In many ways, Portugal is often overshadowed by its suave and much larger neighbor, Spain. But the country has a lot to offer, and the capital city of Lisbon is full of surprises.
Located on the coast, Lisbon is the oldest city in Western Europe. This distinction make it the perfect place to sample traditional food and customs in a modern environment. In reality, you need weeks to truly explore and get a feel for Lisbon, but if you only have two days, here is the perfect itinerary.
The view of Lisbon from St. George’s Castle. (Photo: Brittany Jones-Cooper)
Get up bright and early and revel in the quiet and serene nature of the city as you sip on espresso from a local vendor. After your hit of caffeine, jump in a taxi or take the trolley to the Alfama neighborhood —the oldest district of Lisbon. As you approach Alfama your eyes will immediately be drawn the prominent São Jorge Castle. The structure was built in the 6th Century, and served as a Moorish royal residence until it was captured by the monarchy in 1147. In addition to its historical importance, the castle also offers spectacular views of the city of Lisbon.
Wilfredo plays the guitar and will steal your heart. (Photo: Brittany Jones-Cooper)
While you’re in Alfama, take your time. Stroll down the streets, check out the architecture, and grab some of the hand-painted tiles made by local artist. The tiles can be seen on the facades of many buildings, adding to the beautiful and unique vibe of the city. If you’re lucky, you may even encounter a man named Wilfredo, a busker who plays Fado music in the area. He’s been playing the guitar all of his life, and listening to him strum on the guitar provides the perfect soundtrack for Lisbon. Grab some lunch, another coffee, and then head to the Arco da Rua Augusta.
Arco da Rua Augusta. (Photo: Brittany Jones-Cooper)
This arch was built to commemorate Lisbon’s reconstruction after the massive 1755 earthquake. Stroll down the Rua da Plata (Sliver Street) and take in the shops and stores, before reaching the arch. To the left, you can enter the arch, and pay two euro and walk up to the top. After scaling the winding steps, you’ll be met with beautiful views of Lisbon’s Baixa and Chiado neighborhoods. On the way back, walk down Rua Aurea for a similar and exciting stroll.
Ocean Sunfish. (Photo: Brittany Jones-Cooper)
The Lisbon Aquarium is the largest indoor aquarium in Europe and literally has something for everyone. The main exhibit is a massive tank that houses a wide variety of marine life that you never get to see in one place. You might assume that predators like sharks would be in their own tank, but here, they swim freely among schools of fish and stingrays. (The keepers feed the sharks regularly, so they don’t feed on other fish.)
But the real scene stealer is the Ocean Sunfish, a large odd looking creature that most closely resembles Chunk from The Goonies. It’s the heaviest known bony fish in the world weighing up to two tons, and we can assure you’ve never seen anything like it.
The Submerged Forests exhibition. (Photo: Brittany Jones-Cooper)
While you’re at the aquarium, make sure you visit the special exhibit entitled “Florestas Sumbersas” or Submerged Forests. As the largest nature aquarium the world, this stunning tank showcases 78 tree trunks from Scotland and Malaysia, more than 10,000 tropical fish, and 46 species of aquatic plants. It’s the brainchild of Takashi Amano, and features music by Portuguese composer Rodrigo Leano.
If you’re not exhausted from a day of exploring, there is one place to go to experience the nightlife in Lisbon —Barrio Alto. This neighborhood (which means Upper City), is home to countless bars and restaurants and is the perfect place to spend a night on the town. Take a cab to Largo de Camoes, and then duck down one of the the side side streets where you’ll be met with thousands of young people standing, conversingm and dancing in the streets. Fun fact: You can drink in the streets —so grab a beer in a plastic up, snag a space on wall, and people watch until your heart’s content.
A view of the National Palace of Sintra and the surrounding city. (Photo: Brittany Jones-Cooper)
Sintra is a town in Lisbon located about 18 miles from the city center. Sintra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is home to three royal castles and palaces that will transport you back in time. Your first stop should be the Sintra National Palace, a thousand year old structure that was used for centuries as a residence for the Portuguese royal family. The ceilings are ornate, the walls are decorated in beautiful tiles, and spaces like the “Coat of Arms” room will leave your jaw-dropped wide open.
The Moorish Castle overlooking the city Sintra. (Photo: Brittany Jones-Cooper)
Up the road you’ll find the Moorish Castle, a medieval fortress perched on top of the Sintra Mountains. The castle was built in the 8th and 9th centuries and offers stunning views of the city below. Archeologists have also been working to uncover historical findings around the castle including ancient burial grounds, tools, and other artifacts which are on display for visitors.
The color and romantic Pena Palace in Sintra. (Photo: Brittany Jones-Cooper)
But the real star of the show in Sintra is the majestic Pena National Palace. This colorful castle was constructed in the 19th Century by King Ferdinand and was built in the Romantic style of the time. The palace immediately demands your attention, boasting bright yellow, purple, and red walls —but the inside is just as magnificent. The palace served as a summer residence for the royal family, and walking through the dining room, noble room and kitchen shows just how grand and opulent the royal lifestyle was. As evening approaches, sit on the patio and gaze out on the same sun set as the kings who came before you.