To be honest, until recently I fairly neglected Portugal. This country was never part of my travel plans nor did I think it ever would be. I was more in love with Spain and thought Portugal would just be a tinier Spain and not able to surprise me. Nothing could have been further from the truth. It only took me a week to fall in love with this country, particularly the city I visited. Lisbon.
This city with only 500 000 habitants was a nice break away from busy city life in Barcelona for me. Yet it is a city and has everything to offer you need. Shops as well as a lot of green areas and parcs. And the beach and the sea. So, I went on this trip to this beautiful city with my best friend whom I had not seen in half a year. Together, we went on exploring the city from the very first day on.
We decided to stay with a host on couchsurfing – which was one of the best decisions of our whole trip. Couchsurfing, for those of you who don’t know about it, is an app which enables you to stay with a person for free. It is all about the cultural exchange. You can sleep on their couch, on their floor, or in an extra bed. In exchange you offer them to learn about your culture in return. For me, this is the best way to travel. Not only is it cheap if you travel on a tight budget, but the experiences you make will stick with you a lifetime. You can make incredible connections and learn so much about a culture in so little time. Since you are staying with a local, you can also get the perfect advice about which places to visit where and where rather not to go.
For more information about couchsurfing and how to organize a budget friendly travel stay tuned! It will come up during the next weeks.
Best places to see in Lisbon
So, let’s focus on the places you need to visit when coming to Lisbon:
A peninsula, an hour car ride away from the city center in Lisbon. Pure paradise. A huge area of Setubal is a national park, the Parque Natural da Arrabida, where you can go hiking and swim at the most amazing beaches. As it is quite a bit away from the city, it is also not crammed with tourists. The beaches are surprisingly empty and really clean. To get there, we rented a car (60€ for a day – so not bad if shared) and drove all the way to Setubal. We didn’t have time to go hiking unfortunately, even though the green trees and nature surrounding this place really invite you to do so. We, however, decided to dedicate the whole day to the beach. We wanted to see the Praia Galaphinos – which is said to be the most beautiful beach in whole Portugal. So, we parked our car in a place a few beaches further and planned to go to the Praia Galaphinos by foot. So good so far. When we reached the first beach we were already amazed. crystal clear water, sparkling almost white sand, only a few people here and there. Our backs turned to nature, the green trees and rock faces behind us. In front of us just the sea with its waves. On this coastline, a lot of beaches are lining up on after the other, separated rocks. These rocks are so big they split the whole cost line into little bays. These bays are the most beautiful thing to see here. A bit hard to access, but worth the way.
After accessing a normal beach, you will have to walk through the water and climb over rocks to get there- but it will pay off! We ended up almost alone in a bay, just a few other people joining us. The bay was small, only a few meters, but astonishingly beautiful. In front of us we could see an island which even would have been able to access via a long swim. The sea laying in front of us with its turquois blue, clean water. The water was cold – a consequence of entering the Atlantic Ocean. I just dived right into it and came out perfectly refreshed.
After spending almost the whole day in this little place we decided we still needed to check out the most famous beach – Praia Galaphinos. So we went there before the sun was about to set – and were a bit disappointed. As we spent the whole day in the tiny bay, this beach didn’t seem that exciting anymore. Don´t get me wrong, it is a beautiful beach, surrounded by mountains and green trees with a wall of stones building up behind it. But it could not compete with that little paradise we had experienced before. These little bays are truly calm and special and I can only recommend everyone to check them out as well!
2. LX factory
This place in the west of Lisbon is also a bit farther away from the city center, but truly amazed me. It was a factory in the 19th century, then abandoned for many years. Now, it has been developed into an amazing urban space. A place of creativity, start-ups and small companies with the goal to be sustainable and make the world a better place. We went there by bus and entered a small little village in the city. In the entrance, there was a huge plan of the area – also in English – for foreigners to not get lost in the factory. The walls there are painted creatively, drawings and paintings of talented artists can be found everywhere. On the facades of buildings as well as in them. Other pieces of art are hanging from the ceiling or placed on the walls of houses as well. There´s so much attention to detail, every little thing decorated and made with love.
The first store we into was a book store we almost spent an hour in. There was simply too much to see. We spent the whole morning and some part of the afternoon to explore the different brands and concepts of the factory. I even found a brand that produces vegan shoes there. Which means they don´t use anything from an animal to produce a shoe, are focusing on the environment and our impact on our planet. The brand is Nae. I am simply amazed by their concept as they use recycled plastic to produce their shoes. Every piece is hand made. For this quality, they don´t even charge too much. And they are reducing our waste by using up plastic in their shoes. Find out more about them here: Nae – Fashion with Compassion. Projects like this can be found all over the factory. Other shops produced sustainable clothes, furniture and so on. It was truly amazing to see so many different concepts in one space, all with an important thought behind it. From books to shoes to something to eat – there you will find anything your hearth desires!
3. Streets of Lisbon
You simply have to wander through the streets of Lisbon. If you just walk around the old town, you will be amazed by the narrow streets and colorful houses.
On our first day, we wandered around without much of a plan – and those are the times we discovered the best places! The old town has a lot to offer – from the famous yellow trams to the colorful facades of houses. Then there is the river which is a beautiful place to just take a nice long walk next to the water. It can easily be mistaken for being at the sea – but from the center of Lisbon you will only access the river. Lisbon is also a city where you can work out your legs. If you want to explore everything, you will have to walk uphill a lot. The streets are small, the walking lanes are even smaller and the city is built up on a hill as well. Walking up the small streets you will not even be able to walk up next to each other. The fact that everything was so small was also what made the city so charming for me. The walking lanes are made out of small white bricks, the streets out of grey ones. You will also discover the most beautiful parcs if you walk a bit away from the city. We started at the Praça Comércio which is the main place of Lisbon, close to the river and explored the side to our right.
Then we walked up the city a bit. I´m not giving so many specific directions on purpose here. The most fun thing to do for me is to just go and see what the city has to offer. On our wander tour to we-have-no-clue-where we also came across a tiny local market we would never have found if we just had followed the most important sights blindly. Of course, the historical sights are interesting and you shouldn´t miss them! But for me, strolling through the city just keeping my eyes open and seeing what it has to offer is certainly the best way to explore the city by yourself.
Body boarding at Costa da Caparica
Bodyboarding or surfing is an activity you simply have to do once in Lisbon. As Portugal is the only country with waves high enough in Europe, this is an experience you definitely don’t want to miss! If you know how to surf – go for it! If you don´t, well, you could try it out. We did as well. However, as a total beginner who doesn’t know anything about surfing and will just have time to try it out once during the holidays, body boarding might be a better option. You simply cannot learn how to surf in a day. An experience I learned the hard way with struggling under waves and surf boards hitting my head. So, once I tried out body boarding I had a much more pleasant experience. It is that cool, because you can learn it in a day – even in half an hour! A body board is half as big as a surf board and will enable you to ride on waves while laying on top of it. All you need to do is to cut the wave the right way, to jump on the wave the right time. Spending half an hour in the ocean should be enough for you to already ride over the waves! This activity is awesome, I can only recommend it. The board are not expensive to rent and you can spend a whole afternoon riding over waves! Do you need anything more?
5. Best sights to see
Finally, I also had to include some of Lisbon´s most famous sights. For me, sights and buildings with a long and rich history are interesting, however I feel like the previous experiences where even more unique and showed me more about the real Portuguese life. These sights are tourist attractions (or traps if you may)
This district even goes further to the west than the LX factory. The most famous sight here is the Torre de Belem.
A tower which rises from the river in Lisbon. It is a UNESCO cultural heritage and it´s easy to see why. With its white walls it is rising in the middle of the sea. It is one of Lisbon’s landmarks and therefore visited by a lot of people. Still, it is worth its way. We decided to go there just to see the tower and could explore the whole district on our way. We crossed the Jardim de Belem on our way which is a very big garden, a perfect, green spot in the city to calm down and relax. There we also saw the Thai Pavilion given to Portugal by the Thai government to celebrate the 500th year of their bilateral relations. This pavilion is new, it was just situated in the parc in 2012, but nevertheless it is beautiful. As a traditional Thai architectural sight, it is easily spotable between the green trees of the parc!
At the end of the garden you will find the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. This monastery also offers a lot to discover. However, we just walked through there quickly as it is quite big and we mostly wanted to see the tower. From the monastery it was only a short way to the tower.
We just talked a bit more and could see the white, medieval Torre de Belem rising from the river. At the tower you can sit down close to the water and just look over the waves to relax and calm down. It´s a beautiful place , especially during the sunset when the water starts to glitter and the sun bows down on the horizon. With all the sights you can see there it is the best option to just take more time and wander around there by foot.
2. Castelo de São Jorge and viewpoints
The best viewpoint in Lisbon is the Mirador Nossa Senhora do Monte. Situated in the very heart of Lisbon you have a great view on all sides. At this viewpoint you can also explore an old monastery on top of the hill.
Another viewpoint close to the Mirador is the Castelo de São Jorge. This old castle is just situated a 10-minutes-walk away from our previous point. So we walked up to the castle by foot again. On the way up to the castle we could see a lot of street art, graffiti covering the walls. Beautiful art, drawings. Again a statement of the creative side of Lisbon. Entering the castle we were greeted by peacocks who were running around freely. This castle was built in the 12th century, a big complex ready to be explored. Once in there you can spend half a day walking around to see everything the castle has to offer. You can walk up the walls, look out of the small windows and discover the city from above again while imaging being sent back in time to the medieval age.
3. Ponte Vasco da Gama and surroundings
This bridge is one of the two bridges crossing the river and is surrounded by a beautiful area. Close to the main bus station it is a very nice spot to relax during the evening. There you can see hotels at the river, the bridge in the background. We got there dropping at the Oriente metro station and walked all the along the coast side for a bit. During the sunset, this was the perfect place to be. Along the promenade you will find a lot of restaurants and new things to try out. However, we were more focused on our surroundings, the bridge, the river. A lot of locals went for a run there while the sun was slowly sinking to the horizon. It really was a little paradise.
Another place you definitely have to see once in Lisbon: Sintra. This place is so beautiful and magical, I will devote a whole blogpost to it. This village is a whole other world on its own. So, stay tuned to read more about it next week!