portugal travel guide: first-timers’ guide to lisbon

Last summer, when I came across the deal on Travelzoo for a trip to the Canary Islands and Lisbon, the idea grabbed me right away, but my dubious husband required a bit of convincing that this was a trip worthy of our limited vacation time. (If you know me at all, though, you know that once I set my mind to something, I usually make it happen!) If you’ve read my last handful of posts about our experience in Gran Canaria, you know that while I was glad we went and explored the island, I have no strong desire to return; I feel like we saw everything there was to see. We did not feel that way about Lisbon, however—we didn’t have nearly enough time there, and I dream of going back. I feel like we saw and did a lot in the two days that we were there, but we really just scratched the surface of this magnificent country. Of all the counties I’ve visited in the last five years, Portugal lands at number two on my list of favorites, bested only by Italy. Why? Because it’s got the trifecta—the people are super friendly, the food is heavenly, and it’s freaking beautiful. After spending some more time in Portugal (one day hopefully in the not-too-distant future), who knows, maybe it’ll even inch its way into the number one spot!

The novelty of the great american disaster

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On our first night in Lisbon, what did we do? Oh, yes, we went and had good ol’ American food at a restaurant called the Great American Disaster. I know what you’re going to say—Ashley, you’re an American, you can have American food any day of the week, and I am 100% in agreement. However, the hubs wanted a burger, I was getting quite hangry, and the highly-rated places near our hotel were booked up—which was just poor planning on my part; I take full responsibility (but how was I to know?! saving those places for next time!).

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It was the name of the place—the Great American Disaster—which drew his attention. (Plus good reviews on Yelp.) There was something very strange and novel about being overseas and sitting down in a ’50s-style diner, complete with black-and-white checkered floor, red and aqua patent-leather booths and chairs, vintage posters, and lots and lots of neon. And, admittedly, the burgers and milkshakes we imbibed were tasty. Were they ah-mazing? Not really, but they were satisfying. If you find yourself away from the States and craving familiar comfort food, then it’s worth stopping in. But after experiencing the other food Lisbon had to offer, I regret eating there, especially given the small amount of time we had to eat quality Portuguese food!

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brunch at leitaria

On our first full day in Lisbon, we decided to hit the farmer’s market first, and, feeling energized and excited for the day ahead of us, we decided we would walk there. It was maybe three miles’ walking distance from our hotel, and the route would take us right through the neighborhood of Chiado, which is famous for its brightly-tiled homes.

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We got to the farmer’s market just as vendors were beginning to open, and being a typical American, I was hankering for some breakfast food, so we decided to head to a nearby restaurant called Leitaria before diving fully into the market. You guys, this was the cutest little shabby-chic place ever, everything white and baby blue and rustic wood pallets and crates. I had freshly-squeezed orange juice (which is one of my favorite things ever), the hubs had a freshly-squeezed berry juice of some kind, and we both had eggs, bacon, and fresh bread with the best freaking jam I’ve had in my life. (If we could have brought some home with us, I would’ve; but, alas, TSA frowns upon you bringing fruit and vegetable goods into the States…) We also got this sugar pastry with a creamy filling— which melted in my mouth and was complete heaven. The Portuguese love their sweets, and they do them very well, let me tell you!

mercado da ribeira

After our morning fortification, we walked back into Mercado Da Ribiera, which is the oldest and largest food market in Lisbon (its first reference dates back to 1100, but it moved to its current location on the water in the late 1800s; renovations began in 2010 and the new Time Out Lisbon opened in 2014).

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Inside, there are dozens of vendors offering fresh goods: stall after stall featuring fresh fish that they descale right there; fresh flower stalls; food vendors selling classic and unique delicacies and samples of ginja, Lisbon’s traditional cherry liqueur; folks selling their unique handmade goods made from cork, local jewelry celebrating the blue-and-white tiles Lisbon is famous for, and colorful hand-crafted puppets for children; and, of course, various stalls packed with souvenirs.

We walked away from that place laden with bags of souvenirs for us and our loved ones: a super-unique bag made from cork, two bottles of wine, a bottle of olive oil, two jars of honey, and a necklace featuring a swallow (a traditional symbol of Lisbon)—and were all surprisingly reasonable in price!

castelo de sao jorge

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We caught the bus back to our hotel to drop our soviets off before heading out to Castelo Da Sao Jorge (or St. George’s Castle): the castle features a 360-degree view across the city and is the perfect place to watch a sunset (or so I’ve read). We were there about midday, it was steadily raining, and we couldn’t see very far in the sea of terracotta Spanish-tiled roofs, but that didn’t dampen our spirits!

We jumped on the underground to the closest stop, but from there, it was about a 45-minute trek uphill to get to the Moorish castle. It had all the stereotypical castle-y things like a drawbridge and turrets and what I can imagine is a beautiful view of the water on clear days. We spent a couple hours exploring the castle’s different nooks and crannies, snapping photos, and sometimes, just sitting and taking in our surroundings.

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From there, we wound our way downhill through tiny little alleyways to get to Miradouro das Portas do Sol, which many argue is the most picturesque view in the city. We grabbed a quick lunch and sangrias while the rain petered out and we took in the view of the port where a couple of cruise ships were docked. It was a pretty, though, foggy view, not quite as picturesque as I was imagining, but I’ve seen pictures of the view when the sun is out, and it is stunning.

Afterward, we headed back to our hotel to freshen up before our dinner tour with We Hate Tourism Tours, which I’ll tell you all about in next week’s post!

Have you been to Lisbon? What was your favorite site? Tell me in the comments—they’ll go on the list for our next trip out there (whenever that may be)!

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Portugal Travel Guide | First Timers' Guide to Lisbon

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