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TPG contributor Adee Braun is a native New Yorker with expatriate tendencies. She’s lived in London, Paris and Budapest and traveled to over 30 countries around the world. Her recent travels have taken her to Rome, New Mexico, California and Japan. In addition to The Points Guy, she writes for Flavorwire and Untapped Cities. Today she takes us on a tour of one of Europe’s most underrated capitals: Lisbon.
In the 17th century, Portugal was at its height as a major maritime power whose empire spanned the globe, and its capital, Lisbon (Lisboa), was at the center of it all. But after two centuries of colonization in Africa and the Americas, wars fought at home and abroad, and a series of massive earthquakes, the Portuguese monarchy found itself nearly in ruins. When the historic, devastating earthquake of 1755 struck the city, followed by a tsunami, Lisbon was literally ruined. However, the forward-looking monarchy took the opportunity to rebuild the city in a new Enlightenment style with grand avenues, elegant open squares and beautiful, colorful buildings dotting its famous hills. And so, at the sunset of Portuguese dominance, Lisbon reemerged a glittering city by the sea. Although tough economic times have never really abated, and have hit Lisbon hard once again during the current European financial crisis, it remains an elegant, wistful and vibrant city that is well worth visiting.
Like San Francisco and Rio de Janeiro, Lisbon’s geography is perhaps its most defining feature. The city is perched on a series of hills that slope into the wide mouth of Rio Tejo where it flows into the Atlantic. The city center’s three unique neighborhoods are each at a different elevation, providing many breathtaking vantage points (seriously, those hills are steep). Bairro Alto is where Lisbon’s nightlife goes on until sunup, orderly Baixa’s 18th-century streets flow into the grand Praça do Comércio on the water, and in Alfama, medieval streets snake around the forbidding Castello de Sao Jorge.
WHAT TO DO
Lisbon’s nightlife in centered around the Bairro Alto which is perched above Baixa. The colorful buildings and narrow cobblestone streets are crowded with restaurants, bars, and clubs where you’ll find everything from Europop to fado music. Fado is Portugal’s signature musical form – a soulful mix of song and poetry whose doleful melodies and lyrics often lament love and life with deep yearning. Though often touristy, seeing good live fado is still an evocative, albeit cheerless experience. Check out Clube de Fado in the Alfama, for a less touristy fado experience than the clubs in the Bairro Alto. Make sure to book ahead on weekends.
Baixa is Lisbon’s elegant old business district where the grand Avenida da Liberdade ends and the neatly laid out 18th-century grid begins. The neighborhood is bookended by the Praça dos Restauradores with its giant obelisk and the aptly named Praça do Comércio. You’ll find lots of restaurants and cafes in Baixa, many geared towards tourists. But look for Portuguese-only menus and you’ll find delicious seafood and pastries at uninflated prices.
The Alfama is the only neighborhood left of medieval Lisbon. Its winding streets leading up to the Castelo de São Jorge are most atmospheric at sunset. From the height of the castle you can look out onto the glowing city and the Tejo (Tagus) River. The only remaining building of the castle houses a museum of Lisbon’s history. But a stroll around the shady gardens with its roaming peacocks is pretty magical. Also in Alfama you can get the iconic experience of riding on a classic yellow Lisbon tram. Lines 28 and 12 are the most scenic, jostling up hills and along the narrow streets.
Lisbon may not have the array of museums of Madrid, London or Paris, but it does have the Gulbenkian Museum. The museum started as the private collection of one Calouste Gulbenkian, a billionaire Armenian Iberiophile. Today it holds a dazzling collection of ancient, Islamic, Oriental and European masterpieces that should not be missed.
Take the tram out to Belem to see the monument to the explorers, the iconic white tower watching over the harbor, and stop for one of the famous egg-filled pastries at Pasteis de Belem. The nearby Jeronimos Monastery, a wonder of late Gothic architecture, is where sailors used to say a final prayer before setting off across the Atlantic and its bucolic cloister and ornate chapel are well worth a visit.
WHERE TO EAT
Portuguese food is fresh and simple, and eating and drinking in Lisbon is a relaxed and delicious experience. Lisbon cuisine is often a mix of local seafood with Mediterranean flavors. Baby octopus are slapped on a grill with olive oil, lemon and garlic, buttery custard pastries are served with a cup of bica (a shot of black coffee), and glasses of port are poured to be sipped on and savored. There are many classic cafés in Lisbon. Cafe a Brasileira is one of the oldest and most famous.
For great views and outdoor lingering check out the café around Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara, at the top of the leafy Principe Real neighborhood. Good, local, low-key eateries are not hard to find. At O Cantinho do Bem Estar (Rua do Norte 46) you’ll find Portuguese and Spanish seafood dishes like delicious grilled sardines and garlicky squid, so good you won’t even notice the hue of the fluorescent lighting. Upscale nouveau Portuguese cuisine is gaining ground in Lisbon, like at Largo where modern dishes with an international twist are served in a dining room flanked by jellyfish-filled tanks.
For a chic night out with Lisbon’s fashionable set, make a reservation at 100 Maneiras, where the chef is Bosnian, but the cuisine is an inspired, seasonal take on classic Portuguese seafood and cuisine, with some creative cocktails thrown in.
The Lisbon airport (Lisbon Portela Airport) is relatively close to the city center (just over four miles). This past July, a new Metro station was built connecting the airport to the city in 25 minutes for 1.90 EUR ($2.54 USD) A taxi ride will only take about 15 minutes and run you roughly 10 EUR ($13.38 USD). To avoid over-paying, pre-book a taxi, decide on a price before getting in the cab, or at the very least take a metered one. Carris buses have several lines that run into the city costing 1.35 EUR ($1.81 USD). Or you can get an all-day ticket for 3.35 EUR ($4.48 USD) that is valid on all city buses and trams. AeroBus also runs frequent service to the city; every 20 minutes from 7am – 9pm.
A new, higher-capacity airport, is slated to be built by 2017. Until then, there have been some renovations, such as to Terminal 2, which got a facelift a couple years ago. There are two terminals: Terminal 1 (the main building) that serves arrivals and departures and all international flights, Terminal 2 only serves departures to Portugal and Europe.
Star Alliance: TAP is Portugal’s national airline and serves Lisbon directly from New York. On United, roundtrip flights from New York require 60,000 United miles and $124.60 in taxes and fees on Economy, and 100,000 miles and $141.50 in taxes and fees on Business/First.
Oneworld: Using American AAdvantage miles automatically gets you on partner airline, British Airways and annoyingly routes you through London for 40,000 Avios points for Economy, or 100,000 for Business/First plus over $500 in taxes and fees. But here’s how you can avoid those nasty fees. You could also use your AAdvantage miles to fly on Iberia through Madrid.
Skyteam: Delta flies from New York with stops usually in Amsterdam, Paris or Frankfurt. An Economy ticket will run you 60,000 Skymiles plus $79 in taxes and fees, or 100,00 Skymiles plus $88 in taxes and fees in Business if you can find low-level availability.
As one of the smaller and less-frequented destinations in Europe, points hotel options are a little more limited than in, say Paris or London, but there are still choices out there as well as plenty of great independent hotels.
Radisson Blu Hotel Lisbon: This property caters to business clients due to its proximity to the airport (5 minutes by taxi). But a 5-minute walk to the nearest metro stop at Campo Grande will get you into the city center in 15 minutes. The hotel’s modern design is functional and simple with warm wood touches in many rooms. Amenities include complimentary WiFi, fitness center access, and shuttle bus service to the airport. Rates in February start at 60 EUR ($80.28 USD) or 38,000 Gold Points.
There are four Marriott-brand hotels in the Lisbon area. When you redeem points for four nights you get the fifth night free.
Fontecruz Lisboa Marriott: This central hotel is located right on the grand Avenida de Liberdade and has an eclectic, boutique feel (large black and white photos of historic Lisbon landmarks are used as headboards). All rooms have free WiFi, flatscreen TV’s, and some have balconies. There’s no on-site fitness center. The hotel restaurant features Spanish and Portuguese cuisine and there’s a Moët & Chandon Bar. This is a Category 6 hotel. Rates in February start at 104 EUR ($142 USD) or 30,000 Marriott Rewards points.
Penha Longa Hotel, Spa & Golf Resort: This Ritz-Carlton (also one of the American Express Platinum Fine Hotels & Resorts) is located in Sintra, a lush spot in the hills about 30 minutes from Lisbon where royals and aristocrats built their vacation palaces to flee the city heat. Nestled amongst the greenery is this sprawling pink and white Penha Longa resort with 194 guest rooms, no less than five restaurants, two golf courses, and a massive spa, not to mention a fitness center, two pools, and amazing grounds. All rooms come with iPod docks and you can even rent an iPod should your heart desire some tunes while lounging on your private balcony (all rooms have one). Rooms are airy and unfussy with great views being the main attraction. Rates in February start at 185 EUR ($250 USD). It’s a tier 2 property requiring 40,000 Ritz-Carlton Rewards per night.
AC Hotel Lisboa: This Marriott-brand property is a basic but comfortable hotel with functionally-styled (somewhat spartan) rooms. Though a little hard to locate in a corner below the main street, it’s only 5 minutes from the nearest Metro station to get to the city center. The free WiFi is only available in the lobby and at the AC Bar. This is a Category 3 hotel. Rates in February start at 105 EUR ($145 USD), or 15,000 Marriott Rewards points.
The Lisbon Marriott Hotel (Category 5, 25,000 Marriott Rewards points) is about a half hour metro ride from the city center.
The two Holiday Inns in Lisbon are nearly indistinguishable, curved glass slabs in the northern part of the city not far from the Gulbenkian Museum. Both have fitness centers and all the basic amenities expected from a comfortable and utilitarian hotel. The Holiday Inn Lisbon Continental, the slightly sleeker of the two, has two restaurants and a cocktail lounge, and a 5 EUR ($6.69 USD) service charge for WiFi, while the Holiday Inn Lisbon only has one restaurant, no cocktail lounge, a 7 EUR ($9.37) WiFi charge and an outdoor pool. Otherwise, they might as well be the same hotel. Rates are identical: starting at 15,000 points or 60 EUR ($80 USD) in February.
Sheraton Lisboa Hotel & Spa: Housed in a hard-to-miss tower near the center of the city, this hotel offers 369 modern rooms with flatscreen TV’s and views overlooking the city. There’s a fitness center and a huge spa with eight treatment rooms and an outdoor pool, all accessible for a 12.5 EUR ($16.73 USD) daily fee. Sheraton Club guests get some upgrades such as complimentary access to the fitness center and the Club Lounge offering complimentary breakfast, afternoon hors d’oeuvres and drinks. WiFi is available for 19 EUR ($25 USD) a day both for in-room access and in the public areas. The Panorama Restaurant and bar offers – you guessed it – amazing panoramic views of the city. This is a Category 4 hotel with rates in February starting at 100 EUR ($135 USD) or 10,000 Starpoints.
Fine Hotels & Resorts
Fine Hotels & Resorts is a loyalty program for Amex Platinum cardholders who receive special benefits at participating hotels such as early check-in and late check-out, complimentary breakfast, room upgrades, and other perks.
Hotel Ritz Lisbon: In a stark, imposing mid-century building that belies its lavish interior, the Four Seasons hotel located near the heart of the city, about a 10-minute walk from Bairro Alto and Baixa. The Ritz has an indoor lap pool and a rooftop fitness center complete with a running track with great river views. Deluxe rooms are decorated with classic furniture and features balconies and stunning views of Eduardo VII Park and the city. Even standard rooms are relatively large at 452 square feet. The elegant hotel restaurant, Veranda, looks onto the park with an extensive wine list and fresh seafood, while the Ritz Bar offers outdoor seating in warmer months. There’s also the Almada Negeiros Lounge, which serves high tea. Rates in February start at 354 EUR ($466 USD).
Olissippo Lapa Palace Hotel: This opulent landmark hotel is situated amongst Lisbon’s seven hills in the Lapa district, about a 5-minute cab ride from the city center. Like many historic buildings, the hotel is a collection of styles and additions. At its core, it is a well-preserved 19th-century palace built in the 18th-century Portuguese royal style. Two additional sections were built in the later half of the 20th century, producing a range of room styles and sizes. The deluxe suites on the top floors of the palace include some original furnishings and marble bathrooms, while other rooms have reproductions or more modern designs. Some of the meeting rooms are truly ornate with mirrored walls, large chandeliers, and decorative furnishings. There’s a spa with a sauna and a Turkish bath, as well as indoor and outdoor pools and a gym. WiFi is free in the business center but only available in the public spaces and private rooms at additional cost. The Lapa Restaurant offers Mediterranean Italian cuisine in an elegant dining room and the Rio Tejo bar opens its doors out to the terrace overlooking its namesake during warm months. Rates in February start at 400 EUR ($542 USD).
The Ritz Carlton Penha Longa Hotel, Spa & Golf Resort in Sintra, mentioned earlier, is also part of the Fine Hotels & Resorts group.
Visa Signature Hotels
Visa Signature cardmembers are eligible to enjoy special perks at participating hotels, such as room upgrades, late check-out, free in-room internet, complimentary internet or valet parking, internet, food and beverage credits and other amenities.
Bairro Alto Hotel: This hip inn is located in the trendy Bairro Alto neighborhood, right on the lovely Luís de Camões Square. It is housed in a restored custard-yellow building with historic charm and classic touches (gotta love a clawfoot bathtub). At an intimate 55 rooms, the hotel is optimized for relaxation with double-paned windows and rooms bathed in a palette of warm tones. Standard rooms are a decent size at 250-300 square feet. The Flores Restaurant serves up Portuguese and Mediterranean dishes while the BA Terrace offers both food and drinks for diners in cushioned wicker chairs overlooking the terracotta rooftops and the aqua Tagus River, if you’re into that sort of thing. Rates in February start at 200 EUR ($270 USD).
Pestana Palace Hotel & National Monument: Another custard creation, this one is of the baroque revival variety. The hotel, which lies just outside the city in a residential neighborhood, is a 19th-century palace complete with lavish suites, a gilded dining room and an original chapel. The spectacular grounds are classified as a national monument. The modern additions to the hotel offer some budget room options with more contemporary decor. The hotel has many opulent sitting rooms for copious lounging-like-royalty opportunities. Amenities include a Turkish bath, indoor and outdoor pools and a spa. There’s also a free shuttle to get you into the city, though it only runs four times daily. Overlooking the lush gardens, the Valle Flor Restaurant serves high quality Portuguese cuisine and the Allegro Bar offers light meals, drinks and live music. Rates in February start at 200 EUR ($270 USD).
Tivoli Palácio de Seteais: This palace hotel is sequestered in the Sintra hills about 10 minutes by cab from the main part of town. The hotel sits on some beautiful grounds complete with a pool, tennis court and plenty of topiary. There’s an elaborate piano room, a stunning dining room that opens onto a veranda, and several other public sitting rooms bursting with pastels, scrollwork and plush upholstery. The buffet breakfast is a gorgeous spread while the dinner (often set to live music) offers serviceable Portuguese-Mediterranean fare. Rooms are comfortable, quiet and spacious with tasteful 18th-century reproduction furniture and flatscreen TV’s. Rates in February start at 160 EUR ($216 USD).
The ultra-modern Altis Belem Hotel & Spa is just outside the city center on a tranquil harbor. Rates in February start at 230 EUR ($311 USD). The large and centrally located Tivoli Lisboa offers rooms starting at 135 EUR ($182 USD) in February. When you stay for three nights, you get the fourth free through March 31. With some great bonus categories, the American Express Gold Card has a lot going for it. The card offers 4x points at US restaurants, at US supermarkets (up to $25,000; then 1x), and 3x points on flights booked directly with airlines or through amextravel.com. It is currently offering a welcome bonus of 35,000 bonus points after you spend $2,000 in the first three months.
With some great bonus categories, the American Express Gold Card has a lot going for it. The card offers 4x points at US restaurants, at US supermarkets (up to $25,000; then 1x), and 3x points on flights booked directly with airlines or through amextravel.com. It is currently offering a welcome bonus of 35,000 bonus points after you spend $2,000 in the first three months.