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Secret Lisbon

As one of the oldest cities in the world, Lisbon is located on the western coast of the Iberian Peninsula where the Atlantic Coast meets the Tagus River is the ninth most visited of Southern European cities. With a colorful history that includes Roman, German & Moorish influences Lisbon offers many reasons to visit. 

Lisbon is Portugal’s hilly, coastal capital city. The old cities’ pastel buildings, Roman ruins, Moor Castles, stunning views, the local Atlantic beaches, beautiful weather, fantastic gastronomy, the Fado Houses of the Bairrio District and to top it all off, the active nightlife. As a destination she already has so much to offer.  

You can easily spend your day visiting the menu of historic and storied castles, exploring the vibrant local markets, riding the historic trolley or visiting the many museums. But if you are looking for some of the Lisbon’s “Secret” visits, here are 10 of our top lesser known worth seeing recommendations, Read on:

Misteiro dos Jeronimos 

Formally known as the Royal Monastery of Saint Mary Belem, was built beginning in the early 15th Century by King Manuel I, the building process took 100 years, which can be seen in the detail of the facility which was inhabited as an active religious complex until the 19th Century. 

It is not surprising that the monastery is Internationally recognized for the structure, the cloisters, the refectory and the library which can all still be seen today. The Manueline rich architecture and decor (as it is referred from the influences of King Manuel I), is seen throughout the complex and is considered both one of the most fantastic Portuguese churches and also one of Europe’s most notable. 

The site is noted for her design encompassing ornamental columns, statues and facade paintings, but the magnificent church hall and the silver ornamental tabernacle are one of the most beautiful in Europe. A Portuguese national monument and also a UNESCO World Heritage site, the monastery can be found in Lisbon’s historical sea-faring, Belem District overlooking the River Tagus. 

Padrao Dos Descobrimentos

The Monument of the Discoveries also located in the Belem District of Lisbon is a symbol of the historical achievements of Portugal’s Age of Existence throughout her lifetime. Originally designed in the 1940’s for the Portuguese World exhibition, as a temporary display, the 184 foot statue was reconstructed in 1960 as a permanent memorial for the anniversary of the death of Portugal’s most notable contributor and main statue, Prince Henry the Navigator who was instrumental in the maritime discoveries and expansion of Portugal throughout the world.  

The location of the structure is of important significance for its location where the River Tagus meets the Atlantic Ocean. This is the location where many ships departed during the 15th and 16th Centuries during Portugal’s Age of Discovery when expansion was key. 

The two sided display features 33 statues helmed by Prince Henry the Navigator holding a ship with others each holding an identifying artifact signifying their contributions to Portuguese exploration. You will find notable characters like Ferdinand Magellan who was the first explorer to circumnavigate the globe holding the world and Vasco da Gama holding a sword, who discovered the sea route to India among other explorers, sea captains, missionaries, writers, poets, royals, pilots and navigators who were all dedicated to the Portuguese act of discovery. 

From the middle of the monument visitors can climb steps to a platform with views of the river and the area that surrounds you. Below the statue a cultural museum was designed featuring an exhibition hall and auditorium. 

Alfama

One of the highlights of visiting Lisbon is walking the medieval neighborhood streets and alleys of the historical districts. The Barrio Alto is the most notable for its traditional Fado quarter but seeing the town of Alfama is a must for the full Lisbon experience. Like a small village within the larger Lisbon city center Alfama offers many opportunities for snapping photos of the colorful homes, the Lisbon Cathedral, small city squares and narrow hilly streets that back up to the picturesque area where the Tagus River empties into the Atlantic Ocean. 

Originally settled by the Romans, Alfama played an important role as both the old Jewish Quarter and as a central town originally designed by the Moors. Set below St. George castle which looms above, many of the buildings have been repurposed as hotels and gentrified apartments. 

The magic of visiting the area is to see the 11th century Castelo de S. Jorge and the beautiful views from above before aimlessly wandering the streets indulging in the views, visiting the Lisbon Cathedral and immersing in the local culture of the residents who live here. 

Parque Eduardo VII 

Considered Lisbon’s “central park” the 64 acre location offers so much more than beautiful green space to stretch out and relax in the perfect Portuguese weather. 

Well located in Lisbon’s city center the park stretches from the popular shopping boulevard of  Avenida da Liberdade down to Pombal Square with a roundabout featuring the statue of the 1st Marquis of Pombal that connects many of Lisbon’s busiest thoroughfares. 

One of the highest points in central Lisbon, the top of the park features panoramic views of the city. The cultured hedge maze attracts visitors to lounge in its shade while having a picnic or reading a book. However there are many opportunities for enjoying the shade from one of the benches or picnic tables found throughout the park. 

If you are traveling with young children, the park offers playgrounds, a pool and has a sports complex that is popular with the locals. You will also find the Estufa Fria a 3 ½ acre greenhouse with three separate gardens to explore and further enjoy the outdoors.  

Miradouro da Senhora do Monte

View from Our Lady of the Hill Church

Our Lady of the Hill church offers some of the highest panoramic perspective with a birds eye view across central Lisbon, the Castelo (São Jorge Castle) in the distance, the Bairro Alto historic district below, the Ponte de 25 Abril Bridge and the Tagus River Estuary.  

Located in the Graca neighborhood, the church is just outside the central Lisbon area, adjacent to a popular viewpoint, the Miradouro da Graça, the church is a lesser known location to also enjoy the sites surrounded by trees and a less bustling area filled with tourists. 

The chapel is also worth a visit. Dating back to the 12th century, the original structure was destroyed in the 1755 earthquake and rebuilt in the late 1700’s. 

Tip: The best time to visit is just before sunset to see the glow of the sky upon the city or visit the Miradouro da Graça at night to see the city come alive with lights. 

Azulezhu (Azuelejo)

One of the popular attractions to Lisbon for those fascinated with architecture is the many Azulezhu designs scattered throughout the city. An iconic part of the culture, the tin-glazed ceramic tile works tell the history and stories behind the capital city of Portugal. 

Azulezhu is the proper name for the tiles the Portuguese used and continue to use among the walls of the faces of  their buildings. Originally brought to Lisbon by the Moors to function as assistance with temperature control of the warm Portuguese summer, the design was later modified to create traditional Portuguese patterns to tell stories and became an ornamental art and traditional decor. Azulejos are commonly spotted within churches and palaces throughout the region but it is also not uncommon to see them on apartment buildings, shops, restaurants, bars and even public buildings. 

Unfortunately it has become common for vandals to steal tiles and sell them on the black market to unknowing tourists and well knowing collectors. It is estimated that about 25% of the original tiles within the city were stolen and sold over 20 years between 1980 and 2000. So in 2007 a protection group was formed and in 2013 it became illegal to demolish buildings featuring them without protective measures first taken. 

Many of the tiles that have been salvaged can be viewed at the National Tile Museum that will take you on a journey through Lisbon’s history through Azulezhu tiles. 

Arco da Rua Agusta 

The triumphal arch building was constructed after the 1755 earthquake that resulted in a tsunami and fire destroying much of the downtown area of Lisbon. Formally known as the Arco Triunfal da Rua Augusta, it welcomes you into the commercial waterfront area. 

Designed to symbolize the strength and rebuilding of the city of Lisbon after the devastating event. The stone building features six columns and is decorated with statues of some of Lisbon’s well known historical personalities. 

Standing at over 135 feet from the top of the arch to the bottom of the columns, the statues above the arch representing Glory, Valor and Genius each stand approximately 23 feet tall to coincide with the size of the arch. An elevator from the arch transports you to the top for 360 degree views of the downtown area.  

Located along one of Lisbon’s busiest streets, the arch leads from the Rua Agusta as an entrance to the Praça do Comércio pedestrian waterfront area that faces the Targus River, filled with cafe’s, shops, restaurants and lots of local artists and entertainers. 

Campo Pequeno Bullring

Located in the historical center of Baixa in a district named Campo Pegueno which means small field. Constructed in 1890 influenced by Moorish design and the original bullring of Madrid, Spain. The building stands as the official home of Portuguese bullfighting. 

The North African inspired circular building located at Campo Pequeno Square was created with brick featuring octagonal towers topped with domes and turrets at the main entrance. The inside of the arena is covered with sand, traditional to a bullfighting ring. 

Bullfighting season lasts from Easter to summer. During the off season the facility is used as a concert venue. Refurbished in 2006, an entertainment center was added to also feature an underground area filled with shops, restaurants and a movie theatre. 

Because slaughtering the bulls was deemed inhumane by King Miguel during his reign between 1828 – 1834, Portuguese bulls are not killed at the end of the fight, as they are in Spain keeping the sport enjoyable for all who participate.

Cristo Rei

You might recognize this monumental statue as similar to the Christ the Redeemer statue that stands overlooking the Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. That is because it was inspired by the original after the Cardinal Patriarch of Lisbon visited the monument. 

Built in 1959 on a hilltop 133 feet above Lisbon in Almada, the cement shrine is dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ and similarly to the Redeemer in Rio, overlooks the city of Lisbon. Standing 630 feet above the River Tagus, the significance of the statue was to give thanks for Portugal being spared from the effects of the Great World War. 

The 92 foot monument itself stands on a 269 foot high pedestal with its arms extended, similar to the original, in the form of a cross facing the city of Lisbon. The pedestal contains four arches that are each positioned in the directions of a compass rose. 

On the 25th anniversary of the monument, the area was refurbished and a sanctuary and visitor center was added. The Chapel of our Lady of Peace features a rectory and a chapel and the visitor center offers exhibition galleries among administrative and meeting rooms. At the top of the pedestal is an observation deck with a not to be missed 360 degree view of Lisbon and the 25 de Abril Bridge over the Tagus River. 

Setúbal

Views of Arrábida Natural Park

Known as the city facing the sea, Setúbal is a coastal town located just 40 minutes south of the city of Lisbon in southern Lisboa. A historic area dating back to before the Roman occupation features a historic center of  Baroque churches within a busy coastal town, the area is also well visited for the beautiful scenery and its beaches. 

Located on the Setúbal Peninsula the region offers a bustling downtown area filled with  squares imbued with fountains and gardens surrounded by shops and restaurants offering the latest catch from the fisherman whose boats line the large harbor that spend their days fishing the area. The town is filled with many locations to relax with a glass of Setúbal celebrated locally grown moscatel wine and people watch the locals, the tourists and the street artists who are fighting for their attention. 

Another reason that visitors come to the region is for Arrábida Natural Park. Just a five minute drive from the town of Setúbal, offers a mountainous area overlooking the sea. The mediteranean climate provides 27 thousand acres of preserved beauty deeper into the peninsula with fabulous views of the clear waters below. Hiking the protected area you may spot one of the many local species of mink or fox or see eagles flying above searching for their next meal. 

Within Arrábida Park you will also find a protected marine area popular for scuba diving with beautiful untouched beaches. Praia de Galapinhos beach is a remote beach 15 minutes west along the coast from the town of Setúbal that is considered one of the best beaches in Europe and not to be missed if you are looking for a beach day.  Further along the coastal road nearby Praia do Portinho da Arrábida is a quaint tiny coastal town with a beach and another great spot to stop to grab lunch and relax.

Tip: The Lisboa card will provide all inclusive access to many of the above named sites.

While a day will give you the highlights of the Lisbon region, if you want to see all of the above, at least three days are recommended to fully immerse in the area. One of our favorite ways to explore Lisbon is pre a 7 night cruise of the Douro river from Porto, Portugal. 

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Why you need to add Porto to your Travel Bucket List

Portugal is often referred to as the garden that was planted next to the ocean. While it could be chalked up as quite a random saying, once you get to know the region you understand the meaning behind it. Portugal is like a garden of fresh offerings just waiting to be picked. Beautiful beaches, cosmopolitan cities, rural landscapes, mixed in with beautiful Mediterranean climate, culture, gastronomy, history and so much more.

The small country really only has 2 large cities, Lisbon, the largest of the two, which is the most known for its historic significance, and the smaller lesser known city of Porto. With 1.7 million residents, the old historic city of Porto holds a very intimate and unique travel experience and a must visit for any oenophile.

Discover Porto

Scenic Porto, Portugal

An elegant city, you will notice the difference from Lisbon in the narrow streets and manner homes and the overall sophisticated and friendly lifestyle of the locals. Centered around the wine industry, a visit to Porto is an experience in local gastronomy and culture that will have you wanting to see and do more. 

Although the weather is good almost year round, the best time to visit is late spring, May to early June, when in addition to that great weather you will find fewer tourists then peak season in July and August. 

The Sol Festival – Porto

Another reason to visit during the cooler mid season is the 600 year old annual Festos Santos (Saints festival) celebration that occurs annually June 13 – 24th. If you want to experience Porto in all her glory, be in town on June 23 for one of the most important and largest celebrations in the region, the Festa de Sao Joao do Porto. This large celebration starts in the afternoon (Saint John’s Eve) and goes into the night with street concerts, local celebration and rituals through-out the streets and neighborhoods and a midnight fireworks show. The celebrating goes well into the next day, June 24th, when revelers watch the sunrise over the ocean and further celebrate the Feast of St. John, the patron Saint of Porto, with an annual sailing Regatta. 

If your schedule does not allow for a visit during the celebration, there are so many other reasons why Porto should be on your travel bucket list:

Stop in at the Igreja e Torre dos Clerigos – 

Clérigos Church & Tower

A Baroque church that was built between 1735 and 1748, with its Clerigos tower, is the most symbolic monument in Porto. Tour the beautiful church with its unique architecture of goldsmithery, and the museum before the highlight of your visit, climbing the 250 steps to the top of the tower. Featuring a carillon made up of 49 bells that you pass as you reach your final destination for gorgeous panoramic views of the city of Porto. Good to know is – if you are lucky enough to be in the tower when the bells ring, the sound will offer a startling experience.

Tram to the Foz district – 

Porto Historic Linha Tram

A unique Porto experience is taking a ride on one of the vintage trams called “carros eléctricos”. A fantastic way to experience the city, the Linha1 is the best route from the Infante stop in the historic center of Porto and follows the banks of the Douro passing under the Ponte da Arrabida bridge to the serene tree-lined Passeio Alegre Park in the beautifully charming region of the Foz district.

Visit the Ribeira District – 

The Ribeira District of Porto

The oldest section of Porto, located on the riverbanks of the Douro river, right under the iconic Ponte Luis 1 bridge. Here is where you will want to wander the winding medieval streets and small cobblestone alleyways to see the ancient Hotchpotch houses, visit the family run boutiques and enjoy a Francesinha (Portuguese sandwich) on the terrace of one of the lively restaurants. I bet once you are there you will find yourself indulging in a glass of local Port wine at one of the trendy Ribeira bars. The district has a great atmosphere that becomes even more colorful at night. 

Spend a day at the local beaches –

A visit to the local beaches is definitely a must if you are a beach lover visiting Porto. The Costa Verde is a beautiful stretch of coastline with some amazing beaches easily accessed by one of the historic trams. Praia de Carneiro is the closest to the mouth of the Douro river, the resident lighthouse marks the southern point of the beach region. Located in the Foz district, Praia dos Ingleses is a large sandy beach with some rocky areas at the shore line. The local region offers many cafes and other sites to visit if you want to add to your beach day experience. Porto’s main beach, Matosinhos is your best bet for the true beach going experience of golden sand and great surf, beachside cafes and lots of locals to socialize with. 

Port tasting is a must while visiting –

Port aka vinho do Porto, is a fortified wine (aguardiente is added to stop fermentation and preserve the sweetness of the grapes) that is produced specifically in the Douro region of Portugal. Although a sweeter red wine, it typically has a high alcohol content (sometimes up to 19%) and also comes in dry, semi-dry and white varieties. Stopping into one of Porto’s local wine lodges for a tour and tasting is usually a top travel experience for a Porto visitor. The majority of the wine production houses is in Gaia, the hub of the wine industry, which is located on the opposite side of the Douro river from Porto. 

For a more immersive wine experience – 

There are a few options to take your wine experience next level. A day trip by car or boat excursion for exploring the Douro wine region are good sample experiences. However these will only get you so far. Our recommendations for really exploring the Douro growing region is the Linha do Douro train or a fully immersive river cruise. 

Visit the Douro River Valley

The Linha do Douro, considered one of the most scenic routes in Europe, runs along the Douro river offering expanded views of the river and river valleys. Passengers typically hop on the train at the São Bento station in Porto and ride the rails to the small village of Pocinho. Note this route can take anywhere from 3.5 to 4 hours without visiting any of the wine villages or stopping along the way.  

With so much to do and see to fully explore the UNESCO designated Douro river, wineries and impressive villages, we recommend a river cruise from Porto to Vega de Terron, at the border of Portugal and Spain. Immerse in the region as you sample the wines from the old world villages, historic sites and enjoy the raw beauty of the Douro region. The itinerary offers 2 nights in Porto and additional time in Lisbon and Madrid, Spain for a full bucket list itinerary. Prime time to cruise the Douro is late Spring during growing season through Fall just after the fall growth harvest when the colors start changing.

To learn more about river cruising the Douro river, visit our website. 

Categories: Active Travel, Eat like a local, Experience, Food, River Cruise, Travel Bucket List, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment
 
 

Let’s Go Castle Hopping in Sintra, Portugal

The country of Portugal is one of the oldest civilizations in European history dating back to prehistoric time and before its documented occupation by the Roman Empire in the early BC era. 

Its location on the Iberian Peninsula where it meets the Atlantic Ocean has influenced the culture and the architecture of the region which can be seen in the many castles and palaces that still reside here. 

Because of her location, Portugal was easily conquered and established by many empires each with its own military and purpose. The Portuguese people learned early to build strong and reliable fortifications from the Romans, how to create with elaborate stonework from the Moors who came from nearby Africa, and later used these principles to re-purpose some of these original castles for the Christians who conquered the land during the crusades and eventually designed the glorious palaces that were built by the royals who ruled the lands.

When you think of castles and palaces you think of storybooks and romance. Although storybook castles are fiction, real castles each have a story and much can be learned about the culture and history of the region from them.

Despite its small size as a country, Portugal has over 150 castles and palaces with the oldest in existence dating back to the eighth century. Today travelers looking for romantic castles and grandiose palaces travel to Portugal to castle-hop and explore some of her many picture-worthy candidates.

Sintra, a small Portuguese town, approximately 25km (15 miles), within the hills outside of Lisbon is filled with ancient castles and  beautiful summer palaces that will take you through Portugal’s history from Ottoman rule in the 8th century to the end of the Portuguese monarchy in the early 1900’s. 

The Castle of the Moors (Castelo dos Mouros)

Built during the eighth and ninth centuries, spanning across mountain ridges is one Portugal’s oldest preserved fortresses. You can’t help but think of the Great Wall of China when you see her large granite walls that snake along the hilltops to defend her from approaching enemies by land and by sea. 

Designed by the Moors under Islamic rule, this castle and fortress was built with a strategic position for defending the territory and access routes to Lisbon. The Moors lived here until 1147, when Sintra was taken over by the first King of Portugal, Afonso Henriques.

While little remains of the Islamic Quarter and Castle outside the walls, the views from the top of the Atlantic and the surrounding area including the nearby Pena Palace makes the climb to the top worth the visit. 

The National Palace of Sintra (Palácio Nacional de Sintra)

The Palace of Sintra, is also referred to as Town Palace because of her location within the center of the town of Sintra. 

First constructed around the 10th or 11th century under Moorish rule, Sintra was reconstructed many times as she was passed along from monarch to monarch and housed almost all of Portugal’s royalty throughout her history. The cooler climate in the summer, abundance of wildlife and remote area for protection from plague and unrest in Lisbon made her a  preferred location for the monarchs who spent quite a bit of time here. 

With all the royal influence, the palace reflects many different styles and trends from various periods. She is best identified by her two cone-shaped chimneys that sit above the royal kitchen. Although no longer used as residence, today is a historical museum with many stories to tell of Portugal’s long history.

Pena National Palace (Palacio Nacional Da Pena)

Considered the most beautiful of all the palaces within Portugal, the Pena National Palace is the most popular site for a visit. 

Built in 1836 and designed by  King Manuel I as a Monastery formerly named the Royal Monastery of Our Lady of Pena it was later redesigned by Ferdinand II as a summer residence for the royal family. 

The palace was designed in the Romanticism style with various colors. The interior of the palace has many shades of green to match the trees that surround the grounds she sits on. Pena Palace is the closest you will get to a “fairytale” castle in Portugal with her beauty and palatial magnificence. 

The views from where she sits high above the city, the beautiful grounds and park surrounding her and the opulent interior make this a must see when visiting Sintra.

Queluz National Palace (Palácio Nacional de Queluz)

Queluz Palace is an 18th-century Royal palace within the Sintra municipality on the Portuguese Riviera. Built in 1746 she was primarily used as a showpiece for nobility’s parties and banquets. 

Designed in the Rococo style, as a summer home, the exquisite beauty and design were built upon in more neoclassic designs when she later housed three generations of Portuguese Royals as the main royal palace until their exile in the early 1900’s.

A highlight of the palace is its surrounding gardens designed for the many court organized parties and events with waterfalls and statues as background for the entertainment that took place during royal occupancy. 

Regaleira House (Quinta da Regaleira)

Quinta da Regaleira is a 20th century country house and a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is located on the outskirts of the town of Sintra. It was purchased in 1904, just prior to the exile of the Portuguese monarchy to Brazil.

The main house which sits within the almost 10 acres of land, is five stories and features a decorative Gothic design with turrets and gargoyles. The enchanting gardens were designed to pay homage to the former Portuguese existence of the Knights of Templar with hidden tunnels, secret passages and symbolism in the designs from the order.

Only a 36 minute drive or 1 hour train ride from Lisbon, a visit to Sintra is recommended for exploring the history and romance of the Portuguese monarchy.

While a day trip will give you the highlights of the region, if you want to see all of the above castles and palaces, at least two days are recommended or three or four if you also want to fully immerse in the area and enjoy the nearby wine region of Colares. 

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