By Randy Keck
This item appears on page 62 of the October 2011 issue.

(Part 1 of 2 on Portugal)

Entrancing, historic Lisbon beckons, then discreetly seduces first-time visitors with a trifecta of charm, beauty and civility.

In June 2011, I enjoyed a split four-day stay in Lisbon sandwiched around four days in the nearby Alentejo region on a visit to Portugal hosted by L’AND Vineyards (Herdade das Baladas, Estrada Nacional 4, 7050 Montemor-o-novo, Portugal; phone +351 266 242 400).

Upon arriving, I used a Lisboa Card to explore the hilly city on a self-guided basis, with the goal of experiencing some of the countless visitor attractions and capturing a true feel for day-to-day life there.

Lisboa Card magic

The Lisboa Card is the key to independent exploring, as it offers unlimited access to most public transport and free or discounted admission to museums and other visitor attractions.

With a validity of 24 hours ($24), 48 hours ($38) or 72 hours ($47), it can be purchased online. To survey its myriad offerings, visit this page on the Go Lisbon website. Be advised that, for those age 65 or more, the senior rate at most museums is at a 50% discount, which is often better than the Lisboa Card rate.

Lisbon’s No. 28 tram winds through the narrow passages of the Alfama district — Lisbon. Photo: Keck

Using the card, my transport was a combination of trams, buses and subways complemented by no shortage of hoofing. The famous No. 28 tram traverses the city and was a constant companion my first three days. It was often quite crowded, and visitors definitely must guard against the entrenched resident pickpockets, whom I observed on one occasion working in tandem.

On my second day I discovered the joy of the Lisbon underground, which is the cleanest, most user-friendly subway system I have ever experienced. It allows access to most areas of the city quickly and conveniently.

Estrela residential bliss

My preference to accommodate in residential neighborhoods when traveling was well fulfilled by Hotel da Estrela (Rua Saraiva de Carvalho, 35, Lisboa 1250-242, Portugal; phone +351 21 190 0100). Centrally located in the Estrela district, it’s in a quiet neighborhood near Jardim da Estrela, an inviting city park which I visited daily.

This lovely, new boutique hotel, situated on the grounds of the former palace of the Count of Paraty, was constructed in the style of a school that once occupied the property. The school theme throughout the property is charming, and the 19 rooms and suites are spacious, with quality furnishings and ultracomfortable beds. Room rates range from €140 to €190 (near $198-$269) per night, double.

Lisbon explorations

One day I traveled to the riverside suburb of Belém, the site of numerous historic attractions.

I marveled at the carved stonework of 16th-century Jerónimos Monastery before visiting Belém Tower, built in 1515. Both have deservedly been accorded UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

At the waterfront Discoveries Monument, I enjoyed and recommend the 20-minute multimedia presentation which provides a fascinating tutorial of Lisbon’s storied history. Another “must” stop is Antiga Confeitaria de Belém to sample the famous pastéis de Belém, the finest custard tarts imaginable.

One of my first Lisbon visits was to the hilltop St. George’s Castle. Of 12th-century origin, it provides insights into early Lisbon and Portuguese history plus sweeping views over the city. You can easily explore the grounds on your own.

Later, outside of the castle, I wandered the narrow streets and alleyways maze of the medieval Alfama district, marveling at the ageless architectural fusings and the ability of the locals to coexist in such tight quarters.

Alfama is perhaps best described as a time capsule of the period before most of Lisbon was destroyed in the 1755 earthquake. With its rock-solid foundations, much of the former Moorish and (at a different time) Jewish quarter was able to survive that disaster.

The Lisbon city center, from its base at Praça do Comércio on the riverfront, is easily managed on foot. The city is also a draw for museum aficionados, many of whom choose to return to Lisbon for extended visits.

Feira da Ladra flea market

On a Saturday, I took the No. 28 tram to the expansive, colorful Feira da Ladra flea market at Campo de Santa Clara, disembarking in front of the São Vicente de Fora Church. This was an opportunity to interact with the locals amid a backdrop of centuries-old churches and other historic structures, with views of the river below.

I then toured the adjacent São Vicente Monastery and was captivated by the extensive collection of large murals composed of azulejos (tiles), all with animal themes and entertaining script in both Portuguese and English.

User-friendly Lisbon

It’s always a good idea on a trip to learn at least some words and phrases in the local language, but I found English to be widely spoken in Lisbon as well as in the areas I visited in the Alentejo.

While they were not long on optimism regarding current fiscal realities, the Portuguese I met were generally quite friendly and accommodating, possessing a rather relaxed, laid-back attitude toward life and with a pleasant lack of aggressiveness in both tone and behavior.

Sintra allure

For those traveling to Lisbon, I recommend visiting the leafy, green mountain village of Sintra, a destination adorned with several impressive palaces and clearly deserving of its UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.

For expediency, I chose the guided afternoon tour from Lisbon with Yellow Bus, which offers participants the option of visiting the extraordinary hilltop Pena Palace on a guided tour ($58) or having two hours in the village of Sintra to visit the 15th-century Palacio Nacional and partake of other self-guided exploring ($40).

The Yellow Bus tour included the nearby spectacularly rugged Atlantic coastline, making a stop at Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of Continental Europe, before returning to Lisbon.

Yellow Bus offers a range of guided touring options in Lisbon, including hop-on/hop-off buses that stop at all major tourist attractions.

Palácio Belmonte finale

After four days in the Alentejo, I spent my final day in Portugal back in Lisbon based at the extraordinary Palácio Belmonte (Palácio Belmonte, Páteo Dom Fradique, 14, 1100 - 624 Lisboa, Portugal; phone +351 21 881 66 00), located in the Alfama district just below St. George’s Castle.

With origins dating to 200 BC and constructed on the oldest building site in the city, Belmonte proved to be a destination in itself. Classified as a national monument, the 11-suite palácio was lovingly reconstructed over the last 10 years by the owner, who spared no expense and used construction practices and materials authentic to the site’s centuries-long heritage.

Belmonte features 15th- to 18th-century furnishings and offers a unique, “living history” experience for the discerning visitor, including an organic breakfast served on the lush, private garden patio overlooking the city. Rates for suites range from €400 to €1,000 ($567-$1,416) per night, double.

Lisbon can easily take weeks to fully explore, so I acknowledge that my brief but inspiring four days served only as an initiation. Next month, I’ll describe venturing inland to discover some of the many treasures of the Alentejo.

Keck's Beyond the Garden Wall

❝Lisboa simply “lives well,” a place it feels maravilhoso just to be ❞
— Randy extolling the virtues of Lisbon