Portugal has become a darling of travelers, and Jayme Simoes, who has been a marketing consultant for the country, knows just about everything to see and do there. We recently spoke with him, mainly about the Lisbon area.
Lea: What qualities make Portugal so special?
Jayme: Portugal is actually Europe’s oldest country in terms of existing within its current frontiers. But what really makes Portugal wonderful is the people: welcoming, kind, friendly. It makes it special being in a place where the language is difficult, and the culture is unfamiliar, and the cuisine is new.
And it’s a Goldilocks climate: not too cold in the winter, not too hot in the summer, doesn’t rain terrific amounts in the south. The people, the topography, the culture, the cuisine make Portugal special.
Lea: So let’s focus on Lisbon, the pastel-hued, hilly coastal city.
Jayme: People have lived in Lisbon since antiquity. The name “Lisbon” means “city of Ulysses” because, according to the Romans, it was founded by Ulysses. In fact, if you’re downtown and walking down the Rua Augusta, you can make reservations in advance and go under some of the buildings. As you get close to the river they were renovating buildings that were built after the the earthquake of 1755, and they discovered Roman Lisbon and Carthaginian Lisbon.
But the city itself, as we see today, is mostly post-1755, when the massive earthquake, fire and flood damaged or destroyed huge portions of the city.
What emerged was a city that feels grand, imperial, wealthy and celebratory. But up until about 30 years ago it had fallen on hard times, and many beautiful buildings had become abandoned or fallen into disrepair.
Lisbon has gone through an amazing revitalization. People from all over the world have bought crumbling but beautiful buildings and transformed them into showplaces. So the city has a grandeur it hasn’t probably seen since the 19th century. It’s booming today.
There are new restaurants, new museums, new hotels and new things to do. In a sense, I mourn the old Lisbon. It was a little bit tattered, former imperial capital. Today it’s a multi-ethnic, fun, thriving city with adventures and products: from its medieval quarter to its Moorish quarter to its fantastic Belem District with 16th century monuments in the age of Portuguese exploration.
Colorful buildings climbing up hillsides, its beautiful vast river, the red tile roofs, the wonderful churches, its little yellow trolleys — so much about Lisbon gives you a sense that there’s nothing else like it on the face of the earth.
Lea: Off a cruise ship, many people only have a day in Lisbon. Tell us a few things that you absolutely shouldn’t miss?
Jayme: I’d almost say throw the guidebook away and don’t hit the popular points. Everyone’s gonna head to see Jeronimos Monastery but you’re probably going to wait in line for an hour to get in. Try and get to some of the off-the-beaten-path places in Lisbon.
Walk up and tour Carmo monastery, a beautiful church built by the sainted Constable Álvares Pereira in the 14th century. Its roof collapsed in the earthquake, and it really is the only place where you can get kind of the power and horror of that day of November 1, 1755.
There’s a wonderful park not far from there, San Pedro de Alcántara, with sweeping views of the city. Most tourists don’t know about it. You can see the castle on the hill across from you.
And it’s not far from the wonderful Church of San Roque, given to the king of Portugal by the Pope, a baroque church with a chapel that has amazing lapis lazuli, blue marble.
People take trolleys, and certainly they’re fun. But for a couple of bucks you can ferry across the Tagus River to casinos on the other side, and get stupendous views of the city. There’s a historic port that you can visit, and a statue of Christ in His Majesty.
Lea: What about food?
Portuguese food’s terrific, but find a Goan restaurant. Goa was a Portuguese city in India for 450 years, and the food that emerged there is different from the rest of India. It’s a really cool combination of Portuguese ideas and Indian implementation. You know vindaloo, of course; Goan is Vinha D’Alhos. Several restaurants feature Goan food in the historic part of Lisbon.
Lea: At night, locals go to fado clubs. Tell us about fado.
Jayme: It’s traditional Portuguese music; some compare it to flamenco but I think that’s unfair to both. We believe that fado’s origin goes back to the Middle Ages and provencal poetry, but it saw a golden period around the time of the Portuguese civil war in the mid-19th century.
Today fado has found a new soul and a new generation of young singers. I would say look more to the Mouraria and the Alfama areas than to the Bairro Alto. Go for the fado houses that are for locals, like Cafe Luso, where anybody can walk in and sing fado songs. It’s cathartic.
People describe these as sad songs, they’re not. Yes, there’s loss and longing and tattered relationships, but there’s a certain ability to cleanse your soul with the sadness of this music, to make you actually feel good. So when Portuguese go to hear fado, it actually makes them feel better.
Lea: It sounds like the blues.
Jayme: Very good comparison. Number one rule: the later you go, the better the music. Number two rule: “Be quiet, we’re going to sing the fado.” That’s a sign of respect to the person singing. I say go hear the real fado, hear the soul of Portugal laid out in all of its beauty.
Lea: Now, just west of Lisbon is an affluent coastal region, called the Portuguese Riviera by some. Tell us about what we shouldn’t miss there?
Jayme: You’ve got a really good rail service that will take you to Cascais and to Sintra. These are highlights for many visiting Lisbon.
Let’s put Sintra at the top of the list. There are two palaces: one medieval; one late 19th century, kind of Portuguese-Victorian. There’s an ancient Moorish Castle, and palaces that belong to the nobility, because the port was there, the king and queen were there. So it’s a really a beautiful town: Lots of monuments, great food, great restaurants; very posh as well, and a very cool climate. So even in summer when it’s warm, Sintra will always be 10 degrees cooler than Lisbon.
Lea: I think it’s an Instagrammer’s dream, a fairy-tale area.
Jayme: It is. But get there early; the palaces draw crowds. You can then drive down to Colares, which has a wonderful winery and great restaurants, and end up at Cabo da Roca, the western-most point in continental Europe, with spectacular cliffs.
You can wind down the coast, which has beaches and surfing and pricey seaside restaurants, and end up in Cascais and Estoril which, again, is what people often say is the Portuguese Riviera.
These were fishing villages, but in the 19th century kings and queens thought it was a good place to live. So there’s spectacular architecture, wonderful museums, chic restaurants along the ocean. These are affordable by European standards, expensive by Portuguese standards: a nice place to spend the day, especially if it’s sunny out.
So many things to discover, places to walk around, and great shops selling tiles and antiques, high-end shoes and really nice clothing.
Lea: You could easily spend a lovely week in the Lisbon area; no wonder travelers rave. Thanks, Jayme. You’ve given us some terrific insider tips.
[The interview is adapted from a longer one about all of Portugal in Episode # ?? of my award-winning travel podcast, Places I Remember. Follow wherever you get podcasts, or at the links in my bio.]