Five Tips for Visiting Lisbon, Portugal

Moorish Castle in Sintra, Portugal.
Moorish Castle in Sintra, Portugal.

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:

Pastel de Belem is a tasty treat from Pastels de Belem, a pastry shop by Hieronymites monastery. Pastel de nata is a Portuguese egg tart pastry
A tasty treat from Pastels de Belem, a pastry shop by Hieronymites monastery. Pastel de nata is a Portuguese egg tart pastry
  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Sun, sea, sightseeing at Cascais, located about an hour from Lisbon.
Sun, sea, sightseeing at Cascais, located about an hour from Lisbon.
  1. 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.

  1. Visit the Sao Jorge Castle and Wander Around Alfama, But Avoid the Fado Restaurants
Afalma viewpoint from the top of São Jorge Castle in Lisbon.
Afalma viewpoint from the top of São Jorge Castle in Lisbon.

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.

  1. 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.

Graffiti covered walls are art in Lisbon.
Graffiti covered walls are art in Lisbon.

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.

48 Hours in Lyon, France

Rich Food, Playful Puppets, River Walks & Hidden Passageways

Chilling by the Saone River after a filling, deliciously fatty lunch.
Chilling by the Saone River after a filling, deliciously fatty lunch.

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

Duck salad at Cafe de la Place & Chocolate-Making from Guillaume Daix
Duck salad at Cafe de la Place & chocolate-making by Guillaume Daix

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.

La Fresque des Lyonnais (Fresco of the People of Lyon)
La Fresque des Lyonnais (Fresco of the People of Lyon)

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 

Handstand on the Pedi Bridge to Vieux Lyon
Handstand on the Pedi Bridge to Vieux Lyon

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.

Lyon, along the Saone River
Lyon, along the Saone River

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!

Theatres Romains, built around 15 BC by the Romans
Theatres Romains, built around 15 BC by the Romans

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!

48 Hours in Dijon and Burgundy – France

The Church of Notre-Dame of Dijon.
The Church of Notre-Dame of Dijon.

Arriving in the Gothic town of Dijon by train, we were happy to be away from the hustle and grandiosity of the City of Lights. We had 48 hours to explore this city and its surrounding Burgundy region. Subscribe to our Big & Small Travel Youtube & watch:

We packed a lot in with little time and light wallets. Watch Dijon Videos by Big and Small Travel, and our other Travel Videos.

Dijon cuts the mustard.
Dijon cuts the mustard.

Most people will automatically think of mustard when they hear the name Dijon (including us). But there’s much more to the city than just an abundant amount of the delicious condiment. As the capital city of the revered Burgundy region, it’s the perfect pit-stop for wine lovers, as well as history and architecture buffs. The town dates back about 1,000 years, to around 1015, when Robert I decided to settle the capital of his duchy here. Since, it’s seen both tremendous times of power and wealth, and devastating moments under the siege of various armies.

The Liberation Square and the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy
Liberation Square (Place de la Libération) and the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy

THE OWL’S GUIDE

Today, Dijon feels like a hidden nugget in France, in the shadow of bigger cities like Paris and Lyon. You can see magnificent architecture and ornate cathedrals, and get hearty French cuisine for a fair price. To start, we recommend heading to the tourist office and buying “The Owl’s Guide,” which maps out various walking trails throughout the city. You’ll grow to love this little owl as it diligently guides you along through historical Dijon, via gold plaques embedded into the sidewalks.

The famed and good luck Owl of Dijon.
Dijon’s good luck owl

So, why an owl?! We learned that its significance comes from an owl-shaped statue found on the original construction of Dijon’s Church of Notre-Dame Cathedral. It’s considered to be a good luck symbol, especially if you rub it. The actual owl looks a little disfigured (maybe from all of the rubbing!), but a sign claimed that it is now protected day and night after it had been vandalized in 2001.

Saint-Benigne Cathedral.
Saint-Benigne Cathedral

The Owl’s Guide gives just enough information to give you get an idea of the medieval importance and little quirks of Dijon. Some of our favorite spots along the way included the expansive and panoramic Place de la Liberation and the decadent Saint-Benigne Cathedral. See a video of Handstand Steph at Place De La Liberation from our YouTube page.

There’s the main owl trail, as well as a few extra loops (we highly recommend doing those as well—it really gives you a good sense of the city). One of these loops ends at a plaza named after the author Emile Zola. We realized we had walked this very trail on the day of his death … kind of a cool coincidence! Though Place Zola was a little underwhelming, it did house some decent restaurants.

 THE FOOD: FROM MUSTARD TO ESCARGOT

Eating escargot in Dijon.
Eating escargot in Dijon

 

After walking with the owl, you’ll likely be quite famished. Fortunately, food in Dijon is reasonably priced for France. There are several places for more traditional French food, as well as plenty of boulangeries (good for cheap baguette sandwiches) and patisseries, along with cheap spots for wraps, kebabs, and crepes.

Don’t forget to stop at the many mustard-tasting shops, like the famous Maille, to sample the delights for free. Bread sticks are provided alongside a vast array of mustard flavors—our favorite was blackcurrant. There are several boutique shops and corner stores that sell mustard, too, where you can get compact jars of various flavors for just 1 Euro. Also, give escargot a shot. This French specialty actually comes from the Burgundy region, and you can find some good deals here, as cheap as under 5 Euros.

Patriarche Wine Cellar in Beaune.
Patriarche Wine Cellar in Beaune

EXPLORING BURGUNDY: A DAY TRIP TO BEAUNE

A great and economical day trip from Dijon involves heading to the Burgundy wine town of Beaune, about 50 KM from the city center. We took the bus there for just 1.50 Euros per ticket, with total travel time at about one hour and 20 minutes. The ride is a beautiful one, as the bus snakes through small Burgundy towns and vineyards. Once we got to Beaune, we found some French fare and coffee and then headed to the tourist office, where we got tickets for 15 Euros each to the oldest and biggest wine cellar in Burgundy, called Patriarche, located right in the center of Beaune.

Wine tasting at your own pace without moderation. Wine is life.
Wine tasting at your own pace… without moderation. Wine is life.

There, we sampled over 15 wines and got an informative, unique, and personalized walk through the cellar, which winds its way through tunnels and passageways underneath the streets of Beaune. Along the way you pass by (literally) millions of bottles of wine. Best of all, you could pour and sample as much wine as you like—which meant we definitely felt a bit tipsy by the end of the tour. (Pro tip: bring water!) There are “sommeliers” available, though we only came across one and she only knew limited English. Overall, though this was a wonderful and worthwhile wine experience.

Place François Rude in the historical center of Dijon, France.
Place François Rude in the historical center of Dijon, France

 A WORTHWHILE TRIP

In just 48 hours you can have great wine, lip-smacking mustard, and a wonderful historical walking experience with the help of an adorable owl. What more could you want?! We highly recommend making the trip to Burgundy and Dijon. Bon voyage!