When we saw a ticket option with an 8-hour stopover in Lisbon on the way back to the U.S. from our Eastern European trip this summer, we joyfully went for it. This would be our first visit to Lisbon and Portugal; and – after re-visiting some memorable places from our youth on this trip, it would be our chance to see something completely new before returning home. We had about five hours to get a taste of this colorful city – enough to know that we want to come back one day soon. In the meantime, this is how our day unraveled.
(To book your own Lisbon experiences, check out Get Your Guide site.)
Arrival and Airport Formalities
Our flight arrived in Lisbon at 9:30 am and (in less than an hour!) by 10:30 am we were in a taxi on our way to Belem. By that time we have passed security, exchanged money and dropped our luggage at the storage (behind the Starbucks in the arrival hall). With our next flight scheduled to depart at 5:30 pm and an airport being only 15-minute drive away from the city we had at least FOUR AND HALF HOURS TO EXPLORE LISBON.
With close to five hours we went for our “Plan A”: see a couple of neighborhoods, have both lunch and coffee breaks- equipped with Steve Rick’s Lisbon book and a plan to follow, we knew we could hit all goals and have fun doing it! If you have less than 4 hours, go for “Plan B” – stick to Alfama and/or Baixa (these are neighboring areas so you could even cross from one to the other to experience different “flavors” of the city even on a very short break).
11am: Belem Tower (Torre de Belem)
Our taxi dropped us at the Belem Tower (built in 1520), five miles west of downtown Lisbon. This iconic Lisbon landmark was the sending off point for the mariners during the Age of Discovery. We took the pictures, but climbing the stairs to get inside the tower was not on our plan today (prepare for a long line). Instead, we took a beatiful 20-minute stroll along the river towards the Monastery of Jeronimos.
You will have to detour around the lovely marina:
The monument commemorating Discoveries will be on your right before you will get ready to cross the street to the Monastery. But next on our agenda was coffee at the Pastelia de Belem – the birthplace of the custard tard.
11:30am: Coffee and Pasteles in Belem
The place is crowded but once you find your way inside and to the end of the line to be seated- the line moves within minutes. The menu includes coffee and tea and various pastries fresh from the oven. We were here of course for the original Pasteles de Belem and they did not disappoint.
From here, we took an uber to the highest point in Alfama, Castle Sao Jorge.
12:30pm: Alfama Walk
If you get delayed at the airport and only have a couple of hours in the city, head straight to Alfama, one of the most atmospheric neighborhoods in Europe and the oldest district in Lisbon.
For a quick stop-over visit, we did not plan to get inside the Castle, but unfortunately, the Castle viewpoint is positioned behind the entrance, so you can only access it with a ticket. Not to despair, there will be other viewpoints on the walk. We loosely followed Steve Rick’s Aflama walk from his book to the viewpoint (Miradouro) Largo Santa Luzia– my favorite viewpoint of the day!
One of the main reasons the Alfama survived the devastating 1755 earthquake was the labyrinth-like layout of its streets. So allowing ourselves to get lost and to wonder around for a bit was a part of our neighborhood immersion, even if only for 30 minutes.
Another important experience in Alfama was finding an authentic looking place to try a local specialty of grilled sardines.
1:30pm: Lunch in Alfama
Somehow we found our way to Plaza Sao Miguel- the heart of the neighborhood.
We continued heading down and -when we could see the river across the street- turned right to move parallel to the river (which was on our left) and into to the Baixo neighborhood and its main Praco do Commercio (Commercial Square).
2:30pm Commercial Square, Baixa
I loved how different this grand square looked and felt from Alfama, with its military-like alignment of same size buildings on three sides (these are government ministries, constructed after the 1775 earthquake), a statute of King Jorge in the middle facing the river and Arc de Triumph in the back serving as a geteway to Baixa and newer town. The square housed the Royal Palace for 200 some years before the quake; but afterwords, the king found Belem to be a safer place to live.
3-3:30pm Tuk-Tuk Tour
Now we had 30 or so minutes before a taxi to the airport and I thought the perfect way to spend it… would be to hire a Tuk-Tuk to get us up through the Arc and to the next Square over- the Rossio.
Tuk-Tuks are 3 or 6 person 3-wheel motorcycles often operated as individual private businesses. Our driver chose to “neglect” my direction to the Rossio and instead took us to a 360-degree Our Lady of the Hill viewpoint over Baixa (and even the Atlantic in the distance). There was no reason to get upset over this view, but do remember that your Tuk-Tuk experience would largely depend on the personality of your driver, so try to establish a quick rapport to see if there is a fit.
3:45pm: taxi to the airport
Our driver dropped us in front of a central hotel somewhere in Baixa with taxis lined up so the airport ride was smooth and we arrived around 4pm with a comfortable cushion of time before our 5:30 flight back to the States.
If you are staying for more than a couple of hours and to book your accommodations, you may want to stay central in the Baixa area. We typically use Booking.com (if you book via this link, it won’t cost you any extra to book but a small commission will be used to support this site).
Have you ever done a stop-over on the way to your destination? Tell us about it in the comments!
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