handful museums. On the other side of the Tagus is the Cristo Rei statue (inspired by the Cristo Redentor statue in Rio), but you'll have to cross the Ponte 25 de Abril bridge (which will remind you a lot of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.) And we're not even in Lisbon yet!
Lisbon was built on 7 hills at the mouth of the river Tagus and has origins that predate even the Romans. The Celts, Phoenicians, Romans, Berbers and the Portuguese as we currently know them have all inhabited Lisbon at some point in time, and they all have somehow influenced the city. It was also the starting point for many of the Portuguese expeditions. All of this combined has turned Lisbon into a diverse city with a lot of history & culture.
You don't necessarily have to try to visit all of Lisbon's attractions. Just stroll around the different neighborhoods without a plan. Go with the Flow and let the city surprise you. But if you're like me and you want to see it all, get aboard that very modern metro and head to the historic center of Lisbon.
Let's start at the Praça do Comércio, a large square facing the Tagus river with a statue of King José I at its center - an excellent meeting point. (We kept coming back to this square because the pizza in one of these restaurants was magnificent.) Go north, under the arch, and get your postcards in the pedestrian Augusta Street. The neighborhood we're currently in is Baixa, and it is by far the easiest to navigate: after the an earthquake in 1755, it had to be rebuilt almost entire and it's now a simple street grid. On your left (west) will be Chiado and Bairro Alto and Alfama is on the other side (east.) Keep going north along Augusta Street and until you reach another square: Praça do Rossio, where you'll find the Column of Pedro IV in the middle. Even more so than the Praça do Comércio, this is a meeting place for the people of Lisbon and the Rossio Train Station is on the north-east side of the square.
This area is also chock-full of restaurants, but they're not necessarily the best: we've randomly tried out a few places, but all of them turned out to be the same generic overpriced tourist food. I'm sure there are great restaurants around here, but we had a much better time finding great food in the other neighborhoods, especially around Bairro Alto. Given that half of Portugal's border is along the Atlantic, it should come as no surprise that seafood is pretty popular; especially the bacalhau (dried cod.)
Rossio Square is at the north end of Baixa. If you want to do some shopping, head further north on the Avenida da Liberdade to find all of your favorite luxurious brands along this wide avenue that goes slightly uphill for about 1.5 km (1 mi), up to the Praça de Marques de Pombal (Marquis of Pombal Square) and the Parque Eduardo VII (Eduardo VII Park), from where you'll be able to enjoy a wonderful view of the city.
If, however, you were looking for more culture, you had best gone west to Chiado and Bairro Alto, or east to Alfama. Bairro Alto can easily be reached via the Santa Justa elevator (with wonderful views of the Baixa street grid) that is in one of Augusta Street's side streets. Unfortunately, there's no elevator up to Alfama, but you can hop on one of those trademark yellow trams if you don't want to climb that hills yourself. At the top of the Alfama is the Castelo de São Jorge (St. George's Castle.)
Not too far from Lisbon - 28 km (17 mi) and easily reached by train - lies Sintra, a small town with 2 absolutely spectacular highlights: the Castelo dos Mouros (Moorish Castle) and the Palácio Nacional da Pena (Pena National Palace) The palace looks like it's ran away from a fairytale: it's a colorful combination of many different styles and it sits atop a hill, overlooking the ruins of the Moorish Castle. It's a pretty long walk up to the Pena National Palace, but there's a constant coming and going of carts that will take you there for a small fee.