The last time I was outside of Ireland was pre-Covid (thought I’d forgotten how airports work, but a crash course in the queue soon reminds me). The last time I was in Lisbon was over 15 years ago (I know because it was for a wedding and my eldest child was 2 at the time; now he’s at home preparing for his diploma). The combination of these two ‘bars’ is strong and I’m feeling quite emotional as we drive into town in the early afternoon sun.
In his time, unencumbered by small children or wedding duties, I can do exactly what I want (considering the fact that it’s Monday and most museums are closed). First I head for the harbor and admire the energy and the hustle and bustle that breaks in with the fresh Atlantic wind. I walk along the Ribeira das Naus, the port area where many of the ships were built during the Age of Exploration.
Then I walk back through the center and up into the Barrio Alto. Everything I pass looks cleaner and more polished than the last time I was here, but – thankfully – this hasn’t diminished Lisbon’s remarkable charm.
It’s a city that’s both young and old, full of energy and bustle, but also leaning slightly on its own cultural and historical traditions. Imposing statues of men on horseback stand alongside colorful urban graffiti in a way that emphasizes both.
The only open museum is the Carmo Archaeological Museum, housed in the ruins of the old church of the Santa Maria do Carmo Convent.
This was severely damaged in the 1755 earthquake and is now an elegant shell, open to the sky but with enough preserved features dating from the 14th to 15th centuries, along with a collection of historical and artistic pieces including the quite touching mummified remains of a 14th-century Peruvian boys and a 4th-century sarcophagus make it a fascinating place to tour.
Dinner takes place under the walls of the Castelo de São Jorge in the very good Petisqueira Conqvistador, where the peacock screech distracts from the throngs of tourists trudging up and down towards the castle.
The next day I drive about an hour and a half north outside of Lisbon to the Silver Coast and World Surfing Reserve of Ericeira. Presented by the Save the Waves Coalition, the award recognizes the quality and characteristics of waves, as well as a diverse ecosystem and strong relationships with the local community. Ericeira is the second surf spot in the world to receive this award and the first in Europe.
Here I meet João Ganhoteiro Silva, my amusing and knowledgeable local guide, at the delightful Hotel Vila Galé, which stands next to Pescadores Beach.
This is where the last kings of Portugal set sail for England on 5th October 1910 – it certainly has all the drama one could wish for in a scene like this – huge waves rolling in along a wide, open bay. In fact, I can see the Future’s Peak wave breaking from my bedroom window. This, João tells me, is dangerous and only for the safest of surfers. I don’t even feel remotely tempted!
Instead we drive to Matadouro beach – which means slaughterhouse; It is named after an old, long-gone slaughterhouse. Papu, my surf instructor and owner of Activity Surf Center (facebook.com/ActivitySurfCenterEriceira), comes from a family of local fishermen and his shop is a perfect example of the development of this small town.
Fishing is still the heart of the village and community here, but in recent years surfing has seen a huge resurgence – meaning a growing transient population of surfers and digital nomads who ‘live the dream’ here with their laptops and campers. (the presence of oat milk and turmeric latte on menus signal their presence).
As a result, Papu switched from fishing to surf school.
He is reassuringly solid and clear in his instructions. Out in the waves, he tells me that “surfing is 95 percent paddling,” which feels like a useful metaphor for life in general. Then he asks me, “Are you a positive person, Emily?” I say yes, I think I am. Good, he tells me, because like in life, to surf you have to look up.
“Always look up, Emily.” Another metaphor. I can understand why so many surfers act like they have the wisdom of eternity.
Once I learn the basics, I’m good to go. A wave comes, Papu throws me on it and yells, “Get up!” I scramble to my feet and for a full second, maybe two, I feel the glory of flying. And then I fall off. I’ll do this many more times – I can get up, but I can’t stay up.
My problem, Papu says, is that I can’t keep my eyes on the horizon – I can’t keep looking up. I look down at my feet and I fall. “I thought you said you were a positive person, Emily,” he says reproachfully.
I am, I insist. I am. And he’s right that the few times I manage to keep my eyes on the cliff top at the very edge of the beach, I do it better. I can understand how someone could be obsessed with it. It’s so tempting… “next time,” I think a thousand times over; “I’ll take it next time.”
We catch waves for an hour and a half (try it!) and I’m dead tired by the end. time for lunch João takes me to the Mammy restaurant (mom.pt), where we eat excellent seafood, followed by a trip to Tapada Nacional de Mafra (tapadademafra.pt), the former hunting park of the Portuguese kings from the 18th century, now a nature reserve.
It’s quiet and shady and absolutely beautiful. Paths meander through forest and clearings and we see deer, wild boar and rabbits. Apparently there are eagles at the top.
Evening dinner in Jangada (youandthesea.pt/restaurante) is decidedly hipster, with light-wood counters and gray tile, overlooking a patio pool. I try ceviche made from croaker (a fish related to perch) with sweet potatoes, along with an excellent non-alcoholic ginger and apple cocktail.
The next day I drive to Sesimbra, south of Lisbon on the Blue Coast. We travel by car and stop at a magnificent white sandy beach known as Little Fig Tree Beach, near the city of Setúbal.
It is completely deserted, undeveloped, with white sand and clear water. The next cove, Galapos Beach, is an award winner and has long been relatively ignored, but now influencers seem to be spreading the word. Portinho da Arrabida, further afield and popular with Lisbon locals, is comparatively built-up, with a tiny pier and a few restaurants.
We drive through the Natural Park of Arrabida and down to Sesimbra, a pretty seaside town on a wonderfully calm body of water. I check in at the beautiful Hotel Do Mar, which is almost on the sand so close to the water, and then take a hike to Castelo dos Mouros. It’s a good 40 minute walk up through town and then up a steep path through fragrant pine trees.
At the top, a viewpoint shows me the entire light blue bay, with Sesimbra in a corner below me.
Along with the castle is the Church of Nossa Senhora de Castelo, which has a remarkable blue and white tiled interior, cool and comfortable after the hot climb.
The next morning, local adventure guide Solange (nosporla.pt) and driven to the marina to get fitted out for a canoe to explore the coast. Do I want a one-person or a two-person canoe, she asks. Second, I say, hoping she does most of the work. And such is her compelling energy and enthusiasm that she does.
We set off on a calm and beautiful day, circumnavigating the exceptional coastline. We glide past high limestone cliffs – also used for rock jumping – caves, secluded coves and sea stacks, through calm, clear turquoise waters. At a tiny secluded beach, we disembark, swim, and eat the delicious oat and cinnamon bar that Solange made—apparently the traditional snack of local fishermen. The entire journey takes around three hours and is the ideal way to see this incredible coastline.
Back at the hotel there is time for a late lunch and a quick last swim. It was a whirlwind tour: lots to do and see, and a timely reminder that this part of Portugal is one of my absolute favorite places.
- Emily was a guest at Visit Portugal. Lisbon is easily accessible from Ireland with regular flights from Dublin with Aer Lingus, Ryanair and TAP Air. My Story Hotels has five hotels in downtown Lisbon – come and visit them mystoryhotels.com.
- Vila Galé Ericeira is located on Ericeira Beach. This hotel has four room types and an on-site restaurant, two bars, a kids’ club and playground, and a Satsanga spa. vilagale.com/pt/hoteis/costa-de-lisboa/vila-gale-ericeira
- Hotel do Mar is located on Ouro Beach, in the center of Sesimbra. All 168 rooms have a private balcony with sea views. de.hoteldomar.pt
- For more information on accommodation, attractions and restaurants in the Lisbon region, see Visit lisboa.com.
https://www.independent.ie/life/travel/europe/surfs-up-in-ericeira-and-go-with-the-flow-in-sesimbra-41879293.html Surf in Ericeira and drift in Sesimbra