Just Back From... a Whirlwind Week in Portugal

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Newly engaged Washington, D.C., couple Jenny Sullivan and Matt Seiler spent just over a week in Lisbon and Porto touring castles, exploring neighborhoods, and dining alfresco.

Great local meal... Chapitô, in Lisbon's Alfama neighborhood. This unassuming alfresco restaurant doubles as a circus training school and has breathtaking views over the tiled rooftops of Lisbon. We ate here on our first night and enjoyed some of the best calamari and octopus [PHOTO] we've ever tasted, not to mention a whole grilled fish. Rua da Costa do Castelo 7.

Wish we'd known that... Our Spanish would be absolutely useless! We're both proficient in Spanish, and we thought it would help. Not so! Portuguese is a language unto itself (disabuse yourself of any notions that it resembles other romance languages), and we completely botched it. Despite considering ourselves fairly savvy when it comes to communicating abroad, we found that we were better received when we expressed ourselves in English, bookended by many por favors and obrigados, of course.

Our favorite part... The tram from downtown Lisbon to Belém. As with any vacation, it's hard to pick just one favorite part, but Belém, a historical harbor, was a great place to visit—plus, lots of attractions that usually require admission are free on Sundays. We walked along the waterfront, checked out a monument to the explorers [PHOTO], toured a 16th-century castle (Torre de Belém), strolled around the beautifully restored Jerónimos monastery [PHOTO], and surveyed the neighborhoods nearby, including a truly spectacular city garden. Afterward, we treated ourselves to the famous pastéis de Belém (custard tarts) and Super Bock beer. [PHOTO]

What we should have packed... An extra bag to bring home souvenirs. Portugal was full of wonderful things to buy for friends and family: hand-painted ceramics and tiles, port wine aplenty, olive oil, things made from cork, things made from leather, traditional Portuguese linens, delicious chocolates filled with the national liquor made of fermented cherries (ginjinha), and anything you can imagine with the good-luck rooster Barcelos on it. The list goes on and on....

Worth every penny... The Lisbon Oceanarium. [PHOTO] We ventured up to this newer part of town (the Parque das Naçõs) on our last day in Lisbon and were impressed with the state-of-the-art aquarium's conservation and sustainability work. In a country known the world over for its love of salt cod, it takes some guts to operate an aquarium dedicated to introducing people to more sustainable alternatives to the national favorite! The aquarium is divided into four parts (one for each of the oceans), which are united by a massive central column full of ocean life from around the globe. We were truly awestruck throughout our visit by the regal-looking puffins, the spirited penguins, the constantly grooming sea otters, and, of course, the thousands of fish. It was a true delight and one of the best aquariums we've ever visited. The surrounding neighborhood is also an architectural attraction unto itself, with plenty of great places to grab lunch or a beer after a morning at the oceanarium.

Never again... Will we fly Iberia. We missed one connection on the way to Lisbon and nearly missed another on the way home for what appeared to be a general lackadaisical attitude toward schedules. Iberia also insists on booking closer connections than the average person can pull off—we ran from one end of the Madrid airport to the other, full-tilt, on two occasions, trying to make connections. Our bags did not make it home with us; they arrived (thankfully!) a few days later.

Fun surprise... Touring the port cellars in Porto. We visited the Sandeman Cellars [PHOTO], and for a cool €4 ($5), we got a well-narrated tour by an English-speaking guide, dressed in the traditional black cloak and hat. Plus, a free tasting after the tour is included; we sipped on tawny and ruby ports. [PHOTO] The gift shop is also worth a stop.

Total rip-off... The extra entry fee into Pena National Palace in Sintra. This isn't publicized well, but you don't need to pay admission to walk around the Pena gardens, which are delightful and well worth a stroll through. You can even walk right up to the palace and go to the gift shop without paying admission. The outside of the palace looks neat, but the inside is nothing special. As for sights that are worth the price of admission, we'd pick the National Palace in Sintra and the Moorish Castle [PHOTO], which rivals Belém as our favorite place we visited in Portugal.

Moment when things got tense... Getting from the train to our hotel in Porto. After a long train ride up from Lisbon, we arrived in Porto—all our luggage in tow—but were determined to use public transportation. Let's just say it got the best of us. The Metro system is useless in downtown Porto; we got as close as we could to our hotel and still ended up walking about 15 minutes up and down steep hills and cobbled sidewalks in the hot afternoon sun. In the end, we gave up and took a cab—that circled the block and gave us the "gringo rate," so to speak. Learn from us: When you get tired of walking in Porto, TAKE A CAB.

Overrated...The flea market near the Castelo in Lisbon—the Feira da Ladra. Despite receiving rave reviews online and in guidebooks, this was nothing more than a sprawling flea market with people selling their old clothes, random machinery parts, and bootleg CDs. There's far too much going on in Lisbon to waste your time here.

We're still laughing about... How gosh darn CLEAN the public bathrooms were, everywhere we went. From retail shops to fast food restaurants—even the train station (!)—the bathrooms in Portugal were the cleanest, most well-tended facilities we've ever had the pleasure to use. Plus, they were always free. Sounds minor, but to have sanitary bathrooms nearby really put us at ease and let us focus on the things we came to see.

Hotel we liked... Both the Zenit Lisboa in Lisbon and the Eurostars Das Artes in Porto were outstanding. The Zenit is near the Metro system, and the staff was courteous—we got a room with a Juliette balcony, perfect for enjoying alfresco snacks and vinho verde after a long day hitting the city streets. The Das Artes is in a great little arts district about 15 minutes from the riverfront in Porto, near excellent shopping and restaurants. We were newly engaged (and not afraid to announce it), so the staff sent up complimentary champagne and fruit on our first night. A touch of class never goes out of style!

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