I made it to Portugal, all by myself!
I think it’s safe to say that this has been the biggest adventure of my 20s! I was more than a little scared to travel by myself to a country I knew hardly anything about, but I made a promise to myself to take a solo international trip…and I wanted to keep it. I almost chickened out and canceled the flight several times, especially on the day I was scheduled to leave and my original flight was CANCELED. (My worst travel nightmare!!) But thankfully, after a few hours on the line with travel agents, I was re-booked on a nonstop flight to Lisbon. It was happening!!!!
I just happened to visit Lisbon during a historically high heat wave. The temperature was in the 100s, with a high of 109 degrees. Crazy!!! Since I grew up in southern Texas, I’m not stranger to extreme heat, but the difference is that during Texas summers, you’re blasted with central air conditioning wherever you go. In contrast, very few places I visited in Lisbon had air conditioning.
Sadly, that included my Airbnb, and the problem was made worse by the fact that my apartment was located at the top of the building with lots of sunlight. So, as sad as I was to say goodbye to the gorgeous whitewashed walls and beautiful view, all it took was one sleepless night in the heat for me to call it a loss and book a new Airbnb (this time with glorious air conditioning!) Lesson learned: do NOT book a vacation in Portugal in August without A/C unless you’re prepared to take a gamble!
I felt so grateful that the locals were always nice to me as a solo woman traveling alone! I had wonderful conversations with all kinds of people, despite my terrible Portugese (well, more like non-existent, ha!). I tried to ask for recommendations from locals whenever possible, and they never steered me in the wrong direction! I got very good at saying one word: “Obrigada,” which means thank you! And I was indeed thankful for their help!
DAY ONE: LISBON
I spent my first evening in Lisbon taking a walk to watch the sunset in Portas do Sol. It’s one of the most popular viewpoints (‘miradouros”) in the city, and it was easy to find even with my terrible navigation skills. I ordered a drink and tried to adjust to being completely alone. At home, I’m usually either working or spending time with my husband…so it was kind of uncomfortable to just sit there doing nothing, all by myself, in a brand new country!
But as the week went on, I adjusted and really enjoyed spending time alone. I hadn’t really gone exploring by myself for a long amount of time since I was in college, and it was really refreshing to figure things out on my own, to do whatever felt right at any given moment, and to be alone with my thoughts and my camera. By the end of the week, I had even quieted my fear of eating at sit-down restaurants on my own. In fact, I even enjoyed it!!
I didn’t know what to expect from Lisbon, except for rave reviews from a couple of friends and many online forums. Although Lisbon has a lot of charming qualities (the tile-covered walls and tiny, winding cobblestone alleys), I was surprised to find that it’s unfortunately plagued with graffiti on every street…and not the artistic kind, but the tagging kind that really detracts from Lisbon’s beauty. It also smelled SO BAD…which was probably exacerbated by the extreme heat, but still! Yikes!
Lisbon’s vintage trams are very iconic of the city, especially route 28 and the Bica Funicular (which is probably the most-photographed car in the whole city!) Although it’s usually painted yellow, I was bummed to arrive and find it covered in graffiti.
DAY TWO: LISBON/BELÉM
I had originally planned to spend my first full day wandering around central Lisbon, but I thought it would be a better idea to spend the hottest day in more shady spots. So I fast-forwarded my itinerary a bit and took a day trip to Belém, a little town located right outside of Lisbon. It’s home to Belém Tower, the Jerónimos Monastery, and (most importantly!) Pastéis de Belém, which is where the country-wide fame of pastéis de nata (egg pastries) was born.
I began the day at Belém Tower, but I must admit that I was kind of underwhelmed – there’s not really anything to see besides the tower itself, and the line to enter was already very long by the time I arrived. So I snapped a quick photo and then headed to the shade of Jerónimos Monastery.
Although the line to enter the monastery was about an hour long, it was so worth it once I made it inside! It’s the most elaborate and beautiful monastery I’ve ever seen. The luxurious architecture was ordered by King Manuel I in celebration of Portugal’s age of exploration, and it definitely shows a side of Lisbon that wasn’t as apparent in the city center. It felt reminiscent of Portugal’s glory days.
Tip for Pastéis de Belém the takeaway lines look very intimidating from the sidewalk, but there is actually TONS of table space inside (400 tables!) So just wander inside until you find an empty one, and then have a seat! I didn’t wait at all, even in the peak of the day during tourist season. I followed popular suggestion and practically inhaled three pastries in one sitting. When on vacation, right?! 😉
In the afternoon, I continued to follow the shade and visited the LX Factory, which is a cool new hipster addition to Lisbon located to the west of the city center in Alcântara. It’s a beautiful assortment of quirky shops, restaurants, and cafes!
My favorite store at LX Factory was Ler Devagar (“Read Slowly”), which is a gigantic bookstore housed in an old warehouse and packed to the brim with books! I picked up a classic here (one of the few books in English): “Love in the Time of Cholera,” which I really enjoyed reading throughout the rest of the week.
I also made a stop at Landeau Chocolate to try a slice of their famed chocolate cake (some call it the best in the world!) It definitely did not disappoint – SO delicious!!!
That evening, I decided to explore another miradouro even higher up in the city. By this point, I had really settled into traveling on my own. I decided to live it up and bought a bottle of port wine to take up to the lookout to watch the sunset.
As it turns out, I didn’t even watch the sunset alone, because before long, some fellow travelers came along and asked me to take a photo of them. We got to talking (based on our common interest of photography!) and with the help of my shared bottle of wine, I made four new friends! We stayed and chatted until after the sun had long disappeared, and they generously invited me to come out to get dinner with them! Now I have friends in France, Germany, and Italy – so cool! It was one of the most fun nights of my life, and I know that I would never had met them if I hadn’t been traveling alone.
DAY THREE: LISBON
I switched to my new Airbnb in the Alfama neighborhood and fell in LOVE with this charming area! I spent Sunday getting lost in Alfama’s maze of cobblestone alleys, admiring the pastel-colored buildings and Spanish rooftops.
Side note on Airbnb: over the course of my stay, I learned that Airbnbs and other home-shares are making life really difficult for the locals. For a long time, the city enforced very strict rent control, which left the landlords financially unable to make repairs as needed. As a result, the city had fallen into disrepair and was badly in need of fixing. When the rent control was finally lifted, it brought a lot of new development to the area (as you can see by all of the cranes in the landscape!) Unfortunately, rents more than doubled for many residents, and many were priced out of the homes where their families had lived for generations. This situation has only been made worse by the sharing economy, since tourists are occupying homes that would otherwise be able to house local residents (and further driving up prices). If I ever make it back to Portugal, I will definitely be opting to stay in a hotel instead – I’m sad that I unknowingly contributed to the problem during my stay.
In the afternoon, I visited the Museu Nacional do Azulejo (National Tile Museum) in an effort to escape the debilitating heat! I’m not usually a big fan of museums when I travel — I much prefer to be outside exploring the buildings and observing the people — but this one was so much fun to visit because it’s housed in a beautiful old convent, including an elaborately decorated tiled courtyard and a gilded chapel. Plus, the shaded interior was A++ while the temperature climbed to 105 outside!
I found this corner tucked away between two staircases, and I came back a second time because I loved it so much! The combination of the flowers and the terraced landscape just took my breath away. Sigh!!!
I ended my last full day in Lisbon with adrink at the rooftop of Park Bar (such a stunning view of the city) and then crashed early so I could get a head start for Sintra the next day!
Overall, I found Lisbon to be a town of extreme contrast. Contrast between gorgeous architecture and unfortunate vandalism. Contrast between historical neighborhoods and new development. Contrast between overwhelmingly touristy spots, and supremely peaceful little alleys. And in my personal experience, contrast between really wonderful moments, and also really frustrating moments (which were probably mostly due to the insanely hot weather). I’m glad I had the chance to explore the capital city and see why so many people flock from all over the world to visit!
DAY 4: SINTRA
After the weekend’s extreme heat wave, I was so relieved to take a day trip to Sintra (just outside of Lisbon), where the cooling temperatures and mountain breeze meant a return to comfortable conditions. It felt like paradise!!!
During Portugal’s glory days, Sintra became a playground for aristocrats and the rich & famous. Just like Disneyland has different rides and attractions around every corner, Sintra has CASTLES and PALACES around every corner. But the real-life kind! 😉 And just like Disneyland, Sintra attracts tourists from all over the world…and it has the queues to show for it.
Having heard that the main attraction, Pena Palace, is swamped with visitors in peak season, I followed the trusty advice of TripAdvisor and woke up at 6:30 a.m. to arrive at the palace gates before they opened.
As it turned out, this advice really saved the day! I had a blissful 10 minutes practically all to myself to enjoy the palace grounds before the tour buses started to arrive in droves. I got to soak in the view from the top, walk the perimeter all by myself, and admire the bizarre beauty that is Pena Palace. It was one of my favorite moments of the whole trip.
On the walk back down from the castle, I could see why people recommended arriving early. The line of visitors snaked out of the castle and around the walkways, and it was so long that it took me two full minutes to walk past everyone. I would guess there were already 1,000 people in line – no exaggeration! And outside of the gates, the one-way road up to the castle had become a parking lot full of tour buses, frustrated drivers, and impatient tuk-tuks. I was SO glad to have sacrificed a little sleep in order to avoid that mess.
After a short walk down the road from Pena Palace, I found the Moorish Castle. I didn’t originally think that I would have time to check out more than two destinations in Sintra, but it was only 10:30 a.m. by the time I arrived…so I decided to go for it!
Although I was impressed with the colors of Pena Palace, my favorite overall experience was Moorish – the views were more stunning in person than the pictures showed, and it was still relatively quiet. I took my time climbing up the steps of the walls and was rewarded with a beautiful view of Pena Palace and the town of Sintra down below. Sadly, my pictures are kind of clouded over due to the African dust that arrived along with the heatwave, but hopefully you can get an idea for how majestic it feels!
After leaving Moorish Castle, I decided to walk all the way to Quinta da Regaleira. I think I must have missed a turn somewhere along the way, because it took me about 1.5 hours – but it was a nice walk under the shade of the forest!
Quinta da Regaleira was my final destination during my visit to Sintra. It feels full of mystery and fantasy…very hard to describe or show in pictures! I can only imagine how it would have felt to wander around those magnificent grounds as one of the only residents inside the gate! Home to several wealthy families over the course of its history, its most famous resident was “Monteiro the Millionaire,” who hired his architect friend to build him an estate that reflected his love for solitude and symbolism.
Completed in 1910, the grounds include a network of underground tunnels, including this initiation well for rituals. I climbed into one of the tunnels, then quickly climbed back out when I realized I had only spiders for company (and no light except for my cell phone flashlight!) To explore those tunnels as a child would be AMAZING though!!
Next up is Porto, which is now one of my all-time favorite cities!! Hopefully that will be up on the blog by tomorrow or Friday…stay tuned!