I love the idea of traveling places on a whim. At work, it’s common to hear flight attendants say, “I just got back from Rio de Janeiro this morning to do this trip.” or “I’m trying to figure out how to get to Prague next month on standby.” or “What’s a good vacation place in the Caribbean?” Given my job, it would seem like it’s very easy for me to take trips. The only issue is I rarely have anyone to go with me since lots of my friends are in school, can’t take off work, or can’t fly standby with me. So in reality, a lot of my travel plans end up being solo.
For a while it scared me to even take a domestic trip by myself. Lots of times I’ve thought about backing out at the last minute – it’s very easy to back when you fly standby because you can change your mind at the last minute. But I’ve learned to stop overthinking things and I’ve slowly gotten the hang of solo travel. It has so many great pros. I love planning my own itinerary, deciding how long to stay at a certain place, deciding how early I want to get up and go somewhere and how early I want to turn in for the night. I love deciding how long I want to linger or rush at a certain site or attraction. I love picking what I want to eat and how early or late I want to eat. I love popping into stores to window shop because I know that no one in my traveling party is opposed to shopping. I love sitting down whenever I feel tired to people watch. Solo travel is the selfish luxury of not having to compromise with anyone else.
But solo travel can be hard, too. There’s the doing sightseeing activities alone, or the possibility of getting lost, or the uncertainty of being alone in a foreign place where you don’t know your way around. These things hardly bother me at all. The hardest parts are actually 1) not having someone to take a photo of you and 2) not having someone to eat dinner with. But based on the amazing experiences I had solo traveling for brief weekend trips in the US this past year (my trips to New York and Chicago), I loved doing solo travel and wanted to give it a try at an international destination.
At the end of September I took my first international solo trip to Lisbon, Portugal. I’ve been dying to visit Lisbon for months now. One of my favorite flight attendants on social media, Taylor Tippett, put Lisbon on my radar when she visited twice in the past two years (check out her blog posts on Portugal – her photos are amazing). Lisbon seemed like a beautiful, whimsical place full of sun, tiles, and friendly people. I decided I was going to go. And I would go solo. I tried not to think about it too much leading up to the end of the month, so I wouldn’t chicken out at the last minute. Not telling my family until a week prior also helped. I did some research on what I wanted to do in the city and booked a hostel a week before I left. I packed one carry-on suitcase and hopped on the flight by myself, a little unsure of how the trip would pan out but simultaneously excited that I would get to explore a new city.
I arrived in Lisbon on Tuesday morning after a 7 hour flight. Two things I recommend doing at the airport once you exit the baggage claim is withdrawing local currency from an ATM and buying a local SIM card for your phone (make sure it’s unlocked). This way you can navigate the city with your maps app as well as make calls to your hostel/hotel/airbnb host if needed. My phone is crucial to me when I travel – I use is Google Maps to navigate so having a local SIM is a must. If you’re meeting up friends in the city, it’s also helpful for getting in contact. But just in case the SIM card doesn’t work out right away, always have detailed written instructions on paper on how to get to your place of stay.
I stayed at Lookout Lisbon hostel in the Bairro Alto neighborhood downtown. Bairro Alto is where everything is happening. It’s located right next to Alfama, the famous historic neighborhood, as well as several major metro and train stations. There are lots of bars, restaurants, cafes, stores, and sightseeing spots all within walking distance. My first encounter with Lisbon was the amount of hills I had to climb to get to my hostel. I knew Lisbon was all full of hills but nothing quite registers until you’re dragging your suitcase up steep cobblestone streets after a 7 hour flight running on 3 hours of sleep.
I spent my first day there wandering the neighborhood. I enjoyed an espresso and croissant outside a cafe. I climbed hill after hill and watched the historic tram cars go up and down the streets. I admired the tile work on all the different buildings. Lisbon is famous for the azulejo (Portuguese tile) that decorate the buildings. These ceramic glazed tile pieces are used in architecture for walls, floors, street signs, number signs, and more. They come in a variety of patterns and colors and sometimes they are even used to create images of artwork. The azulejo are my absolute favorite part of Lisbon and I wish I could have bought a slew of them to redo my bathroom back home.
I was such a fan of the azulejo that I had to visit the National Azulejo Museum in Alfama to learn more about them. I went on my third day there. The museum included a great collection of azulejo from different periods of history, along with several different styles.
Lisbon is also known for its seafood, given its prime location on the Atlantic ocean. Codfish is commonly found in Portuguese dishes, cooked in various ways. I tried some codfish potato au gratin for dinner. It was very rich but delicious. I’m not a big seafood person, but I loved codfish. Portuguese cooking also uses a lot of pork, and a popular sandwich here is the bifana, a simple sandwich with pork cutlet, cheese, and mustard, best paired with a beer. A hostel staff member recommended a local shop nearby called O Trevo where you could get a bifana and beer for under 5 euros. I tried it out one day and it was delicious.
Lookout Lisbon offered several tours for its guests. I tried a walking tour of Bairro Alto on my second morning there because I wanted to learn a bit more about the city. The tour guide rounded up around 15-20 people from several hostels and led us to a few key spots around Bairro Alto. The tour lasted two hours but we didn’t actually go far or visit many stops. However, I did learn quite a bit about Portugese history (it was the first European country to have established its borders).
The tour guide also took us to an excellent pasteis de nata shop for Portuguese egg tarts called Manteigaria. These small, round egg tarts are famous in Portugal. The crust is light and flaky and the filling is rich and creamy. Topped with a dash of cinnamon or sugar, it’s the perfect pastry for a cup of espresso. I first tried these tarts in Taiwan, because they’re very popular in the former Portuguese colony Macau, and evidently they spread to other parts of Asia. But my favorites were the ones made in Lisbon. I also visited the original bakery that created these delicious tarts, Pasteis de Belem, located in the Belem area of the city. Tourists line up outside the bakery each day to try what is supposedly the best pasteis de nata in Lisbon, but skip the lines and go right inside for a table. There are 400 tables in the cavernous pastry shop. You’re served quite quickly and you can sit and enjoy your tarts with a coffee. I personally found Pasteis de Belem’s tarts as delicious as Manteigaria’s. And I definitely had at least one each day in Lisbon because they are that addictive.
If you decide to make a trip over to Belem for the tarts, stopping by the LX Factory on the way is a great idea. The LX Factory is a historical industrial complex that has been transformed into an avenue of shops, food vendors, studios, and freelance offices. Wandering the street you’ll find fair trade clothing boutiques, coffee bars, trendy restaurants, tattoo parlors, bookstores, organic makeup stores, and more. The LX Factory is a great place to stop for lunch, shop for some authentic souvenirs, have a coffee, or meet up with friends.
When visiting Lisbon, a day trip to Sintra is a must if you only have time for a quick jaunt outside the city. My hostel offered a Sintra tour that included a visit to Cabo da Roca and a few other beaches along the Atlantic coast. I signed up for the tour and was joined by several other girls at the hostel that I made friends with. We were driven around in a really cool yellow van by our guide Fabio. We started downtown in Lisbon and followed the coast through Belem and then out of the city. The city soon turned into beach towns and the coastline was beautiful. Cabo da Roca was my favorite part of the tour. This cape is the westernmost part of continental Europe and it’s one of the most beautiful views I’ve seen. We were at the edge of a rocky cliff with lush grass growing everywhere. The water was rolling onto the cliff down below and we were so high up we could even see wisps of clouds over the ocean.
After visiting Cabo da Roca we drove inland through forests of the mountain of Sintra. Within the mountain is a town also called Sintra, which is considered a UNESCO World Heritage site due to the numerous historical palaces built on the mountain. On the tour they only took us to Quinta da Regaleira because it was apparently the most worthwhile site to visit. Having heard this from not only our local guide but several other guides in Lisbon, I expected the estate to be much more interesting. It was a beautiful property with lush gardens, grottos, tunnels, wells, and fountains, as well as a chapel and main estate. But I didn’t find the architecture to be particularly special. I mainly wanted to visit Palacio da Pena, the large castle located at the top of the mountain, but I knew it wasn’t included in the tour. The guides called it too vast to visit in less than 2 hours, with an expensive entrance fee that was not worth our time.
I didn’t listen to the guides and visited Sintra again on my last day in Lisbon to see the Pena Palace. I took the train in with some people from my hostel. Since they had different Sintra plans, having never been here, we split up and went our separate ways. I visited Pena Palace and was completely struck by its beauty and color. The arches, windows, balconies, towers, and all the details of its architecture were so beautiful. And it was so colorful – one half was a beautiful sunflower yellow and the second half a deep coral red. Pena Palace was by far my favorite site in Sintra and I was so happy I got to see it.
Nights out in Lisbon often included meeting up with fellow travelers at the hostel and going for dinner and drinks, often accompanied by a fado performance. Fado is a traditional type of Portuguese music that is characterized by mournful, longing lyrics, usually about love. Fado singers can be found performing all around Lisbon in restaurants and on streets and squares. I saw a brief fado performance when I went out to eat with a girl I befriended from the Netherlands, but did not get any pictures.
There were some nights were I stayed in, such as when the hostel hosted meals we could attend. On my last night in Lisbon, I joined the tapas dinner made by our evening staff. We sat at the long communal dining table in the social area (where we ate breakfast every morning) and had an excellent tapas meal of Portuguese sausage, olives, bruschetta, fried codfish, cheese, and wine.
Lisbon was an absolute dream to visit. Every street, building, and alleyway was like a piece of art. I felt so welcomed by the travelers and staff at my hostel. And I made some great friends from around the world. Lisbon definitely made me confident in solo travel and I can’t wait to do it again.