How many people do you know who’ve recommended visiting Lisbon? I’m betting you can count the number on one hand, or maybe even no hands. My parents visited Portugal a couple of years ago and suggested we check it out at the tail end of our trip. What really clinched it though was frequent flier miles. We were willing to fly out of Lisbon, Madrid or Barcelona within a one week range before Christmas. Lisbon had flights available, so that’s where we headed!
I really didn’t know a single thing about the city before we decided to go there. The day before we arrived, I started doing some internet research and was pleasantly surprised with what I found: Roman ruins, a castle, San Francisco like trams on hills, and the home of one of my new favorite pastries. Combine the great sights with good public transportation, a walkable city center, and amazingly mild December weather, and I fell in love with Lisbon.
Let’s start with the old stuff – the ruins. Hidden underneath the Millennium BCP bank in the center of the city is an amazing, and FREE, archaeological site. While trying to build an underground parking structure, the bank discovered layers of ruins – Muslim, Roman, and then Iron Age. Escorted by multi-lingual curators on the hour, you can visit this incredible site and learn everything you need to know to get you caught up on Lisbon’s ancient history. After that, the Castelo do Sao Jorge, will catch you up on the rest of the history while offering great views of the city, and most importantly, peacocks! Peacocks just make everything cooler in my opinion.
As far as new stuff goes, Lisbon’s got plenty. Almost the entire city was wiped out by an earthquake, tidal wave, and fires in 1755, meaning that most of what you can see today is new by European standards. Streets are in nice grids, monuments are neatly arranged, and public transportation is actually logical and plentiful. The hilly neighborhoods with their trams could easily be transported from San Francisco (there’s a bridge that looks like the Golden Gate bridge too.) Great restaurants with traditional Portuguese dishes and newer fusion cuisines abound. And ocean lovers like myself can enjoy the Oceanário, a truly modern aquarium built from scratch for the 1998 Lisbon World Exposition. I missed the manta rays in the Maldives, but found them in Lisbon!
Perhaps the most enjoyable thing about Lisbon though, is the egg tarts. You may have come across these delicious little gems in Asia or Asian restaurants, but they’re a Portuguese export and their story begins just a few tram stops west of Lisbon’s center. My sweet tooth demanded a pilgrimage to their home, Casa Pastéis de Belém, and was not disappointed. Fresh from the oven, these were the best pasteles I had, and I tried A LOT. In my quest to find the best egg tarts, I ate about five each day from different shops that all claimed to have the best. (I take my job of informing my blog, Instagram, Facebook, and Tripadvisor followers about the best desserts VERY seriously. I eat the bad desserts so you don’t have to!)
I may have enjoyed Lisbon so much because I arrived with no expectations. It surpassed my non-existent expectations brilliantly, in every non-existent category. But mostly, I think it’s because Lisbon is a great little city, filled with all the history and culture you would expect in any other European capital. It just happens to be one of the few that’s not on most American’s vacation radar, which is a shame because it’s the closest, one of the least expensive, and has peacocks and egg tarts. What more could you ask for?