Portugal: Lisbon and the Algarve

For Jack’s birthday this year, as with mine, I planned and booked a secret holiday somewhere warm and European for a week, making our way to the airport & then handing him the vacation pack (itinerary & guide book). We were on our way to Portugal! After our trip to the Azores last year, we knew we wanted to bump it up our list.

Lisbon was just stunning. Easily among my very favorite European cities now. It’s a little reminiscent of San Francisco with its seven steep hills, climbing trolleys and tuk tuks (three-wheeled joke trucks), incredible food, pale pastels, even its own big suspension bridge over the estuary.

Among my favorite details are the homes entirely tiled over with azulejos (doesn’t just refer to the iconic blue tiled scenes), introduced by the Moors in the 15th century. I expected to see some tiled homes, but they are endless. The tiling isn’t just placed selectively – they cover whole facades. Just stunning.

We ran out of time before making it to the Museu Nacional do Azulejo (free on Sundays, a little outside the city).

The Rooster of Barcelos is an ubiquitous emblem of Portugal, representing an old story about a legendary dead rooster that came back to life to prove the innocence of a man who had been sentenced to death. Nowadays, Portugal’s dala horse.

The view from near the top of the Santa Justa Lift.

First meal: sardines in the Alfama from Pateo 13. Protip: don’t assume that everything on the menu is in season. The best time of year for sardines (and not the small, slimey canned sardines, but the fat, fresh flavourful ones) is in the summer: late May to early October.

One of the many lookouts over Lisbon (called miradouros). See the suspension bridge in the distance?

Another exterior feature worth visiting Lisbon to see: the incredible street art. This piece is a collaboration between Lisbon’s own Vhils (famous for his ‘etching’ style, he carves his art exposing brickwork and giving his pieces depth and texture) and Pixel Pancho.

Still overwhelmed by tiny, repeating patterns. Expect far more as you scroll…

A tuk-tuk for you!

Pretty, pink and peach Lisboa.

Outside the Lisbon Players, Shakespearian characters

These guys with yet more beautiful tiles.

Mr Hydration learning about Lisbon’s past.

Pre-dinner drinks in Barrio Alto at Majong, recommended to us by Jenny!

Where the walls are painted black and the lamps are all plastic cabbages. Cocktails are good, too, and extremely generous with their measures.

In commemoration (I think) of the Carnation Revolution in 1974 when a leftist military coup overthrew the fascist “Estado Novo” regime, establishing a democratic government. Seen in Barrio Alto.

Our first dinner was at Largo, which was excellent but maybe too fancy. There’s a 30-metre jellyfish tank in the restaurant! For me, the most memorable detail of the dinner was the tuna tataki. Holy mother of god. It was spectacularly good, like candy tuna. I couldn’t handle it.

Our second day, we got up early to take an hour-long train to Sintra, a picturesque, UNESCO World Heritage-listed site. The train (and ticketing) situation was a bit of a nightmare; if you’re planning a visit, get to the station early. Like 8 am. Avoid the masses of people that will have the same idea. Also, don’t bother using the ticket machines unless you have a ticket you’re toping up – they won’t issue a new one.

Get a combined ticket to see the Castelo dos Mouros and Palacio da Pena. There’s a lot to see, tons of hiking, and a huge botanical garden so if you want to get the most out of your visit, allow a lot of time to explore.

Looking out over the Castelo dos Mouros, constructed in the 8th and 9th centuries.

Tinned sardines in vintage packaging sold in slightly upmarket tourist shops.

Entering the Palacio da Pena, an old Romanticist castle which started as a monastery and was then transformed into a royal palace borrowing detail from Islamic and Medieval architectural designs.

I’ve got to hand it to this tile artist for producing easily the most brazenly insensitive repeating of tiny patterns. (Among my favorite tile moments, tbh.)

Look at that beauty! The facade of the Palacio da Pena in all its Disney-esque, palacial glory.

Probably peeping more tile patterns.

A little nod to my own house of dreams, the Alhambra.

A duck house! That little turret! A house for ducks!

My crappy cellphone pictures do this dinner of wonder zero justice. I booked an extra special dinner for us at 100 Maneiras where the chef, Sarajevo native Ljubomir Stanisic, prepared a set, 10 course meal of molecular gastronomy with a 5-glass wine pairing menu. It’s a bit pricier, and if it doesn’t yet have a Michelin star, it’s certainly listed and well on its way to receiving one.

The plates were small but creative, impeccable and delicious. The whole evening just felt so special. The experience stretched over four hours, and the service was exemplary. With only 32 seats in total, so you really have to make a reservation in advance.

A few token details for you about our meal: dehydrated cod chips on a tiny clothesline with coriander aioli and red pepper dip; mackerel three ways: foamed, dehydrated, and wrapped in the tiniest parcel; foie gras ice cream with mushroom crumble (!); carrot three ways: ice cream (!), syrup, and bebinca (some kind of Goan dessert). That is not even three of the courses for you. One of the pairings was a white port, which was surprisingly lovely, so we bought a bottle (Niepoort Dry).

The next day, we took a train out to Cascais, where the estuary turns out into the coast.

The view from our wonderful lunch perch at Baia De Cascais.

Cascais boasts three beaches, each very different. The one we found was a sandy bank with a volleyball net, overlooked by the main town square and some terrific seafood spots, but on our way out we passed another gem.

The days in and around Lisbon were gorgeous. 30+ degrees everyday, clear skies, an almost refracted sunlight anytime of the day.

On our way back to Lisbon from Cascais, we stopped in Belém to try the famous custard tarts from Pasteis de Belém. You’ll know when you’re there. The shop has a perpetually long line and when you get to the register, you can pay pennies for a few or get a little cardboard tube with tarts stacked on top. They give you little sachets of powdered sugar and cinnamon and serve the tarts while still warm from the oven.

In Belém is also this incredible old monastery, Jerónimos Monastery.

If you’ve ever visited Oxford colleges, think about them all having a giant baby of ornate, Baroque carviture.

For our last dinner, we had an immense treat. It’s only very recently that Cervejaria Ramiro started taking dinner reservations, and it’s only from 8 pm. There’s a long line stretching out in front of the restaurant (prepare to wait for hours if you don’t have a reservation), and for good reason. They specialize in seafood: shellfish, crustaceans, barnacles (have you ever seen the alien lifeforms that are goose barnacles? I couldn’t bring myself to try them), and that’s about it. You get a pile of buttered bread, a mallet and block, and a crab pick. Whatever you order, they’ll bring fresh (ie alive) to your table for confirmation.

We made our lives difficult by ordering a spider crab which meant significantly more fiddly legs to crack through, but it was delicious. Also shrimp and giant tiger prawns as big as a small lobster.

On our last morning, we made it to Convento do Carmo.

You can walk through the ruins of this remarkably well-preserved 18th century convent, a gothic church built in the 14th century! So incredible.

Just stunning

Oh hi there

Inside is a Portugese archeological museum, which is a bit … arbitrary. You have these stunning azelujos panels and other Portugese artifacts, but pretty much anything found on a Portugese-led archeological dig around the world goes. Including these two tiny, creepy Peruvian child mummies.

Goodbye beautiful, tiled Lisbon. Onto the Algarve…

From Lisbon, we took a (super long) bus down to the Southwest to visit the Algarve! Initially I had a perfect combination in my mind: three busy city break days of great food, culture, museums, sites, etc followed by 4 days of blissful relaxation on the wild coastline in the tiny beach coves and along the seaside cliffs.

On our first evening, we had a short break in the poor weather to take in the majesty of the broken Algarve coast.

Although weather conditions this time of year are almost guaranteed to be sunny and dry, there’s a small chance (4% chance or something) that you will have rain. If you are unlucky enough to have rain, it will be relentless, torrential, ruinous rain. That’s what we got!

Still excited to be in Lagos

Hello Praia Dona Ana beach.

Exploring Lagos on our first rainy day. The food highlight was cataplana: a seafood stew. They serve it to you in this bronze, hammered, double-sided wok type dish. I think it actually is just called a cataplana pan. One side with the stew, the other for shells as you work your way through mussels, clams and the softer exoskeletons of prawns.

Street artist: Add Fuel or Diogo Machado.

Donkeys along the cliffwalks

This time of year (early May) is ideal for wildflowers.

We had one glorious afternoon, which I’m grateful for. Cliffside walks are so much more enjoyable when you’re not getting wind-whipped.

At Ponta da Piedade, the Western-most point of mainland Europe.

Sea caves everywhere – heaven for kayakers.

These guys on Ponta da Piedade

Looking back towards Lagos

Sad to see all the sunchairs empty

Despite the bad weather, we were out exploring everyday around Lagos and the trails from Ponta da Piedade.

We never got to enjoy where we were staying, but on the very last morning the weather suddenly cleared – only long enough to share some pictures with you. If you ever find yourself planning a visit to the Algarve, we can recommend Uma Casa a Beira Sol.

A quiet, idyllic place about 20 minutes’ walk from Lagos and near beaches like Praia Dona Ana.

We’ll just have to return!

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