Portugal is fast becoming one of Europe’s trendiest destinations, a place for foodies, families, and fun-seekers alike. In just 10 years, the country has seen an almost 115% rise in tourism, with travelers attracted by its great weather and friendly cities. As bustling Starbucks start to replace sleepy cafes across the capital, Lisbon, I found myself feeling more like a tourist than an explorer. So, I hiked off the city’s beaten paths – literally – to discover these hidden spots and adventures that locals swear by.
After lugging my suitcases up Lisbon’s many flights of steps, I arrived at my hotel in the city center with one goal: a long nap. My hotel bellhop had other plans. “Go to the Mercado de Santa Clara, the flea market,” he suggested. “If you want to see real Lisbon, this is it.” The 30-minute walk to Feria da Ladra (flea market) took me away from the busiest Lisbon neighborhoods and through a maze of quiet, winding streets in Alfama, the district famous for producing Fado music.
At the market, I found a huge range of local products and shouts of “Óla!” from the hundreds of vendors selling their goods. From colorful cork wallets to rare Portuguese coins, there seemed to be a gift for everyone at the Mercado – and I couldn’t find better prices anywhere in Lisbon. After I finished shopping, I headed to the nearby Monastery of São Vicente da Fora, one of Lisbon’s most stunning churches, built nearly 400 years ago.
There are plenty of ways to see Cascais, Lisbon’s most famous beach town, about 30 minutes from the city by train. But to escape the crowds that clog the popular streets, I decided to do some adventuring. Cue José, Nuno, Mário, and Bob, four Cascais locals that know the seaside cliffs better than anyone.
I booked an Airbnb experience with LifeOutside, a local company specializing in outdoor activities – beginners welcome – and followed the guides past the famous Boca do Inferno and down a flight of steps carved into the cliff itself. Here, I was away from tourists, and just feet above the waters of the Atlantic. The four experienced rock climbers strung up ropes on the soaring cliffs as I sat and watched the waves. When I climbed to the top of the cliffs, I enjoyed something few Cascais visitors get to see: a birds-eye view of the endless Atlantic Ocean.
Once a decrepit factory, LX Factory got a makeover in 2008, when an investor revitalized the space. It’s now Lisbon’s trendy cultural hub, with more than 200 businesses including restaurants, bookstores, and boutiques. Comur is a shop that sells one of Portugal’s most famous goods – canned fish – in painted tins with mini Portuguese history lessons on the back. I ate at A Praça, an industrial-style restaurant serving up Italian and Portuguese dishes, and finished off the night with a cocktail at the colorful Rio Maravilha bar – all without leaving LX Factory.
The Belém district of Lisbon isn’t exactly off the beaten path – but it can be, by using the city’s new e-bike system to get there. I booked an e-bike on the Uber app and hopped on at Cais do Sodre station, pedaling (with the help of the motor) along Lisbon’s waterfront. I rode under the April 25th Bridge – Lisbon’s own Golden Gate – and past the Monument of the Discoveries, commemorating the country’s most famous explorers, such as Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama, and Ferdinand Magellan. Biking early brings the pleasure of the spectacular sunrise over the Tagus River – and meant I beat the lines to Pastéis de Belém, where locals told me I’d find the best pasteis de nata pastries in Lisbon.
About 25mi (40km) from Lisbon, Cabo da Roca is the most western point in continental Europe and buzzes with visitors from all over the world. But, just a few minutes away is a remarkably secluded beach – and I didn’t mind working for it. To find Praia da Ursa, I had to trek down a path leading away from Cabo da Roca, hiking over stone boulders and through patches of purple wildflowers. But after adventuring for a mile, I found my reward: an untouched, peaceful beach. Cut into the cliffs, Praia da Ursa is protected from the Atlantic winds, and I had its yellow sands and blue waters all to myself.
Editor’s note: Depending on where you’re from, not all the experiences described in this article may be covered under your travel insurance. Always check your policy first so you know what’s in it, what’s covered, and what’s not covered.
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Cameron Beach shares her experience on assignment as a winner of the 2019 Travel Writing Scholarship to Portugal.