Lisbon gets my vote for a spring city break. A short flight from London. It was somewhere neither of us had been to before. And it’s by the sea. Not hot weather per se, but warm enough to be out doors. Tick, tick, tick, tick. I will put it out there… If you want a city break and you don’t like a big city it’s perfect – not sprawling and so close to very beautiful countryside and vitamin sea! Spend time doing your hotel research – there are some charming historical hidden gems.
1. Walk, walk, walk
I always pack comfy shoes and an umbrella. A cardigan never goes amiss either. We did at least 30,000 paces a day and that was including the day the rain was incessant and went right through the umbrella waterproofing. Lisbon almost didn’t make the grade – let’s face it, traipsing around in the rain is pretty miserable. I spent the rainy day grumpily trailing a few steps behind Mr P. Apparently this is what I always do when I don’t want to be somewhere! Who knew!
Then the sun came out and all was forgiven.
I warn you it is hilly. But hills mean views. Great ones. Lisbon is a little like Venice (with less water, more hills) in the sense that one must mooch without a map as you will undoubtedly stumble across something pretty. There’s also plenty of architecture in the centre to enjoy – the Santa Justa lift, Bairro Alto, the wide shopping streets.
2. Enjoy a pastel de nata
Or 10. Specifically at Pasteis de Belem. Delicious – perfect for elevenses. The café in Belem is the home of these tarts.
This was the only advice I had been given before going and it was spot on. Pastel de nata are a local custard tart and they are divine – both the filling and the pastry. Fresh and warm out of the oven with a latté. Happily this isn’t like a Laduree in Paris debacle – the cafe seats 400 and service is slick and friendly and the prices low.
Belem is also a pretty little bit of the city. There is more to see than just what you eat. The Belem Tower, connected to the mainland by a little walk way is worth an ogle. As is the Jeronimos Monastery and a pilgrimage monument.
3. Watch the funicular
I find trams a little eerie. Or perhaps fascinating, as we don’t really have them in the UK. I’m very taken by the funicular version that trundles up and down the steepest couple of hills in the city. The famous one is the Elevador da Gloria in Bairro Alto. The climb to the top (if you don’t catch a ride) rewards you with a spectacular view of the city from Miradouro do Sao Pedro de Alcantara. There’s a lesser known one that we stumbled on quite by chance – Elevador da Bica. Far steeper and with an excellent view down the tram tracks and across the river.
4. Stay in a palace surrounded by azulejos
Even before we left for Lisbon I knew that I liked the Portuguese tiling that I had seen in so many of the pictures. Imagine my excitement when I found Palacio Ramalhete. Tiling, called azulejos, is used to great effect throughout the property. And it’s gorgeous through and through, with stunning living rooms and even a pool. The urban palace dates back to the 17th century. It’s one of those special places I delight in finding.
5. Spend an evening at the BA Wine Bar
This was a top tip from a friend, else we’d a) never had the luck to stumble across it and b) not managed to get a walk in booking.
The wine bar is hidden away on a side street in Bairro Alto and tables are all booked in advance. This isn’t a bar you nip to for a quick drink. It is an evening immersion into Portuguese wine. Effectively a structured tasting. The sommeliers find out your ‘type’ of preferred wine and before you order a glass they give you a few tasters to choose from. We worked our way through some different local wines.
The food here is simple, but excellent – bread, cheese, meat and olive oil platters. Perfect with the wine. I booked through Facebook.
6. Soak up the sun in Alfama
This was the gem in Lisbon’s crown for us.
It’s a village quarter of the city sat on a hill. Cute little streets, old fashioned trams, tiled buildings, excellent view spots across the rooftops. St Jorges Castle is worth the entry fee. The views from the top over the modern city and out to the sea are stunning.
The real treat was discovering ‘Wine with a View’. A little tuk tuk with a bar in the back selling wine near the view spot. We really enjoyed taking in the view with a drink and letting the world go by.
7. Enjoy the waterfront
The waterfront comes alive in the sunshine. Our favourite part was Praco do Comercio – a stunning yellow square surrounded by elegant buildings and trams that trundle round the sides.
We actually found a little sailing boat serving beers – prize for the best novelty bar. Take a walk along the promenade towards Cais do Sodre station. It is dotted with little bars with seats in the sunshine and there are also excellent views of the striking golden-gate-esque bridge and the Cristo Rei monument, twinned with Christ the Redeemer in Rio. A city with a waterfront is perfect.
8. Stay in Cascais
We started our trip in Cascais. 30mins from the airport and a world away from the city. It’s a seaside village. We lucked out by staying at Villa Cascais. Our room was the penthouse and incredible – 3 balcony’s, stunning 360 views, endless hygge and the bath of dreams. The restaurant and bar were also the height of laid back cool.
9. Paddle in the sea
Mooching around Cascais will take you to the beach – you won’t be able to avoid it, or the glimpses of sea down little alleyways! Thank goodness, we all need our vitamin sea. It wasn’t too cold for paddling, even in March. The beaches are lined with little restaurants too.
The coastal location is pretty sleepy and pretty. The harbour is dotted with sailing boats, the beaches are clean and restaurants are plentiful with excellent fresh seafood.
10. Cycle to the western-most point of mainland Europe
The ideal way to cover more ground. And exercise extra muscles. We hired a couple of bikes from MobiCascais. Hiring wasn’t easy – the app is in Portuguese! But Mr P isn’t the type to be beaten. He cracked it.
Comfy and good quality bikes. The cycle up the coast had some slight inclines but was generally flat and on good cycleways. We stopped at Boca do Inferno to admire the rock formations.
Then headed north to Praia do Guincho – the western most point of mainland Europe. Pretty sand dunes and a quirky Relais & Chateaux hotel that was a top spot for coffee with a view (that reminded us of beloved Cornwall) before the return leg.
So despite a day of rain, I whole heartedly recommend Lisbon & Cascais for a mini-break. We loved the balance of time in the city with time on the coast. Finding the two hotel gems really made our stay complete – homes away from home. The city has a real historical and village culture to be found.
In a brexit nation with a weak pound, prices were also reassuringly affordable! Onwards to Faro, or perhaps Porto and the Douro.
And this wasn’t a bored yawn, but a happy exhausted one…