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Six Days in Lisboa

Thanks to the extremely generous efforts of the organizers of the Shift conference (Bruno! Pedro! Hugo!), I have just spent the last six days in Lisbon, Portugal. It was my first time on that side of the Iberian Peninsula. I’m going to save my thoughts about the conference itself for the Adaptive Path blog. Here, I wanted to share my thoughts and experiences on the travel I was able to do.

As a traveler, there were two regions that I loved. One is Belem, a riverfront neighborhood on the western side of Lisbon, home to many cultural institutions (the Cultural Center of Belem, museum of archaeology, ethnology, and coaches (yes, coaches, as in vehicles), beautiful gardens, awe-inspiring monuments, gorgeous views, and the best pastries in all of Lisbon. I spent an afternoon and an evening here, and could have happily spent longer. My Belem Photos on Flickr

The other area of note is Sintra. Tucked in the hills west and slightly north of Lisbon, Sintra was once the weekend getaway spot for royalty and nobility. Now a UNESCO World Heritiage Site, it has a storybook charm that impresses. My Sintra Photos on Flickr.

Visitors to Sintra are obliged to visit the candy-colored Palacio da Pena, an awesome structure atop the tallest hill. The Palacio has exquisite architectural detailing throughout, but more impressive than that was the literally breathtaking views all the way out to the ocean. Photographs do not do justice to the experience. Not that I didn’t try…

Another favorite of mine, which gets short shrift from the guidebooks, was the Quinta da Reguleira, a twisted neo-gothic garden playground. It has the organic-ness of Gaudi’s work, and continually captivates as you roam the grounds. It’s a little off the typical beaten path, but well worth the visit. It’s probably even better with a friend (I went solo), and make sure to bring a light source–there are labyrinths so dark you literally cannot see your hand in front of your face.

The biggest disappointment of the travel was the main city of Lisbon itself. You definitely get the sense that decades, if not centuries, of economic has-been-ness has beaten down this place. The center of town appeals only to tourists. In the neighborhoods near the center live an increasingly aging population. The liveliest urban spaces are massive indoor shopping centers — for good reason, too, as they’re the only place you can buy things truly relevant to a modern existence. Lisbon is awash with graffiti, the sidewalks are in a state of constant disrepair, people drive like maniacs, and, well, apart from the novelty of the narrow hilly streets and some antiquated residential architecture, it’s just not that *interesting*. (Oh, and the same goes for the seaside town of Cascais — it’s perfectly pleasant, but I didn’t feel it was really worth the excursion.)

From a food perspective, if you visit Lisbon, be prepared to eat a lot of pastries. Pastelaria’s dot the entire city, selling tarts, rolls, breads, croissants, custards, and the like. And it’s hard to find anything to eat before noon that isn’t baked. Definitely make time to visit the Pasteis de Belem for the best pasteis in city.

And when in Sintra, go to Piriquita, for delightful traversseiros and queijadas.

Lunch and dinner meals were fine, but nothing special. I had no amazing meals during my stay, though I did have one excellent course — a codfish salad at the CCB. While in town, I ate everything from cod to octopus to beef to goat, and while none of it was terrible, nothing stood out.

In short, I would happily return to the area, but I’d make a point of avoiding the main city, focusing on Belem, Sintra, and some of the other cities that head north along the coast.