Around this time last year my family and I had the pleasure to host my mom on her trip to visit us in Birmingham, England. I believe it was her 3rd time flying across the pond and she absolutely loves being able to visit her grandchildren AND having the privilege of utilizing her son's knowledge of traveling throughout Europe.
The problem that I have when my mom (or anybody from America for that matter) comes to visit is that they always do it on short notice. This usually doesn't make it easy to find low cost flights around Europe as typically you need at least 2 weeks notice in order to find the cheapest seats on Ryanair or Easyjet and the like.
I wanted to surprise my mom with the trip somewhere and after much searching I managed to purchase 2 seats on BMI Baby from BHX to Lisbon for about £95 roundtrip (Yes, 2 seats for £95!)
The flight to Lisbon was not until the evening so I didn't tell her that we were going anywhere until the morning of the flight. And even then I didn't tell her WHERE we were going. I told her to pack 3 days worth of clothing and other items she would need and we made off for the 15-minute drive to the airport.
The surprise was made even cooler because I had managed to check-in online the night before and we had no check-in baggage to drop off at the desk. So when we arrived at Birmingham International Airport we immediately walked upstairs and proceeded through security.
Now we are waiting in terminal 1 lounge and she still has no idea where she is going. I finally see out flight details change on the monitor in the lounge and we start to proceed to the airplane.
She finally figured it out after they closed the door of the airplane and the stewardess announces the information regarding the flight. She was going to Lisbon, Portugal!
This meant a lot to her because ethnically she is Portuguese and it is someplace I think she had always wanted to visit. Secretly I think she thought she was going to Morocco though...
When we arrived at Lisbon airport we proceeded to immigration and found 2 very long lines to choose from. The problem was that neither option fit us. One was for European Union nationals and the other was for nationals whose are part of the Community of Portuguese Language Countries so we just stayed in the CPLC line for about an hour, got stamped and walked outside of the airport.
I had booked at the cheap chain hotel I always stay at when I travel around Europe. I like Ibis hotels because I know what I am getting no matter which country or city I am in. By the time the taxi arrived at the hotel it was close to 10 or 11PM and we took a short walk around the hotel to find some snacks and drinks and then called it a night. The hotel was a little further away from the city centre than I would have desired but on the plus side it gave us the opportunity to explore typical Lisbon residential areas that we never would have if we stayed closer to the city centre.
The next day we walked towards the city centre and got a feel for the layout of Lisbon. The best parts of the city were the Castle of São Jorge, The Al Fama quarter of the city, the San Francisco style cable cars running everywhere, and the food.
São Jorge's castle was definitely the highlight of the trip though. You get a really amazing view of the city from it as it is on the highest point of the city. It has a real feel to it and they have done an excellent job preserving it in its original form.
The Al Fama quarter is too much to explore in one day. It is the old Arab quarter of the city and has very narrow roads and alleys with old cobble stone brickwork. As well you have the San Francisco style trolleys running about the narrow roads and tight bends. One more than one occasion you sit and watch it just because you cannot believe the car will make around a near hairpin bend without hitting the wall.
Portugal is renowned for its seafood and it did not disappoint either of us. On the climb up to the castle we find a nice looking restaurant and as mom was a little tired we decided to stop and sit. I had what appeared to be some sort of omelette with pieces of fish, potato and some cheese. A little bit of hot sauce and I would have ordered more to take away!
Close to the President's palace there is a bakery that has been making Portugal's national dessert since 1837. This is the one place to get the original Pastel de Belém in the whole of the country. And it is true! I tried one from a cafe we sat at and it did not have the same texture nor taste to the ones I bought straight from the source.
Overall I was very surprised with Lisbon. I would say that behind Venice it is probably the coolest and most unique city in all of Europe. I hope to return again to explore the city further with my wife and kids in the near future...