If you’ve ever thought about exploring Portugal, then please don’t wait any longer – it’s a wonderful country with so much to offer. Here at Totally Spain, we’ve seen the hugely positive shift in the standard and quality of the tourist offering in Portugal over the past decade. And we love designing custom itineraries for our valued clients so they can appreciate the charms of Portuguese food, its architecture, its capital city, its coastline and its interior and it’s wonderful people. In this post we’d like to introduce the Lisbon region that includes Portugal’s capital city and goes north as far as the Central Region of Portugal (which we will cover in a separate guide). The Lisbon region is perfect for a week long break featuring a few days in the capital plus a few daytrips to nearby towns and villages. As you’ll see below, there is an excellent choice to appeal to all tastes and interests.
WHY WE LOVE LISBON
If you’ve read our guide on Lisbon city or our other blogposts on Portugal, you’d know that Lisbon is one of our favourite European cities, and is the darling of all the travel writers. ‘Travel & Leisure’ magazine recently named Lisbon its favourite destination for 2016 and we have to agree we them – Lisbon really has great appeal for visitors – whether they are first-timers or regulars to the city! And it’s not restricted to the city boundaries – the Lisbon region in Portugal also has so much to offer from the best beaches and national parks to former Royal palaces and Templar cities. And it has a fascinating history having been a world power at one time. It’s a country that we go back to time and time again and love introducing our clients to.
1 LISBON CITY
Decadent and enchanting, Lisbon is a city that’s easy to love. The London Telegraph enjoys its “simple charm and maritime magic of a vintage-era Southern European capital.” But don’t let that fool you into thinking this is a stuffy old town. Lisbon effortlessly combines the modern and new and we love it for its ability to do this. And for its glow. How is it that the sun always shines in Lisbon? We love the cable cars and trams bustling down from the hilltop neighbourhoods to the elegant squares and on the port. The live music including jazz and traditional fado. Its coffee is amazing and the abundant pastry shops are unforgettable. And yes, you really do need to the visit the Jeronimos Monastery and taste the famous Belem pastries, in one of Lisbon’s great neighbourhoods. For something different, visit the Centre for Equestrian Art in the newly restored Picadeiro Henrique Calado – a great activity especially if you’re travelling with children. If you have any architecture and design fans in your group, the new Museum of Art, Architecture & Technology is a must!
Of course you have to see stunning Manueline architecture in Belem also and visit Vasco de Gama’s crypt. And when you’ve done that – head up the hills to one of the many excellent viewing points of the city such as the Castelo de Sao Jorge. Visit the amazing National Tile Museum in Lisbon to understand how “Lisbon wore a set of jewels that other cities didn’t bother to” according to the New York Times. One of Lisbon’s biggest fans, John Malkovich calls the city “a feast for the eyes”. He’s been travelling here since the early 1990s and adores the architecture, culture and food so much here that he opened a restaurant called Bica do Sapato in an old building overlooking the Tagus river. We love the space which is very reasonably priced – like so many others in Lisbon.
Take the Lisbon Winery run by our Friends Alex and Adriana who have over 150 seriously good wines available to taste by the glass plus delicious specially sourced local cheeses, cured meats and other treats. And there’s lots more. What about the exciting new dining venue Palacio Chiado which is a restored palace from 1781 that’s run like a luxurious private club! Its seven different restaurants with a private dining area which might sound extravagant but you’ll be surprised at how reasonable the pricing is! Even Belcanto with its two Michelin stars in Chiado, could be forgiven for high prices but we think the 7-course tasting menu offers great value for money and struggle to think of other European capital cities offering fine-dining at similar prices. And if you opt for a single Michelin-star, you have Eleven and Feitoria which are well worth a booking too!
We love exploring all of Lisbon’s neighbourhoods and the Alfama is great for its architecture. Again it’s the amazing combination of the old with the new! The older buildings are being carefully restored and plenty of new boutique hotels are moving in. It’s great for local shops with tasteful and creative merchandise, affordable local restaurants, authentic fado and artists workshops such as the fascinating and friendly Mongolian painter Rouslam Botiev. Ask him to show you the letter of apprection he received from Buckingham Palace when he painted a portrait of Queen Elizabeth using coffee and wine! The Feira da Ladra flea market on Tuesdays and Saturdays is terrific also and has plenty of interesting wares to be discovered.
We also love the shopping along Principe Real – you can read about the brands and the stores here. Make sure to have a drink afterwards at the Mirador de Sao Pedro do Alcantara which has one of the best views of Lisbon!
If you’re visiting Lisbon’s biggest food market (which we highly recommend) in Cais do Sodré, you can taste the very best ice-cream we’ve ever had. Step over to the nearby Saint Paul’s Square for the newly opened Gelato Davvero. The flavours range from traditional to wild and wacky and it opens until midnight so it makes for the perfect midday treat or a cheeky late night dessert after a wine tasting or meal out! Have we convinced you?
If you have three-four nights, you’ll have ample time to explore the city, nearby Belem and take a day trip to Cascais and Sintra. Read on to see why Cascais and Sintra are worth seeing!
2 WEST OF LISBON CITY – CASCAIS & ESTORIL
Who doesn’t love a great beach resort beside the city? The elegant boardwalks and sandy beaches of Cascais and Estoril are just 25 km from Lisbon and have deservedly become known as the Portuguese Riviera – oozing glamour as well as history plus super clean beaches and lively restaurants and shopping.
Cascais is best known for its historical charm and heritage, with important architectural and artistic works including stately homes and museums and galleries. It became popular as a holiday destination back in the 19th century and still retains its pretty little fishing port. The Telegraph loves how its “narrow cobbled streets descend towards the idyllic beaches” and recommends visiting the market that opens on Wednesdays & Saturdays which is “loud and busy and a great way to experience the earthy side of Cascais.” The market runs themed events some months for example in 2016, the theme was chocolate throughout February and wine in April. If you’d like to tap into the mindset of James Bond’s creator, you should make your way to the Casino do Estoril, where you can not only play the tables but you can catch some cultural events taking place too!
If you’re looking for the best local beaches, we encourage you to check out Carcavelos beach, which is ideal for surfing, and Guincho, which is considered paradise by windsurfers. And for the best dining with a sea-view, you have to eat at the Fortaleza do Guincho which is a Michelin-starred restaurant located inside the 17th century hotel which has stunning views of the beach.
Golfers will already know that this is an area with magnificent courses and that the region was named IATGO Best Golf Destination: Europe in 2007 and again in 2016. If hiking is more your thing, the amazing Parque Natural Sintra-Cascais is just a few kilometres away – and you’ll find the Cabo da Roca which is said to be Europe’s most westerly point. The park contains some great beaches and villages where you could easily spend a full day exploring.
3 NORTHWEST OF LISBON CITY – SINTRA
Less than 30 mins from Lisbon, Sintra offers a dazzling array of palaces and castles. It was awarded World Heritage status in 1995 but has been captivating civilians, writers and royals for centuries. Sintra’s first palace was built by John I in the late 14th century – the cool breeze in the hills being preferable for the monarch when the temperatures rose in the capital. By the time English poet and founding father of the Romantic Movement, Lord Byron was in town, the area played host to much of Lisbon’s nobility. Byron was entranced by Sintra’s magical and romantic qualities. For your visit, we recommend you arrive early with walking shoes to handle the cobbles and the (at times) steep walkways that weave through the lush countryside. As you visit each palace you’ll be struck how each seems to outdo its predecessor. We recommend visiting the palaces of Pena, Quinta, QueLuz & Monserrate.
If you have another three-four days in the Lisbon area, we recommend a few of these amazing destinations:-
4 SOUTH OF LISBON CITY – THE COSTA AZUL
The Costa Azul is the bluest of blues you are ever likely to see. If you want to relax on unforgettable beaches, this is the place for you! Places such as Costa de Caparica, Praia do Meco, Portinho da Arrabida and Sesimbra offer amazingly long sandy beaches and some of the best fish and shellfish markets and restaurants, you’ll find anywhere. If you prefer to see your wildlife out and about, head over to the Reserva Natural do Estuario do Tejo where you’ll find a flamingo colony. Further South to the Sado Estuary and you need to keep your eyes peeled for the bottle nose dolphins who live in this nature reserve. Take a boat trip to enjoy this spectacle and spend some time at the Arrabida Natural Park. And for those of you who like to take their exercise with a pair of spikes on your feet, rest assured that there are plenty of golf courses to choose from along this coastline.
5 NORTH OF LISBON CITY – LEIRIA, FATIMA & NAZARE
If you have an interest in Roman Catholic religious sites, you need no introduction to Fatima. The city is poised to celebrate the centenary of the apparitions in 2017 marking the year when three shepherd children reported conversations with the Virgin Mary. The first apparition took place on May 13th and re-occurred on the 13th of every month for another 5 months. The 13th of May and the 13th of October are always celebrated in the city and we expect the huge basilica and square (twice the size of St Peter’s Square in Rome) will be very busy in 2017.
You can easily visit Fatima on a day trip from Lisbon but if you are on a self-drive break, we recommend staying in nearby Leiria which is just 30km away and is a very tranquil and pleasant city, with a grand castle that dates from 1135 overlooking the town’s inhabitants.
There’s plenty of great hiking and walks in the area in the many national parks and we love the nearby coastline especially the beach village of Nazaré. The Telegraph recommends the views from the 16th-century fort named São Miguel Arcanjo, on the edge of the promontory of Sítio. “From here you have a clear view of Praia do Norte and the swell on one side and the village of Nazaré, the village beach and the fishing boats on the other side.” Unless you have legs made of rubber, we think you should avoid the hike up and take the funicular that connects the village to the high cliff.
6 NORTH EAST OF LISBON CITY – THE TEMPLARS
Although the Knights Templar originated in the 12th century in France, you’ll find this region offers a unique insight into those who wore the white robes with red crosses. Top of the list is the UNESCO listed Convent of Christ in Tomar which is just a 90-minute drive from Lisbon city.
Described by the Guardian newspaper as “one of the most spectacular places in Portugal,” Tomar is a beautiful, mysterious and magical place, wonderful to discover and enjoy. Founded by the Knights Templar, The Convent of Christ is one of the chief works of the Portuguese Renaissance. This complex containing the castle and convent has been compared to a rose – and the peeling back of the layers or petals is certainly very rewarding. The castle dates from 1160 and was a gift from the king to the Order of the Knights Templar for their support against the Moors. The convent was added in the same century. When, in 1312, the Templar Order was dissolved, the property was transferred to another order – the Order of Christ. The beauty of this very calm and quiet monument lies in the contrasts – on the outside you see the fortress-like castle and inside the delicate features of the convent – especially the charola – a Romanesque rotunda with frescos and gold. The Renaissance portal and Manueline Window in the Chapter Hall are some of the other features worth seeking out.
The town itself has lots more to offer – including the Jewish Museum on the site of the 15th century synagogue (do check before going as restoration work is programmed for 2017) and the Church of Santa Maria dos Olivais – another Knights Templar building. Erected atop a 7th century temple, it was the mother church of all churches in the Portuguese colonies during the Age of Discovery. If you like to take in something quirky, we recommend the very unusual Museum of Matchboxes which is beside the Convent of St Francisco. When in town, check the tourist office for details of special events and festivals. You have to wait until 2019 for the next ‘Tray’ festival known as ‘Festa dos Tabuleiros’ but there’s always something interesting taking place. Keep an eye on the Festa Templaria website for details of annual events…
If you enjoyed Tomar, you should also see Alcobaca which is another 90km from Tomar. Highlighting its “size, the purity of its architectural style, the beauty of the materials and the care with which it was built”, the World Heritage Convention calls it “a masterpiece of Cistercian Gothic art”. This is the UNESCO-listed site where the first King of Portugal erected a shrine to commemorate the conquest over the Moors in 1147.
It was completed in the 13th century – being consecrated as a monastery for the Cistercian order in 1262. In the church you’ll find the Gothic tombs of Pedro I of Portugal and his murdered mistress – the story is indeed a grim one but the beauty of the sculptural work lightens its effect on you. The Royal Pantheon is home to many more of Portugal’s kings and queens. The Cloister of Silence is a very special space with its Renaissance water basin and columns. Other highlights include the tile depicting the monastery’s history. And the statues in the Room of Kings will answer any questions you have about Portuguese royalty.
7 NORTHWEST OF LISBON CITY
Between the Atlantic Ocean and the Serra de Montejunto, the West area connects the sea and the countryside. This is where you’ll find many of the wine-producers in the Lisbon region and its interesting vineyards and wine cellars make for a great daytrip from Lisbon. We’re more than happy to put together a winery visit or two in the Lisbon region which can be combined with a gastronomy tour in the city or in the region itself.
If you need to walk off some of the excesses of the region’s food and wine, the Reserva Natural da Berlenga is a stunning national park that hugs this section of Portugal’s attractive coastline. This is the only marine reserve in the country and your camera will thank you for this visit as you can see above. You have to visit Peniche, the most westerly town in Europe, to discover the largest traditional fishing port in the country and enjoy the renowned beaches that attract surfers all year round. Part of the Ericeira Surfing Reserve, you’ll find dozens of places offering surfing lessons if you want to feel the swell for yourself. Alternatively you can just sit in a café and look on in awe as the experts do their thing!
If you enjoy visiting spa towns, you’re in the right place. Our favourite is the charming spa town of Caldas da Rainha, which is also famous for its artistic ceramics and pottery. After a treatment, you have to visit the Bordalho Pinheiro ceramic factory and outlet which is an institution in Portugal. And if you’d like to round of the day with something different, we loved the charming gardens of Buddha Eden in nearby Bombarral and not just because we were given a complimentary bottle of wine at the end of our visit!
Although it does draw huge crowds in the summer months, the walled town of Obidos is still well worth a visit. It was captured from the Moors by King Afonso Henriques, the Founder of Portugal, in 1148, and you can even stay in the fine castle, now a Pousada, which overlooks and dominates the stunning countryside.
8 NORTHEAST OF LISBON CITY – RIBATEJO
If you prefer the peace and quiet of riverside sightseeing, the Ribatejo, which has been moulded by Portugal’s larger river, the Tagus, is your type of destination. Not only will you see river plains called “leziria” but you’ll find bulls and horses also dominate as this is the region where many are raised and bred. This is the place to see the Fandango dance, which was a Spanish dance but is one of the main folk dances in Portugal.
The main city in this area is Santarem, which is 80 km from Lisbon. Overlooking the Tagus, the city was a royal residence and the capital of the kingdom of Portugal from 1325-57 and up until the 15th century, it was frequently the meeting place of the early Portuguese parliament. In addition to visiting some of the key buildings and touring the city walls, The Telegraph highly recommends being in town for the National Food Festival held over the last 10 days in October when the town fills up with food stalls and restaurants from all over Portugal. There are lots of other foodie events throughout the year here including a stew festival (called Magusto) in February, a cod festival in May and Tomatoes in July.
If you meander upriver along the country roads from Santarem that run alongside the Tagus, you’ll get to take in the spectacular Castelo de Almourol, (see above) built on a small granite island in the middle of the Tagus, near Tancos. Dating from the 12th Century, the castle is one of the best preserved medieval monuments in the country. Do make sure of the ferry service to see the castle close up!
What to Eat & Drink
If you are a fan of fish, you will find seafood and fish in every variety, shape and style prepared in soups, stews, or simply baked, fried or grilled. Make sure to order the oily fish too such as sardines on the BBQ which are a real treat. If you have a sweet tooth, you have to try the queijadas (cheese tarts) in Sintra and pasteis de Belem (custard cream tarts) from Lisbon. If you enjoy wines, you should try some of the following local wines from the region Arruda, Carcavelos, Colares, Palmela, Bucelas, Tejo and Moscatel. You can pair the wines with Portugal’s delicious regional cheeses including the wonderful Azeitão cheeses made from sheep’s milk from Azeitão just south of Lisbon.
When to Visit
Any time of year is a good time to visit Lisbon city and the region of Lisbon. We’ve travelled to this part of Portugal in the depths of winter (which was very mild) and in the height of the Summer and still found it was manageable in terms of temperature and crowds. Obviously the coastal destinations and Lisbon itself gets busy on key dates but the country has been investing hugely in hotels and infrastructure so you’re never far from a great night’s accommodation!
How to Get Around
Lisbon is well-connected with all the major cities in Europe and beyond. If you are flying into Lisbon, we recommend hiring a car if you are staying outside the city for more than a night or two. If you prefer to do daytrips and return to Lisbon city at night, you may be happier to book a private driver with English who can guide you to the monuments and look after the logistics so you don’t waste your precious time working out the motorways and the parking. Totally Spain has an excellent team of local expert guides and private drivers who know all about the culture, gastronomy and history of Lisbon and Portugal and can truly enhance a visit to their country.