Thank you, thank you, thank you for all of the wonderfully supportive and thoughtful comments on my last post about solo travel! I’m working my way through the comments now and will be responding to each of them. You guys are the best. For the final part of my Portugal trip reports (see parts 1 and 2 here), I’m going to talk about the 36 hours I spent in what might be my new favorite city in the world – Lisbon!
My decision to go to Lisbon was actually last minute. I had intended to spend my entire week in the Azores, but about 3 days before I left, I thought “Well, I’ll be so close to the mainland…maybe I should check out flights.” I had heard about extremely inexpensive flights within Europe on airlines like Ryanair and EasyJet, so I looked them up, and lo and behold, I was able to book a roundtrip flight for about $100! Dear America: Please get your crap together and start offering super cheap flights to cool places. Thank you in advance.
I quickly researched hostels and found an awesome one in the heart of downtown Lisbon – the Lisbon Lounge Hostel. Now, I had never flown one of these European value airlines before and I saw a lot of horror stories online about outrageous fees for things like printing your boarding pass at the airport (70 euros!), having a carry on bag that did not fit within the rigid guidelines and had to be checked, and the insane boarding process. I was wracked with nerves as I stood in line to board and watched as the gate agents checked every single bag to make sure it fit within the sizer. I only brought my backpack (I was only going for 36 hours, after all) but it was still terrifying! Those people showed no mercy and did not hesitate to make people pay to check their bags if they were even slightly too big. I appreciate their efficiency, but holy crap, do not cross Ryanair and EasyJet or you will literally pay.
Anyway, my hostel was just a few blocks from the Baixa metro station downtown, which was extremely convenient. I had carefully printed out directions to make sure I knew where to go, but as soon as I stepped out of the metro station, I audibly gasped. I was immediately transfixed by the colorful, charming buildings, stylish crowds, and amazing atmosphere. From that moment on, Lisbon had my heart.
I’m a big fan of guided tours when I’m in cities, primarily because I’m a huge history nerd and I love random facts. I try and stick with small, personal tours rather than the big group ones, but for this trip, I was also trying to be casual and not make too many plans in advance. Talk about last minute – I found a food and wine tour leaving that afternoon at 4:30 pm while I was waiting in the airport to fly to Lisbon! There ended up being 5 people on the tour, including a 67-year old cancer survivor who was traveling through Europe for 6 months by herself, which I thought was amazing. Anyway, the tour took us through some of the neighborhoods of Lisbon while letting us try Portuguese wine and liqueurs, cheese, bread, sausage, and jams. I’m 30 years old, so I’m not trying to brag about my drinking ability, but the adorable college students on our tour were literally tipsy after less than one stop. Oh, bless your hearts.
Of course, a food and wine tour might not be terribly fun if you can’t eat the food – a lot of it was bread, so I was out of luck. But in an ongoing effort by the Universe to prove to me that people are wonderful and kind, so many of the shop owners offered me extra cheese, some sausage, or some other gluten-free item from their stores once they saw that I wasn’t eating the bread (I never asked, they just noticed I wasn’t eating and asked our guide why). I deal with a tremendous amount of food-related anxiety when I travel because of how sick I get when I eat gluten, but that’s another post for another day. Suffice to say everyone was amazing and I was very well fed!
I was determined to see everything I possibly could while in Lisbon, so I had also decided to go on a Fado tour that left from my hostel at 10:15 pm. HAHAHA traveler me is hilarious. Fado is a style of music invented in Lisbon that is kind of like the Portuguese version of the blues – extremely depressing and sad, but very distinctive. It’s a “must do” while you’re in Lisbon, but after touring 5 different bars and drinking all the wine the college students left behind, I was faced with a tough choice. And this was one of those moments in life when I felt very much like an adult (which happens not that often). I went back to my hostel to wait for the tour to leave and met my roommates, who were two young German guys traveling on their spring break. While talking to them, I realized I was one drink away from being borderline drunk, and that wasn’t a state I wanted to find myself in while traveling alone (not because of them – they were awesome – just in general). So I decided to skip the Fado tour and get a good night’s sleep before my walking tour of Lisbon the next morning. Ugh, responsibility.
I headed out the next morning to wander around a bit on my own before the free walking tour began at 10:30. I’m not great at wandering around when it comes to cities; despite the fact that I was a geography major, I have a particularly terrible sense of direction, and I get turned around easily. Lisbon is pretty easy to navigate, though. When I showed up for the tour, I ended up being the only person – meaning I had a free tour courtesy of John Doe Tours (obviously I tipped him well) all to myself for 3 hours! My guide, Alex, was amazing. He was actually from the Azores, so he was beyond thrilled to hear that I had just come from there. He had a fantastic sense of humor and offered a unique, realistic view of the Portuguese government and culture. It’s always nice to go on a tour and not feel like you’re being “sold” on the city; Alex let me make my own conclusions about Lisbon and Portugal and patiently took about a thousand pictures for me. He took me through the big sites of the city, through the poor and working class neighborhoods, and everywhere else I wanted to go. Hey, when you have a private tour, you can do whatever you want!
One thing I really love seeing when I visit cities is the street art, and Lisbon definitely did not disappoint. While your standard graffiti definitely exists, most of the artwork tells a story about Portuguese culture. I loved listening to Alex tell the stories about it. I might be in the minority, but sometimes I feel like street art adds a lot to the character of a city.
After Alex and I parted ways, I still had a few hours to kill before I needed to head to the airport. I had heard great things about some of the sights in Belém, a nearby suburb of Lisbon, so I decided to take the train over and see what there was to see. The train turned out to be quite a bit more complicated than the Metro, primarily because the trains waited at the station for quite awhile before leaving and I couldn’t tell which train was which. Mercifully, a local woman took mercy on me and explained the system and I was able to make the 10 minute ride with no problem! My destinations were the Jerónimos Monastery and the Tower of Belém. The Jerónimos Monastery was constructed in the 1500s and is one of those places that you kind of have to see to believe. They say if you’ve seen one old church, you’ve seen them all, but those people have clearly never been to this particular church and monastery. The carvings, detail, and architecture were incredible.
You know what’s kind of awesome about being a tourist? Everyone in the world understands the universal sign for “Will you take a picture?” which is basically holding up your camera and mimicking pressing down on the button. Even when I didn’t carry my tripod around, I had no problem getting my picture taken by locals and tourists alike, whether I spoke their language or not. I tend to ask other people with cameras because then I can offer to take their picture in exchange and I don’t have to worry about feeling guilty for inconveniencing them. Yes, this is a weird thing to feel guilty about and yes, I probably need to go back to therapy.
After visiting the monastery, I headed to the Tower of Belém. For just a few euro, I got a sweeping view of the city and learned some interesting facts about the Portuguese military and prison system. Attractions in Portugal are cheap, y’all.
As I began my long walk back to the train station, I stopped at a little stand to buy a t-shirt for AJ. The owner noticed my accent, asked me where I was from, and was absolutely euphoric when I told him I was from the U.S. “OH!!!” he said. “I want to move to Miami very much! Tell me about the United States!” And so began an hour long conversation about the pros and cons of life here in America. It’s very interesting to hear about other countries’ perceptions of the U.S., particularly when they haven’t visited here before. This guy asked me about Donald Trump (of course) and then all sorts of other questions about what it is like to start a business in America, what it’s like to live in Florida, and all sorts of other things. He was one of those “American streets are paved with gold” type of people, and I didn’t want to dampen his enthusiasm, but I also didn’t want him to be disappointed when he arrived because, in case you haven’t noticed, our streets are not paved with gold; hell, in South Carolina, they are barely paved at all sometimes. Anyway, it was a great conversation and the perfect way to end my trip to Lisbon – I love talking to locals and sharing experiences. He is still determined to move to the U.S., so I guess I did a pretty good job of representing my country!
As much as I love to travel, there are not many places that I am absolutely aching to go back to. For the most part, I’m focused on seeing new and different parts of the world. Lisbon got in my blood, though. It seems like it’s always the side trips that end up being the best parts of my travels, and that might be the case here, too. I had a feeling 36 hours wouldn’t be enough, but I’m so glad I went – this brief excursion has whet my appetite for much more time spent on the mainland of Portugal. Hey, 36 hours is better than nothing, right?