Fly in from London at 6:00 a.m. Once in your seat, learn your flight has been delayed an hour. Sleep on your husband’s shoulder. Your neck hurts, but it’s 6:00 a.m. and the coffee service is a long way off.
Land in Lisbon much later than you would have liked. Find the taxi line, to learn they nearly all take cash. Try to take out cash from three ATM machines in the airport lobby. Denied. Denied. Denied. Ask the lady at the newsstand in French — the only language you both understand — where you can find a working ATM. Go up three floors and emerge in a room containing nothing but an ATM. Check your six. Rush back downstairs, fists full of euros.
Take the thankfully quick ride down wide avenues and steep curves into Baixa. The driver drops you off two blocks from your hotel, explaining in swishy syllables that it would take 5 more minutes to drive there on these narrow, one-way streets. Walk. Admire the black and white cobblestones beneath your already-weary feet.
Check in. The receptionist walks you through a map of Lisbon. Memorize the names of two tram lines, a couple of sights, and the neighborhood with the bars. Wash up, change clothes, and beeline for the nearest tipple.
But the sun will set soon — the winter solstice was mere days ago — so take a detour in the waning light to snap some photos of at the Arco da Rua Augusta on Praca do Comercio. Walk along the water and squint to admire the 25th April Bridge and Christ the Redeemer. (You didn’t realize Lisbon had one, too.) Wonder if this is what San Francisco would look like if it had been settled by Catholics.
Cut left and have a drink and some appetizers at Populi, because your hotel gave you coupons and it’s happy hour. Go in with healthy skepticism, but leave full (codfish cakes) and buzzed (caipirinhas).
Head back to the hotel to scope out dinner options. When it comes to the nightlife, you’ve heard that Bairro Alto is the neighborhood to beat. And it’s just a stone’s throw from your hotel. You worry for a moment, because you’ve also read the streets are very steep. Then you remember that you are from San Francisco (settled by drunken sailors), and you walk.
It’s steep. But nothing comes close to Taylor Street.
Bask in buttery prawns, tangy sardines, and beautiful service at Petisco’s. Order a bottle of vinho verde for a stunning 14 euros. Realize this may be heaven in a glass, and panic that you may never find it again when you get back home. (You will.)
Wander down the narrow, cobblestoned street, only to be pulled in just a few doors down by a thumping Brazilian band. Drink 6-euro caipirinhas out of plastic cups that could be classified as buckets. Breathe in cubic pounds of secondhand smoke, and consider your dry cleaning bill, but not the hospital one. Dance with a middle-aged woman and her niece and nephew. Grin, stumble downhill, and pass out.
Wake up late. This is a vacation, after all. You deserve this. (You couldn’t move if you wanted to, anyway.)
Decide to use your half-day to explore Belém. It only has a couple sights, anyway, and it’s just a few miles down the road. The receptionist had mentioned a tram, but you’re lazy and cabs are cheap.
Eleven euros later, wander up to the Torre de Belém. You can say with confidence that you have never seen anything like this before. That doesn’t mean you want to stand in the unmoving line to go inside, but it really is something of beauty. Snap some photos, and dash off in search of coffee and anything but codfish.
Struggle to find any eatery along the waterfront that isn’t a cash-only café, an Italian diner, or a high-end restaurant. Give up and settle on something that looks unassuming, but ends up being slow, expensive, and flavorless. Kick yourself for not eating in Baixa before you left.
Barely sated, dash over to the Jerónimos Monastery before it closes. Pop in and admire the ornamental stonework. Check out Vasco de Gama’s tomb. Try to remember exactly which one Vasco da Gama was.
Exit left and notice a charming street lined with shops and restaurants. Kick yourself for not eating here.
Spot a very long line outside a restaurant. The awning says Pastéis de Belém. You remember your Portuguese friend saying you simply must try a traditional pastry – the Pastel de Nata – at Pastéis de Belém. You eye the line with fear in your heart, but decide you have nothing better to do, and you’re still hungry, anyway. Walk out ten minutes later and a few euros poorer holding two tiny, hot, melt-in-your-mouth pastries. They are like creme brûlée cradled in a cup of filo. Hail a cab, and savor them all the way back to Baixa. (Yes, you’re eating in a car in Europe. They’ll survive.)
You’re getting up early the next day, so skip the nightlife for a relaxed bottle of vinho verde with a view on the rooftop of the Bairro Alto Hotel. Ponder your good fortune, and note that the secondhand smoke isn’t so bad in the open air.
Wake up bright and early — yes, you, truly — and walk to Rossio train station. Head up the escalators to the train platform. Try to work the ticket machine. Give up and go to the ticket agent. Ask nicely for two round-trip tickets (~9 euros) to Sintra.
Tuck back downstairs for a coffee and a croissant. (God forbid you make the same hunger-induced mistakes as yesterday.) Board your train relatively full and relatively awake, and settle in for the 45 minute ride.
Disembark at Sintra station. You know you need to catch the 434 tourist bus, which will take you up the winding hills to Sintra’s bevy of whimsical castles. But you aren’t sure whether you catch it at the station or in the town. You decide to walk into the town.
You should have caught it at the train station. But the walk is nice, anyway.
Admire the perfectly quaint “historic town” and the whitewashed walls of the Royal Palace. Get in line for the 434 at the foot of the palace. Within five minutes you’re paying the driver your 5 euros (cash) for the round-the-horn bus ride to the Moorish Castle, the Pena Palace, and back to the train station.
Hold on very tightly to your husband as the bus takes impossibly tight corners up extremely steep hills, and thank all the Catholic saints that you did not walk to the castles of Sintra.
Exit the bus at the first stop, the Moorish Castle. It’s drizzly, but you don’t mind — there couldn’t be a better backdrop for a castle that looks drawn straight from a medieval fairy tale. Think to yourself (actually, out loud, to your very understanding husband) that you feel like you’re Robin Hood. Wait to feel embarrassed. He enthusiastically agrees with you. Renew your wedding vows (in your head this time).
Buy your ticket. You get a discount for buying them in bundles, so get one for the Pena Palace, too. Hike the half-mile up the hill and pop into the ancient church. Trek further up the path until you reach the ramparts, jutting up from the earth against a blinding grey sky. Scramble up the stone steps. Look out at the ocean. Walk along the edge of the world.
(Try not to get blown off.)
Take a thousand photos you wish had turned out better. Wonder to yourself (actually, out loud) if you should have come yesterday, when it was sunny.
But decide that, no, you’d rather be Robin Hood.
Catch the 434 again toward Pena Palace. Hop off when you spot a castle that looks like it’s been colored in by an entire kindergarten class.
Tour the outside. Pretend you are a princess. Tour the inside. Take in the Sweet Life of Portugal, 1908. (Sweet except for the assassination bit.) Decide eventually that you are quite windblown and very tired. Hop back on the bus, and exit at the historic town in search of warm sustenance. Enjoy a hot meal and a large beer, with a heaping side of admiration from the waiter at the size of beer you ordered. Tell him, “Thank you, I went to college.” (Actually, you said that part in your head.)
When you get back to the hotel, take a hot shower and a quick nap. You wake up famished, and your husband reminds you that he wants to eat piri-piri chicken while in Lisbon. Follow your Yelp to Restaurante Bonjardim. It looks empty, and the atmosphere is lacking. For a moment, you question your decision. But you are hungry! And you’ve made a commitment.
The chicken is quite possibly the best you have ever tasted.
On your way back, tuck into a ginjinha to try ginja, a Portuguese cherry liqueur. Have one shot. It is delightful, and it is enough.
Buttressed by chicken, ginja, and your afternoon nap, hike back to Bairro Alto. You have heard about fado, a traditional type of Portuguese music. You’ve read that Tasca do Chico is the best spot for fado in Bairro Alto. When you arrive, it is packed. Flattened against the back door, you stay for one lovely song, and then promptly duck out.
Pop into a lively bar, full of singing patrons, for the night’s obligatory caipirinha. You sing and dance along, but soon crave something more. Scramble up the cobblestones until you hear a live guitar. Find a stool at the bar — your sweet husband stands behind you — and grin at the guitarist as he works through all the greatest hits since 1975. Sing alongside him, at the top of your lungs, until closing time.
The guitarist is Angolan. Befriend him as the bar is closing. He asks you to wait for him outside. Wait. Follow him and his friends all the way down the hill. Speak Spanish — the only language you all understand — with his groupies. End up at an 80s club near the water. Sometime around 4:00 a.m., resign yourself to sleep.
Sleep in. This is a vacation, after all.
There is only one major sight left in Lisbon that you want to see. You’ve been looking at it out your hotel window for days now, and you’d better finally go up there before it’s too late. But grab a quick hamburger first, to be safe. (You never want to see a codfish again.)
You’ve heard you should take the tram, because it’s a very steep walk. But the line at the tram stop is more than a block long, and the tram is tiny. Think perhaps you could take a cab. Decide that you are from San Francisco, and you’ll walk. It’s a beautiful day, anyway. (Maybe you should have gone to Sintra.)
Shed coats, scarves, and sweaters as you ascend the bluff toward São Jorge Castle. (It could give Taylor Street a run for its money.)
At the top of the hill, eye the line — many people wide and half a city block long — with fear in your heart. Decide that you and your husband can take turns between standing in line and touring the nearby souvenir shops. The line moves so fast, you’re the only one who gets a turn shopping.
Enter the grounds and beeline to the outer wall to see the view. You have around an hour before the sun starts to set, so you dash into the castle.
Walk along the edge of the world. The sun is hot, and the views are endless. You don’t almost blow off this time.
As the light begins to wane, it’s time to get moving. You have a plan — you always have a plan — to sip vinho verde on the walls of a moorish castle and watch the sun set behind Lisbon.
Find a table at the museum restaurant. It’s not exactly on the edge of the wall. Feel unsure about it. Then eye a wine cart a stone’s throw away. Tell your husband, “I’ll be right back!” and run — yes, really, run, in Europe — across the giant cobblestones to the cart. You have exactly enough euros left to buy a bottle of vinho verde. And you spot seats carved into the outer stone walls — seats on the edge! — from which you can watch the sunset.
Dash back to your very patient husband. He takes the cash, and you claim an alcove.
Twist open the cap on the squat, clear bottle, and watch the bubbles begin to rise. Through the liquid, cast amber by the setting sun, you see Lisbon. It is a time capsule, a city of ancient kings and explorers, beautifully preserved in centuries of history. And yet it is also unashamedly alive, refusing to cower in the face of present-day adversity.
Pour the dry, refreshing grape into the plastic champagne glasses. As the last rays of the sun disappear behind a red bridge, a thousand red-tile roofs, a giant Jesus, and the razor edge of the Atlantic, raise a toast to Lisbon.
Descend through the darkness back to Baixa, and back up again to Bairro Alto. Duck into the charming Lisboa Cheia de Graça for one last sumptuous meal. Smile at your husband across the tiny table crafted from wooden wine boxes. Sign yet another 45-euro bill in disbelief, having just gorged yourself on a fabulous meal, plus a bottle of wine.
Stumble back down the black-and-white cobblestones. Pass a live band in a twinkle-lit square. Take your husband’s hand — it really is quite steep. And ponder your good fortune.