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72 Hours of City Break in Portugal

72 Hours of City Break in Portugal

by Manish

The moment the topic of Europe comes up, from a travelling perspective, the first few countries that generally spring to mind are Spain, France, Greece and Italy. The mental image could be of the scores of tourists aiming to either support or take down the leaning tower of Pisa for the perfect photograph, the pristine beaches of the Greek islands, the embodiment of romance – the Eiffel tower, or the flamenco dance and the bullfights traditional to Spain. But beyond these iconic destinations lies a city hiding in plain sight, ready to join the majors.

Lisbon, a city built on seven hills is a charming and surprisingly blissful city, residing on the eastern coast of Portugal. Typically, a capital city is swamped with over-enthusiastic tourists and the locals tending to the visitors but Lisbon, on the other hand, stimulates the feeling of exploring a beautiful small town. A tourist can expect to cover all the bases desired from an entire trip in and around the city of Lisbon.

Lisbon skyline

Lisbon, at its magnificent best

To capture all that a city has to offer in a short three-day getaway, the accommodation you choose will be of extreme significance. Baixa and Chiado are two connected areas that are an ideal starting point.

Begin your first day in Lisbon by taking a stroll around two quite lively, yet extremely contrasting neighbourhoods. The first of the two, Baixa, pioneered the grid-and-lock city design over two and a half centuries ago. Baixa, considered to be the city centre of Lisbon, is the area extending from Avenida de Liberdade right up to the banks of River Tagus. Here, you’ll come across admirably constructed boulevards and plazas attracting the bulk of the tourists along with exquisite street performers.

Two of the most iconic plaza’s in Lisbon are in the Baixa region – Praça do Comércio and Rossio square. While the former is a majestic piece of architecture right on the river banks, the latter is the heart of Lisbon.

Rossio Square in Lisbon, Portugal

Rossio Square

Just a short walk from Baixa, you’ll find yourself in a retro mode in the Alfama district. Primarily, the district is the old town of Lisbon that in the past housed the lower segments of the society. In recent times, Alfama has been revitalised and is now an upbeat area with a heavy dose of ancient charm. The cobbled and mazy streets stretch from the banks of the river to Castelo Sao Jorge, the Lisbon castle, which besides its historical significance duplicates itself as an ideal spot for a blissful city view. During your time in Lisbon, you will come across several vantage points with great city views. Since the city is built on an angle, plenty of houses also boast a respectable terrace view. But the district of Alfama boasts one of the finest and relatively unknown vantage points – Miradouro Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen. Overlooking the Lisbon castle and the entire central segment of Lisbon, this spot is essentially a must-see.

From one must-see spot to a must-do experience – Tram no. 28. For a minuscule charge of €2.90 (€6.15 for an all-day pass including all modes of transportation), you will trapeze through the Alfama district in a Remodelado tram that was integrated into the city over 8 decades ago. The tram is a favourite amongst tourists and deservedly so, as it glides past the northern Baixa region towards Alfama wherein it covers touristic hubs like Se Cathedral and Santa Luiza viewpoint.

Tram No. 28 in Lisbon, Portugal

Tram No. 28

The tram, heading towards the city will lead you to the districts of Chiado and Bairro Alto, two areas allied with each other. Chiado, formerly a centre for intellectuals and struggling artists alike, is now a hub for shopping enthusiasts along with plentiful boutique coffee houses. ‘Café a Brasileira’ is the name that comes up trump amongst the cafes. Chiado is also home to Lisbon’s finest theatres, whether it be specialist shops or street acts, chances are you will leave awestruck.

The liveliness found in the Chiado district during the day transcribes into liveliness in the Bairro Alto district at night. To put it simply, the nightlife of Lisbon is at Bairro Alto. Head over to this district in the late evening for the loud blaring music or the soul-rendering Portuguese music – Fado, while sipping the famous local cherry-infused drink called Ginjinha.

Once your feet are off the bed in the morning, head straight towards the west, to the Belem district. Historically, Belem was the prime housing location for the elite society and was the focal point of voyages from its ancient harbours. In today’s world, it has been culturally transformed into a highly picturesque district displaying its glorious history in several forms. In a 2 km radius, you will find yourself immersed deeply into the Portuguese culture and history, so much that spending the entire morning and afternoon is a given.

Starting from the banks of the river, there is the Torre de Belem (Belem tower), primarily built to safeguard the city from sea raids. While the structure seems regal from the exterior, the interior isn’t the finest touristic experience and can be given a skip. Walk along the river bank towards the Padrao dos Descobrimentos monument (Discoveries monument), a rigid structure that aims to highlight the significance of the glorious Portuguese era of voyaging & discovering distant locations. The monument also possesses an observation deck that overlooks the entire Belem district.

Torre De Belem

Torre De Belem

On the opposite side of the road is the Berardo Collection Museum in the Belem Cultural Centre. The cultural centre is the centre stage for any events featuring opera performances and ballets, and the museum is home to the private art collection of Joe Berardo, featuring nearly 2,000 art installations. The museum, with free entry, is an art enthusiast’s dream. Just a stone’s throw away from the centre is Europe’s largest plaza, Jardim da Praça do Império. The plaza is surrounded by lush greenery with an exquisite water fountain set in the middle.

Jardim da Praça do Império

Jardim da Praça do Império

Lisbon plays host to quite a few quirky museums, like the National Azulejo Museum, a museum dedicated to the intricate manufacturing techniques used for tiles. In the Belem district, there are two such museums – Museu Nacional dos Coches, a museum dedicated to ancient carriages and other horse-drawn vehicles from centuries ago and the Museu da Marinha, a museum highlighting the maritime history of Portuguese and featuring vintage ships and equipment.

Saving the best of Belem for the last, head over to Pasteis de Belem, a café set deep in Portuguese history. The bakery, operating for 180 years now is the home of the customary Portuguese sweet-dish, Pasteis de Nata, a custard tart with cinnamon sprinkled atop. A trip to Lisbon is incomplete without devouring the pastry.To savour the memories in the future, ignore the long lines outside the café, listen to the story of the café (sells over 30,000 pastries a day) while you indulge yourself into the tart before taking home additional boxes.

Pasteis De Nata @ Pasteis De Belem

Pasteis De Nata @ Pasteis De Belem

North-west to the Belem district lies the Estrela district, a calm and serene neighbourhood with a majestic church built by Queen Maria I. Built by the Queen as an homage to her successful prayers for a male heir, the Basilica da Estrela is strikingly beautiful from the exterior as well as the interior. The church stands atop one of the seven hills of Lisbon, making it an imposing structure to witness as well as providing picturesque city views from its dome. On the other hand, the black and pink marble used for the interior provides an added layer of intricate beauty to the basilica.

For the latter end of day two, head over to Mercado Da Ribeira, a dome-shaped marketplace in Cais do Sodre. Branded under the Time Out name, the market is now dominated by roughly three dozen food stalls offering a wide variety of options to chomp on. From regional delicacies like Azeitao sheep’s cheese, Alentejo ham and pasteis de nata, to Asian cuisine, the fresh food market is a food haven. To wind down the night, Baixa, with its boutique cafes with soothing music and Bairro Alto with its deafening music will be waiting with arms wide open.

Technically the itinerary suggested for day three would contradict a pure city break in Lisbon, but a trip to the Portuguese city would be amiss without a day trip to two exquisite, yet contrasting destinations. If a relaxing day on a sun-kissed beach followed by a visit to the casino James Bond’s Casino Royale was filmed at piques your interest, Cascais awaits you. On the other hand, if you would rather visit a castle so beautiful that it seems like one created by Disney, the must-visit destination is Sintra.

A journey of just over half an hour from the Baixa-Chiado train station is what separates the charming Lisbon from the royal town of Sintra. The town is a fairy tale brought to reality, credited to the nature of the elitists in vintage times to escape the city for the mountainside. The result is a petite town with at least 10 national monuments, including an imposing castle, glamorous gardens, ancient ruins and the picture-perfect Pena palace. The best way to trapeze your way around the town is to take the bus number 434. In the short time in Sintra, you should cover four spots at least – the town centre which offers a multitude of eateries, the Moors Castle, the National Palace and the Pena Palace. Besides the beauty of these out-worldly structures, the Pena Palace and the Moors Castle also offer exquisite views, sights to behold.

Pena Palace

Pena Palace

The municipality of Cascais is a reposeful destination, where you could while away the day relaxing on the pleasant beaches. Cascais, similar to Sintra is just a short train ride from Lisbon, and thus, is another extremely popular getaway for the locals. It has two beaches, each polar opposite to the other. Firstly, there is the family friendly beach with a coastal promenade extending to the East and on the other hand is Guincho, a premier surfing location with the Sintra mountainside in the backdrop. Close to the Cascais beach is the Casino Estoril. After strolling around the Cascais town centre and before heading to Lisbon, drop by the now-famous casino for a glimpse into the prestigious location chosen for James Bond.

Cascais sunset

Cascais

To further complicate your travel plans, there is always the option to mix and match. Geographically, Cascais is just south of Sintra. If there is a will to cover two contrasting touristic destinations in a day, head down the mountains in a bus to the coastal town or vice versa. Wouldn’t it be a day to cherish if after wandering around the vibrant Pena Palace, you watch the sunset lying on a sun-bed in Cascais?

While by no means is Lisbon an unearthed gem, the multi-faceted city is relatively dwarfed by the European powerhouses. Lisbon is a city that you can satisfactorily cover in three days but will leave you wanting more. In terms of a diverse touristic experience, you will not come across better destinations.

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