Traveler editorial assistant and California native Kevin Kunitake recently made his first hop across the pond. Where did he land? Portugal.
In addition to the trip being his first to Europe, it also marked his debut as a solo traveler. And compact, friendly Lisbon ended up being the perfect introduction to both.
Here are some of the high points of Kevin’s trip, in his own words:
Biggest selling point: Lisbon lives up to its nickname, Cidade das Sete Colinas, or City of Seven Hills. Exploring the narrow cobblestone streets almost assures a breathtaking view.
On a clear day, trek to Castelo de São Jorge and spend the afternoon overlooking the city’s classic terra-cotta rooftops from a garden full of peacocks. Or simply get lost among the lovely murals and street art on display nearly everywhere you look.
Memorable moment: On my first day, I went to the Cinemateca Portuguesa, a classic movie theater that’s been converted into a museum dedicated to film history, to see a screening of one of my favorite animated films, Hayao Miyzaki’s Ponyo for 3.50€. It’s a kid’s movie, so the dialogue is simple. For someone who knew no Portuguese, it was the perfect way to get familiar with the language.
Authentic souvenir: Lisbon’s hand-painted azulejo tile is stunning, and everywhere. All the tourist shops sell it, so don’t jump at the first opportunity you see. For the most unique patterns and quite possibly the best prices, visit the city’s flea market, Feira da Ladra, on a Tuesday or Saturday.
Standout culinary experience: O Pratinho Feio in the Bairro Alto neighborhood. Filled with generations of locals all quick to share their stories over glasses of wine, a visit here is a living lesson in how traditional and contemporary Portuguese cuisine and culture blend in the Portuguese capital.
And the food! I’m still thinking about those fried sweet potato skins and sun-dried tomato pesto.
Side note: Did you know that tempura has its roots in Portugal, not Japan? Try the peixinhos da horta and see why the Japanese put their own spin on the dish.
Lingo to learn: If there’s one word to know, it’s obrigado (obrigada if you’re female). It’s pleasant to the ears, rolls off the tongue, and the Portuguese say it all the time. Once you start picking up on it, you’ll like Lisbon that much more because you’ll see how inviting and warm a culture can be when every conversation ends with “thank you.”
Doable day trip: Take a short tram ride from the city center to Belém, in Lisbon’s southwest corner, to take in the beautiful architecture, including Belém Tower and the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries). Pack a lunch, walk along the Tagus River, and have a picnic in the gardens.
I also highly recommend Sintra, 25 minutes northwest of Lisbon. But plan to spend more than a day there. It feels like a fairy tale.
Practical tip: The Metro is clean and easy to use, but walking is the best way to see Lisbon. Be okay with getting lost a couple of times; people are very friendly with directions. Also, order the orange juice. This city has the most delicious orange juice I’ve ever had.
Should have brought: Running shoes. I would have loved to explore this city on the go.