Traveling to Lisbon for the first time, I felt like the city could be another home for me. Maybe that's because my childhood babysitter and close family friend is Portugese, or because the city is filled with such happy people, but Lisbon is a fantastic place to visit, a thriving city that radiates happiness.
Mainly, I was on a mission to try a pastel de nata, and I didn’t have to go far. These famous egg custard tarts are absolutely delicious, and in every bakery in the city. My family and I decided to go to Pastéis de Belém, a famed pastry destination that dates back to the 1820 liberal revolution. Located in a former general store that had a sugar cane refinery attached to it, the enormous bakery has five rooms in its blue and white tiled storefront, and the best pastel de nata in the city. After a single bite, with the flakey crust and the creamy filling melting into your mouth, you’ll want to order a few more to go.
After visiting the Belém Tower and enjoying the view of the river, escaping a thunderstorm by eating lunch indoors with the view of Monument of the Discoveries which celebrates Portugal’s age of discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries, we headed to the beautiful Jerónimos Monastery. This was the same area where the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama prayed before his expedition and where his tomb currently lies. We took in the 16th Century Gothic architecture and intricate designs of the building.
Much of downtown and old Lisbon is decked out in beautifully painted tiles, or azulejos, of worn-down pastel greens, blues, whites, and yellows. While we didn’t have time to go to the famous National Tile Museum, walking through Lisbon was like being in an open museum anyway. The azulejos came to Portugal in the 15th century via the Moorish Empire, but have become even more popular in centuries since.
Rossio Square, also known as Pedro IV Square, once known for its revolts and celebrations, is now where locals like to sit on a bench and talk. But on this day, every locals’ eyes were glued to television screens in cafes. Portugal was playing in the FIFA World Cup. In the Praça do Comércio, hundreds of fans in red and green—the colors of the flag—watched the game on a large screen.
We snuck off to the Alfama district, the oldest district in Lisbon, to check out the streamers and food stalls at the Santo Antonio Festival, where couples get married en masse, but we just sampled street foods including salted grilled padrón peppers and compal ananas (amazing pineapple juice). Portugal is known for its famous fish and meat dishes and spices that were first discovered on the spice route founded by Vasco de Gama.
The tiny maze-like streets reminded me of getting lost in Venice, except Alfama is a lot hillier, with stairs and uphill climbs. We knew there was a viewpoint at the top of one large hill, and my sister and I were determined to look at it. The walk reminded me of what my Uber driver Osvaldo said that morning—that Lisbon, similar to Rome, was the city of Seven Hills. My calves and thighs started to feel the burn since we were used to flatland Houston, but we continued onward. And I was so glad we did because the view was breathtaking: we could see the colorful pastel homes and roofs looking out toward the Tagus river. Google Lisbon and this is the picturesque view that will pop up.
Even though Portugal lost its World Cup game that day, hundreds of fans in Praça do Comércio still celebrated, dancing to music and cheering on the next team. On the streets past the yellow arch in the plaza, people sang and cheered too. In the more commercial area of touristy streets, which was extra crowded because of the game, we shopped for cork purses and hand-painted colorful roosters.
Every shop has at least one Barcelos Rooster, which are said to embody the Portuguese love of life. The lore comes from an old folk legend where a dead rooster comes to life to prove the innocence of a criminal. We picked up a few to bring back to Houston (along with more pasteis de nata) to share with our Portugese friend. Over our new tablecloth printed in Barcelos Roosters, of course, we told her how we fell in love with her country.