Big and Small Travel have been traveling throughout Europe for two months. We’ve visited: Iceland, France, Switzerland, Corsica, Portugal, Italy, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, and Germany. Catch up on our travels at our Big and Small YouTube Page. Enjoy some of our most beloved videos below:
The oldest capital in Western Europe, Lisboa seems to have been neglected on the tourist circuit for quite some time, but is now a hot spot, mainly because of its warmer weather and cheaper prices. We spent one week in this historic city, climbing its steep hills, walking on the slippery and beautiful mosaic sidewalks, riding its trams, checking out its street art, and eating its delicious desserts. You’ll discover that Lisbon is unique, for a European capital, because of its history, size, and lack of exposure to the rest of the world. Here are a few things we learned along the way:
- Eat Pastel de Nata—As Often As You Can!
Portugal’s hand-sized custard tart is an absolute delight. It’s creamy, flaky, and decadent but not too sweet. We found it to be a great breakfast treat, afternoon pick-me-up, or late night sweet delight before climbing Lisboa’s steep hills. Pasteis de Belem is the place to go according to many tourist guides, but the pastries can be found at pretty much every café and patisserie throughout Portugal, starting at around 1 EU. Our favorite came from a small bakery called A Padaria Beira Tejo bakery in the Principe Real neighborhood, which is one of the hipper areas, with plenty of boutiques and artisanal food.
- Take a Day Trip to Sintra
For under 5 EU round trip, the 40-minute train ride from Lisboa’s Rossio station will get you to this lush, beautiful area rich with history, and dotted with exquisite castles, palaces, and gardens. Places to visit include: the gothic Palacio Nacional, the Moorish Castle ruins, the colorful Pena Palace, the grand Palacio de Monserrate, and the lush gardens of Quinta da Regaleira. The most popular attraction is the Pena Palace, but we decided to check out the Moorish Castle, the oldest of the sites—by far—dating back to the 9th and 10th century. Our second choice was Quinta Da Regaleira, which consists of a palatial mansion, luxurious park, lakes, grottoes, fountains, and mysterious symbols. Unfortunately, we got stuck in the rain on our visit, but we were able to duck into a corner spot in central Sintra called Loja Do Vinho to enjoy some local port and rose.
- Be Patient with Customer Service and Be Aware of Seemingly Free Extras and Appetizers
Customer service in Portugal is somewhat lacking. For example, we were asked to change tables—even while eating!—at three different places within our weeklong stay in Lisbon. I believe this was to accommodate as many people as possible, but it was a bit off-putting. We also noticed the staff would be changing constantly. In one restaurant, we had five different people we had ordered from—we weren’t quite sure what we would be getting.
Also, never assume that bread, olive oil, or butter are free—most often they are not—even if they serve it to you without you asking for it. The worst situation we came across was in Alfama at a fado restaurant. Right as we were seated, a waiter brought out a lush dish of appetizers including mussels and olives, along with bread. We said we didn’t want these, and saw that 10 extra Euros were crossed out from our bill at the end of the meal. Also, if you share an appetizer, you may be charged per person for it. Always ask the staff if what you are receiving is free, and be sure to carefully look over your bill.
- Visit the Sao Jorge Castle and Wander Around Alfama, But Avoid the Fado Restaurants
Alfama is a beautiful neighborhood to get lost in. Its winding streets get you from the riverfront to the Sao Jorge castle. The grand Sao Jorge sits high atop Lisbon and is full of nooks and crannies and beautiful vistas. Note that the castle may close on a rainy day (this is what happened to us!), because it can get slippery and dangerous walking around. And be sure to give yourself plenty of time to wander around (at least 1.5-2 hours), as its hard to see once the sun goes down.
The Alfama neighborhood is also home to fado. This soulful form of music (which literally means “fate”) is built on mournful, passionate lyrics peppered with feelings of resignation and melancholia—sentiments we felt summed up the overall feel of Portugal and its people. The music is beautiful and impactful and we highly recommend catching a show, but choose wisely. Alfama is filled with touristy restaurants that offer a free fado show with a very overpriced, often tasteless dinner. We made this mistake, and only found out after the fact that there are a number of spots and bars throughout the city in districts like Bairro Alto, offering free fado shows.
- Explore Various Neighborhoods, but Be Aware of Drug Dealers.
The city has several neighborhoods and areas to explore, including hot spots Baixa, Chiado, Bairro Alto, Principe Real, Avenida Da Liberdade, and Belem. If you visit Belem go along the waterfront and check out the 25 de Abril Bridge, which has an uncanny resemblance to the Golden Gate Bridge. Our favorite spot was Principe Real because it was a little less touristy, with cute boutiques and modern cafes. The broad, tree-lined Avenida Da Liberdade is exquisite and dotted with outdoor cafes, some that even include a DJ.
A warning, though: when walking through these super touristy areas, especially around Rossio Square, be aware of street peddlers trying to get your attention. Drugs may be brazenly offered to you. We were offered everything from marijuana to hashish to cocaine. One guy even had a coke ball in his hand and showed it to me without hesitation or qualms. Decriminalization of recreational drugs has made it easier for this to happen, and often the dealers are peddling fake drugs.
Overall, Lisbon feels quite different from its fellow European capitals. Its dark history, which includes an oppressive dictatorship, along with its current economic struggles has clearly had an impact on its people and culture, while Lisbon itself feels stuck in time, from its trams to its small restaurants with written paper menus hanging outside. It’s one of the rawest, humblest, and most unrefined spots of Western Europe.
Rich Food, Playful Puppets, River Walks & Hidden Passageways
The third largest city in France, Lyon is constantly in the shadows of big sister Paris, 300 miles to the northwest. In recent years, however, its gained notable attention as the “gastronomic capital of the world,” home to a number of Michelin star establishments. The city seems to throb to the pulse of the pig (or the duck), the main source material for its rich, fatty cuisine. While Lyon is modern in its hectic traffic and its hefty prices (which rival Paris, at least for food), it also feels a bit stuck in time, resolute in keeping the proud traditions of the French—which seem to revolve almost exclusively around food—completely unchanged and continually revered.
We spent about 48 hours in Lyon and packed quite a bit in. We stayed near Place Saint Vincent in the 1st arrondissement, an ideal spot, in my opinion. It’s a neighborhood of AirBnBs and local residents that is also a quick walk to the touristy Vieux Lyon (the old town). Here are some highlights from our quick trip, from belly-filling delights (and disappointments) to numerous ways to walk them all off… oh, and a puppet show!
EAT YOUR HEART OUT: Bouchons, Boulangeries, and a Biocoop
Admittedly, traditional French food is not my favorite cuisine. I cannot deny, however, that the ingredients and quality are unmatched. I had not had one bad meal in my two weeks in France—that is, until we sought out one of Lyon’s famed bouchons. This type of restaurant serves traditional Lyonnaise cuisine in all of its carnivorous glory (there’s even calf’s head for the more adventurous bellies).
There are some 20 “officially certified” bouchons in the city, denoted by a Les Bouchons Lyonnais symbol, and they are determined by such key factors as “products, dishes, décor, architecture, ambiance, customer welcome, etc.” We found one of these stamped-with-approval establishments in Vieux Lyon, called Le Laurencin, where the prices were incredibly reasonable (about 15 euros for entrée, main plate, and dessert)—and we soon discovered why. The salad greens withered in a bath of watery dressing. The main plates were filled with a mound of potatoes, and a pile of animal parts of your choosing. The praline tart (another Lyon specialty) was the best part, if not just because the sweetness danced nicely on the tongue after all the flesh and intestines.
That said, Lyon is packed with top-notch charcuteries, patisseries, fromageries, and poissoneries. The first day, we stumbled across Les Halles de Lyon Market – Paul Bocuse, near the Part Dieu train station, a must-stop for any aspiring foodie. Rue Merciere is another hot spot, lined with numerous restaurants, as well as Place Sathonay, where I enjoyed a salad topped with duck (the parts of which I’m not entirely sure of!) at Café de la Place. Our favorite boulangerie, Saint Vincent, was right around the corner from our AirBnB, in perfect view of the cool Lyon frescoes.
We also found the excellent chocolate shop, Guillaume Daix, on the edge of the old town, where we came across chocolates flavored with such ingredients as dill, rosemary, and sweet pepper. Our choice was the dark chocolate pieces generously dusted in hibiscus. For the organically minded, head to the natural-food store Biocoop near Place Bellecour—one of the few refuges for vegans and vegetarians.
WALK IT ALL OFF: Riverfront Paths, Traboules, and a Hill Climb
Lyon is a fairly walkable city, which is great news after all of that… sustenance. Two rivers, the Saône and Rhône, divide the city into three segments, and converge at the southern tip. There are pedestrian bridges that connect the city, as well as great walking and running paths along both rivers.
Another great way to get some mileage around the city is to do a traboule hunt. Traboules are covered passageways throughout the city. They were used to transport products, particularly silk and textiles, throughout the city. You’ll find most of them in the old town, but there are a few in the La Croix-Rousse area as well. Pick up a map from the tourist office, which marks where each traboule is located. Most of them are actually closed, and are used as apartment entrances. We did find an open one on the southern edge of the old town—I won’t tell you where; that’s the fun!
For a true calorie-burner, though, I highly recommend bypassing the funicular ride up Fourvière hill to climb the stairs from St-Paul station to the top. It’s a great workout, and you’ll pass the Tour métallique de Fourvière, a TV tower that attempts to be a mini Eiffel Tower, before reaching the 19th century Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourviere and getting an incredible panoramic view of Lyon. From there, you can easily reach the grand Theatres Romains, built around 15 BC by the Romans, before circling back to the windy, narrow streets of the old town.
TAKE IN A PUPPET SHOW: GUIGNOL!
Once you reach the old town, the walk is best capped off with a puppet show! Guignol is the witty main character of this Lyon tradition; he represents the workers in the silk industry. Though the shows are all in French, and the audience is dominated by giddy kids, it’s a treat to see. We arrived late to the show, but were allowed to take the last two seats in the back for free. Check out this quick snippet we caught:
While Lyon is a fairly big city, it’s totally doable to see the highlights in just 48 hours. Be prepared to stuff yourself and get in a good hill climb or two, too. And do catch a Guignol show, no matter what age you are (and what language you speak)! Bon voyage!