There's no better way to spend my birthday other than in a place that closely resembles home. After 2 celebratory days, I can easily see why Lisbon is often compared to San Francisco. It may have something to do with electric-powered trolleys, a fabulous reddish-orange suspension bridge, undulating pedestrian street paths, an unfortunate history of devastating earthquakes, palate pleasing-cuisine, impromptu musical street performances, and the city's overall ability to lure tourists from all over the world. Did I cover it all? Probably not. But since I've already seen several travel posts delineating similarities between the fraternal twin cities, I won't reinvent the wheel. This travel recap will focus primarily on what makes Lisbon a top travel destination.
Bus Lady Myra and the Yellow Bus Tour
When visiting a country for the first time, I often book one of those hop on, hop off bus tours to get an initial feel for the area. Usually bus tourism entails getting OFF the bus at some point to actually visit these historical landmarks. But sadly, Lisbon was the exception to my typical routine. Blame it on severe jetlag, my post Bermuda stress disorder, or even the melancholy tempo of Portuguese Fado Music. Whatever the trigger, my butt and the bus seat formed an impenetrable, hermetic bond as we navigated Lisbon's scenic streets. With that said, this story begins and ends with a tale of 2 bus lines: Tagus and Olisipo. I hopped on, and didn't hop off. Exciting, I know.
It all started the first full day when I immediately located a Yellow Bus kiosk just several feet from the hotel. The "Open Top 2 in 1" ticket covers both tours. For only 19 euros, you'll receive a 2-day pass with access to 43 different drop off points throughout Lisbon. That's a lot of ground to cover for only a handful of euros so it was definitely a bargain. In comparison, a Lisbon tuk tuk can transport you and a buddy up a small hill (less than a mile away) for 15 whopping euros. I have a feeling that rate was arbitrarily set, but at least we experienced 5-minutes as passengers on a mini, open-air vehicle with a chatty Portuguese driver. From an affordability scale of 1 to 10, the tuk-tuk gets a "0" while the Yellow Bus commands a resounding "10".
Tip #1: If you only have one day to explore, the Tagus tour (blue line) is clearly the better option. Key sites/landmarks include: Torre of Belem, Parque Eduardo VII, Basilica da Estrela, Museu dos Coches, and Padrão dos Descobrimentos (English Translation: Monument to Discoveries). The latter is hands down, one of the most stunning and memorable monuments I have seen to date. Imagine a gigantic slab of stone showcasing 33 influential missionaries, artists, monarchs, scientists and other prominent pundits during the Portuguese Age of Discovery. Make sure you actually disembark from the bus to get a closeup view of each chiseled figure. Otherwise, you'll end up with a photo of sailboats while the monument is inconspicuously perched at a distance. Nao-bom. That's Portuguese for "no good".
The Tagus tour also takes you along the Tagus River coastline, where you can snap countless photos of the Ponte 25 de April bridge, a suspension bridge that strongly resembles San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge - primarily due to its color. I may have taken at least 30 photos from multiple angles since the bus takes you to, from, and around that bridge. Interesting tidbit: The blueprints were drafted by the same company that designed San Francisco's Oakland Bay Bridge (not the Golden Gate as most casual observers would assume) because Lisbon needed a bridge that could withstand intermittent seismic activity. Since both cities experience regular tectonic shifts, it only made sense that the same experts were heavily involved in the construction process. Which bridge is better? I'm biased so I can't answer that one.
The Olisipo tour (magenta line) covers a much greater span of the city, but focuses more on Lisbon's modern architecture along the Parque das Nações. Key stops: Gare do Oriente (built for their 1998 Lisbon World Exposition), Oceanario, and Museo de Fado. The bus also passes by Lisbon's tallest structure, Vasco da Gama Tower, which actually looked quite small at 575 feet. I was a little perplexed when the pre-recorded narration cited this statistic since big-city dwellers like myself are highly accustomed to towering monstrosities along their skylines. While smaller than most US buildings I've seen, the tower still had plenty of charm due to its nautical shape.
My Very First Hotel Endorsement - Pousada De Lisboa, Terreiro Do Paco
We arrived late on July 6th and expected the taxi driver to know exactly where the hotel was located. Instead, we were dropped off at Terreiro Do Paco, a well trafficked area along the waterfront surrounded by several buildings that looked exactly the same: Yellow Building 1…Yellow Building 2…Yellow Building 3…and so on and so forth for several blocks. Once we finally figured out where the hotel entrance was, our jaws dropped since it was much nicer than expected. I remember rhetorically asking, "This is our hotel !?" It had that five-star charm without the five-star price. Luxury at affordable prices? Sim! (Heck yes)
Pousada De Lisboa is a relatively new hotel that was originally an old government building housing Portugal's Department of Homeland Security. Stationed at one of Lisbon's historic gateways, this hotel is just several feet from Rua Augusta Arch - a beautiful structure "built to commemorate city reconstruction after the 1755 earthquake". Outdoor restaurants, which define the quintessential European dining experience, are also quite close. Location is critical when booking a hotel, and Pousada De Lisboa definitely has that covered. However, it was their exceptional service that warrants the following emphatic testimonial.
I had no idea that handing over my passport during check-in would lead to a huge surprise the following day. The reception clerk noticed my birth date and made sure to place a bottle of chilled champagne + a decadent chocolate cake in my room while I was firmly planted on the Yellow Bus. It took me a few hours to figure out where it came from, but was completely floored when I found out. Hats off to Pousada De Lisboa for that generous gesture! I'll make sure to pay it forward and heavily promote the hotel every chance I get. Here's a link to the hotel website for more information: http://www.pestana.com/en/hotel/pousada-lisboa I will definitely come back, especially for that champaigne buffet breakfast. Cheers to that.
Sacramento, California or Sacramento, Lisbon?
My birthday would not be complete without a special dinner abroad with a dear childhood BFF and two new amazing friends, Ken and David. Jose, someone I've known since the 7th grade, accompanied me on this whirlwind European trip. Simply put: the two of us can eat anything and everything at all hours of the day, and that's primarily what we did. So it's only fitting that we end my awesome birthday celebration with a Portuguese feast at Lisbon's Sacramento Restaurant. I have one word to describe this foodie establishment: WOW. As soon as I walked into a room with lush red decor, I knew we would experience a fine-dining treat. What does one order when everything on the menu triggered a Pavlovian response? Grilled octopus, lamb, tasty appetizers, and several caipirnhas. It's even better when paired with spectacular service, ambiance, and great conversation. Thank you Jose for treating all of us to an unforgettable dinner. Special congrats to Ken and David on their engagement as well. Parabéns!
A Meat Lover's Paradise
I am a carnivore and have been my entire life, so when Ken and David asked to meet the following night at Chimarrao (an all you can eat Brazillian BBQ joint), how could I refuse? Imagine several rounds of freshly carved beef, pork, chicken, and prime rib roasting on a long iron spit in addition to a sumptuous buffet of salads, rice, vegetables, fruit, deep fried appetizers, and more. The best part was the inexpensive price tag - less than 20 euros per person (compared to $70+ USD in San Francisco). Winner!
While seated at dinner, I had the best view of Sao Jorge Castle. Had I known it existed, I would have taken myself off that bus and onto a tram to visit that towering citadel overlooking the Tagus River. Missing that castle tour was definitely my biggest regret.
From Bus to Boat
As you know, the bus was my vehicle of choice for 2 glorious days. However, the monotony finally sank in, and our risk-taker selves (being extremely facetious) shook things up by booking a Yellow Boat tour (17 euros) on that final night. The dock was located right next to our hotel at Terreiro Do Paco so it didn't take much effort to make that bus to boat transition. The bus stop, coincidentally, was also a few steps from Pousada De Lisboa so there wasn't a ton of walking on this trip. I usually wander for many miles on each of my European visits, but this was sadly one of those rare sedentary trips. I blame the heat. Okay, I blame myself.
So this tour lasts roughly 1 1/2 hours and takes you across the Tagus River from Doca da Marinha to Torre de Belem (and back). Tip #2: Do not take that last tour at 4:00pm unless you don't want to make a pit stop at Cacilhas. This was regret #2. Stopping at Cacilhas would have given me the opportunity to visit several beer houses/seafood restaurants while overlooking Lisbon from the other side of the Tagus River. I also missed the opportunity to take the elevator to Cristo Rei (Catholic monument and shrine), which would easily have been one of my trip highlights. So many valuable lessons learned on this first visit. I guess a second trip is warranted sometime in the near future. Ken and David, I'll see you soon!
Finally, I was able to capture some of the local flavor on film. I'm a huge fan of street performances especially those involving music and dance. I'd like to end this blog post with 2 different videos: One showcases an impromptu dance under the Rua Augusta Arch. The other features 2 school kids playing one of my favorite Mozart pieces - Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Both make me smile from ear to ear as did this wonderful trip. Next stop: Spain for more imbibing and eating. Original trip date: July 6 - 9, 2015
Mozart street musicians:
Lisbon dance performance: