Layover in Lisbon: A Peek at Portugal

I seem to have a knack for squeezing as much as possible out of my trips. Previously, I wrote an article on how I like to turn layovers into opportunities to explore, in order to make the most of my time while I travel. The day I was able to spend in Lisbon was the result of me trying to do just that. The original plan for this trip was to land in Copenhagen and backpack my way to Amsterdam.  TAP (Air Portugal) had low priced tickets but the kicker was the layover they offered. When I saw a 23-hour layover, at first I was a bit dismayed until I realized that I could use that time to see a bit of Portugal.

Luckily for me, I felt right at home with the subway so it took me very little time to get to my hostel. I stayed a place right in the heart of the city adjacent to the Praça do Comércio, and only two blocks from the banks of the Tagus. The location was pretty much smack dab in the middle of everything making it really easy to explore the city. I also couldn’t have asked for better weather. When I left New York it was cold and gray and when I landed in Lisbon, it was warm and sunny.

There were two main neighborhoods of the city that I wanted to see: Belém and Alfama. The monuments in Belém were closing first, so I took the advice of the employees of the hostel I was staying in and hopped the number 15 tram. About a 20-minute ride will get you from the Plaça do Comércio to the Belém stop.

I swung by the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos first. The monastery is quite large and houses a few different museum exhibits at the moment, including one that houses artifacts from the Roman occupation of the city. The Roman influence is still surprisingly heavy across Lisbon, especially for somewhere so far away from Rome. The cloisters here are quite possibly the most ornate I’ve seen yet, with elaborate carvings marking each arch. The church itself was just as decorated and was quite a sight from the upper level.

After the monastery, I made my way down to the Tower of Belém. Built in the early 16th century as a defensive structure, the tower is a stunning testament to the importance of the city. So much so, that the tower was labeled a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983! The edifice resembles medieval keeps, with the exception of the lower platform built much later on. It was easy to picture trading ships here, moving quickly through the water on their way to or from the river and the sea.

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The line for the tower was very long and didn’t seem to be moving, so I didn’t bother waiting to go in. However, I spotted a little cart by the water that was selling wine to go and I couldn’t resist. The location was just so pretty that I had to get a glass of porto and sit by the water for a few minutes admiring the beauty of the water and the architecture of the tower, as well as the city sprawling away behind me in the other direction. After having flown overnight and not sleeping on the plane, it was the perfect way to relax for a few minutes.

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On my way back to the tram, I stopped at Pastéis de Belém to grab a couple of the famous creamy custard tarts to eat a little later on. The line was long but the pastries were definitely worth the wait, and seeing as I was not staying long enough to get to sample much of the local cuisine, I decided that the tarts were a must.

I arrived back at the Plaça do Comércio with just enough time to make my way up to the Castelo de São Jorge. The castle itself only dates from the 11-century Moorish occupation of the site, though human habitation here has been discovered as far back as the 7th and 8th centuries BC. The views from the walls and towers of the castle are absolutely incredible. A few terraces provide panoramic views over certain parts of the city, though from the ramparts one can get a 360-degree view of almost the whole of Lisbon. The castle was fascinating because I had yet to visit a seemingly untouched piece of Moorish architecture. There was even a peacock walking around the ramparts, completely unafraid of the people walking by him.

Though the cathedral was near to closing, I was able to pop in to see the interior. I was only able to stop by briefly. Next time I go back I’ll visit more thoroughly, especially because the cloisters built behind the cathedral, though not open when I was there, house an archeological dig site where fragments dating to Celtic and Pheonecian occupation were found.

At this point, I returned to my hostel for dinner (there was a wonderful deal on dinner and drinks there, as well as the chance to meet other travelers). Much of the rest of the night involved meeting and hanging out with the people I met, though for the sake of brevity, I’ll write about that at a later date.

I loved Lisbon so much. I know I have to return someday to explore a little more, as well as to branch out and see other cities across the country. This specific trip taught me a lot of important lessons, one of which was to stop looking back and saying “I wish I had more time” and to start saying “I’m so glad I even got to visit ____.” I like to think I will be able to return somewhere and am trying to teach myself to be grateful for the experiences I do get to have rather than always wishing for more. I can’t wait to return one day to sit by the water again and enjoy the city once more!

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