Portugal: Friends Explore Lisbon and Beyond

Map by Newhouse Design

Two women from Texas are heading to Lisbon for a Portuguese-style birthday celebration with fado music, dancing, and a surprise dessert.

Interested in getting coached? E-mail us your questions—seriously, the more the better—to Letters@BudgetTravel.com.

To celebrate my 35th birthday, my friend Donna and I will be jetting to Paris and then on to Lisbon. While I've found an amazing amount of information about Paris, I could use some advice on Portugal. Can you help us plan our trip? Jennifer Moretti, Plano, Tex.

We'd like to take a walking tour of Lisbon to get a feel for the city, but we don't want to be with a huge group. Do you have any suggestions? Go with the tour operator Live Local Spirit. You describe what sort of experience you want—the top sightseeing spots, markets and shopping, or hopping nightlife—and it will tailor an itinerary to your needs. You can opt for either a "Friend for the Day" (a guide who accompanies you) or a personalized booklet with a list of places to visit, a calendar of Lisbon's cultural events, and a small dictionary of key Portuguese words and phrases (011-351/926-611-661, rentalocalfriend.com, half-day tours from $48, booklet $27).

Is there anything we should make sure is included on our tour? The Gulbenkian Museum houses one of Europe's most impressive art collections, with objects ranging from ancient Egyptian bas-reliefs to modern paintings (Av. de Berna 45A, 011-351/217-823-000, museu.gulbenkian.pt, $9.50).

The 16th-century Jerónimos Monastery, in the Belém neighborhood, is on the Tagus River, about four miles from the city center. Built over the course of 50 years at the height of Portugal's imperial clout, it's a stellar example of Portuguese architecture at its most Gothic and most ornate (Praça do Império, 011-351/213-620-034, mosteirojeronimos.pt, $8.25).

Not far from the monastery, be sure to stop at Antiga Confeitaria de Belém for a bica, or strong espresso, and a pastel de Belém, a scrumptious little custard-cream tart that was invented in Lisbon (Rua de Belém 84-92, 011-351/213-637-423, www.pasteisdebelem.pt).

For my birthday night, I'm thinking Donna and I will put on our little black dresses and go out for a nice dinner. Restaurante Flores in the Bairro Alto Hotel mixes Portuguese and Mediterranean flavors. The black grouper stuffed with peppers and chorizo is one of the standouts, especially accompanied by a crisp Alentejo white wine, such as Pêra-Manca. The passion-fruit bavaroise, a chilled custard drizzled with caramelized milk, would make a memorable birthday cake (Praça Luís de Camões 2, 011-351/213-408-252, bairroaltohotel.com, entrées from $8).

I love to dance, so that would be a fun way to end the evening. What would you recommend? Lisbon has a large Portuguese-African community with roots in Cape Verde, Mozambique, and Angola, and its music is a gorgeous blend of up-tempo and wistful. The best place to catch a show is at Cabaret Maxime's B.Leza nights, named for a famous Cape Verdean singer (Praça da Alegria 58, 011-351/213-467-090, cabaret-maxime.com, from $6.50). After hours, the in crowd dances to DJ music at LuxFrágil, a club co-owned by actor John Malkovich. When you're ready for a breather, the terrace has great views of the Tagus River (Av. Infante Dom Henrique, Armazém A, Cais da Pedra a Sta. Apolónia, 011-351/218-820-890, luxfragil.com, cover from $16.50).

Where should we go to hear fado music? Clube de Fado regularly showcases the famous passionately sung laments. The club is run by Mário Pacheco, a master of the Portuguese guitar, and it has a restaurant that serves crowd-pleasing Portuguese dishes like salted bacalhau, or cod (Rua S. João da Praça 94, 011-351/218-852-704, clube-de-fado.com, entrées from $25).

Donna and I hope to visit Sintra, Évora, and Coimbra. Should we buy bus tickets online or wait until we get to Portugal? You can buy your tickets at the station, but why go by bus? Trains here are far more comfortable and don't cost much more than buses. You can check schedules and prices at cp.pt, but you'll have to wait until you get to Lisbon to buy the regional tickets.

Any suggestions for what to see in these towns? Sintra, a summer retreat of the Portuguese kings from the 12th to the 19th centuries, is famous for its palaces and mansions. The most lavish is the Palácio da Pena, a pastel confection of soaring battlements and turrets that looks like a Disney castle. Check out the private chambers, left as they were when queen Dona Maria II and Dom Ferdinand II held court in the late 19th century: There are still palm fronds hanging over the queen's bed from her last Palm Sunday in Lisbon (Estrada de Serra de Sintra, 011-351/219-105-340, $11).

The ancient city of Évora, founded by the Romans, sits in the cork-oak plantations and olive groves of the central Alentejo plains. It was the seat of the royal family in the Middle Ages and has a string of imposing buildings dating from the 15th and 16th centuries, when Portugal was one of the most powerful countries in the world. The top attraction is the Templo de Diana, one of the best-preserved Roman buildings in the Iberian Peninsula (Largo do Conde de Vila Flor, free). And don't miss São Francisco Church—its chapel walls and ceilings are decorated with geometric patterns made from human bones (Largo 1 de Maio, 011-351/266-704-521, $2.75).

Évora is famous in Portugal for its red wines and hearty fare. While you're there, try the ensopado de borrego, lamb stew, and the bolo rançoso, a rich and sticky cake.

In Coimbra, medieval streets lined with town houses and cafés wind from the Mondego River up a steep hill that's crowned with the University of Coimbra. Peek in at the school's famous Biblioteca Joanina, whose gilded reading room is home to one of the largest collections of historic books in the world (Largo da Porta Férrea, 011-351/239-859-900, bibliotecajoanina.uc.pt, $8.25). And make a coffee stop at the gorgeous Café Santa Cruz, in a former chapel with arched art nouveau windows and a vaulted medieval interior (Praça 8 de Maio, 011-351/239-833-617). Coimbra is also famous for its fado, and there is nowhere more romantic to hear it than àCapella, a tiny theater in a half-ruined Gothic chapel at the crest of the hill (Capela de Nossa Senhora da Victória, Rua Corpo de Deus, Largo da Victória, 011-351/239-833-985).

Our friends can't wait for their gifts. What can we bring home that says Portugal? It is almost impossible to walk around Lisbon and not succumb to a few of the gorgeous azulejos, the ceramic tiles that blanket monasteries, churches, and residences. Aleluia Cerâmicas has a great selection of hand-painted reproductions and contemporary designs (Largo do Intendente 25, 011-351/218-852-408).

You also can't go wrong with a few bottles of wine. Look for Douro, a full-bodied, complex red with notes of cherry. And Cálem ports are always a safe bet. The best are the vintage ports, which are only produced in exceptional years, such as 1983 or 2000. You can also find white ports, which are sweet and tangy—and difficult to find outside of Portugal. Two liquor stores in downtown Lisbon—Napoleão (Rua dos Fanqueiros 70, 011-351/218-861-108, napoleao.co.pt) and Manuel Tavares (Rua da Betesga 1, 011-351/213-424-209)—stock a broad selection.

Music buffs on your list will love the way Portugal's contemporary artists combine traditional genres like fado, Brazilian bossa nova, and Celtic folk with modern electronica and rock. A few names to get you started: Sara Tavares, a second-generation Cape Verdean; instrumentalist Rodrigo Leão; and Madredeus, a band whose sweet, melancholy melodies are the subject of Wim Wenders's 1994 film Lisbon Story—the perfect movie for you and Donna to watch together when you get home.

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