We just came back from Portugal and had a blast! This small country on the westernmost mainland of Europe surprised us in many ways. We thought we would visit only once, but we’ve changed our minds and can’t wait to go back.
What we love the most about Lisbon is the fact that it’s pretty laid-back. There are cafés, restaurants, and snack kiosks everywhere so you’ll never go hungry. Those with a sweet tooth will undoubtedly love Lisbon’s many yummy desserts, including world-renowned custard tarts. When I sank my teeth into my first real Portuguese custard tart, I nearly cried. It had just come out of the oven and was beyond delicious.
We don’t speak Portuguese but never had a problem communicating with locals as most of them spoke English really well. For those that didn’t, they were so kind and patient in explaining things to us.
So for foreigners, Lisbon is a very welcoming place. But that doesn’t mean you won’t have a few hiccups of being in a foreign country for the first time and having to figure everything out. But to me, that’s part of the allure of travel. On the road, we experience new things and learn not just about the world but ourselves.
To help you navigate Lisbon (and Sintra) better, here are a few tips you might find helpful.
There are non-stop flights from several U.S. cities to Lisbon
Wherever I go, I try to fly non-stop to save time and minimize the possibility of missing the connecting flight if the first flight is delayed. So I was happy that TAP Portugal flies directly to Lisbon from northern Virginia where we live. The non-stop flight from Washington Dulles took us to Lisbon in about 7 hours. It was our first time flying with TAP and I’m going to write about it in my next post.
Depending on where you live, your airport might have direct flights to Lisbon. I did a quick Google search and found that U.S. airports with non-stop flights to Lisbon are all on the East Coast except San Francisco and Chicago.
Portugal is very affordable
We were shocked to find out that food and transportation in Lisbon were very inexpensive. A nice meal at a nice restaurant, for example, cost about 30-40% less than what we would have paid for in northern Virginia. We took a train from Lisbon to Sintra, and it cost 5 euros roundtrip! A tram ride to Belem cost less than 2 euros, and with a Lisboa card, it was free. Check out a Lisboa card if you plan to visit several museums and sites and take public transportation. We got ours at the Lisbon airport after we arrived.
Gluten-free folks will be happy
Restaurants in Lisbon are also pretty inclusive as several have gluten-free, dairy-free items and when making a reservation, they ask whether you have any dietary restriction. We dined at JNcQUOI (pronounce it as the French saying Je ne sais quoi) and Prado and both had gluten-free options.
Our hotel, which I will write about in a future post, even serves gluten-free croissants at breakfast! They of course have gluten-free bread, but we had never seen a gluten-free croissant, so I was really impressed that they’ve strived to create a breakfast spread that’s friendly to those with food restrictions.
Try to visit certain sites in the afternoon
Everywhere is packed in the morning. At 10 a.m. at Jeronimos Monastery, for example, the line was so long the wait to get in would have been at least an hour. The line to get the ticket was empty. Obviously, most people had already gotten their tickets online, and those buying tickets at the doors couldn’t get in right away but had to join the same entry line.
We decided not to wait and walked over to the riverfront to Padrao dos Descobrimentos, a monument to the Golden Age of Discovery where ships set sail to discover the world at the height of Portugal’s maritime power.
We also checked out the Game of Thrones-esque Belem Tower even though we didn’t get in as the line was long. At noon we had lunch and went back to Jeronimos Monastery at 1 p.m. and there was no line. There were only a few people in front of us, and we walked right in.
After the monastery, we went to St. George Castle back in Alfama and there was no line. We even bought the tickets there and there were only a few people in front of us.
There was no line at Quinta de Regaleira in the afternoon either.
Pena Palace was the only place that was packed both in the morning and afternoon. But the line moved fast for us as we bought the tickets online for 11 a.m., and we were there right around 11. We waited in line for about 15 minutes to get in and the line kept moving. Those who were there earlier than their scheduled entry time had to wait longer in another line.
The best view of the city is at St. George Castle in Alfama
I expected to find the Moorish ruins at Saint George Castle but didn’t expect such a nice view of the Lisbon rooftops and Atlantic Ocean. The castle grounds are vast and green and beautiful and I could stay there all day just to meander around. Right when you walk in on your left, there are food stalls with tables and chairs where you can have a drink and enjoy the view. I would not miss this castle.
If you’re taking a train to Sintra, read on
We wanted to see Pena Palace and Quinta de Regaleira in Sintra. As we didn’t have a lot of time, we originally planned to take Uber, but when we mentioned it to the hotel staff, they suggested we take a train as the station was five minutes from the hotel, it would get us there in 40 minutes, and it cost only 5 or 6 euros. I’m glad we took their advice despite some confusion later on.
The following morning, we followed our iPhone map app and realized the gorgeous building with a Starbucks at Rossio Square that we passed several times was a train station. We went up the escalator to get tickets, which you can get either at ticket machines or a ticket office.
As the line was a bit long at the ticket office, I tried the machine, but it was confusing as there was no option to choose a destination. I wanted to go to Sintra, but what I saw were buttons for various zones, single ticket, roundtrip ticket, and a few other things. I had no choice but to ask a fellow traveler for help. She pressed the roundtrip button, and I was even more confused as I hadn’t picked a destination. How would the machine know where I was going? Turns out, this Portuguese Gothic Revival building is a train station for trains to Sintra! It’s the station that serves the suburbs with Sintra as the final destination. If you want to go to other cities that are not on the way, you have to use a different station.
It was an easy 40-minute ride. We paid only 5 euros for a roundtrip ticket. An Uber ride would have cost us over 50 euros and taken 45 minutes or even longer.
On the way back to Lisbon, make sure you get on the train that says Rossio as there are trains to other stations in the Lisbon area. We took the one going to Lisbon Oriente thinking it meant Lisbon bound! Haha! We had to change trains to go back to the station where we could get a train to Rossio.
If you’re taking a taxi or Tuktuk, read on
When you get in a taxi, make sure the driver turns on the meter. We took a cab from the airport to the hotel and didn’t notice the driver never turned on the meter. By the time we got to the hotel, he told us the trip cost 55 euros when it was not supposed to be over 30. On our return trip to the airport, we asked the hotel to book us a taxi, and we paid only 29 euros with the meter on.
We also took a Tuktuk from Sintra train station to Pena Palace and were charged 20 euros each when it shouldn’t be more than 10 euros each. So don’t be like us. Negotiate or wait for the next one. I had no idea why I didn’t speak up even though I knew it was not the right price.
Also, try to get a bigger Tuktuk because Pena Palace is high up the mountain and it’s harder for a smaller Tuktuk with a smaller engine to go up the hill. And hang tight as there are a lot of swift turns. We had a blast though. It was hilarious trying not to fall off the Tuktuk as the driver did his best to maneuver the vehicle up the hill.
After our visit to Pena Palace, we looked for a Tuktuk or a cab to take us to Quinta de Regaleira. It was a bit tricky to get one as there was only a few waiting around and you had no idea when the next one would come. A Tuktuk that was there was taken, but the driver yelled out for another driver who could take us. His Tuktuk was parked at the nearby parking lot, not up front like other Tuktuks. Red flag number one. He also told us that he could drop us near Quinta de Regaleira and we had to walk 3 minutes on a flat surface. We thought a vehicle was not allowed at the entrance, and since we had no idea when the next Tuktuk was coming and a 3-minute walk was not bad, we agreed. The price was not bad – 10 euros per person. Maybe because his Tuktuk seated 6, he picked up another family of 3. We were okay with it as there was room and there were not a lot of Tuktuks around.
He dropped us off at an intersection and we walked about 10 minutes to the entrance, the last few minutes up the hill. There were cabs and Tuktuks all over at the entrance. It dawned on us that, for some reason, he might not be licensed to take passengers and so he couldn’t park where other Tuktuks parked and drop people off where other Tuktuks did. Interesting experience.
That’s it for now. I hope you find this post useful. Have fun in Lisbon!