A couple weeks back, I was lucky to be invited by the Portuguese National Tourist Office and the Lisbon Tourist Office to visit Lisbon over a gorgeously sunny weekend. It was my first actual trip there, though I had wondered before why Lisbon isn’t traditionally found on the list of Best European City Breaks. I’ve thought about this because my husband and I really aren’t very good at sitting still and so lay-on-the beach holidays, while heavenly sounding, end up feeling a little anticlimactic. We realize that is the point of a beach holiday, and it is exactly what we need, but curiosity tends to get the best of us and we usually opt for city breaks.
Paris, Rome, Berlin, Barcelona, Prague. When you think of city breaks from the UK chances are these are the cities that spring to mind. But after a few days in Lisbon, I’d like to argue the point that Lisbon should forever hold a place on that list.
First off, it’s a short two and a half hour flight from London. I flew TAP and while the airline doesn’t pull any punches as far as luxury goes, it was pleasant enough and quite affordable from London. The Lisbon airport is straightforward and transport to and from the airport is easy and cheap which in my opinion is one of the main factors that makes a successful city break. The last thing you want to spend your time doing in a new and exciting city is standing in front of maps for hours trying to work out how to get from here to there or spending a fortune on taxis as you’re inevitably at the driver’s mercy unless you know the language and the streets. The Metro in Lisbon is extremely well connected, reliable, and a ride from the airport to the city centre will only set you back about €1.25.
I arrived in the early afternoon and the first thing on the agenda was to head to the water. You learn very quickly that Lisbon is deeply connected to the water that surrounds it. Everyone I met was proud of the beaches – they spend an impressive amount of time there basking in the hot Portugal sun and they have impossibly dark tans to show for it. I spent a lot of time by the water as the majority of my trip was devoted to The Tall Ships Race 2012, an impressive collection of tall ships that gather every year for a race. The ports they stop in along the race change each year and this time Lisbon was a lucky second stop. The city made an entire weekend celebration around the event. Fair enough, too, the ships were incredibly beautiful and with half of each of the crews mandatorily between the ages of 15 and 25, it had an encouraging youthful spirit about it as well. It seemed as though the entire city of Lisbon turned out for it.
Lisbon has a very notable personality. It’s fun-loving, humble and totally laid back. The city doesn’t really come alive until well into the evening. Of the three dinners I had in Lisbon, none of them started before 9pm and the sit-down lunches I had each lasted at least 2 hours. Food and drink are very central to Portuguese life. On my short trip, I found that most of Lisbon happens around a table. There are great tourist destinations to visit (I recommend Jeronimos Monastery, Belem Tower, Berardo Museum, and MUDE, the design and fashion museum) but make sure to reserve a good amount of time on your trip to spend eating and drinking at different places in the city. This is most likely where you’ll meet interesting locals who will inevitably recommend other places you should go and things you should see.
One of the highlights of my trip was the time I spent in Sintra, a World Heritage Site about an hour’s train ride outside of Lisbon. With the Castle of the Moors overlooking the town and palaces to wander around to your heart’s content, it has a very special air about it. The architecture is stunningly woven into the natural environment of the area – the thick, deep green forests, the abundance of cork, the exotic plants that grow naturally in the area’s microclimate. The numerous monuments and archaeological remains range from many different eras and religions in a nod to the area’s cultural tolerance. The history in the air is palpable.
Soon after arriving, I was quickly ushered to Piriquita, an ancient family-run bakery famous for their queijadas, mini tarts filled with a sweet cheese, and travesseiros, ‘pillows’ of light pastry and sweet almond filling. I tried both and while the queijadas were nice, the travesseiros were heavenly. As a pastry devotee, I can say everything about the travesseiros from Piriquita is perfect and they can absolutely rival any pastries I’ve found in Paris or beyond.
I met Vera, the sixth generation of the Gomes/Cunha family to work in the bakery, which still stands in the same, small location on Rue Padarias 1/7 (Bakeries Street) in Sintra. Vera showed me around the bakery and how everything is still made by hand to her late grandfather’s insistence. He told his wife, Vera’s grandmother, that if she ever purchased an automatic funnel to fill tarts with the cheese filling, he would cut off his own fingers. This is a job meant to be felt, done with your hands. And to this day the pastry chefs at Piriquita spend twice the amount of time and dedication filling the queijadas by hand. When offered a large sum of money a couple years back to franchise Piriquita, Vera’s grandmother did not have to think about it. The answer was an absolute no. How could she make sure that a franchise miles away weren’t selling sub-standard pastries?
Vera explained how her grandmother has lived above the bakery her whole life and even now, towards the end of her long life, spends the middle of her day cooking lunch for the entire staff. It’s a tradition that has held through nearly 150 years of the Piriquita business and she intends to keep it going. “She rarely leaves the walls of this building, she only goes up to her home, or down to the bakery,” Vera says of her grandmother’s devotion to her family business. The staff is happy and just as dedicated to the pastries they mix, stretch, fold, and bake. In fact I noticed of everyone I saw in the few days I spent in Portugal, the bakers in the small, oven-hot Piriquita kitchen had the least impressive tans – a tribute to the long hours they spend inside providing Sintra and its many tourists with some of the best pastries in the world. A very noble sacrifice if you ask me!
On the way back to Lisbon from Sintra I made a stop over at Guincho Beach, famous for wind-surfing it’s also making a name for itself in the world of surfing. It’s a stunning beach, although if you’re bothered by wind, it’s probably not for you. However, in the baking Portugal sun it was welcomed by me. Without time to explore more beaches in Portugal, this taster at Guincho was enough to pique my curiosity and I’d love to do a trip up the coast to visit more. The ruggedness of the coastline was gorgeous and the vintage hotels and restaurants along the way were the perfect amount of civilization. The fact that a beach like this exists so close to Lisbon again makes me wonder why it’s not a more popular destination.
Back in Lisbon, I wished I had more time to explore and meet more of the locals. I had a flight to catch the next day, however, and was left without a downbeat thing to say. Everything from the people, the vibe, the food, the transportation, the natural world around it makes Lisbon, in my books anyway, the perfect city break.
*TAP Portugal, 0845 601 0932, flytap.com, flies up to seven times daily from Heathrow or Gatwick to Lisbon with one way fares starting at £45. Flights are also available direct from Manchester.
*The train from Lisbon to Sintra departs seven days a week every 30 minutes with single fares (zones 1 to 4) costing €2.35 for adults and €1.20 for children. To find out more visit www.cp.pt.
Words and photos by Erin Spens