So seriously, where do I even begin? Our epic Portugal adventure breaks down into four parts, sort of, and while there’s a lot of yarny/sheepy stuff I want to tell you about, I know a lot of you are also quite eager for Portugal travel tips and specifics, so I’m going to do my best to cover it all by breaking this narrative into those four parts, with linked footnotes on each for specific restaurants, lodging, shops and such. I suppose the best place to start is at the beginning, so let’s talk about Lisbon!
I flew from Nashville to Atlanta on June 16th, where I met up with my pal Anna Dianich (of Tolt), and together we flew overnight to Lisbon, landing at 6:40am local time — that’s 12:40 in the morning my time, and 10:40 at night in Seattle, where Anna had started out. As you know, I am not a seasoned international traveler — my trip to Paris with Bob last year was our first time in Europe, and we never left the city. By contrast, this was a trip planned by my most intrepid globetrotting friends, but the group part wasn’t initially officially starting until we were meeting up to leave Lisbon on the 19th, so Anna and I were on our own the first two nights. I had read about Baixa House on sfgirlbybay last summer and knew that’s where I wanted us to stay, but they have a 3-night minimum, which turned out to be a blessing (and my new favorite travel rule). We went ahead and booked the room for the night of our flight, which meant when we landed we had a room to check into, rather than being at loose ends until 3pm with luggage and exhaustion and all. So we took a cab straight to the hotel, got our key and the full tour of our apartment, dropped our bags and washed our faces, and got to experience the best thing about Baixa House immediately: the breakfast. BH is an old apartment building — 13 units that are now rented as hotel rooms — and it’s the best of both worlds: a full apartment and kitchen and whatnot like an Airbnb, but staffed. Every day they leave little jars and trays in the fridge: fresh yogurt and cheese, butter, maybe some ham, definitely marmalade. And each morning, they leave a bag of freshly baked bread hanging on your door. So because we had rented the room for that night before (er, it was still night to us), our breakfast was waiting for us.
Sitting in our beautiful sunny living room, savoring these treats, tired as could be (trying not to think how pretty and peaceful my bedroom was), it was tempting to never leave. But we were determined to stay awake until Portugal bedtime, and it turned out one of our fearless leaders, Fancy Jaime, was staying at Baixa with her boyfriend. (They had come for a week or so together ahead of the girls’ trip.) So Anna and I spent our first morning wandering aimlessly through the narrow, twisty, hilly streets of the Alfama district trying to find them at the super cool Copenhagen Coffee, after which the four of us did some major ogling at the tile museum, a little shopping at A Vida Portuguesa (the littlest one and our first of three, but we didn’t know any of that yet), and then went to an outdoor market back near BH. We parted ways for dinner — Anna and I desperately wanted something light and salad-y and found it at Eight — and finally climbed into our beds after however many hours of being awake!
By the next morning, 7 of the 8 of us had arrived in Lisbon, and Rosa Pomar, who we had traveled to Portugal to meet, had generously offered to let us into the shop (Retrosaria is normally closed on Mondays) and give us all a Portuguese knitting lesson. When we arrived that morning, three of her colleagues were also there — one of whom, Anabela, was knitting my Anna Vest! — and they treated us to the best example of the famous local pastry, pastéis de nata aka pastel de nata (pronounced pashTEL de nada). Rosa’s shop is small but stunning, and it was incredible — as in, worth flying all the way to Portugal — to get to see all of her Rosa Pomar yarns, in all of their colors, together in one place. Rosa is doing amazing work, working with an assortment of Portuguese shepherds and mills to make a wide variety of local yarns, almost single-handedly reviving the wool industry in her country. I’ve been smitten with her Beiroa, in particular, and not only was I swooning over the big basket holding the full rainbow of it, but she had a little granny square sampler that was so beautiful I bought 10 skeins to try to replicate it on my own. She also sells a variety of shoes and boots, handmade by an elderly Portuguese man, and nearly all of us bought sandals. (They were actually out of my size, so I’m waiting for mine to be made, at which point they’ll send me both my shoes and my yarn. It’s that WHOLE ROW of skeins pictured next to her granny square quad up top!)
You may recall the time I knitted one of Rosa’s hat patterns in the Portuguese way (in short: working from the wrong side of the fabric, tensioning the yarn around your neck, and throwing it around the needle with your thumb — it’s brilliant), but relearning in Portugal, from Rosa, in a classroom I’ve seen on her Instagram so many times, was a wormhole experience, and one to cherish. And Rosa herself is even lovelier than I could have imagined. After having been Instagram friends for several years now, to get to know her and hear her voice was the best thing about the whole trip. But there’s lots more to be said about that.
When we left Rosa’s, we had lunch at a tiny, local, authentic place called Taberna da Rua das Flores — the start of what would become a daily bacalhau tradition — followed by Livraria Bertrand, the world’s oldest bookstore; our second A Vida Portuguesa experience, the larger shop on Rua Anchieta (below); and then a wander around LX Factory, a giant old warehouse compound now filled with little shops and eateries and bakeries and coffee shops and gelatarias and bookstore Ler Devagar. After which we all split up for dinner (some went to Belém) and a good night’s sleep before the real adventure was to begin the next day.
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While we’re talking about Lisbon, I’ll skip ahead for a second, because we spent a final afternoon and night in Lisbon at the end of our trip. After returning our rental cars (I’ll get to that), we paid Rosa one last visit at the shop, went to the nearby Burel wool store (lots more about Burel to come) where I bought the most amazing winter coat-vest imaginable, picked up dinner provisions at Prado Mercearia, and 7 of us spent the evening in our amazing apartment eating all the things (including some of my tinned fish I wouldn’t have room for) and striving to cram all of our purchases into our luggage before we took turns leaving the next morning. Keli Faw (of Drygoods) had found this place on Airbnb that was sprawling and had Lisbon-style tile in nearly every room, with a fully tiled kitchen, and balconies all the way around. It was splendid.
Regarding travel in Portugal, there are two main things I want to tell you. 1) Except in the tinier, more remote villages, nearly everyone speaks excellent English, so language is really not an issue. Even when we stopped for lunch one day in a little village in the mountains where the only person on duty at the restaurant (we’re pretty sure he was the cook as well as the server) spoke no English, we worked it out. 2) It’s quite affordable to travel there, apart from the airfare. We were not roughing it — as you’ll see. We ate very well (ranging from groceries at “home” to little hole in the wall places, to one very fancy meal), stayed in nice places (a mix of hotels and Airbnbs, although we shared rooms everywhere, which helped), and had two rental cars, and my share of all of that was about $85/day. Same with shopping: I bought a beautiful locally made cotton blanket at A Vida Portuguesa for 30 euros (you can see it in the shopping bag photo up top); handmade shoes from Rosa for 84 euros (far left in the shoe photo above, as well as on Anna’s feet in the cobblestone flower sidewalk shot). You can get perfectly good Portuguese wine for about 5 euros a bottle. We were pretty stunned at how affordable it all was. And as you’ll see, the country is truly beautiful and the people are lovely. I highly recommend it!
One other note about Lisbon in particular, though: Wear sensible shoes. It is very, very hilly (comparable to the hilliest parts of San Francisco, but all over) and the sidewalks are all ancient cobblestone, well smoothed by years upon years of foot traffic. They are beautiful, but not to be taken lightly.
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T R A V E L D E T A I L S
• The Monocle Travel Guide to Lisbon
Baixa House had a copy in the apartment for us to use, and it was so good I’ve ordered a commemorative copy for myself and will be sure to use more Monocle guides in the future.
• Baixa House
Gorgeous, sunny 18th-century apartment building that is now run as a hotel, with housekeeping. There’s no restaurant but they leave breakfast foods (yogurt, cheeses, marmalade) in your fridge and fresh bread on your door each morning. We were in Eduardo VII and Jaime was in Belem. This is my favorite place I have ever stayed and I would go back in a heartbeat.
• Luminous Cibele
Our Airbnb for our last night in Lisbon. We would have been very comfortable there for much longer, as it was beautiful and sprawling, with amazing views of the city from its many balconies.
• Copenhagen Coffee
Pictured above (bottom left under the tile museum photos), the Alfama location is a super chic little oasis of a space with both food and drinks and a pretty courtyard (unlike the other one we also went to, which was a fairly ordinary coffee shop). Get the cardamom bun.
• Eight — The Health Lounge
Good clean food — salads and grain bowls and such — in a beautiful hipster-style space. Also good for shopping. (My dinner pictured above, bottom right under the tile museum photos)
• Taberna da Rua das Flores
Rosa had told us this is her favorite, but it’s teeny tiny and hard to get a table — especially for 8. So we went for a late lunch and loved it. Super local and authentic Portuguese dining.
Rosa and her staff say this place — just down the block from her shop — makes the best pastel de nata in Lisbon. I can tell you we had a few, and none were anywhere near as good as these.
• Prado Mercearia
We never got to eat at the restaurant Prado (in town on the wrong nights) but did get to load up on local cheeses, hams, olives, crackers, etc, at their adjacent beautiful little market, the Mercearia.
Sites / Shopping
• Museu Nacional do Azulejo (National Tile Museum)
The National Tile Museum is a very manageable size but does a great job showing and telling the history of Portugal and its famous tile.
• A Vida Portuguesa
Specializing in Portuguese-made goods, AVP has some of the most beautiful shops I’ve ever been in. There’s enough that’s different about the smaller Rua Ivens and larger Rua Anchieta locations that we went to both (and a third in Porto), and I recommend you do too! Blankets (including a wide assortment from Burel, see below), ceramics, home goods, soaps, pencils and notebooks …
• Retrosaria Rosa Pomar
In addition to her full line of Portuguese artisan yarns, she also stocks a few other choice yarn brands and a small selection of fabric, as well as shoes and boots handmade by an elderly Portuguese gent, which are not to be missed.
• Livraria Bertrand
The world’s oldest operating bookstore is also quite beautiful, and when you buy something, they ask if you’d like a rubber stamp saying you bought it at the world’s oldest operating bookstore: in English or Portuguese.
Also specializing in locally made goods, but more along the lines of jewelry, bags, a few clothes, and decorative objets.
• Burel Mountain Originals
The shop of the Burel wool factory which I’ll be telling you about in another installment. A wide variety of goods made from their “burel” cloth, which is sort of like an even denser boiled wool, as well as their jaw-droppingly beautiful woven blankets, scarves and shawls.