Several weeks ago, when I was a “mere” six months pregnant, Michael and I decided to cash in a plethora of credit card points. We had been given a lot of points two years prior, from Mike’s brother (awesome wedding gift), and they had been atrophying. I was about 27 weeks pregnant; full of energy and still mobile (I write this post at 39 weeks, with a heating pad on my back, and wearing a belly band. Perspective.)
We’re adventurous travelers, but didn’t want to risk any unknowns relating to food, healthcare, and safety. We had an incubating baby to worry about! Our rules were thus: no more than a 6 hour flight, no new vaccinations needed, safe drinking water, and advanced medical facilities nearby (just-in-case). Originally wanting to go to Morocco, we read horror stories of pregnancy food poisoning and the US Department of State still warned of frequent anti-government violence, protests and demonstrations lingering from the Arab Spring. Japan has been on our shared bucket-list for over six years, but a fifteen hour flight was out of the question! Not one to lounge idly on a beach for weeks, I wasn’t quite ready to sip virgin daiquiris oceanside in the Caribbean. We needed a place chock full of history, fine weather and relatively close to NY airports. Portugal fit the bill. Adding to the firmness of the final destination, my husband, obsessed with antiquity, had just finished a book on Vasco de Gama in the age of New World exploration.
Diving deep into the archives of Condé Nast Traveler, Departures Magazine, TripAdvisor and friends, we invented an itinerary focused on central Portugal: Lisbon to Sintra to Evora and finally, to Caiscais.
We landed in Lisbon at 6 am, entirely jet-lagged. Who is truly able to sleep on those red-eye flights? We hopped into a cab (they are so affordable in Lisbon) and beelined to our hotel. Because it was Mike’s birthday, we treated ourselves to the Olissippo Lapa Palace, an amazing property built in 1870 as a private residence and located on a hilltop overlooking the Tagus River. The oasis is in the Lapa Quarter, a favorite summer holiday destination for the English aristocracy. Nowadays, its more known for its quiet residences and dozens of embassies. Somehow, during those early morning hours, our room was ready and we both crashed.
Fast forward five hours. It was only 11 am and we booked it to the Mercado da Ribeira (also known as Mercado 24 de Julho). The great suggestion was from a friend’s brother who once lived in Lisbon. The area had been the city’s main food market since 1892, but in 2014 it was taken over by Time Out Lisboa magazine, whose management added stalls offering fresh food and traditional, local products. We snacked on meats from Café de São Bento, piri piri from Miguel Laffan, and omigod the braised tuna with chives, honey and sweet potato from A Cozinha da Felicidade (my mouth is watering).
From there we just meandered. We wound the snaking streets of the Chiado discovering unique boutique shops. A Vida Portuguesa is a trove of authentic souvenirs, nostalgic toiletries, artisanal oils, and handwoven texties. We visited not once, but twice. We also accidentally happened upon Santini’s, seeing a long line, and not realizing that this was THE iconic ice cream of Portugal. We waited beneath the shop’s cheerful red and white stripes, and eventually tasted several flavors. Our favorite of which was probably the “marabunta.” We were told this meant ants! Skeptical of that, we were relieved to know it was basically stracciatella! Next door to the dessert madness was a recessed kiosk with an unassuming sign, Luvaria Ulisses. The itty-bitty glove shop, founded in 1925 by Joaquim Rodrigues Simões, still operates methodically and traditionally. Supple leather fitted and beskope over fingers, just so.
After that first packed 24 hours, our next few days in Lisbon consisted of exploring the Alfama, the Bairro Alto, listening to live Fado music at Senor Vinho, a scenic outlook at Miradouro de Santa Catarina, retail therapy at Real Slow Retail Concept, and an incredible dinner at Via Graça.
From there we embarked on a day trip to Belem, a name derived from the Portuguese word for Bethlehem. Technically still in Lisbon proper, the area feels decidedly more religious and suburban. There are probably only four attractions you must see:
- Belem Tower – an UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s probably the first and last medieval fortified tower on a river island that you’ll ever see.
- Jeronimos Monastery & Church – built in the 15th century, it is one of the most prominent examples of the Portuguese Manueline style of uber ornate architecture.
- Pastéis de Belém – its pastel de nata is legendary and worth the hype (and the line).
- Berardo Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art – Amassed by Portuguese magnate Joe Berardo, these gorgeous grounds have free wifi and are chock-full of modern and contemporary works by Picasso, Bacon, Warhol and more.
No time for jetlag with days this full! We slept and headed to Sintra. Because Sintra is about thirty minutes from Lisbon in a hilly (spread-out) region, we thought it best to use a guide. I highly recommend Sintra Magik Private Tours. Our tour guide, Pedro, was incredibly friendly, knowledgeable, and open. He knew the right times to arrive at monuments before they became crowded, and even gave us tidbits of Portuguese history beyond “labels on the wall.” Our tour of the Pena National Palace, and it’s Manueline architecture, was particularly memorable. We also received a quick run-down of cork manufacturing, visited Monserrate Palace, tried Quejo Saloio at Restaurante Apeadeiro, and learned what locals REALLY think of Ginjinha (the ubiquitous cherry liquor that tastes like cough syrup). The day ended with a stop where the ragged cliffside meets the active ocean at Cabo da Roca, continental Europe’s westernmost point. All of the above were, by far, our most picturesque locations, and my camera tallied 800 pictures more.
So much nonstop action was becoming tiring, and our plan to retire in the Alentejo region for the night was a welcome respite. The geographic region physically encompasses about 1/3 of the country, and is filled with verdant plains, hinting at centuries-old farming traditions. Its pace is slow.
Évora is a beautifully preserved medieval and Roman town. The enchanting place is dripping in history: 14th-century walls, winding lanes, looming aqueducts, elaborate medieval cathedral and cloisters; the columns of the Templo Romano, and a still-function town square (once the site of events relating to the Inquisition). Not just mired in the past, the city holds an attraction for university students and young families.
We took a fascinating wine production tour at Adega da Cartuxa, which was also paired with delicious olive oil tastings. Although the site is no longer the main production facility for the winery, the tour tells the story of Eugenio de Almeida Foundation, which owns the Cartuxa, and has several social work and ecology projects throughout Évora. The most unique part of the short tour consisted of the “smelling hall” which challenged our olfactory senses, more than our palate.
In Évora proper, we mostly walked. It’s small enough to see everything in a day, with the most intriguing stop being Capela dos Ossos, a small interior chapel located next to the entrance of the Church of St. Francis. Constructed by Franciscan monks in the late 16th century, it’s essentially a room filled with bones. Hundreds of bodies that were exhumed from the city’s graves line the chapel’s walls and are even incorporated into the architectural patterns. Afterward, a nearby nosh at ArtCafé is a must for refreshing snacks, chilled Gaspacho, and midday drinks. We splurged on one night in the Convento do Espinheiro Hotel & Spa, and used their gorgeous pool for the remainder of the day.
The next morning, we had delicious breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant, a converted wine cellar, and headed to Cascais, our final destination. Once a sleepy fisherman’s village, the area is now a vibrant coastal town with boardwalks, a casino (featured in James Bond) nightlight, and high-end shopping. Tired from the rest of the trip, we used our final days to soak up Vitamin D and lay horizontal at The Oitavos’ infinity pool. We also stuffed ourselves with Tiger Prawns at Mar do Inferno.