Portugal has become a darling of travelers, and Jaime Simos, who used to be a marketing consultant in the country, knows almost all about the things to see and do there. We spoke with him recently, mainly about the Lisbon area.
Lea: What are the qualities that make Portugal so special?
Jamie: Portugal is in fact the oldest country in Europe in terms of being within its current borders. But what really makes Portugal great is its people: welcoming, kind and friendly. It makes being special in a place where the language is challenging, the culture is unfamiliar, and the cuisine is new.
It is a temperate climate: not too cold in winter, not too hot in summer, and it doesn’t rain much in the south. The people, the terrain, the culture, and the cuisine make Portugal special.
Lea: So let’s focus on Lisbon, the coastal city full of pastel colours.
Jamie: People have lived in Lisbon since ancient times. The name “Lisbon” means “the city of Ulysses” because, according to the Romans, it was founded by Ulysses. In fact, if you’re downtown and walking around Rua Augusta, you can book ahead and go under a few blocks. As you approach the river, they renovate buildings built after the 1755 earthquake, discovering Roman Lisbon and Carthaginian Lisbon.
But the city itself, as we see today, is mostly after 1755, when a massive earthquake, fire, and flood damaged or destroyed large parts of the city.
What has sprung up is a city that feels grandiose, imperial, rich, and festive. But up until about 30 years ago, it was going through hard times, and many beautiful buildings had become deserted or fallen into disrepair.
Lisbon has gone through an amazing process of revitalization. People from all over the world have bought dilapidated but beautiful buildings and turned them into exhibition spaces. So the city has a grandeur it probably hasn’t seen since the 19th century. It is thriving today.
There are new restaurants, new museums, new hotels, and new things to do. In a sense, I feel sad for old Lisbon. The capital of a former empire was a bit torn. Today it is a multi-ethnic, fun and thriving city with adventures and products: from the medieval district to the Moorish district to the fascinating Belem district with its 16th-century ruins of the Portuguese Age of Discovery.
The colorful buildings climbing the hillsides, its beautiful expansive river, its red tiled roofs, its gorgeous churches, its little yellow carriages – so much about Lisbon gives you a sense that there is nothing else like it on earth.
Lea: Off a cruise ship, many people only have one day in Lisbon. Tell us some things you should never miss?
Jamie: I almost said throw the guide away and don’t hit the common points. Everyone will head to see Jeronimos Monastery but you will likely have to wait in line for an hour to get in. Try to get to some off-track places in Lisbon.
Walk around and tour the Carmo Monastery, a beautiful church built by Constable Saint Alvares Pereira in the 14th century. Its roof collapsed in the earthquake, and it’s really the only place you can get some kind of power and horror on that day of November 1, 1755.
There is a wonderful park not far from there, San Pedro de Alcantara, with sweeping views of the city. Most tourists do not know this. You can see the castle on the hill opposite you.
Not far from the magnificent Basilica San Roque, awarded by the Pope to the King of Portugal, is a Baroque chapel with a chapel in stunning lapis lazuli and blue marble.
People take carts, and they are definitely fun. But for a few dollars, you can cross across the Tagus River to the casinos on the other side, enjoying great views of the city. There is a historic port that you can visit and a statue of Christ in His Majesty.
Leah: What about the food?
Portuguese food is great, but find a restaurant in Goan. Goa has been a Portuguese city in India for 450 years, and the food that appeared there is different from the rest of India. It’s a really cool blend of Portuguese ideas and Indian execution. You know vindaloo, of course; is Goan Fine Dallows. Many restaurants serve Goan food in the historical part of Lisbon.
Leah: At night, locals go to fado clubs. tell us about fado.
Jamie: It is traditional Portuguese music; Some compare it to flamenco but I think that’s unfair to both. We think the origin of fado goes back to the Middle Ages and Provencal poetry, but it experienced a golden era around the time of the Portuguese Civil War in the mid-19th century.
Today Fado has found a new soul and a new generation of young singers. I would say look at Moraria and Alfama more than at Bairro Alto. Go to local fado houses, like Luso Café, where anyone can walk in and sing fado songs. It is a laxative.
People describe these songs as sad, but they are not. Yes, there is loss, longing, and torn relationships, but there is a certain ability to cleanse your soul with the sadness of this music, to make you feel truly fulfilled. So when the Portuguese go to hear fado, it actually makes them feel better.
Leah: It looks like the blues.
Jamie: Very good comparison. Rule number one: the later you apply, the better the music. Second rule: “Shut up, we’ll sing the fado.” This is a sign of respect for the person who sings. I say go listen truly Fado, listen to the exuberant spirit of Portugal in all its beauty.
Lea: Now, to the west of Lisbon, there is a rich coastal region, some call the Portuguese Riviera. Tell us what we shouldn’t miss there?
Jamie: You have a really good rail service that will take you to Cascais and to Sintra. These are the highlights for many visitors to Lisbon.
Let’s put Sintra at the top of the list. There are two palaces: the medieval one; One from the late nineteenth century, a type of Victorian Portuguese. There is an old Moorish castle, and palaces belonging to the nobility, because the port was there, and the king and queen were there. It is a really beautiful city: a lot of monuments, great food and great restaurants; Very luxurious also, very cool climate. So even in the summer when it’s warm, Sintra will always be 10 degrees cooler than Lisbon.
Leah: I think it’s an Instagrammer’s dream, fairy-tale territory.
Jamie: that it. But get there early; The palaces attract crowds. You can then drive to Colaris, which has a great winery and great restaurants, and end up in Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point in mainland Europe, with stunning slopes.
Relax on the coast, which has beaches, surfing, and expensive beachside restaurants, and you end up in Cascais and Estoril, which is what people often say about the Portuguese Riviera.
These were fishing villages, but in the 19th century kings and queens thought it was a good place to live. So there’s stunning architecture, great museums, and fine restaurants along the ocean. These are reasonably priced by European standards, expensive by Portuguese standards: a nice place to spend the day, especially if it’s sunny.
Lots of things to discover, places to wander, great shops selling tiles and antiques, high end shoes and really nice clothes.
Lea: You could easily spend a nice week in the Lisbon area; No wonder travelers rave. Thanks, Jamie. She gave us some great insider advice.
[The interview is adapted from a longer one about all of Portugal in Episode # ?? of my award-winning travel podcast, Places I Remember. Follow wherever you get podcasts, or at the links in my bio.]