My friends know that they can tell me their budget, preferred destinations and travel style, and I’ll find them the trip of a lifetime that’s right for them.
Being able to travel is definitely a privilege. For many though, cutting back on a few frivolous expenditures each week can fund an amazing trip. Also, knowing what travel tools to use is key to saving money without sacrificing luxury.
My first trip to Europe in 1998 was an organized educational excursion for class credit. The experience was vastly different from my second trek, a year later, when I grabbed a backpack and a Let’s Go Europe book and took off into the world with my college boyfriend without a plan.
Well, we had a loose plan. I was living in Colorado and we were going to go to take a trip home to Philly, but we found $350 tickets to London and decided to purchase those instead. We also wound up with a $75 round trip ticket to Amsterdam and a rail pass that was good for the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. We explored them all. But not easily. Here are the mistakes we made.
We overuse the word amazing as a descriptor, and that’s because the world is amazing! Lisbon was no exception … but it can be more aptly described as magical.
The old-school trams glide up and down the hilly historic district. Narrow alleyways open up to breathtaking views of castles and cathedrals. Small shops serve the most delicious local pastries.
We only had four days in Lisbon, so we had to make the most of it. Really, it was a love affair with food and wine. Here are our favorite things we did on each day.
1. Take a Walking Food Tour
When we arrived, we hired a private guide through Withlocals to take us on a tasting tour of the city. This was the perfect thing to do on our first night there. It was a walking tour, so we got the lay of the land, and we went to some of the best local spots that we would have never known about had we gone around on our own. The food and drink tastings were fantastic and our guide Camila was wonderful. It felt like a friend was showing us around her city. You must, of course, taste the pastel de nata—a delicious custard pastry—and Ginjinha cherry liquor, as well as the cheeses and wine and sardines. Later, we were watching Anthony Bourdain in Lisbon and when he ended the show with the most delicious sandwich in the world—the Bifana pork sandwich—we knew first-hand how amazing it really tastes.
2. Wine Tasting at BA Wine Bar
On our second day we just wandered around the city. It’s a great place to get lost and an easy place to get found again. That night we went to BA Wine Bar in Bairro Alto. If you’re into wine, this is a must. You have to make a reservation in advance (which you can do from their Trip Advisor page) because they only have a few tables and they give you an individualized experience. Keep in mind that for food, they serve only meats, cheeses, oils, bread, honey and tinned fish. This was plenty for us and absolutely delicious. Had we known the tinned fish would be so good, we would have ordered more of that and a smaller meat and cheese plate! This place is all about the wine. Portugal doesn’t export much of its wine, which is too bad for the rest of the world! At BA Wine Bar, they will ask you about your wine preferences and price range and bring you a few wines to sample. Then you pick the one you want by the glass. You can repeat this process as desired and don’t have to try the same wines as the rest of your party. I tried crisp whites, rosè and tawny port. All of it was amazing!
3. Wonder at Belém Tower
Our favorite thing we did on day three was check out Belém Tower. It was too far to walk from our hotel, so we hoped into an Uber (which is super easy to do in Lisbon). The old tower is breathtaking and a fantastic photo opportunity on the river. A lovely women sold local wines from a cart by the tower and provided a plastic wine glass you could carry around or just sit with and take in the beauty of the tower and the river.
4. Arrive Hungry at Time Out Market
Time Out Market is a must for any foodie. The place has a ton of food stalls with everything you can imagine. It’s pricey and crowded but absolutely worth it. We had some of the most delicious seafood we’ve ever tasted. O Surf and Turf was particularly exquisite! Go hungry and sample from several vendors. It’s sooooo good!
Bonus Tip: Use Public Transport
Before you go to Lisbon, you should know that getting around on public transportation is super easy. Get a reloadable metro card (Viva Viagem zapping card) right at the airport and ride into town. The card also works for the trams, trains and ferries.
Although the golden circle wasn’t our favorite part of the trip, it was really interesting and well worth it!
The trek around the sights included the usual characteristic of the “must see” places around the world: large crowds and long boarded walkways, overpriced gift shops, obese birds dining on littered junk food, etc.
BUT the sights were really impressive: the history of the first parliament, the original Geysir after which all other geysers are named, and a giant, gorgeous waterfall.
These sights give the traveler a peek into the wonders of Iceland while also being fairly accessible. We’re glad we rented a car to do it at our own speed – and the roads were easy to navigate.
Our favorite stop was the Kerid volcanic crater lake we stopped to walk around on the way back to Reykjavik. On a clear day, its blue-green water is amazing!
We would definitely recommend the golden circle if you have the time – but if there’s something else you really want to see, there are many other good options!
We were hesitant to go out of our way to visit the Blue Lagoon because we thought it may be a tourist trap. BUT there is a picture of its beautiful blue water in an Iceland Air ad on the Washington D.C. Metro that I often stared at dreamingly during my daily commute. And so, I had to check it out.
It did not disappoint! Touristy? Yes. Heavenly? Absolutely. The water was warm and wonderful, the backdrop was beautiful. The wine was tasty. The people were friendly. Need I say more?
We didn’t make reservations, but we called ahead and raced over when they told us they had some room (which apparently never happens, so book online at least two hours ahead of time). They ran things so efficiently that, despite the line to get in, everything went smoothly and the atmosphere was calm and relaxing. We went at about 7 pm and I highly recommend this time – when it isn’t as crowded.
Reykjavik is a beautiful town and perfect for wandering on foot. Everyone is friendly and locals will gladly help you find your way around. It’s a bit cold and rainy, but that hasn’t taken away from the experience. The weather right now (in August) is sort of like October weather in New York.
The travel was easy with a 5 ½ hour direct flight from JFK and a reservation for the Flybus to take us into town. We arrived at our adorable little studio (reserved through airbnb for a fraction of the hotel rates) at about 1:30 a.m. Sunday morning.
Reykjavik has a reputation for being a party town and it didn’t disappoint. After asking a few questions out on the safe and clean streets, we found our way to the heart of town. Laugavegur, the main street, was full of tall and sturdy-looking youth in various stages of intoxication running from club to club or standing in very long lines outside awaiting their chance to get into the next venue.
We were glad to find a pizza shop and some food trucks operating at the late hour – the famed hot dog place, Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, had already closed. Then we opted for a quite spot and sipped on vodka drinks while we watched the scene from the window.
When our quiet pub closed at 3 a.m., we were provided plastic cups for our drinks and we wandered home, passing by the still raging nightclubs along the main street.
Keep in mind, Reykjavik is small and beautifully quaint. Many of those raging clubs operate as cafes and restaurants (or perhaps even a laundromat) during the day. There are no skyscrapers or superhighways. But there is plenty to do.
The food is absolutely amazing! Try the tasting menu at Apotek or Fishmarket for a once in a lifetime culinary experience! It’s very pricey, but tax and gratuity are included in the price, so it’s really not that much more than what you would pay in New York or Washington D.C. after you add that in – if you’re from less expensive areas though, you should prepare yourself for sticker shock.
Tomorrow we are renting a car and we plan to drive through south Iceland. We hope we get some sun!