With my mother approaching the grand age of 60 (and her first ‘age-hurdle’, as she puts it), my sister and I decided to throw a fabulous surprise trip in honour of her entry into the next decade. Considering her Irish roots, we thought we would take her back to her native homeland and get in touch with our own Irish heritage. There were, however, a few problems with this plan…
- Mum’s birthday falls in February so chances of rain in this part of the world were between 95 and 99%
- Mum was born in Belfast, aka very far from Dublin and all things interesting for a weekend break
Realising that our sentimental plan threw up a few difficulties, we realised it was time to reconsider and, despite the drawbacks of taking a holding in February, took a gamble and aimed for somewhere a little more exotic. After much dithering and discussion, we decided on Lisbon, as none of us had visited the city before and we believed that its position nearer to the equator might increase our chances of sunshine.
With nothing more than a vague note about waking before 6am on a Friday morning, my hyper-organised mother was forced to confront the reality that, for once in her life, the decisions were all down to her daughters and she had to simply sit back and enjoy the ride. Not until we arrived at Luton airport was she finally allowed into the big secret, opening her large birthday envelope to reveal a small Lisbon handbook tucked inside!
Our plane having landed, driving into Lisbon was quite the experience (particularly because, only the day before, I had been sat in a lecture learning about censorship in theatres in the 20th century). The familiar sights were there, typical in any European city: signposts for Maccy Ds and KFC, giant versions of our Holiday Inn. But as we travelled deeper into the heart of this magical city, our taxi driver speeding through the tiny, cobbled streets (causing my mum to literally grip onto the edge of her seat whilst sending Sophia and I panic eyes), I realised that we were in for a brilliant cultural experience.
This was our first time using the accommodation site Air B&B, and we were not disappointed. After searching through several apartments, we finally landed on Helena and her property nestled right in the heart of the city. It is difficult to find an apartment in the Bairro Alto district (this is definitely the place to stay if you want fun bars and restaurants, and perfect access to other parts of Lisbon) which is soundproofed, most of the negative reviews of properties in this area complaining about disturbances at night. Helena’s apartment promised close access to all attractions, despite being situated on a quieter street in the city. Although the location was perfect, we were disturbed on two of the three nights that we stayed there – once due to a house party, and the other time because of a rather loud dispute between neighbours at 5am! This issue, however, paled into insignificance when we were confronted by the beauty at our doorstep.
The cobbled streets (which, after a while, have a bit of a negative effect upon the feet) add such character to these interconnected winding streets, so sprawling that it is easy to get lost only a couple of streets from your own apartment! The iconic and colourful washing which hangs from almost every apartment in this area only serves to add character to a city already bursting with it. The iron railings supporting the balconies and the beautiful patterns adorning the tiled walls of every building, once again, specific to Lisbon’s architecture, completely disconnected me from the grey buildings of Nottingham – my university city. Even archaic gas lights could be found in a few of the older streets, transporting me to another time entirely (I’m thinking Victorian London).
Being active walkers, we made it our aim to see as much of Lisbon as was humanly possible in the three days we were there and, now speaking from experience, I can tell you that it is easy to cover a lot of ground when you have a map and a passion for hills. Initially making our way into the Chiado district, we quickly realised we needed to walk further afield to access the Lisbon advertised in the guidebooks. Chiado is perfectly pleasant, but only if you want to experience the commercial and walk past the shops you would find in any city in England (admittedly, there was a focus on the more European) with Zara and Mango being a couple of examples. We were set on making it to Alfama, the oldest district in Lisbon, and a close contender to Bairro Alto for our favourite part of the city. We began the steep incline and passed countless fado and wine bars, hidden among the tiny winding streets. Even the doors to these houses are worthy of comment, some being so tiny and brightly coloured that they wouldn’t have looked out of place in a child’s doll house collection. We passed wonderful churches, Catholicism being evident in the architecture, the murals and the rich, ornate church collections. The reward for our work out eventually came when we reached the very top and paid to enter the grounds of Castelo de Sao Jorge (bring your student card and you’ll get a discount!) Arriving nearer the end of the day, at about 5 in the afternoon, the light was beautifully dappled through the trees, a warm, rosy filter covering everything in the vicinity. The ruins are wonderful to explore but the real treat is experiencing the views of Lisbon. Purchasing some wine from a little cart – named ‘Wine with a View’ – we sat down on the wall and looked out over these views as the sun turned from bright yellow to a golden orange. The place is so magical, even peacocks can be found wandering through the ruins!
That evening, we made it our aim to hunt out a seafood restaurant which had brilliant reviews both online, and from our host Helena. Knowing that Cervejara Ramiro was near-ish to our apartment, and not afraid to do a little searching, we set out again with renewed energy. About an hour later, we were still searching. Completing what felt like endless loops of Rossio square, and after asking more than one confused Portuguese local, we eventually found the restaurant (I would advise getting a taxi unless you are certain it is near, or understand the area better than we did). But our wait for food did not end there – apparently we weren’t the only ones who knew this place was a real find. After queuing solidly for half an hour, we were eventually given a seat in this popular fish restaurant. Almost immediately a tablet was thrown at us with the lists of fish on offer and, not having been to a traditional seafood restaurant before and our sense of quantity being very confused, we struggled to gage how much we should order. Eventually settling for the crab, prawns in garlic sauce, king prawns and buttered bread with mayonnaise (eating the seafood med-style), we sat back and breathed a sigh of relief. This is not the place to come if you want lighting with ambience (we were sat under what can only be described as hospital lighting) and personal service (although our waiter did help mum with a hammer to get into a crab leg at one point)! The food was insanely delicious, and you could tell it had been captured straight from the sea that day. For brilliant quality and a fun experience, I would definitely recommend this restaurant. Just don’t expect to get in quickly unless you opt for a lunch service, as they don’t even offer a bookings option! Face the queue or expect disappointment!
The next day we finally decided to experience the historic tram 28 which takes you on a tour of the Bairro Alto, Chiado and Alfama districts. The rickety tram attracted a fair bit of attention from passers-by and it was nice to temporarily put my feet up before another long and exhausting day of walking. We headed to Praça do Comércio for a light lunch – avocado and cheese toasties and coffee with cream (Sophia had coffee with Nutella ice cream!) – and enjoyed relaxing in the sunshine, doing a spot of people watching. We then embarked on our biggest challenge of the holiday – walking along the beach front for an hour and a half in the blazing sunshine, in order to reach our final destination: Bélem. The walk itself was brilliant as we passed lots of different cafes and restaurants, a particular cluster by some docks being perfect for lunch as people relaxed on balconies, soaking up the sun rays. We passed lots of fishermen and cyclists and as we were entering Bélem, we approached the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, a monument celebrating maritime explorers. Bélem Tower is absolutely stunning in the sunshine and we sat back with some of Lisbon’s famous custards tarts, listening to a local guitarist playing by the attraction. Although Bélem has some interesting sites – the Jerónimos Monastery and lots of museums, beautiful gardens and palaces – for me, it was nothing on the Bairro Alto and Alfama districts; although, this is perhaps because we didn’t spend enough time here. After all this walking, it was time to collapse with a glass of red and some of the local sheeps cheese with bread rolls. The night spontaneously turned into a strange, rather sophisticated, bar crawl as we made the journey back. We hit one of Lisbon’s amazing sky bars, with stunning views over the waters and the statue of Christ the King in the distance (think Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio), which was brilliantly lit in the darkness. Although none of us are particular fans of beer, we ended up in the Museu da Cerveja, once again in the Praça do Comércio, and feasted on mussels and the region’s favourite dish, cod fish cakes, which are a must-try! As the clock struck 12 and we drunkenly sang happy birthday to my mum, glasses of champagne magically appeared. The perfect finish to a perfect day.
On our final day, we decided to sample every cuisine Lisbon had to offer us in one venue: the Mercado da Riberia. This can be reached on tram 15 which connects Bairro Alto and Bélem, or you could just walk, like us! Feeling a little worse for wear, mum opted for a mango juice drink but Sophia and I went straight for the sangria, made refreshingly with prosecco and red berries. From goat’s cheese crepes, to prosciutto, steak sandwiches and a variety of sweet treats, it is safe to say we gorged ourselves on everything the market had to offer – apart from seafood; we were still recovering from Cervejara Ramiro! From our walk the previous day, we returned to a sun trap beside the waterfront, with deck chairs laid out looking over the waters and the Ponte 25 de Abril Bridge, which looks something like San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.
For our final night we decided to explore the restaurant options in Bairro Alto, deciding against a fado restaurant (we experienced a little of this and realised that two hours of the music would be enough to have us all weeping) as these are often overpriced and are designed purely to draw in tourists. Instead we came across a packed out restaurant, down one of the tiny side streets, and were lucky enough to take the last empty table. It was by far my favourite meal in Lisbon and I would recommend it to anyone hoping to visit. The place is called Artisan and we had a mixture of cheeses and hams (definitely try this), along with potatoes in spicy sauce, prawns in garlic and, to round off the meal, we ordered more sheeps cheese! Add a couple of bottles of red and the evening was perfect, with ambience lighting and very attentive service. Just down the street was a wonderful jazz bar, the sounds of a saxophone escaping through an open window luring us into the vibrant and exciting atmosphere. The musicians were all extremely talented and I only wish we had longer to explore the area, and come across more hidden gems.
Lisbon was a brilliant choice for a weekend retreat and, as you can tell, we were able to explore so much in a relatively small amount of time. My top tips from the holiday would be:
- Steer clear of their cabbage soup
- Eat as much cheese as possible
- Drink as much wine as possible
- Walk everywhere and be prepared to get lost
Thanks for reading – Liv xxx